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Celebrating Bicentenary with Diversity

US Bahá'í News Service - Fri, 10/25/2019 - 3:12pm

A neighborhood celebrates Birth of the Bab in Austin, TX hosted by Misha and Nick Blaise. Community friends of the family from Boyscouts and Spanish-speaking neighbors originally from Mexico.

Catholic friends offered their house for the event, and Baha’i family served dinner and hired a mariachi.

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Idaho initiative helps youths explore paths of service

US Bahá'í News Service - Fri, 10/25/2019 - 3:04pm

For some years, Baha’is and friends in western Idaho have systematically built relationships and  created spaces in people’s homes for prayer and spiritual education.  

These efforts intensified starting a few months ago in two Treasure Valley neighborhoods. As a result, significantly more people were involved in that enterprise as summer turned to fall. 

Much of this growth came from carrying out a detailed plan to involve many more youths and young adults in starting and conducting these activities, aimed at giving neighborhood residents opportunities to play their part in building community. 

At the same time the young people — most from the Boise area, with one from the Nez Perce Reservation — gained capacities for elevating conversations and building community in their own lives.  

Young adults Wyatt Morgano of Caldwell and Yasaman Parthor of Boise spearheaded the youth initiative, says Barbara Whitbeck, secretary of the committee that coordinates Baha’i-initiated community building in the two-county Treasure Valley area.

“Prior to the summer starting, Wyatt and Yasaman spent their time working diligently talking to youths they already knew, creating goals we wanted to reach over the summer and a schedule for the next few months and daily schedules,” relates Whitbeck. 

“They planned for the youths to spend every day together doing things such as studying, deepening on the Word of God, service, fun activities, and outreach.”

Activity builds vision, which nourishes activity 

Whitbeck says the intensity and diversity of activity was designed to help young people identify paths of service going forward.

Youths coming into the process were able to experience all of the core activities of community building — children’s classes, junior youth groups, study circles and devotional gatherings. And that, she says, “was really good for building vision.” 

A camp for junior youth groups in the Treasure Valley area of Idaho includes lots of outdoor activities to complement the study and conversation. Photo courtesy of the Learning Desk

“It helped them see the different paths of service and how they fit into the process. Over time, once they saw these avenues, they got to decide what capacity they wanted to serve in.”

The youths also gathered regularly to reflect on their service. At one such gathering, parents were given an overview of what lay ahead for their sons and daughters.

“It was amazing to get the whole family involved,” says Parthor. “Not only did it hold the youths accountable for being a part of this movement, but also the parents found ways to become a part of the process by either starting their own devotional, providing rides for the youths, opening up their homes for gatherings, and meals when needed.”

In early June the youths participated in a junior youth camp as role models for middle-schoolers. They followed up immediately through an outreach campaign in Boise’s Mt. Vernon neighborhood. 

“They learned how to have conversations about the Faith and the [training] institute process,” says Whitbeck. The training institute is a sequence of courses to prepare people to conduct service activities. “They also got to see how we build bonds of friendship with new people in a neighborhood.”

The Mt. Vernon neighborhood is home to a Baha’i family from the Congo, among many immigrants and refugees. Results of the summer’s activity there include an English class and a children’s spiritual education class, both held regularly. A junior youth group is being organized.

Looks like a few people didn’t get the “get silly” memo when this group photo of a junior youth Ecological Camp/service project was taken in Caldwell, Idaho. Photo courtesy of the Learning Desk

With those activities established, the youths turned their focus a few miles west to the Farmway Acres neighborhood in Caldwell, where community-building activities already had momentum. It took some time, but the youth team was “persistent and fearless” in forming friendships with young neighborhood residents that have lasted since, Whitbeck notes.  

In both neighborhoods, the youth team continued to visit and assist children’s classes and junior youth groups as the summer went on. They even joined a junior youth group in volunteering at an animal shelter.

Two-week youth camp 

But soon it was time for the youths’ own camp, and in the run-up they visited the homes of peers to enlist their participation. 

Parthor describes the youth camp as “two weeks of intense study and field work.”

The first week was a sleep-over camp in suburban Eagle. Daytimes were devoted to study of Reflections on the Life of the Spirit, Book 1 in the Ruhi training curriculum. 

The “field work” at night centered on service practices the book prescribes, says Parthor: “The participants learned to plan and host their own devotional and how to study a prayer with someone.”

Group activities included art, sports, games and music. “Being together every day for a week really brought us closer as a group,” she says. “We learned that the best friendships and strongest bonds come from service and studying the Word of God together.”

Friendships are made and strengthened at a junior youth camp in the Boise, Idaho, area. Photo by Barbara Whitbeck

The second week, campers stayed in their own homes and met each day in Garden City. Each one chose to study Ruhi Book 3, Teaching Children’s Classes, Grade 1, or Book 5, Releasing the Powers of Junior Youth. Evenings were devoted to observing children’s classes or junior youth groups, often depending on the path of service they were studying. 

One expectation was that the young people would talk with their families about their summer’s activity and learning. This might lead to entire families increasing their involvement in community-building activity this fall and beyond.

They can look back at their own development as well. “We built stronger bonds of friendship and deepened our understanding of working in specific fields of service,” says Parthor.

