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The power of service to humanity, it seems, draws people together with more force than we could ever imagine.
We usually make friends through school, work, shared interests, or just finding ourselves in situations together. But true friendship–the kind that lasts a lifetime–needs to be based on something more profound.
Three of us met up to invite families in a neighborhood to participate in a children’s class we were starting. One friend was completely new to the activity, and the other person had experience from another community. The three of us had just started Baha’i community building activities together in this new neighborhood.
By the time we were finished inviting people, we were laughing and telling funny stories, and eventually my newcomer friend asked expectantly: “So how long have you two known each other?”
We laughed. “Only a week!”
He was stunned. He said that it seemed as if we had been childhood friends—even the way we spoke was similar. He wanted to know: how could we have grown up in separate countries, then met a week ago and embarked on the ambitious journey of starting a children’s class while barely knowing each other?
His surprise made me realize that it is unusual for people to connect so quickly, commit to an activity together, and feel like longtime friends while technically still knowing very little about each other.
The writer and theologian C.S. Lewis wrote about a “secret thread” that ties us together, “something which you were born desiring,” but can’t be put into words. Maybe we can’t put it into words, but the feeling is never more evident than when we’re serving other people and their communities together:
Every imperfect soul is self-centered and thinketh only of his own good. But as his thoughts expand a little he will begin to think of the welfare and comfort of his family. If his ideas still more widen, his concern will be the felicity of his fellow citizens; and if still they widen, he will be thinking of the glory of his land and of his race. But when ideas and views reach the utmost degree of expansion and attain the stage of perfection, then will he be interested in the exaltation of humankind. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 69.
If what ties us together is a shared love of God—and therefore love for humanity and the world around us—then that love must manifest itself in actions, deeds, and service. That means expanding our worldview, like Abdu’l-Baha says—to go from thinking of our own good, to thinking of the good of all of humanity.
This is a difficult attitude to keep constant in a world that has become increasingly more insular. But it’s essential: in our community building activities, we need to be able to reach out to strangers, listen to them, become friends and work together for a better world. We need to develop the ability to find our commonality, no matter where we come from or how we grew up, and love each other like we would love our family.
I’ve learned that Baha’i children’s classes, junior youth groups, study circles, devotionals, and any other activity that leads to building spiritual connections in a community can have this unifying effect on people. Not only do we have shared interests, but we also share a love and a desire to expand the real-world application of that love:
If a small number of people gather lovingly together, with absolute purity and sanctity, with their hearts free of the world, experiencing the emotions of the Kingdom and the powerful magnetic forces of the Divine, and being at one in their happy fellowship, that gathering will exert its influence over all the earth. – Ibid., p. 81.
While community building efforts strengthen our connection to God, and help advance individuals and communities towards social and economic growth, perhaps the most powerful change they exert is the friendships they create by strengthening our capacity to love each other, and to extend that love to more and more people.
Friends who serve in these activities, whether Baha’is or not, quickly become part of a network. When some friends in Greece who were serving near a refugee camp heard that a youth in one of their groups was moving to Lithuania, they remembered that they knew me, and I met up with him and we quickly became friends. When he moved to Germany a year later, I reached out to Baha’is in Germany, and he had friends who could receive him. This is true community building, in a worldwide sense.
A friend from the southern part of the U.S. moved northwards, and we got in touch through a friend who told a friend about her. Though we had never met before, and had led very different lives up to that point, our experience with Baha’i children’s classes and junior youth groups united us instantly. We had the same vocabulary, the same priorities, and the same joyous experience helping others. When we went out to speak to the parents of the local children’s class, it felt like we had been serving together for years.
These friendships can continue throughout the years, even when we’re continents apart. As we share stories about the children in our children’s classes, or our challenges trying to be better and serve better, it feels like we were never separated. That ever-expanding network of service can connect us all.
Maybe it can even give us a small glimpse of a future civilization; the beginnings of a worldwide movement that enables us to learn to create strong bonds of friendship with everyone:
Create relationships that nothing can shake; form an assembly that nothing can break up; have a mind that never ceases acquiring riches that nothing can destroy. If love did not exist, what of reality would remain? It is the fire of the love of God which renders man superior to the animal. Strengthen this superior force through which is attained all progress of the world. – Abdu’l-Baha, Divine Philosophy, p. 110.
Community building, an organic global movement inspired by the Baha’i teachings, takes effort and self-reflection. Its fruits, most of the time, can’t be measured in numbers. The first signs of a united society appear in the unbreakable friendships we build through service to others—friendships that lovingly expand to attract more and more people to a new, united way of life.