Study circles unite Outback dwellers
MOUNT ISA, Australia — When Maxien Bradley of Mt. Isa suggested forming a study circle, others who lived far away were quick to sign up.
A resident of this mining town Ms. Bradley had found a way for members of a study circle to meet regularly despite the desert and farmland that separated them in the vast "outback" (remote area).
Study circles are a feature of Baha'i communities worldwide. They involve self-directed training and learning in small groups.
In the sparsely populated regions of the Northern Territory and Queensland, regular meetings had not seemed possible until Ms. Bradley suggested a cheap form of telephone conferencing. She soon found enough participants to try out the method.
More than 1,200 km to the northwest, David and Sue Podger of Katherine in the Northern Territory, decided they wanted to be part of the innovation.
Also keen to join were Sandy Patton and Frances Avent, both residents of Longreach, 630 km south of Mt. Isa.
Some 1,800 km away in Brisbane, Narelle Kinneally Tolstoff became a member. And in Warwick, 160 km south of that city, was Leila Deighton, another willing participant.
The first meeting of the study circle was in 2001 and they are still continuing.
The group decided on the "Ruhi method" that is being used by Baha'is in some 180 countries worldwide.
The method aims to develop the capacities of individuals to undertake activities such as teaching values to children, assisting people to independently investigate spiritual truths, and learning how to competently express one's own views.
In the first of a seven-book series, members discuss scriptural extracts on a given theme, such as prayer and meditation, and life after death.
Mrs. Podger agreed to be the "tutor" of the study circle. In the Ruhi method that role is not a traditional instructor but someone who helps the participants focus on the topic.
"Each member realizes that he or she is playing a part in molding the study circle, and in making it what it is," Mrs. Podger said.
"It works by group consensus, and not because I, as the facilitator, arrange everything."
She said that people in the outback are usually independent and want to learn by discovering things for themselves. So taking responsibility for their own learning -- an essential element of the Ruhi method --came naturally to them.
"They love to sing or play a musical instrument, tell a story or recite a poem to illustrate the point they are making, so it can get quite lively," Mrs. Podger said.
The group has even sung together over the phone. Sometimes members halt their discussion to listen intently to a moving poem or prayer.
"Hearing everyone's news is a special time," Mrs. Podger said.
For example, at one news session, a member told how she served food to people at camel races in western Queensland -- she saw it as a practical way to help the community. Another described encountering hundreds of kangaroos while driving to meet with Baha'is in Alice Springs.
"Sharing stories of one another's backgrounds promotes an understanding of each one and allows a warm affection to develop in the group," Mrs. Podger said.
Service to the community is a vital part of the Ruhi study circle method.
"Practice confirms the thought," Ms. Bradley said. "It is pointless studying this if we're not going to do something."
One successful idea was to select an extract from the Baha'i writings and put it into practice before the next meeting. Another was to choose a virtue to demonstrate, with the deadline being the next time the phone rang for the study circle.
The results speak for themselves.
Sandy Patton has begun a youth class. Frances Avent attends Bible classes and sings Baha'i songs in local concerts.
Leila Deighton holds information evenings on various subjects, while Narelle Kinneally Tolstoff recites her poetry on spiritual themes for a variety of audiences.
Maxien Bradley continues to direct community choirs, and for the past three years has raised money for the Royal Flying Doctor Service by cooking at regional events. She also volunteers for the annual Rodeo and Mt. Isa Show.
Some study circle participants, such as the Podgers, have become "Outback Volunteers," visiting isolated people and helping when they can
The members of the study circle gathered in 2003 to train to be tutors -- four now tutor telephone study circles.
Telephone study circles are also active on the other side of Australia. One based in the remote town of Tom Price in Western Australia has a participant 2,000 km away.
Mrs. Podger says the advantage of the telephone method over e-mail or chat rooms is the lively interaction, including rapid-fire discussion, laughter, and contemplative times.
"It all happens faster than written interactions can take place, making it possible to accomplish more.
"Also the audio factor makes many forms of expression possible, and many forms of art, which add to the great pleasure of the participants."
Maxien Bradley said the phone enables nuances of the voice to be easily heard.
"You are virtually next to a person without seeing them," she said.