Sunday, July 31, 2011

Urban Spiritual Assemblies

In its letter of 28 December 2010 the Universal House of Justice dedicates one paragraph, number 27, to the development of Local Spiritual Assemblies in urban settings. The previous 8 paragraphs describe in some detail the trajectory followed by a Spiritual Assembly situated in a village, from its formation to consultation on some aspect of growth, and on to higher levels of functioning. At the risk of over-simplification here is a bird’s eye view of these previous 8 paragraphs.

  • Para. 19 – Consider first Local Assemblies in rural clusters with large-scale growth.
  • Para. 20 – Newly formed Assemblies in villages also develop with capacity building.
  • Para. 21 – Village Assembly should consult on some aspects of growth and support the process.
  • Para. 22 – Assembly to promote and protect the process of growth with a sense of responsibility that encompasses the entire village.
  • Para. 23 – Assembly to use resources wisely and nurture a spiritual environment to mobilize large numbers to service.
  • Para. 24 – Assembly to make sure that social action emerges only in coherence with the elements of the Plan.
  • Para. 25 – Assembly to raise consciousness and advance discourses locally.
  • Para. 26 – Increasingly Local Spiritual Assemblies in villages will show their capacity.

Urban Assemblies must follow this same path. This includes most of the Assemblies in the West, as well as those in major cities throughout the world.

That so much emphasis was put on the development of Assemblies in villages speaks of the confidence and trust in the emergence of these institutions in village settings. That urban Assemblies must follow the same path indicates that we do not follow some “trickle-down” arrangement, and many urban Assemblies may learn from the dynamic example of their sister institutions in villages of the world.

In the past, much of the concern of Spiritual Assemblies were the inner workings of the Bahá’í community itself, large or small.  The picture that now emerges is the intense concern of the Assembly with promoting those activities that will benefit the entire village.

In the past what was at the center of the community life, and what might have been at the periphery? Certainly the Feast, the Fund and electoral process were at the center. These separated those who were enrolled and those who were not. They would identify us. Now at the core of Bahá’í life there are those activities – aptly called core activities – that are open to all, and which operate by connecting the heart to the Word of God. The major concern of an Assembly is to help the believers initiate, then sustain, such activities at the core of our social and spiritual collective existence with significant participation by many of those in the village who may not be Baha'is.

So how can an Assembly in a city accomplish this task? Increasingly the Assemblies are learning to divide their cities into neighborhoods, and treat each neighborhood as a separate village. Once the community comes to understand the logic of this decentralization, they will naturally begin to implement the core activities, as well as the Holy Days, and other functions in their own neighborhood, embracing a large number of their own neighbors in all its spiritual activities.

If you live in a city of some half a million people, and if we assume that a typical neighborhood is about ten thousand people or so, then you will have about 50 neighborhoods in your city. If only a fraction of these can have only a handful of core activities at this time, what are we looking at? Of course in practice there are many other considerations, but this simple calculation indicates the vast potential that is yet to be realized.

So here are a few questions to help in the study of this paragraph:

  1. What are the differences between rural and urban communities?
  2. What are social spaces, and how can we find them?
  3. Can you make a tentative list of social spaces in your neighborhood? Can you now describe their receptivity and openness to hear about any wisdom enshrined in the teachings?
  4. Can you try to now list those human resources, living in your neighborhood, who may have some access to these social spaces?
  5. What are some of the social political and cultural institutions in your neighborhood, or in your city?
Shoghi Effendi wrote: “The American nation… stands, indeed, from whichever angle one observes its immediate fortunes, in grave peril. The woes and tribulations which threaten it are partly avoidable, but mostly inevitable and God-sent, for by reason of them a government and people clinging tenaciously to the obsolescent doctrine of absolute sovereignty and upholding a political system, manifestly at variance with the needs of a world already contracted into a neighborhood and crying out for unity, will find itself purged of its anachronistic conceptions, and prepared to play a preponderating the unification of mankind." [Soghi Effendi, Citadel of Faith, p.127] 
As we build models of a united community in a neighborhood, the Local Spiritual Assemblies will build a model of governance that is coherent with the conception of a spiritual community.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Trustees of the Merciful

The story of birth and development of Bahá’í Local Spiritual Assemblies is a fascinating one. There is of course a very practical side to such stories. But there is also a deeply spiritual side which is entirely mystical.

I remember that while teaching the Faith in Africa during the 1980s I arrived with a group of other teachers in a certain village, where no one had yet heard of the Faith. As we met with the headman, and he called his people to come and listen to us, we were able to lay bare the message of Baha’u’llah with beauty and simplicity. In the course of that same afternoon we were able to answer many questions, as there were many people who were sincerely interested and profoundly touched. Scores declared their Faith that same day. They asked, and we also wondered, what will come next. We knew that this particular village was far off the beaten path, and that our experience told us that we may not get another chance to revisit this village anytime soon. So we offered several complimentary options to help deepen their love for Baha’u’llah and for service for humanity. They could send a few selected young people to visit the capital city where they could stay for a few weeks to learn more, and there was also a deepening course that was available through mail, and we would leave some literature behind. But there had to be more. We had little understanding then of how to effectively build capacity.

We knew about the special spiritual blessing that would come from having formed a Local Spiritual Assembly. So I described this to them, and they agreed that on that same day we should help them form this Assembly. With all the declared Baha’is present at the meeting, it was simple enough for us to conduct the Bahá’í electoral process in an atmosphere of joy. This sacred election was done, and the headman and his village people were content.

