Ailene Huang recalls how “scary” it felt at first for some Baha’is venturing into low-income neighborhoods to share the teachings.
She also knows that after a while it became second nature as they grew both in confidence and in recognition that so many open hearts awaited their message.
“There’s a lot of learning in the Baha’i world right now of how the institute process and the core activities are changing the dynamics of our communities and our society at large,” says the Arcadia, California, Baha’i.
“The amazing stories of teaching and other successes inspire us all to do better, to be better.”
Huang believes same thing can happen as Baha’is teach in more affluent neighborhoods, and she offers her experiences from animating a junior youth group in a community known for its “big houses and wealthy lifestyle” as evidence.
“A person’s receptivity is not determined by their material wealth but their spiritual thirst,” she says.
“These families are also part of our communities, of our human family, and they have the potential and the ability to catapult the Faith to a higher level than we can ever imagine.
“Those with material wealth, if armed with the spiritual and moral tools that the Faith offers, will be able to contribute greatly to our society.”
And it starts with the young, Huang recognizes.
“There is no doubt that because of where my junior youth have been raised, they will go to a great college, they will get great jobs and they will contribute greatly to our society, where a large percentage of the world doesn’t have those prospects,” she reflects.
“This fact helps me stay focused and ever mindful that my work and service as an animator with the junior youth doesn’t just span the couple years they are in the junior youth program, but is influential for the rest of their lives.”
Huang says the “primarily all-girls” group was formed in 2010 with three young teens and “has been going strong, even through obstacles,” ever since.
“The quality of our meetings and the strong friendship we have built has been a great learning experience in seeing how the junior youth spiritual empowerment program can be a catalyst for transformation.”
It was a blessing, she says, that “all the participants come from families that have strong religious backgrounds.”
But she wondered how parents would react when the group dove into Spirit of Faith, a book that talks directly about the Baha’i teachings and Baha’u’llah.
Huang needn’t have worried, it turns out.
A “sit-down conversation with each of the parents” revealed that they, “already strong in their own respective faiths, were very much open to their children learning about other religions and helping them cultivate a stronger spiritual identity.”
What’s more, she says, “I could see a stronger community developing because the parents had now bonded with each other through their youth and started diving into deeper conversations.
“Many times my youth participants have expressed joy and thankfulness to have a group and a space to talk about deeper subjects, to explore their faiths and their spirituality, and to get to know their friends on a much deeper, less material or social level.”
Over time, says Huang, the junior youths have developed a “confidence in who they are in a public setting and what their spiritual beliefs are.”
“Some … have gone from shy, timid participants to leaders of discussion while in group,” she notes.
“Others have gone through tremendous family struggles and have found comfort in the teachings of the junior youth books and the environment of the junior youth group.”
Those struggles include divorce and the family issues that arise with that, as well as health problems of family members.
Then there are the uncertainties about their own path in life.
“Now in their second year of high school, they’re more readily exploring what their interests are as college is looming in the future,” says Huang.
“These girls are very academic, very goal driven, and will get overwhelmed with school work. The group tries to provide a safe place for everyone to share their challenges and to all help find an outcome.
“However, it’s a delicate balance as animators, in situations like these, are wary it may turn into a therapy session.
“For the most part, group serves as a safe haven from the problems. Interestingly enough, the girls may come to me and talk to me about problems or issues but won’t discuss them while in a large group.”
It has helped for participants to turn outward and embrace service to others, says Huang.
“The youth have immensely enjoyed cooking dinners and serving the homeless/unemployed at the local homeless shelter,” she says. “They find that work and service particularly rewarding.
“They’ve also done trash cleanups in local parks, and environmental and beautification projects with the local community.”
They also want to delve into issues that aren’t so readily visible.
“They are very passionate about food and the food provided at local schools,” says Huang, “but haven’t found a way to do service in that area.”
Give them time.