Just as much as we’re troubled by the challenges inherent to these issues, we’re also inspired by constructive approaches to them that we see being piloted everyday. Our podcast highlights, or illumines, the work of some of the individuals, communities, and institutions that are bringing fresh insight to these urgent conversations.
Note: edited for clarity.
Welcome everyone, to the 6th episode of our show. If you haven’t tuned in before, Illumine America explores constructive approaches to some of America’s most pressing social issues. Today, we’re continuing our conversation from last episode with Danita Hardin.
As a refresher, Danita Hardin is a community builder, an educator, and a member of the Baha’i Faith living in Northern Virginia, and we’ll be rejoining our Race Discourse Officers, May Lample and PJ Andrews, as we talk with Danita about her experiences with the community-building processes of the Baha’i Faith, and how they have been counteracting oppression in her community.
Danita: There are many patterns, actually, emerging in our community that I feel are strengthening the community-building process. One of these patterns, and I do not think we could possibly even have a conversation about this community-building process that the Baha’is and their friends are taking part in without mentioning this, is this pattern of collective prayer. This is something, really to me, that is revolutionary. It is unique in its very spirit. It is just completely different than anything we have ever seen or heard of, or experienced. Like anyone, everyone, all people, can come into my home and pray together, or in the park, or over the phone, or in this case on Zoom. It is a completely different thing than we have ever seen before in the history of religion, in the history of trying to build communities, in the history of trying to remove oppression. It is saying, ‘Let us rid ourselves of these barriers. We do not have the luxury of trying to allow these barriers to stand between us anymore.’
I do not think that people whose intent is bad sit around asking people, ‘Wait, stop. What religion are you a part of, or what holy book do you read? What do you practice, before we go and steal this car or whatever? I just want to make sure we are on the same page with whatever holy book we are reading.’ I think they would just go and do it. So I think that the folks who are really trying to better the world need to begin to rid themselves of these barriers. I think this idea of collective worship is one of those patterns that is emerging, in this particular community, and in many communities, that I feel is breaking down these barriers. We have initiated devotional gatherings, but also, in the story that I shared about Najee, people in the community are also initiating devotional gatherings, whether they are large or small, whether it is setting aside a time of the week where they are going to sit down and pray with their families or their moms, dads, and siblings, or whether they are reaching out to other neighbors and co-workers and classmates.
People are feeling like this is something that is important enough to do, and for many people to do, and I think the spirit of it is beginning to permeate the neighborhood. You can really start to hear people talk about the community prayers that happen monthly. You can hear the children and the youth talk about it. Even now when we cannot gather in person, I get texts, like, ‘When is our call for prayers?’ and reminding me. I actually have one this evening at 6. So this is something that I think people’s hearts are thirsty for, that we all have this desire to commune with our Creator, and I think the more that we can do this together, but in combination with having elevated conversations about service, and about what the needs of the community are, that is where you begin to see these conversations really having this transformative effect. Without the influence of the Word of God, maybe my answer to, ‘How can we solve these problems?’ might be a little different.
But when we are influenced by the Word of God, and everyone in this space has prayed, and shared spiritual nourishment with each other, then we have these kinds of conversations. There is a Baha’i Writing that talks about how when we pray and when we have joy, our intellect is keener, our understanding is brighter, and we are able to come up with solutions, and things that maybe would have evaded us if we were just trying to come up with it on our own energy. And many times, because of the circumstances of our communities, even some of the solutions that we come up with, without the influence of the Word of God can even actually maybe not have a positive effect, it can have maybe even the opposite effect, because it is difficult to look past some of the injustices that are taking place in our neighborhood and our communities.
Another pattern that I am seeing is a pattern of training. This institute process, which is, as you know, this wonderful tool that we have, that I call the ‘Great Equalizer’. It is just so interesting. I have a friend who happens to be Christian, but has gone through many of the books in the Ruhi Institute, and when we have conversations with each other about building capacity, about serving our community, we are able to communicate in such a way that we are able to describe the reality that we want to see, and I really feel that if we are not able to say it, then we are not able to materialize it. It is very difficult. The world that we live in right now, the reason that the world is the way it is, is that the reality was first thought of by someone, or a group of someones, and then somehow they were able to share a vision for the way that this world would be run, particularly in this country. But they had to have had other people understand their vision and agree with the vision, in order for this to materialize. And in order for us to really be able to build — rebuild — our communities, and our families, our society, based on spiritual principles, we also have to have a language.
