5 steps towards serving humanity

5 things to do while you’re waiting for the 95 youth conferences, March 4, 2013

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.

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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  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 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.
  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 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.
  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.

The original post, 5 things to do while you’re waiting for the 95 youth conferences, is one of the most popular posts on doberman pizza. Second photo courtesy of the Bahá’í Community of Vietnam.

peace starts with us

to a thought of hatred, thoughts of love, July 23, 2013

Cricket PassionWhatever happens in life, we always have a choice of how to respond. These choices we make determine whether we create hatred or love, war or peace, despair or hope. When we create love, peace and hope in our families and in our neighbourhoods, it grows and trickles upwards through our cities, our regions, our nations and our world—that’s why we say world peace starts with us, inside of us. It makes our lives—and the lives of those around us—lighter, brighter, more livable.

Recently, one of my blogging friends shared a particularly touching story, and I thought it would be nice to share it in connection with this theme. It’s the story of a Hindu man who gave blood to save the life of a Muslim woman—and, in doing so, ended their town’s history of sectarian violence. Originally published in the Toronto Star in 2011, this story is a timeless example of how thoughts of love, expressed through action, can overcome even the longest history of hatred.

Before 2004 life in the village of Basti Mahran in Pakistan was extremely difficult for everyone, but especially for the Hindu minority. Hindu girls were routinely raped by Muslim men. Cattle that belonged to the Hindu villagers were slaughtered and attacks on all Hindus were widespread.

And then a very ill young Muslim mother arrived at the local clinic. She had lost a lot of blood in childbirth and needed a transfusion, but the doctors couldn’t find anyone with the same O-negative blood type. Bachu Rama, a local Hindu man with the same blood-type offered to give his blood.

Before long a group of Muslims charged the clinic to find and kill Ram. The group was led by Mahar Abdul Latif.

Latif hated Hindus and in the 1990s had been part of an extremist group who patrolled the mountains in Kashmir killing all Hindus who crossed their path. As Latif and his gang approached the clinic, they were stopped by a doctor who told them that Ram was this young woman’s only chance.

“I don’t know what came over me,” Latif says. “I remember thinking that here we were refusing to even shake hands with the Hindus, and he was willing to give us his blood. It was a marvelous thing he did. It was the turning point of my life.”

Next morning, Latif visited Ram’s home to thank him. This was the first time in living memory that a Muslim visited a Hindu home in Basti Mahran. Soon everyone heard of Ram’s generosity and Latif’s change of heart, and things in the village began to change.

The women began to talk to each other. The rapes and attacks stopped. Now Hindus and Muslims not only liked each other, they also actively supported each other – even in their religious practice.

This spirit of reciprocity and cooperation spread to every area of life in the village. Women from both communities joined forces in their cotton selling businesses and began to earn four times more that they had earned when selling separately. The villagers successfully lobbied the government to build power lines, roads and a proper water supply.

When I shared this story with other friends recently, someone commented: “I want to believe it… but it just seems to good to be true.” But these kinds of gestures of love, kindness and fellowship happen everywhere, in neighbourhoods and towns in every country around the world. Sometimes these gestures are small, like the kids in our neighbourhood who left a kind note for their neighbour. Sometimes they’re bigger and more dramatic, like Bachu Rama’s gift of blood that welded a town’s Muslim and Hindu communities together.

And the kind of spiritual transformation that resulted isn’t specific to Basti Mehran, either. Look at the transformation of Norte de Bolivar in Colombia, where crime became “unheard of” after many years of effort teaching and empowering the village’s children and junior youth. Look at the transformation of Bihar Sharif in India, where the lines of caste, age and gender began to blur and fade away after years of expanding community-building activities to welcome a greater and greater diversity of people. Look at the transformation of Tanna in Vanuatu, where a community energized by a spirit of service weathered the devastation caused by Cyclone Pam and began efforts to rebuild their communities long before aid agencies set foot on their island. It’s not too good to be true; it’s just true. People everywhere are able to make choices that lead to the transformation of their communities.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá, who Bahá’ís take as an example of right conduct, left behind a wealth of Writings that interpret and explain the teachings of His Father, Bahá’u’lláh. Among these are pieces of very practical advice on how to create peaceful, loving communities. My favourite among these goes: “When a thought of war comes, oppose it by a stronger thought of peace. A thought of hatred must be destroyed by a more powerful thought of love. Thoughts of war bring destruction to all harmony, well-being, restfulness and content. Thoughts of love are constructive of brotherhood, peace, friendship, and happiness.” In other words, action follows thought: When we focus on thoughts of war and hatred, warlike and hateful actions will be the result. And when we focus on thoughts of peace and love, peaceful and loving actions will be the result—in our personal lives, our families, our neighbourhoods, our cities, our regions, our nations and our world.

That’s why we say world peace starts with us, inside of us. It makes our lives—and the lives of those around us—lighter, brighter, more livable.

The original post, to a thought of hatred, thoughts of love, is one of the most popular posts on doberman pizza. Special thanks to Trisha at creating reciprocity for bringing the story of Bachu Rama and Mahar Abdul Latif to my attention. Photo: Cricket Passion by Umair.

countering hate and violence

Someone posted a question on the Baha’i group on Reddit, asking “What can be done by one person to counter hate/violence in the world?” It was a great question, so I decided to try and give it an answer. Here goes.

As I see it, the most potent antidote to a rising tide of hate and violence is to help yourself and others around you—especially young people—to raise their capacity to show spiritual qualities such as love, kindness, steadfastness, justice, reliance on God and compassion, and to serve humanity selflessly.

Get involved in a junior youth group and give young people a space where they can learn what it means to transform themselves and their community at the same time. Or get involved as a teacher of children’s classes so you can give younger children the spiritual foundation they’ll need to become agents of change within their communities. Work with a teaching team so that you don’t burn yourself out, and so that you can coordinate your actions with others.

It’s important that we not underestimate the uplifting and transforming power of these seemingly simple acts of service. Carried out consistently, persistently, and with a spirit of service, they can completely change the face of our communities—not only Baha’i communities, but the greater community.

If you want to see what this can eventually lead to, check out the Frontiers of Learning video. In particular, the section from Colombia brings me a lot of hope, but all of them show the transforming power of collective action within the framework of the Plan.

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