Friendship and faith blossom over a distance in the plains of Montana

March 26, 2020
Friendship and faith blossom over a distance in the plains of Montana

Baha’is in the vast, sparsely populated northern Great Plains have lots they can share about connecting with people over a distance. And no finer example can be found than the relationship of two families in Montana.

The elected Regional Baha’i Council of the Northern Plains States — serving a stretch from Idaho to the Dakotas — has held most meetings virtually for several years, says its secretary, Dru Hanich. 

Frequent videoconferencing “keeps us in touch with each other and what is happening throughout the region,” says Hanich. “Early years, the Council would meet by conference call, but this was limited because it was difficult to pick up on nuances in the ideas that members were sharing. 

“Although in-person meetings were held a few times a year,” she notes, the practice of videoconferencing via Zoom between those meetings “has strengthened the bonds of fellowship, love and unity. It has strengthened us to reach a common vision.”

In the new reality emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic, the Council finds it can “assist others to stay connected and expand their vision of engaging their friends, family, neighbors and co-workers,” says Hanich.

Baha’is in the region are “developing their skills to meet virtually for devotional gatherings, children’s classes, study circles and junior youth groups. The use of phone calls, emails, and texts is also an important part of becoming connected.”

In particular, she says, local inquiry response coordinators have found the benefit of texting as well as calling to develop a relationship with people who want to learn about the teachings of Baha’u’llah, prophet-founder of the Baha’i Faith.

A learning connection

Enter Diana and Dan Geiger of Billings, Montana, who connected with inquirer Lisa Doney of rural Hardin. 

Over text and phone, Diana Geiger and Doney studied Book 1, Reflections on the Life of the Spirit, in the Ruhi Institute curriculum, which prepares people to offer Baha’i-initiated core activities of community building where they live.

At the end of the course, Doney and her daughter, Jamie Rindahl, 13, embraced the Faith. “Lisa is in the final sections of Book 2, Arising to Serve,” says Geiger, “and is eager to begin Book 3, Teaching Children’s Classes, Grade 1. We are being sure to pay close attention to the practices found in each book.”

With Geiger’s assistance Jamie has completed the junior youth texts Breezes of Confirmation and Walking the Straight Path.

Doney had investigated the Baha’i teachings off and on over a period of nine years before deciding “the time in my life was finally there to really get serious about my investigation. When I found [the Baha’i Faith] I was surprised there were others who believed like I did, but I had little knowledge.”

That brought Doney to Hanich, who gave her a list of books to seek out and asked whether she would like to talk with someone.

A page from a Ruhi Institute workbook, with Lisa Doney’s notes. Photo courtesy of Diana Geiger

“I told her that would be great, and she proceeded — however she works her magic — to find Diana and Dan Geiger. Diana called me and we ‘visited’ for some time on my past and where I was” in her spiritual search.

Geiger invited Doney to join a study circle that was starting in Billings, but therein lay the problem. “I am a teacher, I had recently moved and we didn’t have a car that could make the journey of 90-plus miles round trip, safely, for me to participate.

“So I asked if I could do the work, photograph it and text it to Diana,” says Doney. And that’s how it went. “She would call me and we would go through anything she thought I might need further deepening on … or to discuss and reflect on the lesson as a whole.”

Reflecting on the experience, Doney concludes that “if it weren’t for technology I wouldn’t be able to have done the book in a discussion.”

“With all that we as a people are enduring,” she says, “with separations being mandated for everyone’s health and welfare, I strongly feel we can still bring the world and each other together, connecting and moving our Cause forward, and technology seems to be the means at this time.”

Gatherings spark friendships

Not that all of Doney and her daughter’s contact with Baha’is or the teachings has been in the virtual realm. 

Diana Geiger has traveled twice to Doney’s home. The second time Dan came along, and in their presence Doney and Jamie “declared our faith.”

Jamie “fell in love with the Faith and really wanted to declare on the same day as I did,” says Doney. “She talks very openly about her faith and enjoys learning about it.” Geiger calls Jamie a “spiritual warrior” with a “quest for investigating truth and sharing it with others.”

Doney and her daughter were able to meet other Baha’is in February at a party in Billings for Ayyam-i-Ha, a period of celebration and service before the annual 19 days of dawn-to-dusk fasting that leads into the Baha’i new year.

“Jamie met another Baha’i youth nearly her age there, Cadence Rondeaux Hickman, and they are making plans to meet again soon,” says Geiger. 

“Cadence and another Baha’i youth in Billings, Amelia Daniels, were young girls once living in Hardin, attending neighborhood children’s classes together that were taught by their parents, Randy and Nova Daniels and David Hickman and Crystal Rondeaux Hickman.”

Lisa Doney (center) with her husband, Woody Wagenaar, and daughter, Jamie Rindahl. Photo courtesy of Lisa Doney

Doney also has discovered the Virtues Project, developed by Baha’is, and is using virtues cards in her classroom — and now online — with children on the Crow Reservation. 

She bases whole lessons on them, practicing their concepts, “and my students took some of it home as parents mentioned how awesome it was to hear their second-grade daughter saying things like ‘I have integrity.’”

When schools closed because of the pandemic, Doney “began talking with my class on Class Dojo, which I used with parents for communication. And since I know the importance as a parent of routine, I began posting ‘good morning’ messages and their virtue cards as if we were in class. 

“Then I asked students to write on how they are using them. This meant parents would have to help them with it. Talking to Diana, I realized that the [pandemic] had allowed me to spread the virtues into families in a more complete way. I am so excited, as my kids are teaching their parents about our cards.”

Geiger is excited as well to see Doney and her daugher’s faith blossoming. “Having the bounty of being their ‘Ruhi text pal’ has shown me the true blessing of accompaniment.

“I encourage everyone to seek out a Ruhi text pal,” she says. “The blessings in this teaching method are many.”

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