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It was in every respect a typical night at a multiplex theater. As people walked into a dimmed auditorium at the Harkins 14 in Prescott Valley, Arizona, slides with accompanying music were projected onto the screen. Then the lights fell completely and a feature film rolled.“Light to the World,” a film about the life and teachings of Baha’u’llah, can be viewed online in several languages.
This Oct. 9 screening, however, was sponsored by area Baha’i communities and free to the public. And the movie shown was Light to the World, a documentary outlining the life and ministry of Baha’u’llah, founder of the Faith.
One audience member praised “the appropriateness of the magnificent images and message for the big screen.” The film shows a diverse array of people from around the world telling how Baha’u’llah’s teachings are touching their lives. Produced for the 2017 bicentenary of Baha’u’llah’s birth, it has frequently been viewed through the internet. Showings in big movie houses are rarer.
In the aftermath, local Baha’is rejoiced not just in a successful evening but in their increased ability to host large numbers of people interested in how the teachings of Baha’u’llah apply to their lives and society.
That included learning what audience members are curious or concerned about and addressing those questions — as well as introducing attendees to Baha’i-initiated core activities for community building and inviting them to participate.
“The key takeaway is the continuing relevance of the film and a preview in terms of working with large venues,” says Tom Halstead, a Baha’i in Dewey-Humboldt.
Many of the more than 50 attendees “remarked that this was like a ‘peek at the future’ when mass audiences would get a chance to view Baha’i media in large-venue formats,” he recalls.
Halstead, a veteran audio-visual professional, had a big hand in that, coordinating technical aspects from the projection booth. This included the direction of lighting in the theater, as well as organizing slides of the Baha’i writings that were displayed for 45 minutes as people filtered in before the film.
Little touches to enhance the event
As people filtered in for the Oct. 9 screening of Light to the World in Prescott Valley, slides of the Baha’i writings set to orchestral music were shown for 45 minutes. These “walk in” images were adjusted in their dimensions, so the curtains and lights could be semi-dim for arrivals, says Tom Halstead, who coordinated the presentation.
As the film was cued, the house lights were taken down completely and the curtains adjusted to the new ratio. After the movie, lights were brought all the way up for the period of questions and answers.
Aside from what was learned about staging a presentation, organizers gained valuable experience in promotion, says Halstead. More than 30 internet and broadcast radio stations, as well as several networks of newspapers, were notified and emailed information.
Posters were circulated among like-minded organizations and included descriptions of Baha’i-initiated community-building activities in the area, ranging from spiritual education classes for all ages to devotional gatherings.
At the event, Halstead’s wife, Jeanie, fielded audience questions. Attendees voiced such varied concerns as fears of Islamic terrorism and world government, as well as “faiths’ views of the soul and enlightenment, including the ideas of selflessness promoted by writers like Eckhart Tolle.”
Tom Halstead reflects, “Arizona tends to be conservative … and the movie increased capacity greatly by showing a faith that accepts Muhammad yet is all about peace. Many even commented that a United Nations-like system can allow for love of country and be so peaceful and not racially divided.”
Some attendees have begun engaging in study circles and devotional gatherings. And local Baha’is have discussed inviting those participants to share their experiences during the quarterly meeting held to reflect on the progress of community-building activities.
Interfaith contacts also have invited Baha’is to present the teachings of Baha’u’llah to their congregations and have expressed interest in learning how to apply Baha’i methods of consultation to discussions on racial unity and social justice.
“Another meeting after the movie included a series of seminars on white privilege” hosted by Baha’is Pamm Sosa, who lives in Prescott Valley, and her daughter Wendy, from Houck in the Navajo Nation, says Halstead. Wendy Sosa has given race relations seminars across the state and started a private school for American Indian children.
Recent Census data shows Yavapai is a mostly white county with a significant Latino population and smaller concentrations of African Americans and American Indians. Halstead notes that white privilege is a significant focus of local discussions on the elimination of prejudice.
What’s on the horizon? Perhaps for October 2019 to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of the Bab, the forerunner of Baha’u’llah, “the team that put the event together has its eye on the local stadium,” says Halstead.
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When art teacher David Draime was approached by a colleague to design a large exterior mural and organize students to paint it at their Fairfield, California, high school, he hesitated.
“I didn’t think I would have the time or the energy for such a huge undertaking,” says Draime, a Baha’i and one of three art teachers at Vanden High School. “But after a few days, I began to reconsider.”
In conceiving the mural that was to stretch all the way across a street-facing wall, he took inspiration from the Baha’i concept that we’re all “flowers of one garden,” which he felt was especially “positive and timely for a school with a diverse student body.”Kira Swafford is flanked by two of the dozens of flowers making up a mural painted by students at Vanden High School in Fairfield, California. Photo courtesy of David Draime
So over the 2017–18 winter break, he came up with a flower-filled design. Then he gave the project to his four advanced art classes, totaling about 95 students.
As the mural project developed, he says, “I started receiving confirmations that … whatever help I needed, all the time, energy and organizational skills this task would require would most certainly be forthcoming.”
The school’s principal, Bill Sarty, and the superintendent of schools, Pam Conklin, got behind the proposed design, and funding was secured. Work on the mural began in mid-April 2018.
At a staff meeting, Sarty related that Draime’s art students would be creating a “very special mural for our school.” Without sharing details of the design, he added: “I just want to say that this mural will have a very powerful message which will unite our school.”
Students add their unique touches
Students caught the spirit, too. Each one was given a photo of a flower and some greenery as a reference for painting a small section of the master design in acrylic.Jordyn Clayton stands in front of a mural she helped paint at Vanden High School in Fairfield, California. Photo courtesy of David Draime
“In the midst of painting my flower, I realized that each and every one of us literally represents a flower on that wall,” recalls Jordyn Clayton, a junior.
