Thursday, February 3, 2011

The impact of one single person

During the past 15 years the Baha'i community has been learning how to systematize the process of transformation. In a healthy society all individuals will strive to continually better themselves, and the community as whole also strives to reach higher levels of development. In this dual process we have learned how to lift a community to engage in purposeful action towards its own development. In its letter of 28 December 2010 the Universal House of Justice provides a summary review of the various stages involved. Paragraph 4 of this document then starts at the very beginning of this "program of growth". Subsequent paragraphs up to paragraph 16 describe the intensification and new frontiers for this learning process.

Consider the case of a cluster, or indeed a village or an urban neighborhood, at the very start of the process of development. While there are many people living here and each is engaged in some activity or another, initially there will not be any collective consciousness of a movement towards anything. Like a patch in a meadow, while some things are growing, there is not that sense of orderliness and purpose that characterizes a garden, a farm, or any cultivated land.

Now introduce one person into this village. Let us say that due to his or her previous experience and exposure, this "single homefront pioneer" begins to have conversations with local inhabitants creating "opportunities afforded by the personal circumstances of the [persons] initially involved". Let us say that a group of friends then decide to start a regular gathering to study the human condition in the light of Revelation. Through their study they will better understand the nature of themselves and their relations to one another, as well as their relationship to all the inhabitants of the village. They will grasp a more true understanding of social reality. Then under the edifying influence of their study of the Word of God they will begin to act. This act may be as simple an enterprise as a weekly gathering of a few families intent on educating their children, befriending and animating their young members, or just raising their voices in unison in songs of praise and devotional thankfulness.

Of course the cluster can have say hundreds of thousands of residents. So what can a few families in one neighborhood do to impact or to alter the social reality of these communities? The answer to this question requires a vision into the future that spans decades or even centuries.

One person can plant a seed, and if she is well aware of the potential of that seed - what kind of a tree, how tall, how fruitful, with what dynamics it is likely to grow - and if the initial environment is receptive, the soil is rich and ready, then there are such forces in nature that for decades after the original person has gone, that tree will continue to grow. Similar forces exist in the spiritual worlds of God and in the collective life of humanity. The operation of these forces is such that certain seeds, planted appropriately in receptive souls, can and will grow to become a new life, giving rise to new habits, a new culture and ultimately a new civilization based on spiritual foundations.

Baha'u'llah wrote: "All men have been called into being for the betterment of the world". [Baha'u'llah, Tabernacle of Unity, page 44] Therefore there must exist in the world the necessary natural and spiritual forces to enable each one of us to fulfill this goal of our lives.

This same concept is in fact explored in the first section of the first Book on Reflections on the Life of the Spirit where it quotes Baha'u'llah that "The betterment of the world can be accomplished through pure and goodly deeds, through commendable and seemly conduct", and then we explore the suggestion that there are so few good people in the world that their actions will have little impact. Most groups are able to come to the conclusion that every act, no matter how small will have an impact.

This notion is equally applicable to the efforts of any organization in civil society that is concerned with the social development of a community. If the correct spiritual forces are harnessed along their natural and proper direction even the smallest effort will be amplified and will have long lasting trans-formative effects.

The following 6 questions are suggested by the study of this 4th paragraph. You will be able to reflect on the answers by revisiting the original document here.

1.     What dictates how “the process of growth begins in a cluster”?

2.    When “a single homefront pioneer” arrives in a virgin cluster, what would be his/her first lines of action? What happens next?

3.    What are those activities that “serve as a stimulus to growth”?

4.    How can we know if it is best to multiply a given core activity, or to initiate new activities?

5.   What is meant by “cohesion” in this passage?

6.   What “marks the first of several milestones in a process of sustainable growth”?

Baha'u'llah wrote:

"To whatever place We may be banished, however great the tribulation We may suffer, they who are the people of God must, with fixed resolve and perfect confidence, keep their eyes directed towards the Day Spring of Glory, and be busied in whatever may be conducive to the betterment of the world and the education of its peoples." [Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah, page 271]


  1. Cohesion (question 5) among the core activities, as I understand it, means that each of them links with and supports the other core activities in some way; also, that each of the core activities that are initiated are the outcome not purely of individual initiatives, but of consultation among a (core) group of individuals who are intent on building the kind of community and culture that the institute courses delineate, usually in a neighborhood. The core activities need, moreover, to have been initiated as an outcome of study of the relevant institute courses (e.g. devotional meetings and studying a prayer as a result of Book 1; home visits for deepening as a result of Book 2, etc.). The latter requirement insures that these acts of service (as going on home visits, initiating core activities etc.) are carried out within a relevant context, which makes them sustainable (outside of such a context they would be unsustainable).

