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The old man rises first, as so many have done before him. Shifting on weakened knees, his dark, leathery hands grasp the knotted hickory stick to steady himself as he makes his way slowly, deliberately, to the center of the praise house.
He leans forward, eyes closed as if in prayer—and everyone waits in deathly silence, patiently, for the call to go out. The rapping of his cane against the pine floorboards is a lightning bolt, a thunder clap, and a release. “You got a right, you got a right to the tree of life,” he shouts into the rafters.
His booming vibrato trembles the walls, teasing the integrity of the one hundred and fifty year old structure. Side to side his feet shuffle in a counterclockwise rotation as his declarative chant alternates with the steady pounding of his staff. “You got a right, you got a right to the tree of life,” thwack—thwack—thwack, “you got a right, you got a right to the tree of life,” thwack—thwack—thwack.
Slowly, they join him; the senior sisters of the church, handmaidens of the newly born and comforters of the dying; the recently married couple, perfumed with the scent of youthful love; the children guided by the steady hands of their mothers and fathers—all come to take their place in the circle, adding their voices in call-and-response, a metered recitation of affirmation and purpose. Round and round they go, bound together by some unseen force, an unbroken chain of flesh, bone and spirit, linking them to the past, the present, and the future. The sweat that pours from their brows is an invocation and a libation for the ancestors; the generations of the enslaved and the free who danced as they now dance, for themselves and for one another:
Derived from west African cultural traditions common to the Igbo, Yoruba, and Bakonga people, the Ring Shout emerged among the enslaved populations of the Caribbean and the sea islands of South Carolina, and Georgia, as a communal, ecstatic expression of faith that also reinforced enduring, cohesive connections. Sometimes enacted at night, deep in the woods in clearings called “hush harbors” where the perpetual gaze of the slave “master” could not reach them, these emotive expressions of veneration and devotion bound individuals to the ancestral world of the past, and the interdependence necessary for survival in the present.
The Baha’i writings also refer to that holy ecstasy of worship:
Whosoever experienceth the holy ecstasy of worship will refuse to barter such an act or any praise of God for all that existeth in the world. – Baha’u’llah, The Importance of Obligatory Prayer and Fasting, p. 1, # III.
Today, in locations around the world, Baha’is engage in a series of community building initiatives that reflect the dual intention of the Ring Shout: to emphasize the enduring nature of the human spirit and strengthen the vital organ of community life. Referred to as the Core Activities, these initiatives, undertaken “to foster communities distinguished by their worship of God and their service to humankind” include children’s classes; junior youth empowerment programs; study circles; devotional gatherings, and participation in social discourse. This systematic global approach, inspired by the transcendent teachings of the Baha’i Faith—which emphasize both the spiritual and material advancement of human civilization—extends the transformative reach initiated by cultural innovations such as the ring shout by widening the circle to include the diversity of the human family.
Within the context of the Baha’i core activities, each individual, regardless of their beliefs, background or culture of origin, can participate in a dynamic process of community growth that includes a focused study of the Baha’i sacred writings; character development; and the regenerative power of community service.
As this worldwide endeavor progresses, human civilization moves closer to its zenith, where the component parts that constitute the body politic work in synergistic unity with the governing impulse of the enlightened soul, linking all of humanity in an ever-expanding ring of mutuality. Then, under the dome of heaven, will all humankind dance in unison and shout for the enduring virtues of the Beloved: for peace; for love; for justice; for oneness:
The potentialities inherent in the station of man, the full measure of his destiny on earth, the innate excellence of his reality, must all be manifested in this promised Day of God. – Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 340.