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The Friendship Festival organized by children who attend Baha’i-initiated spiritual education classes in San Rafael, California, was not only fun but a capacity builder for the young people.
Learning how to plan is part of their class curriculum, and the children used their knowledge to delegate tasks such as organizing prayers, providing music and bringing food to the adults lending support.
“The festival was fun,” says one of the kids, Tairy Mendez. “My favorite part was that I spoke in front of people. I felt happy and joyful.”
Luna Zacarias agrees: “I enjoyed the festival because I felt happy sharing with all. I liked when we sing our songs, and I felt like I was helping when we were hanging the balloons in the wall.”
The children also took charge of inviting their friends and families. More than 160 people showed up.
The festival was held Feb. 24 on the eve of Ayyam-i-Ha, a time of year Baha’is devote to celebration and service.
San Rafael’s Baha’i governing body, the Local Spiritual Assembly, had had a long consultation about the name for the party, says corresponding secretary Sherna Deamer.
There was concern that “Ayyam-i-Ha is a bit difficult to explain to people who are encountering the Faith for the first time,” relates Bahareh Adami-Ardestani, a children’s class teacher and Assembly member.
The name selected was fortuitous in a way the Assembly didn’t realize until later. In Latin America, Valentine’s Day is called Friendship Day or the Day of Love and Friendship.
The event was held at the Al Boro Community Center in a majority-Latino San Rafael neighborhood called The Canal, where Baha’is have focused efforts to initiate activities that build community.
The children’s classes have been held in the center for about four years. Over time, says Deamer, close relationships have been formed between the Baha’i teachers and the families who attend.A Friendship Festival in San Rafael, California, during Ayyám-i-Há attracted a large number of family, friends and neighbors. Photos courtesy of Sherna Deamer
It is not uncommon, she says, to see parents and grandparents participate in the songs and art projects that support class themes of kindness, truthfulness, generosity, and so on.
During the festival, the children sang five songs they had learned in class. And two children gave short talks: one on the unity of humankind and one on service to the community.
Other music was provided by a group called the Freedom Singers, who are friends of Baha’is, while the whole event was supported by an interfaith group called Love Lives in Marin.
The impact on guests was strong, say the children.
“I saw people helping each other, being nice, sharing with others,” says Mendez. “Kids were smiling, saying hi, bye, please and thank you.”
Sums up one of the mothers, Alida Calderon: “It was a very beautiful festival because we could share with our community and demonstrate that we are all equal and that we have the same values.
“And I think that all together we can make a stronger community full of values to teach our children because they are the future for this beautiful world that God has created for all.”
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When Baha’is saw their allotted space for the Festival of Faiths in Cincinnati, Ohio, it felt like divine intervention. The booth, with its poster saying “One God, One Faith,” was the first that all 1,500-plus attendees saw as they entered the room.
And the Baha’is made full use of that fortuitous location, says Deborah Clark Vance, who serves as corresponding secretary of the Cincinnati Spiritual Assembly, the Faith’s local governing body.
They led festival-goers through a virtues game, answered questions, took down contact information from those who want to learn about Baha’i-sponsored activities for building community, and connected with groups eager to explore collaborative efforts.
When an invitation to participate in the festival had arrived five months earlier, the Cincinnati Assembly decided to go ahead after investigation turned up positive experiences at similar events by Baha’is in neighboring states, says Vance.
The festival theme of “Compassion through Action,” designed to connect diverse people and get them working together in service, was enticing as well. Vance says the aim of the steering committee, which Baha’is immediately joined, is “community building in a big way.”A virtues game drew many Cincinnati, Ohio, Festival of Faiths attendees to the Baha’i booth. Photo courtesy of Deborah Vance
As visitors passed the Baha’i booth, the big draw was a scaled-down version of a game once used successfully by Baha’is in nearby Yellow Springs.
“For ours,” says Vance, “we used a small wading pool filled with sand to represent the earth and set it on a table. In the sand we placed nine rocks on which we’d written negative values such as greed, anger, intolerance, stereotyping.
“We then made the antidote to the negative rocks: We taped a silk flower to a tongue depressor painted in a bright color on which we’d affixed a label naming one of 18 positive attributes — love, hope, patience, etc.”
Visitors were asked whether “they’d like to help change the world by removing the negative attributes from the earth and planting a flower of virtue in its place,” relates Vance.
