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Serving on a campus: a neighborhood with a difference

US Bahá'í News Service - Mon, 08/26/2019 - 3:41pm

As Baha’is and friends strive in neighborhoods across the globe to build community, the college campus stands out as a space full of people searching for identity and ways to serve humanity.

“College campuses are neighborhoods, college students are a receptive population, and Baha’i students can and should be encouraged to be creative in reaching out to them,” says Ray Zimmerman of Orange, California, who teaches at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo. 

Two young Baha’is who initiated community-building activities on campus while attending Chapman University in Orange from 2012 to 2016 agree with that sentiment — while noting campuses differ in at least one way from other neighborhoods.

Rainn Wilson (front) goofs around with Chapman University students during his 2013 visit to deliver the baccalaureate speech. Esme Aston is second from right and Julianne O’Connor is at far right. Photo by Ray Zimmerman

Julianne O’Connor and Esme Aston say they found their college years full of opportunities to converse with fellow students on spiritual topics and offer them avenues for contributing to the betterment of society.

College is a time young people are “looking how to shape their identity,” reflects Aston. “In some way, they think what they do through their work can contribute to society. 

“They are already in that mentality that ‘I’m here to be open-minded, I’m here to learn, I’m here to contribute to the community.’ So I think in that way there’s a lot of strength.”

The two friends entered Chapman after having served side by side to build community in a Beaverton, Oregon, neighborhood, and they immediately found similarities.

“It’s the same process, right?” notes Aston. “We had a group of friends. We talked to these friends about this lofty vision. We started [a study circle designed to train individuals for community building]. And then that translated into service.”

One primary arena of service was a neighborhood in nearby Santa Ana where Aston and O’Connor moved at the start of their sophomore year. They were part of starting or sustaining junior youth groups, children’s classes and devotional gatherings.

That’s where Aston and O’Connor discovered a difference. In neighborhoods such as in Santa Ana, they say, residents can identify its needs and readily see the value of junior youth groups and other community-building activities. On a campus the dynamic is different. Students want to contribute to society but their desire is often unfocused. 

Looking back, they also wonder whether working with residents should have been the team’s first option for service in Santa Ana, rather than organizing the activities themselves. It’s best if people indigenous to the neighborhood itself are the ones who are trained to initiate those devotional and educational activities, says Aston.  

Eventually that happened, though, she says. And those activities “have continued and expanded” in the years since the two friends graduated, says Zimmerman, who serves on the Spiritual Assembly — the local Baha’i governing council — of Orange and has aided the efforts of Baha’i students at Chapman, Saddleback and the University of California, Irvine.

In the end Aston and O’Connor say the most important thing is to align the efforts of Baha’is and friends on a campus with what is happening elsewhere in the community.

“What was happening [at Chapman] wasn’t isolated,” says Aston. “It was a chunk of the bigger movement that was happening. It’s important to keep it connected to the rest of the process.”

Different ways of making connections 

At Chapman, the study circle Aston, O’Connor and another student organized was made up of students they invited through conversations — and one singularly successful event.

Emily Sadeghi performs in the open mic portion of Chapman University’s Soul Pancake night in 2013. Photo by Ray Zimmerman

That was a SoulPancake night featuring open-mic performances; discussion of “life’s big issues” of the kind actor Rainn Wilson and others founded SoulPancake to foster; and, yes, pancakes.

“I think a lot of people are going to want to come to an event that sounds fun but is also an opportunity to make connections,” reflects O’Connor. “It’s very attractive to college students. I mean, free food. What more do you need?”

Aston and O’Connor say there are many ways Baha’is and friends can help serve the needs of college students. 

“People might be feeling lonely around the holidays, so maybe we do some kind of activity to make the people feel less lonely,” notes Aston. “Or you can do something for people who are really stressed out.”

But it’s in the interfaith arena that the Baha’i Faith has made its biggest impact at Chapman.

“Participation of Baha’i students on the Student Multifaith Council led at different times to Rainn Wilson, Andy Grammer and Justin Baldoni” — three Baha’is prominent in entertainment and public service — “speaking at Chapman’s religious baccalaureate commencement ceremony,” recalls Zimmerman.

“The dean of the Fish Interfaith Center is now asking for Andy and his wife, Aijia, to return in 2020 as baccalaureate speakers and performers.”

Gail Stearns, the dean, says the Baha’i community has been essential to the center’s “commitment to providing a home for all religions and fostering interfaith understanding. Our Baha’i friends, perhaps more than many others, fundamentally understand the centrality of spirituality and interfaith engagement, and we deeply cherish our partnership.”

