By Bahá'í World News Service

The prestigious biennial Royal Architectural Institute of Canada (RAIC) International Prize is not a typical architectural award.

An international jury of six highly distinguished architects has to choose a building that stands out for being “transformative within its societal context” and “expressive of the humanistic values of justice, respect, equality, and inclusiveness.” This they have to do from among an extraordinary selection of architectural structures from around the world that have impacted the social life of the communities within which they were built.

“The Bahá’í Temple was a community project. Numerous volunteers worked on this project, similar to a way a community project works in a small village, but this was on a global scale,” explains Diarmuid Nash, a distinguished Canadian architect and Chair of the Jury. “But the Temple went beyond the community,” he continues. “It extended the principles of the Bahá’í Faith—that every person is equal, that every person can come here to reflect and regenerate. It had this impact that rippled beyond the community and attracted more and more people from all walks of life.”

This year’s RAIC International Prize of $100,000 was awarded to the Bahá’í House of Worship for South America. The prize money is being dedicated to the long-term maintenance of the Temple. Commissioned by the Universal House of Justice and designed by Canadian architect Siamak Hariri, the House of Worship for South America has become an iconic symbol of unity for Santiago and well beyond. Overlooking the city from the foothills of the Andes, the Temple has received over 1.4 million visitors since its inauguration in October 2016. The House of Worship has not only symbolized unity but it has given expression to a powerful conviction that worship of the divine is intimately connected with service to humanity.

The connection between the built environment and the well-being of society was a preeminent concern for the Jury of the RAIC Prize. Diarmuid Nash, the Jury Chair, explains that three architectural projects were selected as finalists for the transformative impact they had on their respective communities. “The Bahá’í Temple was a community project. Numerous volunteers worked on this project, similar to a way a community project works in a small village, but this was on a global scale.”

The Baha’i Temple for South America

The Baha’i House of Worship for South America

“But the Temple went beyond the community,” he continues. “It extended the principles of the Bahá’í Faith—that every person is equal, that every person can come here to reflect and regenerate. It had this impact that rippled beyond the community and attracted more and more people from all walks of life.”

The process of selection was rigorous and extended over six months. Jury members were asked to perform site visits as part of their research and selection process. “We asked Stephen Hodder, former President of the Royal Institute of British Architects and guest Juror, to visit this project,” says Mr. Nash. “We thought he would have a dispassionate eye.”

Mr. Hodder visited the Temple for three days earlier this year and spent a significant amount of time with the local community. He later shared his impressions with the Jury, referring to the House of Worship as “truly transformational, timeless and spiritual architecture, the like of which I have never experienced, and the influence of which extends way beyond the building.”

“…every person can come here to reflect and regenerate,” reflects Diarmuid Nash, the Chair of the Jury. It had this impact that rippled beyond the community and attracted more and more people from all walks of life.”

Speaking about Mr. Hodder’s visit, Mr. Nash says “Stephen said to me that he had not felt such an emotional impact since he had walked into Ronchamp, which is a very famous chapel all of us have visited in our architectural careers. It is a touchstone of modern architecture. He said ‘this goes beyond Santiago, it reaches out to the world.’”

Mr. Hodder in his comments to the Jury shared the following thoughts:

“How can it be that a building captures the spirit of ‘unity,’ a sacred place, or command a prevailing silence without prompting? The interior space spirals upwards vortex-like culminating with the oculus within which is the inscription ‘O Thou Glory of the Most Glorious’. Seating orientates to Haifa and the Shrine of the Báb, the forerunner of Bahá’u’lláh…. But why do people flock to the Bahá’í Temple? Is it the garden, planted with native species and lovingly cared for by volunteers, or the view over Santiago and remarkable sunsets, or the curious object set against the mountains? The Temple is the anchor…At night, the opacity of the cast glass outer skin, and the translucency of the Portuguese marble inverts, and the dome appears to glow ethereally from the inside…. The Temple has not only afforded a focus for the Bahá’í community but in their commitment to ‘service’ also for the neighbourhood and its well being.”

An interior view of the House of Worship during its inauguration in October 2016

It was not only the impact of the Temple on society but also the nature of its craftsmanship that struck the Jury. “It was lovingly assembled,” says Mr. Nash. “The woodwork, the stonework, and the glasswork—they all have the sense of a hand shaping them, which is remarkable for a project so sophisticated. This had a powerful impact on the Jury. There was this sense that the hand of the community had crafted the outcome.”

In the wake of the award, Mr. Hariri has been reflecting on the endeavour. “Hundreds of people sacrificially worked on this project with great dedication, enormous skill, and put themselves forward at the very frontier of what’s possible in architecture,” he explains.

“The Temple reflects an aspiration. What architects do is put into form aspiration. When you have a chance like this, where the aspirations are so great, it requires the furthest reaches of imagination to meet that challenge.”

Siamak Hariri, the architect of the House of Worship

Diarmuid Nash, Jury Chair of the RAIC International Prize

The award was presented on 25 October at a ceremony at the Westin Harbour Castle in Toronto. “Above all,” said Mr. Hariri in remarks he made that evening, “our gratitude extends to the Universal House of Justice which was our unwavering source of guidance, courage, and constancy.”

Mr. Nash, who was there, says that as the talk finished people were standing and cheering. “We were all very inspired. It’s a project that has a life of its own. It is supposed to be a building built to last 400 years. I suspect it will go well beyond that.”

“How can it be that a building captures the spirit of ‘unity,’ a sacred place, or command a prevailing silence without prompting? The interior space spirals upwards vortex-like culminating with the oculus within which is the inscription ‘O Thou Glory of the Most Glorious’. Seating orientates to Haifa and the Shrine of the Báb, the forerunner of Bahá’u’lláh…. But why do people flock to the Bahá’í Temple? Is it the garden, planted with native species and lovingly cared for by volunteers, or the view over Santiago and remarkable sunsets, or the curious object set against the mountains? The Temple is the anchor…At night, the opacity of the cast glass outer skin, and the translucency of the Portuguese marble inverts, and the dome appears to glow ethereally from the inside…. The Temple has not only afforded a focus for the Bahá’í community but in their commitment to ‘service’ also for the neighbourhood and its well being,” writes former President of the Royal Institute of British Architects and member of the Jury, Stephen Hodder.

