Partnerships pay dividends in Springfield community life
By Karen Withem
In Springfield, Illinois, some powerful and effective partnerships are producing dividends in the community. The three dozen or so Baha’is there work with the Urban League, the Ministerial Alliance, the Greater Springfield Interfaith Association and several race relations groups.
For example, four years ago after the shooting death of a young girl, Springfield Baha’is met with the local chapter of the Urban League to offer aid in mending broken hearts and in building a healthier atmosphere in neighborhoods.
This partnership has given rise to the Unity Club, an after-school enrichment program that serves a group of Jefferson Middle School students.
“There already was an after-school program,” says Delores Martin, a member of the Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of Springfield. “We added the component of the Unity Club, whose core mission is to foster peace, spiritual and psychological development,” she says. “Baha’is have focused on how to build character.”
The adult founders of the Unity Club sought input from the 11- to 14-year-old public school students who would participate. Eric Hadley-Ives says the kids were clear on what they wanted. Tired of sitting down all day, he says, they asked for physical activities, time to socialize and the chance to learn about different cultures. So the program includes “dance, yoga, games where they’re moving,” says Hadley-Ives, a Baha’i and social work professor.
“They were enthusiastic about learning how to create a peaceful community, how to be a better friend,” Hadley-Ives says. “A lot of skills that help people avoid violence also are skills of being a good friend, like active listening.” In addition, the Unity Club coaches students on how to make plans and set goals.
This is a lot to pack into one or two hours per week, but Hadley-Ives has help. His students at the University of Illinois, Springfield, volunteer to conduct activities as part of their education. A dance teacher answers students’ desire for physical activity and cultural enrichment by leading them in routines drawn from Haiti, Puerto Rico and Ireland. One dance was inspired by J-hop — Japanese hip hop.
Visual arts are among the club activities, too. One year the students created a paper quilt with the theme of unity. “It was displayed at different places around the city for about six months,” Martin says, including the Springfield and Central Illinois African American History Museum.
The virtual learning environment necessitated by the pandemic has put the Unity Club on pause. So this fall semester the adults went about planning for the next in-person school term, probably in early 2022.
Another partnership that has helped Baha’is serve the community — despite their own modest numbers — is the Greater Springfield Interfaith Association (GSIA). The Baha’is were among the founders of GSIA (http://www.gsia.info/) in 1978. Ever since, they’ve worked alongside members of other faiths to host annual food and clothing drives, organize race amity events and conduct interfaith worship services. They also established one of the largest homeless shelters in town.
Hadley-Ives, who serves as secretary of GSIA, says over the years the members have increased their understanding of one another’s religious communities, and they practice consultation in the style prescribed by the Baha’i Faith.
He says GSIA members have used consultation to meet the challenges of the pandemic. They’ve brainstormed on ways to “help people feel supported, and help people who are grieving. We have shared information about handling pastoral care, and meeting needs of people while practicing social distancing,” he says.
MaryLou Lauchner, another Baha’i from the area, believes that the trust built up over the years between the Baha’i community and like-minded organizations, and the many service projects carried out through these partnerships, are key to serving the Springfield metro’s population of about 150,000. The Baha’i community “[tries] to get things started and involve the greater community in what we’re doing, because we can’t do it all.” As a result, she says, “We’re small but mighty.”