In the U.S., South surges towards success
NASHVILLE, United States — Participants at the biggest Baha'i conference held in the United States since 2001 prepared themselves for increasingly focused efforts to expand the Faith in their country.
Some 4,000 Baha'is attended the Southern Regional Baha'i Conference, which was held from 27-30 November and was opened by the city's vice mayor Howard Gentry Jr.
Participants spent sessions examining progress in three core activities being undertaken throughout the Baha'i world -- capacity-building study circles, children's classes, and devotional meetings.
Those sessions, aimed at furthering the process of expansion, were allied to the theme of the conference, "Blazoning the Name of Baha'u'llah," a plan to introduce the name of the Founder of the Baha'i Faith to every resident of the United States by 2013.
The Regional Baha'i Council of the Southern States, which sponsored the conference, reported "extraordinary progress" in the number of study circles in the region, and in the number of participants who have completed the sequence of courses and trained as tutors.
Then participants examined what was successful or otherwise in Baha'i communities, evaluating progress in geographic "clusters."
The southern states of the country saw a dramatic surge in enrolments in the Baha'i Faith in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and participants at the conference pledged to undertake systematic activities to ensure the region continues in that tradition. At the event, which was open to the public, 18 people joined the Faith.
The conference was dedicated to the memory of Ali-Akbar Furutan, 98, the much-loved Hand of the Cause who passed away in Haifa, Israel, on the eve of the opening of the conference. Speakers drew on the example of his life to encourage participants in their efforts.
Among the addresses given at the conference was one by Robert C. Henderson, secretary-general of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of the United States.
A prominent article in "The Tennesseean," the state's biggest-circulation daily newspaper, subsequently quoted Dr. Henderson urging on the Baha'is in their efforts to expand the Faith.
"We are really talking about the essential mission of the Baha'i Faith, which is nothing more complicated than learning how to love and sharing with other people what we're learning about that love, and then telling them Who taught us how to love like that," Dr. Henderson said.
Another speaker, Eugene Andrews, a member of the Continental Board of Counsellors, told the participants that the Faith is not a church, and its members should not conduct themselves in a way where leadership comes from an individual or individuals presumed to be qualified for the purpose.
"Where does our spiritual vitality come from? It comes from you all," he said.
Rebequa Murphy, also a member of the Continental Board, used an urban analogy to illustrate her point that the institute process (which includes study circles, children's classes and other community activities) was aimed at raising a community of teachers of the Faith.
"In New York City you learn [to] only hail cabs that have their light on, because if their light's not on they're not open for business," Ms. Murphy said.
"When we become communities of teachers, what happens? What the institute process does, it turns on [our] lights. So people know we're open for business. And they come to us.
"We must never forget the purpose for which we live -- to bring about the oneness of the human family."
Kenneth Bowers, a member of the National Spiritual Assembly said he was a native southerner, a descendant of slave-holders and confederate soldiers and he could testify to "a new life that is stirring in this age," one in which he could be loved by African-Americans and love them right back.
"And the question I ask is, who else but God can do something like that?" Mr. Bowers said.
Artistic expression permeated the conference. There were musical and dramatic performances, a journey for children through reconstructed historical places of the Faith, film screenings, displays of the visual arts, and creative devotionals.
A performance of the Voices of Baha choir -- featuring solos by performers such as Dan Seals, Red Grammer, the Price Sisters, and Van Gilmer -- took place in a venue synonymous with the music of the south -- the Ryman Auditorium, once home to the Grand Ole Opry.
Youth and children had sessions devoted to their issues, and many young people volunteered to help in the running of the conference. Other sessions included an adult singles discussion group, an African-American teaching consultation, young adults leadership sessions, and a forum for study circle tutors.
(Article based on reporting by Tom Mennillo. Photos courtesy of "The American Baha'i.")