Actor and activist Justin Baldoni (second from left) speaks with Chapman University students, including Baha’is Ben Weisman (second from right) and Maya Schechter Vahid (far right). Photo by Ray Zimmerman

She notes, “Chapman’s Interfaith Baccalaureate Service has grown from a fledgling 60 in attendance eight years ago to a packed house thanks to the incomparable Rainn Wilson, Andy Grammer, and Justin Baldoni as keynote guests, bringing graduates their inspiring stories of faith.”

Aston, through a job she held on campus, was “central in organizing ‘speed faithing’” — a way, akin to speed dating, of introducing students quickly to a number of faiths as they go around to tables staffed by representatives of those faiths — “and a hunger banquet to draw attention to poverty and food insecurity in Orange County,” says Zimmerman. He also serves on the university Board of Trustees’ Committee on Church and Interfaith Relations. 

Current students reflect on Faith’s impact

Last year a student “taught herself about the Faith online and mentioned her recent enrollment in the Baha’i Faith in her bio for commencement as she received three awards for peacemaking and interfaith work,” he says.

That student, Brittany Souza, has since moved to Washington, DC, and is participating in a study circle with a group of women in her new neighborhood, says Zimmerman. 

Looking back, she sees “Baha’u’llah’s influence … working through Chapman and the interfaith community. Without it I would have never found the Baha’i community.”

And she has helped introduce the Baha’i teachings and community to others — in part through interfaith activities, says Zimmerman.

“This former student has reached back to her friends in Orange County, and we now have three Chapman University students enthusiastically investigating the Faith and attending devotional programs and firesides,” he says. 

One of them, Caroline Kutschbach, says she “first heard about the Baha’i community when I became president of the Religious Honors Society. My plan was to provide a way for students to explore faiths through an open academic setting.”

She recalls, “I myself wanted to explore religions without fear of conversion or rejection. Upon learning about the faith of the Baha’i people I felt that it really resonated with what I believed and matched with my passion for all religions. 

“I love the Baha’i community because they are open to all people, as well as being involved in the interfaith community,” says Kutschbach. “They not only welcome other faiths into their environment, they encourage education and incorporate other religions in Baha’i devotions.”

Another student, Adina Corke, recalls being introduced to the Baha’i Faith through a Soul Pancake video shown to the interfaith council. 

“The love expressed by the Baha’i in the video … attracted me to investigate the Faith,” she says. “Since then, my eyes have been opened to the involvement of the Baha’is on campus and in the community.”

An interfaith panel discussion at Chapman University includes Baha’i Mona Asadi (fifth from left) and two students who participate in Baha’i activities, Adina Corke (far left) and Caroline Kutschbach (fourth from left). Photo by Ray Zimmerman

An interfaith panel also made a deep impression on Corke. One of the panelists was Mona Asadi, a Baha’i student from Las Vegas, who is active in interfaith activities on campus and sings at Baha’i events in the community.

“Learning about the Baha’i [Faith] came at a time when I needed to believe there was good in the world, people that loved each other and wanted everyone to live their best lives,” she says. 

“The Baha’i Faith satisfied that need I had to find goodness more so than any other faith I have been exposed to so far in my brief 22 years.“

Service continues from college to career

O’Connor now serves with the Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic and Aston works for the American Red Cross in Washington, DC.

Each has duties that are youth-centered. “We both joke about our path of service literally becoming our careers,” says Aston, who still animates a junior youth group, in DC’s Edgewood neighborhood. 


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Two prayer gatherings, one purpose: address racism

US Bahá'í News Service - Mon, 08/26/2019 - 3:11pm

One is for African Americans, indigenous people, and other people of color. The other, conducted in the Persian language, is for people of Iranian origin.

These Baha’i-initiated devotional gatherings in the Nashville, Tennessee, area create safe, supportive spaces for segments of the population to pray together and discuss issues and experiences relating to race. The vision is to empower participants to contribute to a unified and diverse community. 

A quote from Shoghi Effendi, Guardian of the Baha’i Faith from 1921 to 1957, guides the devotional for people of color, says Carol Grady Mansour, a Baha’i in Arrington, Tennessee.

“In The Advent of Divine Justice, Shoghi Effendi makes it clear that ‘… every organized community enlisted under the banner of Baha’u’llah should feel it to be its first and inescapable obligation to nurture, encourage, and safeguard every minority belonging to any faith, race, class, or nation within it,’” notes Mansour. 

“One way we manifest that nurturing and encouragement has to do with how we approach discussions of race,” she says. “When someone is facing racial challenges, there is no admonition that the individual should just get over it, is overly sensitive, or somehow misread their reality. 

