Orientation for Baha’i pioneers reflects a vision of advancement

July 27, 2023
Orientation for Baha’i pioneers reflects a vision of advancement

Reported by Alan Hatchett

Pioneering has a long tradition. Baha’is have been systematically relocating to new homes, inside or outside their country, to organize or strengthen the Faith’s communities for nearly a century and a half. As a result, Baha’is have a presence in virtually every country and territory around the world. 

Over the past year, a fresh series of extended orientation programs have brought prospective pioneers together from many states, with some equipping themselves to serve the Faith overseas and others looking to move to U.S. neighborhoods with intensive activity.

Certainly, pioneering is a high calling in the Faith, but the orientation covers ground that is familiar to Baha’is everywhere. It focuses on aims of the Nine Year Plan, the current worldwide plan for development of the Faith. Those include sharing the teachings of Baha’u’llah with receptive people, helping individuals raise their capacity for acts of service, and strengthening the communities where the pioneers move.     

“I feel like every Baha’i should go through this because whatever your living circumstances, we all are pioneers of some sort,” said Karen Anderson, who moved to West Hartford, Connecticut, as a pioneer a few years ago. She was participating in a 10-day orientation program in late May at the Baha’i House of Worship in Wilmette, Illinois.

One main purpose of pioneering today involves another aim of the Plan: intensifying existing activity in many clusters of communities. By 2041, the vision of the Universal House of Justice, global governing council of the Baha’i Faith, is that intensive programs of growth will be in place in 22,000 clusters worldwide, noted Danika Amusin, a facilitator at the orientation.

“It’s such an audacious goal. … It’s so beautiful how it manifests this concept of the oneness of humanity,” said Amusin, who advises area Baha’i communities as an Auxiliary Board member. As people around the globe work in teams to build the spiritual capacity of individuals and communities, she said, “it’s literally touching every soul on earth and unlocking the potential of [every] local community to take charge of their own spiritual and material development.”

Evolving training process 

As the purpose of pioneering in the Baha’i Faith has evolved in recent decades, so has the training process. For many years, pioneering was carried out by individuals and families who largely arose on their own to help the Faith expand, exercising the courage to uproot and move themselves to a different community, state or country. 

Formal training for pioneers in the U.S. goes back at least 80 years. Past pioneers were largely trained to find people interested in becoming enrolled Baha’is and deepening their knowledge of the teachings, with a further aim of establishing and strengthening local and national Baha’i institutions. 

In recent years, community building has become a central emphasis for Baha’i activity. This work is accomplished through spiritual education for all ages, strengthening of a community’s devotional character, and a larger process of learning through action. As communities build capacity and unity, many begin exploring social action for the benefit of their neighborhoods, and often contribute to public discourses. The current Nine Year Plan furthers exploration of how this community activity can release the society-building power within the Baha’i teachings. 

With that in mind, today’s pioneers are offered training and tools to ensure their activity in their new communities encourages spiritual growth while raising capacity for collective ownership of activities. While such orientations were organized nationally for many years, Regional Baha’i Councils — most of which serve several states — are gaining increased ownership over this process, in part to develop their strength in assigning pioneers within their own territory. Individual Baha’is are still free to move where they feel they can make a contribution to the development of the Faith, keeping in mind that knowledge and experience in this kind of community building offers a great advantage.   

An orientation lasting a week or more, such as this one at the Baha’i House of Worship, is the first step for many. Potential pioneers spend their mornings studying and discussing guidance from the global and national Baha’i institutions. Later each day they go out and visit homes or take part in devotional or educational activities in neighborhoods not far from the orientation site, to gain experience infusing spiritual topics into conversations and inviting people to the community-building process.

Because study circles focusing on Baha’i spiritual teachings and basic acts of service are central to this process, the orientation includes advice for study circle tutors as published in the first two books of the Ruhi Institute training sequence: 

“While it is natural that Bahá’ís would be eager to see their friends [enroll in] the community, their own teachings prohibit them … from engaging in proselytization. Walking the path of service opened up by the institute courses calls for an ever-deepening understanding of Baha’u’llah’s teachings. …”

Amusin notes, “So we’re always sharing this vision that Baha’u’llah sets out for the material and spiritual transformation of the world, and the principles of the faith that help us understand how we can actually bring about the oneness of humanity. But matters of faith and acceptance are always, of course, strongly all about the independent investigation of truth and the principles that we know that we live by.”

Once the orientation is completed, pioneer trainees are encouraged to spend a few months in a cluster that has passed what is known as a third milestone of growth — with several hundred or more people engaged in that community-building process, and some of them starting to explore grassroots social action. These few months provide a firsthand view of what an advanced cluster looks like and what its co-workers are striving to build.

Then many participants in the orientation are matched with a community, outside or inside the country, where they can be expected to make a meaningful contribution. This matching process is done in collaboration with continental and national Baha’i institutions. 

Keith Metzner has been pioneering almost continuously for 27 years in places all over the world including Mongolia, South Africa, Uganda, Thailand, Vietnam, South Korea, Cambodia, Laos, Liberia and now Malawi. “I’ve been really fortunate because, in my field as a wildlife biologist, I feel like I’ve really been guided to go to places where other pioneers can’t go,” Metzner said.

The biggest change over that time, he said, is that international pioneers don’t just get asked to move to a particular country, but rather to “a cluster within the country. They have specific needs.” The orientation, he said, is essential to build skills needed to help with the community-building process at a level that is useful in a third-milestone cluster: “We have to go with the training so that we can hit the ground running.”

Participants inspired by orientation

Participants in the orientation said they felt inspired, confident and prepared to embark on their pioneering journeys. “Getting into deep conversations was easier when you’re away from your daily life and hometown,” said Manfred Preeschern, an Austrian living near Los Angeles. He and his family decided to extend their stay in the Wilmette area so they could continue to reach out to people around the Temple after the orientation had ended.

Preeschern, attending with his wife and two children, said, “It’s just inspired me more to do outreach in daily conversations and always think of the goal of one humanity.”

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