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A spark for conversation: Participants reflect on race amity program

US Bahá'í News Service - Fri, 10/25/2019 - 3:03pm

After more than a year’s consultation, reflection and testing, a fledgling program on “Walking Together on a Path Toward Race Amity” was introduced in May through September at three Baha’i retreat centers and more than 20 weekend seasonal schools nationwide.

Put together by a multiethnic task force of the National Spiritual Assembly, the national Baha’i governing council, the study materials include excerpts from Baha’i guidance. Two brief case studies, one looking at the impact of racism on families and the other examining a conflict in a junior youth group, are followed by questions for discussion. 

Presentation at the 2019 Heartland Baha’i Summer School in Urbana, Illinois. Photo by Adrian McKee

Where possible, smaller study groups include two or more generations within families or neighborhoods. They practice conversations such as they might have on visits to each other’s homes. A number of those groups have started putting together action plans on the spot — to work beyond racial and ethnic barriers as they expand circles of friends that pray, converse, study and build capacities together. 

Did this first phase of the program increase the number and quality of conversations about the real-world implications of race, the teachings of Baha’u’llah on unity and justice, and how those issues can be addressed in community-building activity?  

Planners, facilitators and collaborators in several of those sessions agree: it’s a start, and a lot more can be learned. 

Continuing study and action

And that learning will largely come through direct experience, including further study and action, according to the national Office of Education and Schools, which oversees the task force developing and implementing the curriculum.

Some discussion groups caught a strong spark. “I saw it with my own eyes in a very powerful way,” says Cynthia Barnes-Slater, who facilitated groups both at Bosch Baha’i School in California and at Green Lake Baha’i School in Wisconsin. She worked with groups of adults, youths and junior youths who focused on the guidance and managed to offer some strong opinions respectfully. And they pledged to follow up in their own neighborhoods.

The two case studies, she says, were “really good for stimulating meaningful conversation,” especially in the context of recent guidance from the National Assembly and the Universal House of Justice, the global Baha’i governing council. 

The materials were most effective, she acknowledges, among people already involved with junior youth groups, children’s classes or other elements of the Baha’i community’s educational process. 

Phyllis Unterschuetz, who facilitated discussion in this program at Green Acre Baha’i School in Maine, agrees. “The folks who are engaged [in the process in their own communities] are able to say, ‘I can see this happening in my junior youth group’ or ‘I see how this could happen in my study circle.’ And their reflections about the scenarios are much more concrete.” 

Some people, she notes, had a hard time seeing relevance or realism in the case-study stories. But many eventually saw the stories for what they are: “a vehicle to get us to the place where we can have a practical conversation. … What if this was actually the situation? What would we do?”  

Power of conversation, urgency of involving the young

Members of a small group share thoughts at the 2019 Tennessee Baha’i Summer School. Photo courtesy of Andrew Lefton

In Tennessee, enthusiasm for the summer school’s conversations went public through a Sept. 2 article in the Chattanooga Times Free Press

The article quoted attendees on the power of diverse gatherings with elevated conversations, the reasons people may shy away from such conversations, and the urgency of involving young people. 

One friend of the Faith, who said gentrification of minority neighborhoods is a prime concern of his, said his spirituality drew him to the school, and he shares with the Baha’is at least one element of confidence: “I feel that no matter what, people are going to come together. No matter what.” 

In some cases, the learning seemed “more theoretical than experiential,” in the words of Dru Hanich, a local planner for the John H. Wilcott Summer School, which serves Montana and nearby states. While she was aware of fruitful discussion in a group that had American Indian and white participants, she found her own and other less-diverse groups were challenged — not only in drawing a concrete vision from the case studies, but also in establishing a dialogue between the “graying” and younger generations. 

Still, “we did discuss making sure we were aware of people of different backgrounds, being friendly to them and being aware of our own assumptions,” she notes.

After the Indiana Baha’i School, a survey showed junior youth participants “were overwhelmingly pleased to be included with their own family members” and “really appreciated being listened to by adults,” according to Peggy Lemmey Borell, who helped oversee the program there. Still, some junior youths said those adults could have followed up with them more attentively, which she says is “a new learning curve for parents.”  

One facilitator in Indiana, Bob Schneeweis, said that at the school he and his wife, Adina, talked with a family from their hometown of Troy, Michigan, about reviving a devotional gathering focused on race issues that they had held in past years. “We hope, in fact, that we might even be able to bring some of the materials on race and the family into this devotional space,” he says.

Always an eye toward oneness

Ymasumac Marañon-Davis, who represented the task force at several summer schools, says the central theme in developing the program and its materials is “always keeping an eye toward oneness.” To continue encouraging this posture toward oneness, facilitators were trained using a 2018 compilation of guidance from the Universal House of Justice on race and community building. 

Facilitators and coordinator of the race amity program at John H. Wilcott Baha’i Summer School in Montana. Photo courtesy of Pam Wolfe

Facilitators aimed to create an environment of using that guidance to answer questions, rather than having to become “experts.” That, she says, was aimed at promoting a spirit of continued learning, a posture of “How do I engage in a conversation about racial prejudice while walking toward oneness?” And it makes the guidance, rather than anyone’s personal advice, the main influence in shaping language and behavior when interracial challenges arise.

What’s next, then? Systematic follow-up is in the works in selected areas, as families and neighborhood groups will have opportunities to study further and reflect on their experiences.

