Then ‘Abdu’l-Bahá walked to the entrance and, standing there, shook hands with every one of those four hundred: the flotsam and jetsam of humanity. At the same time He put a coin or two in each palm. He had done the same for years, on Fridays, outside His own house in ‘Akká—meeting the poor, dispensing aid, imparting to stunted lives the balm of care and affection and love. In the street others had gathered and there were also a number of children. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá went forth to greet them and offer them also a coin or two. But what mattered most was not the price of a bed He was giving them, but that balm of love and care which healed the wounds of the spirit. Back in the Hotel Ansonia ‘Abdu’l-Bahá encountered a chambermaid, who had been deeply moved by His gift of roses to her; He emptied into her apron the bag containing the remainder of the coins. A Bahá’í told the chambermaid that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had been giving money to the poor at the Bowery Mission. ‘I will do the same with this money. I too will give it,’ she said. Later that evening ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was seated with a number of visitors to whom He was saying as He laughed: ‘Assuredly give to the poor! If you give them only words, when they put their hands into their pockets they will find themselves none the richer for you …
(H.M. Balyuzi, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá - The Centre of the Covenant, p. 177)
Before ‘Abdu’l-Bahá went to the Bowery Mission, He asked friends to convert a thousand-franc note into quarters. At the Mission, in April 1912, He spoke most lovingly to the several hundred men who were present: ‘You must be thankful to God that you are poor, for His Holiness Jesus Christ has said “Blessed are the poor"; He never said Blessed are the rich. He said too that the kingdom is for the poor and that it is easier for a camel to enter a needle’s eye than for a rich man to enter God’s kingdom.’ And then He told them, “When Jesus Christ appeared it was the poor who first accepted Him, not the rich.’ And later, ‘The rich are mostly negligent, inattentive, steeped in worldliness, depending upon their means whereas the poor are dependent upon God and their reliance is upon Him, not upon themselves. Therefore the poor are nearer the threshold of God and His throne.’ He closed with characteristic humbleness, asking the men to accept Him as their servant. After the talk, He stood at the Mission Hall entrance. He took each hand and placed in each a number of coins—the price of a bed for the night. However, at least one man kept his money, explaining, ‘That was a heavenly man, and his quarter was not like other quarters, it will bring me luck!’ But some eighty quarters remained. When the Master arrived at His apartment building, He encountered the chambermaid who had previously been the happy recipient of His roses. Now He emptied all the remaining quarters into her apron. He quickly moved on. When she learned of His gifts at the Mission, she vowed she also would give this money away … There came a light tap at the door and there on the threshold stood the little chambermaid. Her eyes were glistening with tears and in a sort of wonder, and oblivious to the rest of us, she walked straight up to the Master: ‘"I came to say good-bye, sir,” she said, timidly and brokenly, “and to thank you for all your goodness to me...I never expected such goodness. And to ask you—to pray for me!” ‘Her head dropped, her voice broke...she turned and went out quickly.’ (Honnold, Annamarie, Vignettes from the Life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, p. 78)
Among the most touching contacts the Master had with the poor in the Occident were surely His visits to the Salvation Army headquarters in London and to the Bowery Mission in New York City. ‘On Christmas night, 1912, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá visited a Salvation Army Shelter in London where a thousand homeless men ate a special Christmas dinner. He spoke to them while they ate, reminding them that Jesus had been poor and that it was easier for the poor than the rich to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. The men sat enthralled. Some were so impressed that in spite of hunger and the special dinner before them they forgot to eat. When, on leaving, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá gave the warden of the Shelter money with which to buy a similar dinner on New Year’s night, the men rose to their feet to cheer Him as He went, waving their knives and forks in the air. They little realised that He had experienced trials, hardship and suffering far greater than any they had known.’
(Honnold, Annamarie, Vignettes from the Life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, p. 78)
‘Roy‘, another early pilgrim, described what he saw: ‘Friday mornings at seven there is another picture. Near the tent in the garden one may see an assemblage of the abject poor—the lame, the halt and the blind—seldom less than a hundred. As ‘Abdu’l-Bahá passes among them He will be seen to give to each a small coin, and to add a word of sympathy or cheer; often an inquiry about those at home; frequently He sends a share to an absent one. It is a sorry procession as they file slowly away, but they all look forward to this weekly visit, and indeed it is said that this is the chief means of sustenance for some of them. Almost any morning, early, He may be seen making the round of the city, calling upon the feeble and the sick; many dingy abodes are brightened by His presence.’
