Tuesday, April 26, 2011

A new arena of learning for the institutes

In April 1963 the existing 56 National Spiritual Assemblies of the world gathered at the home of Abdu'l-Baha in Haifa to elect the Universal House of Justice. Since then the worldwide Baha'i community has increased many times. In the rural areas of the world masses of humanity were moved to embrace the Faith. To respond to their need for deepening we created various deepening institutes. These were educational programs of various durations and several kinds. Then we introduced mobile institutes. Some of these were in the form of a van that carried pamphlets, books, film strips or other literature, and were driven by volunteer teachers from village to village. As the needs still grew we established permanent institutes, often at a central place. Gradually as more teachers were trained these institutes began to offer distance education.

Institutes are not buildings, or a set of work books, or even a given curriculum. They are organizational structures. In 1996 we began to see the institutes in a new light. Since these institutes were meant to increase the knowledge and spiritual insight of their participants, and to develop skills and cultivate attitudes and habits for service, their title was changed from teaching or deepening institutes to training institutes. And since the Ruhi institute had been most effective in bringing about the desired transformation in its participants, five years ago all the institutes in the world adopted its material as the first set and the trunk of their educational programs.

The organizational structure of the institutes is adapted to the needs in each cluster and is considered as highly flat. The participants are referred to as collaborators, since they are not merely expected to learn, but also to act in the field of service. The study sessions are referred to as circles, to encourage each participant to take ownership of his or her development. Those who facilitate the pace of the study are referred to as tutors to avoid the image of a learned professor or faculty making deposits of information onto blank pages of ignorant students. And the work of tutors in each cluster is improved incrementally as the tutors themselves gather for periodic reflection on their work, facilitated by a coordinator. Normally cluster institute coordinators are accompanied in their work by a regional coordinator.

Currently in US there are 19 such regional coordinators serving 7 training institutes, many of them dedicating their full time to such sacrificial service on a volunteer basis. Each institute operates under the guidance of a board of directors, which are appointed by and act as agencies of the National Spiritual Assembly. Named after Magdalene Carney, and Hands of the Cause of God Dr. R. Muhajir, Martha Root, and Louis Gregory, or merely take on the name of their respective regions.

During the summer of 2010 some 300 cluster institute coordinators from as many clusters around the world, assisted by their respective regional coordinators and Auxiliary Board members participated in seminars lasting 6 days during which they reviewed and reflected upon initiating a conversation in a receptive neighborhood that would then attract new participants to the study of the first book, Reflections on the Life of the Spirit. We are learning about building communities using the instrument of a devotional meeting. What an inspiration it is to see these new faces learn so quickly and take on the tasks so willingly.

It is in reference to these gatherings and the ensuing activities in the neighborhoods that the Universal House of Justice makes reference in its letter of 28 December 2010, paragraph 16, when it speaks about "strengthening the educational processes set in motion by the training institute". This particular paragraph speaks of the 3 educational processes, then lists 5 dynamics that underlie the transformative effects of the training institute, and closes by mentioning 5 characteristics of study circles that raises the capacity of the collaborators for service.

The following questions are suggested by the study of this paragraph:

1.     What is the “new arena of learning”?
2.     What does “strengthening the educational processes set in motion by the training institute” look like?
3.     What did the Ridvan message say about the work that is involved in “strengthening [this] educational processes”?
4.     List five “dynamics that underlie” the educational process fostered at the level of the study circle.
5.     In these advanced clusters “every effort is being exerted to ensure that” the environment of the study circles are such that new human resources are trained with increasing capacity for service. List five principles that characterize such study circles.
6.     How does the institute raise consciousness without awakening the insistent self?

