“When so much of society invites passivity and apathy or, worse still, encourages behaviour harmful to oneself and others, a conspicuous contrast is offered by those who are enhancing the capacity of a population to cultivate and sustain a spiritually enriching pattern of community life.”
Universal House of Justice, 1 July 2013
We often hear complaints that the news is too depressing, that news outlets have nothing but bloodshed, partisan bickering and chaos to report on (except the feel-good story of the night, which is usually something about cute kittens rescued from a well). Where’s the real, hopeful, honest-to-goodness good news?
Well, if what you’re looking for is something to restore your hope for humanity, then consider this. During the next few months, young people who are tired of waiting for good news will be gathering together around the world, making plans to make their own good news. These are youth who have become involved in local community-building initiatives that seek to revitalize and transform the character of their families and their neighbourhoods. Their cause? Selfless service to humanity. Rather than spending the precious moments of their youth in the pursuit of amusement, wealth, or material possessions, these young men and women, members of various races, nations and creeds, are banding together, united by a desire to heal the wounds of a broken and divided world and leave it better than the way they found it.
The leadership of the Universal House of Justice, the institution at the head of the Bahá’í Faith, has been key in both bringing together these youth and establishing what they call a “framework for action”: a concrete, world-embracing one that operates at the grass-roots, helping to empower and channel the energies of individuals—youth, children and adults alike—towards service to others. Central to this framework is a process of community education, drawing from the Bahá’í Writings, that enables participants to increase their own capacity to serve by providing the knowledge, spiritual insights and skills essential to a life of service. In this process, which has been developed and put into place over several decades, studying and serving are inseparable. Thus, young people, brimming with enthusiasm, energy, and a desire to contribute to the betterment of the world, put their new knowledge into action right away, engaging in small acts of service that gradually become greater and more complex as their capacity grows, accompanying and encouraging each other as they learn together how they can best address the challenges and overcome the obstacles they face.
Announced earlier this year by the Universal House of Justice, the 114 youth conferences taking place this summer are the logical next step in this process of accompaniment, providing opportunities for youth to gather together with like-minded youth in their countries and regions—those young souls who long “to shed the lethargy imposed on them by society”, and together, “to reflect, to commit, to steel themselves for a life of service from which blessing will flow in abundance”. As they make individual and collective plans to serve alongside one another in their neighbourhoods, villages, cities, and regions, they are aware of their part in a “mighty, transforming process that will yield, in time, a global civilization reflecting the oneness of humankind.”
At every moment, the ocean of humanity is astir with waves. This morning, Bahá’í youth around the world are probably feeling two different waves washing over them. One is the wave of excitement, anticipation, and hope generated by their imminent participation in the 114 youth conferences set to begin next week—gatherings meant to uplift their souls, steel their resolve, and impart the vision they will need to carry forward the work of the Divine Plan at a scale they have never witnessed before. The other wave is that of shock, broken-hearted sorrow and grief, brought about by the news of the destruction of the House of Bahá’u’lláh in Baghdad—the House that was the site of His exile for so many years, and from which He travelled to the Ridván Garden on the day of His Declaration in 1863.
Crisis and victory. Integration and disintegration. One force tears down, another builds anew. As we are buffeted by the waves today, oft-recalled words and phrases wash through our minds too, reminding us that in every calamity, there are the seeds of a greater providence. Ours is the work of gardeners, to plant and water those seeds and to help them grow.
