Orlando conference focuses on service to humanity

30 January 2006

ORLANDO, FLORIDA, United States — Baha'is responded quickly and efficiently to Hurricane Katrina because of the decentralized structure of Baha'i communities, and the Faith's emphasis on individual initiative, a keynote speaker said here this month.

Individual Baha'is and Baha'i institutions, on the spur of the moment and without pre-planning, undertook a variety of relief activities, said William Davis at the annual Baha'i Conference on Social and Economic Development for the Americas held 15-18 December 2005.

The address by Mr. Davis exemplified the theme for the conference, which this year was "Make a Beginning: Ordinary People, Extraordinary Service."

The Baha'is did not become a relief agency during the hurricane disaster in August 2005, said Mr. Davis, the chairman of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of the United States.

"We're not equipped to do that. We don't have the resources to do that. But we became a community responding to the human needs that we saw."

Baha'is and Baha'i institutions organized the delivery of truckloads of supplies to the disaster area, provided temporary housing to displaced survivors, and established communications centers or informational websites, Mr. Davis said.

These initiatives were of a small scale, and in no way matched those of traditional disaster relief agencies, such as the Red Cross, he said.

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William Davis speaks about the Baha'i response to Hurricane Katrina at the annual Baha'i Conference on Social and Economic Development for the Americas, held 15-18 December 2005. Mr. Davis is chairman of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha?is of the United States.

Nevertheless, local Baha'i institutions like the Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of New Orleans and the Baha'i Regional Council of the South were able to contribute.

"The Baha'is responded in a remarkable way," said Mr. Davis. "No one asked, 'how many of us are we?' and 'can we can do this?' They simply said, 'this is a need, we must do it, that's who we are as Baha'is, we respond to the human needs.'"

Other speakers similarly emphasized the possibilities for individual and collective action in the service of humankind.

Dorothy W. Nelson, a judge with the US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, said she used the principles of Baha'i consultation in her work as a law school dean and later in the founding of the Western Justice Center Foundation, a non-profit organization that promotes the peaceful resolution of conflict among young people in schools and in the courts.

Eloy Anello, president of Nur University in Bolivia, told the conference that individual initiative is the "key that unlocks the potential of the Baha'i teachings to transform the world."

Mr. Anello related how a group of indigenous Baha'is in the Bolivian village of Puka Puka had, through principle-driven individual action, gradually established a primary school, and then a high school, for their children.

Other speakers provided case studies for successful development projects and also led discussions of development theory aimed at helping Baha'is and Baha'i institutions launch new projects.

Randie Gottlieb presented a session entitled "Raising Up Indigenous Teachers and Schools in Rural Panama." Dr. Gottlieb discussed the efforts of Baha'is among the Ngobe-Bugle people that have led to the establishment of a cultural center, community radio station, a rural school system serving hundreds of students, a government-accredited teacher training program, and a solar-powered computer laboratory.

Dan Vaillancourt of Canada spoke about the Maxwell International Baha'i School in British Columbia, which has been in operation for almost 17 years. His workshop session explored the growth and development of the school, examining the nine guiding principles used to make decisions about curriculum, instruction, and administration.

More than 700 people from some 25 countries registered for the Conference, said Doug Paik, program director and a trustee of the Orlando-based Rabbani Trust, which has organized the event for the last 13 years.

The Conference was preceded by three pre-conference seminars designed to afford more in-depth study of select topics.

The Baha'i Justice Society conducted a 40-hour training session on Mediation, Consultation, and Conflict Resolution and the Baha'i Business Forum for the Americas sponsored a seminar on Spiritual Ethics Training.

The International Environment Forum and Educators for Social and Economic Development, with support from the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of the United States, offered a 2-day workshop on Education for Sustainable Development.