There is pattern of training that is emerging in these communities where many, many children are engaging in or taking part in the children’s classes, and for the first time, many of them are hearing themselves described in these ways — as kind, as considerate, as noble beings, and same with the junior youth — so now they are suddenly seeing themselves as active protagonists, active participants in the transformation of their own communities. These youth, many of whom are viewed by society as someone to maybe clench your purse when they walk past you in the street, now all of a sudden, they see themselves in this totally different light. They are noble beings. They are individuals who not only are responsible for their own actions, but now they are role models to these younger members of our communities, because they are becoming animators, and mentors for these junior youth. They are becoming teachers for these children’s classes and they realize that, ‘The way I behave impacts the way that the people who are younger than I am behave.’ There is this pattern of training, and as this pattern of training accelerates, you can see also the acceleration of the movement. I don’t know, I cannot really completely describe it because I do not think it has completely unfolded yet, but you can certainly see how many, many people are being impacted by this, and it is the people who are directly involved in this process, but also, it is the people who are connected with the people who are involved in this process: we are beginning to see this process impact them.
I think that there is another pattern that I am now seeing in the communities: the people desire a change. They want to see change and they are not timid. They are not shy or slow about going out and inviting other people to become a part of this process.
May: I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about, what are some of the, how some of the methods and approaches of the community-building process have led to stronger bonds in the community, like bonds of trust, intimacy, maybe across racial lines, or across other lines of difference that exist in the community that you live in?
Danita: That is an interesting question. I think a place that I have really seen the most impact is with youth. There is a young man in our neighborhood named Jason, and it is a little bit funny because it is primarily African American, with a population of immigrants, but Jason happens to be white. We were sitting in one of our youth groups, and this was maybe just his second time coming to the youth group, and his first question was, ‘How come everybody doesn’t know about this right here, because I feel like this would actually change the whole world.’ I said, ‘That is exactly what we are trying to do, this is what we want to do, Jason. We want to change the world, but that process takes time, and the process has to happen within the community. We are trying to transform, number one, people’s hearts individually. As hearts are transformed, then families will be transformed. As families are transformed, communities will be transformed, and then of course societies will be transformed.’
But then he began to share a story, in which he and a friend of his, an African-American friend, had gone into a store, and I guess the security guard did not realize that they were together, and the security guard asked the African-American friend to remove his backpack before he walked all the way into the store. And Jason, who also happened to be wearing a backpack, just walked on by. It really disturbed him. He was extremely upset about it, and he was like, ‘Why did he do that to my man like that? Why is it that I was able to walk into the store, and not be stopped, but they stopped my man? The world is messed up for real, and it should not be like that. Why does my boy have to worry about whether he wears his hood when he is driving in his car, but I do not? Why does he have to worry about this, but I do not have to worry about it? Why aren’t all of us worried about this?’
We stopped, and we had such a wonderful conversation around not only, why is the world like this, but then we prayed so that the world can get better. Not only did we pray, but then we studied. And then after we studied, then we planned. After we planned, and then we carried out our plans, then we reflected, and then we came back are we said, ‘Okay so now, what you think we need to do next?’ And Jason was, after we came back the second time, he said, ‘You know, I want to learn how to show other people how to do this, because this is what is going to help us remove these challenges, but keep them removed.’ But also, because we were able to have that conversation, because we were able to share, because we were able to pray together, because we were able to not just pray together, but act together, because we were able to study together, reflect, and not just sit there buried in our feelings and our frustration, I also saw the friendship and respect for each other grow. Everyone just felt so different after that experience.
Not only are these things happening, like these actions in the neighborhood are taking place, but these friendships are being formed. But it is a different kind of friendship. These are not friendships that are based on like, ‘Hey bro, what football team do you like?’ Which could change from moment to moment, because I have definitely seen people who were Skins fans, and then they like jumped the bandwagon when does Skins start to lose. But these are friendships that are so deep, and so rooted in something that is so much more important to these youth.
