Shoghi Effendi, in a passage written not long before his passing, referred to the future of the American nation. And one of the things he mentioned as being within the future of the American nation has arrested my attention in recent years. He said, at that time, that the Bahá’ís of America faced a future challenge. And what was that challenge? In the message published in the book Citadel of Faith, Shoghi Effendi refers to a number of challenges before the American friends, one of which was that “apathy and lethargy [would] paralyze their spiritual faculties in the future.”
We, today, face that test—the test of overcoming apathy and lethargy. The test that those around us increasingly lack zeal and idealism and a passion for changing the world. Society around us has lost its vision. It lacks heroes and heroines. They have become discredited. Exposes have been written about them. They have been found to have feet of clay. There are no heroes. There are no heroines. There is no vision.
It is a matter of making it through day by day, being concerned only for one’s self because no one else is interested in us. You survive or not. It is a hard, cruel world out there.
That is not the Bahá’í way. We are people committed to the creation of a new society. We are summoned to heroism. We are summoned to sacrifice. We are summoned to idealism and to altruism. We are people creating a new society, a new civilization. We are people who love and are concerned about generations yet unborn and we are prepared to dedicate our lives that those generations to come, in decades and centuries into the future, may have a better life; may have a life of peace and unity and harmony and the possibility for the full development of their potential.
This is the idealism to which we are summoned as Bahá’ís. We need to overcome the apathy and lethargy of society and stand apart as people dedicated to the creation of a new world.
From a talk given by Peter Khan,
former member of the Universal House of Justice
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.
This year, Bahá’ís in all corners of the world celebrate a special anniversary: 150 years since Bahá’u'lláh, the Manifestation of God for this age, openly declared His mission to humankind. Round numbers inevitably give pause for reflection, and there’s been quite a lot of it recently. Lots of blogs and news sites have posted some potent reflections about Ridván, including Bahá’í Blog (written by Ottawa/Dalian’s own James Howden), Bahá’í Perspectives (returning after a long hiatus), the Canadian Bahá’í News Service, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the Huffington Post, have all posted meaty articles about Ridván this year. Moreover, this year is that one year out of every five during which the Bahá’í International Convention takes place, a grand international gathering whose purpose is to elect the Universal House of Justice, the Institution at the head of the Bahá’í Faith. The convention starts on April 29, and delegates from around the world, from Virginia to Vietnam and from Finland to Fiji, have already gathered in the Holy Land to pray at the Bahá’í Shrines in Haifa and ‘Akká to prepare themselves for this most sacred duty.
The exhilaration one feels at living in this day, the day in which the newly reborn Faith of God is coalescing, raising up its Institutions and putting in place the structures that humanity needs to advance into the long-awaited stage of maturity, is incredible. So hard is it to describe that I don’t have too much to write about it yet. For the time being, I did want to address one very good question that’s come up recently that a few friends have had trouble putting to rest, one that has to do with the Bahá’í calendar.
My sister-in-law, Quyên, runs a kindergarten out of her home in Danang, Vietnam. She and her husband had to take a trip to Huế this weekend, so Quỳnh and I came over to help out. Here’s how the day went.
Class starts early in the day. It’s 7:30 AM, and a table’s worth of children, aged around 4-5 years old, have already arrived and have started studying, dotting their i’s, crossing their t’s, and hooking their ơ’s. Quyên teaches handwriting, which is a bit advanced for kindergarten, but appeals to many Vietnamese parents who want their children to be well-prepared when they get to primary school. That’s her specialty, but it’s not all she teaches. Children learn reading, writing and arithmetic, sing songs and listen to stories. This year, Quỳnh’s brother Nu (who studied architecture in Ho Chi Minh City) has also started teaching art classes after hours, to which parents can send their children separately (although the classes happen in the same place).
Some children start studying as they arrive. Some of them have signed up to have breakfast in the morning, so they sit at the table and eat first. Some of them are playing together in another room, using building blocks to make and break fanciful contraptions. A few others sit and watch children’s programming on television—although they’re restricted to short, intermittent periods of screen time, until the next activity starts. All together, it gives the schoolhouse—Quyên’s home—a playful, varied ambience, as a kindergarten should have.
