Community Development

Historic series of conferences aims at stirring the grassroots

In Brief: 
  • The 41 conferences were historic for the Bahá'í community, reflecting both its diversity and dynamism
  • Deliberations focused on neighborhood activities that anyone, anywhere can use to contribute to "civilization building"
  • Dramatic efforts to attend overcame bad weather, poor transportation, and the threat of violence

UVIRA, Democratic Republic of the Congo - Located on the northern shore of Lake Tanganyika in the war-torn province of Sud-Kivu, this small and underdeveloped African city might seem an unlikely place to start building a new global civilization.

But for some 800 people attending a historic Bahá'í conference here in November 2008, the idea that anyone, anywhere, can contribute to building a more peaceful and prosperous world was front and center in their deliberations.

"Being at this conference has been very fruitful," said Kashindi Lubachu of South Kivu province. "We have been encouraged to continue the core activities for the progress of the nations."

The "core activities" mentioned by Ms. Lubachu are a set of simple, locally initiated actions being undertaken by Bahá'ís around the world in an effort to contribute to the development of their local communities.

The idea - which was also analyzed and discussed with great enthusiasm at 40 other Bahá'í conferences held around the world in late 2008 and early 2009 - is that such activities are the key to grassroots change.

"In simple terms, we have been learning to build a world civilization based on the Divine Teachings," said Joan Lincoln, a member of a Bahá'í institution who helped organize the 41 conferences. "We are encouraging the masses of humanity - adults, youth, and children - to assume responsibility for the spiritual and social development of their world."

Historic by any measure

By any measure, the 41 conferences were historic for the worldwide Bahá'í community, reflecting both its diversity and dynamism. They also may well stand as a milestone in any accounting of religious efforts to inspire and invigorate believers and their friends on a global scale.

Held over a span of four months, from 1 November 2008 to 1 March 2009, the series drew nearly 80,000 people to meetings in 41 cities in 31 countries on every continent but Antarctica.

"There is only a handful of religious communities in the world in the position to attempt a series of worldwide conferences as widespread, diverse, and focused," said Robert Stockman, who teaches comparative religion at DePaul University in Chicago.

Moreover, the efforts made by many to attend the conferences at times bordered on the heroic, with participants overcoming the barriers posed by economics, limited transportation options, bad weather, and, as noted, travel through regions beset by violent conflict.

On the way to Uvira, for example, some Bahá'ís had all their belongings taken. Yet, despite the ongoing conflict in North Kivu, 21 people from that province managed to get to the conference. The gathering had been scheduled to take place in Bukavu, near North Kivu, but was moved south to Uvira because of security concerns.

"At the time, there were rebels from Rwanda in the area and the situation was quite tense," said Ahmad Parsa, who serves as a member of the Continental Board of Counselors in Africa. "They were killing people and taking their goods and raping women."

Even with the change in venue, said Mr. Parsa, some Bahá'ís travelling through the area were beaten and robbed of their belongings and money. But they still came.

"Wars don't stop them from continuing to try to serve humanity and to advance the plan for the good of everyone," said Mr. Parsa, who noted that most of the conference participants were from small villages.

In Latin America, about a dozen Bahá'ís from Colombia were involved in a bus crash on their way to the conference in Quito, Ecuador. Although the bus was destroyed in a head-on collision with a truck, the group managed to continue their journey, after a stop in the Cali area where other Bahá'ís helped them clean up and recover.

To get to the meeting in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, participants braved -30C temperatures. Some of the Bahá'ís from eastern Mongolia had to get special permission from the government to travel during a major snowstorm, but they made it safely. In all, more than 1,800 people from Mongolia, Russia, and other nations attended.

"One of the things that was so striking was the determination to become a source of hope," said Stephen Birkland, who, like Ms. Lincoln, is a member of the international group of Counselors charged with organizing the events, speaking of efforts that Bahá'ís made to attend. "In some cases, people had 10 days or two weeks to prepare. And yet the response was unbelievable."

The conference series was called for by the Universal House of Justice, the international governing body of the Bahá'í Faith, in a letter dated 20 October 2008. The purpose was set clearly in the context of growing problems in the world at large, noting that "financial structures once thought to be impregnable have tottered and world leaders have shown their inability to devise more than temporary solutions."

The charge put to the worldwide Bahá'í community was to respond with "the conviction that material and spiritual civilization must be advanced together."

Core activities the key

The letter also touched on how the set of simple core activities undertaken in recent years by Bahá'ís around the world can address some of society's wider problems. Those activities are: small group study circles that seek to train people for community service, local devotional gatherings that help promote spiritual and social cohesion, neighborhood children's classes that emphasize moral development, and empowerment training for youth.