I thought to myself, and I prayed as well, that while receptivity is to such an extent, how could we expect that in one afternoon this whole village would be so transformed as to stand on its own feet. I have no doubt that while the Assembly did not function in any meaningful way, that for years after that day, those far off believers in that remote village would read their Bahá’í books, would receive the regular national newsletter, perhaps make up their own songs, and will continue to regard themselves as new Baha’is with a sense of renewed vigor. It was sad that I was never again able to visit that village, but I heard from other visitors who went there that the community has continued to exist. I know that the mysterious blessings that are associated with forming their Assembly has helped them keep on to their new identity. If there were clusters in place then, with their schemes of coordination, and nearby tutors they could have carried on the work that we had started, such an Assembly would have a chance to take ownership.

Now as we learn in this Plan how to raise the capacities of the members of such remote communities, it is possible for them not only to exist as Baha’is, but also to trace a path for growth and development. We can now join the practical and systematic effort at capacity-raising to that essential mystical element of faith and confirmation.

The following questions may help in the study of the 26th paragraph of the letter of 28 December 2010, from the Universal House of Justice.
  1. What are some of the attributes that the Local Spiritual Assemblies should gradually develop?
  2. What does it mean that the members of the Assemblies can be seen as "the trusted ones of the Merciful among men"?
  3. If the Assemblies in villages develop their expected attributes, how will their members be seen by the inhabitants of these villages? Can you elaborate on the dynamics of this social development?
Abdu’l-Baha wrote: “As to you, O ye other handmaids who are enamoured of the heavenly fragrances, arrange ye holy gatherings, and found ye Spiritual Assemblies, for these are the basis for spreading the sweet savours of God, exalting His Word, uplifting the lamp of His grace, promulgating His religion and promoting His Teachings, and what bounty is there greater than this? These Spiritual Assemblies are aided by the Spirit of God. Their defender is ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Over them He spreadeth His wings. What bounty is there greater than this? 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, p. 79]

Social Action

As the Bahá’í community continues to focus on learning about the essential ingredients of building spiritual neighborhoods, new avenues for learning will open up.  Therefore a new element has now been introduced in this Five Year Plan, for 2011-2016, which did not exist in the previous Five Year Plan. This element is known as social action.

Of course successive Plans are not disconnected from each other. In fact we view all of the Plans as part of an organic whole. They are indeed successive stages of the same Plan conceived by Abdu’l-Baha in 1916 and 1917, and communicated by Him to the American and Canadian Baha’is in the Tablets of Divine Plan. These were the war years and postal services operated only in limited ways. One limitation was that letters written and enclosed in sealed envelopes would not be delivered. Therefore Abdu’l-Baha wrote some of these original tablets on the back of post cards. As they were being transmitted from Haifa across the land, sea, and a vast ocean, these precious messages were open and visible to anyone who wanted to read them. The same sense of openness and inclusivity permeates the current phase of these Plans.

If we use the analogy of the growth of a tree, we can say that at each stage a new leaf grows, a new branch off shoots, or a new fruit appears. The first fruit during 1996-2001 period was the appearance of the training institutes on a large and systematic basis throughout the Bahá’í world. The next five years saw the emergence of the concept of cluster, followed by the establishment of intensive programs of growth. And now we arrive at the stage when a new fruit is visible on this tree. This new fruit is social action at the level of the neighborhood and cluster.

We know precious little about this at this time, but already a few elements are beginning to be understood, as we collectively work and learn from action. In fact we know more about what it is not, than what it is. Social action is not acts of charity by the rich for the benefit of the poor. Social action is not a development project as is commonly understood and practiced by the development agencies. Social action is not the same as activism, and it has nothing to do with protest. Social action does not normally start as a large and complex enterprise. The methods and approaches used in social action cannot be mechanistic. And social action cannot separate the people into developed and underdeveloped, or into givers and receivers.

This list can go on still. Social action is not about financial grants, even though some funds may be involved. Social action is not about the provision of technology, packaged or otherwise, even though the application of knowledge has a central role in social action. And social action is not about participatory reaction to some proposed idea that is assumed to help the lot of a people. In particular those serving in a capital city of each country, say at the National Bahá’í Center, will not design a particular line of action, and then take this to the villages seeking to attract participation of the villagers.

One thing we do know. The training institute raises the capacity of the individuals of all ages. As they come to better appreciate the attributes of the soul, and its connection with its Creator, as they connect with the Word of God, as they develop their powers of expression, as they arise and serve as teachers, animators and tutors, they are bound to reflect on their own human condition. And as they engage in cycles of action and reflection, these souls with raised capacities and expanded consciousnesses are bound to commit that which will enhance their spiritual and material lot. This then, in all its simplicity, is social action.

Like all organic systems social action, once it is born in the matrix of the institute process in a neighborhood, it is bound to grow and develop. It will gradually acquire added elements. And one day it may indeed be a large and complex enterprise. Its rate of growth however is intimately bound by its coherence with all other activities, and a sense of community in that neighborhood.

As we study this paragraph 25 of the letter of 28 December 2010 the following questions may be helpful.
  1. What are a few of the characteristics of social action at the grass roots described in the Ridvan 2010 message?
  2. What are some of the conditions that social action at the grass roots level must meet, as described in the Ridvan 2010 message?
  3. What is the role of the Nineteen Day Feast for social action?
  4. What are some of the potential pitfalls for social action?
  5. What is the relationship of the institute process and social action?
Baha’u’llah wrote: "[I]s not the object of every Revelation to effect a transformation in the whole character of mankind, a transformation that shall manifest itself both outwardly and inwardly, that shall affect both its inner life and external conditions? For if the character of mankind be not changed, the futility of God’s universal Manifestations would be apparent." [Baha’u’llah, The Book of Certitude, p.241]