I get a lot of amazed looks from the kids due to my height (nearly 6″). One of the children gazes at me and mutters quietly, “cao quá… (so tall…)” Another asks why I’m so tall, and one of the teachers insists it’s because I ate all my vegetables when I was young. (I did, too.) I try to kneel down and squat a little more to make them feel a little more comfortable with me. After a while, the children get used to my presence, but I get a lot of attention. Many of them may never have seen another foreigner in their lives, so I try to leave as good an impression as I can. That I can use my (still broken, but sufficient) Vietnamese to communicate with them helps a lot.
The morning rolls on, and around 10:30 it’s time for the children to eat. Lunch is served in the dining room, between the classroom and the kitchen; it’s a typical meal of rice, vegetables, and various bits of seafood, all served in the same bowl. When they finish eating, children sit back against the classroom wall to rest and digest, and prepare for what comes next: the several-hours-long naptime that’s common to almost every Vietnamese work day. Wooden pallets are laid out, and upon them, woven bamboo mats. After taking their potty breaks and washing their hands, the children settle in with their pillows, the curtains are drawn, and massive mosquito nets are strung up. Naptime lasts from around 11:30 to 2:30 PM—a bigger lunchtime break than any Canadian worker (barring CEOs) could ever dream of. During the break, the teachers and helpers—five of us in total—hang out in the dining room, watching over the children and having our lunch of bún cá, or fish with rice noodles. Something doesn’t quite sit right in my stomach, though, so I go home to pop some antacids and take a nap myself, returning around 3:00.
The afternoon proceeds much like the morning. Children continue to copy down letter forms in their books, in neat little rows, while others play. They repeat sounds out loud as they write down different combinations of letters, to help them learn proper Vietnamese pronunciation. A few younger children—siblings of the older students—have arrived too. A couple of three-year olds tag along after me, shouting to get my attention and offering me cups. I thank them, pretending to take a drink, and they move away. Then they come back again, offering the same deal. And so it continues for the next half-hour, every twenty seconds or so (I timed them). As in all cases with very young children, you gotta adapt, so we gradually turn it into an opportunity for them to practice addressing their elders politely: “Chú ơi (Uncle)! Please have some water!” instead of shouting. They eventually get sidetracked by other things, and I manage to go back to the classroom where I assist Quyên’s boys, who are off to the side learning English. What’s a table? What’s a chair? What’s an eraser? And how do you spell it? The silent e’s in “make a circle” cause no end of confusion. Oh, English. You crazy, haphazard patchwork of a language. How exactly did you become so universal? Don’t answer that.
The afternoon is drawing to a close, and parents will soon come to take their children home. The benches are rearranged to form rows, and Lâm (Quỳnh’s mother) takes center stage for game time. The game is some sort of traffic police game: someone acts as a traffic cop, and the rest are all sitting on their benches, riding motorbikes. As far as I could tell, the traffic cop gives directions (like “turn left”, “stop”, and so on) and the rest of the players have to follow the directions. If the traffic cop catches anyone who misses a command, they have to come up and pay a fine(?), which amounts to singing a song. I’ll have to inquire further to see if we could use this game in our children’s class back home. Anyway, little by little, parents drop in to drive their children home. One by one, boys and girls graciously go to each of their teachers to announce their departure—“thưa bà, con về”, “thưa cô, con về”—as the Vietnamese culture of respect for elders demands. Eventually, only Quyên’s boys remain, along with one more girl whose parents let us know that they would be at work late. We sit down for dinner—bánh canh cua, or thick noodles with crab. By the time I Ieave the schoolhouse, it’s past 6:30 PM, for a work day of eleven hours.
