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There seems to be no limit to the number of ways friends of the Faith are contributing to Baha’i-initiated community-building efforts in West Lafayette, Indiana.
That level of participation represents “a beautiful weaving together” of efforts to share the Faith’s teachings with an expansion of community-building activities and “loving friendship,” says Johanna Merritt Wu, vice chair of the Local Spiritual Assembly, the Baha’i governing council for West Lafayette.Abhi Reddy (second from left), district director for U.S. Rep. Todd Rokita, meets with Bahá’ís (from left) AJ Lucky, Caity Parsons and Johanna Wu. Photo courtesy of Johanna Wu
One friend of the Faith even joined a delegation of Baha’is in Indiana’s 4th Congressional District when they met with U.S. Rep. Todd Rokita’s district director to request support for a resolution decrying persecution of the Baha’i Faith in Iran.
The delegation included Wu, Caity Quinn Parsons and AJ Lucky, who recently became a Baha’i after being in a play Parsons directed at Purdue University.
Visiting the congressional office along with the Baha’is was a man who had been imprisoned and tortured in Iran for organizing protests. Wu says “innocent Baha’is who happened to be nearby” were arrested as well but not released with him.
West Lafayette Baha’is met the man a year ago and he has regularly attended Baha’i fireside talks ever since, as well as participating last October in events commemorating the 200th anniversary of the birth of Baha’u’llah, prophet-founder of the Faith.
The friend’s wife and son went to the Indiana Baha’i Summer School in July 2018, and she is now helping to teach a Baha’i neighborhood children’s class.
That class is held in the home of another friend of the Faith, a “spiritual but not religious” woman who met the Baha’is through a Muslim who invited her to the Baha’i community’s regular devotional gathering.
And that’s not all, says Wu.
Billy Baker, a Baha’i, organized a class at a Unitarian church to study Reflections on the Life of the Spirit from the Baha’i-inspired Ruhi Institute curriculum. The women who participated in the class now regularly attend the devotional gathering. Baker is setting up a children’s class at the church as well.Participants in a junior youth camp in West Lafayette, Indiana, which includes Baha’is and their friends, perform the play “O, Will You Take This Rose?” that explores themes from the junior youth text The Human Temple. Photo courtesy of Caity Quinn Parsons
The Baha’i community’s weekly youth group is expanding to include Purdue Baha’i College Club members — only some of whom are Baha’is. The idea came from a student who is a friend of the Faith and participated in the youth group the past two years. Another friend of the Faith who wants to participate is the daughter of Baha’is in a different area of the state.
Also on the horizon are two more study classes, including one on Teaching the Cause from the Ruhi curriculum, and new junior youth groups that will be facilitated by two college students.
The “weaving” continues.
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George W. Hatcher is a candidate to become one of the first residents of the planet Mars. His Bahá’í Faith factored into his decision to volunteer for a one-way trip to another planet. Hatcher, an aerospace engineer, worked as a NASA engineer at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida for 13 years. Here is his story:
I grew up in rural Tennessee on the family farm thirty miles south of Nashville. When I was a child, I would play for hours in my attic bedroom with a spaceman LEGO set. By the time I was three, I told my mother I wanted to be an astronaut.
My parents are devout Protestants. We attended the local Church of Christ three times a week. I became disenchanted with Sunday school when my logical questions were either dismissed or ignored.
I was confused and conflicted, wanting to be an obedient son, but unable to commit to something that made no sense to me and that I didn’t truly believe.
By sixth grade, my love of airplanes and space showed no signs of letting up, so my parents sent me to Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama. A goal crystallized in my mind. I made a sign: “George Hatcher’s goal: to be the first person on Mars.” I hung it on my clothes rack and read it every morning.Aerospace engineer, George W. Hatcher, with daughter, Io, presents at a STEM-oriented event for families at the Baha’i House of Worship. The two-day event, sponsored by Illinois Institute of Technology and Brilliant Star Magazine, provided more than 100 kids with 40,000 LEGO blocks to build “cities” based on spiritual and scientific concepts. Photo by Mojdeh Stoakley
When I was 15, a new teacher named Mark Baker arrived at our rural, mostly white and Christian high school. With his long hair, engaging style, love of history and literature, and time spent teaching on Indian reservations, he was more than a bit of an iconoclast. Mr. Baker became my favorite teacher and a lifelong friend.
He turned our 10th-grade English class into a survey of world religions. My entire worldview was upended. My life had been so sheltered and homogeneous up to that point that I was convinced that Judaism (which I only knew of through Old Testament references) was largely defunct and that Christianity was the only religion in the world. Imagine my surprise to learn of the existence of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Taoism, Sikhism, and Islam.
That same year, one of my best friends in high school, Lacey, became a Baha’i. That was the first time I heard the word, but I never asked her anything about it.
My parents provided me with opportunities to explore my newfound hunger for philosophical and religious knowledge. They paid my tuition to the Youth Theology Institute at Emory University in the summer of 1996 and the E Pluribus Unum program at American University in 1997. I made friends from other religious backgrounds and gained crucial exposure to new and inclusive ideas.
I had enrolled in four years of JROTC in high school, eventually rising to second-in-command of our student battalion, in preparation for what I thought would be my path to NASA’s astronaut corps–becoming a military pilot.
I was offered full college scholarships by the Army, Navy and Air Force, but turned them all down when I learned none of them would train me to fly due to my nearsightedness. Instead, I accepted an in-state scholarship at the University of Tennessee Knoxville to study Aerospace Engineering. If I couldn’t fly aircraft, I was going to learn how they worked.
I stuck around for a Masters in Aerospace Engineering, and after seven years in Knoxville, I was incredibly fortunate to get a job with NASA at the Kennedy Space Center.
Shortly after I settled into Florida life, my friend Lacey made a trip to Orlando for a Baha’i conference and invited me to join some of her Baha’i friends for dinner. Conversation was fluid and easy. I was intrigued by the high level of discourse.
When the topic turned to philosophy, I began to share a few ideas I’d gathered over nearly a decade of search. Midway through each sentence, someone would finish the thought with astounding clarity and in language I couldn’t hope to aspire to. “’Abdu’l-Baha said that,” they’d add. Or, “That’s a quote from Baha’u’llah.”
I spent the next two years investigating the Baha’i Faith, trying to find the catch.
I was on my way to visit friends in Chicago when my plane was delayed by snow. I had several hours to kill at the airport and had some Baha’i books in my bag. I remember as a kid wishing I could sit down and have a conversation with Jesus. As I read the Seven Valleys, I felt like I was having a conversation with Baha’u’llah. I would read a page, and a question would arise in my mind. On the next page, the question would be answered. I alternated between laughing out loud and crying.
By the time I finished the book it was clear. I was a Baha’i.
Growing up in a society obsessed with conflict between science and religion, I had been led to a religion that held science to be equally as important, and even yielded to science on material matters.
I champion the independent investigation of truth. There is no escape from the great questions of life; we are forced to face them. All of my major questions had clear, logical answers.
Baha’u’llah has removed my overwhelming fear of death. I do not worry that my children or I will die “too soon”. I can speak with my parents about religion without conflict and with the love of Christ in my heart.
The Faith has put the events of my life into perspective. It has provided me with a standard of conduct to strive for. I know that there are spiritual solutions to the social ills of humanity, and am blessed with knowledge of a framework of action that will bring about change.
As we were getting to know each other, I told my wife Lorenia (who is also a Baha’i) that if given the chance I would gladly risk my life to travel in space. She agreed to marry me even with such an outlandish dream, as long as we had kids before I left Earth. Lorenia and I were married in 2008. Our family has since grown to include three children.
In engineering school, I had heard about proposals for one-way trips to Mars but always dismissed them as crazy. As time passed, however, I learned that because of the expense, complexity and dangers of a return, one-way trips had vastly lower risk and up-front costs. The catch is that space travelers would have to be willing to live the rest of their lives on Mars.
The prospect of a one-way trip to Mars became real in 2013 when Mars One announced plans to settle the planet by groups of four and opened the door to anyone over 18 in good health. More than 200,000 people worldwide began the application process; around 2,700 people completed their applications and submitted the required fee. As of September 2018, I’m one of 100 candidates remaining. The final selection round is designed to whittle the number of hopefuls to 24 or fewer before offering them full-time employment with Mars One to begin training. This selection round is currently awaiting funding.
Had I not been a Baha’i in 2013, with the perspective that this life is but the blink of an eye, that my soul will ultimately be reunited with my family, that I can intercede on their behalf if I die, and with the assurance that I have been created to help carry forward an ever-advancing civilization, I probably would not have applied for Mars One.
No one knows when they will die or under what circumstances. I would rather die pursuing a goal I have worked toward my entire life—while advancing humanity’s ability to survive long term away from the Earth—than to spend the rest of my life in relative comfort.