“Even though we have our own ways and styles of creating our flower, when you look at it all together it makes up the most beautiful and satisfying thing anyone could lay their eyes on — and created by teens!”
Says Kira Swafford, a senior, “I feel proud that I was a part of creating such a beautiful and inspiring mural. It was also fun because everyone got along well and connected over the painting process. It was almost like we became united as the mural says. It was an experience I will never forget.”
“It was really a sight to behold,” says Draime. “They took ownership of this project and devoted themselves to it, each according to her or his own abilities.”
He says the students themselves “were a beautiful, living example of the very thing they were painting. Here, you have a very diverse group of students — diverse in their ethnicity, religion, national origin, socio-economic status, disability, and, importantly, diverse in their artistic abilities — all working unitedly together towards the creation of a common, beautiful vision.”
Some students regularly stayed after school to work on the mural, while others showed up on weekends as well.
Timely bits of assistance
At every stage, help came just when needed, according to Draime.
“Several days before we began priming the wall, I happened to be talking with one of our counselors. He casually said to me, ‘Hey, you should do a time-lapse video of the students painting this mural.’
“I was so busy with organizing the project, ordering supplies, etc., that I had not even thought of that. What a great idea! If he had not mentioned it to me at that time, I may have only thought of it after several weeks into the project and then it would have been too late.”
Draime enlisted the help of Vanden High School’s video production teacher, Brent Manuel, who loaned him the equipment and showed him how to use it.
“I think in its own way, the video is as important as the mural itself in that the making of this beautiful and important work of art can be enjoyed by everyone around the globe,” says Draime.
Upon seeing the video, Superintendent Conklin sent a message: “I just shared the video with my family. … It is simply beautiful. … We all agree that this is one of the best projects we have ever seen. It warms my heart every time I watch it.”
The project was not finished until the week of graduation in early June — a total of six weeks. In sum, more than 3,000 student-hours went into the artwork’s creation.
“Put another way, if one person were tasked with this project and worked full time on it without a vacation, it would take that person over a year and a half to complete it,” notes Draime.
Clayton, one one of the student artists, sums up: “We all represent a flower on this wall and each of the flowers are so beautiful in their own way. This mural literally says to me that there is enough room for everyone to stand in the light and shine.”
See a local TV news report here:
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Relationships forged with fellow faith communities are continuing to give Baha’is in Cincinnati, Ohio, a seat at the table when issues of interest are discussed.
Just in the past few months, three such opportunities have arisen:
- Members of WINCS (Women in the Northern Cincinnati Suburbs) toured the Cincinnati Baha’i Center and asked questions about the Faith and its teachings. The visit lasted four hours.
- The Baha’is helped plan a Festival of Faiths in June and sponsored a booth (see “Cincinnati Baha’is gain visibility, collaborators through festival participation”).
More recently, a Baha’i was included in a WINCS-sponsored panel discussion Oct. 8 at the Islamic Center of Cincinnati on how the Abrahamic religions view the Virgin Mary.
“Last spring at a meeting of the Festival of Faiths steering committee, I overheard a conversation” about the upcoming panel, recalls Deborah Vance, who serves as secretary of the local Baha’i governing council, the Local Spiritual Assembly. “I popped over and explained how the Baha’i Faith is also an Abrahamic religion. They quickly invited me to participate.”
As a result, Vance shared the dais at the public-invited program with Lutheran and Catholic ministers, the Rev. Matt Byrd and Father Kip Stander; a Jewish rabbi, Jennifer Lewis; and an Islamic imam, Hossam Musa. After the presentations, participants were invited for a tour of the mosque.
Vance began her talk by tracing how the Bab, forerunner of the Baha’i Faith, was descended from Abraham through Hagar and through the Prophet Muhammad. Next she outlined how Baha’u’llah, founder of the Baha’i Faith, was a descendant of Abraham through His wives Keturah and Sarah. (For more about the Baha’i Faith’s connection to Abraham see the book Abraham: One God, Three Wives, Five Religions.)
Vance went on to explain that the Writings of the Bab and Baha’u’llah uphold and extol the teachings of God’s divine Messengers. Baha’u’llah said those teachings over the ages comprise God’s one unfolding religion.
And she noted that Baha’u’llah wrote of the divine Sonship of Jesus and the mystery of the immaculacy of the Virgin Mary. Baha’i teachings also quote from the Qu’ran about Mary’s tribulations, in explaining how God tests humanity to distinguish the sincere from the insincere.
Vance was concise, perhaps mindful of the dictum “Blessed are the brief, for they will be invited again.” Though with their recent track record, Cincinnati Baha’is are on their way in any event to taking a meaningful part in the discourses of society.
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Starting with a simple Sunday prayer gathering in a Corvallis home 22 years ago, Baha’is in two Oregon counties developed spiritual and educational activities for all ages. From there they learned how to bring such community-building activities into even more neighborhoods.
And for the past seven years a teaching team has made regular efforts to keep up the vitality of several Baha’i-initiated activities in Benton and Linn counties, says Paula Siegel of Philomath. It’s a learning path much like many other U.S. Baha’is and their friends are walking.Multiple conversations go on as attendees enjoy refreshments at a devotional gathering in Corvallis, Oregon. Photo courtesy of Paula Siegel
But the Corvallis devotional gathering is still a significant part of the mix, and the teaching team meets weekly to “discuss and reflect on the program, consult on the needs of its participants, and share and support our individual teaching activities outside the weekly devotional gathering,” Siegel says.
Centering on sacred texts from all religions, the Sunday gathering in Corvallis was started in 1996 to bring people from across Benton and Linn counties to worship together. Before long, spiritual education classes for children, junior youths, youths and adults were also being held at the same place.
After a decade, however, local Baha’is rethought the gathering’s purpose in the light of guidance about community building from international and national Baha’i institutions.