By Bahá'í World News Service

OXFORD, United Kingdom — The International Tree Foundation is in the midst of an ambitious plan—plant 20 million trees in and around Kenya’s highland forests by 2024, the organization’s centenary.

That goal is one of the many living expressions of the ideals espoused by Richard St. Barbe Baker (1889-1982), founder of the organization. Mr. Baker, who was best known as St. Barbe, was a pioneering environmentalist and early British Bahá’í who had a far-reaching vision and initiated practices that have become common and widespread today.

A re-evaluation of this influential environmental pioneer is now under way, thanks to the work of the International Tree Foundation and the publication of a new biography. The recent attention comes at a time that the consequences of global climate change are increasingly apparent to humanity.

“Long before the science of climate change was understood, he had warned of the impact of forest loss on climate,” writes Britain’s Prince Charles, in the foreword of the new biography about St. Barbe. “He raised the alarm and prescribed a solution: one third of every nation should be tree covered. He practiced permaculture and agro-ecology in Nigeria before those terms existed and was among the founding figures of organic farming in England.”

Having embraced the Bahá’í Faith as a young man in 1924, throughout his adventurous life, St. Barbe found in the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh the embodiment of his highest aspirations for the world. His deep faith was expressed in a love for all forms of life and in his dedication to the natural environment.

“He talks about the inspiration he received from the Faith and from the writings of Bahá’u’lláh and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá,” explains Paul Hanley, the author of a new biography about St. Barbe—Man of the Trees: Richard St. Barbe Baker, the First Global Conservationist. “St. Barbe had a world embracing vision at a time when that wasn’t really common. His frame of reference was the whole world.”

St. Barbe noted this connection with Bahá’u’lláh’s vision of the oneness of humanity when he went on pilgrimage to the Shrine of Bahá’u’lláh.

“(H)ere at Bahjí (Bahá’u’lláh) must have spent his happiest days. He was a planter of trees and loved all growing things. When his devotees tried to bring him presents from Persia the only tokens of their esteem that he would accept were seeds or plants for his gardens,” St. Barbe later wrote in his diary, quoted in Mr. Hanley’s book.

St. Barbe then recalled a passage from Bahá’u’lláh’s writings: “‘Let not a man glory in this, that he loves his country; let him rather glory in this, that he loves his kind.’ Yes, I thought, humankind, humanity as a whole. Was it not this for which I had been striving to reclaim the waste places of the earth? These were the words of a planter of trees, a lover of men and of trees.”

St. Barbe also maintained a sustained contact with Shoghi Effendi, who encouraged him in dozens of letters and sought his advice when selecting trees for Bahá’í Holy Places in Akka and Haifa. St. Barbe described how the inscribed copy of The Dawn-Breakers that Shoghi Effendi sent him became his “most treasured possession.”

“I would read it again and again, and each time capture the thrill that must come with the discovery of a New Manifestation,” St. Barbe wrote.


At age 91, St. Barbe participates in a ceremony commemorating the 20th anniversary of the dedication of the Baha’i House of Worship in Sydney, Australia.

The International Tree Foundation, which St. Barbe originally named Men of the Trees, is just one of many organizations he established in his lifetime. It is estimated that, as a result of his efforts, the organizations he founded, and those he assisted, some 26 billion trees have been planted globally. He was so dedicated to tree planting, in fact, that he took an international trip at age 92 to plant a tree in memory of a close personal friend, a former prime minister of Canada. St. Barbe died a few days after accomplishing the purpose of that trip.

“I think people should know about Richard St. Barbe Baker because his legacy still lives on,” says the Foundation’s chief executive, Andy Egan.

“Today we try to walk in St. Barbe’s footsteps,” adds Paul Laird, the Foundation’s programs manager. “We have a sustainable community forestry program, which reaches out and tries to work particularly with groups and local community-based organizations that are close to the real situation—the people themselves doing things for themselves, who understand the threats of land degradation and forest loss, and what that actually means for them.”

From early childhood in England, St. Barbe was attracted to gardening, botany, and forestry. He would run among his family’s trees, saluting them as if they were toy soldiers. Later, as a young man awaiting the start of his university classes in 1912, he took a job as a logger where he lived in Saskatchewan, Canada. He could no longer treat the trees as his friends.

“This area had been virgin forest and one evening, as I surveyed the mass of stricken trees littering the ground, I wondered what would happen when all these fine trees had gone,” St. Barbe wrote at the time. “The felling was wasteful, and I felt sick at heart.”

That experience would be a defining one for St. Barbe. He decided to study forestry at Cambridge University, beginning a lifetime dedicated to global reforestation. Afterward, he moved to British-ruled Kenya, where he set up a tree nursery. While there, he witnessed the effects of centuries of land mismanagement.

St. Barbe stands in front of his vehicle during his the Green Front Against the Desert expedition in 1952. (Credit: University of Saskatchewan Library, University Archives & Special Collections, Richard St. Barbe Baker Fonds)

Working as a colonial forester, St. Barbe was expected to employ top-down forest management practices. This went against the practices of the indigenous Kikuyu people, who used a traditional method of farming where they burned down trees to create rich soil. St. Barbe wanted to encourage a form of agriculture that promotes the growth of a forest conducive to farming while also protecting the soil from erosion and respecting the culture and wisdom of the local population. The tribal leaders were not open to the planting of new trees, calling this “God’s business.”

To honor the traditions of the Kikuyu people and promote an awareness of their significant role in tree planting and conservation, St. Barbe looked to one of their long-held traditional practices—holding dances to commemorate significant moments. From this integration of cultural values and environmental stewardship was born the Dance of the Trees in 1922.

“So instead of trying to push them and force them into tree planting, he said let’s make this consistent with the culture. So he approached the elders there, discussed it with them and they had this Dance of the Trees which led to the formation of the Men of the Trees,” says Mr. Hanley.

Along with the Men of the Trees’ co-founder, Chief Josiah Njonjo, St. Barbe developed a deeper understanding of the important ecological, social, and economic roles of trees in the life of humanity.