From there an aim is to learn about not only about deepening and elevating conversations among themselves, but also about engaging with groups outside the Baha’i Faith. With current public discourse on race highly fragmented, Marañon-Davis asks, “how do we move away from a language of disintegration to a language of integration toward a language of oneness — even if we’re not there right now?”

This is part of a coherent process that includes plans that participants are making, either during the sessions or following up on their own.

Already, Barnes-Slater has been sharing materials from this curriculum with friends elsewhere. The experience has helped strengthen her commitment to working for racial empowerment and justice through this process of building community. 

And she’s elated to have found groups who want to keep learning, through study and action, “how the [Baha’i] teachings relate to the world we live in right now. … This is really a grassroots effort. It’s going to have to be heart to heart.” 

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Consultation with youths whips up storm of action so camp can take place

US Bahá'í News Service - Fri, 10/25/2019 - 2:48pm

It was understandable there weren’t many advance sign-ups for a four-day regional capacity-building camp for young people to be held in Covington, Georgia, over Labor Day weekend. Hurricane Dorian was imminent, and no one knew where it would make landfall or how devastating its impact would be. 

The camp was designed to bring together young people from Georgia, South Carolina and Florida and strengthen their ability to foster community building where they live. But as Labor Day neared, few people had registered to participate, facilitate the camp’s sessions or provide service to keep it humming. 

Then, as the storm began to turn away from a direct hit on those states, a different kind of storm took over: the power of consultation. A team of Baha’is and friends “shared the situation” with youths in the region who had participated in previous camps and were learning in study circles how to initiate and sustain the core activities of community building.

Youths at a camp in Covington, Georgia, over Labor Day weekend gather in a devotional circle. Photo by Lisa Flynn

“It was suggested we say prayers, and immediately the youths began collaborating to visit those who had not yet registered for the camp,” according to team members. 

Junior youths enjoy getting out in the water at a summer camp in Covington, Georgia. Photo by Khadijih Gore

Explains Nabil Kleinhenz, who serves as secretary of the elected Regional Baha’i Council for the Southeastern States, that kind of youth outreach to friends “has been the primary mode of expanding the nucleus” of people engaged in the community-building process the past six months. 

The youths’ “friendship and their understanding of the purpose of the [training] institute process and the vision for the camps motivated them to make sure that their [friends’] families were visited and they got registered,” he says. 

“By the next day we had 39 confirmed youths and facilitators from neighborhoods in Georgia, South Carolina and Florida participating in the camp beginning that evening.” And phone calls streamed in confirming transportation for participants. 

The lesson team members take from this process? “When we turned the consultation over to the youth, they took ownership for the camp happening.” 

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Orange tree is a living reminder of the Bab

US Bahá'í News Service - Fri, 10/25/2019 - 2:48pm

Every May, Baha’is commemorate the anniversary of the night in 1844 that marks the beginning of the Baha’i Faith. 

On that night, Siyyid ‘Ali-Muhammad, who became known as the Bab (“the Gate” in Arabic), declared that the time for new revelation from God had arrived. He said the world should prepare for “Him whom God shall make manifest,” God’s Messenger Who would unite all the peoples of the world in one family. Baha’is now know this Messenger to be Baha’u’llah.  

The historic house in Iran in which the Bab’s declaration took place was destroyed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard in 1979. But a living treasure from the house remains in the United States, at the Baha’i House of Worship in Wilmette, Illinois, in the form of an orange tree. In the spirit of the 200th anniversary of the birth of the Bab, observed Oct. 29, 2019, here is the story of that tree.

In the late 1960s La Verne Rhode, a Baha’i from Tucson, Arizona, visited the House of the Bab in Shiraz, in southern Iran. She collected some seeds from an orange tree growing there. After her return to the United States, she planted the seeds in five separate containers, and each seed grew into a sapling. One of these young trees was given to George Adams, in Nashua, New Hampshire.

An orange tree from a seed brought from the house of the Bab in Iran grows inside the Baha’i House of Worship in Wilmette, Illinois. Photo by Christopher Vodden

In 1980 Adams presented the tree as a gift to the National Spiritual Assembly, the elected governing council of the Baha’is of the United States. He asked that it be placed in the Auditorium of the Baha’i House of Worship, and this gift was gratefully accepted. Ernest Lopez, who was the superintendent of grounds at the Temple, made arrangements to have the tree shipped from New Hampshire.

When it arrived, Lopez replanted the tree in a larger pot and sheltered it in a nearby greenhouse to allow it to adjust to the move. Horticulturist Tom Klitzkie then took over its care and the tree was moved to the Auditorium, where it stayed for the next 20 years.

By 2000, though, the tree was distressed and dropping leaves. By then the House of Worship staff had contracted with a plant care company whose employees did not know the tree’s history or significance, and they simply removed it from the Auditorium. The branches were pruned off and the potted trunk was left for trash. 

Scott Conrad, project manager for restoration work happening at the Temple, found the abandoned tree. Conrad, a native of California, recognized the forlorn plant as an orange tree and surmised it to be the one from the House of the Bab.

The tree was rescued and moved into an office in one of the service buildings. There, with the tender loving care of Pat Armbruster, who was also working on the Temple restoration, the tree was revived, and by fall 2008 its branches reached the office ceiling. The tree was returned to the House of Worship with a plaque that identified it as the treasure that it was.