They realized a lot of energy was going into the centralized gathering and that much of it would be better spent on the building of community in neighborhoods across the two-county area, Siegel says.
One Baha’i continued the Corvallis devotional gathering in her home. It became apparent, though, that a team effort would be needed to “support, strengthen and sustain” that activity and integrate it with others in the area.
Thus, in 2011 the team was born to assist several Baha’i-initiated community-building activities and nurture people’s interest in the teachings of Baha’u’llah.
That team, now numbering five Baha’is, reflects a call by the Universal House of Justice, the Faith’s global governing council, for the emergence of a “growing band of believers” who are “distinguished by their ability and their discipline to reflect on action and learn from experience.”
Team members have encouraged others to hold similar devotionals in their own homes, Siegel says. They also support each other’s initiatives while accompanying the 20 or so devotional participants on their spiritual journeys.
What the team did in a recent meeting offers a glimpse into its process and scope:
- Read and discussed a reference to devotional gatherings in a recent message from the Universal House of Justice.
- Consulted on a suggestion by two attendees that the Baha’i readings they heard on the harmony of science and religion be shared with area religious and scientific groups.
- Planned a fireside talk for the public, in hopes it will be the first of a series that engages artistic/musical members of the community.
- Discussed how to assist with the physical and spiritual needs of a friend of the Faith who has been unable to regularly attend the devotional.
- Shared such individual initiatives as a neighborhood devotional, conversations with co-workers, and a weekly discussion group.
It’s all part of learning “how to continue the conversation beyond Sundays,” sums up Siegel.
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Prayers and songs based on Baha’i texts were among those from dozens of faith traditions incorporated into a work of art by James Webb being exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago through the end of 2018.
Seven Baha’is were recorded reading and singing in the Auditorium of the Baha’i House of Worship in September for the project. These 17 selections became part of “Prayer,” an ongoing artwork that Webb has remade around the world since its first presentation in his home city of Cape Town, South Africa, in 2000. The Chicago version is the 10th and largest to date, as well as the first in North America.Recorded prayers play simultaneously in the gallery installation. Photo courtesy of the Art Institue of Chicago
The work consists of unsynchronized layered vocal recordings of human voices in prayer from individuals who belong to dozens of faiths and spiritual groups in Chicagoland, according to information from the Art Institute. The prayers and chants included in the Baha’i selections were in a variety of languages, including Persian and Arabic
Listeners are invited to remove their shoes and walk the length of the carpet, composing their own arrangement of voices as they go, or to kneel or otherwise lower themselves next to a speaker to listen more closely to particular prayers. The spare though colorful installation has the austerity of a work of Minimal Art and the enveloping richness of a choral concert.
Larry McGhee, a Baha’i who attended the opening of the exhibit, was one of several hundred people who listened to the artist’s presentation and then viewed the gallery.
“I believe that they’re trying to share the different ways prayers can be conveyed so people can have an appreciation for how other people practice,” McGhee says. He goes on to articulate one of the Baha’i views of prayer, that it need not be confined to a particular place. “It is a worthwhile venture,” says McGhee, “because wherever the mention of God is being made and His praise glorified is a blessed spot.”
All of the Baha’i selections were of prayers revealed by one of the Central Figures of the Baha’i Faith — the Bab, Baha’u’llah and ‘Abdu’l-Baha. Such prayers are considered by Baha’is to be the Word of God and spiritually powerful.A visitor to “Prayer” leans in close to listen. Photo courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago
The artist, an experimental musician and visual artist with a degree in comparative religion, initiated “Prayer” in Cape Town five years after his country ended its practice of apartheid. The word apartheid means segregation; Webb has created a work that strives to bring people together. His goal in some ways echoes the mission of the Baha’i House of Worship as a place that brings together people of different faith backgrounds in common worship.
“Prayers articulate a basic wish for communion and often serve to solidify a community of faith in a place of worship,” the artist writes. By deliberately gathering prayers from a variety of neighborhoods and spiritual practices and naming each of the participants and congregations, Webb aims to join together inhabitants of his host city.
The process for creating “Prayer” is collaborative and rooted in the place where it is installed. All participation by faith members is voluntary, and each community receives a copy of the recording for their own use. Listen to the recordings made at the Baha’i House of Worship: https://bit.ly/2qsv2UZ
–Installation details, links and photos courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago
On the Sunday after Thanksgiving, 62 singers coached by Van Gilmer, Music Director of the Baha’i House of Worship, will assemble with other musicians from around the world in a performance of Handel’s Messiah at Carnegie Hall in New York City.
“We are now frantically working on the nine pieces we will sing for the Messiah,’” says Gilmer who is hosting advance rehearsal time for singers who live near the House of Worship in Wilmette, Illinois. Gilmer is also coordinating with Baha’i singers from across the country and from a few other countries who will meet in New York.
The Baha’i contingent — one of the largest to participate in the event — will be part of a massed choir performing the first half of the towering work by George Frideric Handel; a similar choir will perform the second half. Eighteen faith communities in all are contributing about 250 singers this year.DCINY Messiah…Refreshed! Jonathan Griffith, Conductor. Photo courtesy of DCINY Production/Dan Wright, Photographer
The invitation to participate came to Gilmer nearly a year ago after event coordinators at Distinguished Concerts International New York City saw YouTube videos of the Baha’i Festival Choir performing the best-known piece from the Messiah, the “Hallelujah” Chorus.
“At first, I was overwhelmed by the invitation and not certain if it was real,” Gilmer said. “Once I read about these annual concerts, I immediately started to see if I could gather enough of the past Baha’i Choral Festival Choir members to join with the Baha’i House of Worship Choir to be able to commit to this very special invitation.”
The spring 2018 festival became part of the preparation. That program included two sections from Handel’s oratorio: “All We Like Sheep Have Gone Astray” and “And the Glory of the Lord,” giving a head start to many of the singers who plan to participate at Carnegie Hall.
