Gathering in Holy Land marks milestone in the development of the Baha'i Faith
HAIFA, Israel — As one of nearly 1000 regional community advisors in the worldwide Baha'i community, Iwassa Bolinga's duties normally entail consulting with local Baha'i institutions in the Democratic Republic of the Congo about the application of Baha'i teachings to the needs of their communities and encouraging individuals in the region to acquire a greater knowledge of their Faith and a greater capacity for social action.
However, in order to attend an historic gathering of his colleagues from around the world, held here 14-16 January 2001, his position required him to travel some 560 kilometers by outboard motorboat, dugout canoe, and on foot from the remote Equateur region of his native land. And that was just to catch the plane to Israel -- a land to which he had never traveled before.
Mr. Bolinga, who serves on an entirely voluntary basis as an Auxiliary Board member, as Baha'i community advisors in his category are known, began his journey by hiring an outboard motor boat to take him 560 kilometers down river from Boende to the provincial capital of Mbandaka, where one flight leaves every two weeks for Kinshasa.
When the motor boat ran out of fuel some 40 kilometers out of Boende, Mr. Bolinga conviced a local fisherman to take him to Mbandaka. That meant paddling for ten days and ten nights in a dugout canoe. When they arrived in Mbandaka, Mr. Bolinga immediately set out again, this time on foot, to cover the last 5 kilometres to the airport. He arrived just minutes before the plane left.
In Kinshasa he joined 12 of his colleagues from around the Congo for a flight to Adis Ababa, where Board members from throughout central, west and east Africa met for the final leg of the journey to Tel Aviv. The meeting in the Adis Ababa airport was a dramatic moment for Mr. Bolinga and his colleagues, since the on-going civil war in the Democratic Republic Congo had kept them from meeting with other Auxiliary Board members in recent years.
"Once we got checked in and went through to the departure lounge, the reality of this extraordinary event started to become clear," said Susan Sheper, a Board member serving in Kinshasa. "We saw the five Board members from the east and north of the Democratic Republic of Congo -- people who we had had no contact with for the last three years because of the war, and who we didn't know were dead or alive. What a reunion! We were laughing, crying and hugging all at once."
The purpose of all that effort was to attend an historic conference to inaugurate the International Teaching Centre Building, the headquarters of an international institution of appointed officers charged with stimulating and nurturing the development of the Baha'i community.
The conference marked the first gathering of the entire membership of this institution, known as the Institution of the Counsellors, which operates parallel to the system of elected assemblies that govern the Baha'i Faith at the local, national and international levels. Nine International Counsellors serve on the International Teaching Centre at the Baha'i World Centre in Haifa. Eighty-one additional Continental Counsellors serve around the world, and they in turn appoint 990 grassroots advisors known as Auxiliary Board members.
Culmination of a century-long effort
The Board members arriving from 172 countries were coming to witness, first and foremost, the consummation of a century-long effort to build the Baha'i Faith's world spiritual and administrative center on Mount Carmel, in Haifa.
In the 1890's the Faith's Founder, Baha'u'llah, had declared from the crest of Mount Carmel that the barren mountainside would be transformed and become the focal center of His Faith. In 1909 the remains of Baha'u'llah's martyred Forerunner were laid to rest in a simple mausoleum on a spot Baha'u'llah had selected mid-way up the slope. The colonnade and golden dome added later make the Shrine of the Bab one of Haifa's best-known landmarks.
During the 1930s and 40s, a broad arc-shaped path and gardens were laid out adjacent to the Shrine, along which the headquarters of the Faith's senior institutions were to be built. An International Archives Building was completed in 1957 in the classic Greek style, setting the tone and scale for the remaining buildings. In 1983, the governing body of the Faith, the Universal House of Justice, occupied its permanent seat in an imposing marble building faced with 57 Corinthian columns at the top of the arc-shaped path. The final two buildings, built on either side of the Seat of the House of Justice, were completed in 2000: the Centre for the Study of the Texts and the International Teaching Centre Building.
Construction of the International Teaching Centre Building began in 1987 and was completed in October 2000. The edifice has 9 floors with a total floor space of more than 19,000 square meters. Only three floors, surrounded by an elegant semi-circular marble colonnade, show above ground, fulfilling architect Hossein Amanat's intention that the building blend into the mountain landscape "like a pavilion in a garden."