Baha'u'llah wrote: " How many the lands that remain untilled and uncultivated, and how many the lands that were cultivated and yet remained without water, and how many the lands which when the hour of harvest arrived no harvester came forth to reap them. However, through the wonders of God’s favor and the revelation of His loving kindness we cherish the hope that souls who are the embodiments of heavenly virtues may appear and busy themselves with teaching the Cause of God and training all who dwell on earth." [From recently translated tablets of Baha’u’llah]

A challenge at the forefront of the learning process

What is a learning process, and where is its forefront? I hope to reflect on this question in this blog post.

The language that we use helps in constructing a new social reality. The coming of Baha'u'llah has brought with it a new message for all of humanity. It has also brought fresh capacity for all of humanity to understand that message, and to adopt and implement it. As we learn to adopt and implement elements of this message we transform our lives, and our society in the direction of growth and maturity.

Consider the case of a single cluster. Of course there are great variations among real clusters, but let us take a hypothetical  example. Let us say that the population of this cluster is one or two hundred thousand people. Let us also say that there are Baha'i communities in a few towns in this cluster. Say we have 4 or 5 communities that have Local Spiritual Assemblies. Perhaps the total Baha'i population is about 200 or so. Such a cluster has been engaged in various activities for some time. They have built vibrant Baha'i communities, and erected administrative institutions. They have been observing the Nineteen Day Feasts regularly, holding gatherings to observe Holy Days, and have established local Funds. They have also been teaching, proclaiming the Faith and consolidating their communities. During the past five years they have also established regular study circles, over 100 people have started the study of various courses, and many have engaged in core activities that resulted from the study of the institute materials. Let us also imagine that two years ago institute coordinators have been appointed, an Area Teaching Committee has come into existence, and that they have launched an intensive program of growth. Since then they have been conducting cycles of activity, steadily increasing the participation of the local population in these core activities. Now over half of the participants of these activities are from the wider community, gradually integrating people of all ages from all walks of life. This then would be the current social reality.

Now let us imagine what might be the condition of such a cluster in 5 years time. The Universal House of Justice in its letter of 28 December 2010, paragraph 15, provides us with such a vision. It says that "If, in a cluster, those shouldering responsibility for expansion and consolidation number in the tens, with a few hundred participating in the activities of community life, both figures should rise significantly so that by the end of the Plan, one or two hundred are facilitating the participation of one or two thousand.”

This then takes us back to the question at the top of this post. While there is an evolving framework for action, there are no formulas for going from here to there. Each cluster will have to learn for itself those strategies, methods and approaches that will realize the above goal and vision. And we have 20 cycles to get there.

Those  individuals, whether they be Baha'is or not, who are active in the field of action-reflection and are learning about the process of changing tens into hundreds and hundreds into thousands will find great motivation and great satisfaction in this work. There is nothing more intrinsically motivational than learning about this process, which is at the forefront of the learning process.

The following questions are suggested by the study of this paragraph:

1.     What is the challenge that must be faced by those “in the forefront of the learning process”?

2.     In those clusters where “an intensive programme of growth is established” what should be done now?

3.     What does it mean that the system should “not close in on itself”? Describe cases where this might happen.
4.     What have we learned about receptivity so far?
5.     A “direct presentation of the Faith” should be “carried out at a sufficient level of depth and reinforced by a sound approach to consolidation”. Please share your experience in this regard. Did it bring “enduring results”?
6.     What are the “lessons of the past” about this subject?
7.     What is your vision of “both figures should rise significantly”? Describe what your cluster may look like at April 2016?

Monday, April 18, 2011

A distant goal

Baha'u'llah wrote: "Know ye that the poor are the trust of God in your midst. Watch that ye betray not His trust, that ye deal not unjustly with them and that ye walk not in the ways of the treacherous. Ye will most certainly be called upon to answer for His trust on the day when the Balance of Justice shall be set, the day when unto everyone shall be rendered his due, when the doings of all men, be they rich or poor, shall be weighed." [Baha'u'llah, Súriy-i-Mulúk, published in The Summons of the Lord of the Host, page 190]

In its letter of 28 December 2010, Paragraph 14, the Universal House of Justice provides a sobering assessment for the Baha'i community. This is one of my most favorite passages. It helps us to better appreciate the importance of the tasks of teaching, of expansion and consolidation, in the light of the greater task of building a new civilization. Let us look at each sentence separately. I will indicate the quotes from this paragraph in italics and in quotation marks.

