On a daily, and sometimes hourly, basis seekers from across the country call 800-22UNITE or visit the web (www.bahai.us) to ask questions, invite contact while they explore their spiritual search, or request information to be sent to them.
Across the country, and within each region, there are regional-level “seeker response coordinators” and some cluster-level contacts who assist with finding someone at the cluster level to respond or make a first response directly to learn the needs of each seeker.
A great deal has been learned from these contacts about how to serve these seekers, and how to assist them with their spiritual journey toward the teachings of Baha’u’llah.
Some examples about what is being learned are shared here by the Northeast region through Ruthie Gammons, the seeker response coordinator there.
A call out of the blue
One lesson is: Be ready to be surprised — including a call from the blue!
Take Margaret Tash, who assists with first contact for inquirers within the Rochester and Buffalo clusters in western New York.
She had been sending emails to a seeker who had not responded to a series of attempts. And she was about to send the seeker a “bless and release” email.
Ruthie explains how this situation is addressed in her region:
“When we refer to ‘bless and release,’ that means when a seeker has never responded to repeated attempts to reach them, we say a prayer and send them a loving good-bye email with local contact information just in case, keeping the door open. About half the time these [seekers] get right back to us — an interesting fact of human nature.”
Tash was reluctant to send the message. She recalled having “one of the most meaningful conversations on the phone” when she spoke with him several months ago; however, the man had not responded to subsequent communications, including invitations to local events. Tash was working her way toward simply wishing him well.
Wouldn’t you know, as Tash was hosting Feast in her home one day, out of the blue the phone rang. Returning the call later, she discovered it was the seeker.
“Baha’u’llah has the best sense of humor,” she recalls thinking.
The seeker apologized and thanked Tash for her several attempts to reach him and the nice notes she sent him.
“He said, ‘I’ve never gotten back to you and I’d like to do that now.’” He went on to say that perhaps he could meet her and another Baha’i for coffee.
“Ya gotta love these folks,” says Tash.
Listening, praying and perseverance
A second learning is: Listening, praying and thoughtful perseverance can go a long way toward forming relationships with seekers.
Take Susan and John Mead, who coordinate seeker follow up for the Ithaca and Syracuse clusters in New York.
“[R]esponding to each new seeker is not daunting, but is a joyful and energizing experience for a Baha’i, [by] communicating in any way each seeker will allow or wish: phone, email, snail mail, visiting in my home or in their home, or meeting in a cafe or park,” says Mead.
“Listening, listening, listening. Praying and deepening. Any questions from seekers are, of course, an opportunity for [us] to find the pertinent passages in the holy Writings, and studying as preparation and outreach.”
This approach has served them well. For one seeker, sincere perseverance was the key.
“Through emails and a letter, it took two months to set up a face-to-face appointment with the woman,” Mead recalls.
“This was at her workplace, an hour from me, and books were loaned, pamphlets given and Ruhi Book 1 (Reflections on the Life of the Spirit) introduced.”
A follow-up meeting was planned for three weeks hence, but the woman canceled. Email contact followed for the rest of 2010.
Finally, in January 2011, Mead took a bold step. She drove to the woman’s store without calling ahead and talked with her briefly.
The woman gave Mead permission to bring an isolated Baha’i in the area into the process. And in February 2011, Mead began encouraging the woman to attend a women’s weekend with her at Green Acre Baha’i School in Eliot, Maine.
“She agreed to pre-registration [for the workshop] in late March for this early April weekend,” Mead relates.
“On the Friday morning I drove [nearly an hour and a half] to pick her up to go to Green Acre with me. All the way [there], I prayed, and detached, knowing it was a real possibility that she would not come and I would go on my own.
“I knocked on her door, and she opened it to me, and laughed and said, ‘All this early morning I didn’t know if you would actually show up, but I told myself that if you came, I would go to Green Acre with you.’
“We laughed, and still laugh about this.”
The woman ended up being “captivated by the whole weekend, the wonderful women present, and so excited and happy,” says Mead.
Since then, the Meads have personally accompanied the woman and her husband through the study of two Ruhi courses.
Neither has yet become a Baha’i, Mead says. But both “have been moved by the Education Under Fire documentary film on the denial of education to young Baha’is in Iran,” she says, and “tried to involve their four college-age and grown sons in learning a little about the Faith through this focus also.”
Help for a grieving family
A third lesson is: You may never know in what form a need will come.
Take Colleen Gometz, who assists with inquiries in northern New England.
When a Baha’i in a remote area of Vermont died, says Gammons, a relative “googled” the word Baha’i, found www.bahai.us and left a message:
“My cousin … was a Baha’i. He passed away unexpectedly this week and I am trying to find out some way to contact the local Bahá’í community and see if he was affiliated and/or active. The funeral director can try our best to bury him in accordance with his faith, but if he had friends in the community I would like them to know. You have my contact information. … Please let me know how I can contact a Baha’i community. …”
That’s when Gometz went to work, and according to Gammons “went the extra mile to make sure the passing of this longtime Baha’i was honored, while at the same make connections between the local Baha’is and his relatives [who are not Baha’i] and friends at a local church where he played the organ.”
Gometz says her first act was to call Gammons, who told her of a Baha’i who knew the deceased well and promised to begin prayers for him and his family.
Next she called the cousin, Bruce, and asked how the Baha’is could help.
“I also needed to know in which of the three cities the burial would take place, so as to point him to the closest Baha’is,” says Gometz.
“We discussed what had happened, that there were only two cousins as family members. They had gone online to find out more about the Baha’i Faith as all they really knew [about it] is that he was a Baha’i.
“So when I offered that the body should not be cremated or embalmed (unless necessary by state law, which it is not in Vermont) he seemed aware of this. I then added that the body should not be buried more than an hour’s journey from the place of death. He was very happy because they wanted to bury him next to his mother, about an hour’s drive.
“I then added that there was a prayer for the [departed] that should be said at the burial and the local Baha’is would be able to help with that. I assured him that I would have local Baha’is call him. He seemed pleased that prayers were already being offered.”
Gometz’s third call went to the Baha’i who knew the deceased well.
“Suellen had already contacted a local Baha’i by the time I called and was awaiting a call from the second cousin with more info,” she says.
“But she was able to answer another question that Bruce had asked me. There was one particular friend that they needed to get the word of the passing to, but they had no idea of her last name or if she was a Baha’i. Suellen knew who this was — not a Baha’i, still no last name — but suggested calling the church where Robert and she played music every Sunday.”
Gometz informed Bruce telling him of all this and provided Suellen’s contact info and the information about the friend they were trying to find.
“He was ecstatic over having found a way to reach her and grateful for all of the help,” she says. “Time elapsed from his contacting the [the Baha’is online] to my last call to him: no more than two hours.”
The burial was handled with the help of two Baha’is who knew the deceased.
Gometz’s job was done.