The conference began on 14 January with a devotional program commemorating the completion of the buildings on the Arc. In addition to the two new buildings, work was nearly completed on 19 majestic garden terraces extending above and below the Shrine of the Bab from the foot to the crest of the mountain. The buildings and terraces had taken more than a decade of intensive effort to build, at a cost of $250 million drawn entirely from the voluntary contributions of the 5 million Baha'is around the world.
In the morning, in a profoundly reverent act, the Counsellors and Board members were the first to ascend the terraces leading from the base of Mount Carmel to the Shrine of the Bab mid-way up the mountain. They circumambulated the Shrine in a prayerful attitude and continued across the Arc Path for a tour of the International Teaching Centre Building.
A Board member from Taiwan, Dana Hudson, recalled, "When each of us started to ascend we had no choice but bow our heads in utmost humility. It was a feeling which most of us had to express in the form of tears."
In the afternoon a member of the International Teaching Centre opened the conference by reminding the participants of the deep historical and spiritual significance of the completion of the structures on Mount Carmel.
The scriptures of the Faith foreshadowed this achievement and prophesied that it would coincide at the end of the 20th century with two other significant developments, one within the community of believers and the other in the world at large. The first would be the emergence of vibrant, self-governing Baha'i communities in all parts of the world, and the second would be the laying of the foundations of international peace through agreements among the nations of the world.
In a message addressed to the conference, the Universal House of Justice stated that "the occupation of the International Teaching Centre of its permanent seat on the Mountain of the Lord marks the beginning of what future generations will regard as a splendid chapter in the annals of our Faith."
The House of Justice also addressed the unique role that the Institution of the Counsellors can play in shepherding humanity through a dark, transitional phase of history toward the emergence of a global, just civilization.
"You hail from far-flung geographic regions and cultural backgrounds that make you truly representative of a cross-section of the human family," the House of Justice stated. "The world's crying need for the divine prescriptions is made plain by the ills afflicting society at every level in all parts of the planet. We must be swift in ministering to this need."
A new level of unity
For the previous four years the Institution of the Counsellors had been engaged in a vast project of systematising the training of large numbers of believers in the spiritual, moral and social teachings of their Faith. The goal was to raise up the human resources needed to establish a distinctive Baha'i way of life and contribute to social advancement.
Over the course of the four years, Board members had helped establish more than 300 of these training institutes around the world, reaching into the very fabric of Baha'i community life through a decentralised system of tutors, study circles, and sequences of courses based on the sacred writings of the Faith.
Much of the remaining two days of the conference were dedicated to consultations on the successes and challenges of this task, and many participants were struck by the remarkable unity of thought they achieved almost spontaneously among themselves.
"What I found most wonderful about these consultations was that everyone had had different experiences, but we all spoke the same language," said Mrs. Sheper, a Board member from the Congo. "In other words, since we were all Board members, every one of us was somehow involved in the institute process, many of us intimately, we all encouraged individual initiative in teaching and were working to systematise our teaching efforts. So even though we came from the farthest reaches of the earth and our individual experiences differed, our overall experience and understanding was united."
Just prior to the inaugural conference, the Counsellors had held a series of meetings to consider the next phase of this training effort, which was projected to last five years. In a message to the gathering of the Counsellors, the Universal House of Justice called for building on the strength of the training institutes by focusing on specific geographic areas -- for example a cluster of towns -- where conditions were ripe for creating a rich and vibrant Baha'i community life.
"Among the initial goals for every community should be the establishment of study circles, children's classes, and devotional meetings," the House of Justice stated. Further, these efforts should be "open to all the inhabitants of the locality" with the goal of producing a positive impact on the well-being and cohesiveness of society at large. Once these basic elements of community life are in place, the House of Justice suggested that "small projects of social and economic development -- for example a literacy project, a project for the advancement of women or environmental protection, or even a village school" could be introduced.
First in plenary sessions with participants from around the world, and later in continental meetings that focused on regional challenges and collaboration, the Board members shared their experiences and plans for the future.