Another experience I wanted to share was a very practical experience that I witnessed. The power of these activities, and the power of prayer, having witnessed them many times, I would say it is miraculous. It is this miraculous transformation. But to really be witnessing it on a daily basis is just such a gift, it is really profound. I remember a time with this junior youth in our group. And this particular junior youth group had been struggling with prayer time, and being serious during prayer time. When we would pray before the start of the group, you would hear everyone giggling, and then you would hear like BOOM, and then someone is nudging each other, then BLANG and there is a pillow flying across the room, and I am trying to keep my eyes closed and pray, but at the same time I have to pray with one eye pried open just to make sure everyone is in one piece once the prayers are over.
But this one particular time, one of the members of our group came, and he was visibly upset, and was out of sorts, and just not himself. I pulled him to the side and was like, ‘What is happening, what is going on?’ And he shared with me that his family was going to get evicted in the next week. He did not know where they were going to go, his mom, who had just come out of the hospital giving birth to twins, who did not have maternity leave, they were just in a fix and he did not know what to do. So I asked him, ‘Can I share this with the group?’ And I had never seen them get so focused and so serious. All of a sudden, these junior youth, these 11, 12, 13, 14-year-olds, they became something different, literally right before my eyes. They always were this, but all of a sudden, it manifested itself in the most radiant way, and they all were like, ‘Okay, everyone be quiet. We are going to pray. We have to pray for him and we have to pray for his family.’ And not only did they pray, but they were reassuring him, like, ‘Don’t worry, these prayers work. We know it’s going to work out,’ and even helping him recall some of the junior youth stories that we read, where people were experiencing challenges and difficulties due to injustices, and like, ‘Don’t worry, just because your family is experiencing injustice, and just because this is happening, doesn’t mean that God isn’t there with you, and we’re here with you, and we got you man, we got your back.’ These junior youth started to pray. I had never seen them really beseech God for assistance for their brother, and just started to say things like, ‘You’re my brother man, and we love you. We got you.’ I saw this group, that before was struggling with their identity as a group, become a group that day. They really rallied around this individual who had this challenge, and they really became a group.
There are many, many examples of this that I have seen. I have seen families and parents, who, before their interaction and their engagement with these activities, who literally lived right across the hall from each other, and they were like, ‘Holy cow, how could I have possibly lived here next to you for 10 years, and I didn’t know your name? But now we know each other, we see each other, we speak to each other, we talk to each other about how our kids are doing in the children’s class. We talk about the quotes and prayers together and it feels like a community now.’ It feels like a community, and I have heard some of the parents even use those words. Sitting there, coming to pick up their kids from the children’s class, and watching the children of the community in the neighborhood, some of whom are African-American, but some are from Honduras, some are from Sudan, and some are from West Africa. All sitting there, playing together. All sitting there, reciting quotes and prayers together, and these parents, these families with them. There was one gathering that we had, we had a devotional gathering, and it was so interesting because we had invited many, many people, and somehow — I don’t know how it happened — usually we have a load of people who come to our community devotional gatherings.
But this particular time, two families came, and the two families that came, it turned out that not only were they from the same country, but they were also from the same neighborhood in the same country, and had been living around the corner from each other for years, and they were like, ‘Oh my God!’ Even to the point where they were asking each other like, like, ‘Do you know the school teacher back in the Dominican Republic?’ ‘Yes!’ ‘Oh my God, I was in that class!’ And they were like, ‘How this could have happened, that we did not know each other for so many years?’ And this activity, us coming together for prayer, was actually what brought us together, and from there, they have formed this really beautiful friendship.