“Behind St. Barbe Baker’s prescience was his deep spiritual conviction about the unity of life,” Charles, the Prince of Wales, writes. “He had listened intently to the indigenous people with whom he worked.”


St. Barbe, facing left, shakes hands with a friend at a reunion of the original founders of Men of the Trees in the 1950s. Men of the Trees was founded in 1924 after St. Barbe’s work in Kenya.

St. Barbe’s ventures into what is now called social forestry were looked upon with some skepticism. As a colonial forester, he was expected to protect forests that belonged to governments.

“He was extraordinary in that he broke through that,” says Mr. Laird. “He saw that fundamentally these forests belonged to the people of Kenya and you needed to work with the people to conserve the forests.”

This community-led approach remains core to the work of the International Tree Foundation.

“His caring nature for all life is something that really shines through,” says Mr. Egan. “He very much helped to give birth to this idea that it wasn’t just a professional thing about planting trees. It was something that ordinary people in communities could and should be doing. In a way they’re in the best place to actually protect the forests…so their role should be very much recognized and supported and celebrated.”

St. Barbe is sitting in the middle of the second row for this portrait of the participants in the first summer school of Men of the Trees in 1938. (Credit: University of Saskatchewan Library, University Archives & Special Collections, Richard St. Barbe Baker Fonds)

In researching St. Barbe’s biography, Mr. Hanley discovered that the forester “was definitely very advanced in his thinking. And his whole philosophy of the integration and unity of human society, but also of the natural world, were fairly radical concepts at the time.”

When St. Barbe first encountered the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh in 1924, he found his ideas of nature and humanity confirmed. A Christian with a deep respect for indigenous religious traditions, St. Barbe recognized the truth in Bahá’u’lláh’s teachings about oneness—the oneness of religion, the oneness of humankind, and the interconnectedness of all life. The Faith’s writings also employ imagery from nature to help convey spiritual truths.

“I began to read some translations from the Persian,” St. Barbe wrote, reflecting on his pilgrimage to the Shrine of Bahá’u’lláh. “‘In the garden of thy heart plant naught but the rose of love.’ I was enthralled by the sublimity of the language. Here was beauty personified.”

In 1929, while on a mission to establish a branch of the Men of the Trees in the Holy Land, St. Barbe traveled to Haifa to visit Bahá’í sacred sites. Pulling up in his car outside of the home of Shoghi Effendi, St. Barbe was surprised to see the Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith coming out to welcome him and handing him an envelope. It contained a subscription to join the Men of the Trees, making Shoghi Effendi the organization’s first life member.

“He talks about the meeting with the Guardian as the most significant moment in his life, and it really…galvanized him,” says Mr. Hanley.

Through a continued correspondence, Shoghi Effendi encouraged St. Barbe’s efforts. For 12 consecutive years, he sent a message to the World Forestry Charter gatherings, another of St. Barbe’s initiatives, which were attended by ambassadors and dignitaries from scores of countries.

At age 91, St. Barbe met with a group of schoolchildren in China. (Credit: University of Saskatchewan Library, University Archives & Special Collections, Richard St. Barbe Baker Fonds)

St. Barbe’s work took him to many countries. He was appointed Assistant Conservator of Forests for the southern provinces of Nigeria from 1925 to 1929. He also planned forests on the Gold Coast. In the United States, he launched a “Save The Redwoods” campaign and worked with President Franklin D. Roosevelt to establish the American Civilian Conservation Corps which involved some 6 million young people. After World War II, St. Barbe launched the Green Front Against the Desert to promote reforestation worldwide. One expedition in 1952 and 1953 saw him trek 25,000 miles around the Sahara, leading to a project to reclaim the desert through strategic tree planting. In his late 80s, St. Barbe traveled to Iran to promote a tree planting program. He stopped in Shiraz, the birthplace of the Bahá’í Faith, where he was asked to inspect an ailing citrus tree at the House of the Bab, a place of pilgrimage for Bahá’ís.

The Men of the Trees grew into the first international non-governmental organization working with the environment. By the late 1930s, it had 5,000 members in 108 countries, and its own journal for members, titled Trees.

This is a copy of the first issue of Trees, which St. Barbe started in 1936. Today, Trees is the longest-running environmental journal. (Credit: International Tree Foundation)

“Originally it was created because it seemed that St. Barbe just got so many letters and invites and correspondence,” says Nicola Lee Doyle, who today compiles the annual journal. “He was telling people constantly where he was going to be and what he was going to be talking about. So they needed a way to just give everybody the information, and that’s how it started—but then it developed.”

Today, Trees is the world’s longest-running environmental journal.

Successive generations of environmentalists have credited St. Barbe as igniting their passion for their work.

“Sometimes it was the little things he did—like writing an article, or doing a radio interview—that would connect with some youth in some distant country,” says Mr. Hanley. “And several of these people went on to become very significant figures in the environment movement.”

“His legacy is probably related to the fact that he was indefatigable,” Mr. Hanley adds. “It was quite incredible—thousands of interviews, thousands of radio broadcasts, trying to alert people to this idea, and it really did have an impact on the lives of many people who have gone out and protected and planted trees.”

St. Barbe’s pioneering thinking can be particularly valuable now as humanity grapples with the challenges presented by climate change. Indeed, one of humanity’s most pressing challenges is how a growing, rapidly developing, and not yet united global population can live in harmony with the planet and its resources.

“It is now clear that had we heeded the warnings of St. Barbe Baker and other visionaries, we might have avoided a good deal of the environmental crises we face today,” Prince Charles writes. “Richard St. Barbe Baker’s message is as relevant today as it was ninety years ago and I very much hope that it will be heeded.”


Listen to the podcast episode associated with this Bahá’í World News Service story.

St. Barbe sat for this portrait in 1932.

By Bahá'í World News Service

One hundred years ago, near the final days of the First World War, the Baha’i world awaited news of the safety of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá given the extension of the theater of war to Haifa. The Bahá’í community was still young but already deeply united despite being scattered across most of the planet. Among the instruments that kept it connected and informed were the nascent news services that had begun to take shape in those early decades of the 20th century.