“We had discussions with them about which virtue might be effective for any particular negative attribute, and of course there were no wrong answers. To those who completed the game, we gave out stickers of ‘No room in my heart for prejudice.’”
Since the Baha’i Faith is “pretty much unknown in this city, so many encounters at the booth were basic,” says Vance. But by the end of the day, “two pages of our guest book were filled with email addresses of those who would like to be informed of our events.”
But that’s not all, she says. “Upstairs was a meditation room where one of our members hosted a devotional gathering. The idea there was for visitors to experience the flavor of what it’s like for any of the faith traditions to join in devotions.”
Vance says there was also a conference room where “compassionate conversations occurred that were designed to allow people to discuss critical issues — racism and discrimination, poverty and hunger, refugees, civility, and addiction — and maybe connect with each other and want to work together.”
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She was the first African American Baha’i in Washington, DC. Now, 112 years later, Pocahontas Pope’s grave has a fitting marker.
About 90 people gathered for the unveiling May 19 in a graveside ceremony at the National Harmony Memorial Park in Hyattsville, Maryland.
Pope’s remains had been transferred there in 1960 after the closure of the District of Columbia cemetery where she was buried. But the Maryland grave went unmarked until Baha’is located it in 2017 and raised the funds to design and place a burgundy-and-gold plaque extolling Pope’s place in history.The grave marker for Pocahontas Pope proclaims her place in history. Photo courtesy of William Collins
The marker quotes a letter ‘Abdu’l-Baha, then head of the Faith, wrote to Pope in 1906 when she embraced the teachings of Baha’u’llah: “Render thanks to the Lord that among that race thou art the first believer, … arisen to guide others.”
The letter also says, in reference to people of African descent: “Although the pupil of the eye is black, it is the source of light.”
Prayers and readings began the May 19 ceremony. After remarks by the Spiritual Assembly, the Baha’i governing body for DC, a history of Pope’s life and accomplishments was read and a monologue in her voice was performed. The letter from ‘Abdu’l-Baha to Pope was recited, and the ceremony closed with the call-and-response singing of “I’m Goin’ Back to the Father.”
Pope was born in 1864 in Halifax County, North Carolina, to a prominent family of free African Americans. There is evidence she also had American Indian heritage.
Members of her and her husband’s families were successful business people, landowners and office holders. But when North Carolina began strictly enforcing Jim Crow laws, the young couple relocated to the nation’s capital.
It was there that Pocahontas Pope declared her belief in Baha’u’llah. From that point until her passing in 1938 she hosted talks in her home by many leading Baha’is including Alain Locke, “Father of the Harlem Renaissance.”
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Ah, a weekend in the Wisconsin countryside.
A chance, through fun and educational activities, for more than 70 people of all ages to grow in awareness of their roles as guardians of the earth and its resources.
All thanks to Eco-Camp, held May 19–20 at a home in East Troy and sponsored by the Baha’i communities of East Troy, Delafield Township and Waukesha Township. The camp was an outgrowth of Baha’is’ participation in a community-based environmental coalition called the Green Team.
“Stewardship is a fundamental God-given responsibility,” says Mike Paik of Delafield, who helped organize the camp.
“It is a bounty to develop these virtues collectively in a breathtakingly beautiful environment where elevated conversations and fellowship are mindfully nurtured.”
What emerged from the communities’ fourth camp was a set of “simple acts” participants committed to undertake in their daily lives, including:
- Unplugging countertop appliances and electronics when not in use.
- Enjoying meatless Mondays to conserve water.
- Eating locally grown foods that take less energy to get to our plate.
- Composting to avoid sending compostable foods to the landfill.
- Taking reusable bottles with us instead of using bottled water.
- Not using plastic straws or disposable plastic bags.
- Buying food in bulk, instead of individually wrapped, whenever we can.
- Shopping at our local resale shops to reduce our water footprint.
Over the course of the weekend, young and old enjoyed a diversity of activities designed to stimulate reflection on what it means to be “eco” and to live sustainably.
A registered dietitian planned and prepared delicious plant-based meals.
A visitor brought his high-powered telescope so participants could view the moon and Jupiter.
An eco-obstacle course helped campers learn about challenges to the earth.
Displays from the Green Team of Waukesha County encouraged the identification of “one simple act” that they could mindfully practice to help our planet.
A child-centered demonstration of tai chi and qigong movements and concepts engaged all ages.
