5 steps towards serving humanity

5 things to do while you’re waiting for the 95 youth conferences, March 4, 2013

So, let’s say you’re pretty new to all of this Bahá’í stuff—maybe you heard about Bahá’í from a friend, you looked into it, and you were impressed by what you saw: People of all backgrounds, whether ethnic, racial, religious, or national, all working together to build communities based on unity, tolerance, kindness, love and justice. And you want to know how you can help.

Young man and woman drawing a map on a large sheet of paperOr let’s say that you’ve been a Bahá’í, but you’ve been busy for a while—too busy to join in with all the excitement that’s been happening in neighbourhoods around your city or region. Maybe you heard about teaching projects and institute campaigns taking place, and it seemed like there was amazing stuff going on, but it just wasn’t for you back then. But now, things have changed. Maybe it was the outpouring of creative activity that marked the recent bicentenary celebrations, or an inspiration brought by a recent message from the Universal House of Justice—regardless, you want to learn how you can be part of the process.

No matter who you are or what your situation is, it’s not too hard to get involved. Here are five little tips—call them humble suggestions—that can help you get up to speed on what Bahá’ís are doing to try and make their neighbourhoods better, and help you make your own mark in your community.

  1. Brush up on the latest guidance. Before stepping bravely into the field of service, it might be a good idea to know where the Baha’i community has been since the dawn of the 21st century, and where things stand right now. If the “Five Year Plan” just makes you shake your head in confusion, take a few minutes to learn about the series of Five Year Plans that started in 2001, and how those plans—and the framework they presented—have evolved over time. You may have read all or part of the 29 December 2015 message already; why not take a half-hour out of your morning to study it a little more? In my humble opinion, this message is a work of art—one that gives us a sense of what the current Five Year Plan is all about, and what the Universal House of Justice is calling on us to do. The 2017 Ridván message is another good piece of guidance to study, as is the October 2017 message “To all who celebrate the Glory of God”, which marked the Bicentenary of the Birth of Bahá’u’lláh.
  2. Get trained up, and put your new insights into practice. Having brushed up on the latest guidance, you’ll probably see a trend emerge: the institute process is where it’s at, and it’s a huge part of the Plan. If you’re new to it, get some friends together, study the first of the sequence of training courses—Ruhi Book 1—and put the insights into practice. Book 1, which examines the nature of prayer and the life of the soul, is a stepping stone towards starting a devotional gathering, a space where people can gather to remember God, study sacred Writings, and learn what it means for people of all backgrounds to worship together. Later courses focus on other, increasingly complex kinds of discourse and social action, such as making short presentations during home visits, teaching classes for the moral and spiritual education of children, telling the stories of the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh, animating groups for the spiritual empowerment of junior youth, and more. You may not end up devoting your life to each of these activities, but each will become a valuable part of a toolkit that increases your overall capacity to serve humanity.
  3. 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 2013 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 Ruhi 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 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.
  4. 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 young people 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.
  5. 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.

The original post, 5 things to do while you’re waiting for the 95 youth conferences, is one of the most popular posts on doberman pizza. Second photo courtesy of the Bahá’í Community of Vietnam.

countering hate and violence

Someone posted a question on the Baha’i group on Reddit, asking “What can be done by one person to counter hate/violence in the world?” It was a great question, so I decided to try and give it an answer. Here goes.

As I see it, the most potent antidote to a rising tide of hate and violence is to help yourself and others around you—especially young people—to raise their capacity to show spiritual qualities such as love, kindness, steadfastness, justice, reliance on God and compassion, and to serve humanity selflessly.

Get involved in a junior youth group and give young people a space where they can learn what it means to transform themselves and their community at the same time. Or get involved as a teacher of children’s classes so you can give younger children the spiritual foundation they’ll need to become agents of change within their communities. Work with a teaching team so that you don’t burn yourself out, and so that you can coordinate your actions with others.

It’s important that we not underestimate the uplifting and transforming power of these seemingly simple acts of service. Carried out consistently, persistently, and with a spirit of service, they can completely change the face of our communities—not only Baha’i communities, but the greater community.

If you want to see what this can eventually lead to, check out the Frontiers of Learning video. In particular, the section from Colombia brings me a lot of hope, but all of them show the transforming power of collective action within the framework of the Plan.

the five-year plan

So some people on Reddit were talking about Bahá’í jargon recently, and someone asked for the definition of the Five-Year Plan—because it’s been “evolving so much, I don’t know what it currently is anymore”. Here, then, is a stab at a definition.

Literally, the series of Five Year Plans are simply global plans, carried out under the guidance of the Universal House of Justice, to implement the Divine Plan as elaborated by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in His Tablets of the Divine Plan. There have been other “Five Year Plans” in the past, but the current series of four consecutive plans began in 2001 and will last until 2021, to be followed by further plans.

