Interview: Lorraine Sherrill, creator of The Journey West website

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I met Lorraine a little over a year and a half ago. The tall brunette with the big brilliant smile immediately charmed me with her quiet yet quick sense of humor. Her love of the arts and her interest in using them for the greater good added a unique depth to our friendship. When she asked me to help her with a project a couple of months ago, I immediately accepted without quite knowing what it was. I trusted her, but couldn’t help but be surprised that she was asking for my help. She is, after all, a photographer; how could I, a writer, help? I thought that the scope of my involvement would be captions, descriptions, narratives associated with images and, perhaps, an interview or two.

Little did I know how big this project would become, and how relatively small a portion had to do with photography.

The Journey West commemorates in a very unique way the centenary of the visit of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, an Eastern religious leader, to selected countries in Europe and North America, both to visit Bahá’ís living there as well as to present the newest world religion of which He was the Head to an international audience. It includes pictures of the times, of course, as well as posts about the actual travels, posts describing the various elements of the environment that existed at the time, and essays on the topics ‘Abdu’l-Bahá covered in His many public talks. It also includes a podcast; each one goes over one of the talks ‘Abdu’l-Bahá gave at the time on topics that were quite avant-garde.

While at a first glance, it might seem that only two populations would be interested in these travels, i.e. historians and Bahá’ís, a closer inspection of the context of these travels and what they accomplished in a very short span of time (in a pre-internet era, no less!) reveals that anyone interested in contributing to the advancement of humanity should study how, with limited funds, no formal education and a body broken by over 40 years of exile and imprisonment, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá managed to make the impact that He did.

As Lorraine explained, “around the time the trip was taken, circa 1893, there was a shift in perception about religion in the United States. A congress had just been held where, for the first time in history, different religious leaders were on a very large public stage together to start an interfaith dialog.” The public was receptive to new ideas on religions from the East, seen as a source of spiritual inspiration.

Furthermore, the turn of the century was a fascinating time of very rapid changes. “When you look at these changes with respect to the world today,” Lorraine told me, “you realize just how much more fascinating these travels are. After all, much of the foundations for the way things are nowadays were laid back then; when you realize that, the travels of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá become even more intriguing and allow us to appreciate where we are now.”

In contrast with the many other Eastern religious figures who came to the West, one aspect in particular set ‘Abdu’l-Bahá aside: “These travels also illustrated Him as who He was in His choices and actions. It shows how He brought to life the Teachings of the Bahá’í Faith through simple, day to day acts of kindness and generosity.”

The relevance of the Teachings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá for today shines though every talk He gave. But since we can be stuck in our limited perception of the world, we sometimes can’t see this relevance. This is why taking a step back to analyze the talks given during these travels allows us to see how they are still relevant today. We can then strive to apply the insights thus acquired and help improve the condition of humanity as ‘Abdu’l-Bahá hoped to do.

Furthermore, when one reads the talks He gave and calls to mind the context in which they were given, one can’t help but be impressed by how avant-garde they are. We might take the equality of men and women, as well as other such teachings of the Bahá’í Faith, for granted today; however, back in the late 1800s, when women didn’t have the right to vote, these principles were often ground-shattering. Another reason to delve into these travels is to learn, just like ‘Abdu’l-Bahá did, to read the social realities of our time and build a coherent argument as to why the situation is unworthy of our high destiny as a human race, then set about in our day to day lives, through simple actions, bringing these principles to life.

This is the personal interest Lorraine has in this project; the utterances of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá touched her deeply, particularly that they are “really practical for today, whatever background you are. That’s because He presents a large variety of subjects and principles in a way that is logical and grounded. What is ever more significant are the stories of Him putting these principles into action. After all, there are a lot of philosophers who have amazing ideas who never put them into action, but ‘Abdu’l-Bahá does, which speaks volumes.”

One can imagine why Lorraine didn’t restrict this project to only photographs: “I am mainly a photographer, but I regularly work with all kinds of media. The internet is a new media that is really promising; anyone can be a producer of quality, educational, inspiring art.” But she balances opening up the project to many media with the realization that too much information can be overwhelming: “I focus primarily on bringing information to the reader in amounts that are manageable. Pictures serve to enhance this experience. In my opinion, pictures are essential in a blog; if there are no pictures, I will not read!”

Lorraine also took the opportunity to reach into a new form of media she had always enjoyed consuming but had never produced: “I really wanted to bring this project to another level by putting in podcasts. I am a huge fan of podcasts and radio, especially when dealing with historical events. Podcasts can bring it even more to life.” More specifically, The Journey West includes podcasts in which talented readers are recorded reading ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s talks, followed up by group discussions on the topic at hand. The beginning of each podcast is a radio play of sorts: “finding the actual words of the individuals and hav[ing] actors reciting them, makes you feel like you are there. It is quite a different experience from just reading the words. Podcasting really adds a spark to these talks. They don’t even need to be altered for them to be brought to life.”

Needless to say, this is a rather big project for one person to take on. Mindful of its scope, Lorraine reached out to her many artistically inclined friends and formed a team of talented contributors. “I don’t want this to just be my blog; I want it to be the readers’ blog, I want it to be the contributors blog. I am more of the type to do things myself, but one of the things I learned from ‘Abdu’l-Bahá is to translate the concept of consultation by getting more people involved so that The Journey West becomes a group effort. Channeling all these ideas into this platform is quite a challenge but exciting.”

It might be a lot of work, but it has brought Lorrain many rewards, the topmost being the responses she has gotten: “I‘m surprised at how excited people are that I am able to do this. People who are not even involved are so excited by this project. Seeing and hearing about people’s reactions makes it all so worth it. It’s the whole point since it’s for them.”

The project has of course been a great learning experience for Lorraine. I asked her what advice she would give herself if she could go back to the day she decided to start this project. I was expecting something mystical and profound, but got a simple yet very important piece of advice: if you are about to embark on such a massive project, you should partner with a web-savvy individual. As for the rest of the project, it’s all relatively easy, as long as you are organized, a hard worker, and able to direct a group of enthusiastic contributors.

“I have no complaints so far. Of course I learned a lot. For example, I research as I go along, and that can sometimes be a little difficult. I want to be as thorough as I want, to really illustrate these historic trips as thoroughly as possible, and I am learning how preparing in advance is usually a good idea.”

You can visit The Journey West here. If you want to become a contributor, you can sign up here.

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