Many of us are still busy preparing for the 114 youth conferences across the globe, some of which are beginning as soon as next week. If you’re reading these words right now, you’ve probably read about the 5 things to do while you’re waiting for the youth conferences. You may have been going through a checklist in your mind, asking yourself: Have I read up on everything the Universal House of Justice expects of me? Am I lacking any training in the various skills of service? Do I even know how I want to serve humanity? And many other questions. Although these preparations are important—essential, even—we must also be open to the idea that the setbacks and crises we experience in life are a form of spiritual preparation. Yes, even terrible, hurtful and tragic things. When I look back on the last ten years of my life, I can identify several points—though they were painful and even traumatic to go through—that have helped me to increase my spiritual capacity and prepared me for the challenges I face today. Experiences such as these prompted me to pen the following reflections on a grey autumn afternoon, just a year after I returned to Ottawa from a difficult experience as a homefront pioneer:
Being a Baha’i is such a beautiful, beautiful thing. Harrowingly difficult at times, and challenging, to be sure. Challenging because we are called to be the quickeners of mankind, pillars of strength around which a shattered, crumbling humanity is destined to seek shelter and solace. Difficult because we must set aside our own ego, our own self, and seek the improvement of the life and condition of all. Tests and difficulties come at us from all sides sometimes, and they seem designed to make us as uncomfortable as possible. Sometimes I wonder: when will it all stop? Sometimes I get tired and discouraged, and I want to slip quietly into my bed, sleep it off and wake up in spring when things are better and there’s more light. Yeah, sometimes it’s harsh. But those are the breaks for everybody – all are tested, and only so much as their capacity allows. We are all meant to grow, that’s why we have tests. “The plant most pruned by the gardeners is that one which, when summer comes, will have the most beautiful blossoms and the most abundant fruit.” (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Paris Talks). When we hear this we don’t mind any more that the tests will never stop. We don’t mind that this life will be nothing but a continuing cycle of crisis and victory, of triumph and setback. When we hear this we know that there is a plan. The more we exert ourselves, the further ahead we get.
We stand at a pivotal moment in the fortunes of humanity. Terrible trials lie in wait, but also incredible triumphs—that’s just how the cycle of crisis and victory works. When we come to understand this more deeply, we stop being so anxious at what might be, and we come to see setbacks as sparks that further ignite our faith, turning the flame of our love into a raging blaze of fire and light, a spiritual fire that can never be extinguished. And as we strain every nerve to conquer ourselves, so do fear, sorrow and doubt begin to fall away. As we pray for strength, so is it given to us, “no matter how difficult the conditions”. We reflect, we commit, and we steel ourselves, calling on a strength that is beyond ourselves, and relying on an abundant flow of blessings. These blessings, too, are like waves of the water of life. Rather than struggling to keep our heads above water, let us plunge into the deep, drink our fill and arise.
Heroes are they, O my Lord, lead them to the field of battle. Guides are they, make them to speak out with arguments and proofs. Ministering servants are they, cause them to pass round the cup that brimmeth with the wine of certitude. O my God, make them to be songsters that carol in fair gardens, make them lions that couch in the thickets, whales that plunge in the vasty deep.
Verily Thou art He of abounding grace. There is none other God save Thee, the Mighty, the Powerful, the Ever-Bestowing.
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?
“What has been accomplished in the past two years will, surely, be far surpassed, not just in the concluding years of this present Plan but in the remaining years of the first century of the Formative Age. To spur on this mighty enterprise and to summon today’s youth to fully assume the responsibilities they must discharge in this fast-contracting interval, we announce the convocation of 95 youth conferences, between July and October, planned for locations that span the globe…”
The Universal House of Justice
We thought the idea of 41 regional conferences was pretty wild and amazing. When we heard the news that the Universal House of Justice was inviting us to gather and reflect on the process of community growth with fellow collaborators from around our regions, we knew we had to stand up and take note. But we may never have suspected the magnitude of what was to follow. Introducing a series of 95—that’s right, ninety-five—youth conferences, to be held this year between July and October. Their aim will be to give young people the opportunity to learn about contributing to the betterment of their communities through the Junior Youth Empowerment Program.
The announcement had barely made its way around the globe before my friend Ilya went ahead and mapped out each one of the coming 95 conferences on Google Maps, so you can look for yourself and see which one will be held closest to your area. Check up on doberman pizza in coming days—and of course, keep your eyes on your inbox—for more on this exciting news! (Update, May 2013: The Universal House of Justice recently announced plans for another 19 youth conferences worldwide. Wow!)
