Communities keep connections strong through communication, service

June 23, 2020
Communities keep connections strong through communication, service

Updated frequently — latest: June 23, 2020

When the COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of a school talent show, a Baha’i-initiated junior youth group stepped in.

The group, which serves middle-schoolers in communities north of Chicago, enlisted young people who would have performed in the school show plus others in the area. 

The idea was to stage a virtual talent show and raise money for charities that aid people who have been affected by the crisis, says Nicole Zamir, a Baha’i in Northbrook.

“Then the biggest confirmation for planning this gathering came when after sharing some intense general family prayers including for youth, and another individual prayer — praying for confirmation, something we had been discussing in our junior youth group — my son, 12-year-old, Andre Zare, looked out the front window and saw the district’s superintendent walking down the street with her son,” Zamir recalls.

An aerial dance is part of an online talent show spearheaded by a junior youth group in Northbrook, Illinois. Photo courtesy of Nicole Zamir

Andre called out to Zamir and her husband, Arash Zare, and they hustled outside to tell her about the planned fundraiser. Turns out the superintendent had just moved to the neighborhood; they had never seen her out walking before.

With the help of the superintendent and a school principal, the word went out far and wide via email and social media.  

And when the event went live on the evening of May 23, dozens of people on 65 devices tuned in to the Zoom call.

The 17 performers sang, played instruments, did magic tricks and danced. Oh, they danced: an aerial dance using suspended scarves, a dance by twins, a dance with glow-in-the-dark clothing.

Several local charities were suggested, says Zamir, but attendees could give to any organization of their choosing. 

When the donations were tallied, they amounted to more than $2,500.

***

It turns out Baha’is in Atlanta were just getting started when they created a video for March 20 observances of Naw-Ruz, a Holy Day that marks the start of a new year in the Baha’i calendar.

The video featured young people from around the area sharing songs, prayers and stories, and it was distributed so communities could show it in celebrating the Holy Day.

A month later, Reginald Colbert and collaborators began releasing videos for Ridvan, a 12-day period hearkening to the declaration of Baha’u’llah, prophet-founder of the Baha’i Faith, that He is the bearer of God’s teachings for this age.

Released starting April 20, the productions include stories and musical performances on the significance of these Holy Days.

The second video in the series, for example, includes a talk by Atlanta artist and actor Masud Olufani on the circumstances of the 12 days Baha’u’llah spent with followers and family in a garden outside Baghdad before departing for further exile in Constantinople (Istanbul). Two piano pieces and a flute solo accompany the talk.

In the third video, members of the Vojdani-Mangum extended family take viewers through events of three pivotal days during Baha’u’llah’s time in the garden. 

The Atlanta-area communities outdid themselves in compiling a 24-minute Twelfth Day of Ridvan video that producers say featured “selections from Baha’i writings, music, [a] Ridvan story, dance, and more.”

As a note accompanying the video explains, “Baha’is across the area videotaped themselves singing, reading and saying prayers. Then these videos were edited together and shared on the Twelfth Day of Ridvan,” May 1.

“This video is a result of friends around the cluster working hundreds of hours on planning, videotaping and editing.”

Here’s a link to a YouTube channel with the complete series of videos. 

***

What the Baha’is of Pendleton, Oregon, have initiated might not have the national appeal of the phenomenon known as the wave, in which spectators at an event rise section by section to throw their arms above their heads.

But by going around the community waving at neighbors and asking them how they’re doing, the Baha’is are doing something to build community that a stadium amusement can’t match.

And these nightly excursions to blanket townspeople with love and encouragement have caught the attention of residents and the East Oregonian newspaper alike.

“I was reading about studies on how, when people feel like they’re a part of the community, their immune systems improve,” Bill Young, a Baha’i in Pendleton, was quoted as telling East Oregonian Editor Andrew Cutler. 

“I’m a Baha’i, so we believe in building communities and the two seem to go together.”

Young noted the stress that residents are feeling since the COVID-19 pandemic followed closely on the heels of floods that caused widespread destruction in February.

Countering that atmosphere of fear and apprehension isn’t easy, though, at a time of social distancing. 

“Visits to the elderly and disabled are harder to manage as travel is made more difficult,” Young told the newspaper.

So something as simple as “a wave from a neighbor can be both reassuring and an important welfare check as we encounter the predicted spike of infections during the next several weeks,” he said. “And our communities will be stronger when the restrictions are lifted.”

Word of the nightly waves is being spread through social media and a series of sidewalk chalk drawings.

