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How the Baha’i Faith Develops the Power of Community Service

Faith Mzungu-Vilakati | Nov 12, 2018

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

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Faith Mzungu-Vilakati | Nov 12, 2018

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

When I grew up, in a family that belonged to the Baha’i Faith, we would always look forward to the 19-Day Baha’i Feast.

Baha’i Feasts are regular community gatherings, occurring on the first day of each 19-day month in the Baha’i calendar. Each spiritual gathering consists of devotional, administrative, and social portions.  

Since Baha’is have no clergy, and no formal weekly worship gatherings, the Feast joyfully brings together the community to worship and connect with each other. The Baha’is themselves didn’t come up with the idea of a monthly Feast—Baha’u’llah, the prophet and founder of the Baha’i Faith, incorporated it into the Baha’i teachings from the beginning:

Verily, it is enjoined upon you to offer a feast, once in every month, though only water be served; for God hath purposed to bind hearts together, albeit through both earthly and heavenly means. – Baha’u’llah, The Most Holy Book, pp. 40.

As children, we would particularly look forward to this day, especially when our family hosted the Feast. The duties of the host at involve selecting the Baha’i writings and prayers for the devotional part of the Feast, and providing some refreshments for the social portion. The democratically-elected administrative institution, the Local Spiritual Assembly (LSA), takes responsibility for the administrative part.

My siblings and I, as children all under the age of 12 years, loved to help with Feast. When our families hosted these gatherings, our parents would task us with the responsibility of welcoming the participants, and then handing the program over to the chairperson of the LSA during the administrative part, before we again facilitated the social part of the Feast.

Reflecting on this today as an adult, I realize Feast was the forum that first afforded me an opportunity to develop the capability to speak to an audience and coordinate an activity. This valuable experience gives children confidence and lets them feel that they can help and serve others. It develops responsibility and agency, those inner spiritual qualities that help us all lead successful, fulfilling adult lives.

Baha’is want everyone to have similar opportunities to develop those inner capabilities, so Baha’i communities offer a free sequence of training courses to everyone called the Ruhi Institute. Established in 1995, the Ruhi Training Institute carries out action and research in the field, in order to develop programs and materials that enhance the capacity of individuals and communities to serve humanity:

The main sequence of courses is organized so as to set the individual, whether Baha’i or not, on a  path being defined by the accumulating experience of the community in its endeavour to open before humanity the vision of Baha’u’llah’s World Order. The very notion of a path is, itself, indicative of the nature and purpose of the courses, for a path invites participation, it beckons to new horizons, it demands effort and movement, it accommodates different paces and strides, it is structured and defined.

A path can be experienced and known, not only by one or two but by scores upon scores; it belongs to the community. To walk a path is a concept equally expressive. It requires of the individual volition and choice; it calls for a set of skills and abilities but also elicits certain qualities and attitudes; it necessitates a logical progression but admits, when needed, related lines of exploration; it may seem easy at the outset but becomes more challenging further along. And crucially, one walks the path in the company of others. – The Universal House of Justice, 12 December 2011, p. 2.  

The first book in the sequence of courses, titled Reflections on the Life of the Spirit, is largely concerned with the question of identity. A group of people progressing through this first book, also referred to as a study circle, develops their capacity to read and reflect on the Word of God, to contemplate the life of the soul, to study prayers, and to shape a pattern of life known for its devotional character.

Book 2 of the Ruhi sequence explores the nature of developing a personal path of service. Participants think about the joy of serving others and acquire the skills and abilities, knowledge and qualities, needed to enter into conversations that are uplifting to the mind and spirit.

Participants in the third series of the Ruhi Institute training can choose a specialized path of service. After the training—when they learn the ability to foster the development of spiritual qualities in small children with love and discipline—they can begin to offer a relatively simple class for children in the first grade of a program for their spiritual education.

Another specialized path of service emanates from Ruhi Book 5, titled Releasing the Powers of Junior Youth, allowing participants to become “animators” of junior youth between the ages of 12 to 14. Those animators help junior youth navigate life through a spiritual empowerment program.

Those who complete the sequence of Ruhi courses can become tutors of the Ruhi materials, facilitating new groups moving through the initial six courses in the sequence:

With each course studied, knowledge of the Faith increases, insights into spiritual matters deepen, spiritual susceptibilities expand, requisite qualities and attitudes develop, and skills and abilities sharpen. Individuals grow in the ability to investigate the Sacred Writings, to understand the reality of their community, and to engage in conversations of significance. They become better able to consult on their needs, to collaborate with others, and to reflect on and improve their efforts. As they become ever more conscious of the divine assistance surrounding them, they grow in confidence. When such an experience embraces more and more people, and many of them after studying Book 7 are assisted to form a study circle and serve as tutors, they apply all these abilities in efforts to accompany others on the path of service. – The Universal House of Justice, January 2017, p. 5.

As my siblings and I learned at an early age, children can best find their place in the world, and grow into responsible, caring adults, when they develop an ethic of service early on in their lives.

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