Thursday, June 23, 2011

A growing maturity

In this series of blog posts we have been studying and reflecting on the guidance provided by the Universal House of Justice in its letter of 28 December 2010 addressed to the members of the five Continental Boards of Counsellors who were assembled on that day in Haifa for five days of deliberations on the course pursued by the Bahá’í community, worldwide, in its efforts to build a model for a future world civilization that progresses continuously and achieves a balance on both the material and spiritual aspects of our lives. The pace of this study has generally been about one per week, on the average, with some exceptions, but I have tried to post about 4 per month. Therefore for the month of June we study the four paragraphs of 21 to 24. The theme of these paragraphs is raising institutional capacity at the local level, and in this particular post we will focus on paragraph 24.

Throughout the decades of the second half of the twentieth century an increasing number of Baha’is responded to the call for homefront or international pioneering. Many of those who arrived in far flung pioneering posts taught the Faith as best as they could, trying to keep expansion and consolidation in balance while at the same time exerting effort to win the goals that were set at the outset of each plan. Some of these goals had to do with increasing the number of localities where Baha’is resided, and other goals were related to the objective of forming Spiritual Assemblies in an increasing number of villages. Yet other goals such as the building of Bahá’í centers or translation and publication of literature dealt with consolidation of the emerging communities. Great victories were won on all of these fronts.

Initially the visiting teachers had to assist with the electoral process of the newly formed Assemblies. Then there were various training classes and the use of traveling teachers to help the new friends appreciate the importance of performing the electoral process in a timely manner. Some even thought that we should “form now and function later”. This effort, valiant and heroic as it was, represented only our initial understanding of the complex dynamics of capacity building.

A few of the pioneers were astonished why the new friends would not, on their own, perform these routine administrative tasks. One may have heard an expression of surprise that after we have “told them” and even “showed them” how elections, meetings and minute keeping should be done still these were not done. This stood at great contrast against the devotion, utter self-sacrifice, a strong sense of commitment and identity, and many acts of service performed by these same new friends. When I would visit a remote home in a village, the residents would welcome me with open arms, gather together in large numbers, possibly slaughter their only remaining chicken in their yard to cook a befitting meal for me, as we would pray and sing together in great adoration of Baha’u’llah, the Blessed Beauty. They had, and still have, such a strong attraction to beauty of all things spiritual.

Reflection on these experiences then compels us to realize that raising capacity of villagers, indeed of anyone, to engage in formal institutional activity is not a simple task, and development is not something that we can simply "tell them" or “show them”. There is a long and methodic process for raising capacity, which requires careful attention and concerted effort. This lesson is not only relevant to the process of community building modeled by the Bahá’í community, but it has wide ramifications for other like-minded persons and organizations, including non-profit organizations and civil society groups intent on raising the capacity of people and institutions everywhere.

In study of paragraph 24 the following questions can be considered:
1 – Once a community grows in size and capacity, the friends will be drawn further into the life of society. Can you locate the paragraph in the Ridvan 2008 that explains this development in some detail?

2 – What have we learned from the systematization of the training and teaching work that might now be useful for us?

3 – How is a community challenged to take advantage of these lessons learned to respond to a widening range of issues that face the village?

4 – How are these new approaches similar to or different from previous approaches to social action, and socio-economic developments?

5 – How has the question of coherence within activities related to growth been achieved so far?

6 – How can such coherence now be extended to include social and economic action?

7 – The Spiritual Assembly is guided not to act as the executor of such socio-economic projects, but rather to act as the voice of moral authority, to ensure that such projects do not compromise the integrity of the activities that have so far been achieved. This task, now given to the Local Spiritual Assemblies, requires the highest level of maturity and intimate familiarity with the language, the concepts, and the dynamics of organic systems, of which both growth and social action form a part. Can you elaborate on this?

This last question is an excellent candidate for reflection, and I invite you to further comment on this concept, here on this blog.