(Honnold, Annamarie, Vignettes from the Life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, p. 81)
Jesus was a poor man. One night when He was out in the fields, the rain began to fall. He had no place to go for shelter so He lifted His eyes toward heaven, saying, “O Father! For the birds of the air Thou hast created nests, for the sheep a fold, for the animals dens, for the fish places of refuge, but for Me Thou hast provided no shelter. There is no place where I may lay My head. My bed consists of the cold ground; My lamps at night are the stars, and My food is the grass of the field. Yet who upon earth is richer than I? For the greatest blessing Thou hast not given to the rich and mighty but unto Me, for Thou hast given Me the poor. To me Thou hast granted this blessing. They are Mine. Therefore am I the richest man on earth.
(‘Abdu’l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 33-34)
He never forgot anyone:
As soon as He [‘Abdu’l-Bahá] reappeared on the lawn of the inn the children again swarmed around Him, their hands still outstretched. Laura sternly ordered them off, for they were certainly imposing. “He would give away everything He has,” she whispered to me. But the Master had discovered a tiny newcomer, a child much younger than the others, with a very sensitive face, who was looking wonderingly at Him. “But,” He said, “to this little one I have not given.” … Again, when we left the inn, the children swarmed around the Master and again Laura tried to save Him from their greediness. “But here,” said our Lord, “is a boy to whom I have not given.” “You gave to them all,” said Laura. “Call Hippolyte,” ordered the Master. “I did not give to this boy,
did I, Hippolyte?” “I believe you did not.” Then the Master gave.
(Misc Bahá’í, The Diary of Juliet Thompson)
Juliet Thompson recalled, ‘Later, as we sat in a group around the Master, who was at that moment saying with a laugh (in reply to some question as to the advisability of charity), “Assuredly, give to the poor! If you give them only words, when they put their hands into their pockets they will find themselves none the richer for you!”
(Honnold, Annamarie, Vignettes from the Life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, p. 78)
This scene you may see almost any day of the year in the
streets of ‘Akká. There are other scenes like it, which come
only at the beginning of the winter season. In the cold
weather which is approaching, the poor will suffer, for, as
in all cities, they are thinly clad. Some day at this season,
if you are advised of the place and time, you may see the
poor of ‘Akká gathered at one of the shops where clothes
are sold, receiving cloaks from the Master. Upon many,
especially the most infirm or crippled, he himself places
the garment, adjusts it with his own hands, and strokes
it approvingly, as if to say, ‘There! Now you will do
well.’ There are five or six hundred poor in ‘Akká, to all
of whom he gives a warm garment each year. On feast days he visits the poor at their homes. He chats with them, inquires into their health and comfort, mentions by name those who are absent, and leaves gifts for all. Nor is it the beggars only that he remembers. Those respectable poor who cannot beg, but must suffer in silence—those whose daily labour will not support their
families—to these he sends bread secretly. His left hand knoweth not what his right hand doeth. All the people know him and love him—the rich and the poor, the young and the old—even the babe leaping in its mother’s arms. If he hears of any one sick in the city—Moslem or Christian, or of any other sect, it matters
not—he is each day at their bedside, or sends a trusty messenger. If a physician is needed, and the patient poor, he brings or sends one, and also the necessary medicine. If he finds a leaking roof or a broken window menacing health, he summons a workman, and waits himself to see the breach repaired. If any one is in trouble,—if a son or a brother is thrown into prison, or he is threatened at law, or falls into any difficulty too heavy for him,—it is to the Master that he straightway makes appeal for counsel or for aid. Indeed, for counsel all come to him, rich as well as poor. He is the kind father of all the people …
(HM Balyuzi, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: the Centre of the Covenant, p. 100)
Later, while resting, the Master told Mrs. True about His friends. ‘These are My friends, My friends. Some of them are My enemies, but they think I do not know it, because they appear friendly, and to them I am very kind, for one must love his enemies and do good to them.’ He explained that there simply was not sufficient work in ‘Akká. Men could do but two kinds of work: they could fish, but the sea had been too stormy lately, or they could carry loads on their backs, which required great strength. Those who attempted to deceive Him were rebuked and told where they might obtain work.
