By Loie Mead
A sudden and blustery rain blew across Portland on Tuesday, September 7. It tested the resolve of 300-plus individuals who wound their way to the Auditorium at Oregon Health and Science University. As darkness was coming on and raindrops were falling, people followed the posted signs and helpful guides to the public talk on the Bahá’í Faith with presenters Rainn Wilson and Devon Gundry.
Lewis and Clark University’s announcement to students was expected to increase the attendance. Many had heeded the messages to arrive early and most of the audience seated themselves on the lower floor of the auditorium socializing and waiting excitedly for Rainn and Devon. Soon the pair appeared on stage, Devon smiling, perched on a stool wearing a red headband and cradling his guitar; Rainn took to the mike at the podium, wearing a hat and clearly ready for action.
After introducing Devon as Rainn Wilson and himself as Devon Gundry, the real Rainn Wilson (actor from the popular TV show “The Office”) asked Devon for a song. The musician sang the words of his song creating new and intriguing sounds on his guitar… “Gosh…Oh! What’s wrong with the world…Put it back together… it’s for us to figure out…” Then in an upbeat mood came the lyrics “Be happy. We are part of something wonderful!” The youthful audience was quickly engaged and delighted. Cameras flashed and cell phones waved in space.
At this point, Rainn proclaimed that this would be their chance to take pictures. He then struck a series of very funny poses with the audience clicking away on their cameras. Afterwards, he told everyone to “put your cameras away!”
The liveliness heralded the life stories of the two entertainers and Rainn began. He mentioned their web site, www.SoulPancake.com, and swiftly moved to stories of growing up in Seattle, meeting his wife (who graduated from Lincoln High School in Portland), and remembering his home as a “buzz of ideas—spiritual ideas.” He learned from his parents that we are all one race —“it was great and awesome to grow up that way.” Rainn shared that all religions in the world are actually one unfolding religion and worship one God…the same God, but added, “They [all the religions] just don’t quite get that.”
Rainn later went to acting school in New York and broke with organized religion. He shared that he became agnostic, actually atheist. “I fell in love with my acting…We were very pretentious. All the fervor then went into my acting. I did Shakespeare and there was no money in it.” Rainn described a long period of feeling lost before he started thinking again of God. He began reading Native American literature, especially about Wonka Tonka (the name given by the Sioux to the all pervasive consciousness or spirit) and started learning about the 7 directions (similar to the 12-Step Program).
Rainn recalled praying to Wonka Tonka. He prayed that Dale Strawberry would hit a homerun. When Dale hit one, Rainn and his companion were thrown totally off balance. The audience laughed in delight. Rainn said he began reading a lot of books and returned to the Bahá’í Faith. At this time in his life, he took a new approach and assured the crowd, “I learned some wonderful things.”
He started in on that story. “Bahá’u’lláh was from Persia [present day Iran] in the 1800’s. His followers were put to death by the tens of thousands. I believe that God communicates with man through Divine Physicians (such as Bahá’u’lláh). Bahá’u’lláh told us about unity, harmony of science and religion, the equality of women and men and independent investigation. Independent investigation or finding the truth for yourself is a really great idea. Bahá’u’lláh told us it is our responsibility to find the truth and for me this is mind-blowing.” Rainn explained that the making of art is worship. He related the story of a painter who asked Abdu’l-Bahá (Son of Bahá’u’lláh): “Is art a worthy vocation?” Abdu’l-Bahá turning to her impressively, said: “Art is worship.”
Then Rainn stated that “Individual investigation is the springboard for SoulPancake. He then turned the stage over to Devon and slipped into a chair behind the podium. (SoulPancake is also the title of a new book published by Rainn, Devon and others.)
Devon Gundry told of a similar journey to Rainn’s. Envisioning the beauty of a spider’s web, he observed that “Animals build beauty to be able to eat; human beings make art to express their feelings.” He said that music is as a ladder for our souls…The soul stirs with music. Devon told of being born into a Bahá’í family and learning about oneness. He explained that at the age of 15 a Bahá’í youth is considered mature and has the opportunity “to be a Bahá’í or have a guitar to impress all the ladies.” The audience laughed as Devon described how he “spent 10 years with self and passion trying to be adorable.” He said that over time this all took its toll on his life as he moved to California to become a rock star. “It led me in circles!”
Then one day Devon met a man at a café, someone who was working on a thesis. In the course of an exercise using words, Devon said he experienced the most empty feeling he had ever had. Everything he had heard in the Bahá’í Faith came “flooding back” as he related it to the man. Devon saw a crack in the sidewalk and did not know what to do! That was the moment when he felt what his mom called a “God smack” and he flung his arm through the air. The “God smack” was followed by a period of time when Devon began playing his guitar, praying, studying the Bahá’í Writings and setting them to music. “’We verily have made music as a ladder for your souls,’” Devon recited. “Tests come but music is a big part of connecting with God and other people,” he assured the youthful listeners.
Devon demonstrated his art for the gathering. He cited the first of the Hidden Words of Bahá’u’lláh: “O Son of Spirit! My first counsel is this: Possess a pure, kindly and radiant heart, that thine may be a sovereignty ancient, imperishable and ever-lasting.” The people listened to the music of the soul and Devon added, “Everything will follow. Set it to music.”
Devon taught the audience to sing the simple prayer, “O God, guide me, protect me, make of me a shining lamp and a brilliant star. Thou art the Mighty and the Powerful.” He led them phrase by phrase, trilling the long o in “protect.” The harmony rang out as young voices followed and sought to also express their spirit through art.
Rainn returned to the podium, saying, “All art is a gift of the Holy Spirit, as ‘Abdu’l-Bahá said.” He noted that in the art of the museum, old art was a reflection of the social and religious life and exclaimed, “How far away we have come from this!” He urged the audience to get rid of the difference between art and faith, pointing out that we live in a material world and that both art and worship do the same thing…We transcend the material world through art and worship.
Rainn described what Bahá’ís do in the world today, as they answer the call to service in places like Haiti, Italy and the Czech Republic, as they arise and teach children’s classes where children learn all the things they don’t learn in public schools, as Bahá’ís form devotional gatherings and study circles. He emphasized that in the Bahá’í Faith there are no priests—“We run the affairs of the community ourselves.”
There were numerous questions addressed to Devon and Rainn, including these:
- When were you closest to God?
- Do Bahá’ís have their own holidays?
- How has your journey been since coming back to the Bahá’í Faith? (Rainn’s response was a touching account of his personal challenges and struggles including staying humble despite his success.)
- Are people born in the Faith or do they convert?
- Can I have your hat for my mom? (Rainn and everyone laughed, and the answer was “No!” The lighthearted and silly moments of the evening will be fondly remembered.)
The gathering dispersed to enjoy refreshments and socializing in the Great Hall. Rainn and Devon stayed to answer more questions, share experiences and take photographs with those present. When it was all over, the participants went out into the silent and rainless night, but “Not for a moment hath His grace been withheld, nor have the showers of His loving-kindness ceased to rain upon mankind.” 1
1 (Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, p. 18)