The orange tree bore fruit during its early years in the Auditorium, but did not do so during later years while it was under stress. Then, in late in 2010, four oranges appeared. In summer 2011, the tree bore more than 20 oranges, all of which matured into a full rich orange color. These were harvested and made into jars of marmalade that were shared as special gifts. Fragrant blossoms and a crop of oranges have appeared every year since.

A plaque marks this special tree at the Baha’i House of Worship. Photo by Christopher Vodden

“Sometimes visitors ask us if they can have one of the oranges,” says Christopher Vodden, director of the Activities Office at the Baha’i House of Worship. Such requests mostly come from people who have been on pilgrimage to the Baha’i holy places in and near Haifa, Israel, and have been given oranges from the abundant trees in that area. “We prefer to leave the oranges on the tree because they are so pretty,” says Vodden.

Baha’i Lisa Haese Smith, a musician now living in Australia, used to visit the House of Worship regularly. She noticed the orange tree growing there and says she was inspired by its “noble, sweet and humble presence.”

“I imagined the courtyard garden of the House of the Bab; the fragrance and the beauty of that place,” she wrote in liner notes for a CD of her piano music. “An orange tree diffuses its beauty, fragrance and fruit across time and place; from a courtyard garden in Persia to the Baha’i Temple on the shores of Lake Michigan; evocative and inspiring songs of Journeys and Places.”

“I wanted to write a piece of music that somehow captured that place and that time, and the story of how the orange tree had come to be standing half way across the world in the House of Worship in America.”  

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Bonfire Devotions

US Bahá'í News Service - Fri, 10/25/2019 - 2:33pm

Salahuddin family hosted pizza & bonfire with optional donations to the food pantry in Skokie & local community, invited neighbors.

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For bicentenary, Shrine of the Bab opens to thousands of visitors, community leaders

Bahá'í World News Service - Thu, 10/24/2019 - 7:00pm
To commemorate the bicentenary, a reception was held for community leaders, and the terraces as well as the Shrine opened at night to the general public.

72hr Guide of Bicentenary coverage

US Bahá'í News Service - Thu, 10/24/2019 - 10:51am

On Monday at sunset in the Line Islands in Kiribati, a global community will begin a period of celebrations marking the 200th anniversary of the birth of the Bab, the Prophet-Herald of the Baha’i Faith.

See full story by the Bahá’í World News Service: https://news.bahai.org/story/1364/

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Chicago Architecture Center’s annual Open House

US Bahá'í News Service - Thu, 10/24/2019 - 10:13am

The Baha’i House of Worship was host to a record-breaking 3,536 people who visited as part of the Chicago Architecture Center’s annual Open House Chicago weekend, Oct. 19-20.  Visitors to the Welcome Center had the opportunity to view art on display created in honor of the Bicentenary of the birth of the Bab and learn about His life and teachings from guides.

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Anticipation mounts: A guide for 72 hours of bicentenary coverage

Bahá'í World News Service - Wed, 10/23/2019 - 7:00pm
This article provides a road map for connecting to the historic global celebrations marking the bicentenary, which begins Monday at sunset.

Bicentenario del Nacimiento de el Bab

US Bahá'í News Service - Wed, 10/23/2019 - 12:21pm

On the evening of Oct 20, 2019, Vickery Meadow Community in Dallas held a Bicentenary event with the families in a neighborhood apartment courtyard with friends made in the children’s class and the two junior youth groups.

A few of the junior youth helped to create the posters. Some of the children helped to set
up the decorations. A few families provided homemade tamales, tacos, drinks, chairs, and garbage bags for the celebration.

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Theater and arts celebrate the Bab

US Bahá'í News Service - Wed, 10/23/2019 - 11:28am

Dallas Baha’i Center host a Bicentenary program on Oct. 19, 2019: craft tables with activities inspired by the Báb, dinner, program of music and dramatic readings, and film “Dawn of the Light.”

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Flowers of one garden in San Diego, CA

US Bahá'í News Service - Wed, 10/23/2019 - 11:17am

A community project, “Flowers of one garden” folding panels. San Diego, CA, USA. To use at street fairs.

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Social justice, resilience and action form focus at ABS conference

US Bahá'í News Service - Tue, 10/22/2019 - 11:03am

A focus on social justice that so galvanized last year’s Association for Baha’i Studies – North America conference was obvious from the start of the 2019 ABS gathering Aug. 8-11 in Ottawa, Ontario. 

“We welcome all of you here today to the ancient territory of the Algonquin people, who for over 200 years have received all of us as their guests,” said Shabnam Koirala-Azad in the first plenary session.

A later speaker put a fine point on the sentiment, terming Ottawa and its environs “unceded” land.

So it was no surprise that concern for the rights and progress of indigenous and other significant populations — such as African Americans and recent immigrants — was integral to the conference. 

Louise Profeit-LeBlanc tells stories from the Yukon of facing the world with courage, just after Douglas White’s presentation the 2019 Association for Baha’i Studies conference. Photo by Tom Mennillo

Breakout sessions explored such topics as the role of black artists in transforming the devotional character of communities and how non-indigenous people can contribute meaningfully to reconciliation. Native storytelling added a layer of richness to the weekend’s array of artistic expression.

But it was through plenary talks and panels that conference participants were introduced to such concepts as womanism and constructive agency. 

