This year on July 4th–Independence Day in the United States—I had a difficult time. My family and I went to the Fourth of July parade and watched the floats go by, but I felt totally disappointed and so out of place.
The parade disheartened me, with its focus on the military and police, white privilege, and the sad faces of veterans who still bear the inner and outer scars of war.
Perhaps my feelings had something to do with the fact that my daughters and I recently returned from our second trip to The Gambia in West Africa. Maybe the deep and meaningful experiences we had there made me view the parade as so disconnected from the world’s real issues.
My sadness arises because our nation seems more focused on serving our military rather than serving humanity, more interested in itself than in the wider world. I truly feel that this is a defining period in the history of the United States, a time when rancor and cynicism appear to dominate our national political scene.
It may be the perfect time, however, for conscious Americans to offer a more positive view of the United States to the world. That’s why, on our country’s Independence Day, I posted this Baha’i prayer for America:
O God! Let this American democracy become glorious in spiritual degrees even as it has aspired to material degrees, and render this just government victorious. Confirm this revered nation to upraise the standard of the oneness of humanity, to promulgate the Most Great Peace, to become thereby most glorious and praiseworthy among all the nations of the world. O God! This American nation is worthy of Thy favors and is deserving of Thy mercy. Make it precious and near to Thee through Thy bounty and bestowal. – Abdu’l-Baha, Baha’i Prayers, p. 24.
Americans gave $410 billion to charity in 2017, the highest donation total of any nation in the world. We’re a generous country, but what if we gave with more empathy? What if we gave sacrificially by getting up and going on volunteer trips to support humanitarian projects that can use our help? What if we did more that just giving monetarily, and got personally involved?
That’s why my daughters and I went to Africa. That entire continent has attracted me for a few decades now. While previous generations were inspired by Hemingway’s big game hunting or Jane Goodall’s research in the jungles of Eastern Africa to study chimpanzees, today many feel drawn to the spirit of the people of Africa. Today more Americans gravitate towards that vibrant continent, with its transformative and exciting grassroots projects empowering women and girls, who still struggle more than most people on our planet. African girls face tremendous challenges—poverty, lack of education and gender discrimination—so we went there to do what we could to help.
In the Baha’i Faith, the concept of service to humanity plays a very important role. Baha’is believe that service to others gives meaning and purpose to our lives. The Baha’i teachings say:
Service to humanity is service to God. … Today the nations of the world are self-engaged, occupied with mortal and transitory accomplishments, consumed by the fires of passion and self. Self is dominant; enmity and animosity prevail. Nations and peoples are thinking only of their worldly interests and outcomes. The clash of war and din of strife are heard among them. But the friends of [Baha’u’llah] have no thoughts save the thoughts of heaven and the love of God. Therefore, you must without delay employ your powers in spreading the effulgent glow of the love of God and so order your lives that you may be known and seen as examples of its radiance. You must deal with all in loving-kindness in order that this precious seed entrusted to your planting may continue to grow and bring forth its perfect fruit. The love and mercy of God will accomplish this through you if you have love in your own heart. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, pp. 8-9.
On our trip to The Gambia in West Africa, my 14-year-old daughter Sophie, and my 13-year-old daughter Ella and I were lucky enough to go to Starfish International for nine days. Starfish, a Baha’i-inspired school, uplifts Gambian girls by providing them with a world-class education focused on service to humanity. Yes, it may not seem like a teenager’s favorite thing to do during their summer vacation, but they packed their bags and rolled up their sleeves anyway. The act of getting up, getting uncomfortable, and giving of ourselves and our privilege has to be motivated by love and empathy for our world, not just our own nation.
Our trip to Starfish International in Banjul, The Gambia reinforced that our love can be even deeper for people when we do things with intentional love and not just charity. What holds us back from experiencing that love? Why should we not live as world citizens and supporters of all people, not just our own kind or our own country?
Starfish International in The Gambia taught us something crucial: even people with tremendous challenges can be uplifted and empowered by serving others. This after-school program for girls focuses on education and service as the two solutions to empowerment. The girls in this program beam with light and have transformed their characters because they purely serve others with good intentions, empowering each other and their community as a way to create change.
With this altruistic outlook, Starfish International students are becoming the country‘s future doctors, lawyers, scientists, and its next generation of leaders. We had a chance to attend the school’s graduation during our trip. One of the most beneficial takeaways for my daughters and I: how Starfish International girls have more meaningful conversations about developing character, service to community and each other, openly talking about the challenges they face in their personal lives.
A recent study found that people who spent more time in substantive conversations were happier than those who wasted their time on lighter fare. For me, that helps explain why the girls at Starfish International—who have the biggest imaginable challenges in all aspects of their lives—are the happiest teenagers with the biggest smiles I’ve ever seen.
Thus may each one of you be even as a candle casting its light, the center of attraction wherever people come together; and from you, as from a bed of flowers, may sweet scents be shed. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, pp. 35-36.