The Baha’i Faith has given me an assurance and happiness that cannot be taken away, no matter what may befall me. Becoming a Baha’i is the single most important thing that has ever happened to me. It is my bedrock identity and the framework of my reality.
Dozens of people, with the help of four Baha’i authors, encountered and reflected on fresh ideas about human nature and relationships at the “Conversations of the Heart” gathering at Green Acre Baha’i School in Eliot, Maine, this past April.
And some of the connections made there are still vital. “Some participants felt so inspired and empowered that they started to make plans with each other,” says Martha Martinez, program coordinator at Green Acre. “Real connections were made and from our follow-up these connections have stayed strong.”
This response has been so encouraging that at least one follow-up has been planned.
The gathering originated from a question the programming team at Green Acre asked itself: “How can we generate elevated and meaningful conversations around spiritual and social concepts that relate learning to everyday life and include the whole community?”Janet Ruhe-Schoen refers to a story from the life of Tahirih in her presentation during the “Conversations of the Heart” program at Green Acre Bahá’í School. Photo by Nat Yogachandra
Consultation on that question led the school to collaborate with the U.S. Baha’i Publishing Trust on developing the program. They chose authors to invite for learning, exploration and reflection, and ultimately attracted 50 participants, including Baha’is and their friends from the local area as well as other states.
The entire program was designed “to set the individual, whether Baha’i or not, on a path to understand the nature of our relationships with one another as we all labor together to build a peaceful community,” says Nat Yogachandra, general manager of the Baha’i Publishing Trust.
- “Mind, Soul, and Relationships: Healing from the Inside Out” with psychologist Patricia McIlvride (who has been published as Patricia Romano McGraw). This discussion of the neurobiology of healing drew on cutting-edge brain science and Baha’i writings on the health of the soul.
- “Beyond Barriers: Overcoming Racial and Gender Stigmas to Conquer Fear and Function as a World Citizen” with Janet Ruhe-Schoen. This conversation focused on the living legacies of Louis G. Gregory, 20th-century African American lawyer and pioneer of racial integration, and Tahirih, 19th-century Iranian champion of women’s freedom.
- “The Power of Stories: Connecting to Virtues and Building Community” with Amy Renshaw, senior editor of Brilliant Star children’s magazine. Stories from her book Voyage of Love: ‘Abdu’l-Baha in North America and other sources inspired explorations of how stories touch people’s hearts and help them connect with others.
- “Abraham: His Life and Legacy” with Frances Worthington. The author facilitated a discussion of how followers of different religions have more in common than they may realize, with stories and ideas from her book Abraham: One God, Three Wives, Five Religions.
Even during the generous breaks between these sessions, Martinez recalls, “No one was sitting alone — everyone was talking with someone.” Guests who had never been to a Baha’i event before “indicated that having the time and space to talk to the authors was a highlight … a rare gift to actually have so much access to the presenters.”
Since then, she adds, two nearby residents have become committed to attending weekly programs at Green Acre that invite people from the area to explore locally important issues together.
Two other attendees, feeling they had made lasting friendships with Baha’is during the weekend, returned to their homes in Florida and Illinois and began attending Baha’i devotional gatherings — even hosting in one case.
“I sensed a spirit of optimism and hope,” Yogachandra says, adding that “The environment … created spaces where justice, fairness and inclusiveness were exhibited.”
See more information about Baha’i centers of learning and their programs.
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How did a gospel music workshop and concert succeed in the small, predominantly white city of Hastings, Nebraska — with about 40 singers from several faith communities swaying, clapping and harmonizing on songs they learned together in a few hours?
“Building partnerships is absolutely critical,” say Chad Dumas and Dawn Vincent Dumas, members of the local Baha’i community. “We know these [churches’] choir directors, and their choir members made up the vast majority of the choir.”Eric Dozier leads participants of the Interfaith Choral Festival on June 9 during a rehearsal for the song “Great Day” at the high school in Hastings, Nebraska. Photo by Amy Roh/Hastings Tribune
It helped to bring in Eric Dozier of Tennessee as director for the all-day event June 9. He’s led gospel workshops in many places, with the intention of “drawing people into an experience, making myself, my culture and my music known to them. When they are themselves with me, we find common ground, and move on from there,” he was quoted as saying in a Hastings Tribune article afterward (read the article with a video of the music).
One great result, the Dumases say, was a feeling of greater unity: “One participant reflected that even though the choir was not diverse in terms of race, it was diverse in terms of views. They mentioned how there were liberals and conservatives, and how we all sang in unity and agreed wholeheartedly with the ideas of oneness and the nobility of human beings.”
In fact, the Tribune article shared a church music director’s observation that, in his experience, it was “the first time so many denominations have formally joined voices on a project.”
The seed for the event came from Chad Dumas’ service as an elected delegate to the U.S. Baha’i National Convention in April 2017, where considerable consultation was focused on finding creative ways of sharing the Baha’i vision of a unified and just society.
He and his wife consulted and brainstormed, and in August “Chad woke one morning with a clear vision to host a Hastings Interfaith Choral Festival,” the couple shares.
Why a concert? “I was a music teacher, so, yes, I have that background,” says Chad Dumas. “I’m not sure how much that influenced this, though, as I haven’t been in a classroom for nearly 15 years now. I really think it was Baha’u’llah guiding the vision through a dream — having woken up with such a clear idea that we needed to do this.”
Still, a foundation had to be in place before that kind of idea could get enough support to get dozens of people involved. In this case, Chad Dumas had been building relationships for years with the directors of church choirs.
“Because of my role as an administrator in the public schools, I had worked with the choir directors” who led school as well as church choirs, he says. “This was just a natural next step working together.
“Plus, Dawn and my work with the founding and ongoing leadership with the Hastings Multicultural Association was key, since many of the circles of people cross each other.”
Doors, then, were open for the Dumases to consult with choir directors on how this might be organized. They found partners from one Presbyterian and two United Methodist churches. Once the group collectively gave the green light, Dozier was engaged to lead the event. Much as with workshops he has led in cities across the globe, the plan was for participants to learn together about the gospel music tradition, rehearse gospel songs, then perform them the same afternoon.
“In the meantime,” say the Dumases, “one choir director, from First Presbyterian Church, talked to his leadership and they offered to pay Eric’s honorarium for the day.” That director also invited Dozier to speak to the congregation on Sunday morning, and he accepted.
From there it was all about implementation: advertising and publicity; arranging for a space, equipment and food; printing programs, etc.
Now several participants are asking about making the concert ongoing. A few have inquired about other activities initiated by the Baha’i community.
All this is music to the ears of Chad and Dawn Vincent Dumas. “Some people were highly skeptical about the Baha’is hosting this,” they reflect. “Now we have laid a foundation where people know that we won’t be proselytizing, and future interfaith activities have an opportunity to build from this.”
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When three friends committed to becoming members of the worldwide Baha’i community this past summer, it was part of a journey that goes back about a decade in Minot, North Dakota.From left to right, Coleman Quill, Jane Bieri (on iPad screen), Judy Quill and Jim Knudsen study together in mid-September. Photo by Celeste Knudsen
And their crucial crossroads was the realization that arguing over politics is a waste of time “when we could be working together for something far greater by becoming Baha’i,” according to a story shared with Baha’i national offices.
Ten years ago, word of mouth led a pair of friends, Jane Bieri and Judy Quill, to take part in regular devotional gatherings at the Knudsen home in Minot. Guests there were encouraged to take an active part, and one evening, after abundant sharing of stories, essays and music, the friends asked, “Teach us about Baha’i!”
That began their involvement in a long-running study group that has delved into several books and courses exploring the Baha’i teachings on individual spiritual life, society, the Bible and other topics. The past two years Judy’s husband, Coleman (Quilly), has joined them.
When Jane moved out of state, she still participated in the study through internet conferencing. In one recent session she asked a pointed question related to the current U.S. political climate.
“I gave an answer I can’t remember,” Jim Knudsen says. But it was generally about the need to build a spiritually unified world “and not getting sidetracked by political disunity.”
According to emails the Knudsens received the next day, that conversation shifted something in everyone’s minds.
Judy’s message said that instead of going to the gym afterward as planned, she and her husband talked for the first time about becoming members of the Baha’i Faith. He “said he was always OK with it. I had a sense of peace I have not had in years.” After further discussion, she got on the phone for some time with Jane to see how she felt.
The conversation “really struck a chord,” Jane confirmed in her own email. “For a long time I’ve appreciated the Baha’i teachings and found the prayers appealing, but yesterday I felt the emotion and passion I’d been missing.”
Since then all three have been enrolled as Baha’is. “Needless to say,” Jim Knudsen says, “my wife and I are overjoyed!”
