Recent growth of the Baha’i Faith in the Triangle cluster of North Carolina is closely tied to the evolution of the Spiritual Assembly serving one of its communities, Carrboro.
And the story of the Carrboro Assembly is very much one of action informing consultation, leading to more effective action by the Assembly itself and by Baha’is within the town.
The Triangle (Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill) cluster of Baha’i communities was one of the first dozen in the U.S., in January 2005, to launch an intensive program of growth. It also serves as one of two learning sites in the U.S. for the junior youth spiritual empowerment program.
A neighborhood in Carrboro, located just west of Chapel Hill, was the focus of a three-month cycle of activity in early 2012, says Nathan Shepherd, who lives in the neighborhood and is a junior youth coordinator for the cluster as well as a member of the Carrboro Assembly.
For several cycles the cluster agencies had encouraged and supported the considerable individual initiative in neighborhoods throughout the area, says Shepherd. Much of that initiative was related to expansion of the junior youth program.
Now cluster Baha’is were being asked to pay special attention to — and assist in any way they could — the learning in a specific group of neighborhoods known as Area 54.
An impact beyond numbers
A children’s class and a junior youth group existed already in the neighborhoods; they meet in the clubhouse of one of several apartment complexes within walking distance. The neighborhoods have large Latino, African-American and Korean populations and a few people of European background, says Shepherd.
The cycle’s goal, he says, was to reach 60 junior youths.
“We wanted to have one meeting time and have three different age groups break out” within the clubhouse facility, he explains. That’s a strategy Baha’is in the East Valley cluster in Arizona have found to be successful because it makes it easier for several young people in a household to participate.
During the cycle the Baha’i teachers encountered about 140 people, many of whom were not junior youths. As a result, not only was another junior youth group formed – allowing the two groups to divide along age lines – but a new children’s class as well.
The impact for the cluster went beyond numbers, though, says Shepherd.
“The process of trying to rapidly expand the junior youth program within an area of focus really created a vacuum for us to realize that we needed to learn about everything else that goes with that.
“If you have a goal of reaching out to all the junior youths in an area, you’re going to have a need for children’s classes, devotional gatherings, friendships with all these families we’re meeting.
“We’re still learning about all that, but just the fact that we went out and met them created a rhythm.”
Assembly rolls up its sleeves
A rhythm emerged as well for the Carrboro Assembly and for a Baha’i couple in another Carrboro neighborhood — inspired by what was happening in Area 54.
Shepherd says the Assembly held few formal meetings during and after the three-month cycle.
But all its members were involved in planning and carrying out action in the neighborhoods, he says. And when the Assembly did meet it was able to decide easily how as an institution it could lend resources to the neighborhoods’ development.
Fugita Nasseri, the Assembly secretary, explains:
“The Assembly is very involved in the focus neighborhoods, with members co-animating a junior youth group, collecting data, assisting in outreach and home visit efforts.
“The Assembly also scheduled meetings during the expansion in the focus neighborhoods so to collectively teach together, and the Assembly continues to be open to planning neighborhood reflection and planning meetings coincident with Assembly meetings.”
And that has led the Carrboro Assembly to broaden its support to other communities in the cluster, says Nasseri.
“The Assembly is also very supportive of local junior youth groups by offering rides, hosting children’s classes and Ruhi Book 5 (Raising Up Animators of Junior Youth Groups) study circles in neighboring communities to raise resources.
“The Assembly is very committed to the finances of those serving full time, currently sponsoring two full-time servants of the Cause.”
Giving initiative an assist
At the same time, the Assembly recognized the initiative Lua and Reed Breneman were taking in the Estes Park neighborhood of Carrboro.
The couple launched a children’s class three years ago after a day of outreach to neighborhood parents.
“Lua and the others who took part that day recognized that many of the parents they met held a strong interest in spiritual education for their children,” says Reed Breneman.
“Lua volunteered to be the teacher and, working closely with the children’s class coordinator, started a class with several children. The class has continued since that time on a consistent basis.”
He says a couple of families have provided the core participants, but the children of many families have attended for different periods of time — the apartment complex has a high turnover rate.
Over time the original participants, including one of the Brenemans’ sons, proceeded from the lessons in Ruhi Book 3 (Teaching Children’s Classes, Grade 1) to those in Book 3A, its corollary for older children.
Just one problem: no permanent meeting place.
“The neighborhood is a self-contained apartment complex off of a main road,” explains Breneman. “Unfortunately, it lacks a clubhouse or meeting room.
“Gathering on the tennis court or at picnic tables worked well in good weather, but when winter arrived class often had to be canceled. We even tried meeting in the laundry room.