The news of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s safety reached that global community through Star of the West, one of the first of the international Bahá’í news publications. It was originally published in 1910 under the name Bahá’í News. In 1911, however, it took on its iconic title, Star of the West, and in some 20 pages of its first volume under that title covered historic developments in the construction of the Bahá’í House of Worship in the United States, published messages from ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, and shared reports from around the world.

Star of the West would go on to become one of the first news publications to gain widespread distribution in the then-nascent Bahá’í world community. Since that time, international Bahá’í news has connected an increasingly global and organically united community, keeping readers abreast of major developments and serving as a valuable instrument for the sharing of new insights and knowledge. Over the years, these publications developed in sophistication and reach, addressing wide audiences and exploring a broad array of topics. And throughout, these publications have striven to embody the values contained in the sacred writings of the Faith.

In one of His well-known works, Bahá’u’lláh described “the pages of swiftly appearing newspapers” as “the mirror of the world” and “an amazing and potent phenomenon,” reflecting “the deeds and the pursuits of diverse peoples and kindreds.” In The Secret of Divine Civilization, initially published anonymously in 1875, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá wrote that it was “urgent that beneficial articles and books be written, clearly and definitely establishing what the present-day requirements of the people are, and what will conduce to the happiness and advancement of society.” He stated that “These should be published and spread throughout the nation, so that at least the leaders among the people should become, to some degree, awakened, and arise to exert themselves along those lines which will lead to their abiding honor.”

In the first issue of Star of the West, editors Albert R Windust and Gertrue Buikema explained that they adopted the name from a phrase used by ‘Abdul-Bahá. Encouraging their efforts, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá wrote: “thy volume will increase, thy arena will become vast and spacious, and thy voice and fame will be raised and become world-wide…” Not only was Star of the West a vital source of information for Bahá’ís around the world, but it was also often the first place of widespread publication of writings from ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, and, later, Shoghi Effendi.

Star of the West began after an earlier publication, New York Bahá’í Bulletin. Believed to be the first English-language Bahá’í news publication, New York Bahá’í Bulletin had only five issues from September 1908 to May 1909. These early periodicals emerged during a time when the printed word was still the main source of news — radio news would not begin until a decade later. They were developed in contrast to, and in the context of, an evolving media landscape, where, especially in the United States, many editors were printing sensational stories intended to appeal to mass audiences – an approach referred to as “yellow journalism.”

In the following years, other Bahá’í communities started their own news publications. In 1917 in Ishqabad, Turkistan, where the world’s first Bahá’í House of Worship had recently been built, the Bahá’ís started Khurshid-i khavar, a news magazine whose name means Sun of the East. In India, a journal called Bahai News started publishing in English and Persian in 1921. That same year in Germany, two publications began, Sonne der Wahrheit, meaning Sun of Truth, and Wirklichkeit, meaning Reality. Then, Akhbar-i-Amri, a publication from Iran whose name means News of the Cause, was first published in 1922. A year later, The Dawn began publishing in Burma, in Burmese, English, and Persian. Herald of the South was a journal for Bahá’ís in Australia and New Zealand, beginning in 1925. This growth in Bahá’í periodicals continued as the Faith spread around the world.

In 1917 in Ishqabad, Turkistan, where the world’s first Baha’i House of Worship had recently been built, the Baha’is started Khurshid-i khavar, a news magazine whose name means Sun of the East.

In 1921 in Germany, two publications began, Sonne der Wahrheit, meaning Sun of Truth, (shown here), and Wirklichkeit, meaning Reality.

A page from The Dawn, volume 1, published in 1923 in Burmese, English, and Persian

Herald of the South was a journal for Baha’is in Australia and New Zealand, beginning in 1925.

During his ministry as Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith, Shoghi Effendi encouraged the publication of national and local newsletters, writing in 1925 that they should aim to report on “matters that are strictly Bahá’í in character, as well as … topics of a humanitarian, ethical and religious nature.”

The publication of The Bahá’í World in 1926 marked a new stage in the capacity of the Bahá’í community to provide reports and statistics, capture experience from diverse countries, and disseminate important insights and analyses. Each edition covered the progress of the international Bahá’í community over a defined period.

The Bahá'í World volumes were published from 1926 to 2006.

In 1935, the first volume of World Order magazine was published, including essays, poems, personal recollections, and historical pieces. The periodical brought together into one volume works by scholars, poets, artists, and practitioners from various fields of endeavor. The first volume also included excerpts from a letter by Shoghi Effendi titled “The Goal of a New World Order.”

“A mechanism of world inter-communication will be devised, embracing the whole planet, freed from national hindrances and restrictions, and functioning with marvellous swiftness and perfect regularity,” envisioned Shoghi Effendi in that letter, one of a series written by him between 1929 and 1936.

World Order magazine was first published in 1935. It made available essays, poems, personal recollections, and historical pieces. The periodical brought together into one volume works by scholars, poets, artists, and practitioners from various fields of endeavor. The first volume also included excerpts from a letter by Shoghi Effendi titled “The Goal of a New World Order.”

Today, there has been a proliferation of regional and national Bahá’í publications. At the international level, the Bahá’í World News Service (BWNS) reports on developments of the worldwide community, and the Bahá’í International Community (BIC) covers news relating to efforts at the United Nations and other international forums as well as providing major updates on the persecution of the Bahá’í community in Iran and Yemen.

The Bahá’í World News Service began publishing online in 2000, picking up the reins of the former Bahá’í International News Service which was a biweekly printed newsletter. BWNS now also provides podcasts. In the coming months, in addition to English and Persian, stories will be made available in Spanish and French.

In recent years, BWNS has sought not only to inform readers of developments in the Bahá’í world but to explore new insights emerging from Bahá’í practice-whether at the grassroots level in such areas as social and economic development or in participation in the prevalent discourses of society, through which Bahá’í communities are striving to contribute to the advancement of society at the level of thought. At the heart of these efforts has been the exploration of themes central to humanity’s well-being and progress: the equality of women and men, the environment and climate change, the role of religion in society, and migration and integration, to name a few.

Stories about social transformation are gathered from communities around the world and at many different levels of society. While seeking to capture the diversity of the human experience and the particular efforts of a population, the News Service also aims to draw out universal principles and lessons that are applicable and relevant to every society.