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Baha’is living near Orlando, Florida, came together Aug. 25 to offer neighbors a devotional gathering of prayers and songs recalling the impact of the late Aretha Franklin on their lives.Sanford, Florida-area residents gather for a devotional to remember the life and impact of Aretha Franklin. Photo courtesy of Rosemary Closson
“Many brought their friends and relatives to this remembrance of Aretha,” says Rosemary Closson of Sanford. “They came to share prayers and appreciate her music once more upon her passing. Most of us were of an age where Aretha’s music had been a soundtrack for our lives. We could each recall places, both physical and emotional, where we were when certain songs were popular.”
Baha’u’llah’s writings call music “a ladder for your souls” and encourage an attitude of “joy and radiance.” Aretha’s music, Closson says, “did that for many people. … I think primarily we organized the devotional out of gratitude for a voice possibly heard once in an era.”
June Robinson presented an overview of the Queen of Soul’s musical career and Arthur Robinson interspersed musical selections and videos of significant performances.
“We shared prayers for the departed and gratitude for having been fortunate enough to grow to maturity accompanied by her powerful and beautiful voice,” says Closson.
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For the first time ever, Radio Baha’i WLGI 90.9 FM in Hemingway, South Carolina, has the capacity to stay on the air through a major storm “promoting love, peace and unity,” and providing possibly lifesaving information to the station’s rural listening base.Ernest Hilton (left), production manager of Radio Baha’i WLGI, and Greg Kintz, the station’s general manager, go over preparations to serve the station’s audience in South Carolina a few hours before the anticipated landfall of Hurricane Florence on Sept. 13. Photo courtesy of Radio Baha’i WLGI
WLGI will operate under low power even if electricity is cut off during Hurricane Florence, General Manager Greg Kintz said by phone from his car as he was driving to the station Thursday morning, Sept. 13, to assist with final preparations alongside Production Manager Ernest Hilton.
That means people in a 20- to 25-mile radius of the station’s studio in northwest Georgetown County will be able to get up-to-the-minute information from weather services and local and state officials.
Kintz said many of those listeners in largely rural Georgetown, Williamsburg and Marion counties are not served by other stations. Under full power the station’s signal radius is 75 miles, but at the edges of that listening area people have access to other media.
The storm was expected to hit South Carolina on Thursday night, and Kintz said WLGI planned to switch to low power around 3 or 4 p.m. in anticipation of landfall.
The station and its low-power transmitter are connected to generators with a week’s supply of fuel, he said. The studio’s windows are protected by a hurricane fabric that is more effective than plywood.
Hilton, a longtime voice of WLGI, and his family will take refuge at the station and he will remain on the air throughout Hurricane Florence. Across Williams Road on the main campus of the Louis G. Gregory Baha’i Institute, a Baha’i-operated center of learning, another 24 people are expected to shelter starting Thursday night.
“I’ll be there for the duration,” said Hilton when contacted midway through the afternoon. “I’m going to try to stick out as best I can during the night. It’s not anything new to me. I’ve done it once before during a hurricane maybe 15 or 20 years ago.” During that hurricane he — and the station — stayed on the air until the storm got worse “and I had to get out of there.”
Hilton said his job will be to record information as it comes in and then drop it into the broadcast.
A partnership with WBTW-TV, the CBS affiliate in Florence, South Carolina, will give WLGI access to weather reports and other storm-related information such as evacuation routes and key telephone numbers.
A similar arrangement with South Carolina Educational Television will allow WLGI to broadcast news conferences by Gov. Henry McMaster and other officials.
Kintz said he will provide additional information from his home in nearby Conway as internet and phone access allow. Just a week ago, the station’s local internet provider installed a generator so its computers and signal can operate in the event of a blackout.Radio Baha’i has been a familiar fixture on Williams Road in rural Hemingway, South Carolina, since the 1980s. Baha’i National Center file photo
Internet access will allow WLGI to keep streaming over wlgi.org during the storm, as well as offering updates on its Facebook page. It also will give volunteers in other parts of the Southeast an opportunity to send recorded information to the station for airing.
WLGI and the Louis G. Gregory Baha’i Institute are named for a prominent 20th-century African American Baha’i, an attorney and lecturer on issues of racial harmony, whose roots are in South Carolina.
The station moved into its present building in 1998 after operating from a trailer for 15 years. Its programming of spiritually uplifting songs and public service information is intended to contribute to positive social change by providing the communities it serves with access to knowledge those communities have identified as necessary for spiritual, cultural, social and economic development.
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Out of exile, a light to the world — 150th anniversary of Baha’u’llah’s arrival in Holy Land: Part 3
More than a century ago, Muskegon, Michigan, was seen as a possible place to build the Baha’i House of Worship for North America. That singular honor eventually went to Wilmette, Illinois.The peace sculpture rises above a meditation garden on the Baha’i-owned property in Muskegon, Michigan. Photo by David Smith
But a Baha’i-owned property in Muskegon, only blocks from a Lake Michigan inlet, has evolved in its own purpose. This past summer saw the dedication of a peace sculpture to enhance a meditation garden established two decades ago.
For now, local Baha’is foresee townspeople using the Baha’i Reflection Gardens for prayers and perhaps as a setting for wedding vows.
“That is certainly not where things will stop,” noted a welcoming message on behalf of the Baha’i community at the ceremony to dedicate the sculpture. The future vision includes building of a local Baha’i Center and other community developments, as conditions allow.
About 160 people marveled at the striking metal piece as they gathered July 8 to recommit to the site’s purpose as a place of solace and a nascent hub for community-building activities in the west Michigan town of 38,000.
State Rep. Holly Hughes assisted with the dedication. Remarks by members of national and regional Baha’i institutions led to the reading of a letter written for the occasion by the Universal House of Justice, the global governing council of the Baha’i Faith.
A local Baha’i chanted a prayer in Persian, and South Dakota Baha’i Kevin Locke gave blessings in Lakota before performing on native flute and delighting attendees with his hoop dancing.
Baha’i ownership of the property goes back to 1906, when Chicago Baha’is purchased it to assist a widow who was raising three grandchildren and holding informative meetings about the Faith.State Rep. Holly Hughes joins in welcoming the Baha’i-commissioned peace sculpture to Muskegon, Michigan. Photo by David Smith
The deed passed in 1909 to the national committee established to raise funds for the Baha’i Temple that ultimately was built in Wilmette. In 1945 the deed was transferred to the Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of Muskegon, which was formed that year to steer the local Baha’i community.
Several times over the decades, the guidance of the World Center of the Faith was sought as to the site’s future. At each juncture, local Baha’is were advised to retain ownership and wait for the right time to develop the property. In 2013, the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of the United States assumed ownership.
In 2016, caretakers decided to add an object to rise above ground level and attract attention to this very special Baha’i property. They wanted art.
A design committee put together a set of guidelines that took the neighborhood’s features into account, as well as the National Assembly’s desires and local Baha’is’ ideas about what might spark interest in the Faith. Sie Gal of Vancouver, British Columbia, won an international competition in 2017 to design the artwork.
Shaping of the sculpture then commenced, with high-pressure water cutting of stainless steel. The timetable for completion was advanced considerably when the designer returned his prize money. A local Baha’i community also gave a generous donation to the sculpture fund.
Finishing touches included placement of river stones, topsoil and ground cover. The base and concrete were painted to match the artist’s rendering.
So that on a fine July day the Baha’is could welcome townspeople to the newly enhanced Baha’i Reflection Gardens and invite them to “use this land as a place for quiet prayer and meditation.”
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Antonio Smith is back home in Memphis, and Baha’u’llah’s vision for humanity is his passion. He has been sharing that vision with neighbors, family members and students at his former high school, and some of them are discovering that they have a role in advancing it.After learning a quotation from the Bahá’í writings, members of a Memphis, Tennessee, children’s class circle around to start coloring. Photo courtesy of Antonio Smith
At the same time, he is working alongside fellow Baha’is in western Tennessee as they gain the confidence to talk with neighbors about serving their community and to provide paths for that service.
In all this, he is drawing on community-building experience he gained as a participant in the South Carolina Enterprise. That initiative enables young Baha’is, especially African Americans such as Smith, to move to towns and neighborhoods where that kind of activity is intensive.
Smith, 26, is also paying attention to what’s being learned about strengthening the spiritual and material progress of neighborhoods in such places as Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and Jackson and Nashville, Tennessee.
He came, with a plan
It was concern for “the state of my friends and family in the city” that drew Smith back to his hometown last December from South Carolina, he says.
Local Baha’is were delighted. “I remember praying for Antonio to choose Memphis when he was deciding where he would relocate, praying Baha’u’llah would guide him to come home to Memphis,” says Marjie Baker.
He came, indeed — with a plan: He would offer students at his former high school a program he calls Wayfarer. It combines ACT test preparation with courses from the Ruhi Institute that help develop skills for effecting personal and societal transformation.
Simultaneously, Smith would work within neighborhoods to foster Baha’i-initiated core activities of community building.
