6 qualities of the empowered

studying the guidanceYou know how you can read something one day, get something out of it, and then read it again next week and get a fresh new insight? That’s often what happens to me when I read the Bahá’í Writings. Most recently, I’ve been working hard to finish reading all of the recent messages of the Universal House of Justice—the 8 February 2013 and 1 May 2013 messages announcing the convocation of the worldwide youth conferences, for example, and the 1 July 2013 message to all the conferences; the 2013 Ridván message; and Insights from the Frontiers of Learning, the long but fascinating companion document to the wonderful new film Frontiers of Learning.

Anyway, a friend of mine shared the last sentence of the 8 February 2013 message the other day, and I took the opportunity to read it again with fresh eyes. In it, the Universal House of Justice writes of its hope for the youth of the world, giving an overview of the kinds of qualities that characterize the “new race of men” anticipated by Bahá’u’lláh—a race not defined by nationality or ethnicity, nor by superhero-style mutations or magical powers(!), nor indeed by any material considerations, but by the strength and maturity of their character, by their spiritual qualities. To give a little context, the Bahá’í International Community gave some very useful commentary on this term in its Statement on Bahá’u’lláh:

The distinguishing feature of humanity’s coming of age is that, for the first time in its history, the entire human race is consciously involved, however dimly, in the awareness of its own oneness and of the earth as a single homeland. This awakening opens the way to a new relationship between God and humankind. As the peoples of the world embrace the spiritual authority inherent in the guidance of the Revelation of God for this age, Bahá’u’lláh said, they will find in themselves a moral empowerment which human effort alone has proven incapable of generating. “A new race of men” will emerge as the result of this relationship, and the work of building a global civilization will begin.

In the last paragraph of the 8 February 2013 message, the Universal House of Justice enumerates some of the qualities that youth will need in order to make a difference in the world—qualities related to moral and spiritual empowerment. Let’s examine them here, point by point. “In our prayers at the Sacred Threshold,” the message reads, “we entreat the Ancient Beauty that, from out a distracted and bewildered humanity, He may distil…”: Continue reading

to follow a path of service…

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MNHS_Yes-O_Mangrove_Tree_Planting_at_Bugang_River (1)

To follow a path of service, whatever form one’s activity assumes, requires faith and tenacity. In this connection, the benefit of walking that path in the company of others is immense. Loving fellowship, mutual encouragement, and willingness to learn together are natural properties of any group of youth sincerely striving for the same ends, and should also characterize those essential relationships that bind together the components of society.

The Universal House of Justice, July 1, 2013

Photo: MNHS Yes-O Mangrove Tree Planting at Bugang River, JC T. Alonsagay (CC BY-SA)

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

rising through the waves

sea wall in akkáAt 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.

Selections From the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, p.225

a day at a vietnamese kindergarten

My sister-in-law, Quyên, runs a kindergarten out of her home in Danang, Vietnam. She and her husband had to take a trip to Huế this weekend, so Quỳnh and I came over to help out. Here’s how the day went.

classClass starts early in the day. It’s 7:30 AM, and a table’s worth of children, aged around 4-5 years old, have already arrived and have started studying, dotting their i’s, crossing their t’s, and hooking their ơ’s. Quyên teaches handwriting, which is a bit advanced for kindergarten, but appeals to many Vietnamese parents who want their children to be well-prepared when they get to primary school. That’s her specialty, but it’s not all she teaches. Children learn reading, writing and arithmetic, sing songs and listen to stories. This year, Quỳnh’s brother Nu (who studied architecture in Ho Chi Minh City) has also started teaching art classes after hours, to which parents can send their children separately (although the classes happen in the same place).

Some children start studying as they arrive. Some of them have signed up to have breakfast in the morning, so they sit at the table and eat first. Some of them are playing together in another room, using building blocks to make and break fanciful contraptions. A few others sit and watch children’s programming on television—although they’re restricted to short, intermittent periods of screen time, until the next activity starts. All together, it gives the schoolhouse—Quyên’s home—a playful, varied ambience, as a kindergarten should have.

