On 3-4 January, London played host to its largest gathering of Baha'is in 45 years. Not since the first World Congress held at the Royal Albert Hall in 1963 had so many Baha'is met together here. In 1963 it was the whole Baha’i world coming together – this time the gathering was for the countries of northwestern Europe and Greenland.
Some 3,200 people attended, including about 2,000 from the United Kingdom and more than 200 from the Republic of Ireland. People also came from Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark and Iceland, and six individuals came from Greenland. More than 200 also attended from other countries including Croatia, Australia and Mongolia.
“They had so much confidence especially around carrying out service projects. That’s where a new … identity started forming among the group,”
Clare O'Brien - Oxford, England
The event was the largest ever held at the Business Design Centre, a large and characterful complex of exhibition halls and conference rooms in the central London Borough of Islington.
For some of the participants, getting to the conference itself was a challenge. Baha’is of Iceland, for example, had been dealing with circumstances leading to the price of airline tickets skyrocketing, making them think that very few people would be able to travel to London.
In the end, a number of Icelanders were able to attend. One of them, Eysteinn from southern Iceland, joined the Bahá’í community just three months ago. "I’m so fortunate that as a new Baha’i I am attending this huge conference,” he said. Baha'is living close to the conference center in Islington and Hackney offered accommodation at their homes to the Icelanders.
Tonje Plur Brenne traveled from what may be the most remote place – Hammerfest in the North Calotte region of Norway, referred to by the Norwegians as the northernmost city in the world. Ms. Brenne, who works in a flower shop, took a break from the long winter days of total darkness in her home city to travel to London.
Representing the Universal House of Justice were Ms. Uransaikhan Baatar and Mr. Stephen Birkland, both members of the International Teaching Center.
At the conference venue, it was bracingly cold outdoors, but participants entered the warmth of the gathering which began with stirring devotional programs in the various languages of the countries represented.
A significant part of the program at the conference looked at how Baha’is are devoting their energies to grassroots community-building.
Among the many people who addressed the conference was Clare O'Brien from Oxford who spoke about her work to start up a junior youth empowerment project with two young teenagers some months ago and was delighted to see the potential within this age group for bringing change to their communities. “They had so much confidence especially around carrying out service projects. That’s where a new … identity started forming among the group," she said.
"Thirty families are now taking part in initiatives which the Baha'is have started, including children's classes and junior youth groups."
Olinga Tahzib, 18 - Coventry, England
Howard Freemantle, 21, a student at Durham University in the northeast of England, spoke of new efforts to bring together several Bahá’í communities in his area to carry out service activities. "Our identity became a lot stronger when we started working together collectively," he said.
Olinga Tahzib, 18, and his brother Collis, 16, told about their work in a neighborhood in the city of Coventry. "Thirty families are now taking part in initiatives which the Baha'is have started, including children's classes and junior youth groups," said Olinga.
"It’s a completely different experience to live within a locality, side by side with its people and working on projects that are prompt and sustainable," said Collis. "Making time for others is a practical expression of our love for humanity."
Among those attending the conference was Ibrahim Ajala from London who is investigating the Bahá’í Faith. "This conference is another step on my spiritual path," he said. "This is a beautiful religion, and people should be shouting it from the rooftops."
The Saturday night cultural program included urban dance from two youth from the south of England, contemporary poetry performed by youth from Wales, settings of the Baha'i writings sung in Norwegian, and a vibrant and spontaneous percussion performance which climaxed with involvement from the whole audience.
Featured at the end of the conference was a rousing song based in the Writings of Baha’u’llah, sung by a choir made up of the entire representation from the Republic of Ireland.
Special prayers were said at the gathering in memory of Mrs. Betty Reed, who recently passed away at the age of 87 in Northern Ireland. Mrs. Reed traveled extensively throughout the European continent, inspiring many Bahá’í communities. She developed a special appreciation for the Scandinavian countries and Iceland, where she enjoyed many close friendships.
Manijeh Afnan-Murray, Cambridge, UK: "I left the conference realizing that I need to re-prioritize my life in accordance with the needs of the local community."
Claire O’Mahony, Limerick, Ireland: “Any time you have any experience of traveling for the Faith, it shows you how small the world is. So big yet so tight at the same time.”
Adeolu Adewoye, Nottingham, UK: “It really gives you the impression that we are involved in a global enterprise.”
Jim Milne, Nuuk, Greenland: “No one in Greenland has experienced anything like this before."
Video: Sites and sounds from the conference in London.
As a workshop session ends, people wave to their friends.
More 3,200 Baha’is came together at the Business Design Centre in London, formerly the Royal Agricultural Hall.
Sarah Perceval facilitates one of the workshops in which participants read and discussed two letters from the Universal House of Justice. One of the messages was addressed specifically to the conference.
The balcony provided space for workshop sessions.
Salim Rahmani from Surrey, in England, listens during a plenary session.
Clare O’Brien addresses the gathering, describing how work she started with a group of young adolescents has blossomed into an effective empowerment program.
The London conference was one of two such gatherings on 3-4 January. The other was in Abidjan, the largest city in Cote d’Ivoire.
On the first day of the conference, participants divided into 74 workshops to study the messages from the Universal House of Justice.
Olinga Tahzib, 18, describes how he and his brother Collis, 16, at left, started service projects in their home community of Coventry, in England.
A father and daughter watch the Saturday evening performances together.
Multi-instrumentalist Nadim Rohani of Greece performs on Saturday night. At left is Kayvan Walker.
Baha’is from seven countries were specifically invited to the conference, and many more countries were represented among the 3,200 attendees.
The workshops on Sunday focused on specific clusters in each country, with participants consulting on upcoming activities.
For the conference finale, the Baha’is of Ireland took to the stage to lead the whole assemblage in song.