The latter builds on what attendees learned last year about constructive resilience — defined by the Universal House of Justice, global governing council of the Baha’i Faith, as a powerful response to long-term systemic oppression that can effect transformation in individuals and society.

“Expressions of Constructive Resilience: African American Womanism and the Baha’i Faith in Dialogue” (Layli Maparyan)

Maparyan framed her talk with a quotation of Baha’u’llah, prophet-founder of the Baha’i Faith, that she said “speaks to the spirit of constructive resilience”:

These are Thy servants whom the ascendancy of the oppressor hath failed to deter from fixing their eyes on the Tabernacle of Thy majesty, and whom the hosts of tyranny have been powerless to affright and divert their gaze from the Dayspring of Thy signs and the Dawning-Place of Thy testimonies.

“Please take a moment to let this passage sink in,” Maparyan urged her listeners. “Allow yourself to feel what it’s like to be undeterred by an oppressor. Allow yourself to imagine what it’s like to stand in front of the hosts of tyranny and not succumb to fright.

Layli Maparyan examines African-American womanism as an expression of constructive resilience during the opening plenary of the 2019 Association for Baha’i Studies conference. Photo by Tom Mennillo

“And then feel that glorious feeling that comes from keeping your gaze fixed on ‘the Dayspring of Thy signs and the Dawning-Place of Thy testimonies.’ Hold all of that as we go forward.”

The professor of Africana studies said race has been central to her life and work. Her white father and African-American mother were among Baha’is pictured in a 1965 Ebony magazine article about the Faith’s stance on interracial unity. Pivotal moments in the civil rights movement occurred within weeks of her birth. 

“Those times must have imprinted me because as an interracial Baha’i child I always knew I had a responsibility to fulfill the promise of my parents’ interracial marriage,” said Maparyan.

Her career path, she said, crystallized in “an interest in how social movements can be spiritual” and over time “my area of specialization became womanism, a social change perspective developed and articulated by African-American and African women.” 

Backing up, Maparyan examined race from the perspectives of color, culture and cosmology. The first two can’t “stand in for race in its fullness,” but cosmology — worldview — fits much better because it “represents a deep architecture of thoughts within a given culture.”

For African cosmology, that architecture is its interrelated building blocks of spirituality, community and ecology — a far cry from the symbol of “deficit, deprivation, poverty, primitiveness” it is viewed as in the West, she said.

And at its heart, she said, is womanism, which through its organizing principle of kinship has the potential of “ending all forms of oppression for all people, restoring the balance between people and the environment or nature, and reconciling human life with the spiritual dimension.”

How? “In contrast to the politics of opposition, so prevalent in today’s conceptions of social justice and social movement, womanism offers the politics of invitation, inviting all to come together in this global family formation and this reality of interrelatedness and oneness,” said Maparyan.

As an action-oriented spiritual movement, she said, womanism fits right in with the Baha’i approach to achieving oneness. “For Baha’is the idea of applying spirituality is already built in. In fact, there is no spirituality without application. … For us, religion exists for the betterment of humanity.” 

Similarly, womanists believe that “inner and outer realities must be aligned for social or environmental transformation to be truly sustainable.” And the two visions “converge on the value of both ongoing cultural diversity and the emergence of a planetary form of identity consistent with the oneness of humanity,” Maparyan concluded.

“Beyond Resistance, Beyond Critique: Exploring Constructive Agency in Social Movement and Critical Scholarship” (Caity Bolton, Elizabeth de Souza, Holly Hanson, Michael Karlberg, Layli Maparyan, Michael Penn, Sahar Sattarzadeh, Derik Smith, Bradley Wilson)

On one side of the stage sat four longtime practitioners of social action and discourse. On the other, a generation of Baha’is deriving fresh lessons about effective involvement in those arenas.

Michael Penn, a clinical psychologist and professor at Franklin & Marshall College, relates a story as Michael Karlberg listens in during a panel discussion on constructive agency at the 2019 Association for Baha’i Studies conference. Photo by Tom Mennillo

The veterans’ role — beyond an introduction by Karlberg — was to pose questions for their younger colleagues to answer from recent experience in such places as Zanzibar, South Africa and Appalachia and from such perspectives as the arts and African-American literary culture.

Karlberg explained how conversations on constructive resilience since early 2017 led to a series of seminars and to this presentation, which participants decided should speak more broadly to “what we’ve come to think of or understand as constructive agency.”

Agency, in social theory circles, refers to the exercise of conscious and intentional will in the pursuit of change. “So constructive agency,” he said, “refers to a response to injustice characterized by the active construction of more just patterns of community life and corresponding social structures.” 

That contrasts with more contentious approaches to change, but Karlberg noted “we are not using this distinction to judge those who pursue justice through contentious means.” He also pointed out that constructive agency does not imply “passivity or complacency in the face of injustice.”

“Constructive implies active or urgent responses to injustice through constructive means aimed at deep or radical social transformation,” he said. “And it enables us to invite people into a conversation about the implications of that.”

Bradley Wilson (right) describes constructive agency in Appalachia during a plenary of the 2019 Association for Baha’i Studies conference. Others on the panel of nine included Elizabeth de Souza (left) and Sahar Sattarzadeh. Photo by Tom Mennillo

De Souza said the arts can be instrumental in that process. “Art gives us a sacred ground on which to meet where beauty, truth and inquiry can be joined seamlessly,” she said. “In its highest form, art can create an opening through which a kaleidoscope of possible solutions to any given problem can present themselves.”