  2. Alex, These are very good observations. Their importance becomes even more obvious when we go beyond a few activities and begin to think of dozens, or even hundreds of activities carried out by participation of not only tens, but hundreds and eventually thousands of people. If the required level of "cohesion" exists then the natural course of these activities will lead to steady increase of related activities, and a "nascent programme" gradually turns into a sustained one that is quiet robust and therefore immune to inevitable short-comings of some of its participants. Therein lies the dynamics of an irrepressible movement. In its initial stages when the activities depend on the dedication and hard work of a few people, the system could be fragile. For example if a few people go on vacation for a month the system may stop. But once a certain amount of momentum is built, then the system is no longer fragile, it becomes robust and unstoppable. Such a momentum can only be built if the activities have the required level of cohesion, and as you correctly observed this cohesion refers to the connection between various activities.

  3. question 4: This is a question that comes up in San Diego time and time again. One way of answering it may be to say that the core activities are to be built upon as the needs of a community arise. For example, in an apartment complex composed mostly of students and young professionals, there may not be a need, or even a possibility of starting very many children's classes or junior youth groups, so energy may be focused more on devotional gatherings and study circles. At the same time, there are neighborhoods that are saturated with junior youth and children, and it is overwhelming to try to figure out where to even start. My current understanding is that the answer to this question can best be explored in the framework of coherence. As Alex mentioned, the core activities supplement and build on one another, and are innately interconnected. We have found here than when we focus our energies exclusively on multiplying one core activity, we cannot effectively do so without engaging other core activities. For example, the students have focused on recruiting new animators from the university, so at first we spent a lot of our time doing Book 1s and Book 5s. We soon found that there was a need to start a weekly Animator Devotional for all these new animators to connect to their Creator, and foster a sense of togetherness among everyone involved. We also engaged them in the process of expansion during this cycle by taking them to one of the target neighborhoods to find junior youth. In this sense, though our vision can be focused exclusively on multiplying one core activity, we must rely on the unity and stability of using some of all of the core activities in conjunction with one another in order to be effective.

  4. Tara, I think this is exactly right. The important point to keep in mind is that there are no fixed formulas, and rather than thinking of theoretical considerations, questions such as this can best be addressed by the participants themselves and in response to practical realities.

  5. “the process of growth begins in a cluster” as we enter into purposeful conversation within a neighborhood setting to "undertake with them an exploration of reality that gives us rise to a shared understanding of the exigencies of this period in human history and the means for addressing them." The training institute allows one to develop the capacity to have these elevated conversations specially Ruhi Books 2 and 6. Depending on the receptivity of that soul, one can use a direct presentation of the Faith, learning to incorporate the community building process underway.

    A thought on "shared understanding" is that through these conversation we have at some level a unity of thought.

  6. Thank you, Farzin, for your feedback. The question (#5) of coherence is succinctly elucidated in the House's message of 17 January 2003:

    "The coherence thus achieved through the establishment of study circles, devotional meetings and children’s classes provides the initial impulse for growth in a cluster, an impulse that gathers strength as these core activities multiply in number."

    This coherence, as I understand it, forms the basis of, "[the] PATTERN OF ACTIVITY that is being established in clusters around the globe..." (my capitalization)

    The House links this coherence among the various core activities, including home visits for deepening, in the same message to the institute process as a means of empowering the believers to initiate core activities, making growth sustainable:

    "...ensure that a certain percentage of the new believers immediately enter the institute programme, for...these friends will be called upon to... help deepen the generality of the Baha’is by visiting them regularly; they teach children, [animate junior youth groups,] arrange devotional meetings and form study circles, making it possible to sustain expansion...."

    - The Universal House of Justice, 17 January 2003, to the Baha'is of the World