Eleven hours and sometimes more, six days a week. And yet Quyên doesn’t complain. Not only because she enjoys teaching, but because it supports her family quite well. Teachers are generally well-respected and well-paid in Vietnam, but Quyên is particularly respected by parents for her teaching skill, her sense of discipline and her trustworthiness. People simply know she does a good job, and they’re proud to send her their children.
Trustworthiness, I’m coming to believe, is one of the keys to sustaining prosperity. Since the turn of the 21st century, we’ve seen ample evidence of the opposite—untrustworthiness—everywhere around the world, from Enrons and Worldcoms through Fannie Maes and Freddie Macs. How long do you think economies, which are fundamentally based on trust, can keep going when the people and institutions that make up those economies are not worthy of that trust? The alternative, says Bahá’u'lláh, is to “be worthy of the trust of thy neighbor”. This, He says, is “the supreme instrument for the prosperity of the world”, and “the greatest portal leading unto the tranquillity and security of the people”. Beyond her teaching skills, her smiling face, and her beautiful handwriting, that’s what impresses me about Quyên—how trustworthy she is, and the effect that has on the people around her. She may only teach kindergarten, but the whole world has a lot to learn from people like her.
In 2012, Media Makes Us put out a call for Bahá’ís around the world to film their experience of the Bahá’í Fast, which takes place from March 2–20 every year, for inclusion into the documentary Fast In A Day. I recorded a bunch of footage in March 2012, hoping to send it over, but due to personal circumstances, I couldn’t submit it in time for inclusion. Instead, I gathered it together and presented it here.
The first time I observed the Fast in Vietnam was in 2010—the year Quynh and I were married. In fact, our wedding was during the Fast, because that was the only time one of our witnesses could make it (during the March Break). A lot of our Bahá’í friends joked that we must have been trying to save on food costs by holding a wedding during the Fast—if only! Because so many members of Quynh’s extended family attended—and very few of them are Bahá’ís—we had to provide lunch anyway. After all, getting married is hungry work for all involved. In fact, it was so hot on the day of the ceremony (upwards of 35°C) that I started getting faint, so I decided to break the Fast discreetly with a small bowl of soup. I figured it was either that or falling over during the reception.
As mentioned in the video, sometimes people wonder how Bahá’ís can survive when observing the Fast—abstaining from food and drink during the daylight hours. The fact is, though, it’s not too bad under normal conditions: I usually do fine if I make sure to eat enough oatmeal and drink enough water before sunrise. And for those who are worried that fasting causes harm, there’s plenty of evidence to the contrary—that is, occasional fasting may actually improve your health and help you to live longer. There are some cases where fasting is less than ideal, of course, and the Bahá’í Fast takes these into account. Bahá’u'lláh has exempted those who are ill or who perform strenuous physical labour from fasting, as well as women who are pregnant or menstruating.
Ultimately, it’s up to each person to study the Bahá’í teachings so that they can understand the significance of fasting and how it applies to their life. Fact is, it’s not just about not eating and drinking. During the Fast, we pay special attention to the life of our soul, avoiding doing things that will drag down our spirits and spending more time doing things that will help our souls grow. Bahá’u'lláh calls fasting and obligatory prayer “two wings to man’s life” that enable us to soar to the heights of spirituality. Fasting also helps us remember our blessings, and to better understand “the woes and sufferings of the destitute”—those for whom hunger is a day-to-day thing.
So, you’ve heard the news. In a letter dated 8 February 2013, the Universal House of Justice announced the convocation of 95 youth conferences across the globe. And whether you live in Kinshasa or Kiribati, in Auckland or Atlanta, in Chisinau or Cochabamba, you’re hyped. The excitement is coursing through your veins like a fever, and the only prescription is for summer to come as quickly as possible.
But why wait? You can start preparing right now for your local youth conference, whether it’s in July, October or any time in between. Here are five little tips—call them humble suggestions—that can help you pass the time constructively until the time for your local youth conference rolls around.