Sounds ambitious, Jan Peterson thought when Smith presented his plan to the Local Spiritual Assembly, the Memphis Baha’i governing body, of which she’s a member. “But Antonio is dauntless,” she says, “while at the same time systematic and goal-driven.”
After several months Smith can say, “Overall the process has been great. There have been a plethora of challenges that arise at every step, and each challenge has been followed by decisive victories.”
What does a victory look like? One came during spring break when a training program for the students achieved the goals Smith had set for it: “to assist participants to gain a greater awareness of the work of the Baha’i community, for participants to advance in the sequence of [Ruhi] courses, and for participants to engage with and offer service to the community in a variety of ways.”
Ups and downs and valuable learning
That week of study and service had its ups and downs, but it taught Smith and the local Baha’i community a lot about how to put that kind of effort into motion.A community garden in Memphis, Tennessee, benefits from the assistance of youths in a spring break initiative. Photo courtesy of Antonio Smith
Peterson was one of several Memphis Baha’is who assisted the initiative. “Here was a group of high school students on a beautiful spring week in March,” she recalls, “engaged on one of the evenings in a meditation exercise and the next evening in lively discussion of a quote [from the Baha’i writings.]”
Several participants were unable to complete the program because of other commitments, and some aspects of the training didn’t go smoothly. But the two youths who completed the program, Smith’s cousin and her friend, “have both shown a keen awareness of the aims of the program — an awareness that I am continuing to nurture,” says Smith.
“Both are engaged in offering service to the community and both have completed Book 1,” Reflections on the Life of the Spirit, in the Ruhi sequence, he says.
One, in fact, has completed Book 5, Releasing the Powers of Junior Youth, helping him prepare to serve as an animator, or facilitator, of a junior youth group. But Smith says progress at that speed is unusual.
“My primary focus is on those like my cousin and others who have tentative interest and need to be nurtured systematically in order to be able to offer service and eventually recognize the grandeur of Baha’u’llah,” he says.
“I am really concerned about what it means to create the climate that nurtures the soul over time and … develops its maturity.”
Activities strengthened, multiplied
An immediate outcome of the spring break initiative was a weekly youth night for neighborhood kids. Smith and that group also began regularly visiting Jackson, Tennessee, about an hour away, to work with young people and take part in a study circle there.
As for Smith’s work in the Memphis neighborhoods, he has helped strengthen existing core activities — children’s classes, junior youth groups, study circles and ongoing devotional gatherings — and increase the number of those activities from four to 11.
Paul Herron, a local Baha’i, recalls, “I was working with several animators in the Garden Manor apartment complex when Antonio arrived as a homefront volunteer. He helped with the junior youth group and revitalized the children’s class we had going at the time.Spring break initiative participants in Memphis, Tennessee, dive into an art project. Photo courtesy of Antonio Smith
“Antonio also began to build far greater community than what we were able to do before his arrival,” says Herron. He notes that Smith organized and brought Baha’is into training courses, including an intensive Book 5 study.
Nabil Ahlhauser had already established a junior youth group at the Garden Manor complex by the time Smith arrived. The two young men, Herron says, are now “well known within the complex.”
Junior youths living there face constant “family, economic, and spiritual crises,” Herron says. He has noticed recently “that the junior youths find refuge with Antonio and Nabil.”
“I recall one Saturday morning … talking about the junior youth program and the Baha’i Faith with a mother of a junior youth. Antonio and Nabil had helped the family after their electricity was turned off,” he relates.
“Despite the challenge of getting back on her feet financially, the mother happily invited everyone over for dinner the following week. It was symbolic of the great relationships that Antonio and the other animators are developing throughout the apartment complex.”
Frisbee, and other connections
Ahlhauser recalls his joy at Smith joining him as a roommate and collaborator. “We immediately became close friends,” he says. “We would wake up early in the morning and have devotions together. Most afternoons, we would talk about what had happened throughout our day as well as how we could better be of service.”
For example, Ahlhauser felt that, as his background was different from that of the complex’s kids, he would struggle to connect with them.
“Antonio encouraged me to spend more time outside with the kids and junior youths. We went and bought a Frisbee and I started to just throw it around with the kids,” he says. Not only were those connections coming more easily, Ahlhauser started enjoying himself more.
Not that the roommates haven’t “been tested in our service,” points out Ahlhauser. Returning one day from a program that trains young Baha’is to engage in social action, “I discovered that my apartment was ransacked and the TV was gone. To make matters worse, we were pretty sure that the culprit was one of our neighbors.
“The thing is, we didn’t give up hope,” he says. “I remember wanting to be angry, but Antonio, somehow a lot calmer than myself, would remind me that we had chosen to live in the focus neighborhood, that God greatly rewards his servants who shed even one drop of blood in the path of service, and that our neighbors were our spiritual children.
“It was challenging because I really wanted to be angry, but Antonio had made it clear that I couldn’t be bitter.”
Toward self-sufficient service
As Smith reflects on those months, he says the activities underway “are fledgling, they are primarily sustained by me and they require much attention. But I am working continuously to develop the capacity of those around me to be self-sufficient in their service.”
Memphis Baha’is echo that, including Sharghi Rahmanian, who says they have “learned alongside him creative ways to reach out to the greater community, to engage those we meet in a meaningful discussion, and to build everlasting friendships founded on service to our neighborhood.”
Steve Bares adds, “I have been pleased and surprised to see how our local Baha’is and other partner communities have stepped up. …
“To support the long-term efforts in the neighborhood, the communities have aligned to back the activities, giving generously the resources needed to make it happen,” says Bares, who serves as treasurer of the Spiritual Assembly.
“Taking such action has helped to create a unity of purpose that I believe will influence the approach to other activities in our community.”
Just in time, says Smith, to carry out a training initiative similar to the one over spring break.
“The Memphis Baha’i community has little to no experience in having these kinds of campaigns, but they are eager to learn,” he says.
“I came here knowing that a lot of nurturing would need to take place, and I am set and ready to do it.”
Holley Seals-Lizarraga, for one, is excited by the prospect.
“I know that it has been invaluable for Antonio to dedicate his efforts to the focus neighborhood in this way as a homefront pioneer and integrate into the very fabric of the community in which he is serving,” says Seals-Lizarraga, an Auxiliary Board member appointed to assist Baha’i individuals and institutions in the area.
“Antonio’s efforts have inspired others to arise in various ways and offer their own ongoing acts of service, both members of the Baha’i community and friends of the Faith.” The team’s learning and insights, she adds, are being documented so that they can benefit other communities.
The post Back home in Memphis, a young Baha’i sets out to build community appeared first on Baha‘is of the United States.
A few profiles of Baha’is who have moved to serve the community-building process as homefront pioneers:
“You don’t have to wait”
Arian Arbasi of Forney, Texas, is one. She had wanted to serve the Baha’i Faith as a pioneer in Africa after finishing university studies in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, she explains. But the terms of her visa as a recent arrival from Iran barred her from moving outside the United States.Arian Arbasi (left) has dived into core activities in the community closest to her new home in Forney, Texas. Photo courtesy of Arian Arbasi
Then one day she was talking with an Auxiliary Board member (an appointed adviser to Baha’is and communities in an area) about her “desire to live and serve in a small city/community that does not have many resources and tell them about the Revelation of Baha’u’llah.”
The Auxiliary Board member told her, “You don’t have to wait. You can continue studying. … Arise and homefront pioneer inside the United States.”
A week later she visited Terrell, a small town east of Dallas that Baha’is were visiting regularly to conduct a children’s class and a junior youth group.
“I loved the experience and fell in love with those pure children and junior youth, who were so thirsty for love and education,” she says.
Two weeks later Arbasi had an apartment in Forney, only a five-minute drive from the core activities — children’s classes, junior youth groups, devotional gatherings and study circles — underway in Terrell.
“I’m so excited that I had this opportunity to move to … serve the Faith,” she says, “and I’m planning to stay here until the end of the Five Year Plan (the current stage of the Baha’i community-building process, which runs through 2021).”
“Please keep me in your prayers.”
“Right where I was supposed to be”
Kylie Cantrell can point to each juncture that led her to a neighborhood in Des Moines, Iowa.
“It is a long story of how I wound up serving where I am,” she says. “A lot of the time, while living in the moment, things were unclear. But after four years of homefront pioneering, it is all very clear that I wound up right where I was supposed to be.”Kylie Cantrell (standing, fourth from left) and the junior youth group she animates show off their carved pumpkins. Photo courtesy of Kylie Cantrell
First juncture: July 2013. The international Baha’i community began the first of 114 youth conferences held all around the world. Baha’is where Cantrell lived in southern Oregon pledged to ensure that all youths who grew up in the area, regardless of where they were living at the time, could attend the Baha’i youth conference closest to them. So she was able to participate in the Chicago gathering while she was studying at Northwest Missouri State University.
