Harlem conversations lead to friendships and more

July 11, 2019
Harlem conversations lead to friendships and more

Residents in some Harlem neighborhoods who are meeting for spiritual conversations hosted by Baha’is are seeing in those discussions new ways to view their experiences and their aspirations for self and community.  

In the process, trust has been built between the New York City Baha’is organizing these meetups — young adults, most of Middle Eastern descent — and their new friends in what is known as America’s “black Mecca.” 

And it started with a public invitation in November 2018 on social media to meet up for discussion of themes through the lens of the Baha’i writings. Those themes have included “Finding meaning in any job,” “Beyond tolerance,” “The soul and the scientific method,” “Is being sad always bad?” and more.

A participant in a Meaningful Conversations event in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City holds the program for the discussion. Photo by Saphira Rameshfar

Sixteen “Meaningful Conversations” events later, some 150 people have participated at least once. While discussion uses Baha’i writings related to the topic, the focus is on learning from one another and “building genuine friendships,” says Baha’i team member Behzad Panah. 

“This led to many [participants] trusting the space and returning,” says Panah. “We were told by some … that because they grew up in a household where religion was forced, they ended up avoiding any religious ideas. But coming to the Meaningful Conversations, they felt genuine love from people and felt open to the teachings.”

Whatever their religious background, the people getting involved are generally comfortable with the concepts of God, prayer and the soul, and many are occasional churchgoers, team member Naysawn Naji says. They enjoy fresh perspectives on social and spiritual “themes they have been discussing their whole lives.” 

Panah says the facilitators let “people know that if they have more questions about the Faith, they can talk to us after the discussion. We also go out for dinner afterwards to get to build friendships and have more meaningful conversations.”

As of May, about 15 of the participants have begun engaging in community-building activities initiated by the Baha’is.

Neighbors in the Harlem section of New York City engage in a Meaningful Conversations discussion. Photo by Saphira Rameshfar

One participant says her relationship with religion hasn’t always been pleasant, but learning to pray with a community and consider the soul as on a journey has opened her mind.

She recognizes the metaphors used in the Baha’i writings to describe spiritual phenomena and quickly pushes the conversation to the next level, facilitators say. She always comes with a question that might catch the Baha’is off guard but certainly deepens the discussion.

Another participant arrived in the United States from another country as a child and achieved success in business, but says he felt empty. 

He kept coming back after his first Meaningful Conversations discussion and has been known to quietly remark “This is the truth” after reading a passage.

Now both of them are participating in a Baha’i study circle aimed at developing skills for promoting the well-being of the community. They see the study circle and Meaningful Conversations as complementary. 

The Meaningful Conversations, they say, give them the opportunity to share their stories and reflect openly with a large group of people. 

The study circle, on the other hand, they find to be much more intimate. They can massage one idea and tease out its complexity to build some collective knowledge. 

A third participant has already taken the further step of serving alongside Baha’is in the community.

As it happened, a Baha’i-initiated junior youth group was meeting near where this friend lived, and the facilitator invited her to help out. Now she is pitching in to teach a dance to the girls in the junior youth group.

Saphira Rameshfar (right) and neighbors in the Harlem section of New York City enjoy dinner after a Meaningful Conversations event. Photo courtesy of Saphira Rameshfar

The Baha’i team recognizes, of course, that involvement in community-building activities by large numbers of participants won’t happen overnight.

When opportunities are offered consistently, more and more people get involved, says Mark Bamford, who works with Baha’i communities participating in a social media outreach initiative.

“But it’s not always immediate, or linear,” he says, “and it takes time, persistence and patient nurturing.”


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