The Baha’is also are thinking of ways to reach the community’s many shut-ins who can’t easily get to their doors, said Young.

Neighbors they do encounter are receptive to the waves, he said. “They don’t have a reaction the first time I mention it, and by the second or third time I think people warm up to the idea.

“It’s an idea where the logic of this is a time when all of us are in and it’s good to check on each other. We’ve been through the floods and so people are already feeling bruised.”

***

Rockwall, Texas, neighbors model the type of masks they’ve sewn for health care workers. Photo courtesy of Naomi de la Torre

Baha’is and friends in a Rockwall, Texas, neighborhood were inspired to meet a need that arose during the COVID-19 pandemic. The result was an initiative called Masked with Love.

They had become aware of the lack of personal protective equipment for local health care workers, as well as the need for everyone in the community to start wearing homemade masks when out shopping or doing other essential tasks.

So these neighbors decided to work together to provide free homemade masks, says Naomi de la Torre, a Baha’i in Rockwall. Some sewed, some cut fabric, some cut elastic, some donated fabric and others made deliveries.

More than 200 masks have been donated in the community thus far and hundreds more are still being produced.

It has been a wonderful experience for the collaborators and even has created opportunities for new friendships to arise, says de la Torre. “The friends are grateful to have Baha’u’llah’s message of hope and healing to guide them during this time.”

***

Nasser Rohani, a Baha’i in Portland, Maine, shares two stories of joyful outcomes from interaction at a distance during the coronavirus pandemic.

The first is a reminder that reaching out online can provide a vital link for those who are not otherwise able to participate in a gathering. 

“During these times of social distancing and all the side effects of uncertainty and anxiety, some individuals and communities have devised novel ideas of reaching out to relatives, colleagues, friends and, most important, those who are the most vulnerable,” reflects Rohani. 

“The Baha’is of Maine have started several devotional meetings on Zoom,” he shares. “One of the Baha’is, Banu Komlosy, who lives in an assisted living facility, desired to join the devotional.

“But she had some technical problems. Kathy and Larry Grey, two of the participants, started a low-tech connection [by phone] to include Banu.”

Says Rohani, “Her participation was wonderful and added a lot to the richness of the devotional gathering.”

And the second is a story of imaginative at-a-distance contact.

“Godfrey Banda, a Baha’i in South Portland, and his wife, Faith, have two children,” relates Rohani. “Vicki Smith, a Baha’i in that community, is their accompanier. She regularly visits the family, holds children’s classes for the kids and basically has them under her wings. 

“Due to the recent stay-home ordinance, she is unable to visit the family. But last week, she found a way to visit them from a distance and even say some prayers with them.”

Rohani says Faith Banda was so impressed that she took a short video and some photos and posted them to Facebook, with the following note: 

“During this time of quarantine and social distancing, sometimes it is hard to explain to little children and help them understand why routines have changed and why they can’t hug or visit with people they love the most. My little boys here have been asking about ‘Aunt Vicki’ and why they haven’t seen her in a ‘long time’ now. 

“Coincidentally, she calls to say she misses the boys and is passing by to wave to us from the street. This made their day! Today Aunt Vicki passed by again, just to chat with the boys and say a little prayer she taught them when they were very little — all from the street. 

“Had to hold them back and remind them, ‘Stay on the porch and remember no hugs.’ It is still possible to show love and kindness during these unprecedented times.”

***

From the Religion News Service

For Menaka Kannan, it was bad enough when she heard that a fellow member of New York City’s Baha’i community had contracted the novel coronavirus. But she was not emotionally prepared for the news that came roughly a week later: He had succumbed to the infection and died.

“The news of his passing, of course, is very shocking,” she said.

As the community grappled with the grief, a lingering question arose: How do you conduct a funeral in the midst of a global pandemic, when a healing hug is now seen as a potential death sentence?

It’s a conundrum facing spiritual leaders the world over as the death toll from the coronavirus mounts, leaving the faithful in the U.S., Italy and elsewhere struggling to amend ancient burial practices to abide by government recommendations that advise against gatherings of more than 10 people or, in some cases, ban funerals altogether.

For Kannan and other members of her community’s “burial task force,” preparing for a funeral required balancing a desire to offer spiritual comfort to the grieving with the need to shield others against infection.

Read the full story, “As coronavirus death toll mounts, faith leaders the world over grapple with funerals,” here.

***

The next Unific monthly afternoon of games, snacks and unifying fellowship in Fort Wayne, Indiana, has been canceled because of the pandemic. No surprise there.

