Blazing a path where community building is less advanced

May 7, 2019
Blazing a path where community building is less advanced

No, they’re not yet at the forefront nationally in learning about how to build community through Baha’i-initiated core activities in neighborhoods.

But in regions of the United States with relatively few large-scale initiatives, efforts in one place — limited as they might be by the number of Baha’is and friends engaged — can still provide valuable lessons that others in the region might adapt to their own circumstances.

Examples from clusters of Baha’i communities in Appalachia, the upper Midwest and the Mountain West jump out.

Intensive traning in the Ruhi Institute curriculum is undertaken in Knoxville, Tennessee. Photo by Mehrdad Bahrami

Tennessee: Leveraging what’s been learned in one neighborhood

Baha’is and friends in the Knoxville, Tennessee, area are taking steps — two, to be precise — to expand what’s thriving in one neighborhood and develop similar activities elsewhere.

Several years ago a Knoxville Baha’i started a pattern of visiting families in the Texas Avenue neighborhood. Bonds of friendship were formed over time, and the trust of parents grew to the point where spiritual education classes for young children and middle-schoolers were launched in August 2017.

Challenges appeared along the path, though. There were too few trained tutors to lead study circles that would help people gain skills to conduct the core activities of community building. Some churches discouraged families from being in contact with Baha’is. And many young people faced difficult family situations.

“There were many times that thoughts of quitting came to mind, but Baha’u’llah’s life of suffering and His admonition to be steadfast provided a reservoir of love, energy and confirmation,” says Mehrdad Bahrami, a member of the Knoxville Spiritual Assembly, the local Baha’i governing council.

But challenges were met with perseverance — and many encouraging visits from Carmen Turner, who as Auxiliary Board member advises Baha’i communities in the area.

Despite few trained teachers, the children’s class blossomed. Initially it met in a neighborhood park and on front porches. Later, a mother invited the Baha’is to hold the classes in her apartment. More recently, a house was purchased as a hub for the children’s class and a junior youth group for middle-schoolers.

Questions sprang up from there, though: How could they add more dimensions to the community-building process in the Texas Avenue neighborhood? And how could that process be initiated elsewhere in Knoxville?

For that, Knoxville Baha’is and friends are taking two steps suggested by Counselor Farah Guchani-Rosenberg, an appointed adviser to Baha’i communities throughout the region.

One step is to encourage devotional gatherings throughout and beyond the Knoxville area. Zohere Sharghi, a Baha’i in suburban Farragut, accepted the responsibility to coordinate and promote this approach. As a result, in two months eight new regular devotional gatherings were begun.

“She got a group of seven dedicated friends from different communities together to study guidance on the importance of devotional gatherings as [the seeds of] future Houses of Worship, and they meet monthly with the goal of increasing both the number and quality of regular devotionals,” says Bita Rahmanian, a member of the Farragut Spiritual Assembly and of the Regional Baha’i Council serving three Appalachian states.

The second step focuses on building the capacity of teens to become study circle tutors, junior youth group animators and children’s class teachers. From the beginning of children’s classes, youths had helped out despite not having been trained. Now they’ve attended summer camps in Kentucky and Nashville, and in the fall Knoxville held a camp of its own.

Those camps, Bahrami says, gave the young people greater skills and confidence in mentoring junior youth groups and children’s classes. And “energized with fresh energy,” many asked for an intensive study of the lives of Baha’u’llah and the Bab, two of the Central Figures of the Baha’i Faith.

A study circle gathers in Ann Arbor, Michigan, to train young people as animators to mentor junior youth groups. Photo by Breeana Woods

Michigan: Joy multiplies with growth of community building

As core community-building activities multiply in Ann Arbor, Michigan, a joy in being together is increasingly permeating other aspects of community life.

“This is just my own observation, but more and more of our Holy Day [observances] feature deeply moving, inspiring musical performances,” says Breeana Woods, a member of the Ann Arbor Spiritual Assembly.

“And a monthly coffeehouse gathering at the Baha’i Center now focuses entirely on supporting (and featuring) performances from area youth — most of whom are not Baha’is.”

Woods says new community-building activities have come in a flurry.

