Devotional gatherings create space for discussions on race

October 29, 2020
Devotional gatherings create space for discussions on race

After demonstrations and protests for racial justice shook the nation in early summer 2020, Baha’is around the country turned once again to prayer to create safe spaces for meaningful and moving conversations on how to heal racial trauma and move society toward unity and justice.

And despite the restrictions imposed by the public health crisis, they found a variety of creative ways to bring people together outdoors or online.

Nebraska/Wyoming: An invitation to listen

Members of five small Baha’i communities straddling the border between Nebraska and Wyoming began meeting virtually in June to discuss how to promote racial justice in their far-flung rural towns, which have a combined population of 40,000, including a sizable Latino population.

Members of the Bahá’í community confer with two local pastors at the end of an interfaith prayer vigil for race unity held Aug. 29 in Scottsbluff, Nebraska. Photo by Nancy Moore

One of their first actions was to meet with the editor of a local newspaper serving Scottsbluff County, Nebraska, and nearby Torrington, Wyoming, about publishing a letter to the editor, says Linda Nelson of Gering, Nebraska.

“We emphasized that healing begins with having conversations,” says Nelson.

“The meeting with the editor was really enlightening because he highlighted that one of the biggest problems with conversations is that people really don’t listen to each other,” she says. So with the use of prayer and music to create an atmosphere where hearts could come together, “our groups decided to invite the community to … really listen.”

They held an outdoor interfaith prayer vigil for racial justice at a Scottsbluff park on Aug. 29. Twenty-five attendees, representing four churches and the Baha’is, shared prayers and music that “fit beautifully” with the theme of racial justice, Nelson says. Seventeen attendees signed a contact list to continue gathering for meaningful conversations.

“We know two things right now – lots of people have a lot on their minds and hearts and nowhere to share those thoughts and feelings,” she says, “and we need to be mindful of being active listeners.”

Florida: A level of love and trust

A group of Baha’i families in Tampa has had heartwarming responses to a weekly interfaith devotional gathering on Zoom that was started in April. Prior to the third meeting, the video of the killing of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia became public, and issues of racial justice came to the fore across the nation.

“As a result, we decided to devote our Friday night devotional that week to the issue of race,” says Steve Zaloudek, a Tampa Baha’i. “We had a group of over 20 folks from across the country, although primarily folks from the Tampa area and Atlanta area.”

“We met for over three hours and engaged in a pain-filled, emotional conversation. At the end of the meeting, it was agreed that we should continue our focus on race for our future gatherings,” he says.

The interfaith devotional gathering has continued every Friday night with a focus on race unity and justice with 25 to 35 participants, with a core group of about 10 and more than 100 who have taken part at least once. The gatherings start at 7:30 p.m. and typically go on until midnight.

Zaloudek facilitates the gatherings with another Tampa Baha’i, Afsaneh Dean. They welcome the group and then share songs, prayers and readings prepared in advance, drawing inspiration from many faith traditions and thought leaders.

“Following the devotional part of our gathering, we do introductions with different icebreakers every week with the thought that we are trying to develop genuine friendships and get to know each other on a heart level,” Zaloudek says.

“What is most striking about these gatherings is the levels of love and trust that have been developed between the participants. A truly safe space has been created that has allowed all, particularly our friends of color, to share their experiences from the heart and to be validated by the other participants on the call,” he says.

“Ironically, in this COVID world, without the ability to see or meet each other in person, we have witnessed the most loving and beautiful connections created in this space,” Zaloudek says. “We have had folks of color, who had become disenchanted with race discussions, tell us that this call provides them the spiritual energy they need to get through their week. We have had several white folks, who are not Baha’is, comment that they have never been involved in conversations like this before where they have had the blessing of hearing people of color talk about the pains and struggles of being a person of color in America.”

Illinois (and beyond): Widening the circle

Van Gilmer, a Baha’i in Wilmette, Illinois, has been hosting monthly devotional gatherings in his home for 11 years. A Baha’i since the early 1960s, he has a long personal history working for civil rights and was a participant in the historic Woolworth counter sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina.

Three years ago he decided to focus the gatherings on discussion of race in America. In June, he moved the devotional gathering online and found an opportunity to widen the circle by inviting a few African American friends, both Baha’i and not, from around the country.

Participants from many countries take part in online devotionals hosted by Van Gilmer. Image courtesy of Van Gilmer

“There are several things that we have never talked about as regards to race and so I proceeded to write to the African Americans first and invite them to participate in a new adventure,” Gilmer says. He sent out specific invitations to a wide range of people, Baha’i and not. His experience was that if he invited 70 people, he could expect nine to 20 participants.

“I was surprised at the response,” Gilmer says. “It caused me to revise on the spot what I had planned to do when around 80 people appeared!”

“There is much to the story,” he says. He has had numerous long calls with participants, as well as emails and text messages from people sharing how moved they were by the spirit of the gathering. Here are a few examples:

  • “Last night was absolutely great. All those individuals who shared their stories and their pain placed a whole lot of trust in the rest of us. I heard every word, and I honor every heart. Thank you for bringing us all together. I’m looking forward to the next time.”
  • “We white people need to hear those things. We don’t know about some personal experiences people of color live with all the time. Well, we heard them last night … now we need to hear from the white people: their reactions, their observations, their acknowledgement of white privilege, and so on.”
  • “I was so touched by the openness and honesty of those who shared such deep personal accounts. I continue to listen and learn with an open heart.”
  • “Thank you for including me in last night’s discussion. The stories told were moving, educational and once again have shown me that I have much to learn. I find that when I listen with an open heart and mind that I am moved to do better, be better and [am] motivated to make a difference.”

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