As the mechanism of communication envisioned by Shoghi Effendi has been realized, a growing community has increasingly found itself able to connect, remain informed, and draw lessons generated from earnest and sincere efforts of people around the world to apply the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh for the betterment of their societies. These efforts to make available news to a global community call to mind the words of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in 1875:

The publication of high thoughts is the dynamic power in the arteries of life; it is the very soul of the world. Thoughts are a boundless sea, and the effects and varying conditions of existence are as the separate forms and individual limits of the waves; not until the sea boils up will the waves rise and scatter their pearls of knowledge on the shore of life.1Secret of Divine Civilization. Available at

By Bahá'í World News Service

The sun rises in the Congolese village of Ditalala, and the aroma of freshly brewed coffee fills the air. For generations, the people of this village have been drinking coffee, which they grow themselves, before heading out to work on their farms.

Over the past few years, this morning tradition has come to take on a deeper significance. Many families in the village have been inviting their neighbors to join them for coffee and prayers before starting the day.

“They’ve transformed that simple act of having a cup of coffee in the morning,” says a recent visitor to Ditalala, reflecting on her experience. “It was truly a community-building activity. Friends from the neighboring houses would gather while the coffee was being made, say prayers together, then share the coffee while laughing and discussing the issues of the community. There was a sense of true unity.”

Neighbors enjoy a morning coffee together in Ditalala.

In Ditalala, villagers prepare for the day by gathering for prayers.

The central African nation of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has experienced, for over a century, a series of violent struggles. The most recent war from 1998–2002 is estimated to have claimed over 5.4 million lives, making it the world’s deadliest crisis since World War II. For the last two years, it has been the country with the highest number of people displaced by conflict—according to the United Nations, approximately 1.7 million Congolese fled their homes due to insecurity in the first six months of 2017 alone.

Yet, there are communities throughout the country that are learning to transcend the traditional barriers that divide people. Inspired by Bahá’u’lláh’s teachings, they are striving for progress both material and spiritual in nature. They are concerned with the practical dimensions of life, as well as with the qualities of a flourishing community like justice, connectedness, unity, and access to knowledge.

“What we are learning is that when there are spaces to come together and discuss the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh in relation to the challenges facing their community, people will come and consult about what we can do together to find solutions to our problems,” reflects Izzat Mionda Abumba, who has been working for many years with educational programs for children and youth.

“When everyone is given access to these spaces, there is nothing that separates us—it’s no longer about who are Bahá’ís and who are not Bahá’ís. We are all reading these writings and in discussing them we find the paths to the solutions for whatever we are doing. Inspiration comes from these writings and directives,” he says.

The story of this country is a remarkable one. The process which is unfolding seeks to foster collaboration and build capacity within all people—regardless of religious background, ethnicity, race, gender, or social status—to arise and contribute to the advancement of civilization. Among the confusion, distrust, and obscurity present in the world today, these burgeoning communities in the DRC are hopeful examples of humanity’s capacity to bring about profound social transformation.

A path to collective prosperity

The village of Walungu is in South Kivu, a province on the eastern side of the country, bordering Rwanda and Burundi. In recent years, a spirit of unity and collaboration has become widespread among the people of Walungu. They pray together in different settings, bringing neighbor together with neighbor, irrespective of religious affiliation. This growing devotional character has been complemented by a deep commitment to serving the common good.

At the heart of Walungu’s transformation has been the dedication of the village to the intellectual and spiritual development of the children.

Walungu is a remote area of the country. Years ago, the community was not satisfied with the state of formal education available for their children. In response, a group of parents and teachers established a school in the village with the assistance of a Bahá’í-inspired organization that provides teacher training and promotes the establishment of community-based schools.

Distinct from traditional educational institutions, community schools, such as the one in Walungu, are initiated, supported, and encouraged by the local community. Parents, extended family, other members of the community, and even the children have a deep sense of ownership and responsibility for the functioning of their school.

When the school opened in 2008, it was comprised of only one grade taught by a single teacher. After a year, the community was able to add another grade and employ a second teacher. Gradually, the school grew, adding more students, grades, and teachers. Today, it is a full primary school with over 100 students.


A teacher presents a lesson in a community school in Walungu, Democratic Republic of Congo.

A student at a community school in Walungu, Democratic Republic of Congo

Children in class at a community school in Walungu, Democratic Republic of Congo

However, the community faced certain challenges as the school began to grow larger. They did not have the funds to pay the teachers a salary or take care of the school. Realizing that something needed to be done to support the school financially, they called a meeting with all the parents and others involved. At the meeting, the director of the school suggested that he could teach them how to weave baskets, and that if they could sell the baskets in the market they would have some funds that could be used to pay the school fees. Sixty-seven parents signed up, happy at the prospect of learning a new skill and being able to support their children’s education themselves. To this day, all of them are still weaving baskets, which are sold in the markets of the surrounding villages.

Basket-weaving has remained a collective activity—typically, the parents gather to work on them together, sometimes teaching each other new weaving techniques. And these gatherings have become something more. They are a space to talk about spiritual and profound matters as well.

“The women and men are not coming only to weave,” explains Mireille Rehema Lusagila, who is involved in the work of building healthy and vibrant communities. “They begin with a devotional meeting, they read holy writings together. They are improving their literacy, teaching each other how to read and write. The people there have told me that this activity is helping them not only to progress in a material sense but also on a spiritual level.”

Members of the community in Walungu weave baskets and sell them in the markets to raise funds for the functioning of their community school.

Towards unity, youth lead the way

Along the eastern border of the country in the Kivu region, young people are taking ownership of the development of the next generation. In the village of Tuwe Tuwe, there are 15 youth working with some 100 young adolescents and children, helping them to develop a deep appreciation for unity and navigate a crucial stage of their lives.

For several years, youth have been at the vanguard of transformation in this community. In 2013, a group of young Bahá’ís and their friends returned from a youth conference with a great desire to resolve the tension and hostility between their villages.

At the conference, the group studied themes essential to a unified community, such as the importance of having noble goals, the idea of spiritual and material prosperity, the role of youth in serving and improving their localities, and how to support each other in undertaking meaningful action.