But the sponsoring Fort Wayne Baha’is have provided attendees with a sheet of games and riddles to enjoy until everyone can meet again.

The Unific afternoons have been held since September 2018, and attract people of all ages to a space in a public library.

With the library closed temporarily and a need for social distancing, the Baha’is came up with an alternate way to share in the fun.

“This time rather than meeting in person, hopefully the attached newsletter will keep you in the UNIFIC spirit by reading and playing along,” says an email from Carol Butler, a Baha’i in Fort Wayne. “I tried to include something for everyone! Your comments are welcome!

Butler says photos of past afternoons were included “to remind us of what a great time we always have at our Unific gatherings. Hopefully, they will restart again soon!”

“Meet-ups using Zoom may also be a possibility,” she adds.

***

The lead item in a Washington Post story, “The new sound of worship services: Can you mute your mic? Amen,” described how Washington, DC, Baha’is ended the 19-day Baha’i Fast at sunset March 19 with a celebration online rather than at the city’s Baha’i Center.

The item reads:

During Thursday afternoon’s Baha’i prayer service, which was held over Skype and hosted in living rooms and bedrooms across the District, with a few friends tuning in from farther cities and countries, worshipers took turns leading songs and prayers while others muted their mics.

“Remember at all times and at all places that God is faithful, and do not doubt this. Be patient even though great calamities may come upon thee,” one woman sang, strumming a guitar. In the tiny boxes filling the screen, her fellow faithful moved their lips along with her.

***

As in many communities nationwide, the Baha’is of Chattanooga, Tennessee, celebrated Naw-Ruz, start of a new year in the Baha’i calendar, through a videoconference.

Fully 30 percent of Baha’is in the Chattanooga area participated, says Andrew Lefton, secretary of the local Baha’i governing council, the Spiritual Assembly.

“As with many other Baha’i communities, I suspect many have gone to an online medium for their meetings, Holy Days and commemorations. Chattanooga is no different,” says Lefton. 

“Last night we celebrated our Naw-Ruz using Zoom technology. Considering that for many it was a first-time experience, I’d say it went remarkably well.”

***

The Baha’is of Palo Alto, California, in collaboration with www.bahaiteachings.org, hosted a livestreamed musical celebration of Naw-Ruz featuring Irish singer-songwriter Luke Slott.

According to an invitation to the Facebook Live presentation, Slott shared songs and stories in celebration of the Baha’i new year.

***

The announcement that the regular Feast gathering March 22 for Baha’is in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, would be conducted via Zoom was accompanied by a note from the Spiritual Assembly offering “material and spiritual help in this difficult time.”

A phone number and email address were designated for this service, along with assurance that “all requests will be kept confidential.”

The Feast attracted 23 participants, says Sam Williams, who lives 25 miles from Winston-Salem in the small town of Yadkinville.

The Baha’i writings chosen for prayer and meditation “were on screen and various people read them,” relates Williams. “We could talk to each other! Great experience.”

***

As the days counted down to Naw-Ruz, marking the start of a new year in the Baha’i calendar on March 20, many Baha’i communities went about setting up live-streamed celebrations or sending out readings and song links that could be used in family or small-group commemorations.

Baha’is in the Atlanta cluster of Baha’i communities were really under the gun as they scrambled to make a YouTube video featuring young people of all backgrounds from around the area.

“Here is a creative solution for our cluster to celebrate Naw-Ruz!” reads an announcement from the committee in charge. “You, your family and friends are invited to enjoy a cluster-wide Naw-Ruz celebration featuring the children, junior youth and youth in our cluster, using YouTube as a medium. 

“Even though we will be in our homes and in small gatherings, we can still enjoy a Naw-Ruz celebration as we watch the YouTube video at the same time.”

To create the video, the announcement goes on to say, “A small group of producers will bring the camera to homes in small settings to film, record, edit and upload the video by March 19.”

***

From an article in The Spectrum newspaper in St. George, Utah, that quotes members of various faiths on how the coronavirus pandemic has changed their worship practices:

In the local Baha’i community, member Karen Frieden said their meetings are usually held in members’ homes, and whether or not those meetings will continue will be up to the discretion of individual hosts. Baha’is are prudent, she said, and will listen to recommendations from the CDC and other authorities.

However, she said, Baha’is already worship independently through daily prayer and meditation.

“I think there’s still always that connection with God,” she said. “It’s pretty easy to just read the writings, just remind us of God and work on our individual growth.”


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