A retired schoolteacher used hands-on activities to spark learning about organic gardening and healthy, communal eating.
Campers also enjoyed ATV cart rides, a hayride, nature hikes, scavenger hunts, and making crafts and tie-dyed eco-shirts. Oh, and there was a bonfire with s’mores.
In short, says Paik, Eco-Camp was “a sacred social space for children, junior youth, older youth and adults to gain a sense of community and collective endeavor.”
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Light shone in many directions at the 110th United States Baha’i National Convention:
- From prayers and songs that drew on Baha’i sacred verses, seeking God’s guidance in helping people and communities learn to transform themselves for the better.
- From the focus of more than 160 delegates as they spoke and listened, examining human conditions and how Baha’is are working with others in cities, towns and neighborhoods to improve their lives and society.
- From their eagerness to use their scant free time to hear each other out, especially on learning to weave elements of racial justice and other imperatives into all of Baha’i community life.
- And from the earnest atmosphere of devotion in which the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of the United States was elected to steer the U.S. community’s course in the year ahead.
Radiating through the Convention, May 24–27 at the Baha’i House of Worship in Wilmette, Illinois, was an urgent, heartfelt conviction that this country, now more than ever, needs the power that the teachings of Baha’u’llah can lend to building bridges and unifying communities.Counselor Mark Sisson. Photo by David Smith
Particularly acute is a priority for individuals to move where there is need. “Go into those communities and call upon the friends and families that live there to help you help them, help one another, to build a world community,” urged Counselor Mark Sisson on the final day of Convention. “The means to do it is in our hands. All we have to do is apply it.” Sisson is a member of the Continental Board of Counselors, appointed to advise Baha’i institutions in North America.
He and Counselor Farah Guchani-Rosenberg were on hand to provide perspective on the current blueprint for that transformation — the Five Year Plan for development and growth of the Baha’i community, 2016–2021 — and on what is being learned in those efforts.
The National Spiritual Assembly offered reports on the community’s activities and finances, and members answered questions and concerns as needed.
Kenneth Bowers, secretary of the Assembly, said that even as the Plan’s framework for action embraces a variety of gatherings — to teach the Faith, pray and discuss together, and carry out spiritual education at a variety of age levels — it’s essential to think of Baha’u’llah’s vision “in terms of hearts and souls entering community life and making contributions to the uplifting of society.”
Last fall, 171 delegates were elected by Baha’is in geographic units from coast to coast. Exercising one of their two sacred duties at the Convention, 163 of them voted in person for the National Assembly on May 26 and the rest cast absentee ballots. Fully 35 were serving as delegates for the first time.
Most of the Convention was spent on their other duty: to inform the incoming National Assembly, through consultation, on the progress of the Faith. Topics for that consultation broadly outlined the priorities of the Plan:
“Movement of Clusters Along the Continuum of Development,” a look at how patterns of community life gain vitality through planning and collaboration within local clusters of communities.
“Strengthening the Training Institute,” concerned with children’s classes, junior youth groups and study circles, especially as spaces for people to accompany each other in learning to serve humanity — and to build people’s capacity to create other opportunities, such as devotional gatherings and home visits.
“Enhancing Institutional Capacity,” the things Spiritual Assemblies and other institutions are learning as they work to channel resources into service and foster healthy community life.
“Involvement in the Life of Society,” on finding and utilizing opportunities to take part in public discourses and meaningful social action.
A concern touching on all those topics emerged from the hearts of delegates: the “most vital and challenging issue” of racial prejudice and how Baha’is and their friends can work through local community-building processes, public discourse and social action to create a coherent force for healing of racial rifts at every level.
Many participants remarked on the high level of substance, maturity and mutual respect all through the weekend’s discussions.
As a delegate noted during the consultation on racial prejudice, “This is a blessed moment right now. A learning moment for us, for our community. A snapshot moment, where we get a look at ourselves.”
Obviously, though, this crucible of thought will gain greater meaning as it gives Baha’is and their friends encouragement over the next year to get into spiritual and uplifting conversations that can lead to service, empowerment and transformation.Counselor Farah Guchani-Rosenberg. Photo by David Smith
Fortunately, resources to make that easier have appeared over the past year, such as the revised The Baha’is magazine and the online films Light to the World and A Widening Embrace, Guchani-Rosenberg pointed out. “Now, more than ever before, we have so much to work with.”
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