Elder Bahá’ís stay invigorated through service

Much change has come to the Bahá’í world since 1996, when Bahá’ís and like-minded souls were set on a course to learn new skills and apply them in neighborhood-level efforts to build community.

Elder Bahá’ís have taken on roles across the spectrum of activity. But for many, particular opportunities for service have opened up that benefit from their wisdom, experience and, often, circumstances.

Fort Collins, Colorado: Spiritual enrichment and enriched flour

Emma Lue Strahle and Betty Andal are two such active elders — 90-somethings who live in the Rigden Farm Senior Center.

If there’s one thing folks in senior housing have in abundance is time, and Strahle and Andal are glad to help fellow residents fill it by offering devotional gatherings, study circles and similar spiritual enrichment activities.

“Mealtime provides a wonderful opportunity to foster and strengthen relationships, converse on spiritual principles and invite neighbors to activities,” notes Jessica Kerr, an admirer of their efforts.

“With the support of the Fort Collins Spiritual Assembly and community members, [residents’] time has been filled with spiritual discourse, study of the Word of God and prayer for the past five years.”

The senior center, with Strahle and Andal’s help, also has provided space for children’s classes, a junior youth group and firesides open to people in the neighborhood. And Fort Collins Bahá’ís also have held some Feasts there.

Andal has gone outside the center to support core activities in nearby Windsor as well, says Kerr.

She shared her talents and skills this past summer during the Arts of Living program for children and junior youths, teaching them crafts, crocheting, knitting and cooking.

In fact, her passion to share knowledge has evolved into regular gatherings on Saturdays called “Baking with Bahá’í Betty.” Junior youths and kids from several neighborhoods attend.

Prescott Valley, Arizona: Creating an environment of wonder

It is a happy place and we hope to add to the temperament of the building.”

That’s how Nancy Coker describes the senior living complex she lives in and the efforts of Bahá’ís there.

Coker moved to the complex a year and a half ago after 12 years in the Navajo Nation, where she worked as a director of exceptional education.

I moved with the intention that these elders would hear the name Bahá’u’lláh before they took leave from this plane,” she says. “While remembering that the youth are important, so are each and every one of the elderly.”

It turned out other Bahá’ís lived in the complex and others have moved there in the past year, with the happy result that the Prescott Valley group should be able to form a Local Spiritual Assembly this spring.

With assistance from Bahá’ís around the county, the small group has been able to celebrate the monthly Feast and initiate many activities open to all residents.

A Persian dinner was set amidst a backdrop of wooden lattice windows and billowing curtains.

“We changed the environment from the usual feeling to one of wonder,” says Coker. “It was a special presentation with purposeful meanings and stories.”

At each table were prayers on bookmarks the Bahá’ís made, “letting [guests] know we honor and love them.”

A large display for World Peace Day featured foods from around the world.

A weekly devotional gathering was inaugurated, using a quiet room in the building.

Also, “home visits have been made here consistently in the complex with people who are not necessarily open to the Faith at all and need to get to know us as people,” and “intimate dinners are held with individuals who wanted to hear more about our Faith.”

The latest outreach: a British-style “cream tea” — complete with “sandwiches, fairy cakes, heavy cakes with jam and clotted cream” — to celebrate the Birth of the Báb.

We may be elder but we have a purpose,” says Coker. “We are returned overseas pioneers, travel teachers, homefront pioneers — and glad to spread the word.”

Dayton, Ohio: Filling a need, gaining experience for own neighborhoods

For the past five years, eight Bahá’í retirees from several communities in Montgomery County and two helpers their age who are still working have come together to support an after-school enrichment and virtues-building program at the Dayton Bahá’í Center.

The participants, ages 4 to 16, “vie for reading of prayers, preparing, serving a hot meal, cleaning up after the program and turning out for neighborhood service projects,” says Jim Hagan of Kettering.

It’s something he says the kids desperately need.

“The Bahá’í Center opened more than 10 years ago in what then was a racially integrated community that has since imploded into a ghetto of hopelessness with many drug problems, fractured families and untreated mental and learning problems with the [young people] in the area.”

The program benefits the Bahá’ís who are involved, too.

“Although exhausted by day’s end,” says Hagan, “the teachers seem confirmed by their love of service and enthusiastic return of the children the next week.”

The older Bahá’ís also are gaining experience they hope to apply alongside younger folks in neighborhoods where they live.

“The efforts of the friends with the weekly … program at the center make it possible for them to be engaged with one of the core activities while gaining the experience” of working with children, junior youths and youths, says Hagan.

“All are hopeful here that as we slowly gain experience and greater capacity to teach we will also gain traction with our core activities.”

Los Angeles, California: A skill to share with young people

As Sue Chehrenegar studied Ruhi Book 8, The Covenant of Bahá’u’lláh, she read that Shoghi Effendi encouraged the youth to learn speaking skills.

And she figured it wouldn’t be a bad skill for a grandmother to have as well.

Then she was leafing through the Los Angeles Times early one Sunday morning and found an advertisement placed by a program called Own the Room.

“It was seeking people who wanted to sign up for a two-day course on speaking to a room full of people,” Chehrenegar relates.

“Obviously, the group giving that program planned to charge for their presentation. Still, it had decided to allow the first 10 people to sign up to get in for free. Since it was early in the morning, I was able to be one of those 10 people.”

Chehrenegar came away not only with the skill but literature and the notes she had taken. And she decided to share that information with young people in her community.

Since then she has been corresponding with animators of junior youth groups and facilitators of youth and hopes soon to be asked to make presentations on speaking. Stay tuned.

Seattle, Washington: Candid answers to students’ questions

When the Washington Bahá’í History Museum moved to larger quarters adjacent to the University of Washington campus, another recent arrival was among those elder Bahá’ís who answered the call to serve there.

Though a Seattle native, Susan Bentler had been away for 30 years and was looking for an opportunity to “serve and be active.”

“In short, I need Bahá’í community, I need Bahá’í activity, I need Bahá’ís,” she says.

“So far, I have acted as a greeter and host,” says Bentler, as students and others come in for coffee, tea, free wi-fi and a look around.

“And since the museum has a relationship with several community colleges and universities, I have been interviewed by students who are studying the Bahá’í Faith.”

Bentler says the students’ questions have been challenging but friendly.

Her interactions with young people there have given Bentler pause to think about how she can do so most effectively, she says.

“I think when we speak as elders to young people wishing to learn about the Faith that we should earnestly try to answer their questions and anticipate that the interests of youth today are bound to be different than the interests of my own generation,” says Bentler.

“I think we should speak candidly about what the Faith teaches and let youth who investigate the Faith draw their own conclusions,” she says. “We should not avoid some of the more challenging topics, but view these interactions as an opportunity to contemplate the capacity of the human soul, free of dogma and superstition.”

She says today’s youth will find that approach “refreshing” and, given some of the wider community's cultural influences, “novel and uncomplicated.”

“In short, today's youth are savvy, informed and will appreciate frankness and honesty.”

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