Deborah Vance, a Baha’i, grew up in a secular, not overtly religious, but spiritual family. She was raised with high moral and ethical values by very scrupulous, sincere and trusting parents. As a child in the 60’s she attended Sunday school at the Congregational church in Wilmette, IL, where she and her family lived. She was very inspired by the then progressive pastor, Buckner Coe, who was trying to integrate the predominantly white church, inviting Blacks to join in; and who was openly critical of the Vietnam war going on at the time.

“Reverend Coe taught us Sunday school and took us all 7th graders to visit places of worship of the various religions in the area, for instance, the Mormon temple, the Catholic church, the Jewish synagogue…,” says Vance. “He had heard of Martin Luther King Jr, went to Selma, AL and marched with him for civil rights.”

Vance’s social study teacher in 7th grade was also instrumental at introducing her to social justice. He gave her as assigmnents to research and write essays on current social issues. This is how she learned about Cuba and Fidel Castro, also about the prevalent poverty in the world. He got her also involved at tutoring in social sciences children from underprivileged backgrounds, in innercity Chicago.

In 1968 during her last year of high school, Vance went with a youth group from her church, part of a cross-cultural/interracial service project, to Puerto Rico, to help other African American youth of her age fix a community center. While there Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated.

“I remember all of us gathering and discussing the news, what it represented and meant for our country and for the African American communities,” says Vance. “I felt the pain of my newly made African American friends; it affected me deeply.”

Even though in a predominately white high school, the civil rights movement was discussed there daily by students and teachers. With some of her tutoring friends and sympathetic parents and teachers, Vance started a group they called POWR: People to Overcome White Racism. They demonstrated, picketed and marched; produced public programs; invited speakers; fundraised; targeting primarily white suburbs, in order to raise awareness of institutional racism in the metropolitan area.

At the same time Vance began her open opposition to the Vietnam war, triggered in part by police violence against protesters during the Chicago Democratic Convention. Having graduated from high school and ready to pick a college, she opted for Boston University, Boston known then for the prevailing activism within its universities. Over there she was quite active in demonstrating against the Vietnam war, marching, striking, participating in resistance group discussions and activities.

“It all went well,” she says, “until I started hearing discourses from fellow protesters and leaders encouraging violence and killing… I also found some of the protest leaders to be just looking for self glory and charisma, and not really interested in a change…”

Disillusioned, Vance decided to move away, leave the United States and settle in Italy. It was 1970 and she had by then cut her ties with her Congregational church which, due to its increasing opposition to the progressive views and positions of its pastor Buckner Coe, had prompted his resignation; also had embraced the Baha’i faith, having discovered it thanks to the soft rock duo Seals and Crofts, who were both Baha’i, and having realized that she adhered to all its tenants.

In Italy, Vance tried to pursue her education, met her 1st husband and had children. Her stay was interrupted by few returns to the States, a short one in California where she lived self sufficiently, growing food, chickens and goats, with no electricity or running water.

“I was extremely poor then,” she states. “I can understand well poverty now, having been without and having experienced distrust and prejudice from people who think that something is wrong with you if you’re poor.”

After 6 years of marriage, Vance divorced and returned to Wilmette. She resumed her studies and got a BA degree in Communication (Radio-TV & Film) from Northwestern University, an MA degree in Mass Communication from Towson University, and a PhD degree in Intercultural Communication from Howard University. In the meantime she had moved to Baltimore, MD, worked in educational TV, did freelance journalistic writing and taught.

“I wanted to work in instructional TV to teach children,” Vance says. “I wanted to instill the idea that the US system is a commercial system which wants our money; that we are bombarded with fake news and that our children need to learn how to talk back to the media.”

To that effect, in the 80’s, Vance got involved with the “Great Atlantic Radio Conspiracy”, a group who researched in depth news topics in order to shed light on their truth, away from misinformation. The findings would then be scripted, radio recorded, and distributed to radio stations across the country. Vance contributed to 2 such episodes, one on air pollution caused by the use of chlorofluorocarbons in aerosol cans, the other on the true story of Guatemala.

At McDaniel College in Westminster, MD, where she also was an Associate Professor, Vance taught media courses at the cultural level.

” A person needs to know what it is about him/herself that’s cultural vs. what is essentially him or her,” she says. “To me, this is the basis for justice, seeing what role we play in continuing the system that oppresses certain people vs. being able to treat everyone as individuals while respecting their differences.”

As a professor and a researcher, Vance always advocated for the oppressed, raising awareness of diversity. She constantly asked her students to consider ethics and morals in their judgments and analyses.

In Baltimore, Vance met her current husband of 16 years. Both recently retired, they decided to relocate a year ago in Cincinnati.

“We felt the vibes,” Vance says. “Cincinnati is a culturally rich city with a major league baseball team and a well established Baha’i community.”

Since in Cincinnati, Vance has joined the League of Women Voters, and has lectured to them on public speaking and on understanding media. During the recent presidential election, she served as poll watcher in Corryville.

She has also been very involved in gardening and volunteers at the Civic Garden Center. She is particularly interested in community gardens and would like to start one at the Baha’i center in Westwood.

“Community gardens enable people to attain freedom and control over the food available to them,” she says. “They are also a great way to connect and build communities.”

Vance has a small garden of her own. She also volunteers at the Rothenberg school, downtown Cincinnati, where a rooftop garden has been created for students and their parents.

In Cincinnati, Vance’s other activities are now mostly centered around the Baha’is. She participates in study groups of the Baha’is writings and helps in youth programs trying to teach virtues. Her main purpose is to strengthen the community, and spread the messages of unity, peace, love and justice of Baha’u’llah, the founder of Baha’ism.

“Central to teachings of Baha’i Faith is that on this planet, there’s one unfolding religion, one universal faith,” she says. “Baha’i Faith is only the most recent revelation. At its core, this means there’s no “Them”, there’s just “Us.””

This unity is what Vance would like to continue to live for.


What is BAHA'ISM

 The Baha'i faith was founded in 1852, in Iran, by Baha'u'llah, a persecuted follower of the Báb. Bahá'ís believe that there is only one God, transcendent and unknowable, the source of all creation. He has sent great prophets to humanity, through which the Holy Spirit has revealed the "Word of God." They are: Adam; Abraham; Moses; Krishna; Zoroaster; Buddha; Jesus Christ; Mohammed; The Bab; Baha'u'llah. A new prophet is not expected for many centuries into our future.

The Bahá'ís believe in the unity of the great religions of the world which they view as sprung from the same spiritual source. They believe that every person has an immortal soul which is not subject to decomposition; and that at death, the soul is freed to travel through the spirit world, "a timeless and placeless extension of our own universe..." Bahá'ís support gender and race equality; world government; freedom of expression and assembly; world peace; religious tolerance, and religious cooperation, and they actively promote these concepts. Baha'u'llah said: "The best beloved of all things in my sight is justice"

Unlike many other religions, Bahá'ís view scientific inquiry as essential to expand human knowledge and to deepen faith. They feel that science needs to be guided by spiritual principles so that its applications are beneficial to all humanity. 

Bahá'ís have no clergy, sacraments or rituals.

There are currently more than 8 million Bahá'í followers throughout the world.

Religious Peacemakers is a regular column published in Streetvibes; it highlights Greater Cincinnati individuals who use their faith and religious beliefs for peace and justice and for a better world.

It is authored by Saad Ghosn, founder and president of SOS (Save Our Souls) ART.