For the annual festival — as for other public performances — Gilmer requires singers to memorize their parts, an unusual and often remarked-upon feat for the choristers. For the Carnegie Hall event, however, they will be using sheet music.
“It, of course, will be different for our choir to sing with the scores,” Gilmer said, “but everybody feels relieved to know that we will not have to memorize the nine choruses that we will sing during the first half of the concert.”
Another difference is that music in the Auditorium of the Baha’i House of Worship is always a cappella, without instrumentation. The singers at Carnegie Hall will be accompanied by a 100-piece orchestra.
Conductor Dr. Jonathan Griffith will conduct the 1959 re-orchestration by Eugene Goossens. The performance, which in years past has played to sold-out audiences, takes place in the soaring 2,804-seat Isaac Stern Auditorium.
The singers will spend five days in New York City, with “approximately 9-10 hours in rehearsals,” said Griffith. The concert organizers will also be hosting a farewell gala dinner for the participants.Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall. Photo courtesy of DCINY Production/Dan Wright, Photographer
Carnegie Hall, a National Historic Landmark, is named after philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, who funded its construction in midtown Manhattan. It is one of the most prestigious venues in the world for both classical and popular music, and since its opening in 1891, musicians the world over have aspired to sing there.
It will be Gilmer’s third time singing in Carnegie Hall. “I had never imagined that I would appear on the Carnegie Hall stage,” he said.
“The first time I sang in Carnegie Hall was in 1992 with a group of 40 specially chosen Baha’i singers for the official opening of the Second Baha’i World Congress. It was an honor in many ways.”
Ten years later, he was a featured soloist with the Voices of Baha, an international Baha’i touring choir under the direction of Tom Price. “This time, I sang the solo for “Amazing Grace” with the 200-voice choir.”
So how is he feeling about his third appearance? Still excited. And he is also happy to facilitate bringing other singers to Carnegie Hall. “It is so special to sing on this, one of the finest stages in the world. I’m also a little bit anxious about my group getting the music right.”Deborah Good-Krochock (center) follows the direction of Van Gilmer (right) during a featured ensemble performance at the 2017 Choral Festival Concert at the Baha’i House of Worship.
One singer joining Gilmer is Deborah Good-Krochock, a member of the Baha’i House of Worship Choir who regularly sings with the spring Choral Music Festivals. A French and English teacher who enjoys singing in many styles, Good-Krochock went to Paris last year as a participant in the Chicago-Paris Cabaret Connexion Singer Exchange and took master classes. She also took part in a choir assembled in 2016 for the dedication of the new Baha’i House of Worship in Santiago, Chile, and sings for monthly Spanish-language devotions at the Temple in Wilmette.
Good-Krochock said she is excited about the trip. “I love the energy of New York. I am ecstatic about the chance to join with singers from around the world in performing the Messiah at Carnegie Hall.”
Learning the music for the Messiah, she said, presents some special challenges. “The music is very intricate and requires lots of agility in mastering the complex runs. There are several musical motifs that keep popping up where you think that something is being repeated, yet it is changed by only a note or two, making it very hard to master.”
Handel composed the English-language oratorio in 1741 for a modest number of singers and a small orchestra. After his death, the work was adapted for giant orchestras and choirs. It has been revised frequently, with recent trends favoring a greater fidelity to Handel’s original intentions.
Although its structure resembles that of opera, there is no dramatic action or direct speech. Instead, the text is an extended reflection on Jesus as the Messiah called Christ.
Part I begins with biblical prophecies by Isaiah and others, and moves to the Annunciation to the shepherds, the only passage taken from the Gospels. In Part II, Handel concentrates on the Passion and ends with the “Hallelujah” chorus. In Part III he covers the resurrection of the dead and Christ’s glorification in heaven.
These passages take on additional significance for Baha’is who understand that their inherent prophecies also apply to Baha’u’llah, Founder of the Baha’i Faith.
“While most people generally associate the holy scriptures of the Bible with the Messiah,” said Gilmer, “they seem to Baha’is to announce the coming of the Messenger of God for this Day Who is Baha’u’llah, Whose Arabic name means the Glory of God.”
Gilmer points out lyrics relating to Baha’u’llah. “We will sing ‘Glory to God in the Highest,’ ‘And the Government shall be upon His shoulders,’ ‘the King of Kings,’ ‘the Lord of Lords,’ ‘Blessing and Honor, Glory, and Power be unto Him, Amen’.”
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A record-breaking 3,490 people visited the Baha’i House of Worship on Oct. 13-14 for the Chicago Architecture Center’s “Open House Chicago,” a free public festival that offers behind-the-scenes access to more than 250 buildings. It was the second year the Temple was included in the annual weekend event.
According to Eric Rogers, manager of Open House Chicago, the attendance at the House of Worship was well above the average of 1,300 per site. “In fact, it looks like it was our busiest site outside of the immediate Loop area,” he notes.“Chicago Open House” visitors stroll inside the Temple Auditorium. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Chapman
Many first-time visitors said they didn’t know they were welcome inside the building until they read about it in the Open House guide.
One draw for many enthusiastic amateur photographers was that during the event they were given special permission to take pictures in the Temple Auditorium. Photography is generally not allowed inside, to preserve a serene atmosphere for those who are praying and meditating.
Except for the 20 minutes midday when prayers were read aloud, visitors could click away to their heart’s content. They captured images of the soaring 138-foot dome, where recently added lighting fixtures in the balconies cast gleaming highlights onto the lacy interior ornamentation. They used cell phones or video cameras to record the uplifting spiritual quotations that frame each of the nine doorways. People took selfies, too.Fall gardens abloom. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Chapman
The clear, crisp fall weather was perfect for those who wanted to stroll in the gardens, which had been planted with hundreds of fuchsia, russet and ochre-colored chrysanthemums, deep purple ornamental cabbages and other fall foliage in time for the event.