Her own work as a writer, she said, echoes that of her father, McCleary “Bunch” Washington, “an African-American visual artist who suffered tremendous amounts of racial trauma throughout his life and yet was able to create work that positively impacted and influenced many, many people.” 

The core value of constructive agency, said de Souza, can be summed up as “we shall overcome” — not just in the sense of helping people “get through” oppression but as a means to construct a society characterized by justice.

Smith said he draws inspiration for that quest from the poetry of Robert Hayden, a Baha’i who spoke in the 1960s and ’70s of the need to create “love instruments.” 

Hayden was derided by some as naïve, and Smith said those who pursue constructive agency today might be likewise criticized. People who view “the suffering of those who are oppressed right now” want change to come immediately and believe it will happen only by forceful means, he said. 

Derik Smith (right) participates with Caity Bolton on a panel exploring constructive agency at the 2019 Association for Baha’i Studies conference. Photo by Tom Mennillo

But creating structures that are just and sustainable takes time, Smith noted. And the best way to bring them about, he said, will be to “align ourselves with certain kinds of people who are willing to enact change within the institutions that we really want to build.”

That, he said, means “figuring out how we can do our little part to advance the condition of one who may require some kind of assistance, right? And when we begin to do that … we lose all this kind of attachment to contention and conflict.”

Bolton said her experiences in Zanzibar, where she has helped build community ties within an Islamic culture, bear that out. Many people she has worked with see resistance as the only way to push back against rising individualism and class stratification, she noted. 

Others, though, are getting real results from such collective approaches toward empowerment as a community banking project that funds small businesses and initiatives that build formal or informal means of mutual support.

In that way, said Bolton, people can make unique contributions to a world that has seen them only as recipients of development aid.

Sattarzadeh, in South Africa, and Wilson, first in Nicaragua and then Appalachia, also have seen cooperative responses to economic crisis begin to take root.

“It goes to this concept of power,” said Sattarzedeh, “and how we reconceptualize power not to be only material, economic and physical but also the spiritual inherent within the individual.”

That, said Wilson, has fueled approaches to recovering from the loss of jobs — whether it be from coffee in Nicaragua or from coal in West Virginia and Kentucky.

“Thinking about the creation of a different world and imagining that world together,” he said, “is really central as an important quality and attribute of constructive agency and constructive social movements.”

“Social Transformation through Reconciliation: Love, Justice and Unity in the Defining Moment in Indigenous Peoples’ Relationship with Canada” (Douglas S. White)

A powerful example of moving from confrontation to cooperation in pursuit of social change was provided by White, a lawyer and negotiator who serves native peoples of Canada in a multitude of capacities.

Douglas White brings a native perspective to the topic of social transformation through reconciliation, at the 2019 Association for Baha’i Studies conference. Photo by Tom Mennillo

As a youth living on an Indian reserve in British Columbia, said White, he had to use his fists to survive. As a tribal leader and legal advocate for Canada’s aboriginal people, he had to use litigation to regain land.

“Being in that mode of constantly being under attack” is the “experience of colonialism” for him and all other native people, said White. “It’s pretty grim. It manifests in so many different ways in every experience that you have, every interaction that you have.”

He talked about the displacement of “our own systems of government, of leadership and law” — not to mention the physical reality of being confined to the “very tiny little space” of a reservation in a huge province the size of Washington, Oregon and California combined. 

Then, he pointed out, there is the legacy of a residential school system that suppressed native language, religion and culture; the ongoing tragedy of missing indigenous women and girls; and the ever-increasing rate of incarceration of indigenous people.

White’s response for many years was to inflict “maximum pain on the provincial government,” he said. “Make them suffer. Make life miserable. Be merciless. Fight, fight, fight. Don’t give an inch of ground.”

That approach did yield some victories, he noted. “For the first time we get our own assets, and it’s transformative and important in certain ways.”

But on the whole “it doesn’t bring us anywhere new with the Crown or the rest of the problems,” he said. And as he became immersed in the Baha’i writings he envisioned a different future.

“More and more what matters to me is not the defensive or the protective steps or actions that I have to take with respect to my own people or land or children,” he said. “It’s about trying to figure out how to create the world that we want for them. What are the necessary elements for creating a different kind of world?”

Bottom line, he said: “I want my children to be loved by other Canadians. And I want my children to love them in return. I came to a realization that I would never be able to create that world by bashing people over the head with lawsuits in a fighting mode.”

Instead, he said, “The only hope we have is if we’re working together in unity. Indigenous peoples aren’t going to be able to do this hard work by themselves. I know that working together, we can help each other.”

 

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Confident strides in contributing to discourses through ABS activities

US Bahá'í News Service - Tue, 10/22/2019 - 10:03am

Fresh approaches adopted since 2013 by the Association for Baha’i Studies – North America have hit full stride as they aid in contributing a Baha’i perspective to discourses of society.

Witness the plenaries and breakouts of ABS’s 43rd annual gathering, Aug. 8–11 in Ottawa, Ontario — and how they benefited from efforts year-round by members of its working groups in various disciplines to generate knowledge and apply it in service to humanity.

