Baha’is talk a lot about “the Baha’i community”–but what do they really mean? Who is a part of “the Baha’i community?”
The Baha’i Faith is the second most widespread religion in the world, and Baha’is constantly seek to expand the Baha’i community wherever we live, by reaching out to others and establishing activities that can improve the spiritual quality of our neighborhoods and cities.
But Baha’is don’t proselytize or try to force their beliefs on others. For Baha’is, “growing” does not mean “converting.” Rather, Baha’is believe that the teachings about peace and unity brought to the world by Baha’u’llah are important for this age, and can be adopted and practiced by anyone and everyone, regardless of their background or belief system—and that includes religion.
The Universal House of Justice, the democratically-elected global leadership body of the Baha’i Faith, uses the term “Baha’i community” often in its messages. It quickly becomes clear that when the Universal House of Justice speaks of a body of people mobilizing themselves to adopt the Baha’i teachings in their life and find ways to better their communities, not all those people are actually Baha’is:
[The Baha’i community] has experienced an unprecedented surge in its capacity to bring friends and acquaintances into contact with its community life; to inspire neighbourhoods and villages into unified endeavour; to articulate how spiritual truths can be translated into sustained practical action; and, above all, to converse not only about the teachings that will build the world anew, but about the One Who taught them: Baha’u’llah. Accounts of His life and of His suffering told in myriad tongues by adults, youth, and children touched countless hearts. Some showed themselves ready to explore His Cause further. Others pledged collaboration. – The Universal House of Justice, April 2018.
So what does it mean, to “pledge collaboration?” Who are these “collaborators?”
These collaborators, often referred to by Baha’is as “friends of the Faith,” are people who, coming in contact with the Baha’i principles, identify with the main objectives of the Faith: to promote unity, and to work for the betterment of the world. When those people decide to participate in the efforts undertaken by the Baha’i community, they don’t necessarily become Baha’is, and they don’t have to—because the principles brought by Baha’u’llah are something everyone can relate to.
The Baha’i principles are not exclusive to a certain “type of person.” You don’t have to be from a specific country, social class, religion, economic background, or even a certain type of personality to find hope and purpose in the Baha’i teachings and activities. The Baha’i Faith is not only for the Baha’is—it is for the entire world.
In fact, friends of the Faith often outnumber the “official” Baha’is in a Baha’i community. They are just as passionate, just as spiritual, and sometimes just as familiar with the Baha’i writings. They are a part of our structure, they teach and animate our children, they love the teachings of the Faith. Regardless of their decision to call themselves Baha’is or not, they are valuable members of the community.
This concept is sometimes difficult to understand. Like in many areas of life, social standards for what religion means make us expect some form of exclusivity—they make us want to think that we are somehow wiser and better than people “outside” of our religion; or, on a simpler level, that others won’t understand what we love about the Baha’i Faith, and won’t value it.
This is not true, and it’s a way of thought that Baha’is all over the world are doing their best to shake. To be coherent with the principle of unity, we must adopt a more inclusive way of thinking. The Baha’i Faith’s conception of religion is not that of an exclusive group that is somehow the only one God looks on positively: instead, it serves as a framework dedicated to the entire human world—and we would be remiss if we didn’t open our doors so that others might join us.
Because at the end of the day, who is to say we know how to transform society? Baha’u’llah gave us the tools and overarching guidance, but the day-to-day efforts, the application of these teachings to reality, must all be learned and perfected through experience. As with any endeavor, the best way to succeed is through action, reflection, and consultation. If Baha’is weren’t open to people from many backgrounds, with different knowledge and ideas and skills, we would never be able to respond to the needs of the society we’re trying to help. In The Promise of World Peace, its 1985 message to humanity, the Universal House of Justice wrote:
The experience of the Baha’i community may be seen as an example of this enlarging unity. It is a community of some three to four million people [as of 2018, closer to five million people] drawn from many nations, cultures, classes and creeds, engaged in a wide range of activities serving the spiritual, social and economic needs of the peoples of many lands. It is a single social organism, representative of the diversity of the human family, conducting its affairs through a system of commonly accepted consultative principles, and cherishing equally all the great outpourings of divine guidance in human history. Its existence is yet another convincing proof of the practicality of its Founder’s vision of a united world, another evidence that humanity can live as one global society, equal to whatever challenges its coming of age may entail. If the Baha’i experience can contribute in whatever measure to reinforcing hope in the unity of the human race, we are happy to offer it as a model for study. – The Universal House of Justice, The Promise of World Peace, October 1985, p. 5.
The Baha’i community is much bigger than just people who have declared themselves to be Baha’is. The Baha’i community is, potentially, the whole world: a world that embraces the idea of unity, and the determination to love each other and dedicate our lives to the betterment of humanity by serving our communities.