part of a whole

Many of you have probably read, listened to, or heard of a recent talk by former member of the Universal House of Justice Mr. Ali Nakhjavani, in which he emphatically expressed how important it is for Bahá’í communities to maintain teaching activities alongside core activities such as study circles, children’s classes, junior youth groups and devotional meetings. You may also have read a (previously unpublished?) letter on this same topic, written by the Universal House of Justice on October 31, 2002, that’s also been circulating. I read through these myself recently, and they brought me to reflect on the evolution in my own understanding of the institute process, and in my own actions. I shared some of these reflections on Reddit recently, and thought I’d repost them here.

Several years back there was definitely an increase in focus on the institute process in our local community as we studied the messages of the Universal House of Justice which described training institutes and their centrality to the process of community growth. At the time, I was just coming out of university, and it was really the first time I had ever been strongly involved in Bahá’í community activities, despite having grown up in a Bahá’í family. Being involved in study circles was pretty transformative for me—studying Ruhi Book 1 was the first time I ever really thought about the life of the soul—and I was inspired thereafter to do some homefront pioneering, which involved getting further trained up to Ruhi Book 7. At the time, training institutes were new and I think we were still thinking of it in terms of yet another deepening program, and we often skipped the practical service aspects of the Ruhi curriculum which help collaborators arise to serve. I feel like, as a result, I didn’t really “get” the interconnectedness of it all, and just thought something like, “OK, these study circles are the key to transformation, so I have to put all my efforts into study circles”. Occasionally, that meant that I declined invitations to participate in other initiatives, such as music nights, social get-togethers, and so on, that would have been great teaching opportunities, because I was too busy with my study circle stuff. I know I must have disappointed a lot of well-intentioned and inspired friends because of that, but thank God many of them went ahead anyway and carried forward those initiatives, which are a feature of our local community life now.

I certainly did have an “either this one or that one, but not both” mentality when it came to community activities. Perhaps one of the greatest obstacles I had to overcome was my fear of failure and my lack of confidence in my ability to teach—indeed, to create and maintain relationships with people in general. Somehow I was too comfortable with acting as a tutor within the safe, limited environment of an inward-looking community, and not comfortable at all creating genuine, profound relationships with others. I struggled with this for a while, especially as we spoke more and more about how the Bahá’í community had to open outwards, moving from the mindset of a congregation to that of a sort of commonwealth of mankind, blurring the lines between “Bahá’í” and “otherwise”. I think it was this internal struggle—and my continued willingness to adopt a posture of learning and participate in programs of growth in whatever ways I could despite my fear—that helped me see how many of these pieces fit together. The idea of coherence was particularly useful to me, in that I began to see how, for example, a study circle, devotional meeting, children’s class, and junior youth group could develop in sync and feed off each other, and be fed by things that we don’t call “core activities” but are no less crucial: firesides, home visits, and even just hanging out with friends and elevating conversation. In time, the sense of dichotomy disappeared, and now I find myself involved as much in establishing friendships with people in non-“core” ways as I do in teaching children’s classes or walking with friends through Ruhi Book 1.

I should also mention that one of the things that helped me gain confidence was being part of a team, in this case with Quynh. After we were married a few years ago, we found that we could support one another in our service, and do things together that we never dreamed that we could do alone. We are still learning about what seems “right” for us, what our strengths and weaknesses are, and where we can spend our energy most effectively. As a team, we balance and complement each other. If I can’t do something, then she picks up the slack; if neither of us can do it, we just focus our efforts on what we can do. And, most importantly, we are united, and we support each other no matter what. As long as we have that unity, we know that we will be confirmed.

interview with a stranger

Written on Feb. 25, 2010.

The air here in Da Nang is cool this afternoon, and the shade inside the dusty, cream-coloured offices of the Justice Department is a welcome change from the hot sun outside. I tap my thoughts and reflections out onto an iPhone as I wait for Quynh to finish her interview upstairs. We’re scheduled to be married in just over a week, and this set of interviews is the last legal hurdle to jump for our union to be recognized by the state – at least, besides signing a bunch more documents in triplicate.

I went under the scope first, and they brought in a translator to talk with me so they could make sense of my strange moon-language. The questions they asked were… bizarre. What’s her phone number? Her date of birth? Her email address? I guess I was expecting relevant questions, you know, like something besides what you’d put on a credit card application. But in retrospect, remembering what Quynh and I had discussed about the nature of the interview process, these banal questions make sense. They’re apparently intended to weed out arranged marriages, ones brokered through agents– proverbial “mail-order brides”.

I guess I always thought of the business of “mail-order marriages” as a big joke. I’d heard of stories regarding the practice and found them to be too unbelievable to be true. How could two people become so desperate– or morally directionless– as to reduce marriage to a mere transaction, to reduce a human being to a mere commodity? When Quynh explained to me that such “agency marriages” were a well-known (though strongly condemned) practice among Vietnamese women, I was filled with incalculable rage, so much so that I nearly fell off a speeding motorbike. it seemed to violate everything I’d ever believed about love, marriage, and human relationships.

supposedly the phenomenon is mainly driven by despair, on both sides. Quynh explained to me that many of the prospective husbands– the word “customers” brings my blood to a boil, although most are indeed customers– would be considered “past their prime”, and perhaps feel impotent to attract women in their own country. As a side note, some of Quynh’s neighbours have expressed astonished at how young I look– perhaps expecting her North American husband to be in his 50s. On the prospective bride’s side weighs the burden of percieved “marriageability”, or, in the case of a Vietnamese woman in her late 20s, the steadily dwindling levels thereof. In short, an unmarried woman over 30 years old is widely viewed as a failure. Such a perception isn’t unique to Vietnamese culture, but it’s much more pronounced here.

