Dozens in eastern Virginia communities build relationships around Baha’i teachings
By Francisco Rendon
When a spark of enthusiasm catches on, it can be fanned into a flame. In only a few months, two rural areas in eastern Virginia have each seen dozens of people build friendships and become eager to start building prayerful communities together.
“There are families, with the current global crisis, that feel like the world is ending,” says Yetti Bran of the Richmond area, part of a team that has traveled regularly to help people become empowered in that process.
“When we come to help start these activities, with the blessings of Baha’u’llah, it arrives in their life like the springtime, it brings joy to these families. This is one of the wonders of the teachings of Baha’u’llah.”
Continued momentum and support has rapidly moved this activity to what Baha’is consider a second milestone of growth in two clusters of communities: a four-county area centered on West Point and the two-county Lower Delmarva peninsula area.
Flowing from a multitude of conversations in late 2020, the activity started to accelerate when a few residents opened spaces in their homes to pray with others and explore the betterment of humanity. As a nucleus of active people grew in each area, they embarked on study courses based on Baha’u’llah’s teachings, building a foundation for further sharing prayers, educating children in virtues, and creating groups to spiritually empower 12- to 14-year-olds.
Very early in that friendship-building process, members of the visiting team “started to speak about this vision of building community through prayer and through service,” says Danita Hardin, an organizer of the outreaches, who advises Baha’i communities locally and regionally as an appointed Auxiliary Board member.
“We started talking about the idea that this isn’t some far-off fantasy, it can really be accomplished,” she says, “but in order for this vision to become a reality, more and more individuals have to be willing to open their home, to be of service, to pray for the advancement of humanity and civilization.”
Places with a handful of Baha’is
As of mid-2020 only two Baha’is lived in the town of West Point, a short distance east of Richmond. The whole Lower Delmarva area had about five.
For decades, Bahá’ís and their friends worldwide have been learning, through action, about building communities based on the teachings of Baha’u’llah, Founder of the Faith. Accompaniment has become a key concept in that process, and in the past five years that has grown to include not only person-to-person accompaniment, but also assistance from clusters with established communities being extended to those with less experience in the process.
At the end of June 2020, Hardin built on excitement from a series of Baha’i conferences and organized a group of volunteers from several clusters in Central Virginia, with varying amounts of experience in talking about and organizing community-building activities. They gained six months’ experience helping people in the Fredericksburg area start new devotional gatherings and invite people to them; with the pandemic in full force, those meetings were mostly on the internet.
By December the team turned its attention to West Point, gathering for prayers before traveling to the smaller town for each full-day visit.
Finding an area for focus
Hardin says the first task was to find a neighborhood where the team could focus its energies. Then, in smaller groups, members went to different spaces — a grocery store, a park, a post office, a tattoo parlor — to engage residents in conversation and to build friendships one by one. People were invited to join prayers, first on Zoom and gradually in person.
As they continued this pattern of visits for three or for days at a time in West Point, the teams of two to four would continue making new contacts and follow up with existing contacts, all while praying intensely for assistance and for the well-being of the friends they were making.
The key to having effective conversations, Hardin says, was using simple language to share a coherent vision of the community-building process they were inviting people to join.
Those who showed interest “were asked if they would be willing to host these devotional spaces,” she says, and team members drew on ideas from Reflections on the Life of the Spirit — the first book in a sequence of training courses for the community-building process. “We explained that it’s a space where anybody can bring friends, family, co-workers, neighbors, together for collective worship with some regularity, where we can have uplifting conversations and in this spirit of worship and service, where we can think about our contribution to our community, society and the entire world.
“And a lot of people said ‘Yes, I don’t know why people haven’t thought of this before.’ Some people realized they already pray together as a family, but they didn’t know what to call it, and this was an opportunity to become more regular.”
Everyone has a part in the effort
West Point’s Baha’i residents are older, and they had been discouraged by the lack of youth and the energy they bring. But Hardin says older people were from the start among the hosts and participants in these devotional gatherings. Momentum grew as the team increasingly viewed everyone, regardless of age or background, as potentially collaborating in the process.
And the nucleus of these friends gradually expanded. “We’ve all become very close friends, we know each other very well,” Hardin says. “Also, the spirit of service, that each of us has a part to play, has grown. … People, more than they ever were before, are waving to each other, knowing that when we come to have a conversation, it will be a conversation [about] how to make humanity better. And I think people are really excited about that.”
Yetti Bran says that on one visit, when he and a West Point Baha’i went out to invite people to participate in forming activities, people responded eagerly to the ideas of the unity of humanity, particularly given the intensity of the national discourse on race.
“People wanted to help us. When we would share ‘We are celebrating the unity of mankind, working to become more united and trying to build consciousness of this unity,’ every time, people would say, ‘This is what we need,’” Bran says (in Spanish, translated).
After about three months, near the end of February, West Point was deemed as having passed the second milestone of growth, as described by the Universal House of Justice, global governing council of the Baha’i Faith: “a steady stream of friends is proceeding through the courses of the training institute and engaging in the corresponding activities.”
By June, nine West Point residents were hosts of regular devotional gatherings, several study circles had been started, a Baha’i children’s class was formed, and several young people were being trained to start and mentor junior youth groups.
Even more intensive in Delmarva
With momentum built in West Point, the team turned its attention to Lower Delmarva. While remote from the larger population centers where most traveling team members live, the peninsula has seen even more intensive growth of the process. The team would spend a week at a time in that area, holding 20 to 25 substantial conversations each day and people proved receptive to the vision.
“Anybody and anything that moved, we shared, we asked if we could share a prayer with them, and shared that we were really trying to learn about building community through prayers and service,” Hardin says.
“We were literally on people’s potato farms; they would see us coming and ask ‘Who is that coming over yonder?’ We found some small apartment complexes and people that were so excited and open about this idea of sharing prayers. Because we saw this real openness when we would go, they would not only say ‘Sure, we will pray with you,’ but they would call their whole family.
“So we would invite the families, right there on the spot: ‘Would you be willing to join us in these efforts by creating a space in your own home, maybe just beginning with your own family, saying prayers regularly, as a service to your community? Let’s learn together what can happen if many people are praying together for their community.”
The two-county Lower Delmarva cluster only took two months from these early contacts to reach the second milestone of growth. By June, 19 devotional gatherings and five other activities were going regularly — many of them in person, thanks to loosened pandemic restrictions on gatherings.
Bran says all the traveling team members felt pronounced confirmations from their efforts in Lower Delmarva — as well as the power of prayer, since they had prayed with great fervor in the mornings and periods leading up to their outreach. As the process continues, local residents have told him they are starting to see changes in neighborhood dynamics that have sometimes been there for more than 100 years.
“[This work] is giving hope to people, that there is a better future, one that the people can understand,” Bran says.