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.


  1. Thank you for continuing to post the entries. I have missed this since late June.

  2. I am very curious as how the Assemblies would motivate the believers initiate core activities. The concept of forming neighborhoods makes sense. How does one decide as to when to do this? Let's say I live in a community of 60 with roughly 50% participation. Would it make sense to divide into neighborhoods at this size. Does a community have to grow to a center size before adopting neighborhood feasts for example.


  3. Thank you for bringing up these questions. These are exactly the right questions to ask. Serving humanity with a posture of learning means, among other things, that we should not expect to have all the answers right away. And in fact we may not be able to find all the answers merely from theoretical considerations or from an armchair position. Having said that, I can offer a few observations, but in reality the answer becomes clear only when we combine study with action.

    I myself serve on a Local Spiritual Assembly, and I have observed that we often think in terms of how many Baha'is we have, and what percentage of them may be considered active, and then as a consequence of this line of thinking we may be overcome with a feeling that we do not have enough resources. A natural inclination then would be to say let us not divide any further, thinking that we will remain stronger when we are together. This is almost like an intellectual trap into which we may fall.

    An alternative way of thinking is offered to us in the 4th paragraph of the 28 December 2010 letter of the Universal House of Justice, where it examines what a single homefront pioneer can do. Now imagine that the 30 Baha'is, that you indicated you have, can each possess a spirit of service equivalent to a homefront pioneer. By turning outwards, each one of these souls can initiate - in and around their own homes - a small process of growth. If you revisit that 4th paragraph you will appreciate that the House of Justice in very clear terms explains how such a process can start by initiating one of four core activities, and how over time this will lead to other core activities supported by newly found collaborators, who increase their own friendship based on shared understanding.

    Now you might say that this is a very tall order, that it is not likely that all the 30 participants can arise to these heights. I do not know your community, but there is a very good chance that your assessment is a correct one. So then the question arises as how many such neighborhoods can become the focus of intense activity with an outward orientation. If after careful assessment you conclude that only 6 such neighborhoods can be started, then that is where you will start.

    After neighborhoods with core activities and participation of people from the wider community have been established, it becomes clear how many of them will hold their own Feast. If we start with the division of the Feast first, then we still have to ask how many of these neighborhoods can initiate and then support their own core activities.

    It is important that the members of the institutions - Assemblies, Area Teaching Committee, Institute coordinators and tutors, Auxiliary Board members and their assistants - are at the forefront of this movement. The friends will follow, only if they see that the members of the institutions themselves are personally implementing what they are advocating. And in the process of implementation we learn to plan based on the resources actually available.

    Once your Spiritual Assembly has decided on the composition of these neighborhoods, then you can "motivate the believers" through acts of accompaniment. Once the Assembly members themselves have arisen to carry out the Plan - like 9 homefront pioneers - then their love and respect in the eyes of the friends will increase, and the friends will also arise.

  4. Thank you for the clarification but now I have more to ask.

    I do particularly associate with paragraph 4 of the Dec 28th letter because it gives us the freedom to engage in the core activity that most organically fits into our situation and is natural to us as well.

    No doubt if each individual initiates something in their neighborhood, one could go very far in the right direction.

    The next question that I have is this- let us say that an individual in their neighborhood initiated a regular devotional and a children's class. Assessing the situation that individual realizes that it would be some time before declarations would come about. Would that individual initiate their own feast and invite their not-yet Baha'is to that feast. I should further add that I am referring to a regular feast where communications from the institutions and read and consulted on. Alternatively, should that individual have an additional neighborhood feast, sort of like a unity feast, to introduce their neighborhood to the concept and habit of Baha'i feasts?

    Naturally, these feasts are initiated by individual and require not much besides LSA support and encouragement; however, should they be reported to the LSA or ATC.

    This has been a topic of discussion at our feast, both recently and during the last 5 -year plan. Many individuals believe that they can start their own feasts with their Baha'i and non-Baha'i neighbors. This does not seem quite the idea to me.

    I was under the impression that as a Baha'i penetrates their neighborhood with devotional or any of the core activities, he/she can gradually become the hub for feasts; however, I was under the impression that one does not invite neighbors who are not Baha'is to the feast.

    I really appreciate your explanation. Although I am taking the Wilmette course on this topic this forum seems a bit easier for open dialogue.

    Thank You!

  5. Dear Mrs LittleJeans,

    Thank you for your thoughtful contributions to this subject. Your example of an individual engaged in action in a neighborhood is a very helpful one. We can think of these activities as part of a systematic and sustained pattern of community development.

    Three activities relate to the work of the training institute. These are children classes, junior youth groups, and study circles for youth and adults. These are essentially educational in character. Additionally devotional meetings strengthen the spiritual bonds among the people in a neighborhood. Once these activities are under way, the participants often feel the need to get together from time to time and talk about their work, the quality of their activities, the spiritual environment of their collective endeavor, and more generally about the human condition in their neighborhood.

    These meetings are for community building, are essentially spiritual in character, are open to all, and are held at regular intervals, say monthly, or even once every 19 days. Many neighborhoods that are not in parts of the world where Local Assemblies exist for one reason or another hold these spiritual meetings. Where Local Assemblies do exist they give loving support and encouragement to these neighborhood meetings. Such meetings are of course different than the more formal administrative meetings of 19 Day Feasts.

    The guidance for the 19 Day Feasts are clear enough. They are intended for Baha'is since there is a specific administrative purpose to them. Normally Baha'is do not invite others to the Feast, but if someone were to come, then we should simply welcome them and continue holding the Feast even as they are present.

    The important idea for us to appreciate is this: when the Baha'i community was much smaller, the Feast was the principal activity. But now that our numbers have grown, and the range of our activities multiplied, the other 18 nights are equally important. Whereas in the past the core of our activities - elections, Fund and Feast - were for Baha'is, now the core of our activities should be those activities where everyone is welcome.

    In practice many of the neighborhoods that have established a rich community life with core activities, also hold their own Feasts, after approval by their Assembly. The Assemblies have also learned to provide a measure of latitude for action by these friends. Neighborhood Feasts are relatively new and we have much to learn from action and reflection on action in a spirit of loving support and encouragement for each other. many Assembly members themselves are in the forefront of these neighborhood Feasts.

    As a general rule we find it useful for the Assemblies to be strict about laws of ethics and personal conduct, and be flexible about teaching activities.

    As all of us engage in these long-term processes of growth we will learn where the balance lies, and we are sure to make certain mistakes.

    I hope that these remarks help you as we all strive to travel along this path.

    With loving sentiments.

  6. Thank you very much. These remarks are extremely useful. I will be coming back to other sections soon.