In reflecting on the experience, Mr. Abumba, who travels often in the region to support Bahá’í-inspired educational programs, shares a story about how these young people became a force for unity.

“When these youth returned to their respective communities they saw that hostilities were increasing between their two villages because of conflict over their agricultural fields. The youth asked themselves: ‘what can we do to find a solution and help the adults understand that we should live in harmony?’ And they decided to take action together,” says Mr. Abumba.

“The idea they came up with was to organize a football match involving the youth of both villages and to hold it in a field between the villages, in the hopes that the parents would come and watch. For them, it was not about who would win or lose the match. Their goal was to bring a large number of people from both villages together to the same place and to try to give a message about how to live in unity.”

These young people prepared for the match—they bought a football and created the teams of each village with members of different tribes. Finally, the moment came. Quite a big crowd from both villages turned up because it was a Sunday. Those watching were impressed by the way the youth played for the joy of the game.

“Then at the end of the match, the youth spoke to the crowd,” explains Mr. Abumba. “They said ‘You have seen how we played and how there was no conflict between the youth of one village and the youth of the other village. And we believe that our villages are capable of this, of living like the children of one same family.’ Then the chiefs of the villages took the stage and told those gathered that it was time to turn a new page and start to live and work together.

“In these villages, there are different tribes who are often in conflict,” Mr. Abumba concludes. “The people there are drawing on the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh to find ways to address these deep-rooted problems. And the Bahá’í-inspired educational programs are giving youth in particular a voice to be a force for positive change in their communities.”


A village named ‘Peace’

A remote village in the central part of the country, Ditalala is connected to the closest town by a 25 kilometer path, sometimes travelled on foot, sometimes via off-road vehicle.

Susan Sheper, who has lived in the DRC since the 1980s, recalls that on her first visit to Ditalala 31 years ago, some Bahá’ís had come to meet her at the train and walk with her on the five-hour journey by foot to the village. “We got off the train and were just enveloped by this group of singing, happy Bahá’ís, and then they said to us, ‘Can you walk a little bit?’”

And with that Mrs. Sheper was on her way, with an escort of singing Bahá’ís, walking 25 kilometers through the night.

“It was an extraordinary experience,” Mrs. Sheper recalls, “and they never stopped singing, they would just move from one song to the next. You know, they have that experience of having to walk long distances, and it’s the singing that keeps you going because your feet just move to the rhythm.”


Music infuses every aspect of life in the village of Ditalala.

Although at that time there was a vibrant Bahá’í community in the village, which used to be called Batwa Ditalala, there were distinct barriers between different groups, including the Bahá’ís.

“So flash forward 31 years, and I went back to Batwa Ditalala,” says Mrs. Sheper. “And one of the things I learned very quickly was that it was no longer called Batwa Ditalala.”

The term Batwa refers to the Batwa people, who are one of the main “Pygmy” groupings in the Democratic Republic of Congo. They have been marginalized and exploited because of discrimination against them based on their hunter-gatherer way of life and their physical appearance. This has created a complex reality of prejudice and conflict wherever they live in close proximity to settled agricultural populations.

“But today, those barriers have been so broken down by Bahá’u’lláh’s teachings of oneness and the elimination of prejudice, they no longer call the village Batwa Ditalala. They just call it Ditalala,” Mrs. Sheper explains.

The word ditalala means peace in the local language—and the village itself has been transformed by a vision of peace.

“The people there told me that there used to be very distinct divisions between them in the village, but that because of Bahá’u’lláh’s teachings they don’t see themselves as different tribes anymore, they see themselves as being united,” Mrs. Sheper relates. “They told me that life is much better when there is no prejudice.”

Bahá’u’lláh’s teachings have reached almost everyone in Ditalala and their influence is evident in many dimensions of the lives of the population. Today, over 90 percent of the village participates in Bahá’í community-building activities, ranging from coffee and prayers in the mornings to spiritual and moral education classes for people of all ages.

Ditalala’s chief often supports the activities of the Bahá’í community. He encourages the community to gather for consultation, a central feature of decision-making for Bahá’ís.



Singing at a community gathering in Walungu

Chiefs in the village of Ditalala, Democratic Republic of Congo

The people have also undertaken a number of endeavors to improve their social and material well-being, including agricultural, maternal healthcare, and clean water projects; constructing a road; and establishing a community school.


Weaving work in Ditalala

A luminous community

Throughout the DRC, tens of thousands of people have responded to the message of Bahá’u’lláh. The celebrations of the 200th anniversary of His birth in October were extraordinarily widespread—countless numbers participated in the festivities held across the country. It is estimated that as many as 20 million people saw the television broadcast of the national commemoration, attended by prominent government and civil society leaders.

The country has also been designated by the Universal House of Justice as one of two that will have a national Bahá’í House of Worship in the coming years.

Amidst all of its recent developments, what stands out so vividly about the community is that it is moving forward together.

The podcast associated with this Bahá’í World News Service story, can be found here.


By Bahá'í World News Service

NEW YORK — Dizzy Gillespie is remembered not only for his genius as a trumpeter who broke new ground in jazz but also for his long-standing dedication to the teachings of Baha’u’llah. Reflecting on the life and accomplishments of this iconic figure 100 years after his birth would be incomplete without reflecting on the Baha’i belief that seemed most to inspire and drive his work—that all human beings are part of one family.

“Dizzy represented an organic breakthrough in music,” asserts jazz pianist Mike Longo about Dizzy Gillespie, his late collaborator and friend.

“His music is from such a deep place,” Longo says, scanning the walls of his apartment on Riverside Drive on Manhattan’s upper west side. Framed photographs capture the decades of a musical partnership that ranged from playing sold-out concerts in major venues to private practice sessions at Gillespie’s home in Englewood on the other side of the Hudson River.

But jazz was not the only uniting factor in Gillespie and Longo’s enduring friendship. Both men were attracted to Baha’u’llah’s message of oneness and unity—principles that would lead them to embrace the Baha’i Faith.

“The night I joined the band was the night he heard about the Baha’i Faith,” says Longo.