I get a lot of amazed looks from the kids due to my height (nearly 6″). One of the children gazes at me and mutters quietly, “cao quá… (so tall…)” Another asks why I’m so tall, and one of the teachers insists it’s because I ate all my vegetables when I was young. (I did, too.) I try to kneel down and squat a little more to make them feel a little more comfortable with me. After a while, the children get used to my presence, but I get a lot of attention. Many of them may never have seen another foreigner in their lives, so I try to leave as good an impression as I can. That I can use my (still broken, but sufficient) Vietnamese to communicate with them helps a lot.

classThe morning rolls on, and around 10:30 it’s time for the children to eat. Lunch is served in the dining room, between the classroom and the kitchen; it’s a typical meal of rice, vegetables, and various bits of seafood, all served in the same bowl. When they finish eating, children sit back against the classroom wall to rest and digest, and prepare for what comes next: the several-hours-long naptime that’s common to almost every Vietnamese work day. Wooden pallets are laid out, and upon them, woven bamboo mats. After taking their potty breaks and washing their hands, the children settle in with their pillows, the curtains are drawn, and massive mosquito nets are strung up. Naptime lasts from around 11:30 to 2:30 PM—a bigger lunchtime break than any Canadian worker (barring CEOs) could ever dream of. During the break, the teachers and helpers—five of us in total—hang out in the dining room, watching over the children and having our lunch of bún cá, or fish with rice noodles. Something doesn’t quite sit right in my stomach, though, so I go home to pop some antacids and take a nap myself, returning around 3:00.

The afternoon proceeds much like the morning. Children continue to copy down letter forms in their books, in neat little rows, while others play. They repeat sounds out loud as they write down different combinations of letters, to help them learn proper Vietnamese pronunciation. A few younger children—siblings of the older students—have arrived too. A couple of three-year olds tag along after me, shouting to get my attention and offering me cups. I thank them, pretending to take a drink, and they move away. Then they come back again, offering the same deal. And so it continues for the next half-hour, every twenty seconds or so (I timed them). As in all cases with very young children, you gotta adapt, so we gradually turn it into an opportunity for them to practice addressing their elders politely: “Chú ơi (Uncle)! Please have some water!” instead of shouting. They eventually get sidetracked by other things, and I manage to go back to the classroom where I assist Quyên’s boys, who are off to the side learning English. What’s a table? What’s a chair? What’s an eraser? And how do you spell it? The silent e’s in “make a circle” cause no end of confusion. Oh, English. You crazy, haphazard patchwork of a language. How exactly did you become so universal? Don’t answer that.

classThe afternoon is drawing to a close, and parents will soon come to take their children home. The benches are rearranged to form rows, and Lâm (Quỳnh’s mother) takes center stage for game time. The game is some sort of traffic police game: someone acts as a traffic cop, and the rest are all sitting on their benches, riding motorbikes. As far as I could tell, the traffic cop gives directions (like “turn left”, “stop”, and so on) and the rest of the players have to follow the directions. If the traffic cop catches anyone who misses a command, they have to come up and pay a fine(?), which amounts to singing a song. I’ll have to inquire further to see if we could use this game in our children’s class back home. Anyway, little by little, parents drop in to drive their children home. One by one, boys and girls graciously go to each of their teachers to announce their departure—“thưa bà, con về”, “thưa cô, con về”—as the Vietnamese culture of respect for elders demands. Eventually, only Quyên’s boys remain, along with one more girl whose parents let us know that they would be at work late. We sit down for dinner—bánh canh cua, or thick noodles with crab. By the time I Ieave the schoolhouse, it’s past 6:30 PM, for a work day of eleven hours.

classEleven hours and sometimes more, six days a week. And yet Quyên doesn’t complain. Not only because she enjoys teaching, but because it supports her family quite well. Teachers are generally well-respected and well-paid in Vietnam, but Quyên is particularly respected by parents for her teaching skill, her sense of discipline and her trustworthiness. People simply know she does a good job, and they’re proud to send her their children.

Trustworthiness, I’m coming to believe, is one of the keys to sustaining prosperity. Since the turn of the 21st century, we’ve seen ample evidence of the opposite—untrustworthiness—everywhere around the world, from Enrons and Worldcoms through Fannie Maes and Freddie Macs. How long do you think economies, which are fundamentally based on trust, can keep going when the people and institutions that make up those economies are not worthy of that trust? The alternative, says Bahá’u’lláh, is to “be worthy of the trust of thy neighbor”. This, He says, is “the supreme instrument for the prosperity of the world”, and “the greatest portal leading unto the tranquillity and security of the people”. Beyond her teaching skills, her smiling face, and her beautiful handwriting, that’s what impresses me about Quyên—how trustworthy she is, and the effect that has on the people around her. She may only teach kindergarten, but the whole world has a lot to learn from people like her.

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?