international baha’i convention: spiritual democracy in action

international baha’i convention: a global community reflects, May 6, 2013

Every five years, Bahá’ís throughout the world gather together at the Bahá’í World Centre in Haifa, Israel, to attend the Bahá’í International Convention, which has been called the world’s “only worldwide election”. The primary purpose of the convention is to elect the Universal House of Justice, the institution which serves as the head of the Bahá’í Faith, in a reverent, joyful process one friend of mine described as “spiritual democracy”.

The global process that results in the election of the Universal House of Justice begins with Baha’is in more than 100,000 cities and villages around the world, from Canada to Vietnam and everywhere in between, who gather at unit conventions to elect delegates from among their localities. These delegates subsequently gather together at national conventions to elect national administrative bodies known as Spiritual Assemblies. Once every five years, members of these National Spiritual Assemblies are then tasked with electing the Universal House of Justice at the international convention.

This last part of the process, which involved more than 1,000 delegates from 157 countries at the last International Convention in 2013, is a truly stunning, beautiful and powerful experience that is worlds apart from the elections that dominate global news cycles. The Bahá’í World News Service expanded on this in an article profiling the Eleventh International Convention:

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 shared a beautiful portrayal of the spiritual atmosphere that reigned at the international 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.

Because the worldwide Bahá’í community has been growing year over year—not just in numbers, but in its maturity and in its capacity for concerted, systematic action—there are always exciting things to talk about. Contributing to the delegates’ consultation during the last convention were the 2013 Ridván Message and the 1 May 2013 message from the Universal House of Justice, as well as a documentary film entitled Frontiers of Learning, which showcased 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.

Male and female delegates standing in a rowFor the long-suffering Bahá’ís of Vietnam, the Eleventh International Convention also marked the first time delegates were able to attend this momentous gathering, as the Baha’i community was only fully recognized by the government in July 2008. The Vietnamese delegates wrote an account of the convention, which was published on a popular Vietnamese interfaith portal. It gives a good overview of the activities that took place at the Convention, and the joy and love with which the Vietnamese friends were welcomed by their fellow delegates: “For the first time,” they recounted, “Vietnam was fully integrated with the international Bahá’í community.”

The Twelfth International Bahá’í Convention will take place next year (2018), and there will be plenty of things to talk about there, too. Since the convention will fall between the two Bicentenary years—the Bicentenary of the Birth of Bahá’u’lláh in 2017 and that of the Báb in 2019—delegates will surely be occupied with reflections on the effects of Bicentenary celebrations on both the Bahá’í community and the wider community throughout the world, along with plans for the following year’s celebrations. The celebrations already seem to have tapped into a wellspring of creativity within the Bahá’í community—who knows what 2019 will bring?

The original post, international baha’i convention: a global community reflects, is one of the most popular posts on doberman pizza. Photos courtesy of the Bahá’í International Community and the Bahá’í Community of Vietnam.

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