Cantrell then began thinking about where to serve after graduation the next spring. All five of her college years, few Baha’is lived nearby. “So I was eager to jump into an active community.”
Cantrell also considered service at the Baha’i World Center in Haifa, Israel. Many Baha’is apply to spend a year or more volunteering there.
In January 2014 two emails arrived that brought her to the second juncture. One said there wasn’t a spot for her at the World Center. The other was from a friend in Kansas City, Missouri, asking what she thought about moving to Des Moines.
To Cantrell, the message was clear. She decided to set in motion the idea of serving in Des Moines.
After graduation, her next stop was tiny Ackworth, Iowa, where she lived with a friend from college while plans for Des Moines took shape. Meanwhile, she better prepared herself to talk about and teach the Baha’i Faith by joining an intensive study group in Kansas City.
Call it juncture three. That study, paired with activity in a Kansas City neighborhood, brought home to Cantrell the importance of immediately putting into practice what she was learning. “I got to practice, every single afternoon for 10 days, how to have important conversations with strangers.”
“Sometimes we talked about the Faith, but sometimes we just talked to each other as people living in the same neighborhood and what the needs for the area were,” she reflects. “The fear we often have of talking to strangers was gone. It was no longer an obstacle because of the confidence that the practices had given me.”
Cue juncture four. On a September 2014 flight to Oregon, Cantrell sat next to a man from Des Moines and, “still aglow with confidence,” told him she wanted to mentor young people there, but was unfamiliar with the city’s neighborhoods.
The man knew just where to direct her: River Bend, an already diverse area that is welcoming a lot of immigrants. All well and good. But who would work alongside her? “I wanted to wait to start serving until I had some accompaniment,” she says.
Then a friend in Tennessee sent Cantrell a quote from Baha’u’llah that encourages Baha’is to “put on the armor” of God’s love and arise in service, even if all alone.
That juncture, five, gave Cantrell all the courage she needed. Not that she has been alone at any point since. A number of collaborators have served alongside her in the River Bend neighborhood: a medical student who lent use of his apartment for junior youth group meetings, a man visiting from Bangladesh, the mother of a junior youth, a family from Boone, Iowa, and others.
Since autumn 2014 she has helped start two junior youth groups, as well as two study circles — one in Swahili — with some older youths participating. And Cantrell can say, “We have activity. We have a team. We have plans.”
“I need to be part of this process”
Brently and Elizabeth Donaldson were “schooled” on homefront pioneering through their family’s experience. Two daughters had moved to areas that needed Baha’is to offer core community-building activities.Homefront pioneers Brently and Elizabeth Donaldson, formerly of Rolling Meadows, Illinois, look forward to settling in Winfield, Kansas. Photo by Richard Doering
They observed closely as one daughter relocated to a small town near St. Louis after graduation from medical school and a second daughter moved to a Kansas City neighborhood after completing her doctorate.
The Donaldsons also kept up on the ongoing guidance of international and national Baha’i institutions. One daughter helped Brently Donaldson, who has vision issues, by making voice recordings of some of the letters. This enabled him to help Baha’is in his own community of Rolling Meadows, Illinois, study that guidance.
By the time a call was issued to U.S. Baha’is in April 2018 for volunteers to relocate as homefront pioneers, Brently Donaldson was primed.
“At that point I said, ‘What am I doing?’ It’s kind of that simple. They’re asking for homefront pioneers, everything is lined up for me to go, so I need to be part of this process.”
So the Donaldsons consulted together, and with the help of the Regional Baha’i Council of the Prairie States they chose Winfield, Kansas.
Brently Donaldson is from Kansas and had always figured “that I was going to have to go back there and do some work for Baha’u’llah before it was all finished because there are not a whole lot of other Baha’is in the area.”
Too, Brently Donaldson and his sister had already been operating a social and economic development project in Winfield and vicinity for more than 10 years, rehabbing homes in poor neighborhoods and forging a relationship with professionals “from real estate people to lawyers and plumbers and electricians.”
So as he builds community physically through that project, he can build community spiritually through activities in neighborhoods and in a Veterans Affairs facility. He hopes particularly to bring people together through drumming circles with the help of Baha’is from Kansas City.
All the while the Donaldsons follow the roadmap given them by the guidance of Baha’i institutions. “It’s really nothing about me,” says Brently Donaldson. The institutions have “given me the process of what to do and how to do it — how to start approaching the community — and I just want to see where it goes from there.”
“A new adventure”
When Glenn and Linda Nerbak settle in Santa Cruz County, Arizona, they’ll have an instant partner in Baha’i activities: Linda’s 88-year-old mother, Elaine Cross, who is calling her move with them “a new adventure.”Glenn and Linda Nerbak and Linda’s mother, Elaine Cross, pause during preparations for their move to Arizona. Photo courtesy of Linda Nerbak
Glenn Nerbak felt an immediate attraction to the area a few miles from Mexico’s border when they traveled there in April 2018 from their home in South Portland, Maine, to visit friends Rick and Jill Moritz.
Jill Moritz mentioned that the nascent Baha’i community-building activity in Santa Cruz County is at the first milestone of development, as defined by the Universal House of Justice, the global governing body of the Faith. Communities there are striving to advance.
That piqued the couple’s interest. Glenn Nerbak, who had worked in Portland schools for 26 years, asked Rick Moritz about teaching jobs in the Santa Cruz Valley school district.
A dive into the district website turned up an opening in Rio Rico for a teacher of seventh-grade social studies — Nerbak’s favorite grade and subject. And soon after dropping off his resume, he received a call from the principal asking him to come in for an interview.
“The people of Maine will miss you; the people of Arizona will welcome you” was the message he received a week later with his job offer.
Linda Nerbak got confirmations as well that they were on the right path. The day after they returned to Maine she saw the April 2018 letter from the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of the United States asking for pioneers.
She also read a prayer for pioneers composed by ‘Abdu’l-Baha, and was amused and inspired reading the line, “I have no wish save to turn my steps, in my love for Thee, towards the mountains and the deserts, to loudly proclaim the advent of Thy Kingdom. …” Rio Rico has both mountains and deserts close by.
Then there’s Linda’s mother, Elaine Cross, who registered as a Baha’i in May 2017.
“Elaine has taken her enrollment seriously, has a desire to learn, has hosted Feasts and a study circle, and enjoys telling people about the Faith,” say the Nerbaks.
Their home in Maine sold quickly. Their next destination is a Rio Rico neighborhood that is home to three people who have expressed interest in the teachings of Baha’u’llah.
“We hope to add support to the efforts in the area in any way needed,” say the couple.
“Baha’u’llah has His own plan for us”
The first thing Ruth and Ramon Sepulveda did when they moved to Point Comfort, Texas, a coastal town where no other Baha’is lived, was to start a local Fund to pay for Baha’i activities.
Premature? Not to this couple. “Both of us have served as treasurers [for local Baha’i communities] and know how spiritual the Fund is,” says Ruth Sepulveda.
The couple also set a goal, she says, “to be more intentional in our conversations … so that we are having spiritual conversations and not just talking about the weather and the dogs.”
They are off to a great start.
“Ramon and I have already made friends here,” she says. “Our neighbors are friendly. And we have our own goodwill ambassador: Tyson, a 160-pound Great Pyrenees mix dog who loves everyone.
“I met two high school girls yesterday while walking him. We had a great conversation and they promised to visit me often.”Ruth and Ramon Sepulveda play with their dog, Tyson, who has helped them meet so many people in their new town. Photo courtesy of Ruth Sepulveda
To get activities going, the Sepulvedas put up a flyer announcing regular devotional gatherings on the bay. The first one was specifically to pray for the victims of the Santa Fe, Texas, high school shooting in May.
The devotionals have gone on weekly since then. Ruth Sepulveda’s sister, who is a Baha’i pioneer in Belize, joins in on her visits to Texas.
Their relocation was the answer to a longtime prayer for the Sepulvedas. They also discovered that members of the Regional Baha’i Council of the South Central States, as well as some Texans on visits to Baha’i shrines in Israel, had also prayed for pioneers to move to the area.
For the Sepulvedas, a move was many years in the making, though.
“We were looking for somewhere that we could make an income and find housing,” says Ruth Sepulveda.
“We did want it to be in Texas because I’m certified to teach in Texas and he’s certified as a water and wastewater operator here. Besides, most of our grandchildren live in Texas.”
They looked into several localities that were goal areas for Baha’i community building. But each time Ramon Sepulveda got an employment offer, either the job didn’t come through or it quickly ended. For a while it looked as though they’d be in Austin long term.
Then came an offer to work in Point Comfort. Ultimately, the city hired Ramon Sepulveda to operate its water and wastewater plant. That cinched the deal for Ruth Sepulveda as well.
Not only would they be initiating the first Baha’i activities in the area; as a bonus, another goal area is just 45 minutes away. The Sepulvedas have made plans to join with local Baha’is in visiting people interested in the community-building process.