Carol Grady Mansour and her husband, Soheil, are involved in devotional gatherings focused on issues of racism as understandable through specific cultural perspectives. Photo courtesy of Sue St. Clair

“Since most of us have been in similar situations,” says Mansour, “there is no need to explain the distress, frustration or reasons why something was particularly vexing. Instead, we go straight to sharing how we’ve coped, and which writings were particularly helpful.”

Readings and gospel music offered spontaneously also help create a vibe familiar to “those of us who grew up in and around black churches,” she says. “We’ve seen estranged friends make it a point to attend.” 

For now, she adds, those who are not persons of color “are asked to support the effort through prayer rather than attendance.”

Mansour also is heartened by the Persian gathering, which she says has morphed into a study of the guidance on race from Baha’i institutions.

Mansour’s husband, Soheil, is among eight regular attendees of Iranian origin. The gathering rotates among homes in Williamson and Davidson counties.

Most of its members, Carol Mansour says, were unfamiliar with Shoghi Effendi’s statement that striving for elimination of prejudices of all kinds is a prerequisite for the growth of the Baha’i Faith in the United States. 

“So for several weeks they studied [the Persian translation of] The Advent of Divine Justice section on race prejudice.”

Soheil Mansour and fellow participant Farhad Firoozbakhsh also were taking part in a course on racism in America held by the Wilmette Institute, an online learning center. There, they were introduced to the Equal Justice Initiative’s video “Slavery to Mass Incarceration.” 

So these two, along with Farahnaz Firoozbakhsh, undertook the challenging task of translating the video into Persian. Parker McGee, a Baha’i in Williamson County, offered the use of his professional studio to record the narration and dub the translation onto the existing video, says Carol Mansour.

The Equal Justice Initiative, after viewing the Persian version, granted permission for the Baha’is to share the video publicly, she says. It has already been shown at least twice at Baha’i gatherings in the two counties, and is available to stream online

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‘Gnats to eagles’: Hosting and promoting talk in SC brings new confidence

US Bahá'í News Service - Mon, 08/26/2019 - 2:58pm

Conceived by Baha’is in upstate South Carolina and delivered by an international economist, a July talk on the importance of gender equality was three months in gestation. Those 90 days proved that the local Baha’i communities in greater Greenville are gaining the capacity to make their mark in any realm of community involvement.

The best thing that came out of this intensive period of learning to make connections with community leaders was “we were gnats and now we’re eagles,” says Dorcus Abercrombie. Working on behalf of the Spiritual Assembly, the Baha’i governing council serving Greenville County, she and Bernadette Cooper were pivotal in marshaling the time and talents of many Baha’is, friends and new partners.  

To be sure, there were many “now what do we do?” moments for the Assembly after Augusto Lopez-Claros, a former World Bank official, accepted an invitation to speak about his 2018 book Equality for Women = Prosperity for All: The Disastrous Global Crisis of Gender Inequality, a collaboration with writer Bahiyyih Nakhjavani. 

After all the planning, there were anxious hours when the Lopez-Claros’ flight into town was rescheduled and he arrived with little time to spare.

But there he was in front of 70 people at the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities on July 20, sharing statistics and stories on how stunting the contributions of women hurts individuals and society alike. Later that evening he spoke less formally at the local Baha’i center.

From panic to growing confidence

All these efforts began when Abercrombie read Equality for Women = Prosperity for All and imagined the impact the book’s message could have on people’s thinking about gender equality. She mentioned it to Cooper, who thought the author’s name rang a bell. It turns out Cooper’s son in New Zealand had attended a talk Lopez-Claros gave there.

Augusto Lopez-Claros (center), in Greenville, South Carolina, on his speaking tour, is flanked by (from left) Marc Rivers, Dorcus Abercrombie, Bernadette Cooper and Andrea Abercrombie. Photo by Phillip Abercrombie

The pair contacted contacted Lopez-Claros, who accepted.

That’s when panic set in, says Abercrombie. But despite trepidations she and Cooper set out to secure a venue and promote the appearance. 

Finding a location proved to be the easy part. It wasn’t long before they found a person at the Governor’s School who not only agreed to host but offered the space without charge because she agreed with the book’s premise.

Wielding a flyer designed by a local Baha’i and refined in many conversations with Lopez-Claros, they visited organizations, city and county offices, and business leaders asking that they place the talk on event calendars and lend it word-of-mouth credibility.

Some contacts resulted from Abercrombie and Cooper’s awareness of other currents in the wider community. A minority health summit yielded the names of folks they could speak to, as did a televised forum of experts on domestic violence.

Ready to spread their wings

Perhaps the biggest success of Greenville County Baha’is, though, was in learning how to work together at a high level. And Abercrombie and Cooper personify that collaboration. 