Abdu’l-Baha wrote: “These Spiritual Assemblies are shining lamps and heavenly gardens, from which the fragrances of holiness are diffused over all regions, and the lights of knowledge are shed abroad over all created things. From them the spirit of life streameth in every direction. They, indeed, are the potent sources of the progress of man, at all times and under all conditions. What bounty is there greater than this?” [Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, page 81]

Upholding the standard of justice

Consider the case of a village with a few thousand residents. In addition to farming activities there may be other cottage industries, a school, a clinic, and other social spaces. It is clear that the community has a collective consciousness, even if not all members share in exactly the same beliefs. There may be a few different religious groups, each advancing their own particular beliefs. It is unfortunate, but it may be a social reality that some of these religious groupings have a history of competition. The Bahá’í community is also a distinct community with its particular beliefs and organizational practices. However it is a long tradition that Baha’is “consort with people of all religions”. In particular the principal social and spiritual activities of the Bahá’í community is designed to include people of all walks of life. There is no contradiction then in a person, for example, attending a church regularly, remaining a devout Christian, and also participating in Bahá’í core activities, which are after all devoid of any rituals or dogmatic beliefs and practices.

The institution of the Local Spiritual Assembly in such a village is concerned with the well being of all people in the village. Just as the community activities are open to all, so is the Assembly accessible to all. If two people have some sort of dispute, they can choose to bring their concerns to the Assembly. If the Assembly has built up a reputation as operating on the principles of unity and justice, and its members are known for upright character, we can imagine that many people in the village would want to take advantage of the existence of this institution. What other element in a village has learned how to “put aside the divisive ways of a partisan mindset, how to find the seeds of unity in even the most perplexing and thorny situations and how to nurture them slowly and lovingly, upholding at all times the standard of justice”?

This last quote is taken from paragraph 23 of the letter of 28 December, 2010, of the Universal House of Justice. The study of this paragraph will open new vistas in the collective mindset of the village, including its Bahá’í community, and its Spiritual Assembly.  The following questions may help in such a study.

1 – How and to what ends should a Spiritual Assembly “properly assess and utilize resources, financial and otherwise”?

2 – At this stage of the development of village communities, why should its physical facilities be essentially modest?
3 – What should an Assembly do if the “energies and talents” of the believers are currently being directed towards a divergent set of activities and priorities?

4 – Describe the function of an Assembly in maintaining the spiritual health and well-being of the community. How far outside of the Bahá’í community should this extend?

Baha’u’llah wrote: “The religion of God and His divine law are the most potent instruments and the surest of all means for the dawning of the light of unity amongst men. The progress of the world, the development of nations, the tranquility of the peoples, and the peace of all who dwell on earth are among the principles and ordinances of God.” [Tablets of Baha’u’llah, pp. 130]

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Promoting the best interests of a community

The Bahá’í community has been pursuing a deliberate and conscious path towards creating a model for a future civilization. Often, if such a model exists, it can inspire people that it is possible to arrest the decay in their own society and build a better community. Towards this goal the world was divided to some 16000 or so clusters. The criteria for such clustering had nothing to do with the Bahá’í community itself, and everything to do with demographics of the people living in these clusters. The focus of attention then turned to strengthening these clusters, creating agencies that would serve the cluster, and setting in place a dynamic that will propel that cluster on a new path for progress. In many ways the interests of the localities were widened to focus on the interests of the clusters.

Naturally many of the friends who were busy with service on Local Spiritual Assemblies were eager to learn about the dynamics of growth unfolding in their clusters. They began to study the courses of the institute, and participate in core activities. The individuals would engage in service, and institutions would support them. At that time it was less clear as what an Assembly may do to bolster the process of growth, beyond acknowledgement and encouragement of the individual and collective efforts.  By now some 15 years has elapsed in carrying out this program. As the processes of growth mature in cluster after cluster, the contribution that Assemblies can make is becoming clearer. The Universal House of Justice in its 28 December 2010 letter, paragraph 22, enumerates and explains a number of these duties and functions that a village Local Spiritual Assembly can perform. 

Naturally one of these duties is to consult on specific issues related to the global Plan. But the Assemblies can do this only if the individual members of the Assembly have gained first hand experience in implementing the provisions of the Plan. Since we have said that we should look at the development of the Assemblies as a process of capacity building, it is easy to see then how the training institute that builds the capacity of the individuals in the teaching work also contributes to the development of Assemblies.

