Young people aim for a "coherent" life as they plan their future

January 28, 2010
Sixty young people from throughout Central America took part in a 10-day seminar in Honduras designed to explore how their lives could be based on principles inspired by both science and religion. (Photograph by Andres Shahidinejad)

SANTA ROSA DE COPAN, Honduras — Having a belief system is not so difficult, said 25-year-old Nava, participating in a recent university seminar in Honduras. The challenging part is building your life around your beliefs.

More than 1,500 young people addressed this challenge at recent Baha'i gatherings in five countries – Honduras, Italy, Australia, England, and the Philippines.

The youth are trying to examine their lives at a time when they have the opportunity to develop a lifestyle and career path that incorporate the values and activities which they believe can shape the kind of world they want to live in.

Nava Kavelin, of San Juan, Puerto Rico, helped facilitate sessions for some of the 60 university students from Central America who signed up for a 10-day seminar in Santa Rosa de Copan in early January.

Participants explored educational paths in light of their beliefs, said Ms. Kavelin. Among the professions they discussed was advertising.

"We looked at the mass media and the messages it communicates. We talked about how the media can paint people in a less-than-favorable light – yet as Baha'is we believe in promoting the nobility of man," Ms. Kavelin said.

"The question for university students becomes, how will I use my degree to promote the values I agree with – and to not promote values that I don't agree with."

Students of business and economics discussed how some business models are in agreement with their principles and some aren't, she said.

"The participants are learning to become owners of their own education rather than passive recipients, looking critically at how the classes they take can help them with their objectives," Ms. Kavelin said.

"A coherent life"

Luke Bolton, 22, of New York was one of 300 young people from 39 countries who attended the six-day conference in Italy, which was aimed at assisting participants to see all aspects of their life as complementary elements devoted to the service of humanity.

Since Mr. Bolton's return home, he and colleagues at his office have discussed the subject of not compromising your principles while working at your job.

In the Philippines, students discussed themes such as the coherence between material and spiritual civilization, and how language influences action. (Photograph by Klyne Ally Peralta) Slideshow
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In the Philippines, students discussed themes such as the coherence between material and spiritual civilization, and how language influences action. (Photograph by Klyne Ally Peralta)

"One thing that resonates with people is living a coherent life," he says.

Some of the participants at the conference, held in Verona in late December, talked about having useful skills and good jobs – but still feeling that their work is not related to the type of community-building activities that Baha'is believe are vital to grassroots change in the world.

Those people, Mr. Bolton said, tended to feel that they need to devote more of their time to service to the community. Some discussed how they could use job skills – computer knowledge, for example – outside of work and apply it to service.

"New vigor to the concept of service"

Service to humanity was at the crux of a message sent by the Universal House of Justice to the more than 800 Baha'i youth who gathered in early January at a conference in the Australian coastal city of Wollongong.

"Central to your role in the present day is to give new vigor to the concept of service – being devoted to high ideals far removed from purely selfish interests, oriented to advancement of society, and committed to the welfare of humanity," the House of Justice wrote to the youth.

The young people seem to be taking the guidance to heart.

"The conference helped me to raise my level of consciousness about the individual and society," Negin Sedaghat of Sydney said afterwards.

The presentations "challenged the youth to move beyond their frivolous pursuits," said another young woman.

"We are not just here to engage in idle talk but to put everything into practice," commented a third.

"Greater coherence and a life of service," said Rewa Worley of Auckland, New Zealand, summing up the message he was taking home from the conference.

Building capacity among youth

A key feature of the conference in England, held at the University of Warwick in Coventry, was that the young people themselves were running it.

Bonnie Smith – who at only 16 is a veteran of dozens of Baha'i gatherings – said the difference was noticeable.

"Suddenly a lot of youth I had never seen before were giving talks and performances," she said. "The idea was to give the youth skills that they could take home with them."

Aryan Ziaie, at age 20 one of the four main organizers, guessed that about a third of the 346 registered participants were presenters or performers or in some way contributed their skills to the event.

"The purpose of this conference was developing capacity," he said. "It was run by the youth - people who hadn't done this before. It is a hallmark of the success of the conference."

A first-year law student at the London School of Economics, Mr. Ziaie said a more typical conference might have two or three keynote speakers. This one had many.

Even at his university, when he and his friends have serious discussions about social change, the assumption seems to be that only a handful of people will be the catalyst – "top down," he said.

The mood at the conference was different, he said, with a "grassroots sharing of experiences."

"You saw people pledging their future to learning about how to effect social transformation," he said. "They are conscious of this, and they know where to look for the guidance."

The Baha'i youth seemed to have changed in the past year, he observed.

"You can tell by the level of conversations," he said. "They share experiences so that they can further refine their activities. They plan, they act, they reflect – they have been brought up with this dynamic."

He said his own experience at the gathering was of less social chitchat and more time spent in focused discussion.

"The vision was clearer," he said.