Teaching positions were available in Point Comfort. “But instead of finding a job,” Ruth Sepulveda says, “I decided to retire and work part time as a substitute and tutor, freeing my time up for Baha’i work.”
Now things are looking up for the Sepulvedas after years of false starts.
“It’s our hope,” says Ruth Sepulveda, “that others who wish to homefront pioneer, and who keep having difficulties block their way, will see our story as an example of perseverance and not get discouraged from their goals. Baha’u’llah has His own plan for us and we need to just keep trying.”
“We are excited about the prospects”
Finding a place to live in December or January can be difficult, as can moving and downsizing.
But James and Linda Braun kept their eyes on the prize — living close to the people they’d gotten to know in a Springfield, Missouri, neighborhood.Baha’is from the Springfield, Missouri, area planning the next cycle of activity are (clockwise from upper left) Linda Braun, James Braun, Ariel Proser, Chris Gourdine, Jessie Haworth and Carl Haworth. Photo courtesy of James Braun
Now they have set their sights set on helping that cluster of communities increase the number of Baha’i-initiated activities over the coming year.
Whenever doubts crept in, the couple would reread a section of the Dec. 29, 2015, message of the Universal House of Justice. They hold that guidance dear, they say, as a “framework for how we are to proceed and an assurance of success” despite “how nascent our efforts are.”
For more than three years up to fall 2017, the Brauns had been traveling about a half hour each way to meet people in that Springfield neighborhood.
“Our initial efforts were of short duration and not very effective,” they say, “but were full of learning about reaching out to the wider community and having conversations about community building, especially the junior youth spiritual empowerment program.”
It was after the couple participated in a seminar in Kansas City “and began to learn about and build the skills of conversing with youth … that we began to have a hint of success.”
Linda Braun found high schoolers interested in being trained to mentor middle schoolers. James Braun launched and facilitated junior youth groups with the help of those high schoolers.
Distance was more and more a problem for the Brauns, though, as were the falling temperatures. Those blossoming activities would soon need a permanent home in or near the neighborhood.
“Every option we tried did not work,” the Brauns recall. “At that point we realized that if we lived closer we could have the junior youth groups at our house. In November we decided to move into an area where we would have ready access to the neighborhood.”
It meant halting the activities while the move took place. But in February 2018 the junior youth group meetings resumed, and in March a concerted effort was made with four local Baha’is and five from other clusters to have “conversations with residents about working in the neighborhood with junior youth and children.”
As the couple recount, “We met [more] junior youths and invited them into the group; two accepted our invitation and have become enthusiastic participants. We have also begun to establish relationships with the parents.
“We are excited about the prospects.”
“This is one of the happiest times of my life”
In early March, Roxane Firmin was beginning her 47th 19-day Fast as a Baha’i. It was the last she was obligated to observe, as she would turn 70 before the next annual Fast.Isaiah Sanchez was the first to respond when Roxane Firmin began introducing the core activities to her new neighborhood. Photo courtesy of Roxane Firmin
“I asked Baha’u’llah to make this last Fast the most amazing of all Fasts,” she recalls. “And it was.”
It began when Roben Schmidt, a volunteer who helps coordinate Baha’i community building in central Arizona, asked Firmin to move to the Cottonwood/Sedona cluster of communities.
To Schmidt’s surprise, Firmin agreed without hesitation. “She said, ‘What? Really?’ I said, ‘Yes,’ and from then on I felt that I was in a different reality. Every day was full of confirmation and guidance, blessings and gratitude.”
By the end of the Fast and start of the new Baha’i year, Firmin had signed a contract to “buy the house that was everything I wanted and more.” The sale closed in May and the moving began.
To prepare for an active role in her new locality, she engaged in a nine-day study of the Ruhi training sequence at the Bellemont Baha’i Camp near Flagstaff. Next came six days practicing outreach and conversation skills in Phoenix and Tempe.
A further bounty awaited Firmin when, for a summer of service, youth volunteer Ariana Mottahed arranged to live with her in Cottonwood and accompany her in the field.
Settled in, the two began to meet their neighbors with the help of Bill and Roben Schmidt.
“We found the focus neighborhood, and by the end of the June we had the first junior youth group meeting, with expectations of more [junior youths] joining after school starts in August,” says Firmin.
“By the grace of God, we found Grace (the mother) and Isaiah (her son), who really understand the program and are willing to encourage people in the neighborhood to participate. People rally around this family.”
Firmin reflects that “keeping up with the youth, buying a house, selling a house, moving, keeping up with the responsibilities and working” has been a challenge.
Another challenge has been really getting to understand that community building is a long-term process, she says, not just a series of events; “there was a lot for me to detach from, learn and transform.”
Fortunately, Firmin’s team made her “feel totally loved and supported,” and she can say, “This is one of the happiest times of my life. I’m right where I am supposed to be. I’ve already fallen in love with this neighborhood and I look forward to seeing how it will grow.”
“We are intensely engaged”
Tom Howe and his wife, Pohleng Howe Teo, had served the Baha’i Faith in several Asian countries starting in 1995.Pohleng Howe Teo (left) and Tom Howe (right) celebrate with others who had just completed Book 2 in the Ruhi training sequence. Photo courtesy of Tom Howe
Living in Rochester, New York, they were poised to return to Asia, with nonrefundable airline tickets in hand. Then they received a letter from the Baha’i World Center urging them to consider remaining in the United States and continuing to help build community on the home front.
In quick succession the Howes canceled their plane reservations, consulted with members of Baha’i institutions in the Northeastern States, and moved to Erie, Pennsylvania, to aid promising local efforts.
Since then, says Tom Howe, “We are intensely engaged in youth outreach in a focus neighborhood and with refugee populations.”
To that end the Howes organized a 10-day training session for neighborhood youths — mostly from Asia and Africa — who are looking to mentor elementary and middle-school students.
They also are reaching out to organizations and attending community meetings “to widen our individual network of contacts.”
Many of the Howes’ new friends are part of the Bhutanese Nepali refugee community, says Tom Howe.
“We were really guided to meet the most prominent community leaders almost right away,” he recalls. “We then became true friends with them, meeting for lunches, consulting on refugee community challenges with their own youth, attending Buddhist celebrations and personal funeral prayer meetings in individual homes.”
Such efforts in the neighborhood are “so joyful,” he relates. “What a delightful experience of open and generous cultures. I cannot claim much credit since it is really my wife, Pohleng, who is the driving force and Shreeti, our Nepali student, who has much better skills.”
By joining an interfaith, intercultural group, the couple has also met “religious and community leaders, the city mayor and his staff, thoughtful idealists and social activists,” says Tom Howe.
“This has also opened many doors.”
The post Braving the unknown: faces of homefront pioneering in the U.S. appeared first on Baha‘is of the United States.
By Ben Fanning and Roya Mason
Dozens of young people are looking back at how far they’ve come in the short time they have dedicated themselves to full-time community building in neighborhoods across California. Many find they built spiritual capacity, and learned a lot about applying it effectively, over as little as a few weeks or as long as a couple of years.
Some mention developing “qualities and attitudes that allowed me to better serve humanity.” Others talk about striking a balance between service, work, education, family and school, and sharpening the criteria they will use to choose a career.
Programs in every region of the country are helping young people spend a summer, a year, or more dedicating their full time and energy to such services as mentoring younger people, visiting neighbors, facilitating study circles, or nurturing devotional gatherings — helping to build communities that move populations toward the vision of Baha’u’llah, founder of the Faith, for material and spiritual progress.
Regional Baha’i Councils organize these programs in light of guidance from the Universal House of Justice, assuring Baha’is worldwide that young people represent “a reservoir of capacity to transform society waiting to be tapped.”California full-time service volunteers are among those participating in an intensive training program. Photo courtesy of Marion Ore
In the California program, for example, people of college age, or just out of college, take part in a process that develops their capacity to mentor and empower those younger than them, and to build true friendships and vibrant communities.
One former participant reflects, “My friends and I increased our capacity to be unified and work as a team, and our faith and confidence deepened. I made some of my closest friendships during that time as well.”
Parents saw their sons’ and daughters’ transformation, too, and drew inspiration for their own service to humanity. Parents of a youth who has offered three summers of service say, “After each summer of activity, he returns home with greater confidence, a growing sense of personal responsibility and a network of friends that will serve as positive influences during the rest of the school year.”
Many others across California have shared anecdotes about the transformative effects full-time service has had for them, both personally and for their communities:
From a youth who offered a period of service after college: “My period of full-time service helped me develop a closer relationship with God and the [Baha’i] Cause. I deepened my understanding of the history of the Faith and strengthened spiritual habits such as prayer, reading the writings daily and teaching the Faith.
“With a greater focus and attention on developing spiritual habits and service to others, I was able to reflect and develop qualities and attitudes that will allow me to better serve humanity in my future job, family and personal life.