that next step

i’ve felt so tired these past few weeks—probably a combination of work, planning for the wedding in Vietnam (including scrambling around trying to collect documents and ferry them from one office to the next, like one of those bad video games), participating in the latest cycle of the Baha’i community’s intensive program of growth, and uhhhh being too lazy to go to the gym and get some exercise like I should be. Less than one month remain now before I fly back to Vietnam to be married—a story some of you may remember reading a few months ago. Planning a wedding is definitely serious business, and it seems like it’s a strong test of a couple’s ability to work together—which, so far, Quynh and I seem to be doing quite well. Although strongly aware of the cultural and temperamental differences between us, we’ve been getting along in a constructive spirit of unity and fellowship. I love it, and I’m really looking forward to experiencing the joy and the challenge of married life, of building that “fortress for well-being”. It definitely feels like leaving a certain phase of my life behind—that phase where I felt I only had to consider myself and what I wanted to do—and beginning a new phase of life which, while it closes some doors, opens up so many more possibilities.

OK I’m hungry now. off to dinner. Please leave wise comments if you wish.

intercultural marriage

how on earth did I miss this? upon doing random google searches this afternoon, I found an awesome CBC interview with Elham and Ayafor on the CBC Radio site (you may remember reading about their wedding on this blog), two good Baha’i friends of mine from Ottawa, on the subject of intercultural and interreligious marriage, specifically weddings between members of different cultures. They’re obviously qualified—Ayafor is Cameroonian, Elham is Persian, and both of them have lived in many different places across the world. Listen to the interview!

interreligious marriages on the rise

While waiting for the bus on my way to work last Tuesday, a headline in one of the local free news dailies (that is, reuters/cp/torstar repeaters) caught my eye. “All they need is love”. Upon closer inspection, it turned out to be the following Canadian Press story about the rise of interreligious marriages. Hmm. That’s a pretty cheesy title. Maybe “Interreligious marriages on the rise” was too bland. Anyway, the story’s based on a study published by Statistics Canada. Check it out.

Interreligious marriages on the rise: study
By LORRAYNE ANTHONY

TORONTO (CP) – Tina Verma wore a traditional red sari when her bridegroom placed a wedding band on her henna tattooed hand. It was the picture perfect Hindu wedding for a girl born in New Delhi – unless the guests took into account the man beside her.

The groom, a Canadian Christian, wore a black western suit. A few minutes after the Hindu ceremony, the two were married by a United Church minister. Then they walked down the aisle as guests threw flower petals on the newly married couple for good luck – a Hindu tradition.

As Canada becomes more culturally diverse, nuptials involving individuals from different denominations and faiths are also becoming more common, a new study finds.

While only 15 per cent of married or common-law couples were interreligious in 1981, by 2001 such unions had grown to 19 per cent, Statistics Canada reported Tuesday.

Of the 14.1 million Canadians in couples, nearly 2.7 million had a partner from a different religious group, the study based on census data finds.

Read the whole article.

Bonus Question: Would you marry someone who practices a religion other than your own? Why or why not?

let’s talk about chastity, let’s talk about you and me

bouquet and rings by boliyou (cc)Like many of my Baha’i friends who aren’t yet married, I wonder about what it takes to create a successful marriage. I wonder whether I’m strong enough, spiritual enough, or lucky enough to be able to make a “fortress for well-being” with another person and to make it last. I wonder why so many marriages end up in divorce, and fear the possibility of having to tread down that painful path. Marriage doesn’t sound like something I should have so many worries about—so why do I worry?

Recently posted on one of my many subscribed mailing lists was a quite thought-provoking article about Baha’i marriage which, if it didn’t answer all of my questions, at least showed me a new way I could look at them. It’s called Creating a New Bahá’í Marriage Culture, written by Raelee Peirce, a Bahá’í who works as a Parent Coach in North Carolina. The article explores how parents can help give their children a positive view of marriage and relationships. A short excerpt follows to give you a taste of it:

A list of “Do-Nots” is not a great way to inspire or create acceptance of this law. Instead, we should be emphasizing the joy of sex and what a fantastic gift it is within the marriage relationship when our children are young. We need to share with our preschoolers the idea of marriage and we need to discuss the concept of finding a husband or wife when our children are in grade school rather than entertaining the idea of boyfriends and girlfriends. We need to create a family culture that does not include our children or youth engaging in frivolous boy-girl relationships. For example, when a six-year-old talks about “liking” another of the opposite sex, one should not consider it cute and exclaim to others that Jamal has a little girlfriend. As a Bahá?í parent we need to say, “Jamal, it’s wonderful that you like Emma; it’s great to have lots of friends. One day when you are much older you will find a girl to be your wife and have a beautiful Bahá?í family!”

Read the article. What do you think? Does it make sense to talk to our children about marriage and relationships from an early age? What about the idea of having boyfriends and girlfriends—where does that fit in? What about the lessons we learn from popular Western culture (consciously or not)—shouldn’t everyone have as many boyfriends or girlfriends as possible to ‘try things out’ before settling on Mr. or Mrs. Right?

[Update- Sep.23, 2006]: If reading that article piqued your curiosity, then check out a related article on dating within religious communities on another Baha’i blog, Correlating.

Please leave comments on this post—it’d be nice to read people’s reactions to this article. If you have personal comments you’d like to leave for me, feel free to e-mail me!

Also, speaking of chastity, Mees has something to say on the matter.

photo by boliyou (creative commons)