It’s a tantalizing paradox: “The mystery of sacrifice is that there is no sacrifice.” An early American Baha’i coined that maxim in reflecting on the wisdom of ‘Abdu’l-Baha.
And it was an assurance that an anxious Cher Gupta-Fletcher heard from Judi Behrendt when the two were preparing in early 2011 to spend most of a year serving the Faith as pioneers in Belize.
In the end, Cher says she experienced a “perfect rhythm of serving and returned blessings” during six months in Dangriga, a district capital and center of Garifuna culture.
She gained the bounty of sharing Baha’i teachings with souls who are much more openly receptive than in her Illinois hometown; the reward of mentoring children, then watching them form enthusiastic reading habits; the friendship and accompaniment of many Belizeans, inside and outside the Baha’i community; and more.
The experience convinced her that “the Universal House of Justice delivered a perfect prescription to the world in the institute process,” she recently wrote to the Office of International Pioneering. Her advice to future prospective pioneers: “Learn the various skills we are encouraged to learn within the institute process in your neighborhood: hosting devotions, tutoring, training tutors, conducting children’s classes, etc. These skills will provide you with most of the tools you will need to serve.”
And the sacrifice part?
Her report shows a repeated pattern of letting go of expectations and trusting Baha’u’llah. She also relied greatly on the experience and relationships Judi had accumulated when she pioneered in Belize decades before.
Few specifics in advance
On departure for Belize in April 2011, Cher had a clear vision of helping meet the U.S. Baha’i community’s goal for international pioneering — and not much else. “We simply knew that we had a destination country but we did not know what we were going to do once we arrived or what town we would live in,” the report notes.
That was just one of the mental stresses in store for The Planner, as Cher, a mechanical engineer and private pilot, jokingly refers to herself.
The pair lived for a month at the Baha’i Center in Belmopan, the capital, before Judi’s plan to locate in Dangriga was approved.
In the meantime, between the crushing heat, absence of the familiar (e.g. laundromats), prevalence of the unfamiliar (nightly jungle-clearing fires), irregular scheduling of activities and other unaccustomed conditions, “the uncertainty and ambiguity of meaningful purpose … operated at a near-overload dose for me. … I rattled in place daily and Judi tolerated me quite nicely!”
Coached to “go with the flow,” she says, “this new reality was beginning to dawn on me and I finally stopped praying to God to hurry up and give me patience.”
Then, on the move to Dangriga, things began to make more sense.
Falling into place
After considerable searching, the pioneers found a “home sweet home” in an apartment overlooking the shore. In their efforts to serve the community from this agreeable base of operations they encountered:
* People ready and open to exploring the Baha’i teachings, whether informally (“coincidentally meeting that one person on the street you needed to talk to at that perfect moment”) or joining study circles (a vegetable vendor with whom she had built a friendship eventually took part in two classes at once).
* Parents willing to pitch in on launching neighborhood children’s classes (several of the mothers were children when they knew Behrendt during her earlier pioneering stint).
Children thronging to a Wednesday after-school devotional gathering.
* Tangible results from their efforts: Several children they tutored in academics began developing a daily habit of reading at home. They also helped helped clean up the Dangriga Baha’i Center, and a local family took the initiative of holding Sunday morning devotions there.
* Many acts of kindness, advice, and just loving conversation.
“The people in Dangriga are kind and courteous,” Cher notes; “strangers smiled and said ‘good morning’ to me and everyone else without fail. I had to retrain my big city habits to initiate or simply return the greeting.”
Were there hardships? Of course. Cher had only a bicycle to keep many appointments and run errands. She and Behrendt were frequently sick, sometimes menaced by dogs on the roads, their schedule was packed to the hilt — and in their modest apartment they waited out Tropical Storm Harvey, which damaged a nearby house.
Reality or “holodeck”?
“Would I do it again? Absolutely!” is Cher’s response. The experience gave welcome perspective about how to direct her thinking, whether about service to the Faith or even about her daily way of life. “Unanticipated worlds of learning about yourself, others, and your personal faith open up. The learning is stupendous! Do not attempt a simulation at home!”
In summing up a key life lesson, she turns to Star Trek imagery: “This world that we think is the world of great import is merely the holodeck (i.e. a simulated reality) of our existence. … The real world is the spiritual world! …
“Reality is the training of our soul in preparation for the next world of God, and pioneering provides not only a generous opportunity to serve, but also to learn about oneself, grow, and receive tangible glimpses that reality exists only when we move beyond the holodeck.”
So, about any sacrifices made in the course of the pioneering effort? “I understand now that the mystery of sacrifice is that there is no sacrifice. … My first experience pioneering started out slow and difficult, and became more and more magical with each passing day.”
Addressing future pioneers, she adds: “You will wonder what you gave up after all that you receive.”