When Gillespie encountered the Baha’i Faith for the first time, after a concert in Milwaukee, he discovered that it immediately resonated with his thinking—and his music.

“Jazz is based on the same principles as the Baha’i Faith,” says Longo. “Interracial mixing was way back when jazz first started. Dizzy described jazz as a marriage between African rhythm and European harmony and so, if you look at that from a broader perspective, that’s a marriage between the black race and the white race. And Dizzy’s music specifically, when they say that the Prophet unleashes a new power in the universe, Dizzy’s concept of bebop…is a reflection of that.”

Gillespie’s deep commitment to unity and justice expressed itself through the inclusive spirit that characterized his music and his interactions with people of all walks of life.

Dizzy Gillespie greets Saichiro Fujita, a prominent figure in Baha’i history and one of the first Japanese Baha’is. This photograph was taken at the Baha’i World Centre in 1975. Gillespie performed a concert during his visit to Haifa that year.

Bebop pioneer

Born John Birks Gillespie in Cheraw, South Carolina, on 21 October 1917, Dizzy Gillespie was at the cutting edge of the bebop jazz phenomenon in the 1940s, often considered the most radical and vital music of its time. Bebop is characterized by its high energy tempos and rapid key changes, complex chord progressions, and dazzling improvisations around a melody.

“They were doing very difficult things,” explains British jazz and art critic Martin Gayford. “Gillespie’s technique alarmed other trumpet players, particularly because he was playing so high.”

“While Charlie Parker came up with the phrasing and the rhythmic approach, Gillespie’s contribution was more the technical side of the harmony and great showmanship.”

“The photographs that typify the bebop era are of Dizzy, with his beret and goatee beard,” says Gayford.

That vibrant persona and sheer technical virtuosity—with Gillespie’s trademark cheeks ballooning out bullfrog-like around the mouthpiece of his distinctive bent trumpet—make him a hard act for trumpeters to follow today.

“When, at the age of 8, I first heard a recording of his music, I was just astonished by what the trumpet could do,” says James Morrison, the celebrated Australian musician who was at the helm of an anniversary tribute concert held at London’s Royal Albert Hall on 4 August 2017, as part of the world-famous BBC Proms concert season.

“I have always been inspired by his way of playing the trumpet,” says Morrison. “I’m very heavily influenced by him.”

Morrison, who played with Gillespie on a number of occasions, believes his outgoing personality helped to make his innovative music a lot more accessible.

“He was there pushing boundaries, but he was so approachable as a person. There is a clichéd idea that an innovator has to be a dark, brooding person, off in his own world. But Dizzy was so garrulous and made such a great connection with the audience.”

Trumpeter James Morrison performs with the James Morrison Trio and the BBC Concert Orchestra under conductor John Mauceri at the 2017 BBC Proms. (Photo courtesy of the BBC)(performed by the BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by John Mauceri with Dianne Reeves: singer, James Morrison: trumpet and Victor Sangiorgio: piano - The James Morrison Trio-William Morrison: guitar, Patrick Danao; drums, Harry Morrison: bass)) on at the Royal Albert Hall on Friday, 4 Aug. 2017. Photo by Mark Allan

In honor of the 100 year anniversary of Dizzy Gillespie’s birth, his contributions to jazz are being celebrated in a number of tribute concerts around the world. Here, singer Dianne Reeves and trumpeter James Morrison perform with the James Morrison Trio and the BBC Concert Orchestra under conductor John Mauceri at the 2017 BBC Proms. (Photo courtesy of the BBC)

Encountering the Bahá’í Faith

It was just such an audience member who first introduced Gillespie to the Bahá’í Faith. Beth McKenty, a Canadian who attended one of his shows in Milwaukee, had been inspired to reach out to him after reading about the tragic death of Charlie Parker, bebop’s co-originator. Parker was a saxophonist, who had at one point claimed that Gillespie was the “other half of his heart.” He died in 1955 at the age of 34, following a long period of drug addiction.

“Beth had called Dizzy and told him, ‘Charlie Parker didn’t have to die like he died’ and could she talk to him,” remembers Longo. “And so that night, she and her husband came and Dizzy was sitting with them at the table and she told him about the Bahá’í Faith and gave him a lot of literature.”

After a period of intense reading and studying, Gillespie formally accepted the Bahá’í Faith on 5 April 1968, the night after the assassination of Civil Rights Leader Martin Luther King Jr. The musician was attracted by the emphasis given in Bahá’u’lláh’s teachings to unity, particularly by their assertion of the harmony of science and religion, the equality of women and men, and the oneness of humanity.

“He and I were both very upset about the racial situation here with all the riots and everything,” says Longo. “We were talking and I said, ‘It don’t have to be like that,’ and I remember we were saying, ‘There’s got to be somebody that represents the way we feel,’ and that’s when he discovered the Faith.”

Gillespie wrote in his autobiography, To Be or Not to Bop, “When I encountered the Bahá’í Faith, it all went along with what I had always believed. I believed in the oneness of mankind. I believed we all come from the same source, that no race of people is inherently superior to any other.”

“Dizzy was tuned into the vibe,” says Longo.

Gillespie had long been interested in exploring the rhythms and harmonies of diverse cultures, and Longo believes his music evolved even further after he embraced the Bahá’í teachings.

“It got deeper,” he says. “If you listen to the chronology of his recordings, when he embraced the Afro-Cuban thing, the music went to a much deeper level… It went to a world level. And if you think about the Faith, that was a reflection of all the people coming together, it went on to a level as close as a human being can get to perfection.”

Becoming a Bahá’í influenced Gillespie’s life in every way. He wrote that it gave him “a new concept of the relationship between God and man—between man and his fellow man—man and his family.”

“I became more spiritually aware, and when you’re spiritually aware, that will be reflected in what you do,” wrote Gillespie.

And jazz musicians, Gillespie believed, were among “the people most ‘in tune’ with the Universe.”

“What is more appropriate than a musician being in tune with nature and with our Creator?” he wrote. “The best example is the way that they perform; how do they come up with things that have never been played before? Where did they get it? They have to have some kind of divine inspiration.”