- Brush up on the latest guidance. You’ve probably read the 8 February 2013 message already; why not take a half-hour out of your morning to study it a little more? You’ll get a sense of what the 95 conferences will be all about, and why exactly the Universal House of Justice is calling on you right now. If you haven’t managed to get yourself a copy of the letter yet, get in touch with the closest Spiritual Assembly or Auxiliary Board Member, and ask if they could send it over. And while you’re at it, make plans to study other important pieces of guidance, too. The 2010 Ridván message is a good one, as are the 28 December 2010 and 12 December 2011 messages.
- Get trained up—especially with Ruhi Book 5. Having brushed up on the latest guidance, you’ll probably see a trend emerge: the empowerment of junior youth is a big deal, and a huge part of the Plan. Without knowing much more about the content of the upcoming conferences, then, it’s a safe bet that involvement with junior youth will feature prominently. Getting trained in Book 5 of the Ruhi curriculum—Releasing the Powers of Junior Youth—will give you one up when your local conference rolls around. And beyond that, don’t forget that Ruhi Book 8—The Covenant of Bahá’u’lláh—is being piloted worldwide, and may be available in your area. Studying either one of these is transformative enough on its own—imagine two in a row!
- Pick a path of service. The call of the Universal House of Justice is pretty clear: we are standing at a pivotal moment in history. “For the present generation,” they wrote in their 8 February letter, “the moment has come to reflect, to commit, to steel themselves for a life of service from which blessing will flow in abundance.” Naturally, we might wonder: Can I really do a “life of service”? What should I be doing to serve? Well as they say, every journey starts with a single step, and the first step into service is just to pick something and start doing it. Maybe you’ve studied Book 5 and found it awesome, so you might decide to dedicate yourself to empowering and inspiring junior youth. Or maybe you’ve found that you’re best at teaching younger children, or studying the Word of God with other youth or adults, or sharing prayers with others, or visiting those who are isolated or ill, and so on. Wherever it is that your talents lie, you can focus on using them to serve mankind. And if you’re not sure where your path lies, then it doesn’t hurt just to try something out to gain some experience.
- Get to know your neighbourhood. Go back ten or fifteen years and ask any youth where they planned to go and offer a year of service, and you’d get a list of destinations scattered across the planet. Nowadays, though, don’t be surprised if you hear friends telling you they’ll be staying right where they are. The focus for service is shifting closer and closer to home—from your own city to your neighbourhood. Whether or not you have concrete plans to serve, a great way to prepare is to just look at your neighbourhood. Are there a lot of young families, elderly couples, single mothers? Do they have young children or junior youth? What are their pastimes, their concerns, and their hopes for the future? The more you learn about your neighbours, the better you can build close, loving connections that will not only enable you to serve better, but uplift the whole community.
- Pray, meditate, and conquer yourself. This might just be one of the most important things you can do to prepare. When Shoghi Effendi learned that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had appointed him as the Guardian, he retreated for a long time to Switzerland in order to pray and meditate, until he conquered himself—at which point he returned to the Holy Land to become the Guardian. Prayer gives us strength to meet life’s challenges. In fact, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá assures us that if we pray for strength, it will be given to us, “no matter how difficult the conditions”—no matter how reluctant, inadequate and powerless we may feel. And through meditation and reflection, He explains, one “receives the breath of the Holy Spirit”; meditation “frees man from the animal nature, discerns the reality of things, puts man in touch with God.” The challenge laid before us by the Universal House of Justice will require us to reflect, to commit, and to steel ourselves, calling on a strength that is beyond ourselves, and relying on an abundant flow of blessings—and to accomplish this, deepening our spiritual life through prayer, meditation and reflection will be essential.
Now that the season of the Bahá’í Fast is upon us, we’re joining with Bahá’ís of all ages in every nation in abstaining from food and drink, and, above all, engaging in the more important spiritual Fast, with all the self-reflection, prayer and meditation that it entails. Soon enough, Naw-ruz will be here, ushering a new year full of promise and opportunity—the opportunity for young people across the world “to make a contribution to the fortunes of humanity, unique to their time of life.” What better time than now to start preparing ourselves—reflecting, committing, and steeling ourselves to play our part in writing the future?