Bordered by the Pacific Ocean to the west and rocky hills to the east, the city of Antofagasta lies in the Atacama Desert in northern Chile, one of the driest areas on earth. Yet the call of the Universal House of Justice to a key conference attracted people from all around, many of them representing indigenous groups of the various countries who, as one participant put it, offered “a defiant response to prejudice and raised a flag for unity in diversity.”
Antofagasta is often thought of as disputed territory because of a long-ago war fought here between Chile and neighboring Bolivia and Peru. On 29-30 November it became instead a symbol of unity of those three countries as well as Argentina to the southeast. Some 600 Baha’is from the four nations gathered for one of the 41 Baha’i conferences being held in cities around the world during a four-month span.
From the Mapuche indigenous group in southern Chile came Baha’is who traveled by bus for 27 hours up the western coast of South America to reach the conference site. From Bolivia came 175 people in four buses, making their way through the Andes Mountains and going a long period without food or water because they carried no Chilean money. From Argentina and southern Peru came about 65 people each, along with a smattering of representatives from other nations.
“The picture itself was emotive – hundreds of people, many of them representing the native communities of different countries, wearing their typical dress, reflecting and planning together with a single purpose.”
As one person wrote later: “The picture itself was emotive – hundreds of people, many of them representing the native communities of different countries, wearing their typical dress, reflecting and planning together with a single purpose.”
The conference opened on Saturday morning with devotions, and the day’s sessions included presentations by Mr. Stephen Birkland and Mr. Juan Francisco Mora, members of the International Teaching Center who attended as representatives of the Universal House of Justice; reports of achievements from each of the four national communities that were represented; discussion of future plans; and workshop groups to study two letters from the House of Justice – the 20 October letter to the Baha’is of the world, and a special message written to those gathered in Antofagasta.
Participants reported on progress in a number of key Bahá’í activities: study circles, children’s classes, devotional gatherings, and spiritual and moral empowerment programs for young adolescents. It was moving to hear of sacrifices made, and impressive victories achieved when people overcome their fear and shortage of resources.
On the second day, following a presentation by Continental Counselor Daniel Duhart, people divided geographically into workshop groups, with participants analyzing the current situation in their communities and planning specific future steps.
“Listening to the experiences of other Bahá’ís from different countries gave me so many new ideas about what to do, Some of the people I met felt bad because before now they haven’t been that involved in the activities. Now I know how to help encourage people like this, including some back home in my own community who may feel the same.”
Manuel Lopez - El Chaco, Argentina
“Listening to the experiences of other Bahá’ís from different countries gave me so many new ideas about what to do,” said Manuel Lopez, who lives in El Chaco, Argentina. “Some of the people I met felt bad because before now they haven’t been that involved in the activities. Now I know how to help encourage people like this, including some back home in my own community who may feel the same.”
After the workshops, a representative from each of the four countries gave a summary of current needs, commitments from the friends, and challenges that remain. Based on the commitments, all the countries said they feel confident they can meet the goals of new intensive programs of growth in certain clusters by Ridvan 2009.
The conference ended with 600 voices singing together – a fitting end, said one participant, of “two days of love, profound commitment…, and unity in diversity.”
Orfelina Huenun , Temuco, Chile: “I never thought this could be possible. I am 73 years old, and I traveled by bus for days from the south of Chile to be here.”
Manuel Lopez , El Chaco, Argentina: “As an old Baha’i, I feel so happy to hear the new Baha’is talking about their experience when they found the Faith, to feel the energy that they pass onto us. I am so grateful to them.”
Monica Espinoza , Viña del Mar, Chile: “I have been Bahá’í for 10 days, but I have been attending devotional gatherings for two months…. I am very happy to be here. The most important thing in the Bahá’í Faith is unity, and I felt this unity in this conference, absolute unity.”
Mauricio Cerrogrande Colque, Oruro, Bolivia: “I have heard so many experiences from Argentina, Bolivia and Chile. I have seen that everybody is willing to work….”
Julian Chambi , Chuquisaca, Bolivia: “We came from Bolivia, 175 people in four buses, crossing the Andes for more than 20 hours to be here. We didn’t stop. We didn’t have food or water because we didn’t have Chilean currency, but we are happy to be here. We are charging our batteries to go back home with more enthusiasm.”
Maximiliano Droppelman, Santiago, Chile: “The conference has been spectacular, unforgettable.”
Teodicia Ríos, Catamarca, Argentina: “This conference has affected me very deeply.... I have always studied what the Universal House of Justice tells us, but I haven’t put (the guidance) into practice, maybe because I’m alone and the people from my town are very closed to other religions. Now I am full of new ideas. I will start with devotionals….”
Dario Cardoso, Santa Cruz, Bolivia: “I have met again with friends that I had not seen for more than 10 years, maybe more. For all of us, this gathering has been very special. It has recovered the mystic spirit of the first conferences held in Latin America.”
Video: Scenes from the conference in Antofagasta.
Baha’is plan future activities in their home communities.
The city of Antofagasta, in the desert of northern Chile, was the site of the conference.
Audience members clap for a musical presentation.
Attendees enjoy the company of new friends and old.
Antofagasta is on the Pacific coast of South America, and some of the conference rooms had a beautiful view.
Indigenous groups were well represented at the conference.
A mother goes to a workshop with her baby.
Mapuche women from southern Chile enjoy the conference.
Martha Moazez came from Bolivia to be at the gathering.
Colorful costumes are part of the cultural performances.
Both plenary sessions and workshops are held each day.
A traveler arrives for the conference.
Everyone had a chance to participate in workshops.
Children enjoy their own program.
At left are Mr. Stephen Birkland and Mr. Juan Francisco Mora, members of the International Teaching Center who represented the Universal House of Justice at the conference. Third from left is Continental Counselor Daniel Duhart.