“Meeting in a family’s apartment was also not a reliable option, as the apartments are relatively small and the number of class participants had grown to be quite large,” he says.
“So the class was held less consistently during the first two winters.”
Simple solution in a complex
That’s when the Carrboro Assembly stepped in to help.
Breneman says the Assembly recognized the need for an indoor venue for the activities in the neighborhood, including a junior youth group in addition to the children’s class.
Two classes, actually. By then classes of different age groups were being held concurrently, with the couple’s other son as a participant and Reed as co-teacher.
“The consultation of the Local Assembly — we were/are both members — on the subject yielded a perhaps unexpected fruit,” he says: “the idea of our community obtaining use of an apartment in the neighborhood in which to hold the classes.”
The Assembly appointed a delegation to approach the apartment complex management.
“It was agreed that first we would attempt to obtain an apartment gratis in the name of community building,” says Breneman, “but that if the management was not amenable we would offer to rent an apartment ourselves — ideally at a discounted rate since the wear and tear would be minimal.
The diverse team sent to the meeting was delighted to learn of management’s appreciation for the activities the children and junior youths were engaged in, he says.
In fact, as management revealed at the meeting, a photograph it had taken of a children’s class gathered at a picnic table was included on a social media site to promote the apartment complex.
The result: An apartment was secured free of charge, and after some tables and chairs were moved into two different rooms the children’s classes and junior youth group were able to meet consistently throughout the winter.
Since then a children’s class participant has “graduated” to the junior youth group. Less happily, the apartment has been lost because the complex needed to rent it. Consultation has begun on how to proceed.
Taking learnings to a new neighborhood
The Brenemans also have contributed to the ongoing efforts in a section of Area 54 known as Collins Crossing.
“During the recent expansion phase, many young families had expressed interest in a children’s class, but one learning that emerged very prominently in all the various consultations among the cluster agencies was the importance of accompaniment,” says Reed Breneman.
“As a direct result of these consultations, Lua, who is one of the cluster children’s class coordinators, and Jason, a young Baha’i who is also a children’s class teacher, decided that they would not themselves start a children’s class in the neighborhood.
“Instead, Lua and Jason sought someone from the neighborhood they would be able to accompany.”
They found her. From among the new contacts of the expansion phase, a mother of young children seemed particularly receptive to the vision of spiritual education the friends had shared.
“Lua and Jason then, deliberately and prayerfully, went about building a veritable friendship with her based on this common vision and nurtured by the study of the Word of God,” says Breneman.
“Before every meeting with her, they planned which key concepts they would be sharing from the ‘To the Collaborators’ section of Book 3.
“The classes began right away, with Lua, Jason, and the new teacher preparing themselves on Friday nights and holding the class on Saturdays,” he says.
“The class preparation time is helping this new friend to assume more responsibility for co-teaching the class, and she is gradually gaining confidence and skills to serve in this way.
“This friend is extremely enthusiastic about both holding a class for spiritual education for children and having it in her own neighborhood.”
Coherence among activities
Partly because space in the apartment is limited, the class has started small. But Breneman sees good things ahead.
“The task is to attract other families to the class, and Lua and Jason identified two families living in the same apartment building who had also expressed interest in children’s classes.”
Having junior youth groups in the neighborhood is a benefit, too.
“The developing children’s class teacher has a niece in the [junior youth] program and, when visited by friends during the expansion phase, was excited to learn that a similar educational program existed for children,” says Breneman.
“The coherence of these two core activities is also apparent in another way. Another junior youth group member, the daughter of a close family friend of the children’s class teacher, is present during the classes and enthusiastically participates — a wonderful example of tapping the energy and talents of junior youth.”
In addition, Reed Breneman is co-tutoring two fledgling study circles with Fugita Nasseri’s wife, Megan. And a devotional gathering has begun to meet.
Graduating into service
All of which are, to Shepherd, signs that Carrboro and the Triangle cluster are on the right track.
But he says for those gains to be sustained all the various activities will need to work together — spurred by the very people they have benefited.
“We have several junior youth graduates, and it’s extremely important that they’re encouraged by whatever means possible to serve and to enter the institute process,” he says.
“Because, really, we start raising resources at age 5 when they join the children’s classes. That’s key.”
As is the role of animators, he says.
“In one particular junior youth group, a good 80 to 90 percent of the junior youths already are or will soon be facilitating core activities and also being part of the institute process.
“And I think one of the reasons for that is, one, the animators’ commitment to and, two, their understanding of the importance of the junior youth group as a means for empowerment.”
Says Shepherd, “It’s not like everything ends after the junior youth group ends. So animators make an effort to ensure that all of these youths are able to serve and to share this experience with the younger generation.”
The cluster will be there to assist. The Carrboro Assembly, too.