Workshops examine discourse spaces in light of guidance

Two workshops conducted on the gathering’s first day and repeated later gave hundreds of the 1,400 people in attendance an opportunity to study and discuss guidance from the Universal House of Justice, global governing council of the Baha’i Faith, that underpins the strides of the past six years.

Samuel Benoit facilitates a discussion on contributing to academic and professional discourses at the 2019 Association for Baha’i Studies conference. Photo by Tom Mennillo

Spelled out in a letter to the Faith’s Canadian governing council, the National Spiritual Assembly, the guidance notes that every Baha’i “has the opportunity to examine the forces operating in society and introduce relevant aspects of the teachings within the discourses prevalent in whatever social space he or she is present.” 

The 2013 letter continues, “It is, perhaps, as a means to enhance the abilities of the friends to explore such opportunities in relation to their scholarly interests that the endeavours of the Association for Baha’i Studies can be conceived.”

In that light, workshop attendees — filling several meeting rooms — shared examples of: 

  • How discourse shapes the way people act
  • What problematic assumptions or concepts are at play in the prevalent discourses of society
  • What are some real-world consequences of such assumptions
  • What attitudes and qualities should characterize participation in discourses
  • What discourse spaces are available or can be created in a given discipline or profession
  • What initiatives might be fruitful to pursue within the community-building efforts of Baha’is and friends
  • What lessons are being learned through that process that might inform efforts to build capacity for contributing to discourses

Samuel Benoit, facilitating a workshop, asked participants to discuss the materials and “reflect on how we can engage in these discourses in our own fields.” 

Julia Berger, who serves on the ABS executive committee, was one who marveled at how rich those discussions were. 

“You shared your experiences from school settings to senior homes to your work as investment advisers, as doctors, as parents — all sorts of different spaces that you’re in,” she related.

Breakouts go interactive to fully engage participants

Benoit also urged attendees to learn from the study and discussions, then go on to the gathering’s other sessions “and see how that changes the spirit of the conference.”

Which they did, finding in the process that the dozens of breakouts spread over three days perhaps were most conducive to an interactive environment. 

Julia Berger, member of the ABS Executive Committee, and Selvi Adaikkalam Zabihi, a coordinator for the ABS working groups, give an overview of the working groups’ development, their mission to cultivate capacity to contribute to professional discourses, and some of their activities. Photo by Monib Sabet

The ABS committee, explained Berger, cast a wider than ever net this year to “encourage more and more people to offer their insights and the fruits of their work at the conference” as well as “demonstrate ways in which Baha’is are entering into conversations with other voices in their fields.” 

For participants the goal was “to engage more deeply with the material in small groups so that everyone in that room would have a chance to examine, to speak and to share,” she said.

Breakouts were offered on tracks ranging from agriculture to youth, with lots in between: justice, infrastructures, psychology, science, arts, economies, systems and the like. 

A  workshop on “aging and dying well” contrasted the need to prepare spiritually and socially for our transition into the next world with a contemporary reality that emphasizes on one end of the spectrum heroic health measures and on the opposite end physician-assisted death.

Another breakout, on what it means to live a life of service, reflected on Baha’i writings relating to pursuing a profession and calling and the concept of spiritual distinction. Likewise, a breakout on the future of governance explored the promise some theories hold for evolving beyond the politics of today’s liberal democracies.

In these and other sessions, thought-provoking questions were posed to the audience and led to discussions steeped in personal and collective experiences yet respectful of other perspectives that much can be learned from — to everyone’s benefit.

As such they served as examples of how discourse can lead to mutual understanding and perhaps even a common vision. Youths navigate an exciting and complex landscape in university Baha’i undergraduate and graduate students will sometimes be challenged on the spiritual dimension they bring to discourses, said Ashraf Rushdy. And the Institute for Studies in Global Prosperity (ISGP) is preparing many for the challenge. [caption id="attachment_11902" align="alignleft" width="272"] Ashraf Rushdy describes the work of the Institute for Studies in Global Prosperity at the 2019 Association for Baha'i Studies conference. Photo by Tom Mennillo[/caption] ISGP offers seminars to Baha’i students in various locations, for each year of their undergraduate studies.  In their university years, young people are immersed in classes and activities that expose them to humanity’s rich legacy of knowledge across diverse fields of study. At the same time, students are learning to navigate a social and intellectual environment that can be confusing and may at times contradict and belittle their beliefs and convictions.  In his presentation, Rushdy, a member of the coordinating team for the ISGP seminars in North America, explained that the annual seminars seek to develop capacity in youths “to assume ownership of their own education” and “acquire the kind of knowledge that will assist them to live fruitful and productive lives.” “They may encounter in their universities an environment that does not allow for meaningful dialogue between science and religion,” said Rushdy. “At times, they find that spiritual themes or their belief in God are brushed aside.” The seminars, therefore, provide a valuable space in which young people can develop their capacity to reflect on and analyze their studies and social environment in light of the teachings of the Baha’i Faith. The students may grow stronger in drawing out insights that can help them contribute meaningfully to social progress and to the advancement of knowledge in their fields of study. “One of the main aims of the seminars is to cultivate in participants a deep appreciation for the role of knowledge in the advancement of civilization,” explained Rushdy. “Students explore the complementary relationship between science and religion” and strive to transcend the common assumption that science and religion are contradictory and incompatible.  In addition to eight seminars held in North America, more than 50 seminars are offered across the world. -->

Working group projects foster community building

And as more and more breakouts — as well as plenaries — emerge from the working groups formed under ABS auspices, the value of this behind-the-scenes movement to advance the Association’s vision is rapidly becoming clear.

