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

house of baha’u’llah in baghdad destroyed

From the Bahá’í World News Service, we read this morning of the heart-breaking news of the destruction of the House of Bahá’u’lláh in Baghdad, Iraq.

houseThe worldwide Baha’i community has learned that the house of Baha’u’llah, the Founder of the Baha’i Faith, in Baghdad, Iraq – a profoundly sacred site known as the Most Great House – has been destroyed. The precise circumstances surrounding the demolition are not yet clear.

Bani Dugal, the Principal Representative of the Baha’i International Community to the United Nations said: “This deplorable act has robbed people throughout the world of a priceless piece of their spiritual heritage.”

“While the details are not yet clear, there should be no doubt as to the Baha’i community’s strength of feeling about this terrible and shocking deed”, she continued.

“The Baha’is of the world are, of course, heartbroken by the news. Yet, as always, they remain positive and focused on their efforts to promote peace and contribute to the betterment of their communities”, she added.

The Most Great House was Baha’u’llah’s place of residence for much of the time of His exile from Iran to Baghdad, Iraq. The site is located close to the banks of the River Tigris.

Upon reading of this tragic development, many of the Bahá’ís turned immediately to the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, who himself foretold of the indignities which would befall His House, saying that it would “be so abased in the days to come as to cause tears to flow from every discerning eye”—but that, in time, it would be exalted in the eyes of the world:

Call thou to mind that which hath been revealed unto Mihdí, Our servant, in the first year of Our banishment to the Land of Mystery (Adrianople). Unto him have We predicted that which must befall Our House (Baghdád House), in the days to come, lest he grieve over the acts of robbery and violence already perpetrated against it. Verily, the Lord, thy God, knoweth all that is in the heavens and all that is on the earth.

To him We have written: This is not the first humiliation inflicted upon My House. In days gone by the hand of the oppressor hath heaped indignities upon it. Verily, it shall be so abased in the days to come as to cause tears to flow from every discerning eye. Thus have We unfolded to thee things hidden beyond the veil, inscrutable to all save God, the Almighty, the All-Praised. In the fullness of time, the Lord shall, by the power of truth, exalt it in the eyes of all men. He shall cause it to become the Standard of His Kingdom, the Shrine round which will circle the concourse of the faithful. Thus hath spoken the Lord, thy God, ere the day of lamentation arriveth. This revelation have We given thee in Our holy Tablet, lest thou sorrow for what hath befallen Our House through the assaults of the enemy. All praise be to God, the All-Knowing, the All-Wise.

Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh,
No. LVIII, p. 114-115

Upon reading these words, I was immediately reminded of the concept of crisis and victory as explained by Shoghi Effendi—that with every calamity comes the seeds of a greater victory—which inspired me to put down a few thoughts about how we can rise through the waves of tests.

worldwide support for “five years too many” campaign

5 years too manyAs the Five Years Too Many campaign continues, support for the Yarán—the seven wrongfully imprisoned Bahá’í leaders in Iran—continues to pour in from around the world. One of the most impressive things I’ve found so far is the unofficial Five Years Too Many tumblr, which has been gathering photos of men and women of all ages and races, from many different nations, holding up their hands in solidarity with the Yarán. It’s been quite touching to see the groundswell of support in such a visual way!

Beyond a simple grassroots campaign, however, the Five Years Too Many campaign has continued to gather prominent voices at official events the world over. Here’s some of the latest news since my last post on the subject:

five years too many

The plight of these seven is representative of the countless Iranian men and women who have been jailed for defending their freedom and human rights. Our message to the seven is this: The world has not forgotten you, and we will continue to fight for your freedom and that of other Iranian prisoners of conscience.

Firuzeh Mahmoudi, United4Iran

It was five years ago today. Six law-abiding Iranian Bahá’ís, members of a committee devoted to looking after the minimum needs of the long-persecuted Bahá’í community in their homeland, were arrested in early morning raids by government agents. Their whereabouts unknown, the six—along with a seventh compatriot who had been arrested earlier—were held incommunicado, while their captors cooked up charges: they were being held “for security reasons”, and they were somehow linked to “Zionists”—baseless charges that have been debunked and denied many times since. After languishing in crowded prison cells for over a year and a half—during which the number of unjustly imprisoned Bahá’ís continued to grow, and during which trial dates were repeatedly set and postponed—they were finally called to appear in court. Their trial, however, quickly turned out to be a sham—a televised “show trial” that was closed to observers, during which their legal counsel was obstructed and denied the right to speak. In the end, the seven were sentenced for 20 years’ imprisonment—the longest sentence given to any current prisoners of conscience in Iran.