From her sunny station near the main entrance, Jennifer Chapman served as a guide on both Saturday and Sunday mornings, answering questions and showing people into the Auditorium. Chapman cheerily estimates that she welcomed more than 1,200 people. What comments did she hear from visitors?Symbols on Temple pillars spark interest. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Chapman
“People were amazed at the concept of a house of worship that is open to all religions,” Chapman says. “Many people asked about the symbolism above the entrances and the quotes inside the Auditorium, amazed that we are so inclusive.”
In the words of Baha’u’llah, the Founder of the Baha’i Faith, one quote advises: Consort with the followers of all religions with friendliness. Another: Ye are the fruits of one tree, and the leaves of one branch. The symbols of other religions carved into the pillars of the temple illustrate the Baha’i Faith’s embrace of others.
“There was one lady from China who said she was excited to be in a place where she could worship freely, that she hadn’t been able to do that for many years,” Chapman said.
Several people who had lived in the area as children said they used to drive by the Temple with their parents and had always wanted to come in, so now they were happy to visit as adults. “And,” Chapman adds with a bright smile, “many people said they would come back.”
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Irfan Colloquium, a friendly gathering held several times a year in an informal and collegial atmosphere, provides unique opportunities for meeting and associating with people interested in Baha’i studies.Participants at the October 2017 ‘Irfan Colloquium sessions at Louhelen Baha’i School. Photo courtesy of Iraj Ayman
The colloquium program includes presentations by scholars from different countries on systematic studies in fundamental principles of Baha’i beliefs, the Writings of the Central Figures of the Baha’i Faith, and the interface between the Baha’i Faith and current intellectual and religious trends. Participants receive a free set of recent ‘Irfan publications.
Schedule of sessions for 2019:
- May 23–27: 157th (Persian) and 158th (English) ‘Irfan Colloquia, Bosch Baha’i School, Santa Cruz, California
- June 20–26: 159th Irfan Colloquium (Persian), Center for Baha’i Studies, Acuto, Italy
- June 27–30: 160th Irfan Colloquium (English), Center for Baha’i Studies, Acuto, Italy
- July 18–21: 161st Irfan Colloquium (German), Tambach Seminar Center, Tambach, Germany
- October 3–6: 162nd (Persian) and 163rd (English) ‘Irfan Colloquia, Louhelen Baha’i School, Davison, Michigan
Program information and registration:
Mail: ‘Irfan Colloquium
c/o Baha’i National Center
1233 Central St.
Evanston, IL 60201-1611
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It’s likely they weren’t totally surprised, though, given how far the association has come in helping Baha’is engage meaningfully in the issues of the day.
After all, “This is not just any academic conference,” the 1,400 people meeting Aug. 9–12 in Atlanta, Georgia, were told at the outset. It’s a message the association has been sending for years — that the conference is not just for academics.
But the focus, in more spaces than ever before, was on both the acquisition and application of knowledge by all. Participants were aided in attaining the skills and confidence to contribute Baha’i concepts of civilization building to the discourses of their professional and educational fields and of society as a whole.
Its location at the first hotel to be integrated in Atlanta, hub of the civil rights movement, made it altogether fitting to shine a bright light on bringing about nonviolent social change through constructive resilience in the face of oppression.
Fulfilling the vision of a “beloved community”The Rev. Andrew Young (right) talks informally between conference sessions as Counselor Nwandi Lawson looks on, during the 2018 Association for Baha’i Studies–North America Conference. Photo by Leila/Navid Yavari
In welcoming the conference to her adopted hometown, Counselor Nwandi Lawson, an appointed adviser to Baha’i institutions in the Americas, noted that spaces were available for attendees of all ages to help move toward solving society’s ills, thanks to a first-ever youth conference and classes for children.
Additional opportunities for collaboration, she added, will come from ABS-initiated seminars throughout the year.
“We know with great confidence that the world we know today is not the world that will exist in the future,” said Lawson. “But it isn’t enough for us to sit back and watch as the process unfolds. … We have to figure out together what these principles look like in action.
“This is not just any academic conference.”
Kenneth E. Bowers, speaking on behalf of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of the United States, echoed that sentiment.
Recalling the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision of a “beloved community,” Bowers said the ultimate goal of living together harmoniously resonates with the teachings of Baha’u’llah, Prophet-Founder of the Baha’i Faith, and “the true spirit of religion down through the ages.”
When translated into action, said Bowers, such a vision “ensures that every child of whatever background has equal access to education and opportunity. That women and men enjoy equal rights. That people of every race and creed are equally able to benefit from and also to contribute to the advancement of society.”
It also means, he said, “that a balance is struck in our economy that avoids the extremes of deep poverty and want for some and excessive wealth for others. And, finally, that a culture of competition and conflict gives way to one of compassion, of mutual assistance and collaboration.
“But given these noble ideals, the actual work must be done,” Bowers said. “And to this work we have to devote not only our hearts but also the full power of our intellects.”
Sharing experiences, learning from others
Enayat Rawhani, speaking on behalf of the National Spiritual Assembly of Canada, noted that ABS allows attendees of all backgrounds to both share their own experiences and learn from others.
“It isn’t that certain people are coming in to participate because they are in the forefront of activities, but that we all participate and we work together,” said Rawhani.Joy DeGruy, an author and researcher on race relations, offers a thought during a breakout session she conducted along with Arta Monjazeb on the history of racial injustice in the United States as a context for understanding Baha’i writings on this most challenging Issue, at the 2018 Association for Baha’i Studies–North America Conference. Photo by Leila/Navid Yavari
“That’s one side,” he said. “The other is to engage in the prevalent discourses of society — bring principles into the arena of conversation throughout the world.
“Here, we can undergo intellectual and spiritual capacity raising and commingle those capacities.”