(Honnold, Annamarie, Vignettes from the Life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, p. 80)
This man who gives so freely must be rich, you think? No, far otherwise. Once his family was the wealthiest in all Persia. But this friend of the lowly, like the Galilean, has been oppressed by the great. For fifty years he and his family have been exiles and prisoners. Their property has been confiscated and wasted, and but little has been left to him. Now that he has not much he must spend little for himself that he may give more to the poor. His garments are usually of cotton, and the cheapest that can be bought. Often his friends in Persia - for this man is indeed rich in friends, thousands and tens of thousands who would eagerly lay down their lives at his word - send him costly garments. These he wears once, out of respect for the sender; then he gives them away. A few months ago this happened. The wife of the Master was about to depart on a journey. Fearing that her husband would give away his cloak and so be left without one for himself, she left a second cloak with her daughter, charging her not to inform her father of it. Not long after her departure, the Master, suspecting, it would seem, what had been done, said to his daughter, “Have I another cloak?” The daughter could not deny it, but told her father of her mother’s charge. The Master replied, “How could I be happy having two cloaks, knowing that there are those that have none?” Nor would he be content until he had given the second cloak away.
He does not permit his family to have luxuries. He himself eats but once a day, and then bread, olives, and cheese suffice him.
His room is small and bare, with only a matting on the stone floor. His habit is to sleep upon this floor. Not long ago a friend, thinking that this must be hard for a man of advancing years, presented him with a bed fitted with springs and mattress. So these stand in his room also, but are rarely used. “For how,” he says, “can I bear to sleep in luxury when so many of the poor have not even shelter?” So he lies upon the floor and covers himself only with his cloak.
(Myron Henry Phelps and Bahiyyih Khanum, Life and Teachings of Abbas Effendi)
Imagine that we are in the ancient house of the still more ancient city of Akka, which was for a month my home. The room in which we are faces the opposite wall of a narrow paved street, which an active man might clear at a single bound. Above is the bright sun of Palestine; to the right a glimpse of the old sea-wall and the blue Mediterranean. As we sit we hear a singular sound rising from the pavement, thirty feet below - faint at first, and increasing. It is like the murmur of human voices. We open the window and look down. We see a crowd of human beings with patched and tattered garments. Let us descend to the street and see who these are.
It is a noteworthy gathering. Many of these men are blind; many more are pale, emaciated, or aged. Some are on crutches; some are so feeble that they can barely walk. Most of the women are closely veiled, but enough are uncovered to cause us well to believe that, if the veils were lifted, more pain and misery would be seen. Some of them carry babes with pinched and sallow faces. There are perhaps a hundred in this gathering, and besides, many children. They are of all the races one meets in these streets - Syrians, Arabs, Ethiopians, and many others. These people are ranged against the walls or seated on the ground, apparently in an attitude of expectation; - for what do they wait? Let us wait with them.
We have not to wait long. A door opens and a man comes out. He is of middle stature, strongly built. He wears flowing light-coloured robes. On his head is a light buff fez with a white cloth wound about it. He is perhaps sixty years of age. His long grey hair rests on his shoulders. His forehead is broad, full, and high, his nose slightly aquiline, his moustaches and beard, the latter full though not heavy, nearly white. His eyes are grey and blue, large, and both soft and penetrating. His bearing is simple, but there is grace, dignity, and even majesty about his movements. He passes through the crowd, and as he goes utters words of salutation. We do not understand them, but we see the benignity and the kindliness of his countenance. He stations himself at a narrow angle of the street and motions to the people to come towards him. They crowd up a little too insistently. He pushes them gently back and lets them pass him one by one. As they come they hold their hands extended. In each open palm he places some small coins. He knows them all. He caresses them with his hand on the face, on the shoulders, on the head. Some he stops and questions. An aged negro who hobbles up, he greets with some kindly inquiry; the old man’s broad face breaks into a sunny smile, his white teeth glistening against his ebony skin as he replies. He stops a woman with a babe and fondly strokes the child. As they pass, some kiss his hand. To all he says, “Marhabbah, marhabbah” - “Well done, well done!"
So they all pass him. The children have been crowding around him with extended hands, but to them he has not given. However, at the end, as he turns to go, he throws a handful of coppers over his shoulder, for which they scramble.
