New and established residents in coastal Oregon work together to build community

March 7, 2019
New and established residents in coastal Oregon work together to build community

For months after two Baha’i couples settled in the lightly populated Florence/Lincoln County area of coastal Oregon in spring 2018, it wasn’t unusual for them to spend up to 30 to 40 hours a week introducing and leading activities aimed at building community in neighborhoods.

In many places around the world, such growth “requires intense effort and giving much time,” notes Auxiliary Board member Carmel Lakhani, an appointed adviser to Baha’i communities in Oregon.

And that was the case in Florence. But over time others have built the skills and experience to assume a greater role, especially in offering spiritual education for elementary- and middle school-age children. As a result, the number of hours has gradually gone down for these retired or semi-retired couples to an average of around five or 10 a week.

It’s not that their commitment decreased. Rather, they cleared a path for fellow Baha’is and friends to join in the work of conducting activities and accompanying others in their service.

Junior youths in Florence, Oregon, work to rid the dunes of an invasive plant. Photo courtesy of Ron Lillejord

Now, about two dozen Baha’is and friends in the area are serving nearly 60 neighbors in core activities of community building: devotional gatherings, children’s classes, junior youth groups and study circles.

Bicentenary demonstrates capacity for growth

A small band of Baha’is numbering less than 50 had lived in that stretch of coast and worked to carry out the teachings of Baha’u’llah for decades by the time Hal and Anne Sexton, who had most recently been serving in Norway, and Ron Lillejord and Cathy Truax, from Eugene, Oregon, arrived as homefront pioneers — the Baha’i term for people who move to an area for service.

Florence’s Baha’i community annually elects a local governing council, known as a Spiritual Assembly. Over many years, it has developed a network of friendships and contacts in town through participation in civic organizations.

Throughout that cluster of communities, a number of the Baha’is have been engaging the wider community. They have held regular devotionals, hosted community gatherings on such topics as building peace and addressing racism, and reached out to American Indians residing on the Siletz Reservation.

The capacity to invite people to Baha’i gatherings reached a new level in October 2017, when 152 guests attended six events held to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Birth of Baha’u’llah.

Another bright spot was the growth of regular devotional gatherings in the area. A family began hosting one nearly 20 years ago, and as of October 2018 there were nine. Participation from the wider community more than tripled in the year following the bicentenary.

But progress on some fronts remained elusive, especially the ability to offer children’s classes and junior youth groups to the community. It didn’t help that most Baha’is in the area were age 60 or older.

Who would lead those activities? Who would the Baha’is know to invite into them? How would their purpose be explained to young people and their families? Especially for junior youth groups, which are intended to build moral clarity and service skills in 11- to 14-year-olds without promoting a particular religion.

Enter the homefront pioneers. All four had served as tutors of study circles, which are vital to the raising of capacity to offer children’s and junior youth programs. Three had facilitated junior youth groups as “animators.” One had significant experience reaching out to neighbors with the Baha’i vision for community building.

The institutions of the Faith had prepared the Baha’is for this moment, offering encouragement and support to the pioneers and helping the Baha’i communities and the Assembly to create a shared understanding of the path forward.

Visiting youths help initiate junior youth program

By summer 2018, elements were in place for a coordinated effort to talk with neighborhood residents about the junior youth spiritual empowerment program. The aim was to find middle schoolers interested in joining a junior youth group and high schoolers willing to be their mentors.

Junior youths, youths and adults participate in a dunes restoration project on the Oregon coast. Photo courtesy of Ron Lillejord

For that, Lakhani enlisted two youths from neighboring areas to fortify the pioneers’ efforts. During the summer they spent time meeting people in neighborhoods. They participated with local Baha’is in a teaching seminar. In due time, they began traveling weekly to Florence to help animate a junior youth group started by the homefront pioneers and local youth Alex Bloomfield.  

Gillian Blumer, 21, one of the visiting youths, says that during the outreach, “I could easily relate to some of the challenges the youths faced, particularly with school. This made it natural for me to express the ideas and beliefs that form the basis of the community-building process.”

One new “amazing friend” the group made is now an animator. Blumer, with support from the homefront pioneers, was able to accompany that youth in learning until he could take charge of the first junior youth group.

Bloomfield, 20, sees “a significant difference” in his life from working with junior youths.

“These junior youths have a serious connection to the future and whole of humanity,” he says, “and giving them the key to open the doors before their faces has been an experience of joy and gives me an immense amount of gratitude.”

Since June 2018, a total of 21 junior youths have attended at least one meeting, and 15 have participated in service projects. Two older youths have begun training as animators.

Comfort zones get left behind as activity increases

The homefront pioneers remain in a learning mode as well. “It seems that if we are to build capacity in ourselves and others that we need to be willing to come out of our comfort zones and try new things,” says Anne Sexton.

“As we get to know the junior youths and their parents, we realize how important our relationships are with them and their families.”

She says the experience has helped her learn to work with the accompaniment of others, to be flexible in carrying out plans when it’s needed, and to work as a team.

At the same time, a wave of capacity building has permeated the entire Baha’i community. An established network of friendships was instrumental in starting a second junior youth group, for example.

And that willingness to reach out to those around them is paying off. New friends, says Lillejord, include neighbors participating in a devotional gathering; a mother who expressed interest in being trained as an animator or children’s class teacher after her three children participated in junior youth groups; and a high school senior who is now co-animating both junior youth groups.

One thing Hal Sexton has observed in this whirlwind year since arriving on the Oregon coast: “It is apparent that all of the Baha’is in the cluster are working collaboratively to move the cluster forward, and that realization has helped us stay united as we all are moving toward the same overall goal yet have different tasks.”  

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