Over the past two weeks, I’ve been treated to the unmatched pleasure of following along as friends, family and acquaintances gathered at the Bahá’í World Centre in Haifa, Israel, to attend the Eleventh Bahá’í International Convention—the eleventh edition of what’s been called the world’s “only worldwide election”. As I mentioned previously, the primary purpose of the Convention is to elect the Universal House of Justice, the Institution at the head of the Bahá’í Faith, in a reverent, joyful process one friend of mine described as “spiritual democracy”. The Bahá’í World News Service expanded on that description:
In a unique electoral process, all forms of campaigning, electioneering and nominations are strictly avoided. Rather, after prayerful reflection, the assembled delegates silently and privately wrote down the names of nine individuals who they felt would be best able to serve on the institution.
For more than three hours, the representatives then filed across the stage to deposit their votes in a simple wooden box. The following day, the result was announced, and the new membership of the Universal House of Justice received a warm and reverent welcome from the gathering.
Photojournalist Shannon Higgins shares a beautiful portrayal of the spiritual atmosphere that reigns at the convention, a far cry from “regular” elections:
Baha’i elections don’t look like anything else — they have no bells and whistles, no campaigns or electioneering or nominations or candidates. Nine delegates from each nation, themselves elected to serve on the national governing body from the believers of their respective nations, silently pray and meditate and simply write down nine names. They elect those they feel will best serve the international governing body of the Baha’i Faith. [...]
Absolutely nobody talks about how they think the votes will go. No one mentions whom he or she voted for — no speculation, no “preliminary reports”, no “buzz”, no “spin-room”… period. For the Baha’is, this election represents a sacred spiritual endeavor, not a popularity contest or a political exercise.
The assembled delegates then began to take counsel together, sharing “their thoughts, experiences and insights as part of a global learning process”. Their consultations, writes Higgins, touch on ”community building, on social and economic development projects for the poor and underprivileged around the globe, on the education of the children and youth. They encourage others in their success and struggles, crisis and victories. They focus on the work of Bahá’ís everywhere, making the world a better place for all.” Feeding their consultations was a letter addressed to the convention by the Universal House of Justice, outlining the work that stands before the Bahá’í community “as it strives to contribute to the spiritual and material advancement of civilization”. Also contributing to the delegates’ consultation was a new documentary film entitled Frontiers of Learning, which showcases the community development process underway in four different Bahá’í communities in different parts of the world: Norte de Bolivar, Colombia; Lubumbashi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo; Toronto, Canada; and Bihar Sharif, India.
The film, which was first shown for the delegates during the convention before being released online, shows “a glimpse of a positive future”—one in which human beings become the “protagonists of their own development”. The different segments of the film highlight
how young teenagers in Toronto and Bolivar are channeling their energies in service to others and taking responsibility for the education of the next generation. The segment on Lubumbashi highlights how community-building initiatives have allowed women to play a full part in the life of their communities. Educational activities launched by Baha’is in Bihar Sharif have similarly assisted participants to reject deeply rooted prejudices of caste and gender.
Out of all the comments I’ve read about the International Convention from friends, family and acquaintances alike, the one that seems to come up most often is how awestruck they are by the beauty of what they see there—like flowers in a human garden, the delegates’ diversity combines to create unity that is born of the realization of the undeniable oneness of humanity. As Higgins writes: “Never in my life would I have thought an election could be a thing of beauty. But this was indeed a thing of beauty, and of hope, which in turn engenders hope for all humanity.” Whether from Africa or Asia, Europe, America, or Oceania, regardless of race or background, class or caste, the delegates consort with each other in that same spirit of friendliness, love and fellowship that must characterize the our relations with all men and women throughout the world: a profound, spiritual love for all humanity. For none was that love felt more deeply than for the cruelly persecuted Bahá’ís of Iran, whose absence at the gathering was “noted by the placement of a bouquet of red roses at the front of the stage for the duration of the Convention”.
Having fulfilled with reverence and devotion their spiritual responsiblity, the delegates returned home, with lighter hearts and brighter smiles than before.
As delegates returned to their respective countries, all took heart from the words of the Universal House of Justice which observed “the Baha’i community moving steadily forward, advancing in understanding, eager to acquire insights from experience, ready to take on new tasks…”
Vijitha Serasinghe, a member of the National Spiritual Assembly of Sri Lanka, said both his vision and confidence had been raised by his participation in the Convention.
“I see unity in diversity and the oneness of humanity in reality,” said Mr. Serasinghe. “I have a strong feeling to go back and carry out our activities with a lot more confidence than before.”