“It also helped me gain confidence in inviting others on my path of service and in accompanying others with less experience.”
From a youth who offered a year of service after high school: “Before, I was struggling to balance service, education, work, family, and school. Serving [full time] not only helped me balance all of these by striving for coherence, but also allowed me to develop qualities that I didn’t even think I was capable of having.
“For example, I learned how to have deeper conversations with people about the institute process [of training for service], I experienced and gained a deeper understanding of confirmation and prayer, I saw the transformation within the community, and learned how to work together with others.”
From a youth who offered a year of service after college: “In the field we make efforts, face challenges, and advance in our understanding. In the same way, I found that my understanding of my career, of marriage and family life, of the dynamics of working with others, and of the daily choices we all have to make in our lives was advancing. It helped me to leave behind habits and ideas which were obstructing my growth.”
From an adult who offered a summer of service: “It was a wonderful time that reminded me that my true identity is built on the Baha’i Faith and its teachings. It also helped me realize that any career that enables someone to be of service to humanity is desirable.
“What I remember most about the summer of service is the period of deepening [study], the sense of camaraderie, and joyful singing that preceded our outreach efforts.
“This incredible experience helped to not only inspire and motivate me to teach in new ways but also motivated me to share my experiences with my local community and encourage them to take advantage of opportunities to engage in deepening, teaching, and service.”
From a youth who offered two years of service after working for a few years: “There are often many obstacles we might think are stopping us from offering a period of service, but are often only mental obstacles. … The heroes of our Faith often arose in the face of what seemed to be barriers in their path.
“The Cause is never without a great need for more workers, and humanity will continue to be in great need of the unifying force that can free it from the sadness, confusion and suffering which seem to increase every day.”
How parents feel
From a parent of a youth who offered two years of service: “My daughter’s decision to serve full time for the past couple years has had a deep effect on me. I have become more active for the first time in several years, and more inspired to teach the Cause.
“Both her grandmother and I have fasted for the first time in years. I am now deepening twice a day and saying my daily obligatory prayer.
“Her service has inspired me to teach her younger siblings and get them to Baha’i children’s classes on Sundays. Her commitment has helped motivate me to be more committed to the Faith.”
From parents of a youth who has offered three summers of service: “It means so much to us as parents to see him develop his own relationship with Baha’u’llah, knowing that the Faith isn’t merely a family tradition but is, instead, something that belongs to him and is part of his identity, influencing his behavior and the goals that he sets for himself in his life.
“Since we live in a community without many other Baha’i youth, we are especially grateful that he is able to develop a strong Baha’i identity alongside Baha’i youth from many different backgrounds.”
A day in the life
Year-of-service youths often spend mornings studying Baha’i writings or training courses; preparing for, planning and coordinating campaigns for clusters of communities; and maintaining data.
Afternoons and evenings are usually spent supporting various activities such as study circles, children’s classes, junior youth groups, visits to people in their homes, devotional gatherings or other meetings.
The emphasis is on operating in a mode of learning: planning, acting and reflecting on how to improve their service.
Those who serve full time are typically accompanied and supported throughout the year by experienced resources in their community, as well as direct support from agencies of their cluster of communities and from coordinators of the regional board that oversees training courses.
Along with other local and regional Baha’i institutions, they consult with full-timers to develop a schedule of deepening and training, formulate lines of action, and provide logistical support.
In California, they have opportunities for training and reflection to gain the skills, qualities and attitudes necessary for walking a path of service.
California participants receive a monthly living stipend. The Regional Bahá’í Council helps place youths in appropriate housing — often with other full-time service youths or Bahá’í families.
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Bridge builder. Capacity builder. These emerge as among the most important roles Dayyan Sisson played while living in and serving a Florence, South Carolina, neighborhood.
He saw young people of color and white adults develop a loving relationship. He witnessed those youths earnestly attain an understanding of new concepts and joyfully share their learning with others.
Sisson, now 20, moved there two years ago from California as part of a Baha’i initiative known as the South Carolina Enterprise.Dayyan Sisson, South Carolina Enterprise participant, and Annette Reynolds, Baha’i residing in Florence. Photo courtesy of Greg Kintz
The project was launched two years earlier, explains Danita Brown, a member of the sponsoring Regional Baha’i Council of the Southeastern States, to learn about “how to reinvigorate neighborhoods” of such populations as American Indians, African Americans and immigrant groups.
This program, Brown says, brings in young people — especially African Americans — who have experience in sharing Baha’i-inspired activities, such as junior youth groups and children’s classes, that foster personal and societal transformation. Those young people settle as homefront pioneers in several communities surrounding the Louis G. Gregory Baha’i Institute in the state’s northeast.
During his time in the South Carolina Enterprise, Sisson talked with many young people ages 15 and up about mentoring those younger than themselves. As he got to know these local youths, he would invite them into a program of training and service known as the institute process.Two vignettes in Sisson’s words say much about his experience:
The interaction between races
Florence is a largely self-segregated community. Within their own neighborhoods, many youths often find little interaction with other races outside of what they see in the media.
This often presented a cultural challenge as the enthusiastic Baha’is of Florence (many of whom are white) entered neighborhoods (predominantly black) to invite people to participate in the institute process.
On several occasions in north Florence neighborhoods, outreach in the parks and on door-to-door campaigns was received with markedly less enthusiasm when the youth volunteers were accompanied by white adults.
With wisdom and tact, the pioneers in the communities persevered in bringing members of other races into north Florence for outreach, as well as for prayer gatherings and other Baha’i activities. And as the community members began to see the Baha’is’ purity of motive, they began to relax.South Carolina Enterprise trainers and trainees gather for a photo in 2016. Photo by Danita Brown
Parallel to this process was introducing the youths in the institute process to spaces with Baha’is of all races outside of their own neighborhood. On one such occasion, a group of black youths from west and north Florence were brought to a devotional gathering in a predominantly white suburban neighborhood.
Many of the youths had taken Book 1, Reflections on the Life of the Spirit, in the Ruhi Institute training sequence and had met Baha’is previously. But I drove a car full of youths who had just recently entered the institute process and had yet to meet other Baha’is. After parking in the neighborhood and leaving the car, I realized that none of the youths from the neighborhood got out. I went back and asked them why.
They cited many reasons, spanning from superstition (a rumor that white people’s homes are haunted) to general discomfort, and it took some persuasion to eventually convince them to set aside their preconceptions and come inside.
Even then, the youths were always on guard. They were in an uncomfortable situation — black youths in a white person’s nice home in a suburban white neighborhood. Even the food served and the bright smiling faces of the Baha’is didn’t immediately ease them.
It wasn’t until the youths began praying with the Baha’is that there was a shift in energy. For the youths, seeing people whom society had dictated as so vastly different from them saying the same prayers and worshipping God in the same way began to disarm them.
The transformation was not overnight. It took sustained interaction with the community and loving accompaniment by the youths serving in the neighborhood to nurture a loving relationship. But over several months, these black youths grew closer to their white community members, playing with their children, attending gatherings at their homes, and studying the Word of God together.
Literacy and the Word of God
Language was another challenge to overcome. With literacy in South Carolina below average, especially in the neighborhoods where pioneers settled, the tutors of classes for the study of Ruhi training books had to be attentive and creative about the way youths moved through the institute process.
Understanding and adapting to the local dialect was an important step for tutors. Additionally, some youths began their study with books designed for those a little younger.
Regardless of the strategies, one thing became very clear. Learning was deeply rewarding for the youths. Every time the participants understood a new concept, or learned a new word, they became illumined. Being able to share their learning was another source of joy.
The practice recommended in Reflections on the Life of the Spirit — sharing a prayer with someone — provided those involved with a wellspring of learning and growth. On one occasion, a group of youths studied this prayer:
I beseech Thee, O my God, by all the transcendent glory of Thy Name, to clothe Thy loved ones in the robe of justice and to illumine their beings with the light of trustworthiness. Thou art the One that hath power to do as He pleaseth and Who holdeth within His grasp the reins of all things, visible and invisible. —Baha’u’llah
The youths began by defining words: reviewing simpler words like “trustworthiness” and “robe,” becoming acquainted with older words like “grasp” and “clothe,” and learning more difficult words like “transcendent” and “beseech.” They then began to examine entire concepts, like what it means to “clothe Thy loved ones in the robe of justice” or to “illumine their beings with the light of trustworthiness.”
This wasn’t easy. Only after a lot of discussion did they achieve a basic level of comprehension. The youths, initially enthused but growing weary, were faced with the challenge next of learning to present these concepts to others. We discussed different techniques, tried role playing and tried to understand the prayer further, but after some time the youths became restless and impatient with themselves and the process.
The youths decided instead to formulate three questions they would ask and be content with that level of preparation. I knew it would not prove to be enough, but I felt they had a sufficient understanding of the prayer and enough willingness to share it that all would be well.
