I’ve been sick for the past few days, and I need to sleep rather than spend more time writing. So today, I’m going to let Instagram do the talking for me. One of my favourite activities with children and junior youth is to have them draw on walls or sidewalks with sidewalk chalk or sidewalk paint, so I love it whenever I see someone incorporating this into a children’s class or a junior youth group. So, here are a few pictures of wall art, sidewalk art and street art from junior youth groups around the world—with city permission, of course.
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.
Or 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Not long ago, a Baha’i friend of mine had the idea to start a “virtues playgroup” aimed at very young children, say between 0 to 3 years of age. Our son was about that old, so we often brought him there to give him a chance to spend time with other kids in a positive, enriching environment. There was maybe fifteen minutes’ worth of circle time, during which they moved about, sang songs, played simple games, and listened to stories, each one having something to do with a virtue of the week: Love, patience, courtesy, truthfulness, helpfulness, joyfulness, and so on. After the circle time, there was time for crafts, snacks, and free play. The playgroup started to become a little less regular after about a year and a half, but it came at just the right time for our boy: Some of the other kids from that group are now his best friends, and the language of virtues and spiritual qualities is now a part of his everyday life.
We didn’t have a virtues playgroup when I was a kid, but I remember attending children’s classes. Don’t ask me what I learned, because I don’t remember a lot of specifics. I do remember the surroundings being pretty, and I remember a few of my Bahá’í friends from that era. (Although when I entered university, a bunch of the Bahá’ís in my year started saying they hadn’t seen me since we were in children’s classes, at which point I stared at them blankly.) I also vaguely remember a few things, like artistic activities and stories that were related to the history of the Faith. Learning about Bahá’u’lláh and the Báb in children’s classes may not stand out in my memory now that I’m older, but it definitely laid the foundation for me to accept the message of Bahá’u’lláh and formally declare my faith in Him later on in life.
I remember a lot more about attending 19-day Feasts. We were part of a small community that was a mixed bag of Persian and Canadian families, and there were plenty of kids. Even though there was never a formal program for us at Feasts, it generally seemed to be enough to be able to hang out with other Bahá’í kids, and it was always a highlight of the gatherings for me when I was younger. Apart from the social aspect, the atmosphere at Feast was always so welcoming and special, and that’s always stuck with me:
Pleasant, restful music playing as the friends entered, prayer books in small piles on a coffee table, candles lit and softly flickering throughout… High-topped dressers filled with books like God Passes By and Lights of Guidance, with curios and mementoes, and here and there you’d see an engraving with the ringstone symbol on it, or, up on the highest shelf, you’d see a beautifully framed reproduction of the Greatest Name of God. You’d see art from many cultures along the walls, and you’d smell perfume in the air—perhaps rose or jasmine. And then, when it was time to eat, you’d get up and walk (don’t run!) to the table at the back where the hosts would lay out platters of persian rice with tahdig (or “tahdeeg” or whatever), kookoo sabzi, adas polo, baghali polo, chicken drumsticks, and so on.
Qu?nh’s experience was different from mine, but similar in some ways. One big difference was that she grew up in post-war Vietnam, at a time when many families struggled in poverty, including hers. On top of that, the Bahá’í Faith had been officially proscribed by the communist government after the war, meaning that large, organized gatherings—such as city-wide Feasts or children’s classes—were generally impossible. Still, the Bahá’ís managed to visit each other, and sometimes they would be able to observe the 19-day Feast in small groups, perhaps one or two families at a time. Like in my case, there was never a formal children’s program, and just having other Bahá’í kids to play with was enough. The food was a big draw, too—in her case, because having anything more than a simple meal was unusual enough. I’m imagining big bowls of Mi Qu?ng noodles for everyone, but she’ll probably correct me on that. In either case—hers or mine—there was enough there in our childhood to give us the beginnings of a Bahá’í identity. Perhaps that was enough for us; in any case, it was what we had.
But time has flown by since our earliest days; a new generation is rising, and our children are beginning to benefit from the progress our Bahá’í communities have made from one generation to the next: Playgroups based on practicing virtues and spiritual qualities. A field-tested, ever-evolving set of lessons for children’s classes used worldwide, and an ever-strengthening training institute process to ensure that teachers are always available. A simple, yet profound program for the spiritual empowerment of junior youth, to help young people at this unique stage in their lives to develop their powers of expression, their spiritual perception and their capacity to serve humanity. When I first saw the junior youth spiritual empowerment program in action, I thought to myself what a shame it was that there wasn’t something like this for me when I was that age. Oh well. It’s here for my children, that’s what’s important.