“Wow—just wow.” was my first reflection upon entering the conference hall on Saturday morning at the Toronto Regional Baha’i Conference. Wordless reflection, of course, since I was too busy picking my jaw up off the floor to put together a sentence. Over 4,000 people attended, according to official reports; I’d never seen that many Baha’is in one place before—and I live in Ottawa, where we’re used to getting upwards of 700 people at Naw-Rúz celebrations. With the Toronto and Guadalajara conferences, over 50,000 people have come to the conferences across the world so far. The atmosphere was joyful, exciting, electrifying, full of energy. Imagining all those people gathering together as beloved guests of the Universal House of Justice, conversing together, studying and planning their future together is one thing, but seeing it in action is another.
Parts of the conference were like an immense reflection meeting; more powerful and flexible, though, as many people workshop-hopped from their own clusters to devote their attentions to neighbouring clusters in need of assistance in meeting their goals before Ridván 2009. In all, eight clusters were identified in Eastern and Central Canada as priority clusters—among them our neighbouring Outaouais cluster, which includes the city of Gatineau—that were in line to establish their first intensive programs of growth in the coming months. I was able to hop over to join the Southeast New Brunswick cluster during a break to share some good conversation with Baha’i friends from the Moncton area. It was very clearly illustrated how closely the Universal House of Justice was monitoring the progress of the Faith in our areas, and how directly our efforts during the weekend would reach them. The support and love from the Institutions of the Faith was evident at all levels.
One of the very inspiring parts of the workshops was seeing how the junior youth stood up and made their voices heard in consultation. Some of them who we may never have heard before raising their voice in great assemblies showed little or no trepidation in offering their ideas and making their points of view known. Their contributions made the experience dynamic and bolstered the confidence of all present. One of the participants commented, “imagine if all reflection meetings were like this conference—we would get all of our planning done in minutes!”
That’s it for now, but you can expect further posts on the regional conference here—I took pages and pages of notes on my trusty Macbook and I’m expecting to take time to synthesize them and share them here with you all. Mad love to those who are gathering in Vancouver this weekend for the second Canadian conference, and to the rest of the friends throughout the world who are engaged in this world-shaping process.
my most profuse apologies for the paucity of posts this past while. fear not though, because this weekend is the fabled regional conference in Toronto. I’m sitting here in a hotel room, typing away on my trusty macbook, after getting all registered at the Doubletree Hotel just across from the Congress Centre. I’ve been looking forward to this historic event for months and hope to blog it and post updates to Twitter whenever I have free moments. I’ve already asked the Montreal Baha’i Choir if I could join in on their musical performance Saturday night (which means bang goes my lunch hour tomorrow, for practice).
I was fully expecting to be able to blog profusely during this conference, taking photos and video everywhere, but once I got here and saw the sheer ocean of people—many of whom are friends I haven’t seen in years—I realized that keeping up the task of blogging nonstop will be a very tall order. The urge to hug everyone I see is catastrophically great. All evening I literally wanted to do nothing but greet people. Everyone I see has this huge smile on their face, because they’re like me and can’t believe that they’re actually here, at this conference, as guests of the Universal House of Justice. They’re greeting their friends and grinning widely at strangers, knowing that practically everyone they pass in the hallway is there for exactly the same purpose as them. There are Baha’is here from Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario (north and south), Quebec, Nunavut, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland and Labrador, Bermuda, and even some American states too. All are here for the same purpose, at the behest of the Universal House of Justice: to share with each other, reflect on each others’ achievements, and plan ahead for the next step in the process of carrying forward an ever-advancing civilization.
For years now we’ve been receiving guidance from the Universal House of Justice in the form of letters each year to the Baha’is of the World, to different conferences and gatherings, explaining how the crying needs of a beleaguered humanity can be met through our efforts (however humble) to build better communities via the grassroots. we’ve always bumbled through and done the best we can. but now, right here at this conference, we get to have friends coming to meet us as representatives of the Universal House of Justice to confirm to us—in living flesh and blood, not just as black letters on white paper—that yes, this is how it’s supposed to work and here’s how to do it better. That’s why I’m here, all things considered. the greater the love and the closer connection we have with the Universal House of Justice, the more energy we have and the more inspired we become.
OK, bedtime now. expect tweets from me tomorrow, and watch this space for blog posts, photos and sundry.