Beyond those activities directly related to growth there are of course several other duties of Assemblies. Since there are no formal programs for raising capacity in these areas, the Assemblies will do well to apply some of the operating principles of the training institutes in an effort to learn from action in the field.

In study of this paragraph, the following questions come to mind:

1 – What are some of the dimensions of capacity building for Spiritual Assemblies?

2 – What injunction does Abdu’l-Baha lay down for the continued development of Spiritual Assembly?

3 – If you serve on an Assembly what portion of your consultations fulfill the above hopes of Abdu’l-Baha, and what portion is taken by other necessary administrative work?

4 – How can a village Assembly practically provide “relief of the poor” given its limited resources? How might this be different that charity that is merely focused on the material dimension of life?

5 – How can an Assembly help “the feeble throughout all classes” in a village? Are there any useful ways in which this service may be integrated into “home visits”?

6 – An Assembly naturally wants to show “kindness to all peoples” in the village. How might those who are neither Baha’is nor participate in core activities feel the warmth of such kindness?

7 – There are certain aspects of protection work that are needed in a community. In particular those who serve in the teaching field or facilitate core activities are mere mortals and are not expected to be always perfect or stainless. What can the Assemblies do to practically contribute to this protection work?

8 – What is the relationship between the soul of Abdu’l-Baha in the spiritual worlds of God and the Spiritual Assemblies on this earthly plane?

Baha’u’llah wrote: “The purpose of religion as revealed from the heaven of God’s holy Will is to establish the unity and concord amongst the peoples of the world; make it not the cause of dissension and strife.” [Tablets of Baha’u’llah, pp. 129]

Development of a collective consciousness

Collective consciousness emerges only as a result of an expanding number of individuals who develop a shared understanding. Such a shared understanding can be cultivated by a process of friendship. The process may very well start with one person who is great capacity for love and is able to engage his acquaintances in meaningful and distinctive conversations. These conversations increase the depth of friendship, and lead to working together as each person tries to assist in creating an expanding community of friends. More and more people are hosting devotional meetings. Some will compose songs. Others may have other artistic talents. But all try to lift up the atmosphere of their collective devotionals. Some will help with teaching the children and others assist in animating groups of junior youth in the village. These then are the stuff of activities carried out in a village without dependence on outside assistance. While visitors are always welcome and they can add to the beauty and variety of the activities, the essential ownership and character of these activities is derived from the inhabitants of the village themselves.

When we examine the formation and activities of many of the Spiritual Assemblies that came into existence in the decades past we realize that some of these institutions came into being after a robust set of spiritual activities were in place. But this was not a universal pattern. There were other institutions that were formed or functioned only tentatively. In such circumstances then while the inhabitants loved to come together, to receive visitors, to sing and pray together and to show acts of great hospitality, they had not yet established regular core activities, and therefore it is only natural that they did not yet appreciate the need for institutional support for such non-existent activities. How could anyone then expect them to meet regularly and keep minutes? What would be the purpose of such meetings and deliberations?

It is only after a set of core activities are put in place with dedicated and enthusiastic support of the individuals resident in the village that it makes sense to expect proper functioning of these institutions whose main aim is to mobilize the believers, and bolster and support the ongoing expansion of such activities. This, then is the stage of growth described in paragraph 21 of the letter of 28 December 2010 of the Universal House of Justice.

The study of this paragraph suggests the following questions:

1 – How does individual consciousness expand through personal involvement in the core activities?

2 – How does such personal awareness coalesce into a collective consciousness?
3 – What is the nature of the transformation in a village?

4 – What are the responsibilities of the Assembly in connection with the process of growth?

5 – Can you give a list of questions that an Assembly can ask itself in relation to the process of growth?

6 – According to this paragraph, what is the relationship between the Assembly and the cluster agencies?

7 – How does the beloved Guardian describe the relationship between the Assembly and the individual believer.

Abdu'l-Baha wrote: "The Spiritual Assemblies are collectively the most effective of all instruments for establishing unity and harmony. This matter is of the utmost importance; this is the magnet that draweth down the confirmations of God. If once the beauty of the unity of the friends—this Divine Beloved—be decked in the adornments of the Abhá Kingdom, it is certain that within a very short time those countries will become the Paradise of the All-Glorious." [Selections from the Writings of Abdu'l-Baha, page 83]