Building unity with community prayer

February 19, 2008

HEIDELBERG, Germany — Twenty-five-year-old Andreas Rolle is in his final year of university, studying to become an elementary-school teacher. Like many students, he describes his daily life as "frenzied."

But he has discovered a small island of peace in his schedule: a prayer meeting every two weeks hosted by five Baha'is, also students in Heidelberg, a university town of 150,000 people.

"Going to these meetings helps me to refocus," said Mr. Rolle, a student at the Heidelberg University of Education. "I do not like missing even one."

Others, students and nonstudents alike, have likewise found the gathering to be a refuge from the pressures of modern life.

Dominick Muller, a music student at the Pop Academy, likes that "one consciously or deliberately comes to quietness and reflects about themselves."

"Afterwards there is also the possibility to talk about these thoughts and reflections with the other people," said Mr. Muller, who describes himself as having no religious background.

He said he likes thinking about issues in an environment removed from school and his other activities.

The gatherings start with prayers, followed by conversation and reflection. Good food is also an attraction, the hosts say. Slideshow
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The gatherings start with prayers, followed by conversation and reflection. Good food is also an attraction, the hosts say.

Organizers of the meeting believe prayers create a special atmosphere.

"I think they really help people," said Sarah Warner, one of the hosts. "Even if they don't realize it in the beginning, there will be an inner transformation, like being more attentive to spirituality in other people and in their own life."

Nikolai Werner, another host, agreed. "It is the prayers that bring people together," he said. "Using the energy of the prayers we find new ways to see each other."

The fact that the gatherings don't have an official religious leader - Baha'is do not have clergy - is another factor in the success of the gatherings, said Nassim Aiff, another of the organizers.

"It makes the meeting very open," she said. "Everyone can contribute with their own idea. Also it can't really go wrong because there is no set of rules. If people like to talk about the things that were in the quotations, they can. They don't have to, though."

The gatherings in Heidelberg are part of a global effort by the worldwide Baha'i community to host devotional gatherings in neighborhoods everywhere. There are now more than 17,000 such meetings, with hundreds of thousands of participants.

About a dozen people gather every two weeks for this meeting in Heidelberg.

"I think it is the atmosphere that attracts the people most," said Ms. Aiff. "And of course the good food. But mainly the atmosphere, having a chance to be completely themselves, not having to worry about what people might think about them."

Chandriah Rama, a software engineer working for SAP in Heidelberg, said he enjoys the gatherings because they make him feel relaxed.

"There is good meditation, and the meeting has very nice people," he said.

Mr. Rolle said he never imagined that he could feel so comfortable in a group of people.

"The devotional gathering makes us connect on more than just a religious level.... I love it all. The food, reflecting, being in a prayerful state, the moments being together, meditating, telling stories and laughing together."

He said that what he finds most extraordinary is that although the gathering is organized by Baha'is, it is inspiring for others, too.

"I believe that devotional meetings bring people together and form tighter bonds," he said.

It is this type of response that encourages Baha'is in their belief that such meetings can help lay the foundation for peace.

"Coming together to say prayers on a regular basis with friends and family will change the world," said Nassim Ghazanfari, another of the hosts. "That's why I'm doing it."