part of a whole

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 You may also have read a (previously unpublished?)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

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

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

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

sunday snow day

snowstorm aftermathhuge snowstorm swept through the Ottawa area today, coating the landscape with white fluffy snow. the roads got pretty fouled up, so most people (myself included) stayed inside to do laundry, play with the cat, read, and blog. it was fun. it brought back memories of the snowstorm a few years back in Drummondville—you know, the one that preceded my accident. instead of spinning out on a major highway and landing sideways in a snowbank, though, I have a lithotripsy session to look forward to tomorrow (Monday) in order to break up the kidney stone that’s still hanging around inside me after causing problems in mid-November. that’s a whole other story which I’ll share with you later on; for now, prayers would be much appreciated so that everything goes well.

thank goodness the holiday season is coming soon; hopefully I should have some time to rest and recover from the treatment—no big trips scheduled for now, unless they’re short ones. I keep thinking I’d like to pop by Montreal for a little bit to visit friends but I suppose I’d have to hook something up first. argh planning! we’ll see. things are wonderfully busy here in Ottawa; I spent part of yesterday (Saturday) with another Baha’i friend, following up with some people we met during the Varqa Teaching Project in November. it was a really moving experience—we were visiting a neighbour of mine who seemed to be very receptive to the Message of Bahá’u’lláh and very open to learning more about it through further home visits and Ruhi Book 1. I felt blown away and humbled by the experience. Again, I’ll write more about that later on as things continue to progress; needless to say, it’s the first time I’ve felt so confirmed while teaching the Faith.

teaching project notes

people at the Ottawa Baha’i Centre, sharing stories about teaching the Baha’i Faith during the Varqa Teaching Project. One had an hour-and-a-half-long conversation with an eighty-year-old woman who, while seeming hostile at first, warmed up immediately once she realized what the Baha’is were there to discuss—they continued on to share a good part of Anna’s presentation; another couple visited a middle-aged woman and stayed for two hours building friendship with her. fifty people participated in the project, young and old, men and women.

you want intense? i’ll give you intense

conversations of deep importlife is intense right now. For the past week I’ve been leaving home at 8 AM and getting in between 10 PM and midnight every night; my cat is super angry at me and has been staging regular protests. I guess it started with the reflection meeting; things have been super goofy since then. not long after that, I joined up with Marty and a bunch of friends in one of the two outreach/teaching teams active in Ottawa. Both of them basically hang around in different neighbourhoods, experimenting with the viability of offering the four core activities in each area. my current job on the team is offering children’s classes to kids from two neighbouring apartment complexes. It’s a big change from doing our usual weekly children’s class: this one is a daily class, and the classes are taken word-for-word from Book 3 of the Ruhi curriculum, with songs, games, stories, colouring, and memorization of prayers and passages from the Baha’i Writings. I’ll be posting more about these classes on my children’s classes blog once the 2-week pilot period is over. basically, we’re going totally nutbar for about two weeks, offering all the core activities at the same time in order to gauge the receptivity of the community, and if it works out, we’ll start offering them regularly over a longer period, perhaps weekly throughout the year. There’s been lots of intense consultation, reflection and tons of action. There are tons of photos ready to be posted—and I swear, as soon as I get a moment I’ll be posting them you-know-where.

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.