That was most evident in the conference’s strong and variegated thread of sessions addressing constructive resilience and social justice (see article, “Threads of resilience and social justice wend through ABS gathering”).
The thread began to be spun, says conference coordinator Nilufar Gordon when the ABS Executive Committee invited Firaydoun Javaheri, retired member of the Universal House of Justice, the Faith’s global governing council, to speak on how the Iranian Baha’i community has managed to not just survive but is able to contribute to society despite suffering from intense persecution.
Other strands of the thread came together quickly from there:
- A moving multimedia plenary, featuring video and solo vocals and spoken word, depicting healing through reclamation of forgotten pieces of the history of slavery in the United States.
- A talk on social identity and oneness, reconciling the universal with the particular.
- And one on navigating discourse on race within the politicized landscape of journalism.
- A panel on building community with refugee populations in Atlanta.
- Screening of a film on America’s oft-overlooked tradition of race amity.
- Breakout sessions on topics ranging from strategies to build relationships beyond diversity to the power of eloquent speech and women’s experiences in reaching out to “the other.”
- A visit by youth conference participants to the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change.
- Uplifting devotions leavened with artistic expression and a stirring finale featuring the Atlanta Baha’i Choir.
- A bookstore featuring many works related to the themes presented.
- Lots of time to build relationships and exchange ideas between sessions and over meals.
Studying guidance so knowledge and action can followYoung and young at heart pose with Lakota hoop dancer and flutist Kevin Locke after he delighted them with an interactive performance at the 2018 Association for Baha’i Studies–North America Conference. Photo by Leila/Navid Yavari
Those conference elements and others — such as a discussion on neuroscience, ethics and religion that drew its panelists from area institutions — made extensive use of resources within and around Atlanta.
They also benefited from the year-round efforts of working groups formed to foster learning and discourse in several professional and academic disciplines.
And morning sessions devoted to studying guidance from the Universal House of Justice helped frame an understanding of what was to come. The first day, attendees studied letters on uprooting racism, eliminating racial prejudice, and climate change. The next two days, workshops were held on the topics of contributing to prevalent discourses and an evolving conceptual framework for personal and societal development.
An academic conference? Not in the conventional sense; rather, a conference that engages intellect and spirit, the entire human being, as it seeks to build the community’s ability to contribute more effectively to the betterment of the world.
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Resilience. In psychology, resilience is the ability to adapt well in the face of tragedy and stress. The Universal House of Justice, global governing council of the Baha’i Faith, uses the more specific term “constructive resilience” to describe a powerful response to long-term systemic oppression that can effect transformation in individuals and society.
Resilience — specifically constructive resilience — was uppermost in hearts and minds as the pursuit of social justice took center stage at the 42nd annual conference of the Association for Baha’i Studies–North America, Aug. 9–12 in Atlanta.
Attendees were moved as Dr. Firaydoun Javaheri, retired member of the House of Justice, described how the Baha’is in Iran are not just surviving but are able to contribute to society despite suffering ongoing persecution.
They listened intently as the Rev. Andrew Young, now 86, related stories from his involvement in the American civil rights movement and his later diplomatic efforts — both demonstrating palpably the power of learning to live and work together.
In a host of other talks, panels, breakouts and study sessions, they gleaned additional facets of the power of constructive resilience to fortify individuals and peoples and ultimately change hearts — nearly all couched within the framework of the resilience of African Americans in the face of horrors ranging from slavery to Jim Crow laws and mass incarceration.
And in a stirring conference-ending performance by the Atlanta Baha’i Choir, they heard the words and felt the spirit of generations of oppressed who have clung to faith, hope and love.
Andrew Young: “Stay calm … get smart”The Rev. Andrew Young, an icon of the civil rights movement and later a member of Congress, a diplomat and a mayor of Atlanta, addresses the 2018 Association for Baha’i Studies–North America Conference. Photo by Leila/Navid Yavari
Magnanimity and perseverance were hallmarks of those whose example drove the American civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s, said Young.
As students in Nashville, Tennessee, summoned the courage to launch the 1960 lunch counter sit-ins that would end up lasting three months, they “got up at 6 o’clock in the morning and read Gandhi for almost a semester,” he noted.
“The struggle was always an intellectual and spiritual struggle that had been carefully thought out,” he said, and the civil rights movement met success because demonstrators were “militant but not angry” — a lesson Young said he learned from his father at age 4 when the family lived 50 yards from Nazi party headquarters in New Orleans.
“My daddy told me, ‘Look, son, these are sick people. You do not get mad at sick people. You need every bit of intelligence you have to deal with them. … The best thing you can do is stay calm and don’t get mad, get smart.’”
Young projected that lesson to today’s racial environment, noting that “seldom has there been the complexity of sickness that we now find in our nation, and it’s spreading. And we’re a minority, people of color. We can’t win anything violent, almost anything confrontational. We’ve got to be smart.”
Learning to live and work with others is something that served Young well, he said, not only as a top aide to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. but later as ambassador to the United Nations in the administration of President Jimmy Carter and as mayor of Atlanta.
Carter “always felt that we could make things a little better if we can understand each other,” said Young. The president sent him to meet with people who were blocking progress, such as PW Botha, enforcer of South Africa’s apartheid system of racial separation.
Young also told of meeting in the 1960s with the head of the chain that built this conference’s hotel. The man had not intended to hire any African Americans, but after meeting with Young and other city leaders he integrated the staff as well as the hotel — a first that helped point the way toward unprecedented prosperity for the city and, three decades later, its winning bid to host the 1996 Summer Olympics.
The United States can make similar strides, he said, but only if “we have a common goal, and that goal I think is the message of your faith: that we are all children of God, one God, and that we have got to learn to submit to the power of the spirit in order to survive here in the flesh.”