In promoting the talk, “Bernie stood up … with the flyer. I stood up with the book. And you know my knees were shaking and her knees were shaking, but we did it,” reflects Abercrombie. 

In a rejoinder to Abercrombie’s “gnats” and “eagles” comment, Cooper says, “I’m not sure about eagles, but we are trying to fly. Some of the things I was very scared to do, and you did it. Some of the things you didn’t like to do, and I could do it. So it was hand in hand. And it wasn’t perfect, but it was OK.” 

Author Augusto Lopez-Claros signs a copy of his book “Equality for Women = Prosperity for All” for Tanoka Acker after his talk in Greenville, South Carolina. Photo by Dorcus Abercrombie

Says Abercrombie, “She would start a sentence or I would start a sentence and the other person knew exactly how to finish it. A couple of times people asked us, how do you two know each other? Because we’re so different,” this African American and this Swiss immigrant. “But we’re not different. Not anymore.”

Yes, there are ways a future event could have an even greater impact, the two organizers acknowledge. Give media outlets more advance notice. Get the word out to people in such nearby areas as Atlanta, Charleston and Charlotte. Schedule it for a time of year when school is in session.

But the sky’s the limit now, they say. 

“One thing I learned from Bernie, Bernie utilized just about everybody in the community,” notes Abercrombie. 

“She got people to do stuff. It was amazing to me. She really taught me that everybody has something to contribute. Be patient, be calm and let them bring forth their gifts. 

“That’s a lesson I’ll always take with me.” 


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Social justice focus infuses art programs at Maine learning center

US Bahá'í News Service - Mon, 08/26/2019 - 2:44pm

With a sharpening focus on social justice and outreach to neighbors and artists, public art programs at Green Acre Baha’i School in Eliot, Maine, are attracting more people to vital conversations.

Over the past year, art shows on facets of the theme “Exploring Justice Through Beauty” have brought collections of artworks into display spaces and hallways at this national Baha’i center of learning. The most recent shows explored “Afrofuturism” and “Inherited Beauty.” 

And public events celebrating their openings and closings have attracted artists, musicians, poets and more to share their expressions of beauty, justice and nobility with the Eliot and Green Acre communities. New connections and sometimes friendships have flowed from these events.

Kayla Lewis recites her poetry at a July 6, 2019, program for the opening of “Inherited Beauty,” an art show at Green Acre Baha’i School in Eliot, Maine. Photo by Glenn Scott Egli

For instance, spoken-word poet Kayla Lewis of Manchester, New Hampshire, followed her recitation at the opening of “Inherited Beauty” by attending part of a summer school session that dealt with eliminating racial prejudice. “I love what you guys are doing up there and definitely want to be a part of it,” she wrote afterward.

And in a powerful process of sharing, Portland, Maine, pianist Kafari played piano with other Baha’is. He stayed late after his performance, showed children how to play a percussion instrument called the bones, and attended an evening presentation by youth and junior youth that “really blew me away.” He later said, “I have never been received in that way where I felt the whole audience could be my friend.” 

These events are part of a continuing drive to learn about using the arts to stimulate discourse meaningful to the populations Green Acre serves. This effort got started in 2017, and its early results included a show on “Arts and the Spirit — Expressions of Devotion” and another on the 200th anniversary of the birth of Baha’u’llah, prophet-founder of the Baha’i Faith. 

Basic to these efforts is a vein of artistic passion among Green Acre staff members and volunteers. Its art committee draws on a legacy stretching back to the 19th-century establishment of Green Acre, even before the center was associated with the Baha’i community. 

“One of the most important discoveries I made upon arriving in Eliot is the history that [founder] Sarah Farmer had with bringing the arts to this small but forward-thinking community,” says Edward Phillips, assistant facilities manager and a member of the art committee. “She invited poets, actors, painters, and very creative people that wanted to think for themselves and investigate truths.” 

The “Afrofuturism” show in February was a “turning point” for this enterprise, says Dave Walters, facilities manager and also a committee member. Inviting artists and participants to “imagine a vision of the future in which people of the African diaspora not only have a place in, but are synonymous with, the progress and advancement of the human race,” it was the first show to draw significant participation from outside the enrolled Baha’i community. It closed with a jazz concert featuring Baha’i musician Mtali Banda and the Oneness Project, which Walters says was “very emotional and uplifting.”

He notes, “To relate Afrofuturism to the Baha’i principle of the oneness of mankind and to educate ourselves on the issues involved, we hosted a series of discussions leading up to the opening. These were well attended and created a lot of interest in the community.”