What should be apparent is that, if the Administrative Order is to serve as a pattern for future society, then the community within which it is developing must not only acquire capacity to address increasingly complex material and spiritual requirements but also become larger and larger in size."

It should be clear that there is no shortage of religions in the world. Baha'i Faith has not come merely to give people one other religion, or to add to the confusion that characterizes religious life of mankind. Rather the goal of the Baha'i Faith is to create a model for the future society. 
The human family has gone through several stages of development from childhood through adolescence. As we stand at the threshold of maturity, it is imperative that we have a visible model from which we can learn. 
Considering the ongoing changes in the world, and the ferment of thought that is sweeping the communities in the Middle East and North Africa, many communities may look to the West for a model of freedom and democracy. While this may be better than dictatorship, those of us who live in the West are painfully aware of how woefully inadequate it is. But since the masses of the people do not see a better alternative, they cannot imagine what could be better. In particular  there are no societies that adequately address both the material and spiritual requirements of people.

If we want to model the workings of a small community, all we need is one small community. But if we want to model the workings a more complex society, then we need a larger community. 

"How could it be otherwise.  A small community, whose members are united by their shared beliefs, characterized by their high ideals, proficient in managing their affairs and tending to their needs, and perhaps engaged in several humanitarian projects -- a community such as this, prospering but at a comfortable distance from the reality experienced by the masses of humanity, can never hope to serve as a pattern for restructuring the whole of society."

The current Baha'i community is perhaps the most diverse community in the world, comprising as it does people from the most diverse backgrounds throughout the world. And yet there is a danger that in one locality or another the people live at a "comfortable distance from the reality experienced by the masses of humanity". If this happens, even for a short period of time, such a community will be lost among the privileged few, and lose its relevance to finding a lasting solution. 

"That the worldwide Baha'i community has managed to avert the dangers of complacency is a source of abiding joy to us.  Indeed, the community has well in hand its expansion and consolidation."

The goal then is to build a significantly large community that strives to live according to the vision of Baha'u'llah for humanity. But this is not just about having many adherents for the sake of building a larger religious community. It is a clear and obvious difference, that can be easily misunderstood. Such a larger community is not an end in itself. Rather it is a means by which we can learn how to build a global society. We readily admit that there are others who also contribute to the development of the new global civilization. And in our effort to build such a civilization we need to practically understand how to  "administer the affairs of teeming numbers".

"Yet, to administer the affairs of teeming numbers in villages and cities around the globe -- to raise aloft the standard of Baha'u'llah's World Order for all to see -- is still a distant goal.”

And we should work towards realizing such a distant goal, sooner rather than later. 

The following questions pertain to this paragraph.

1.     Why is it necessary for the Bahá’í community “to become larger and larger in size”? 

2.     What other capacity must be acquired by the Bahá’í community?

3.     What does it look like when a community operates “at a comfortable distance from the reality experienced by the masses of humanity”?

4.     Why is it not sufficient for a community to merely be “engaged in several humanitarian projects”?

5.     From a global perspective the Bahá’í community has “well in hand its expansion and consolidation”. What might be needed in your cluster to reach this goal? 

6.     What remains “still a distant goal”? And what capacities need to be developed to attain such a goal?

A society-building power

The Baha'i community is consciously working to build a living model of a future world civilization. In so far as I know this is the first time that any group of people have tried to do this. The underlying conviction is that this is not only possible, but inevitable. Such a conviction comes from the belief that there is a power inherent in the Cause. There is ample objective evidence in the history of the Faith that can convince any unbiased observer of the existence of this inherent power. The Faith has faced enemies, both internal and external, and consisting of the combined forces of both the potentates and the most influential religious leaders. Yet at every phase of its life, the Cause has survived against all imaginable odds. This power is consistent with historical forces impelling humanity towards a new society.