Firaydoun Javaheri: “What can I plus divine assistance do?”Firaydoun Javaheri, retired member of the Universal House of Justice, addresses the 2018 Association for Baha’i Studies–North America Conference on the topic of constructive resilience. Photo by Leila/Navid Yavari
In his own talk, Javaheri painted a picture of an Iranian Baha’i community so full of moral purpose and abiding love for fellow citizens that it has influenced millions of Iranians’ attitudes toward Baha’is and the Faith — even interrogators of those who have been arrested.
Despite the banning of Baha’i institutions and systematic government efforts to weaken it spiritually and economically, the community is distinguished by its “contentment, joy and conviction,” he said.
“What can I plus divine assistance do?” is the prevailing attitude, Javaheri said. These believers are striving to foster an advance in civilization, which they are certain will come about because the Baha’i revelation “rests on an unassailable foundation” and “can’t not succeed.”
“Don’t we pray for these capacities?” Javaheri asked. We’ll “have to work to develop them,” he added. “We’re all oppressed by forces of society … living in a society engulfed in materialism and traditions and assumptions has its own tests and difficulties.”
The example of Iranian Baha’is’ constructive resilience shows a “powerful mode of response coherent with the very aims of the Faith,” he said. It is “non-adversarial, violence-free” and shuns contention. At the same time it is “vigorous in pursuing every legal avenue for correcting injustice.”
Even while remaining “free of resentment and magnanimous,” however, Baha’is recognize that their fellow citizens are also suffering, and they refuse to criticize “those responding to oppression in other ways.”
“Undisturbed by prevailing chaos,” Iran’s Baha’is see “opportunities to promote divine teachings,” he said. As a result the Faith is a “source of inspiration to people who want to build a fair and happy nation.”
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With a tone of inspiring challenge set by main speakers Firaydoun Javaheri and Andrew Young, themes of resilience and social justice were explored from a variety of perspectives throughout the 42nd annual conference of the Association for Baha’i Studies–North America, Aug. 9–12 in Atlanta.
Jesse Washington: “Who has ideas about what can be done?”Jesse Washington, a senior writer for ESPN’s The Undefeated, addresses the 2018 Association for Baha’i Studies–North America Conference. Photo by Leila/Navid Yavari
Documentary journalist Jesse Washington picked up a thread from Young’s talk — that we are all God’s children — and examined some obligations that spring from that truth.
The Universal House of Justice, the worldwide governing council of the Baha’i Faith, has advised Baha’is “not [to] allow their pursuit of noble aims and high aspirations to draw them into one side or the other of fruitless debates and contentious processes,” Washington noted in his own presentation.
“In the Baha’i writings, the response to racism is clear,” he said in response to a question from the floor. “We’re instructed to do constructive resilience, and we’d be well served to study that guidance.”
Over the years, Washington carried that guidance into his work at the Associated Press, and now at ESPN as a senior writer for The Undefeated, a web and multimedia platform exploring the intersections of race, sports and culture.
Journalism has never been objective, he noted. Writers choose subjectively what to ask and write about. But the overarching duty is to be fair, and news outlets fail in that duty when “everything is framed in conflict” and they “set themselves up as referees in that fight.”
Instead, said Washington, he strives to “go deeper” and “give people their say and see the humanity in them” — the aim being to “nurture and edify” en route to identifying solutions. By now “there’s no need to point out problems,” he said. “Who has ideas about what can be done?”
Echoing an earlier comment by Andrew Young that sports should be a unifier, Washington said, “The key to victory is unity. Anything that detracts from unity holds us back from that goal.”
Four other plenary presentations brought into focus what can be done to create understanding of what has brought humanity to this point and what practical steps can be taken to move humanity to the next stage in its development.
Depicting resilience: “An opportunity to begin anew”Atlanta artist and actor Masud Olufani talks about artistic depictions of oppression and resilience 2018 Association for Baha’i Studies–North America Conference. Photo by Leila/Navid Yavari
Masud Olufani, a nationally recognized multimedia artist based in Atlanta, demonstrates through his work how depictions of oppression and resilience aid a necessary process of remembrance and healing for all.
The most important relationship in life is between one’s soul and God, he said. In trying to live the teachings of Baha’u’llah, he said, he sometimes succeeds and sometimes fails but rises each day with “an opportunity to begin anew.”
Olufani said forgiveness and patience — for ourselves and others — are key, and an artist is uniquely positioned to “reveal what had been hidden and point a finger toward a larger reality.” Light, he said, is the most important element of any art because it clarifies and illuminates and, ultimately, facilitates healing.
Race amity: “When people crossed the barriers”A screening of the film An American Story: Race Amity and the Other Tradition is introduced by Craig Rothman, co-executive producer, at the 2018 Association for Baha’i Studies–North America Conference. Photo by Leila/Navid Yavari
Using cinema to illuminate an oft-overlooked tradition of race amity in the United States, William Smith and Craig Rothman co-executive produced the film An American Story: Race Amity and the Other Tradition, which was shown to conference-goers.
To preface the screening, Rothman outlined stories over four centuries of how people of disparate backgrounds have worked together for mutual benefit: a multiracial community in 1600s Virginia; a colonist-Indian alliance on the American frontier in the 1700s; the joint quest of Irish liberation champion Daniel O’Connell with African American abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass in the 1800s; and an Anglo-Latino collaboration among organizers Fred Ross, Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta to improve the lot of farm workers in the 1960s and beyond.
Many such stories of “points in history where people of different cultures crossed the barriers and created collaborations” remain to be told, said Rothman, and the Baha’i Faith is part of the story as an “incubator for real change.”
Oneness and social identity: “Expanded vision of possibility”Shahrzad Sabet speaks on social identity and the oneness of humankind during the 2018 Association for Baha’i Studies Conference. Photo by Leila/Navid Yavari
Shahrzad Sabet, in her research as a fellow at the University of Maryland’s Baha’i Chair for World Peace program, explores the concept that social identity and the oneness of humankind are not mutually exclusive — “reconciling the universal with the particular,” she calls it.
