The throbbing sounds of Aboriginal music filled the giant auditorium on the shores of beautiful Sydney Harbor as the biggest Baha’i conference ever held in the Southern Hemisphere got under way on 24 January.
The ancient, sacred music played on the didgeridoo by an Aboriginal man was appropriate accompaniment to the devotions that were spoken, sung and chanted at the beginning of two days set aside for Australian Baha’is to “celebrate, deliberate and plan.”
In answer to the call of the Universal House of Justice, many of the 5,500 participants traveled long distances to attend the regional conference, one of 41 being held around the world during a four-month period.
From the big cities, the rural towns, the farmlands and the tropical north, Baha’is flocked to the Sydney Convention and Exhibition Centre in Australia’s largest city. They came from the desert heart of the continent, and from far north Queensland, near the sea that is home to the Great Barrier Reef. They came, 500 strong, from Western Australia, a distance of some 3,300 kilometers.
The gathering place was one of Sydney’ biggest conference venues and is within sight of the icons that speak to the world of Australia – the Sydney Opera House and the Sydney Harbor Bridge.
So many people preregistered that extra rooms with live video links had to be provided to cope with the numbers. The main auditorium had seats for 3,500 people.
As the conference began, a big bouquet of red roses was placed on the stage as a reminder of the courage and dedication of the Baha’is in Iran.
“I found the conference to be clarifying, with an amazing spirit. I am very excited about going back to my cluster and serving. I feel a sense of urgency.”
Regina Middleton, 24 - Melbourne, Victoria
Representing the Universal House of Justice were Mr. Stephen Hall and Mrs. Zenaida Ramirez, both members of the International Teaching Centre. Also attending were five members of the Continental Board of Counselors, David Chittleborough, Eric Kingston, Manijeh Reyhani, Henry Tamashiro, and Beatrice Benson.
Greeted by a standing ovation, Mrs. Ramirez rose to address the conference and spoke of the outstanding successes – and challenges – of the current Five Year Plan set by the Universal House of Justice. Then she addressed the current and future needs.
“Friends, we are living in unprecedented times and this requires an unprecedented level of response to the call to get involved,” she said. “Our efforts need to be characterized by sacrifice – of our resources, our time, our money, and even ourselves.”
The secretary of the National Spiritual Assembly outlined the expansion of the Australian Baha’i community, describing the participation rates in study circles as a “fantastic achievement.” He predicted that the goal of establishing four new intensive programs of growth by April 2009 would be met.
Also greeted with a standing ovation, Mr. Hall spoke about the origins of the regional conferences, and he encouraged the participants to carefully study the guidance of the Universal House of Justice. People broke into small groups to read and discuss letters from the House of Justice, including one addressed specifically to those attending the Sydney conference.
In a subsequent address, Mr. Hall said participation in training institute courses empowers Baha’is to fulfil their potential to serve humanity.
The afternoon sessions saw attention devoted to the process of growth now being experienced in the Baha’i community, with short presentations by people who recounted experiences in their own towns and cities.
One man said that holding Baha’i children’s classes in a local park in inner-city Sydney had helped create a sense of community in the neighborhood.
“We all live in neighborhoods, we can all contribute to the quest for spiritual and social progress there,” he said.
A young woman from Western Sydney described how she and her friends would immediately put into place locally what they had learned in study sessions.
“Building a new civilization happens at the level of the neighborhood,” she said. Older youth who had participated in junior youth groups were now providing the same service to the younger members of the neighborhood, she said.
A young woman from Perth, who has been offering moral and spiritual education classes in a suburb where there are many refugees, said she had been nervous initially but her feelings soon turned into joy.
“Receptivity is there in our own cities,” she said.
“I’ve seen friends I have known for quite a while who have been involved in the activities and have been so transformed. Hearing those stories has shown me that I can be involved and transformed in the same way.”
Bruce Saunders, 44 - Perth, Western Australia
One woman from a town in Queensland said that she and two other mothers had been working together and thus were able to achieve a greater level of community service than they would have by acting individually.
“Working as a team brought courage and commitment to all our activities – the hardest thing was to start,” she said.
A young man who with his wife first encountered the Baha’i Faith a year ago said: “I found the Baha’i writings suitable to our daily lives. These writings are truth, they are not just for me or you as Baha’is but for everybody in the world.”
