Baha’is were there for Brett Emmons when he expressed interest in the Baha’i Faith, undertook its study, and took training courses aimed at increasing his ability to serve humanity.
Now, still accompanied by others, he is sharing the teachings with others and sparking in them a flame of love.
Hundreds of miles away, Ibrahim Sillah is firmly on the same path and Stacey and Luke Vandervort are not far behind.
An energy that’s infectious
It’s hard to believe only two years have passed since Emmons “came across the Faith” and “fell in love with Baha’u’llah and the teachings.”
At the time of his awakening Emmons was applying to colleges after spending seven years dancing professionally.
Upon declaring his belief he immediately set out to complete the Ruhi Institute training course sequence.
He also immersed himself in guidance from the Universal House of Justice on building community, particularly its Dec. 28, 2010, message to the Conference of the Boards of Counselors and its messages to the Baha’is of the world at Ridvan 2010 and 2011.
Entering Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, in the fall of 2011 Emmons was ready to hit the ground running.
In particular he was eager to put into practice the Supreme Body’s exhortation to engage in meaningful and distinctive spiritual conversation with others.
Thus followed an arc of discovery about how to reach out to people “where they are,” he says.
It started with one-minute introductions to the Faith.
After several of those Emmons “knew there were all these assumptions associated with religion and I needed to explore with them what I mean about religion.”
How to do that? He tried adapting a teaching story from Ruhi Book 6 (Teaching the Cause) known as Anna’s presentation, “with a flipbook and everything.”
Those encounters, he felt, were genuine on his part but not coming through that way to inquirers.
“After a couple experiences I felt each time a bit of a letdown,” he recalls.
So he zeroed in on “conversation” and proceeded from there. Much better — with practice.
“When people asked about the Baha’i Faith I would immediately begin to engage them in an exploration of religion if they were open to it,” he says.
“Every time I’d have a conversation it would reinforce those concepts and the logic behind them, give them more meaning. Always be in a learning mode.”
First to express interest were three female Bates students: one from France, one from Germany and the third a Californian of Mexican extraction who was preparing to study in Spain.
Emmons began a Book 1 (Reflections on the Life of the Spirit) study circle with the trio. A bond developed that he says extended beyond the study; they would watch movies and go on outings together.
On one break from classes, the four planned an intensive session with Book 1, “and it just ended up being this four-day adventure into the spiritual realms.”
“We had so many deep conversations and questions about spirituality and life after death, which challenged a lot of the thinking and beliefs of the girls who were participating. … [T]hese spiritual forces were just unleashed, that channel was just undammed.”
One international student declared her belief in Baha’u’llah a couple days later and the second embraced the Faith after visiting Green Acre Baha’i School.
Both returned home after the school year and have reported to Emmons they are now deeply involved in Baha’i activities.
The student from Los Angeles, meanwhile, went to Madrid and shared her favorite Baha’i quotes with everyone she met.
With the trio away, Emmons’ service took another turn. He began animating a junior youth group in the off-campus neighborhood to which he moved after freshman year.
“Last meeting we had seven kids, five from the neighborhood,” he says.
It didn’t start off that way, though, and Emmons is thankful he could lean on four youths from the Lewiston-Auburn area and one adult for support.
“At first the kids didn’t show up but the youth did,” he says. “And they came back week after week, helping to try to get this program going.
“It was a struggle. We weren’t having a lot of success the first few weeks. But they were sticking to it. They were accompanying each other in just trying to get this junior youth group started.
“So it’s such a blessing that they arose to serve. The youths have been really attracted to that feeling, the energy that comes from service.”
To Diane Gable Norton, the Baha’i community has benefited just as much from Emmons’ energy.
“He turns to the guidance so quickly,” says Norton, who serves as institute coordinator for the cluster of local Baha’i communities. “He really has the concept of ‘act, reflect, consult and act again.’
“It’s just amazing how he does that, and he’s helped the rest of us do that. At the cluster reflection gatherings where he shares what he’s doing, I can see other people just become interested and excited, and some of them have risen to action.”
The youths co-animating the junior youth group with Emmons are especially poised to blossom, says Norton.
“He’s giving them the space to develop,” she says. “The hope is that will lead them into the Ruhi sequence when they’re ready.
“There’s a young woman who’s now co-animating with him. I think she would have done it on her own, but it would have taken her longer to do that. Having someone to accompany her has made a difference.”
