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.

the five-year plan

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:

  1. 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;
  2. 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.

teaching the cause

uh ohIt’s been an eventful couple of weeks. since Marty‘s been away, I’ve had to hold down the fort at work, which has been a challenge and a half. I’m looking forward to seeing his friendly, focused face across my cubicle wall tomorrow morning.

A group of brave champions has been gathering at my place lately to study Book 6 of the Ruhi Curriculum, entitled Teaching the Cause. This “study circle” has been intense so far, with some pretty good discussion. It’s the first time in a while I’ve facilitated this book from beginning to end—a welcome addition to my life, as studying the Ruhi curriculum is always a joy, whether as a tutor or facilitator or as a participant—no matter how you take part in a study circle, you’ll always learn from it. The challenge for us this time around will be to integrate practice components into the group’s study, as it’s the practice of teaching, more than just talking about teaching, that really brings the benefits. Something about it being the source of all courage and all. One of our number is currently on pilgrimage—such a bounty!—which should increase the overall emblazedness of the group several times over once she returns. I’m hoping it will, especially since Ottawa’s next reflection meeting is coming up in two weeks—July 27th!—and this will most probably tie into the aforementioned practice component of our study circle.

Ottawa’s Baha’i community commemorated the Martyrdom of the Báb on the 9th of July; fellow Baha’i blogger Philippe of Baha’i Thought wrote up an excellent post distilling key concepts in the life of The Báb—and in the lives of Bahá’u’lláh and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá—which brought me to a new understanding of the meaning of the Báb’s Martyrdom within the context of humanity’s path towards maturity.

Aaaaaaaand lots of birthdays too. Apart from Catherine‘s birthday on the 5th and my brother Gabriel (freshly back from India) who celebrates his birthday on the 18th, lots of other friends have either had their birthdays this month or will have them soon: Sahba T and Sahba S (no relation), Sarah HT, Dru, Andrea, Shamim from Sherbrooke, and so on and so on… HAPPY COLLECTIVE BIRTHDAY

fire and snow

Martin’s been away for the past two weeks, participating in a program called Fire and Snow that’s been organized by the Baha’i Institute Board of Ontario. Following in the footsteps of the successful “Pebbles to Pearls” program offered in Summer 2006, Fire and Snow offers its participants the opportunity to learn about establishing and sustaining community-building activities for the general public and to gain tangible experience with community outreach. The program revolves around community groups for junior youth[1], aimed to help them “develop their capacities for teaching and service” and to “learn and strengthen their identity as selfless servants to humanity”. I’ll let Martin explain what’s been happening lately…

Things are going well here at the Fire and Snow training in Toronto. As you know I’m here with Mom and we are delivering firesides[2] (hastily armed with Anna’s presentation[3] and themes for elevating conversations[4]), knocking on doors and inviting to core activities[5], and sustaining those core activities as we go. Today we held a junior youth course with seven junior youth from the neighbourhood, a Baha’i children’s class with the same amount of children, a Baha’i devotional gathering with five people, and we are hoping to launch a mothers’ group tomorrow—using materials that we have not even seen—or are confident that we will be able to get in time—a feature that describes much of the nature of our work!

Basically we study from the books composing the main sequence of the Ruhi curriculum[6] (in our case, we used Books 2, 3, 5 and 6) during the morning and early afternoon and then prep quickly and go to our neighbourhoods from 6-9pm. It took some getting used to physically, but we soon established a rhythm (our days are from 7am-11:00pm).

There is nothing, on the whole, ‘magical’ about the process, just tons of Ruhi done with breakneck speed, heaps of singing and prayers, sagacious words from the Counsellor[7], and of course, unremitting action in the field of teaching.

Helpful Glossary:

[1] “Junior youth” refers to young adolescents between the ages of 12 and 14. youth in this age group are granted particular importance in the Baha’i community, falling as they do just before the “age of maturity” as defined by Baha’u’llah (15), by which time advanced mental, emotional and spiritual faculties are developed.

[2] “Firesides” (or “fireside chats”) usually refer to a friendly encounter in someone’s home, for the purpose of introducing someone to the Bahá’í Faith. The term originated with U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who broadcasted his presidential addresses via “fireside chats”, creating an intimate and accessible atmosphere by holding them in his home, by the fire.

[3] “Anna’s presentation” is a nickname referring to several sections of Book 6 of the Ruhi curriculum, “Teaching the Cause”, in which participants explore how to effectively share with receptive souls a general overview (or presentation) of the Baha’i Faith that is detailed enough to be considered complete. When people talk about using “Anna’s presentation” they are generally referring to using notes they have distilled from these sections in order to present an accurate and complete overview of the Baha’i Faith.

[4] The act of “elevating conversations” refers to a skill developed in the last unit of Book 2 of the Ruhi curriculum, “Arising to Serve”. Participants study the many talks and lectures of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and familiarize themselves with the way He introduced uplifting topics and ideas into conversation, that they may use that same skill in their everyday lives.

[5] “Core activities” are fundamental activities on which healthy communities are founded, and which make up the core of Baha’i Community life worldwide. There are four generally recognized “core activities”, which are present with great variety and diversity throughout the world: devotional meetings (for prayer and meditation), study circles (to learn skills of service through interaction with the Creative Word of God), junior youth groups (to develop the latent capacities of young youth aged 12-14; see #1 above) and children’s classes (for the moral and spiritual education of children).