“E is for earth. The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens…”
I sit in my office, typing words into my blog, listening to Qu?nh read the kids a Baha’i alphabet book, A Feast of ABCs. “F is for fund. Franco has saved money to give to the Baha’i fund… G is for God. Saying prayers and reading from the holy books helps Golda feel close to God…” Through the speakers at my computer, I hear Red Grammer singing to me about teaching peace all the world around, in every city and every town. And in the next song in the shuffle, I hear Ali Youssefi asking God to unite and bind together the hearts, to join in accord all the souls. When his book is done, our eldest asks to watch his Bobo & Kipi DVD—”the one where Bobo shows his perseverance”. Next week, he’ll be joining his friends from the virtues playgroup at a birthday party—and there’s a children’s devotional gathering coming up the following weekend. And I think Qu?nh and I have never been happier, or more hopeful for the future.
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:
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;
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.
On the same day, December 14, 2012, two attacks on schools happened on opposite sides of the globe: a stabbing spree in Chenpeng village, Henan, China, in which 22 children and an elderly woman were injured; and a mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, USA, in which 27 were killed, including 20 children. I jotted down these thoughts soon after I heard the news.
I remember recently watching a mini-documentary about World War I that explained how the horrors of trench warfare led to cynicism becoming “normal”, first among the soldiers who had witnessed them, and then among the society they returned to. Man’s inhumanity to man had turned him sour, leaving him to despair. This sense of despair was reinforced by World War II and the conflicts that followed, and although economies recovered and material wealth grew, a crisis of spirit persisted. A new, idealistic generation rebelled against war in all its forms in the 1960s and 70s, showing a true and profound craving for justice, peace, brotherhood and spiritual renewal in what they called the “Age of Aquarius“. For the most part, though, this craving was denied, and mankind sunk deeper into despair and cynicism.
How much longer will this craving go unsatisfied, and how many more bodies will have to pile up, not only in our schools but throughout our bruised, battered and shell-shocked world? What will it take for things to change? I don’t really know the first answer, but for the second, I’ll tell you.
In the junior youth group that my wife is running in our neighbourhood, she and the girls—aged 11 to 13—are reading about the story of Kibomi, a young boy who believes he can make a difference. Kibomi lives in a country full of strife, and his parents are killed in front of his eyes one day. He runs for his life, and along the way, as he struggles to come to terms with the horrors he has just seen, he meets people who help him see that he has a choice: either to sink into despair, rage, violence and revenge; or to turn his suffering into fuel that will help him change the lives of those around him for the better. Doing the latter takes strength of character that he’s not sure he has, but as he meets more and more people who are working hard to build bonds of loving-kindness and unity between the warring tribes, he realizes that he can draw on their strength to build up his own. Eventually his feelings of fear and despair fade away, and he makes his choice—to work actively towards the betterment of the world.
Now ask yourself again: How much longer will man’s craving for justice, peace, brotherhood and spiritual renewal go unsatisfied? As long as we choose to let it.
Today in our junior youth group here in Hanoi, we studied a lesson in which Rose, a fifteen-year-old girl who is training to be a nurse, travels to a small village by bus to visit her cousin Musonda and her family. The participants—all Vietnamese junior youth of various ages—learned words like “travel”, “arrive”, “greeted”, and so on. It gave me the idea that I should write a little bit more about my own travels of late, especially to and from China, so here’s yet another not-a-travelogue for you all to read.
After returning from Sapa in the mountainous Vietnamese northwest (look for a not-a-travelogue on that trip soon), my fellow travellers and I were greeted by appallingly hot weather back in the ninth level of Hell, uh, I mean the centre of the Earth, uh, I mean Hanoi. Still battling an infuriating air-conditioner cold, I spent the next few days resting up and packing my bags again (more tightly this time) for a nine-day trip through Hong Kong, southern China and Macau. My schedule was fairly basic: after the flight in from Hanoi, three days in Hong Kong; then a train to Guangzhou, China to spend another three days; then a bus to Macau for another three days, after which I would fly back to Hanoi and settle down for a long nap—or a long quarantine, judging by the H1N1 paranoia. Arrival in Hong Kong greeted us with the odd spectacle of infrared images or ourselves displayed on a coloured screen, allowing security staff to weed out those who were running temperatures of 38 C and above—if your face showed up in oranges and reds, you were fit for the infirmary. (Sneaky H1N1 carriers used fever-reducing drugs to circumvent this system, giving Vietnam its first few cases in June.)