Norton says Emmons has helped other Baha’is transform their teaching efforts as well.
“He shares with us how to move from Anna’s presentation in the booklet form to Anna’s conversation, spiritual conversations,” she explains. “He’s helped those of us who are slow to move from the old mold of ‘if you act as a Baha’i people will ask you.’
“So we had to change and become more outgoing and outward-oriented and mentioning Baha’u’llah’s name and His quotes and open hearts.
“We’ve done that, and now we have to go further to not having a book or a presentation but actually just have conversations with people, and he’s really helped us.”
An example to which others aspire
Rebecca Ellison says of Ibrahim Sillah, “I truly am learning so much from his example.”
“He is very conscientious and dedicated young man who comes from a Muslim family that has accepted his conversion with respect,” says Ellison, who has served as a Auxiliary Board member.
His story reflects not just personal transformation, but also a community that acted together to help him define a path of service to God.
“Having all these individuals walking alongside me, they’re very inspirational,” Sillah says. “It really motivates you to see people serving with their whole heart. It gives me the strength to keep moving.”
Sillah, 18, came to the United States from Sierra Leone in 2009 and less than a year ago declared his belief in Baha’u'llah in his adopted hometown of Silver Spring, Maryland.
He had been visited by an Area Teaching Committee member and a 13-year-old Baha’i as they shared the teachings in a neighborhood of focus called Winexburg Manor.
“Consolidation with Ibrahim began immediately,” Ellison says. He joined in a study of the six deepening themes from Book 2, Arising to Serve, and soon took part in a Book 1 study circle tutored by a Local Spiritual Assembly member and involving other Baha’is close to the neighborhood.
A pattern quickly developed in which the high school senior, with the accompaniment of others, would learn verities and skills then put them into practice.
He started helping teach and plan lessons for, eventually, two children’s classes in the neighborhood, says Ellison. He and the neighborhood coordinator visited parents to share the lesson plans.
After he finished Book 1, Sillah started a Book 2 study circle with two other believers.
Immediately, says Ellison, “he started visiting a new believer in the neighborhood and, with the accompaniment of the Auxiliary Board member, shared Anna’s conversation with a Liberian 15-year-old youth who declared [her faith in Baha'u'llah] as a result of the visit.”
Alongside the cluster institute coordinator and the neighborhood coordinator, Sillah visited the new young believer’s home and discussed deepening topics. At his invitation, the new believer has joined in assisting with a children’s class.
His training hasn’t abated during this time. Ellison points out he was accompanied in the study of the Ridvan 2010 message as well as other Universal House of Justice guidance related to the Plan. He also participated in trainings at the junior youth spiritual empowerment program learning site in North Carolina and focusing on children’s classes in Montgomery County.
“He has since accepted to serve on the ATC of Montgomery County and continues to demonstrate a steadfastness in his belief in Baha’u'llah, a cheerful enthusiasm in his path of service and in teaching the Faith, a humble posture of learning as he applies the study of Books 1 and 2 to his service and development as a Baha’i, and a growing capacity in his ability to apply the guidance to the realities of the neighborhoods,” says Ellison.
“Last night after Feast he wanted to talk about the increased need for human resource development in the neighborhoods so outside resources are not required for a neighborhood’s advancement.”
Sillah deflects any praise onto those who have mentored him. ”It’s been such a privilege to render service and something I’ve always wanted to do, and now I have the opportunity to do that,” he says.
“I love interacting with people,” he adds. “I know there’s a beautiful side to everybody, and I try to see that rather than all the negative.”
It all begins, Sillah says, with the children — the future leaders of the community.
“Rather than having Baha’is from other communities come and help build this community, I was thinking we can focus on the children and build all these qualities in them,” he explains.
As they become junior youths and from there proceed into the Ruhi sequence, he says, they will become the children’s class teachers and junior youth group animators.
Perhaps he’ll be their inspiration.
A sincerity that’s attractive
Margaret Tash echoes Ellison’s admiration for Ibrahim Sillah when she says of Luke and Stacey Vandervort:
“Remember that book, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten? I think I’m writing a book called All I Really Need to Know about Teaching, I Learned from New Baha’is.”
Tash is a seeker response representative for her area of upstate New York. In early June, she received a request for information about the Faith from the Webster, New York, couple.
“An initial home visit revealed that Luke has had a broad concept of religion for most of his life,” says Tash. “They had already studied much of what was available online at the U.S. Baha’i website (www.bahai.us) and had ordered a book online.