I have seen these beautiful friendships all around the neighborhood and community forming, and these are friendships that already have this spiritual basis, and also have this basis of service. There is this component of, ‘This is what we do. We serve each other. How can we not only be friends, but now, how can I be of service to you and your family?’ And it is a reciprocal thing. They feel like that is something that these activities have brought to this community, that I think for many years the people felt like marginalized, like they did not have a voice, like they did not have the right or ability to speak up, and now they are feeling like it in many aspects of their lives, like there was a family I was speaking to the other day, and they were talking about how their neighbor was not sure what to do with their child, because now we are trying to figure out how to school our children from home, and one of the neighbors did not have a laptop, and was still struggling with what to do. So instead of them just throwing their hands up, this neighbor was like, ‘I am going to help you. We are going to take care of this. We are going to figure this out. Come over here, let me show you how to do this.’
So they are gloved up and masked up and she was walking this parent through this process trying to reach out to the teacher, and these are the steps that you need to take, and this is what you need to do, and this is how you get on to this link. This is something that is new. It is not something that seems like it is such a huge deal, but when you are in a neighborhood where maybe you felt before like your voice was not being heard, or you felt like when there was something wrong, maybe you did not have the power to try to do something about it, you did not feel like anyone else really cared enough to do anything about it. But now you feel like, ‘You know what? I don’t have to wait for someone else to care enough, I care enough, so I am going to do something, and I am going to fix it, and my neighbor cares enough so if no one else is going to do it, then maybe the two of us will do it. And if someone sees the two of us doing it, then maybe they will get up and they will start doing it too.’ So I am seeing people not feeling like they have to wait on some other individual or some entity to solve problems, but they can do it and these friendships are being built around this idea of serving, service to each other.
PJ: Our last question was going to be about what kind of confirmations you have experienced around seeing this process become a reality, and you just gave us a whole lot without even realizing that was our question.
It makes me think how there is this connection between language and consciousness, and vision, but then that those things do not become real until you put them into practice. That pattern of action comes into play and it is there that you start to experience confirmation, but the enduring transformation is connected to our relationship with the Word of God somehow that it opens the vision of spiritual perception like you were describing, so then what is happening in this world, is not just what is happening in this world. There are deeper spiritual realities and principles that sustain me, in every path, and especially in the face of a social reality that is oppressive towards me. That is a really beautiful confirmation. I think what you were saying before that what is unique or different about the process you are engaged in is that it is enduring, and that it is transforming people to not go back to a previous way that was limiting.
Danita: People need to know, honestly, that there is hope. This, I know as an African-American woman, is very difficult because sometimes you are just like, ‘Okay, it needs to change now. I understand that this is a process, but this has been happening for a long time, and it is really hard to wait on this process.’ But you realize that this is a process that is going to free everyone from their oppression. So even the oppressors are oppressed. If we are only freeing one segment of the population, which I think many of the things that have been attempted before, it targets. ‘Let us empower this group, and let us empower this group, and that group, or let us disempower this group, or let us take away this and give them this.’ That is not what this process does. This process spiritually empowers every member of society simultaneously. This process removes the chains of bondage that have been holding us down all at once. But then, once the chains are off, what does it look like?
There are still many things that are holding us down and holding us back and I think that this process allows all of us to be able to communicate in a language of justice, a language of freedom, a language of love, a language of transformation, a language that allows us to see the nobility, first in ourselves, and then another, because we really cannot be free if we think like, ‘I am noble, but you are not.’ And I do not care what color you are, you cannot be free if you feel that way. ‘God created me noble but not you. There has to be justice for me, but not you.’ I do not care who you are, whether you are black, or whether you are white, or whether you are whatever. If you are a human, then you have to desire justice for all. We have to see the nobility in all. And I feel like that is really part of the beauty of this process, because not only is this happening in this neighborhood in Woodbridge, in Virginia, where it just happens to be primarily African American, but also my white friends are studying this with their friends, and their co-workers, and neighbors, and family members. I also have Asian friends who are studying this with their friends, and coworkers, and neighbors. I have friends who have financial wealth who are studying this. I have friends who maybe do not have as much financial wealth who are studying these materials and immersing themselves in the Word of God. And all the chains and the veils are being removed from all of these members of society.
May: It feels like we could talk to you forever, and keep learning new things, and being enriched by your experience of what is happening in Woodbridge. We want to thank you again so much for your time and thank you for sharing so openly.
Danita: Of course, thank you guys!