"What were the consultations like? They were full of joy and excitement because they reflected a new culture in the Baha'i community," recalled Martina Donovalova, a Board member from Slovakia, "and the joy of having the blessings of the training institutes and their priceless value for us. The friends from the whole world rose to say what their experiences were, how the work of the Faith was rapidly progressing, how they were learning many new things, and how they were able to support and extend the growing number of Baha'u'llah's followers.
"At the European continental meeting we had much discussion on the directive from the House of Justice that study circles, devotional meetings and children's classes should be open to all the inhabitants in the area," said Ms. Donovalova. "We had several wonderful examples of this happening in Germany, Russia, Ireland, Ukraine, Belarus, and England and of the impact it has had on the growth and development of the Faith."
At the Asian continental conference Counsellor Jabbar Eidelkhani shared the experience from Bangladesh, where 11,000 people recently entered the Faith and 8,000 of them had been introduced to the Faith by tutors active in the institute process.
A great deal of emphasis was placed on the moral and spiritual education of children and their full integration into the life of the community.
"There were two main things I got out of the meetings," said Dana Hudson from Taiwan, "and that was the importance of the institute process in educating our community in Taiwan and the immediate and demanding urgency for our children. There must be classes for our children to learn from and become the spiritual giants that we read about in our rich history. Our children are blessed with such capacity if it is only mined and nurtured."
Many areas of the globe were first opened to the Faith during the 1950s and 60s by "pioneers", or Baha'is who left their home countries to settle in regions where the Faith had not yet been established. The fact that most countries were represented by indigenous believers rather than pioneers was seen by many as a sign of the coming of age of the global Baha'i community. Also significant was the participation of approximately equal numbers of women and men. In fact women exceeded men among the representatives from the Americas and Europe.
P.G. Chandrarathna, a Board member from Sri Lanka, was deeply impressed by the significance of this diversity.
"I sighted people from almost all races, all colors and all religious backgrounds, but the wonder of it was that all of them were united in their thoughts and united in their goals, that is, to work for the unity of humankind," he said. "They did not gather to find solutions to their differences, but to see how they could work in cooperation."
A moving climax
The Baha'i sacred writings explain that the Faith's development would fall into three evolutionary stages: a heroic, a formative and a golden age. The first, lasting from the birth of the Faith in 1844 until 1921, was a period of extreme trial and persecution when thousands of early believers were martyred because of their efforts to establish the new religion. The second age now unfolding is expected to lead through a series of epochs marking the achievement of significant milestones. Much later, possibly hundreds of years from now, the Faith would reach its golden age, coinciding with the emergence of a just and peaceful global civilisation. Since 1921 the Faith has progressed through four epochs of its formative age.
In the closing session of the conference, the Universal House of Justice referred to "signs that the Faith had arrived at a point in its development beyond which new horizons open before us." Among the indicators of this new level of maturity the House of Justice cited the change of culture in the Baha'i community as training institutes emerged, the completion of the construction projects on Mount Carmel, and the synchronisation of these developments with the accelerating trend toward world peace.
These indicators had been "crystallised into a recognisable reality," the Universal House of Justice stated, by the "extraordinary dynamics at work throughout the conference."
Then came a dramatic declaration. "With a spirit of exultation we are moved to announce to you: the Faith of Baha'u'llah now enters the fifth epoch of its formative age."
"The realisation that we were all there at that moment of history - making history - was truly overwhelming. After devotions, everyone filed out of the Seat, congratulating each other on the new epoch. There was such a celebratory air," said one participant.
For many, the announcement sparked questions about the significance of an epoch in the unfoldment of the Baha'i Cause, and about the new perspectives and possibilities opened up in their individual and collective lives.
"This new milestone is so near to us that we can grasp its significance only in the future," said Ms. Donovalova from Slovakia. "But what is happening to us? What is the change? What is new?"
Ms. Donovalova answered her own questions by citing a favorite passage from a letter of the Universal House of Justice describing the new "culture of growth" characterizing the Baha'i community:
"So enkindled do their hearts become with the fire of the love of God that whoever approaches them feels its warmth. They strive to be channels of the spirit, pure of heart, selfless and humble, possessing the certitude and the courage that stems from reliance on God."