A few days later, we arrived at the home of a Baha’i to share the prayer. As we walked up the steps, I noticed their nervousness. I told them that so long as they put their trust in God He would aid them. They smiled in reassurance but otherwise said nothing. I told them I would not speak during the activity other than to introduce them.
After we entered the home and they were introduced to the Baha’i, we all sat together in the living room. I stayed farther back. The youths looked at me with wide eyes. But when I made no motion to assist them, one of the girls began the activity. They read the prayer together twice and began asking their pre-formulated questions.
After an all-too-brief discussion, the youths began talking among themselves, “That was our three questions. What else do we say?” They glanced over at me but I did not respond.
After some silence, the girls turned and began to ask new questions on the spot. Together the group began exploring the prayer more deeply — defining new words, drawing out new meanings, uncovering new concepts, building a common foundation.
They talked about how to apply the prayer to their lives, then began to discuss the implications of this prayer for their families, neighborhood, city and eventually the whole world. I sat in joyful awe of the level of comprehension they were starting to demonstrate.
This continued for some time until finally the group closed with another prayer. They hugged the Baha’i, said parting words and came with me outside. I asked them, “How do you feel?” They paused, and after a moment one responded, “I am so happy and I don’t know why.”
I told them what I had observed: They shared a prayer with a stranger; that took great courage. They uncovered truth in the written Word; that took great patience. They learned with the participant they were sharing it with; that took great humility. They read the reality of the soul they were teaching and responded accordingly; that took spiritual perception. They applied the meaning they found to their own lives and discussed its implications; that took great understanding. By the end they were beaming in joy.
I was in complete adoration and awe of these youths. Here they were, three young high schoolers in a state with one of the lowest literacy rates in the country, discussing the application and implications of literature on a university level. Their learning was not a product of the changes and chances of the world, but a matter of purity of heart and spirit of faith.
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Can one be a percentage pioneer? That’s how Roi and Linden Qualls of Yellow Springs, Ohio, and Rob and Midge Falconer of Henrico County, Virginia, see themselves.
The Quallses are living in Columbus part of each week so they can contribute to the community-building process in a neighborhood of immigrants and then bring what they learn back to their hometown.
Rob Falconer travels to Connecticut several days a month for work and uses an apartment in Middletown to engage in that community’s efforts, with Midge’s assistance. They, too, see their experiences in each locality aiding efforts in the other.
“The receptive ears continually astonish me”
Roi Qualls explains how their Columbus service came about.
“Once upon a time, not so long ago, I attended a gathering where people shared what they have learned,” he recalls, about strengthening a process of learning and service through the Baha’i training institute.Keshab and Sabitri Thapaliya (upper left), Nepali Baha’is who came from the Boston area to help out for two weeks, gather with Baha’is serving in a Columbus, Ohio, neighborhood. They include Roi Qualls (top middle), Marianne Riofrio (top right), Bayan Sabouri (bottom left), Karen Beck (bottom middle), and Susan Tower, visiting from southwest Ohio. Photo courtesy of Susan Tower
“One of the participants from Columbus shared a comment that grabbed my attention: ‘In the Northland area of Columbus people are so receptive that we could form as many children’s classes as we have teachers for them.’”
As he drove home he reflected: Yellow Springs is part of a cluster of communities that needs to learn about building community intensively in a receptive neighborhood. Since that cluster doesn’t have that kind of experience, “it represented, I thought, an important frontier of learning for us.”
In short, Yellow Springs could advance if the couple were to spend part of their time gaining experience in a Columbus neighborhood.
And though the project was initiated before a national call for pioneers was issued, “it was clear to me that — for the effort to succeed and yield its lessons — we would have to live there,” Roi Qualls reflects. “I never considered any approach that did not have us put stakes down in the neighborhood.”
But only part time. Roi Qualls would continue working in Yellow Springs until 3 p.m. Thursday each week. Then he’d drive the 60 miles to Columbus to serve through Sunday in the Northland neighborhood.
His wife, Linden, would pop over to Columbus for a day each week to teach children’s classes. A commitment to accompany two youths in starting a children’s class in Yellow Springs would keep her from spending more time in Northland.
Even a partial week in Columbus would mean scaling down at home, however. “We consulted with all the parties that would be affected by our reduced presence, even though temporary, in our own cluster,” says Roi Qualls.
“We consulted specifically with our children, who rely on us to an extent for childcare.”
The couple also met with the Yellow Springs Spiritual Assembly and Auxiliary Board member Jason Combs, who works in an advisory capacity with their cluster.
“And, of course, I was in constant collaboration with Louis Maani, the Auxiliary Board member focused on the Columbus cluster. He made it his business to follow up with me during the cogitation and planning phase to make sure progress was advancing,” says Roi Qualls.
As a member of the Regional Baha’i Council of the Midwestern States, Qualls needed to consult as well with that institution, because the Columbus effort would reduce his participation.
Where to stay in Columbus was solved when the Columbus Spiritual Assembly decided to rent an apartment in the neighborhood.
To choose it, “We drove around on a few occasions and visited several families that have been involved in community-building activities over the years,” he recalls. “We settled on an apartment complex that was home to two of the junior youths” in an existing group.
And the experience thus far?
“As have many veteran Baha’is, I have had the privilege to serve the community in numerous capacities,” he notes. “None of that approaches the exhilaration I have experienced in the first weeks of this project.
“The direct interaction, the numerous and authentic conversations, the abundant possibilities, the receptive ears continually astonish me, confirm me, fire my imagination. And I don’t think Linden and I have even scratched the surface yet.”
“Serving in either place [is] easy”
Rob Falconer has been commuting regularly from Virginia to Connecticut since about 2005.
To save money in comparison to hotel charges, in 2012 his company began subsidizing the rent on an apartment.
Both Falconers are well familiar with the Baha’is of the area. Rob was raised in Vernon and Midge grew up in a Baha’i family on Long Island, a short jaunt across the Sound.Rob Falconer (center) chats with neighbors (left to right) Sylvia Grant, Roselyn Beatty and Sakina King at a gathering in a Middletown, Connecticut, apartment the Falconers rent. Photo by Midge Falconer
The choice of Middletown, less than 20 minutes from Rob Falconer’s company, was a “conscious one from the Baha’i standpoint,” he says.
Middletown had lost its Local Spiritual Assembly when the number of adult Baha’is dipped below nine. It was hoped “maybe we could recapture some Baha’i spirit and activity” in that diverse city, midway between Hartford and New Haven, that’s also home to prestigious Wesleyan University.
So they reached out to Middletown Baha’i Shelley Rothman, also formerly from Vernon, and set out to find an apartment. Once settled in, they worked with Rothman to establish regular devotional meetings and fireside talks at the apartment.
Local Baha’is support the gatherings, which occur at least once and sometimes four times a month. They serve as speakers, organize devotional materials and contribute “lots of potluck food.”
When they can, Rob and/or Midge Falconer take over the cooking or take their place in the rotation of facilitators and speakers.
“At least two souls have declared as Baha’is from these meetings,” says Rob Falconer, “and several new seekers, including some children and youths, learned of the Faith for the first time.”
Midge Falconer serves the training institute by coordinating study circles in two clusters of communities in Virginia. So it’s natural that study circles have emerged in their Middletown apartment as well.
“The training institute is a powerful unifying process in both Virginia and Connecticut,” the Falconers note. “The common framework for action … makes serving in either place easy.”
The two-way learning extends to sharing “stories of inspirational outcomes in either Connecticut or Virginia with Baha’is in the other location — in Assembly meetings, at Nineteen Day Feasts or devotional meetings,” they say.
“This summer, we’re at it again in Connecticut after some lulls. Send some prayers our way!”
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When Greg Kintz hears of the immediate need for Baha’is and friends to move where they can help build community within the United States, a quotation from Baha’u’llah, Prophet-Founder of the Faith, leaps to his mind:
“To give and to be generous are attributes of Mine; well is it with him that adorneth himself with My virtues.”
“Giving of yourself to go homefront pioneering,” as Baha’is term that service, “is part of fulfilling that spirit of generosity that Baha’u’llah talks about,” Kintz says.
Living in Conway, South Carolina, Kintz is general manager of WLGI Radio Baha’i in nearby Hemingway. For many years in the past, he had lived in other countries as a pioneer for the Faith.
Kintz says relocating for that kind of service is a process that can be transformative for a person. “Giving up everything that you hold dear to go someplace else, and … just relying on Baha’u’llah, is really indescribable,” he reflects.
“You’re there to be of service to Baha’u’llah. Your purpose for being there is Him. So every day you’re reminded that you’re here to serve.”
It’s an opportunity, says Kintz, to “break loose” from being “caught up in the material aspects of life.”
In that spirit, homefront pioneering represents “a tremendous opportunity to really connect with who you truly are. It’s a whole other level of service.”
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