Aboriginal dancers began the cultural program on Saturday evening. Later, the humor and harmonies of the Pacific filled the auditorium as the Mana group – formed as a result of the Baha’i institute process – danced and sang.
Outstanding musical performances were interspersed with often light-hearted and informative video clips about Baha’i communities, skits with a message, and community singing involving all the participants.
The second day
The program on Sunday opened with the recorded sounds of the Australian rain forest and with devotions.
In the opening presentation a member of the Continental Board of Counselors for Australasia, Dr. Eric Kingston, said conference participants were designing the future history of the Baha’i Faith in Australia.
“This is the largest-ever gathering of Baha’is in the Southern Hemisphere,” he said.
People split into 31 breakout groups for consultation to plan forthcoming activities focused on growth. Individuals not only had an opportunity to discuss their personal plans but also were invited to fill out forms with a short list of service they felt they could provide.
In the afternoon it was announced that 91 people offered to move to other places in Australia to support smaller Baha’i communities. Almost 500 committed themselves to hosting regular devotional meetings, and more than 530 said they would initiate study circles.
Then it was time for everyone to hear some of the action plans, as well as a report from the 376 children in attendance who participated in a parallel program. The youngsters had also consulted and come up with their own action plans.
“We have pledged to have 56 devotional meetings,” they announced in a prepared statement, as well as 52 new children’s classes.
“For the remaining core activities – junior youth and study circles – we know we are too young to participate in (them), so … we will only encourage and support our parents and community,” the statement said.
After farewell speeches in which gratitude was expressed to the Universal House of Justice for the conference, the packed auditorium sang together to bring the historic gathering to a close.
Regina Middleton, 24, Melbourne, Victoria: “I found the conference to be clarifying, with an amazing spirit. I am very excited about going back to my cluster and serving. I feel a sense of urgency.”
Bruce Saunders, 44, Perth, Western Australia: “I’ve seen friends I have known for quite a while who have been involved in the activities and have been so transformed. Hearing those stories has shown me that I can be involved and transformed in the same way.”
Ine Anuka, 23, Sydney, New South Wales: “It was amazing. It united everyone and I think it’s made me a stronger person and shown how important the core activities are.”
Erfaun Oh, 15, Sydney, New South Wales: “I am now going to get more involved and help in children’s classes and junior youth programs.”
Aida Jamali, 25, Melbourne, Victoria: “I was very, very touched by the conference. I loved hearing that all you have to do is to get up and start serving. That encouraged me. All of us have potential and success is assured.”
Laal Farokhzadi, 26, Sydney, New South Wales: “The conference has put my life in the right direction and given me the goal to reach out to my neighborhood and, based on its needs, start on the core activities.”
Video: Glimpses of the conference and what it meant to the participants.
With nearly 5,500 participants, the Sydney event was the largest Baha’i gathering ever held in the Southern Hemisphere. Some 3,500 people were seated in the main hall, with the rest watching via video link from satellite rooms.
Baha’is from across Australia came together for the conference. Those from Western Australia traveled some 3,300 kilometers.
Workshops on Saturday morning gave people an opportunity to study two messages from the Universal House of Justice.
The 376 children had parallel activities to the adults, and reported on their consultations at a plenary session. Here, Mr. Stephen Hall meets with the youngsters.
The children prepared a statement outlining their commitments to core activities. Mrs. Zenaida Ramirez is shown with some of the young people.
Shadi Toloui-Wallace sings from the sacred writings during devotions.
Members of MANA, a Pacific Island performing group based in Australia, sing during the devotional program that opened the conference.
The conference began with an Aboriginal man playing the didgeridoo in accompaniment to prayers.
Dechen Morisco from the Moreton Bay cluster near Brisbane was among the large contingent of young people.
Clara Sanaei, 6, and Maryam Mobini-Kesheh, 5, take time out for a snack.
Breakout sessions give everyone a chance to participate.
Sunday workshops were for making plans in specific communities.
Mary-Cait Hunter of Kilmore, Victoria, and Soad Jamali of Brisbane exchange phone numbers.
“The institute process is like an engine which needs us to actively participate so it can gain momentum,” the children wrote in a statement from the conference. They pledged to participate in 56 devotional meetings and 52 new children’s classes.