Youth in California get profound (and still snack)
By Francisco Rendon
For more than a decade the Baha’i community of Thousand Oaks, California, has been hosting a monthly gathering for young people (and the young at heart) to enjoy snacks, the arts and spiritual conversation. What started as one family’s initiative has grown into a grassroots movement helping young people take leadership roles in transforming their families and communities.
The initiative started in 2009 as “Profound Pizza,” a monthly gathering held at the home of actor Rainn Wilson and author Holiday Reinhorn. When they started the gathering, Reinhorn says, they mainly wanted to provide a space for young people to explore the arts through a spiritual lens and to provide an environment for their son, Walter, who was 5 years old at the time, to be immersed in spiritual conversation, arts and service.
Each gathering featured guest speakers, musicians, or visual artists with prayers, fireside chats and group study, along with pizza, of course.
“It was always a really great space, with creativity and arts at the center of it,” Nava Esmailizadeh, an early attendee of Profound Pizza says. As a young high schooler, she says, “It felt like a safe place to have meaningful conversations. We would have topics, facts that were shared, sometimes we would have debates, but we really just had meaningful and insightful conversations about what the youth were feeling at that time.”
Attendance would fluctuate, but these gatherings would sometimes draw 50 visitors into Reinhorn and Wilson’s home from nearby neighborhoods and sometimes from well beyond.
“It was kind of a free-wheeling circus,” Wilson says of those early years. “There was great energy … But we rarely had continuity and systematization. … We realized, even though it went on for several years that way, it wasn’t particularly sustainable.”
With the realization that the gathering would need to change its form, in 2013 Reinhorn and Wilson decided to pursue the suggestion of a member of their local Baha’i community to host a Profound Pizza-style sleepover weekend. The couple invited about 25 young people to stay at their home for three days, during which they organized a service project, studied materials from the junior youth spiritual empowerment program, carried out arts-related activities and played games.
Reinhorn says they saw a real shift in how the kids studied and how it “affected the bonding between the participants. That’s when the light came on.”
The weekend marked the first time Profound Pizza began systematically using Baha’i training institute materials, Esmailizadeh says. She says to this day she and her friends from the group still feel a special connection to Kibomi, the protagonist of the book Glimmerings of Hope.
After the weekend, the team organizing Profound Pizza decided it was time to shift the focus of the group. They began organizing attendees by age and changed the format to weekly studies.
One of the biggest challenges during this shift, Wilson says, was trying to maintain elements of the previous identity of Profound Pizza, be it the spontaneity of 15 people driving from Pasadena to participate or young people unexpectedly dropping in to appreciate food and music. While some of that was lost as the space became more directly dedicated to the study of institute materials, Wilson says it was also very energizing to see something sustainable emerging.
Wilson says another key part of the evolution of Profound Pizza was allowing more people to participate in the planning and implementation.
“In its early years it was adults hosting stuff for teens, adult speakers and coordinators,” Wilson says. “Then we stepped back and said, ‘We are the host family, we are here to support, we will provide food, drink, communication, supplies, and we can step in and pinch hit when necessary, but we want youth running this for the youth.’ That was a key part of building capacity and not ‘top-down’ spirituality.”
The space underwent more changes in the following years. Eventually, out of concern that some attendees might be coming primarily for pizza and soda, the name of the gathering was changed to “Profound Snacks,” and in 2016, it was decided to move the gathering out of the Wilson/Reinhorn household and into a local community center.
Esmailizadeh says for several years, Profound Pizza seemed to be a gathering place for Baha’i junior youth, generally of middle school age. But after the move out to the community center, it became more specific to a geographic neighborhood. Today the Profound Snacks group consists mostly of young people who go to the same school, many of whom do not come from Baha’i families.
Reinhorn says the change not only in format, but in the group’s goals and activities have been very pronounced, as the young people taking ownership of the space have been able to read the reality of their community in ways they never could before.
“Some of the early ideas for service projects were a food bank, animal shelter or a beach cleanup,” Reinhorn says. With participants coming from an affluent community, she says, “Some of its issues were not apparent at first glance. But once a doctor came as a guest speaker about mental health, we found that suicide rates in their community were extremely high per capita. So they came up with their own service project about the effects of social media and mental health. They created a PowerPoint presentation and they decided to take that around to other youth groups and invited parents. It became a community-wide consultation.”
Reinhorn says the expectation was that kids would be afflicted with phone addiction. Instead, some of the young people shared some profound effects they felt from their parents’ own phone addiction.
The Profound Snacks group completed all of the junior youth texts last year. During the COVID-19 pandemic eight of them moved on to weekly study of Reflections On The Life of the Spirit, the first book of the adult sequence of courses, and most hold regular prayer gatherings with family members.
Service has remained a central part of the group, Esmailizadeh says. They made a video for their apartment complex on how to protect oneself from and prevent the spread of COVID-19 after an outbreak there.
Despite now playing a less central role, Wilson and Reinhorn have been an anchor for the group, Esmailizadeh says, and their commitment has created a sense of family unity with those who have stuck with the space over a long period.
Wilson, recognizable by millions for his work in television and film, says his family’s involvement with Profound Snacks has been an important part of his life.
“It’s important that I’m doing Baha’u’llah’s work in the trenches,” Wilson says. “To be the guy who goes to the supermarket and gets the snacks, who makes sure the rent is paid on the facility, who communicates with parents when the group starts. It became important for Holiday and me to model that we are just servants in the vineyard.”