Systematic training initiative showing results, say convention delegates

2 May 2008

HAIFA, Israel — There is a new wind blowing in the Bahá’í world.

That message came through loud and clear in three days of consultations at the 10th International Bahá’í Convention.

Delegates from 153 countries described how a systematic, grassroots process of community-building -- focused on training, learning and service -- is creating a new dynamism in Bahá’í communities worldwide and striking a chord in wider society.

On the convention floor and in the hallways, delegates talked about how the emphasis on service to humanity through four core activities – children’s classes, devotional meetings, study circles, and programs for young teens – is starting to yield results in country after country.

In India, for example, more than 80,000 people have completed a study circle based on material from the Ruhi Institute in Colombia, and some 6,000 people have advanced to the seventh book in the same series of material.

As a consequence, said Nazneen Rowhani, a delegate from India, many people have become interested in the Bahá’í Faith, and thousands have become Bahá’ís since last May.

“So India’s challenge has been how to mobilize a substantial percentage of these new believers into the field of service,” said Ms. Rowhani.

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Classes for both adults and children that focus on service to others are increasingly attracting participants, delegates reported.

Reports from other countries described similar degrees of success at both energizing Bahá’ís and reaching out to others – all with the ultimate goal of addressing the ills that afflict humanity.

-- In Colombia, in an area known as Norte del Cauca, the number of people involved in core activities has risen dramatically since 2005, when a cyclical campaign to inspire more involvement was begun. Hundreds of young teens have participated in the junior youth empowerment program, and a thousand have attended devotional gatherings. There are about a hundred neighborhood children’s classes. As a result of this increased activity, said Carmen Caldas Hernandez, the number of Bahá’ís has doubled.

“Our reflection gatherings have become like a party, like a feast, where we celebrate the achievements of the previous cycle,” said Ms. Hernandez, describing the atmosphere at periodic Bahá’í meetings to assess the progress of core activities.

-- In Kenya, since January 2005, the number of people who have completed Ruhi Book 7 in an area known as Tiriki West has risen sharply and the number in children’s classes has reached more than 1,000.

-- In Brazil, an effort to reach out to young teens around Porto Alegre now has hundreds of participants. Such classes for “junior youth” do not teach the Bahá’í Faith but rather focus on improving literacy and thinking and articulation skills, and encouraging better moral choices – all designed to “empower” young people.

The classes have been so successful, said Katherine Monajjem, a delegate from Brazil, that some local public school officials have embraced them as a model. “One school supervisor was so impressed that, although she is a Baptist, she asked that her young son be trained in the program,” said Ms. Monajjem.

Such reports were echoed, often on a smaller scale, by delegates from countries where Bahá’í communites have also begun more intensive outreach efforts.

“What we’re seeing are the fruits of a worldwide education process that is trying to empower the Bahá’í community with the skills that it needs to enrich their own community and also carry the message of Bahá’u’lláh to others,” said Joan Lincoln, a Counsellor at the International Teaching Centre at the Baha’i World Centre in Haifa. She is involved in monitoring many of these efforts.

“What Bahá’í children’s classes have to offer is character development,” she said. “What junior youth programs have to offer is assistance to young people trying to find their place in a very chaotic world.”

The situation in the world at large was very much on the minds of the some 1,000 delegates at the convention. In addition to the mechanics of systematized study and outreach, delegates discussed wider topics relating to the deteriorating social conditions in the world, from the crisis in moral education to the impact of HIV/AIDs in Africa.

In particular, many delegates responded passionately to a letter from the Universal House of Justice, the international governing body of the Bahá’í Faith, that discussed the new dynamism in Bahá’í communities worldwide and said its impact on wider society will only come to the degree that Bahá’ís live lives of high morality and “champion the cause of justice.”

“Sustaining growth … will depend on the qualities that distinguish your service to the peoples of the world,” said the message, released as part of the Festival of Ridvan observed by Bahá’ís at this time every year.

“So free must be your thoughts and actions of any trace of prejudice – racial, religious, economic, national, tribal, class, or cultural – that even the stranger sees in you loving friends.

“So high must be your standard of excellence and so pure and chaste your lives that the moral influence you exert penetrates the consciousness of the wider community,” said the message.

Muin Afnani, a delegate from the United States, like others, observed that the essential teachings of the Bahá’í Faith emphasize the importance of service to humanity at large.

“When we look at the life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, we see that service meant serving the poor and people of all classes, all ranks,” said Dr. Afnani. “The core activities of the plan are really bringing us back to a focus on serving the people.”

Gregory Dahl, a delegate from Bulgaria, explained that the new emphasis on a few core activities, along with a systematic process of learning and reflection, is indeed aimed at building up the Bahá’í community’s capacity for such service.

“The whole orientation of the Bahá’í Faith is service to humankind, and we can do that better if we can do that systematically,” said Mr. Dahl.