Tribal identity and prejudice is nothing new, but the way it has “disrupted and shaped developments” is accelerating, she said. How can the tension between identity and oneness be resolved? Sabet rejects the theory that the best we can hope for is a “globally sensitive patriotism” and said the Baha’i teachings call instead for a social identity based on membership in the human race.
Within a unified world, diversity actually thrives, said Sabet. “In oneness we find a vastly expanded vision of possibility,” she said. As proof she pointed to the community-building process being pursued by Baha’is and friends in thousands of neighborhoods worldwide.
Welcoming refugees: “Y’all means all”Speaking about community-building efforts in Clarkston, Georgia, are (from left) Lauretta George, Jasmine
Miller-Kleinhenz, Soroosh Behshad and Shadi Salehian, at the 2018 Association for Baha’i Studies–North America Conference. Photo by Leila/Navid Yavari
That process was on display in a presentation by Soroosh Behshad, Lauretta George, Jasmine Miller-Kleinhenz and Shadi Salehian on their experience in building community with refugee populations in Clarkston, an Atlanta suburb that Salehian said has embraced with a “y’all means all” attitude the 45 percent of its residents who are foreign born.
Clarkston’s refugees “have gone through so much and need true friends,” said George, but their “great sense of community and service to each other” comes through. Miller-Kleinhenz described how many “work 12 hours a day in a chicken factory two hours away,” but find time to involve themselves and their children in the core activities of community building.
One can see here how local community building, social action (in this case, including the provision of medical services) and learning to engage in discourse (including elevating conversations on the often fraught subject of immigration) go hand in hand. As participants “move to the forefront of those efforts,” said Salehian, “much more will happen” to make Clarkston a better place to live for all.
“We are the same person”The Atlanta Bahá’í Chorale, led by Reginald Colbert (foreground), provides a spirit-filled sendoff at the end of the 2018 Association for Baha’i Studies–North America Conference. Photo by Leila/Navid Yavari
Choral singing from the African American traditions of gospel and jazz sent conference-goers home with uplifted spirits and renewed determination to work for justice.
Backed by horns, guitars, keyboards and percussion, the Atlanta Baha’i Choir sang and swayed their way into listeners’ hearts — especially those of the many youngsters who thronged the area in front of the stage.
“Be thou content with Me,” the choir sang in devotion to God. “We are the same person,” a second number avowed. And, went another refrain, “The world is a place for the whole human race to live and relate as brothers and sisters.”
Reginald Colbert led the choir and, with Natalie Colbert, brought many other local artists to contribute to the unique flavor of this year’s conference during devotions and elsewhere.
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Spiritual empathy in our use of words will play a great role in bringing about understanding and progress toward a just society, said Anita Jefferson, a communication specialist and champion Toastmaster, in a breakout session on eloquent speech during the Conference of the Association for Baha’i Studies–North America, Aug. 9–12 in Atlanta.Anita Jefferson talks on the implications of eloquent speech during a breakout session at the 2018 Association for Baha’i Studies–North America Conference. Photo by Tom Mennillo
It was one of many sessions over three afternoons that gave offered opportunities for smaller groups — a few dozen to a couple hundred — to learn about and share experiences relevant to social justice and constructive resilience.
“Words have power,” said Jefferson, and in the Baha’i community “they should have extraordinary power because we are charged with the duty to deliver a message” for the transformation of society. “It might not be something we think about a lot,” she said, but should because “we can influence lives.”
Eloquent speech starts with having the facts and phrasing what is said “in a way that’s acceptable,” she said. “How well we communicate is measured by not how well we say it but by how well it’s understood.”
Jefferson said “spiritual empathy” is a vital element of that speech. “We’re not here to slap someone with our knowledge. If we try to convince someone we’re right, it backfires.” But, she said, people can “change even a toxic atmosphere through a kind word, a word of praise.”
She called upon her audience to “practice true consultation” in all spheres of life. And vital to that, she said, is listening. “If we don’t listen, we are destroying the nobility of the one we’re engaging with.”
In short, said Jefferson, “The vitality of what we do every day depends on the eloquence of our speech. … You know you’ve done it when you are persuasive.”Many young people took part in workshops and breakout sessions at the 2018 Association for Baha’i Studies–North America Conference. Photo by Leila/Navid Yavari
The rich array of breakout sessions also included:
- On racial justice. “Diversity Is Not the Goal: Exploring Transformational Principles in the Quest for Racial Justice.” “Exploring the History of Racial Injustice in the United States as a Context to Understand the Baha’i Writings on Our Most Challenging Issue.” “Louis Gregory, the Oneness of Humanity and Highlights in the Development of the African American Lawyer.”
- On gender. “Tahirih and the Movement for Gender Equality: Spirit in the East, Form in the West.” “Friendship and Faith: Women’s Experiences of Reaching Out to “the Other.” “Menstrual Inequality, the Advancement of Women and the Revelation of Baha’u’llah.”
- On native rights. “Mamawis Wicihitowin: The Creation of Innovative Programming for the Indigenization and Decolonization of Law Schools and Beyond.” “World Religion as Indigenous Religion: The Baha’i Faith and Malaysia’s Semai Tribe.” Also, noted Lakota hoop dancer and flutist Kevin Locke spoke to and performed for young people — and young at heart — attending the conference.
- On resilience. “Nonviolence, Constructive Programs, and Resilience.” “The Role of Resilience in Promoting Successful Integration of Displaced Populations.”
- On social action. “Eliminating the Extremes of Wealth and Poverty: Guidance in the Baha’i Writings on Global, Community and Individual Action.” “Learning about Social Action from the Experience of Baha’i-Inspired Organizations.” “Power [in] the People! A Reconceptualization within Critical Activism and Scholarship.”
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