"All of these core activities are about civilization building," said Ann Boyles, who serves as a member of the Continental Board of Counselors in the Americas, and who attended the conference in Vancouver, Canada. "And they are all based on a highly participatory model."

Dr. Boyles explained that it is not that Bahá'ís are taking these activities into neighborhoods and "delivering services." Rather, she said, "we are inviting others to join with us in contributing to the building of a new civilization."

Selam Ahderom, a Counselor in Uganda, said the process extends from "creating new social spaces in local communities" where people are encouraged to devote more time to the education of children, to the moral development of youth, and "praying together and thinking about each other."

As Bahá'ís discussed this system at the conferences, they responded with enthusiasm and new ideas.

"The processes of disintegration have to be dealt with by the development of human resources capable of resisting them," said Joy Mboya, a participant at the Nakuru, Kenya, conference. "This conference has given us a clear direction in which we can now act..."

Azer Jafarov, who attended the conference in Baku, Azerbaijan, said: "The vision and knowledge I got from the conference will stimulate our activities for long time."

Although the conferences were sponsored by Bahá'ís, people from other religious backgrounds also attended, whether family members, friends, or others who are interested in grassroots efforts at community building.

Official support

At some conferences, as well, government officials attended or participated.

In Bangui, Central African Republic, officials approved the use of the national parliament building for the conference there. Organizers had planned for 200 or 300 people but realized early on that they might get double or triple that number. They quickly approached the government to rent the main hall of Parliament, which was the only venue in the city capable of accommodating so many people. Officials readily agreed.

In Battambang, Cambodia, Aem Thoeurn, a representative of the provincial government, addressed the gathering.

"[T]he unity of religion and the harmony of its followers is essential for peace. Your gathering here is proof that this is possible," said Mr. Thoeurn,  saying he wished "each one of us will bring this [spirit] back to our own people."

In Ulaanbaatar, Samdan Tsedendamba, the religious affairs adviser to the president of Mongolia, addressed the conference twice. He said the program of activities launched by the Mongolian Bahá'ís fit well into the country's overall plan for development.

Mr. Tsedendamba also said that Bahá'ís could be an example to others in developing a new standard of high moral conduct. He added that he had read many of the Bahá'í writings and was very impressed by the teachings. He ended his talk by encouraging Bahá'ís to propagate those teachings.

Indeed, one of the main themes of the gatherings was how to spread more widely the teachings of the Bahá'í Faith, which outline a peaceful path to unity for the human race, stressing the underlying oneness of all peoples, the common spiritual roots of all religions, and the reality of a single, All-merciful Creator.

A number of religious statisticians have identified the Bahá'í Faith as among the world's fastest growing religions, and one aim of series was to consult about how the core activities can facilitate and consolidate the community's expansion.

"There is no doubt that one aspect of the conferences was the discussion of a program of expansion," said Counselor Birkland. "But what we understand this to be is a way to increase the participation of more people in the world in this new community-building enterprise."

Acts of service

At the conference in Stamford, Connecticut, USA, Counselor Rachel Ndegwa explained how a series of study books produced by the Ruhi Institute in Colombia, which are currently in wide use by Bahá'ís around the world, show how the core activities can be used by almost anyone to get involved in a "path of service."

"The first act of service is the devotional meetings," said Ms. Ndegwa. "We can hold devotional meetings ... in our homes. As more and more people choose this as a path of service, our homes become houses of worship.

"Another element of a healthy pattern of growth is ... the children's class," Ms. Ndegwa continued. "If our mission is to reconstruct society, let's start at the roots. Let's go to the children."

Using the methods outlined by the Ruhi books, the number of new Bahá'ís in the northeastern United States has increased by 500 percent over the last two years.

As was the case at other conferences, participants in the Stamford event spent time in small workshops discussing how they can take such ideas back to their local communities.

"Now we are in the position of exploring what we've heard repeatedly - that we are building a new world civilization," said Hooshmand Sheshbaradaran of Hoboken, NJ.

For Bahá'ís, what they are working for is quite concrete. The structure and principles for a "new world order" are clearly outlined in the sacred writings of the Bahá'í Faith. The writings state that humanity must recognize its essential oneness and establish a global commonwealth on principles of justice, non-violence, and universal suffrage, undergirded by principles like the equality of women and men, the elimination of prejudice, and education for all, along with the highest standards of morality.

The conferences also discussed how Bahá'ís must work to create a new type of religious culture, one based on a mode of learning that includes a pattern of consultation, action, and then reflection on results.

In this way, Mr. Sheshbaradaran said, Bahá'ís are not trying to re-create traditional churches or congregations. "We are not about expanding and re-creating patterns of old," he said. "It is about evolving, it is about stepping out and building a new world order. It is about asking: ‘How will you focus on a neighborhood?'"