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What is a family? Is it a tie we are born with, a network we need to create, or a bond that never stops growing? Community service has the potential to extend who we call family.
That’s what service did for Washington, D.C. residents Elaina Barroso and Aaron Ginoza. After months of serving their community together, they fell in love and created a spiritual family before they even had children of their own.
“Every Faith tradition has these beautiful, lofty goals for humans and [the Baha’i] core activities are the actual blueprint for how to bring those lofty goals into reality,” Elaina who is a Baha’i, explains. “There are four activities [children’s classes, prayer gatherings, a mentoring program for preteens, and study circles for personal and community development that are open to everyone] to help give people a starting point for how to truly make their communities better.”
The core activities create “spaces for people of all ages to explore their own spiritual growth,” Elaina says. They also, “generate positive energy for their communities that are focusing on building up the spiritual character of their neighborhood or of their families or of themselves.”
Responding to the inmost longing of every heart to commune with its Maker, [Baha’is] carry out acts of collective worship in diverse settings, uniting with others in prayer, awakening spiritual susceptibilities, and shaping a pattern of life distinguished for its devotional character. – Universal House of Justice, 2008 letter to the Baha’is of the world.
Aaron, who is not a Baha’i, shared why he decided to participate in these Baha’i-inspired service projects. “[I really like] the hands-on approach — The framework where anyone can start plugging in,” Aaron says.” I feel like a lot of times we look outside ourselves for answers to societal problems and the Baha’i [teachings] really create a framework where, even on an individual level you can start to really have an impact in your community. So, I felt like it was a very empowering model that optimized meaningful contributions on a microlevel.”
It was Aaron and Elaina’s dedication to service that brought them closer together before they got married in 2013.
“There was a family in this one neighborhood of D.C., and Aaron had been helping in that neighborhood with the children’s class,” Elaina says. They decided to also start a group for pre-teens. “I think around that time — and this was back in 2010 — I started visiting this woman in that neighborhood. Her name was Diane and she was in her 60s and she was basically raising her grandson,” Elaina says. So, she asked Aaron if he could help out with Diane’s grandson while she did a study circle with his grandmother.
“Over time, a few things happened — one is Aaron moved into that neighborhood,” Elaina says. “I would go and pick him up from the train station after his work and then we’d drive to the house together to go do our weekly visits with Diane and [her grandson].” Gradually Aaron and Elaina were able to get Diane’s grandson involved in a children’s class in the community.
“Over a few months of doing that regularly, we started to talk a lot in the car about a lot of random stuff,” Elaina says.
After helping Aaron move into his house, Elaina recalls seeing a Baha’i-inspired book about how to spiritually empower middle school-age children. “I saw all the notes that were in there, all the annotations, and I was like, ‘Oh my god, this guy is really cool!’” she says. “That was the stuff I was attracted to.”
Indeed, the two got to know each other by working with the pre-teens in Aaron’s neighborhood. “The kids there, we love them,” she says. But, like any kids that age, sometimes their behavior can be a challenge, so the pair learned how to manage them together.
“Anytime, even as an individual, when you commit to doing something difficult, there’s a lot of opportunity for growth when you commit to something and really try to begin a process of learning and reflection,” Aaron says. “If you are able to do that with another person, it really does start to reveal character in a way that living a comfortable life sometimes doesn’t.”
As the Baha’i writings say:
Anybody can be happy in the state of comfort, ease, health, success, pleasure and joy; but if one will be happy and contented in the time of trouble, hardship and prevailing disease, it is the proof of nobility. – Abdu’l-Baha, Tablets of Abdu’l-Baha
It can create a potential challenge for couples when “people are so comfortable, and they’re not necessarily tested,” Aaron says. “So, when couples do encounter trying times, they don’t have a sense for how the other person might react or what their approach would be. The activities really gave us an opportunity to understand each other’s resilience [and] support [each other] as we were both engaged in something pretty difficult.”
Elaina says serving together brought them closer as a couple because they formed a partnership and made their relationship “something more meaningful from the get-go.”
“There’s less pressure on the budding of the relationship [when you serve together] because you’re not so inwardly focused on yourselves, but you kind of have this other goal that you’re working towards together,” Elaina says. “You develop a sense of how to work with each other and [learn] one another’s strengths and weaknesses, [so] you can appreciate if and how you complement each other.”
Seeing the impact their service projects had on the kids that they were teaching and mentoring also brought them together.
“Their sense of who they were and how they were connected to where they lived changed a little bit — it broadened as they got more opportunities to get to know kids from other parts of their neighborhood,” says Aaron. “They were able to actually see they were a part of this really big community. So, I think that’s one practical thing — getting them in a mindset that was a little broader and a little more global.”
The oneness of humanity lies at the core of the Baha’i teachings. Baha’is believe in having a global identity and vision that embraces the world, which should be shown through infinite love to all who cross our paths. The Baha’i writings say:
When you love a member of your family or a compatriot, let it be with a ray of the Infinite Love! Let it be in God, and for God! Wherever you find the attributes of God love that person, whether he be of your family or of another. Shed the light of a boundless love on every human being whom you meet, whether of your country, your race, your political party, or of any other nation, color or shade of political opinion. – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks
Not only did Aaron and Elaina manifest this love towards each other, but they truly shed this “boundless love” toward all the families that they served. So much so, that the bonds of love that they created with the children and youth continue to this day.
It’s been a decade since that first class and Aaron and Elaina have now been married for six years.“Even before we had our own children, we had a little family,” Elaina says. And they still stay in touch with the kids from the neighborhood — who are now adults in their 20s.
“One of the families, they watched our first son for the first two years and I truly think of them as family because we don’t have our own blood family nearby and so now, [even though] we’re not doing activities with them, we still see each other,” Elaina says. “We give each other Christmas gifts, we’re invited to their graduations, and anytime someone has a birthday in their family, we’re there and vice versa here.”