The working groups formed under ABS auspices may be seen as an embodiment of what ISGP students are working toward. -->

The working groups evolved from small groups that met online starting in 2013 and began drawing in others from various academic and professional disciplines, explained Selvi Adaikkalam Zabihi.

“It was from these early groups that the concept of a working group emerged as a way of emphasizing fresh approaches,” she said. “And in order to more systematically support these kinds of efforts and to learn alongside them, the association created a dedicated team for this purpose.”

Adaikkalam Zabihi said three interrelated areas of learning have come into focus.

A breakout session on the art of aging and dying, led by Varqa Rohipour and Hayley Miloff, was one of several emerging from processes fostered by ABS working groups. Photo by Tom Mennillo

The first centers on collaborative projects that small groups within a discipline undertake to explore opportunities for discourse and, ultimately, generate content that can be contributed within those spaces.

That leads in many cases to a second thrust of larger groups that grow out of what the small groups are learning and can support capacity building on a wider scale.

Third is learning about specialized spaces such as seminars that can be held around North America at any point in the year as well as in plenaries and breakouts offered at the annual ABS conference.

Two such seminars — examining in light of the teachings of Baha’u’llah the historical abuses of propaganda and the limits of secular liberalism — were held in the days preceding the conference.

Reinforcing how the three areas of learning are interrelated, these specialized spaces can act to incubate and support the collaborative projects, said Adaikkalam Zabihi. As they provide mechanisms for sharing input, “they can draw new people in and build unity of thought.”

Emily Chew takes the lead in a breakout presentation at the 2019 ABS conference on “Bringing Compassion and Justice to the World of Finance: Developing a Baha’i-inspired Discourse about the Role of Wealth in Society.” Co-presenters were Daryn Dodson and Jenna Nicholas. Photo by Louis Brunet

The breakout on aging and dying is an example of such a project, she said. Others are tackling discourses related to anti-corruption, income inequality and the visual arts.

As these groups identify questions and start to go into greater depth, “we see that often there will be a pattern of circling back and forth between the literature in the field and Baha’i thought,” she noted. 

“So a question may arise, for example, from reading a book or article. Then they’ll look for insights from the Faith. As their understanding deepens, they might identify like-minded thinkers that they want to read about. A kind of a dialogue emerges.”

Panel is born of explorations in working group

That’s just how planning for this conference’s panel on contributing to discourse through media and storytelling began.

Sharing a laugh during a panel presentation on contributing to discourse through media and storytelling are (from left) Esther Maloney, Kyle Schmalenberg and Amelia Tyson, at the 2019 Association for Baha’i Studies conference. Photo by Tom Mennillo

Years ago, Amelia Tyson met Esther Maloney because she wanted to learn from someone who was using film in her work with young people. 

Later Tyson met Kyle Schmalenberg, who collaborates on Maloney’s project and also is co-creator and co-chair of a native film and storytelling initiative.

Over the years within the media working group, these three graduate students “have watched films together, had calls and attended seminars,” Tyson related. 

“We have explored themes, such as representation and identity, conflict and storytelling, youth and media, new media and propaganda,” she said. 

“And all of these spaces have informed our practice, which in turn has informed consultation and reflection.”

As all the spaces of the ABS conference itself have the potential to do for its participants.

 

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Images and highlights from the Baha’i Studies conference

US Bahá'í News Service - Tue, 10/22/2019 - 9:02am
Universal House of Justice member Stephen Birkland shares personal thoughts on contributing to the intellectual life of the Baha’i community. Photo by Tom Mennillo

Exploring the theme “Beyond Critique: Laying the Groundwork for Social Transformation,” participants in the 2019 conference of the Association for Baha’i Studies–North America in Ottawa, Ontario, shared perspectives from their experiences in academia, professions and neighborhoods.

Workshops, breakouts, working group sessions for various disciplines, or hallways and dinner tables — spaces for those conversations were anywhere you could find attendees.

After he took part in many of the weekend’s sessions and chatted with other participants, Stephen Birkland, member of the Universal House of Justice, global governing council for the Baha’i Faith, addressed the assemblage.

“I think one of the things that’s so wonderful about this space, and the other workshops and seminars organized by ABS, is that we’re with people who are joy-giving and uplifting,” he observed.

“There’s a joy that we experience when there’s that kind of nobility and honor in our interaction.” 

Please enjoy a collection of images from the conference, Aug. 8–11.

The post Images and highlights from the Baha’i Studies conference appeared first on Baha‘is of the United States.

Construction progresses on Kenya Temple

Bahá'í World News Service - Mon, 10/21/2019 - 7:00pm
The historic project reaches a new stage of development as the foundation of the central edifice is laid and work on other structural elements advances.

A Bahá’í Retreat in Chapel Hill, North Carolina

US Bahá'í News Service - Thu, 10/17/2019 - 10:41am

A Baha’i Retreat for families in our neighborhood in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. It was the first one of its kind in our neighborhood, bringing together whole families whose children and youth have been in children classes and junior youth groups over the past years.

The post A Bahá’í Retreat in Chapel Hill, North Carolina appeared first on Baha‘is of the United States.

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