During this time this friend of the poor has not been unattended. Several men wearing red fezes, and with earnest and kindly faces, followed him from the house, stood near him and aided in regulating the crowd, and now, with reverent manner and at a respectful distance, follow him away. When they address him they call him “Master.” (Myron Henry Phelps and Bahiyyih Khanum, Life and Teachings of Abbas Effendi)
Mirza Mahmud was a youth when he arrived in Baghdad from Kashan. Aqa Rida became a believer in Baghdad. The spiritual condition of the two was indescribable. There was in Baghdad a company of seven leading believers who lived in a single, small room, because they were destitute. They could hardly keep body and soul together, but they were so spiritual, so blissful, that they thought themselves in Heaven. Sometimes they would chant prayers all night long, until the day broke. Days, they would go out to work, and by nightfall one would have earned ten paras, another perhaps twenty paras, others forty or fifty. These sums would be spent for the evening meal. On a certain day one of them made twenty paras, while the rest had nothing at all. The one with the money bought some dates, and shared them with the others; that was dinner, for seven people. They were perfectly content with their frugal life, supremely happy. These two honored men devoted their days to all that is best in human life: they had seeing eyes; they were mindful and aware; they had hearing ears, and were fair of speech. Their sole desire was to please Bahá’u’lláh. To them, nothing was a bounty at all, except service at His Holy Threshold. After the time of the Supreme Affliction, they were consumed with sorrow, like candles flickering away; they longed for death, and stayed firm in the Covenant and labored hard and well to spread that Daystar’s Faith. They were close and trusted companions of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, and could be relied on in all things. They were always lowly, humble, unassuming, evanescent. In all that long period, they never uttered a word which had to do with self. And at the last, during the absence of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, they took their flight to the Kingdom of unfading glory. I sorrowed much because I was not with them when they died. Although absent in body, I was there in my heart, and mourning over them; but to outward seeming I did not bid them good-by; this is why I grieve. Unto them both be salutations and praise; upon them be compassion and glory. May God give them a home in Paradise, under the Lote-Tree’s shade. May they be immersed in tiers of light, close beside their Lord, the Mighty, the All-Powerful.
(‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Memorials of the Faithful, p. 40-41)
In 1907 Corinne True was in ‘Akká with the Master. She was one of many who were deeply touched by the love of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, demonstrated so clearly in His customary Friday morning acts of charity. From her window she ’saw between two and three hundred men, women and children gathered. Such a motley crowd one can see only in these parts. There were blind, lame, cripples and very feeble persons, the poorest clad collection of people almost that the earth contains. One man had his clothing made of a patched quilt, an old woman had gunny sacking for a cloak; children were so ragged that their clothing would scarcely stay on them. ‘Two or three of the men believers were with the Master. The people were required to arrange themselves in order about two sides of the court and the Master began near the gate giving into the hand of each some piece of money and then each was required to move out. It was a sight never to be forgotten to see the Master going from one to another, saying some word of praise or kindness to encourage each. With some He would stop to inquire into their health and He would pat them on the back, these poor, dirty-looking creatures, and once in a while we would see Him send some one away empty-handed and He would reprimand him for his laziness. How clear and musical His voice sounded as He went from one to another, giving and praising! The men accompanying Him kept order in great kindness, but firmness, and saw that each passed on as soon as he had received from the Master. Where on this globe can one duplicate such a scene as is enacted every Friday morning in the court yard of the Master of Acca, Who is Himself a state Prisoner to the Turkish government and has lived in prison or in exile since He was nine years of age!’
(Honnold, Annamarie, Vignettes from the Life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, p. 80)
The Master’s life was very full at this time. Not only did He care for the friends of Abu-Sinan, but in ‘Akká and Haifa all the poor looked to Him for their daily bread. Even before the war the spectre of starvation had not been very far from many of these pitiful people, but now when all the breadwinners (Germans and Turks) had been taken for the army, the plight of the women and children was desperate, for alas! there were no government “separation allowances.” Nothing and no one but the Master stood between them and certain death from hunger. He also instituted a dispensary at Ab‘u-Sin’an, and engaged a doctor, Hab‘ib‘u’ll‘ah Khud‘abkhsh. This doctor was qualified to perform operations and to give instruction in hygiene. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá did not neglect the education of the children. He arranged schools where they were taught by some of the most gifted of the Bahá’í friends.
(Lady Blomfield, The Chosen Highway)
At the end of this meeting, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá stood at the Bowery entrance to the Mission hall, shaking hands with four or five hundred men and placing within each palm a piece of silver.
(‘Abdu’l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 34)