making the good news: the 114 youth conferences begin

“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?

Young woman at microphone reciting prayer

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.

Young man and woman drawing a map on a large sheet of paperAnnounced 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.”

The first few gatherings have taken place: in Cali, ColombiaMontreal, CanadaSan José, Costa Rica, and Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. Many more are yet to come, and tens of thousands of youth—perhaps hundreds of thousands—are preparing themselves for their local gatherings. Undeterred by the tremors shaking the world around them—signs of the inevitable demise of systems built upon selfish materialism, exploitation and injustice—they instead rise above them with hope, confidence, and above all, trust: trust in God’s unfailing help, and in the capacity of their generation “to disentangle itself from the embroilments of a divided society.

Read about the 114 youth conferences, including official reports from each, or read the official press release about the launch of the conferences.

Read about how to prepare for the 114 youth conferences!

“We should not think about ourselves, we should take joy in the joy of others and encourage each other.”

Participant at the Cali Youth Conference, 5–7 July 2013

international baha’i convention: a global community reflects

haifa foyerOver 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.

delegatesThe 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.

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5 things to do while you’re waiting for the 95 youth conferences

what's happened to me?!?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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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!
  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 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.
  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 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.
  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.

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?

announcing: 95 baha’i youth conferences!

New: 5 things to do while you’re waiting for the 95 conferences!

95 youth conferences

“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!)

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abdu’l-bahá’s visit to montreal

at the door of the shrine‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the son of the founder of the Bahá’í Faith, arrived in the city of Montreal after an eleven-hour journey from Boston, on the night of August 30th, 1912. His business, far from any material pursuits, was to spread His Father’s message of universal peace, brotherhood and unity. Settling in to the home of Mr. William Sutherland Maxwell and Mrs. May Maxwell, nestled snugly onto the side of Mount Royal, he declared, “This is my home.” A hundred years later, this house is now regarded as a national Shrine, a grace conferred onto the Canadian Bahá’í community that stands unequalled among most of its sister communities worldwide. Montreal was the only Canadian city he visited during his 239-day-long journey, bestowing a priceless spiritual heritage to that city and to the country of Canada—and, at the same time, making an important and profound social statement.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá had ample reason to come to Montreal: the Maxwell family, with whom he had already been acquainted many years earlier and who would develop a unique and special relationship to the central figures of the Bahá’í Faith, had succeeded in raising up a small but active Bahá’í group there, and it was at their invitation that he made the long trek north from Boston rather than simply cutting across the west on his way to California. But beyond being a gracious visit to long-time friends, his visit to Montreal was also, in a way, an example to the early Canadian believers, many of whom came from Anglophone and Protestant backgrounds, and who carried with them, to varying degrees, the prejudices prevailing in society regarding the French Catholics of Quebec. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, known by the Bahá’ís as the Perfect Exemplar, was no stranger to making examples when there were lessons to be learned, especially when it came to social conventions. He it was who insisted on having Louis Gregory, a black American lawyer, sit next to him at the head of the table at a luncheon in Washington, D.C.—an unthinkable act in a society for which racial segregation was just another fact of life.

It can safely be said that racism is the most challenging issue confronting America, as was stated clearly in a 1991 statement by the Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of America, The Vision of Race Unity. Canada’s challenges, though slightly more nuanced, are perhaps just as serious. Broadly, it can be said that intercultural prejudice—a combination of racism, nationalistic sentiment and economic and religious prejudice—is Canada’s most challenging issue. This issue was directly raised by the Universal House of Justice in a message to the Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of Canada, dated 5 September 1999. As in many parts of the world, the letter explained, Canada is “affected by various social divisions… In Canada’s case, such issues tend to be cultural in nature, particularly those separating peoples of Native and European origin or those between Canadian of French- and English-speaking backgrounds.” These issues, the Universal House of Justice affirmed, are rooted in “long-standing conflicts that weaken the country’s basic social fabric.” Continue reading

canopy: mj cyr in ottawa

marie-jo cyrSo, just a little note about an upcoming event in Ottawa. Ridiculously talented singer-songwriter MJ Cyr is coming to the Ottawa Bahá’í Centre (211 McArthur Ave, near the Vanier Parkway) to perform her latest devotional album, Canopy, a collection of spiritual writings presented in a variety of musical genres that everyone can enjoy. Please don’t hesitate to invite friends, as attendance is free. Don’t miss this rare chance to hear one of Toronto’s hottest new artists performing in Ottawa!

MJ’s thoughts on Canopy: “All the lyrics have been extracted directly from Writings of the Baha’i Faith. My intention with this record is to find concepts, and ideas, that are universally inspirational to everyone no matter the belief or school of thought. Too often, concepts connected to spirituality or Faith seem so out-of-reach, or taboo. I hope to create something that can show a softer, more tangible side.”

To put a bit of a personal spin on this invitation, I remember hearing MJ something like 15 years ago at a series of provincial youth conferences in Kingston. I would always hang out at the coffeehouse events in the evenings just to hear her sing, nay, belt out her original songs with her piercing, passionate voice, which I always found to be well suited to devotional projects such as we now see in Canopy. While her voice may be somewhat tempered compared to her early days, it still clearly conveys her passion, especially in the album’s heartbeat-backed title track. The strength and clarity of her voice and her deft use of vocal harmony, two of her characteristic musical traits, are present even in the album’s more down-tempo tracks. Most of Canopy is light-hearted and upbeat, which may come as a surprise to those whose concept of devotional music revolves around gregorian chants or ragas. Oh My‘s sing-along vibe and Intone‘s boppy rhythm and instrumental variety would fit nicely on a roadtrip mixtape, while I could listen to Innocent in Heart‘s ambient electronic tones and Destine for them Every Good‘s driving synth-centred pop-rock rhythm all day at work. The Watchman, meanwhile, puts the traditional story of a “heart-surrendered lover” driven by seemingly hostile watchmen towards his heart’s desire to a melodious country beat. Overall, Canopy is an enjoyable, accessible album that should please not only those seeking musical enlightenment, but also those looking for a solid collection of songs that offer a little more than just a catchy tune.