In the eyes of Baha'is, the destiny of their Faith is intimately connected with success in building communities that are models of a new emerging world civilization. That is why we are so confident of the success, not only of our own efforts, but of the efforts of all those in civil society who work with us to assist in building new neighborhoods.

Below, we quote a few sentences from Baha'u'llah, then give its interpretation from the writings of Shoghi Effendi, and connect it to paragraph 13 of the letter of 28 December 2010 of the Universal House of Justice. You will see the source of confidence that motivates the Baha'is as well as so many of their close co-workers in the fields of education and development in every neighborhood and cluster, and gives us hope and a long-term vision that keeps us going.

Writing of the present day civilization, Baha'u'llah wrote: “... Its sickness is approaching the stage of utter hopelessness, inasmuch as the true Physician is debarred from administering the remedy, whilst unskilled practitioners are regarded with favor, and are accorded full freedom to act. The dust of sedition hath clouded the hearts of men, and blinded their eyes. Erelong they will perceive the consequences of what their hands have wrought in the Day of God.”

Explaining that the time is ripe, Baha'u'llah wrote: “This is the Day whereon the earth shall tell out her tidings. The workers of iniquity are her burdens… The Crier hath cried out, and men have been torn away, so great hath been the fury of His wrath. The people of the left hand sigh and bemoan. The people of the right abide in noble habitations: they quaff the Wine that is life indeed from the hands of the All-Merciful, and are, verily, the blissful.”

Then Shoghi Effendi provided an interpretation for the above passage. He wrote: "Who else can be the blissful if not the community of the Most Great Name, whose world-embracing, continually consolidating activities constitute the one integrating process in a world whose institutions, secular as well as religious, are for the most part dissolving? They indeed are “the people of the right,” whose “noble habitation” is fixed on the foundations of the World Order of Bahá’u’lláh—the Ark of everlasting salvation in this most grievous Day. Of all the kindreds of the earth they alone can recognize, amidst the welter of a tempestuous age, the Hand of the Divine Redeemer that traces its course and controls its destinies. They alone are aware of the silent growth of that orderly world polity whose fabric they themselves are weaving."

And again Shoghi Effendi wrote: "Conscious of their high calling, confident in the society-building power which their Faith possesses, they press forward, undeterred and undismayed, in their efforts to fashion and perfect the necessary instruments wherein the embryonic World Order of Bahá’u’lláh can mature and develop. It is this building process, slow and unobtrusive, to which the life of the world-wide Bahá’í Community is wholly consecrated, that constitutes the one hope of a stricken society. For this process is actuated by the generating influence of God’s changeless Purpose, and is evolving within the framework of the Administrative Order of His Faith."

Then the Guardian of the Baha'i Faith describes, in graphic detail, the transformation of society from the present broken conditions to its ultimate destiny in these words: "In a world the structure of whose political and social institutions is impaired, whose vision is befogged, whose conscience is bewildered, whose religious systems have become anemic and lost their virtue, this healing Agency, this leavening Power, this cementing Force, intensely alive and all-pervasive, has been taking shape, is crystallizing into institutions, is mobilizing its forces, and is preparing for the spiritual conquest and the complete redemption of mankind. Though the society which incarnates its ideals be small, and its direct and tangible benefits as yet inconsiderable, yet the potentialities with which it has been endowed, and through which it is destined to regenerate the individual and rebuild a broken world, are incalculable." [All quotes are from Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Baha'u'llah, pages 194-196]

Some of the phrases from the above passages are quoted by the Universal House of Justice in paragraph 13 of its letter for the next Five Year Plan. I have only one question to offer for the study of this paragraph.

1.     Describe the vision of Shoghi Effendi for the society-building power inherent in the Faith. What obstacles or victories we might encounter along the way?