The current series of plans has been characterized by two principal, complementary movements, which have remained the focus of each plan in the series:

  1. The movement of increasing numbers of collaborators through the training institute process—which offers them training to offer specific, concrete acts of service, including but not limited to the “core activities”—study circles, children’s classes, junior youth groups, and devotional meetings;
  2. The movement of clusters from one stage of development to the next, where each stage is characterized by a higher level of intensity, organization, and systematization.

The first in the series of Five Year Plans (2001–2006) introduced these two complimentary movements, and provided an opportunity for national Bahá’í communities to define “clusters” as distinct geographical divisions within their countries. This was done to break down the task of measuring community development and growth to a more manageable sub-national level.

This was also when most people were introduced to study circles and to the materials of the training institute. At this time, not many people grasped the purpose of the training institute, believing it to be yet another deepening program among many others. This perception gradually began to shift as Bahá’ís began to implement the institute process across the world, building up experience and reflecting on which kinds of implementations worked and which didn’t. Children’s classes and devotional meetings were also introduced as core activities, to be open to all.

The second in the series of Five Year Plans (2006–2011) introduced the junior youth spiritual empowerment programme as an element of the plan, as communities worldwide identified the need to engage young people between the ages of 11–14 as a particularly receptive population. At this point, what’s now known as Ruhi Book 5 was added to the main sequence of institute courses, allowing participants in the institute process to receive training on how to engage and empower junior youth to arise and serve humanity.

One of the main numeric goals of this particular plan called for the establishment of 1,500 intensive programs of growth in clusters around the world. This entailed the establishment in these clusters of a working, self-sustaining, and ever-expanding institute process in which new collaborators could be trained in specific acts of service and then arise to carry forward that same process. As Bahá’ís embraced the process and arose to serve, striving to understand what an intensive program of growth should look like in their clusters, a great deal of learning was generated that would inform future plans.

The third in the series of Five Year Plans (2011–2016) set a new numeric goal of 5,000 programs of growth worldwide. In this case, the requirement was that there simply be a program of growth—i.e., an institute process operating at any level of intensity. At this point, many of the clusters that had established an intensive program of growth during the previous plan began assisting believers in adjoining clusters to establish the institute process there. The concept of “milestones” was also elaborated during this plan; using this terminology, the numeric goal for this plan was for 5,000 clusters (or fully one-third of all clusters worldwide) to reach the first milestone.

It was also during this plan that the construction of new Houses of Worship were announced in several countries and clusters worldwide. The importance of nurturing the devotional character of a community through devotional gatherings become much clearer as Bahá’ís gained a better understanding of the connection between worship and service, and the unique role of the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár in community life.

The fourth in the series of Five Year Plans (2016–2021) is the one we’re in now, and it calls for raising the level of intensity in each of the 5,000+ clusters targeted during the previous plan, so that each of these clusters can be said to have an intensive program of growth in place (i.e. a working, self-sustaining, and ever-expanding institute process). In other words, each of these clusters are to reach the second milestone or beyond during this plan. At this point, enough learning has been generated through the experiences of Bahá’í communities around the world that the framework of the plans is clear and needs only to be exploited to its fullest potential.

tl;dr: An evolving series of plans with the overall aim of developing the capacity of more and more individuals, communities and institutions to serve humanity. Each plan in this series has had its own particular focus and goals, but each one has built on the last and served to carry forward two complimentary movements: The movement of increasing numbers of collaborators through the training institute process, and the movement of clusters from one stage of development (or organization/systematization) to the next.

milestones of the five year plan

640px-Borne_routière_MadagascarSo by now, you’ve probably gotten a copy of the long-awaited letter from the Universal House of Justice, dated 29 December 2015, to the Conference of the Continental Boards of Counsellors, which spells out the framework for the upcoming Five Year Plan. (If not, it’s available online, from the official Bahá’í Reference Library website!)

First things first: It’s a really awesome letter. A friend and I read through it the day it came out, and we felt that it was one of the most complete letters we’ve read—in terms of describing the entire process of growth from the initial stages, through the establishment of a program of growth, past the intensification of growth and into the far reaches of activity where Bahá’u’lláh’s Revelation starts to permeate into the fabric of society. We were also able to see quite clearly the stages at which our clusters were located in the process, and the next steps awaiting us as we progressed from one milestone of growth to the next.

Those “milestones”, though—what are those? In the interest of cutting through some of the jargon, here’s my attempt at a brief explanation/recap of “milestones” in the context of the Five Year Plan. Continue reading

change in culture

change in cultureIn 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…
Continue reading