“In a warm and welcoming atmosphere, it was agreed that Stacey and Luke would contact us should they wish to attend a devotional gathering, consider attending a study circle, or have another home visit.
“Their next step, it turns out, was to declare online a week later!”
Just as quickly they began sharing the teachings with others.
“Luke has already given away his prayer book and a copy of The Hidden Words to one of his friends who is unemployed,” says Tash.
“This past weekend, Luke told us his friend is keeping that prayer book and is saying the prayers every day, and feels better.”
“And Luke was in the doctor’s office getting a shot — long story of how his scared cat scratched him at the vets’,” Tash relates.
“One of the assistants had a tattoo on her ankle that looked like a nine-pointed star. Luke asked her if it was. She looked puzzled, counted the stars and said, No, it is only eight points,’ and asked if the nine-pointed star meant something.
“So Luke told her about the Faith, she was interested, and he gave her the website address. All because his cat scratched him!”
They also dove into Baha’i community life.
“Luke and Stacey were enrolled on a Thursday evening,” says Tash. “Two days later, they attended a devotional gathering in their home community and began a Ruhi Book 1 study circle the day after that. Stacey is beginning to work with children’s classes in Rochester.”
Stacey Vandervort even adjusted her work schedule to accommodate Baha’i community life, says Tash.
“Stacey works until 7 p.m., a time when Feast is held in her town,” she says. “She went to her supervisor with all of the Feast dates and asked permission to leave work at 6:30 p.m. on those days so that she could attend Feast on time. Permission was granted!”
To Tash, it has “truly … been a blessing to be part of this journey with Luke and Stacey.”
“I’ve learned that there are people who are ready right now that we do not know, that we may never meet, who are ready to embrace Baha’u'llah and His teachings. When they said they thought they were the only ones who felt this way, that they didn’t know a religion like this existed, my heart was in my throat.
“I believe that the Internet is one type of neighborhood, and we should pray for those souls to find their way to us.”
As the Vandervorts did.
“The core beliefs of the Baha’i Faith are to me like a ‘duh!’ moment,” says Luke Vandervort.
“Of course women are equal. Of course we should have one government. Of course we need a single language, world peace and no racism. And this one really hit home for me (I’m a geek!): Science and religion do not have to be at odds. I always knew these things.”
He says being a Baha’i “just makes sense to me.”
But when he started investigating he was afraid to tell his wife what he wanted to do.
“I started asking her what she believed about things. I was careful not to tell her what I had been reading or what I really and truly believed,” he recalls.
“I poked and prodded her to tell me everything. What she finally told me sounded like one of the Baha’i videos I had seen on You Tube.
“I showed her and her mouth hung open. She said, ‘Other people believe that?’ The only part we were not familiar with was the story of the Bab and Baha’u’llah.”
Luke says he has taken to sharing the Faith just as easily.
“I am quite a talker,” he reflects. “I like to talk about politics and religion and whatever else is interesting.
“Even so, I never made my talk about religion personal. It was always in a philosophical third-party kind of discussion. Now I want to tell anyone.”
And he is searching for other paths of service.
“I am hoping to help with adults sometime in the near future. I use my computer skills where I can to help,” he says.
“It would be great if I could make a difference in someone’s life. Most days we concern ourselves with material things and forget about God. Baha’ullah makes it possible to live life and keep a focus on God.”
He sums up, “Life is hard, but for the first time it seems easier.”
“My wife says that I have mellowed since we became Baha’is and she likes the new me. That’s worth a lot to me. I don’t always like who I am, so to think I can be someone better is really cool.”
Stacey Vandervort likes the direction her life is now taking, too.
“I was going to [church] and was not happy because I missed the personal relationships that I thought should always be a part of being part of a religious family,” she says.
“Being a Baha’i has changed both my life and my marriage. I have noticed that Luke has become more relaxed. I have discovered that I can believe what I have always believed and not feel guilty about it because of what I am told in the church.
“I just went to my first children’s class this morning and I have never seen children enjoy singing so much as these children. They just wanted to sing. I guess I have always wanted to teach because I believe that you teach the child and they will lead the parents.”
Stacey’s conclusion: “God needs to be brought back into the fabric of this country and I believe that the children are the only way this is going to happen, because they are our future leaders and if we teach them to love God they will in turn teach this country how to love God again.
“All things are possible with God, and I believe that the children will teach us this.”