Igniting Black Baha’i Youth (IBBY) 2023 kindles joy and renewal in the Heartland

July 25, 2023
Igniting Black Baha’i Youth (IBBY) 2023 kindles joy and renewal in the Heartland

The second annual Igniting Black Baha’i Youth conference (IBBY) offered some unexpected connections and served as a powerful platform to spark conversations, foster unity, and empower 45 young people to uplift their spiritual identities and contribute to the betterment of their communities. With a focus on spiritual growth, social justice, and personal development, the conference this year highlighted the artistic capabilities within the participants.

The conference was held on June 28-July 3 at the Baha’i Home in Wilmette, Illinois, a few blocks from the Baha’i House of Worship. Following opening prayers, greetings, and loving embraces, conversations kicked off over slices of iconic Chicago deep-dish pizza. For a little more than half of the youth it was an exciting reunion following up on the previous year’s gathering in Washington, D.C.  

The sessions spread out over the next four days explored a range of topics, including racial healing and racial justice, community building through artistic expression, self-empowerment and spiritual identity.  

IBBY participants: Aniya Jenkins, Asiyih Lawrence, Dayyan Sisson, Emilia Mehretab

“As an individual who hadn’t been to IBBY before, I found how special this space was and not just how healing it was, but invigorating in terms of going out to the field of service and reaching out to our Black brothers and sisters who are in need of this message [of Baha’u’llah],” says Dayyan Sisson, a first-time participant from Denver, Colorado. 

 “I think as a young Baha’i, it’s really easy to separate our Baha’i lives and our lives outside of the Faith,” says Sisson. “African American youth in particular have a greater challenge in this way because so many of the images that we see in ourselves and the world around us don’t align with the teachings of Baha’u’llah. Then, there are spaces like IBBY. I think IBBY in particular, where youth are able to come together and to see individuals who are like them in all aspects of their lives both in their outer lives and inner lives; individuals who look like them and talk like them, and who love Baha’u’llah.”

As chances would have it, another conference which convened Baha’is of Ethiopian and Eritrean descent was being held at the House of Worship at the same time as IBBY. Arrangements were made for both groups to pray together, and it seemed as though a Divine hand was involved in the serendipitous gathering.

“When we all met up in the House of Worship to connect and ultimately pray together, I

Participants from both conferences gathered in front of the Baha’i House of Worship steps. Photo by Nancy Wong

found in one room what a culmination of all of the efforts of my ancestors, current family members, old and new friends, and sister and brother figures looks and feels like,” says Emilia Mehretab, an IBBY participant of Eritrean descent. 

The experience of Black Baha’i youth praying alongside Black Baha’is of Ethiopian and Eritrean descent in Foundation Hall of the Baha’i House of Worship was incredibly empowering. The representation of a beautiful union of culture, faith, and shared experiences fostered a deep sense of belonging and connection. 

“I was overcome with unadulterated joy and gratitude for the opportunity IBBY gave me to connect with so many people who knew my grandma and grandpa and my family,” says Mehretab. “When the devotional ended, I walked off to the side to get water and I saw a wall with a picture of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and cried to myself because he had the sweetest smile and I had never been filled with more hope for the future than in that moment. The fact that these two groups were in Chicago at the same time was something I yearned for all my life but at the same time couldn’t quite imagine.”

This aspect of the weekend was a transformative experience that reinforced a sense of identity, belonging, and purpose while deepening the youth’s understanding of unity in diversity within the Baha’i Faith and beyond.

 On Saturday night, participants shared their talents during an IBBY showcase. Those who signed up performed original songs, poems, dances, or shared visual art pieces. It was a new aspect of the IBBY conference, and undeniably a highlight of the weekend.  

Monday concluded with the public Independence Day fireworks show hosted by the Wilmette Park District, which conference participants viewed together from the sand banks of Wilmette Harbor, only blocks away from the Baha’i House of Worship. By hosting the conference near the Baha’i Temple, event organizers and assembled youth intended to share their collective spirit with the greater Chicagoland Baha’i communities. As the night culminated in drumming and prayerful song at the lakefront with neighboring community members, their objective was fulfilled.

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