Baton Rouge neighborhood gains energy from African-American conference

April 17, 2020
Baton Rouge neighborhood gains energy from African-American conference

EDITORS’ NOTE: Though this story reflects community life as it was before the COVID-19 pandemic, it is still being shared as an example of working creatively to apply the Baha’i teachings for people’s benefit.

When residents of a Baton Rouge, Louisiana, neighborhood decided Feb. 14 that their brand-new Baha’i-initiated devotional gathering should be held weekly rather than monthly, it was a confirmation of the spirit emanating from a conference held the previous weekend.

A participant makes a point during a session of the African-American teaching conference in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Photo by Craig Rothman

The conference, held Feb. 7–9 at the Baton Rouge Baha’i Center, was devoted to increasing awareness and knowledge of the unifying message of Baha’u’llah, prophet-founder of the Baha’i Faith, throughout the African-American population of Louisiana. It was patterned after a conference held earlier in Mississippi.

A particular goal of the conference for Baton Rouge Baha’is and friends was to identify neighborhoods where, in light of experience, a large number of souls receptive to Baha’u’llah’s message might be found. 

That’s where Stefan and Akie Fukushige Wenk’s neighborhood came in. In the process of planning the conference, that neighborhood was chosen as the first area of focus.

Teams of conference participants would visit the neighborhood during the conference and meet residents, so Akie Wenk put together packets with flyers, maps, prayer books and information on the Faith for their use.

“Leading the charge” of about two dozen people fanning through the neighborhood were two women who had been invited to the conference. 

“On the first day of the conference a local Baha’i from New Orleans brought a cousin who was visiting from Cincinnati as a guest to the conference,” recalls Stefan Wenk.

“This cousin, Miss Rochell, originally from Baton Rouge, fell in love with the Baha’is attending the conference and what we believed in, as well as what we were working toward, and she invited another cousin, Miss Dee,” who lives in Baker, a town about a dozen miles from the Baha’i Center.

“With these two valiant souls leading the charge,” says Wenk, “a group of about two dozen friends gathered at our house for prayers and a well-planned outreach session in the neighborhood surrounding our home.”

Vision, action and reflection

The conference had begun the evening before with a session on “The Pupil of the Eye in an Advancing Civilization.” (Black people are likened in the Baha’i writings to the “pupils of the eye,” from which all vision emanates.) The film A Widening Embrace was viewed, and small groups discussed its theme of building vibrant communities.

African-American teaching conference attendees prepare to visit residents of a Baton Rouge, Louisiana, neighborhood. Photo by Craig Rothman

“Already the feeling was that the degree of participation and dedication was at a level not seen here before,” says Wenk.

“Since some attendees had never participated in any kind of Baha’i function, or even heard of the Faith before, the excitement was already palpable.”

The evening culminated in a gumbo dinner and a program of prayers and music.

Saturday saw even more people come in, some from great distances, and discussion turned to “Ensuring the Progress of All.”

“This activity witnessed some members of the greater community beginning to take charge and guide the Baha’is in their efforts” to build capacity for outreach to African Americans, leading into the afternoon’s neighborhood visit, says Wenk.

The teams knocked on doors and talked to “many receptive souls,” he says, before returning to the Baha’i Center for “Reflection on the Experience.” 

“An amazing musical evening” ended the day, “with offerings from many of the participants — some planned, some spur of the moment but all charged with a spiritual potency felt by all.”

On Sunday, the final day of the conference, “many tears were shed and it became apparent that the energy unleashed by the conference was already being transformed into tangible results and local action,” says Wenk. 

Systematic follow-up 

It was decided, he says, that a group would go out the following Wednesday and revisit neighbors who had shown interest in attending the first devotional gathering. 

“Again, we were joined by our newfound friends Miss Rochell and Miss Dee. After visiting one family and running into other neighbors along the way, we returned home for prayers.”

Given that it was Valentine’s Day, the first devotional gathering on Feb. 14 focused on love. It was followed by one on healing.

By the time that second devotional took place on Feb. 21, some of the same neighbors had begun studying Reflections on the Life of the Spirit, the first course in the Ruhi Institute training curriculum, says Wenk. 

“Needless to say,” he says, “we are overwhelmed with the support, both from within our local Baha’i community as well as our greater community here in Baton Rouge. 

“We look forward to starting another study circle and continuing our now-weekly devotional gatherings,” says Wenk, adding that he and his wife have started training to serve as study-circle tutors using the seventh course in the Ruhi sequence, Walking Together on a Path of Service.


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