In May 2006, the Universal House of Justice wrote to the Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of Canada regarding the goals and plans of the Canadian Baha’i community. The latter had set some ambitious goals for the growth and development of the community, promising to firmly establish intensive programs of growth in no less than 46 areas of the country (Ottawa, of course, being one of them). The Universal House of Justice pointed out in its letter that “[s]uch a bold objective cannot be achieved merely by adopting the outer form of the activities of the Five Year Plan [i.e. the ‘core activities’]”, and that “a true change in culture is required”.
So what’s this whole “intensive growth” thing? Is it freaky or evil? Not really. The Baha’i community, just like any religious community, can either stagnate or grow. A healthy community grows; an unhealthy one stagnates (or worse, God forbid—disunity sets in and it dies out). Bahá’ís naturally want their community to grow, to become more united, and to attract receptive souls who are willing to throw their lot in to build a divine civilization. “Intensive growth” is simply what’s needed at this time because of the lamentable, perilous and frightening state of the world. If the world were in better shape, we might be able to just go along at our regular (slow) pace, getting more and more united as the years went by, gradually learning how better to serve humanity and follow the teachings sent by Baha’u’llah; but because the world around us is losing it so quickly, we have to learn quicker—put some Miracle-Gro on our garden—so that if and when things start spinning out of control—which seems to be real soon now—the Bahá’ís will be able to offer your average Jack and Jill somewhere to turn to for a respite from all the confusion.
That “change in culture” has been happening gradually within the Baha’i community over the past year. Taking on a new way of acting and living our lives is challenging, and like any change, it begins with friction and discomfort. Let me give an example…
A few months back some friends, returning from the Fire and Snow initiative in Toronto, decided to put their new experience to good use by beginning outreach projects in several neighbourhoods. They invited a bunch of people to come help out and thereby gain experience offering core activities in a neighbourhood setting, and I joined up with one of them. Thus began two weeks of intense activity that pushed our limits. What does “intense” mean? Well, I suppose it’s relative. When you’re used to holding one or two children’s classes in a month and maybe acting as a tutor for a study circle once a week, holding a children’s class every day for two weeks straight (with home visits with the parents on top of that), that’s intense. At first, you feel like you’re gonna die, but you also feel charged and energized because you’re serving humanity and making a sacrifice to serve the will of God. You also end up feeling far more confident; by the end of the two weeks, I felt as if I could give a children’s class in my sleep, and I felt far less nervous about meeting the parents and describing to them the kinds of things their children were learning. It’s been over two months since then, and that newfound confidence is still there. Looking back, I can say that I’ve discovered new capacities in myself—I never thought I would be capable of doing those kinds of things. Perhaps I was so used to giving up before I even tried…
The Universal House of Justice, in its letter cited above, warned that “[a]t this moment in the fortunes of the Faith, no believer can regard passive acceptance of the activities of the Plan as an adequate response to the needs of the hour”. The Baha’i community as a whole, along with the greater community that surrounds it, is being palpably transformed by its participation in the Plans outlined by the Universal House of Justice. Only to the degree it embraces these Plans, however, can it achieve said transformation—just as it is only to the degree the greater community becomes involved in the civilization-building core activities spearheaded by the Baha’is that Baha’u’llah’s healing message will be able to soothe the pangs of agony afflicting a wounded and frustrated world.
Returning to the above example, it was at first overwhelming to be plunged into the outreach projects—I wasn’t used to the fast, almost frenetic, pace that was required to establish children’s classes in the neighbourhoods, create relationships and rapport with the parents, explain the programs and introduce the Baha’i Faith to those who asked. I dreaded the words “follow up”. I had stepped into the plane of sacrifice not quite knowing or understanding what would await me, with only the vague conception that my resolve would be tested—and it was. I was utterly unready, uncomfortable, fearful, nervous and shy. At every moment I wished I could disappear into the cracks between seat cushions and be no more, but reality resolutely stared me in the face. I steeled myself and said prayers, following the lead of those who had gone before, those who had been to Fire and Snow and who had seen crises pass and victories happen. It was difficult, painful at times—because I simply wasn’t used to serving so much, teaching so much, giving so much of myself. The benefits I derived from taking part in the projects, however, by far outweighed the initial discomfort that I feared would tear me apart. I was, and am, able to give more of myself than I had previously thought was possible. I found that I am able to be more than just a passive observer, that I am capable of giving of my time, my effort and myself without toppling into a nervous breakdown—which, since I hit bottom in depression in the summer of 2004, had been a major concern of mine in increasing my involvement in the activities of the Baha’i community.
What I learned by serving alongside this ragtag team of imperfect souls was that when one is weak, many are stronger; we held each other up through our trials and helped each other to serve with more courage, passion and devotion. I learned that I am capable of serving, teaching, and giving more than I think. I learned that I need not stand idly by, heeding my feelings of anxiety and fearing I might make a mistake and do the wrong thing. Perhaps I caught a glimpse of what it means to rely upon God. All things considered, the past few months have expanded my horizons in a way I hadn’t really expected.
If my experience is any indication, the intensity we’re experiencing now—requiring us to give more of ourselves than we ever have before, in the name of promoting the Cause of universal brotherhood and firmly establishing an unassailable base for the development of healthy, vibrant community life the world over—will challenge us and test our resolve, even cause us tremendous discomfort. If we persevere in our efforts, though, the discomfort will gradually ease, and what we once considered to be impossible will become commonplace. This is a remarkable process we’re going through, really—a process of deepening, of becoming more “spiritual”. This is what the transformation of organizational culture looks like. Slowly, with a few valiant souls taking the lead, more and more of us are seeing what sort of results arise when we become actively engaged in the activities of the Five Year Plan—going beyond simply holding regular events in our homes, and beginning to create strong relationships with those receptive souls around us and walking with them down a path of fellowship and unity as we all work to build civilization anew.