Support for the Bahá’í Yaran—”Friends”—has poured in from around the world, along with outrage at the gross injustice to which they continue to be subjected. Earlier this year, the U.N. General Assembly adopted its 25th resolution condemning human rights violations in Iran, and academics, artists, media personalities and human rights supporters across the globe have become increasingly vocal in calling for the rights of Iranian Bahá’ís to be respected. Today, on the fifth anniversary of the arrest of the Yaran, a worldwide campaign is underway in support of human rights in Iran, gathering what may be unprecedented support and attention.

Five Years Too Many is its name—since even one day is one day too many for these innocent souls, well-wishers of their government and lovers of their country and their kind, to be imprisoned. Many prominent voices have already joined the campaign: Senator Bob Carr of Australia; actor Rainn Wilson and journalist Roxana Saberi, the latter of whom was imprisoned with the two women among the Yaran; Omid Djalili, comedian; Ahmed Shaheed, UN Special Rapporteur for human rights in Iran, and Mahnaz Parakand, an Iranian lawyer who assisted in the Yaran’s defense; Markus Löning, the German Government’s Commissioner for Human Rights Policy, and MP Erika Steinbach; Lloyd Axworthy, former Canadian Foreign Minister; prominent British jurists such as Sir Desmond de Silva QC, Cherie Booth (Blair) QC, and Michael Mansfield QC; and a number of high-level UN human rights experts, including El Hadji Malick Sow, Heiner Bielefeldt, and Rita Izsak. Major events have already taken place in Rio de Janeiro, Frankfurt, BerlinSydney, Washington DC, London, Paris, and Toronto, and more are happening as you read these lines.

Learn more about the Five Years Too Many campaign, about the Yaran, and about the persecution of Iranian Bahá’ís from cradle to grave.

Video: Five Years Too Many from Media Makes Us.

five years too many

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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“i am not of the lost”

Still reeling from the shock of hearing of the tragedy in the small town of Newtown, Connecticut, on December 14, 2012, Bahá’í artist Munirih Sparrow was inspired to share a video of herself performing “I am not of the lost”, an original song based on words written by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to a mother whose son had passed onwards into the spiritual worlds.

The song was originally written for her new album Nightsong, which was released in November 2012. I had the chance to catch up with her recently during a break from touring the USA and asked her about the song and its significance.

Originally I went searching for a prayer for mothers, in my search I came upon this prayer. It was beautiful and comforting and had a feeling of “otherworldliness”.

A few years ago a close family member of mine lost her baby girl Ocean and around the time of writing that song it would have been Ocean’s 12th birthday. As I tried to put the writing to music, I literally asked Ocean to help me. Now, I know that sounds pretty “fuu-fuu” but spirits in the next world are always inspiring us and few artists create by themselves. My family continues to grieve Ocean’s death and I just had this feeling that she was there with a message of love and comfort for her parents.

On Friday, she dedicated the song as a prayer for the mothers and fathers of Newtown who lost their children, describing the importance of prayers and music in bringing about healing and peace in the face of grief and loss.

In the wake of such sad events as we saw in Newtown I feel confirmed in my belief in the power of prayer and music. Not only is that prayer important to the families who are personally devastated by these events but also for people like you and me who do not know these families but are still so saddened and upset.

It is prayers like these that assist us all in grieving and processing our anger and sadness about this event and others going on around the world. Through prayer we make peace in our hearts and our communities.

Munirih’s words largely reflect my experience helping Quynh’s family to grieve after her father’s sudden passing in August 2010. As many have said before, there are no words for the pain felt when a loved one passes away; particularly the pain of losing a child, which ‘Abdu’l-Bahá calls “heart-breaking and beyond the limits of human endurance”. Two things helped us recover from our grief: the power of prayer—of spiritual conversation with God and intercession on behalf of those who have passed onwards—and the power of community. I suppose these are common to all humanity; we all tend to lean on each other, and on a Higher Power, when we feel overwhelmed by suffering.

Learn a little more about Munirih Sparrow, and listen to her music on her Bandcamp site.

See also: the prayer vigil offered in Newtown; a few of my reflections on the tragedy.