Manhattanites start small, aim high with class for children

December 16, 2008

NEW YORK, United States — As one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the United States, Manhattan’s Upper East Side might seem like an unlikely place to start building a new world civilization.

“The Upper East Side is quite well-to-do,” explained Monette Van Lith, a Baha'i and a newcomer to the neighborhood, addressing nearly 2,000 people gathered for a Baha’i regional conference in nearby Stamford, Connecticut, this past weekend. “One example I give is that even the dogs wear coats – and sometimes shoes and hats.”

“It is intensely materialistic,” she said, and then added: “But maybe that is just on the surface.”

Ms. Van Lith and her daughter, 9-year-old Sophie Lincoln, are counting on that last notion. They hope to introduce their neighbors to the global process by which Baha'is around the world are seeking to spiritualize society by working from the ground up.

Sophie, with the help of her mother, has recently started a Baha'i children’s class, inviting her schoolmates every Saturday for a course of study that, while fun and engaging, emphasizes the importance of moral virtues and spiritual ideas.

“I attend an international school in New York and there are a lot of children from around the world, from different countries and different religions,” Sophie told the audience, adding that her friends are “very busy. There is ballet and birthday parties, swimming and piano.”

At a conference in Stamford, Connecticut, Baha’is from throughout the northeastern U.S. discussed the core activities they sponsor at the neighborhood level. Slideshow
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At a conference in Stamford, Connecticut, Baha’is from throughout the northeastern U.S. discussed the core activities they sponsor at the neighborhood level.

But, she said, “I think children my age have a lot of questions that they don’t get answers to. Like who is God, why are there different religions, how should we pray, what happens when you die?”

Already, Sophie said, she has three young friends who come regularly to the class, which is held in her home.

“Because it is still small, I am trying to invite more of my friends so it can continue and grow,” she said.

Sophie’s was one of dozens of stories heard in Stamford as Baha'is from nine northeastern U.S. states gathered to talk about the next stage of the evolution of their community.

Growth, certainly, was a main theme at the conference. There is a new energy in Baha’i communities as individuals have begun to grasp the importance of initiating specific core activities designed to engage society at large.

These activities, undertaken at the neighborhood level, include children’s classes, small groups engaged in the study of spiritual topics and in acts of service, devotional gatherings, and activities for young teenagers. They are the key, said conference speakers, to building the foundation for a new world civilization from the grass roots up – for everyone.

“The purpose of growth is to establish a world civilization, affected by the message of Baha'u'llah,” said Sophie Clark, who recently joined the Baha'i community after attending one of the study circles.

The teachings of Baha’u’llah revolve around the essential oneness of humanity and the belief that human beings were created to carry forward an ever-advancing civilization.

“We are not about expanding and recreating patterns of old,” said Hooshmand Sheshbaradaran of Hoboken, New Jersey, who was a workshop facilitator at the Stamford conference. Baha’is, he said, are not trying to re-create a series of traditional churches or congregations.

“It is about evolving, it is about stepping out and building a new world order,” he said.

The Stamford gathering was one of three Baha’i conferences on 13-14 December, all part of a current series of 41 conferences being held over a four-month period in cities around the world. The others this past weekend were in Dallas and Los Angeles. Conferences next weekend will be in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and Kuching, Sarawak, in Malaysia. The series concludes on 1 March 2009.

For reports of the conferences, go to: