Hosts share tips for successful online devotional gatherings
By Leslie Farrell
Across the country, Baha’is are holding prayer gatherings on a variety of themes and in diverse languages, sizes and styles. But one thing most of them have in common during this time of worldwide pandemic is that they are being held online. And their hosts have been creatively devising the best ways to hold these virtual devotionals.
From conversations with several such hosts, some tips and good ideas for holding successful virtual devotionals emerged — spaces where people from all backgrounds, Baha’i or otherwise, can come together.
Consistency and tone
One point on which just about everyone agrees is that holding the meeting on a consistent day and time is crucial. People like the dependability of knowing when they can join in.
Karen Mings of Douglas County, Colorado, who hosts a small devotional twice monthly, says that starting with a check-in and a tone-setting question can add warmth to a gathering.
Others find that beginning with a song sets a loving tone. Afsaneh Dean in Tampa, Florida, has discovered that friends enjoy sharing music and have begun sending her songs for use in the devotionals she co-hosts every Friday night. “My experience (in music) is limited. So friends have sent music to me that they like. They send ahead and I share on my screen,” Dean says.
Most hosts conscientiously select music, prayers and readings from diverse sources with a goal of making everyone feel comfortable, and for all potentially to learn something new.
Mings selects a variety of prayers and religious writings, poetry, and inspirational readings from many traditions, including Native American and African. “I’ve found that these resonate with most people. If doing the readings from a ‘share’ screen, it helps to list the attendees so it’s easy to call on people and not skip anyone,” she advises. She’s also found that participants appreciate receiving an electronic copy of the writings.
Planning the programs
Prepared prayers and sacred readings should be no more than 30 minutes long, says Fred Jafari of Beverly Hills, California, and he urges hosts to prepare ahead. The devotionals he hosts typically attract 300 to 500 people.
When the pandemic hit the United States, Jafari and his wife, Malihe, began holding devotionals for isolated older Persian speakers daily — yes, every day — for two to three hours.
Since October, they have been held Mondays through Saturdays, and two each week are conducted in English.
Jafari mixes live and prerecorded readings. He says people enjoy the recordings because “they are good quality.” He advises using videos found on YouTube and Baha’i websites to help make the program engaging.
He hopes to make the virtual gatherings appealing to a wide variety of Persians. “I want them to know that [Baha‘is] like gatherings, we like music, poems, we discuss things together,” he explains.
Many people have told Jafari the Zoom devotionals have changed their lives. Fruits of this endeavor include study circles in English and Persian and a youth program.
In Tampa, Dean says her devotionals focusing on race unity have been called “a safe space” by those who attend every week.
After about 30 minutes of various prayers, music and writings, participants discuss experiences and opinions that are sometimes very personal, and Dean says it builds a gratifying feeling of community.
It helps to have a friend as a co-host, Dean says, adding that it’s necessary to have someone be there in case you cannot. Mings agrees. “It’s helpful to have at least one wingman or woman to rely on and consult with.”
More than just prayers
The consensus of the hosts is that a devotional should be more than just the prayers. “I like having a focused discussion period following prayers and readings to help connect the hearts,” Mings says. “It’s nice to do this after a quick break to grab a cup of coffee or tea.”
When Lal Fernando of Phoenix advises making devotionals fun and all about socializing, the joy in his voice is palpable: “Make it a global, happy space.” The Baha’i writings say prayer is conversation with the divine. He says after this conversation, “we use dancing live with music and videos; it’s party time every Saturday.”
Fernando has lived in 17 countries and his weekly devotional attracts people from all over the world. “We make it convenient for everyone to come say ‘hi’ and then go,” Fernando says, explaining that they open the Zoom room an hour before they officially start, to accommodate visitors from different time zones.
“People are thirsty for friendship. When they see people like me who offer their hearts they are overwhelmed with gladness,” Fernando says.
Both Fernando and Mings suggest staying in touch with participants between devotionals. “As people get to know each other, you may want to share readings or prayers with individuals or the group between devotionals via email and encourage others to do the same. Our group has shared poetry, prayers and pictures,” Mings says.
“Keep in mind that Zoom has no borders. There may be friends across the miles you want to reconnect with. They can come virtually. And be sure to maintain contact with anyone who previously attended in-person devotionals but doesn’t participate virtually,” she advises.
Keeping it orderly
On that note, because Zoom has no borders, it can be a challenge to maintain order. Fernando makes sure he’s in control. “You have to be extremely disciplined. They know I’m a dictator, but benevolent,” he laughs. To keep things rolling, he alerts whoever is scheduled to read or perform that they will be next, so they will be ready.
Jafari says if someone in the videoconference becomes disruptive, that person is removed and cannot return. “Sometimes someone might try to come in and cause harm. So use that Zoom feature,” he advises. He also uses the waiting room, assigning six or seven co-hosts to manage it smoothly.
Creating rules can be helpful, especially if the gathering includes open conversation. Dean said her devotionals run more smoothly now that everyone knows the rules, such as a talking time limit of four minutes per person.
Dean’s devotional has spawned several deep friendships, and people involved in it have organized the Tampa Area Baha’i Race Unity Task Force, a drumming circle, and in-person devotionals in a nearby park. “Our devotional is very specific for friends who want to talk about race and heal the racial issues in America,” she says.
Some final advice: persevere. “Don’t become discouraged if people attend somewhat sporadically,” says Mings. “I’ve found that people come back and appreciate having this sacred space to return to when they wish.”