[6] The “Ruhi curriculum” refers to a sequence of courses offered as distance education by the Ruhi Institute in Colombia. the courses are offered as part of a dynamic curriculum meant to build skills of service, which, in turn, can be used to build a community. the courses involve examination of and interaction with the writings of the Bahá’í Faith, so as to understand their meaning and apply them to the real world. The “main sequence” of the Ruhi curriculum consists of the seven books which make up the foundation of this curriculum. For more information, visit Ruhi Resources.

[7] “Counsellors” are appointed individuals who serve on the continental level within the Baha’i administrative order as learned advisors to individuals and institutions. They hold no executive or legislative power; their only role is to advise. Counsellors and their auxiliaries often provide a much-needed global perspective to local efforts through their close ties to the World Centre of the Baha’i Faith.

contemplating today

shrine of the Báb from afar. photo: Maurice & Marcelle TurgeonToday is (or was) Sunday, the 24th of September, 2006. Just a month plus a couple of days until Ottawa’s Baha’i community begins a new cycle of its program of growth; the same amount of time will pass before I leave for pilgrimage to the Baha’i World Centre in Haifa. Both of these are preoccupying me at the moment. Before I leave for pilgrimage, I need to get quite a whack of documentation done up: renew my health card, renew my driver’s license (which will entail taking my G-level exam), get passport photos taken and signed by garantors, to name a few. I need to read up on safe travel guidelines for pilgrims coming to the World Centre, so that I’m not taken by surprise during my visit. Oh yeah: most people are surprised when I tell them that I’ve never been on an airplane. Never meaning “once, when I was one and a half years old and I don’t remember a thing about it”. So that’ll be an interesting experience. And beyond all the material preparations, there are the spiritual preparations for pilgrimage. I’m not sure that I’m fully ready to sit and pray in the Shrines and be able to take it all in. I’m afraid I’ll just be so overwhelmed, or worse, be left unaware of the full magnitude of the experience. I suppose everybody goes through that sort of self-questioning… like ‘Abdu’l-Baha said, when in doubt, pray for strength. It will be given to you, no matter how difficult the circumstances. More about this later.

And then there’s life in Ottawa, and my service goals for the year. I just came back from a tutor meeting tonight (Sunday night—had to skip choir 🙁 ). We went over the latest guidance from the Universal House of Justice, looking at it from the perspective of our roles as tutors.

Note: In this case, for those who may not know, “tutor” is just shorthand for someone who facilitates the sequence of courses offered by the Ruhi Institute, a community development program that focuses on the development of skills of service through the application of spiritual insights that are gained through profound study of the Baha’i Writings. Anyone who has completed said sequence of courses can act as a tutor; most commonly, we say that such a person “acts as a tutor” rather than bestowing a title of “Tutor” upon them. —dj

Much of our discussion focused on how we could be more effective in our service as tutors; for example, focusing on implementing the practice component of institute courses—which transforms the course from a mere academic exercise to a skill-building experience. Lots of food for thought. It should help me a lot in planning how I want to serve in the near future. So far, I plan to put a sizable chunk of my effort into our neighbourhood francophone children’s class. That’s going well so far; I already have an outline of the curriculum done up for the entire school year, up to August, all based on the modified Furutan curriculum provided by the Canadian Spiritual Assembly. That’s mental! And it’s already way past what we were able to do last year. I really feel like I’ve gained a lot of confidence and know-how from the past year’s experience of co-teaching this class—and that makes me feel quite optimistic about the challenge of the new year ahead.

One last note, relating to my own personal development: Certain things have been happening lately that have made me look back at the past few years of my life. Right now, I see how far my life has come in the past ten years and I’m almost brought to tears, tears of joy and of gratitude. Fact is, I barely recognize myself now. I feel like my life has done a complete volte-face, or about-face. When I was 16, I never would have thought that one day I would be confidently teaching children’s classes, establishing a successful career doing something I really enjoy, developing healthy, nourishing friendships and relationships with people I love and care about. Whereas I was quietly depressed as a teenager, now I feel like bursting with joy at the prospect of really living a rich and fulfilling life. There’s so much to tell about this that I don’t have the time to share right now, but God willing, I’ll be able to share some of these things with you. Have a good day at work or at school and keep the comments (and emails) coming.

Photo: Maurice & Marcelle Turgeon.

ruhiresources.org gets a facelift!

That indispensible resource for participants in the institute process, ruhiresources.org, just got a nice new look, and I must say, it’s the difference between night and day. In fact, I think I just got J. The new site offers vast improvements over the old, particularly in terms of the clear, simple organization of content, the improved user interface, and the addition of new categories like “Practice”, “Service Ideas” and “Tutor Tips”, each rich with content and growing. Colour-coding the tabs along the top of the page to match the colours of the Ruhi books is a nice touch. You’ll notice that there’s now a “Book 3A”: that would be Teaching Children’s Classes, Grade 2—what we used to know as Book 5. A new book 5 will be coming soon, of course, devoted to raising up junior youth animators. A few of us in Ottawa had the chance to study a draft version of this new book over the winter, and I think we can safely say that it’s well worth studying. Look out for it.

Anyway, enough said. Go to ruhiresources.org. Browse through it. Bookmark it. Keep coming back. Thank you!