Temple’s daily online gatherings bring world together
Since people from around the world have been connecting for daily and Holy Day devotions through online programs of the Baha’i House of Worship in Wilmette, Illinois, its staff has learned a few useful things.
First, many people in many countries are hungry for the kind of connection this service provides. Over the first few weeks, especially on Sundays, these virtual gatherings for prayers and readings of sacred writings on Zoom attracted hundreds of participants — a peak of 843 on March 31. Since then, daily participation has settled at around 100, split between Zoom and Facebook Live.
“We were pleasantly surprised by the participation of people from around the world,” says Ellen Price, one of the House of Worship Welcome Center coordinators, part of an organizing group that includes fellow program coordinator Rebecca Rice and staff members Joan McKiel and Ilona Surgaile.
Each session begins with a welcome on behalf of the House of Worship and a brief program of readings and music. A more open segment follows, with participants from around the world invited to pray or sing one by one. The entire program usually lasts about an hour. “It seems clear that these daily devotions are filling a need for attendees, many of whom rarely miss a day,” Price says.
Chris Vodden, House of Worship director, adds, “There is one family, a mother and two young children from Bangladesh, who attend almost every day without fail. And it is midnight in their part of the world!”
Second, online activity has added a new dimension to the House of Worship’s work to accompany people in building capacity for fostering the devotional character of the communities where they live. Before the pandemic, the Welcome Center staff drew mainly on the Chicago area for volunteers to help organize, read, sing or otherwise support Temple programs. Many local volunteers continue to support daily online programs at 12:30 p.m. Central time, thanks in part to the coordinators’ diligent outreaches.
Now, Price points out, a larger pool of volunteers is available. Especially valuable are relationships with young people who served in recent summers at the Temple with the Spirit of the Cornerstone youth program. Some long-distance participants in Zoom devotionals, who have regularly offered prayers and readings on their own, are now taking part in the prepared portion of the program.
“Also, some staff from Bosch Baha’i School in California, who are unable to return to the school because of the damage caused by the wildfires, may be assisting us soon,” she says.
Other Baha’i communities from across North America have been enlisted to help with a few special programs. For Baha’i Holy Days in May and July, Baha’is from Georgia, Arizona, and Canada offered video, music and scripture presentations that were gratefully and enthusiastically received. And Baha’is from Alaska are preparing the program for the Ascension of Abdu’l-Baha in November.
Third, the staff has worked hard to engineer a balance between high security and an inviting atmosphere.
The sad news came out on March 20 that this spot that is so sacred to Baha’is worldwide would be closed to the public because of the COVID-19 pandemic. That meant a temporary halt to all programs inside the Temple. Especially sad was that the Baha’i House of Worship Choir could no longer sing at Sunday devotions and the annual Choral Music Festival was canceled.
It only took two days to otherwise adapt the daily devotional gatherings to Zoom, and a variety of announcements attracted hundreds of people to these prayer sessions. Van Gilmer, House of Worship music director, and other singers from across the country began offering music from their home devices to leaven the programs.
Not everyone who joined in was friendly, though. “Zoom bombers” began showing up to make trouble, and it became clear the coordinators would have to exercise some added control.
So through most of April, participatory gatherings by videoconference were paused while the House of Worship staff took stock and experimented with one-way videocasts on Facebook Live. Tightening of the Zoom system’s security increased confidence and the devotional videoconferences became interactive once again on April 26.
Staff was better prepared for virtual intruders by then. Four people, sometimes including volunteers, work behind the scenes to keep things running smoothly. It’s impossible to completely prevent attacks, but so far, “with pre-planning and the staff’s swift action, only one incident caused the meeting to end abruptly a few minutes early,” Price says.
If you miss a particular day’s devotional, a recording can be found and streamed from the “Baha’i House of Worship for North America” Facebook page.
And fourth: the experience is shining new light on the staff’s regular study of Baha’i guidance about the role of a Baha’i House of Worship. “We are gaining more insight into how the House of Worship can play a significant role in local activities, especially the work of community building” Rebecca Rice says.
As Temple staff members collaborate with local Baha’i agencies and communities, they hope to learn how to “support devotional and other efforts initiated by these communities to further nurture their relationship with the Temple.”