The question posed in an email to American Baha’is was this: How well are we embracing the participation and perspectives of friends of the Faith, including spouses who are not registered Baha’is?
Susan Le Mar was happy to report she and her husband “have been trying to translate the Word into reality through nightly family devotions.”
She explained: “We went through every single prayer in Baha’i Prayers page by page. Now we’re starting Ruhi Book 2 (Arising to Serve) deepening themes.
And added: “I would love to grow these family devotions into a sustainable neighborhood devotional gathering.”
Days later the Hamburg, New York, Baha’i wrote again to say her wish was close to coming true.
She and a teaching partner prayed for the devotional, then emailed a few Baha’is asking for their prayers and thoughts on how to achieve a sustainable gathering.
“The response from our dear friend Terri Turner in Australia completely filled my heart and changed everything. It was so surreal. I felt like I was in one of those epic biblical movies where the sky opens up,” recalls Le Mar.
“She said if I were looking at the devotional gathering as being like the spiritual portion of the Feast (but with non-Baha’is) or if I were looking at the devotional gathering as an event (as in the old system) instead of as a process, I was sure to be disappointed.
“She called it ‘devotional development’ and said we are trying to increase spiritual capacity. She said devotional gatherings would look very different one from another because they develop organically according to the needs at the grass roots. She said we can implement our devotional gatherings as a process — pray, study, plan, act, reflect — and it will be sustainable, and it will grow.”
Within 48 hours of that message, a flood of “terrible misfortune” being experienced by neighbors began to pull the neighborhood together through shared prayer.
“We found out that there is so much spiritual capacity in our neighborhood, such unity, such longing for the balance from material concerns, we’re still amazed,” she says. “And now we can plan the devotional gathering as a process.”
Her husband will be right there with her, says Le Mar.
“[He] had not set out to establish a core activity, but the activity all around us formed a ‘core’ of spiritual-mindedness.”
Communion is powerful
Lynn Kirk Hunter can relate.
The Mooresville, North Carolina, Baha’i is seeing firsthand the power of communion with other spiritual beings — of whatever or no faith.
And the potency of sharing that experience with loved ones who are not registered Baha’is.
Nearly every Baha’i in the Mooresville-Statesville-Troutman area of Iredell County, north of Charlotte, is married to someone who doesn’t identify as one.
It’s not something they discuss when together, says Hunter, but maybe should.
“No one has ever stood up and talked about the elephant in the room, which is how are we doing in terms of our non-Baha’i spouses and what is the dynamic that is going on here. And I think it’s really worth thinking about.
“I go through my paces and Don [Field] goes through his and Dawn [Bradley] goes through hers, and I’m sure Naisan [Wachob] goes through his. And we never talk about it. And I think it would be very interesting to know how our community is embracing them.”
A key, Hunter believes, is sensitivity to family members’ needs. She says before taking on any responsibility within the Faith she and her husband, Bill, discuss the time commitment involved.
Another is recognition that people of different backgrounds enter discussions with a different set of assumptions.
“Some of the biggest difficulty is when [Bill] comes from one place and I come from another perspective,” Hunter reflects.
“We’re urged to create unity; he doesn’t hold unity as high as I do. He has very different ideas about why am I on this planet at this time, to do what.
“It’s surprising how many times these different perspectives not collide but get in each other’s way.”
Hunter can point to two recent activities, though, that blur any boundaries.
Bradley spoke Aug. 12 at the Baptist church where her husband and daughters worship.
“Several Baha’is from the Statesville cluster attended and they report that the talk was terrific and well received,” says Hunter.
“After Dawn spoke, people asked questions and she and other Baha’is in attendance answered. One man talked with Dawn after the service, wanting more information about the Faith.”
The other is an ongoing rotating devotional that has drawn dozens of neighbors and friends.
The format is similar: The host selects a topic or focus for the gathering, invites neighbors and friends, and it is advertised to last just one hour.
The devotional in Mooresville on Aug. 12 was attended by 11 neighbors and eight Baha’is. The focus was “A World of Peace.”
“As intended, it brought neighbors together with a common concern and, for many, their first exposure to the Baha’i Faith,” she says.
That was followed on Aug. 26 by a devotional on “The Start of School” in a Statesville neighborhood with lots of children, and one on Sept. 9 a few miles south in Cornelius on “Hopefulness, Connection and Calm.”
Each of the three was actively supported by its host’s non-Baha’i spouse.
At the Hunters’, Lynn’s husband, Bill, “was right in the middle of preparation. He participated in full. He was gracious. He greeted people.”
As he was supportive, she notes, when a study circle was held in their home and when he helped set up for Feast before retreating to another room. And as he will be when accompanying Lynn on pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
Each devotional also built bonds with like-minded neighbors.
Those who came to her gathering are “all heavy-duty Christians,” says Hunter.
“They brought their Christian prayers, and I bent over backward to [say], ‘Christianity is wonderful. We love our Christian brothers and sisters.’
“You know, that kind of being really inclusive,” is vital, she says — “being able to embrace and love somebody who isn’t a Baha’i, never going to be a Baha’i, doesn’t understand the Baha’i ways, but is happy in our presence.”
“And that’s what we’re talking about now. When I was going around door to door inviting people to the devotional, I got invited to a Bible study. I think I will. I’d like to know more about the Bible. So I think crossing those lines is a really important thing to do.”
Now when Hunter walks her dog in the neighborhood something seems different.
“The first time I walked her after the devotional gathering I felt so much better than I’ve ever felt,” she says. “It felt like I knew our hearts were connected now. I’m here and they’re here, too. We’re in this together. It’s really nice for me.”
Standing on the shoulders of others
Julie Swan is helping to build similar bonds in her community of Peterborough, New Hampshire.
In that endeavor, she says, today’s Baha’is are working to build on a “positive image” of the Faith that young Baha’is in the 1950s achieved when they began reaching out.
“We are open about our Baha’i identity, and use opportunities to share knowledge of the Faith in many arenas,” notes Swan.
“Our friends know we are Baha’is, and we invite them to participate in local and regional activities. An example of this was the number — around 12 — who attended recent events around the centenary of ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s time in Dublin, New Hampshire.”
She says two local newspapers welcomed a feature article on centenary events, and the Baha’is have a “trusting relationship” with the church where ‘Abdu’l-Baha spoke in August 1912.
Swan also say the Baha’is have been invited to conduct a children’s class in a nearby town and are active in several community volunteer programs and social organizations.
“Our experience is that people are lifted up when we do a good job of explaining the core teachings of the Faith, and many have been led to explore information on the Internet or ask to borrow books,” she says.
“We have often remarked that it is frequently surprising just who among our friends and colleagues will show an interest. And the questions asked are often key to their vital concerns.”