  • To meet the demand for more animators, several study circles were devoted to Book 5, Releasing the Powers of Junior Youth, in the Ruhi Institute curriculum. Participants have included youths who were involved in the making of a Baha’i-inspired documentary; seniors; parents of junior youths; and members of Baha’i college clubs.
  • A new junior youth group, with about eight participants, generated enough interest to form a children’s class for younger siblings of the junior youths and a study circle for their parents.
  • Young adults in a 12-step recovery program that meets at the Baha’i Center have begun studying Ruhi Book 1, Reflections on the Life of the Spirit. The participants asked for information about the Baha’i Fast and decided to fast in March along with their tutors.
  • Intense, dedicated outreach has resulted in contacts with residents of a newly identified neighborhood of focus for community building. Five to six adults and two children have been visiting people in an Ypsilanti neighborhood that was selected because it has the largest concentration of junior youths in the area. Current efforts revolve around nurturing the interest of those new contacts and seeking homes or other community spaces where ongoing study and gatherings could take place.
Madison, Wisconsin, residents learn about the junior youth spiritual empowerment program. Photo by Carmel Morgan-Weisberg

Wisconsin: Rhythm established that adds to momentum

Madison, Wisconsin, Baha’is and friends are moving consciously toward a natural rhythm of activity that builds capacity in a growing number of people so that the community-building process can grow apace.

“We are engaged in … learning about establishing not only a weekly rhythm to our efforts but also a cyclical rhythm” over longer periods, says Carmel Morgan-Weisberg. She is Wisconsin’s regional coordinator for the training institute, which builds capacity to facilitate community-building activities.

One example: “It has proven to be difficult to maintain a weekly rhythm of study circles for youth because of their busy lives and many commitments,” she notes.

So an alternate rhythm is being developed that features retreats to help young people progress through the training courses.

“The camps are scheduled around school breaks and vacations,” explains Morgan-Weisberg. “We are quickly learning that youth are very attracted to the idea of having a retreat weekend to study the institute courses and come together for an intense period of time with other youth, which is great.

“The friendships that were built and the progress that was made over the course of the first youth camp weekend were quite profound and a wonderful confirmation, and we are eager to continue learning about this.”

Likewise, junior youth camps are helping middle-schoolers make progress in their spiritual empowerment program. Experience with the area’s first day camp, says Morgan-Weisberg, led organizers to solidify a “clear purpose” for their next intensive day together: to make progress in the junior youth program’s texts, and to channel that progress into constructive action.   

For instance, a collective arts project was inspired by the idea of the betterment of the world and how junior youths can contribute to that, and the young people consulted about possible service projects. Interviews were videotaped with the junior youths about what the program means to them.

Still to come: building a rhythm of visits to families of young people engaged in the children’s classes and junior youth groups. Morgan-Weisberg envisions that such a rhythm will intensify during times that Baha’is and friends are focused on expanding the core activities, and will continue as a process throughout each three-month cycle of activity.

A training campaign in Boise, Idaho, is a picnic for these participants. Photo by Yasaman Parthor

Idaho: An enriching blend of cultures and perspectives

A growing awareness of diversity in Boise, Idaho, is helping Baha’is and their friends get to know people who have immigrated from several countries and to build community alongside them.

The arrival of Congolese immigrants, including a number of Baha’is, has given the local Baha’i community “a more profound appreciation of the wisdom and true joy of home visits and of the spiritual bonds that can begin to occur over time when done consistently and with pure motives,” says Christine Badostain.

Badostain, a member of the Boise Spiritual Assembly and of the Area Teaching Committee for the two-county Treasure Valley cluster, tells of one visit to Congolese families in late February, during the Baha’i period of service and hospitality known as Ayyam-i-Ha.

One Baha’i made and brought dinner to some Congolese residents, she recalls. “Such personal initiative is a beautiful thing to witness. Some of the friends accompanied, supported, and cooked to make it a truly unifying visit.”

Yasaman Parthor co-animates a junior youth group of girls from Africa. An immigrant from Iran herself, she says a youth from Africa is co-animating the group with her. “As her English gets better, she is learning to take charge of the group.”

People from the Pacific Islands, Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America are engaged locally in core activities, says Parthor, who also serves on the Spiritual Assembly.

“Each of these groups has brought culture, food, music, new languages, and new ways of life to our Baha’i and wider community,” she says, adding that they are also contributing to the momentum of Baha’i education and service.

They reside in three neighborhoods — two in Boise and one in Caldwell — that are a focus of community-building efforts.

And even as they have gained capacity to lead and initiate core activities, the Baha’i institutions are learning alongside them how to expand such initiatives.

“The Assembly of Boise realized that it needed to acquire some learning to improve consultation,” recalls Badostain. “The Auxiliary Board member was consulted with, and as per his loving and adamant encouragement the Assembly studied and completed the unit on consultation in Ruhi Book 10, Building Vibrant Communities.

“The learning of this was a sense of ‘Oh God, we have a lot of growing to do. The expectations are so brilliant and we are so ill-qualified.’ Baha’u’llah is [the source] where we will derive strength to foster a unified Assembly and, indeed, community.”

It’s a sentiment with which Baha’is and friends in all these and other areas nationwide would readily agree.

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