Tacoma family, community learn service together
Two-year-old Jaya True Kramer gets between her baby sisters, Ella Bailey (left) and Evangeline Tahirih, as they're bundled up for an excursion. Photo courtesy of Gwen Kramer
When twins Ella and Evangeline were born premature last May and spent a month in the hospital, it was pretty overwhelming for mom and dad Gwen and Joe Kramer.
And they still had to meet 2-year-old Jaya's needs.
"It’s the worst," reflects Gwen. "It’s such a weird place to be in. You’re just going back and forth between home and the hospital, and every day you’re almost like a zombie.
"You have days you’re really hopeful [that the hospital stay and fear of the unknown] will end soon, and days when it feels like it never will."
But the Kramers had a support system: fellow Bahá’ís in Tacoma, Washington.
"They made meals. They took care of Jaya — took her to the park, played with her. They came with us to see the babies. They cleaned the house," she recounts.
"And when we made thank-you cards later, there were over 40 people that weren’t … blood-related who just came helped us in so many ways. It was just this beautiful thing."
Many other families at the hospital "had no one," says Gwen. "They were just there by themselves, were just drained completely, hopeless, lonely."
It hit her "how important it is to be part of the community, for the community to be a part of your life."
"Because nobody can do this by themselves," she says. "And I think it’s unjust in our society to expect that parents raise their kids by themselves."
With that realization came another: "Whoa, not only do we love this community and we’re loved by the community, but we have to give back.
"So once we got out of the hospital, it was, ‘OK, we’re back in action,’” says Gwen.
"Even if we have three kids under the age of 2, it doesn’t matter. We have to be part of the community, and to serve it any way we can or are called to serve."
A balancing act — with community as net
How best to balance family and service is something the Kramers have been figuring out ever since.
They see raising children as “the noblest service,” says Gwen, and “a service to the world.”
“And so what then becomes priority and how does it then match with other aspects of their development?” she asks.
“How can we raise them with experience in all the sciences and all the arts, and to have love for prayer and love for Bahá’u’lláh and love for the Faith and for their community?”
Gwen says the impact of immersing their children in community activities can already be seen in Jaya.
“Having come to junior youth groups or to study circles or various meetings, she’s very patient,” she notes.
“In her free time she plays ‘study circling,’ as she calls it. She pulls out the Ruhi books and tutors us.”
Jaya also “likes to welcome everyone when they come over and walk them to the door when they leave,” says Gwen. “And she likes to hear the different stories about the Faith and about ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and to share them with others.”
Sing, too. “Whenever she’s singing to herself, she’s really singing a prayer of some kind,” says Gwen.
“And I think it’s just because it’s been an integrated part of our life right from the beginning. It doesn’t feel foreign or weird to go and do those things because that’s just what we do.”
But Gwen sees an issue of justice tempering that immersion.
Weighty considerations and an emerging solution
Junior youths aren’t encouraged to bring younger siblings to group meetings, so is it fair for her to bring her kids? They might be a distraction.
Then there’s the effect on her own children over the years. It’s possible that “by the time they are junior youth, they’re like, ‘Ugh, I’ve been doing this for 13 years. I don’t want to do it anymore.’”
To a great degree, Gwen believes, the answer is for her and Joe to take supporting roles where necessary and more visible roles where prudent.
That’s something she’s discussing now with the junior youth coordinator and the community.
“OK, who can be here with the kids while I animate the group? Or does my service change? Do I instead still have the group at my home but I accompany a new animator to animate [i.e. facilitate] the group and I’m the second adult?” Gwen wonders.
“And then as a family what do we do? Hosting a devotional gathering seems like it’s been really great because it helps, I think, solidify the notion that prayer is a part of our life.”
To the Kramers these are important questions for the community as well.
“We’re happy to be this experiment family,” says Gwen. “Because as more and more people are coming into this process, if we meet a mom in the neighborhood who has 10 kids and she wants to animate we have to help her animate.
“So it doesn’t mean people have kids and they check out … until the kids are 5,” she says. “It means, OK, the family still wants to serve, the individuals still want to serve, so how … do we help them serve?
“There are so many souls who are happy to be there and sit with kids. Or maybe a new children’s class starts at the same time. There are so many options. But it’s just thinking through it as a family and thinking through it as a community.”
Allowing souls to emerge and serve
One “huge” inspiration for Gwen was watching the Frontiers of Learning video.
“In the Congo segment, there are these women who are regional coordinators, and they’re like, ‘I have 10 kids and I’m a regional coordinator,’” she recalls.
“And that is so awesome, because you know … they could not serve in that capacity if they were expected to raise their kids by themselves. They just couldn’t.
“So somehow there’s a system of support in that cluster, in that community, that allows souls to emerge and serve as they need them, for the betterment of everybody.”
The family, as Gwen sees it, has characteristics of all three protagonists of the Plan.
“Marriage is an institution, and you have individuals in the family and they’re part of the community. So we can learn about all three protagonists of the Plan just by being a family and trying to serve.”
And why not have fun doing it?
At Halloween the Kramers hosted Tacoma’s monthly dance party fundraiser. Everyone dressed in costume, someone taught steps from “Thriller” and Bahá’ís there made contributions to the National Bahá’í Fund.
“We've since heard from neighbors how excited they were that this is happening once a month and that it's ‘good for the neighborhood,’ especially as a group of three junior youth who were out trick-or-treating came in and joined us, left and came back,” Gwen says.
“One neighbor who knows one of them said she was worried about them being out that late and it was great to know that they were somewhere that was safe and fun. She shared that the girls thought it was awesome. Hopefully they will be returning!
“It's serving as a great place to connect people and have a great time,” says Gwen, “while also doing something productive like raising funds and building friendships.”
Just where the Kramer family wants to be: serving as part of a community.