Edward Phillips and Claudia Maturell, members of the Green Acre Baha’i School Arts Committee, look over an artwork installed for “Inherited Beauty,” an art show at the school in Eliot, Maine. Photo courtesy of Green Acre Baha’i School

The process grew with the “Inherited Beauty” show this summer, the largest to date. It centered on “the gifts of our ancestors: inherited love, inherited nobility, creativity, culture, belief, and humanity,” according to Claudia Maturell, community outreach coordinator, also with the committee.

Frank Robinson, operations manager and another art committee member, says these universal concepts “seem to be themes people are longing for even if they may be unsure how to articulate it. Displaying those themes artistically connects immediately to the heart in a way a lecture cannot. The arts open the door for the hearts to further connect and that feeling was palpable on opening night.”

In addition to musical performances, the July 6 program for the opening included an original video and a poetry slam. Two of the artists “returned to host spontaneous youth workshops during the week. This was not planned and is an example of how the spirit of the event moved everyone who was there,” Walters says.

The next planned art show, following the thread of “Exploring Justice Through Beauty,” will center on the bicentenary of the birth of the Bab, Baha’u’llah’s herald, in late October. 


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In Africa, preparations energize and focus communities

Bahá'í World News Service - Thu, 08/22/2019 - 7:00pm
Communities reflect on the significance of the coming bicentenary through film, gatherings with traditional chiefs, youth conferences, and numerous other efforts.

A Musical Tribute to the Báb — September 2nd at 7:30 p.m.

US Bahá'í News Service - Wed, 08/21/2019 - 6:41pm

In honor of the Bahá’í Community’s upcoming celebration of the Bicentenary of the Birth of The Báb, Irish singer-songwriter Luke Slott comes to the Bahá’í House of Worship on September 2nd at 7:30 p.m. to present A Musical Tribute to the Báb (the Gate), the Forerunner of Bahá’u’lláh.

Gate of Heaven is Slott’s new album composed in honor of the 200th Anniversary of the Birth of the Báb (1819-1850).

The post A Musical Tribute to the Báb — September 2nd at 7:30 p.m. appeared first on Baha‘is of the United States.

Preparations gain momentum worldwide for bicentenary

Bahá'í World News Service - Mon, 08/19/2019 - 7:00pm
Photos provide glimpses of the preparations around the world for the 200th anniversary of the birth of the Bab.

The transformative power of prayer: How devotional gatherings are taking root in Uganda

Bahá'í World News Service - Sat, 08/17/2019 - 7:00pm
An interview with representatives of a community in Uganda explores how collective prayer is influencing society at large.

Rainn Wilson speaks to youth on August 18th

US Bahá'í News Service - Thu, 08/15/2019 - 6:48pm


Rainn Wilson, actor, writer and co-founder of will give an interactive presentation on some spiritual ideas inspired by the Baha’i Faith on Sunday, August 18th from 7-8:30 pm in the lower level of the House of Worship Welcome Center.

The Purpose of our Physical Reality (Hint: to Foster our Spiritual One!)

This event is only open to youth and young adults (ages 13-30) to allow for a more open, free-flowing conversation and because of the limited space in the Welcome Center.

Read about Rainn growing up as a Baha’i in the 1970’s.

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Artistic expressions blossom across the globe

Bahá'í World News Service - Tue, 08/13/2019 - 7:00pm
Communities around the world draw on the arts to honor the approaching 200th anniversary of the birth of the Bab.

Baha’is and Bees

US Bahá'í News Service - Tue, 08/13/2019 - 11:11am

August 17 is “National Honeybee Day” in the United States. We bring you this just-in-time audio story.

Scott Martin says we can learn a lot from watching bees. Scott and his wife, Debbie Martin, are beekeepers who think that establishing and expanding beehives is a lot like Baha’i community building.

FOR KIDS: “Bee Creative” from Brilliant Star Magazine

The post Baha’is and Bees appeared first on Baha‘is of the United States.

Special bicentenary collection added to Baha’i Media Bank

Bahá'í World News Service - Thu, 08/08/2019 - 7:00pm
A rich collection of images and videos has been released in preparation for the 200th anniversary of the birth of the Bab.

Power of history: the pursuit of truth, justice, and unity

Bahá'í World News Service - Mon, 08/05/2019 - 7:00pm
A network of likeminded organizations, including the U.S. Baha’i public affairs office, is exploring the power of history in shaping the future.

Communities feel spiritual impulse of pilgrimage

Bahá'í World News Service - Wed, 07/31/2019 - 7:00pm
For thousands of people each year, Baha’i pilgrimage represents a period of reflection and renewal, of meditation and prayer, and of profound transformation.


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