Longo concurs. “This music doesn’t come from thinking. You can’t think and play at the same time. It comes from behind the mind, so there’s a sort of a bliss place back there that’s totally spiritual. That is the animating force to our music. In fact all of the arts, and sciences as well. The power that Bahá’u’lláh unleashed is the animating force in the arts.”

“Dizzy said, ‘What you hear is the divinity in the music.’”

The United Nation Orchestra

“Gillespie was around for a very long time,” reflects Martin Gayford, “from the 1940s right through to the 1990s. So he became something of an elder statesman of jazz, and a great encourager of young talent.”

The most ambitious, and final, fusion of his music with his religious beliefs was Gillespie’s formation of his United Nation Orchestra, with which he toured the world in the 1980s. The Bahá’í principle of building unity that maintains and celebrates cultural diversity was Gillespie’s key inspiration for the big band made up of younger musicians from the United States and outstanding players and singers from Brazil, Cuba, and Panama.

“That’s what he believed in,” says Longo, “and so that’s what the principle of the United Nation Orchestra was.”

“In the Bahá’í religion we don’t believe in cutting loose anything good,” Gillespie wrote. “Cut loose your heritage? Bahá’ís believe that you bring it in and work with others. Bring it into the whole just like a master painting. Because I’m purple and there’s another cat who’s orange doesn’t mean that we can’t come into one big compatible complementary arrangement. Just contribute from your own uniqueness, but don’t get over in their groove. Stay outta theirs!”

Gillespie during a visit to the Baha’i World Centre in 1985

Gillespie during a visit to the Baha’i World Centre in 1985

A lasting legacy

Since his death in 1993 at the age of 75, Dizzy Gillespie continues to be revered by enthusiasts the world over. His music has become the subject of academic study and symposia; his recordings are constantly being remastered, reissued, and rediscovered by younger generations. In the coming months, tribute concerts marking 100 years since his birth are taking place across the globe.

“When you pay a tribute to someone, there’s that question – do you imitate them?” says James Morrison. “And I believe, sound-wise—no. There are recognizable ‘Dizzyisms’ in what happens, but a true tribute is to create the atmosphere. It’s always like he was having a party, and he would take that onto the stage. I’ve always felt that’s what I wanted to do too.”

But Mike Longo believes Gillespie’s music is still not fully understood. Speaking at the trumpeter’s funeral in 1993, Longo told the congregation that, “a lot of people know what Dizzy played but they don’t know how he played.”

“At this point in time most of the educators and so forth are imitating it,” he says. “They don’t understand the concept, they understand the notes. So they imitate the notes and they try to imitate the feeling, but they’re not coming up with the essence yet. So he’s not fully appreciated yet.”

“Might be another 100 years before that happens,” Longo laughs.


Listen to the podcast episode associated with this Bahá’í World News Service story.

Two new murals of Dizzy Gillespie were recently painted in Harlem as a part of Education is Not a Crime, a street arts campaign that seeks to raise awareness for human rights in Iran.

Two new murals of Dizzy Gillespie were recently painted in Harlem as a part of Education is Not a Crime, a street arts campaign that seeks to raise awareness for human rights in Iran.

By Bahá'í World News Service

Thirty years ago, the Bahá’í community of Iran embarked on a remarkable endeavor. Denied access to formal education by the country’s authorities after their numerous appeals, they set up an informal program of higher education in basements and living rooms throughout the country with the help of Bahá’í professors and academics that had been fired from their posts because of their faith. This gradually came to be known as the Bahá’í Institute for Higher Education (BIHE).

Since its inception, BIHE has helped educate thousands of individuals, many of whom have been accepted into nearly 100 universities around the world to pursue graduate studies. Many BIHE graduates that complete their post-graduate studies abroad will return to Iran to serve their communities.

Thanks to advances in technology, BIHE’s students are now taught by professors from across the globe. Those who offer their expertise and knowledge to the education of Bahá’í youth in Iran, have witnessed first-hand the students’ high ideals and commitment to the pursuit of knowledge.

“The Bahá’í response to injustice is neither to succumb in resignation nor to take on the characteristics of the oppressor,” explained Diane Ala’i, representative of the Bahá’í International Community to the United Nations in Geneva, quoting a letter from the Universal House of Justice.

“This,” she said, “is the fundamental definition of constructive resilience.”

“Of course, the Bahá’í s are not the only ones that have responded non-violently and positively to oppression, but they are finding a different way of doing that, which is more focused on their role in serving the community around them together with others,” said Ms. Ala’i.

Despite efforts by the Iranian authorities to disrupt BIHE’s operation by raiding hundreds of Bahá’í homes and offices associated with it, confiscating study materials, and arresting and imprisoning dozens of lecturers, it has grown significantly over the past three decades. It relies on a variety of knowledgeable individuals both in and outside of Iran to enable youth to study a growing number of topics in the sciences, social sciences, and arts. Overall, not only has BIHE survived thirty years, it has thrived.

Studying at BIHE is not easy. Because it’s not a public university, there is no funding available, and many students hold down full-time jobs. It is common to travel across the country to go to monthly classes in Tehran. Sometimes, students will have to commute from a home on one side of the city to the other in the middle of the day, because these are the only spaces available to hold classes. Despite these logistical challenges, students meet high academic standards.

“I have talked to BIHE students who said when their teacher was arrested and put in jail and all their materials were confiscated, they would get together for class just the same,” said Saleem Vaillancourt, the coordinator of the Education is Not a Crime campaign, which brings attention to the issue of denial of education to the Bahá’í s in Iran. “These students continued studying together, despite the fact that they didn’t have a teacher. This was their attitude, it didn’t seem remarkable to them. They just said this is what we have to do, because they had a commitment to the process.”

Universal education is a core belief of the Bahá’í Faith, and when the authorities in Iran sought to deny Baha’i students this critical and fundamental right, the Bahá’í community pursued a peaceful solution—never for a moment conceding their ideals, never surrendering to their oppressor, and never opposing the government. Instead, for decades, it has been seeking constructive solutions, a show of its longstanding resilience.

In Iran, persecution of the Bahá’ís is official state policy. A 1991 memorandum approved by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei states clearly that Bahá’í s “must be expelled from universities, either in the admission process or during the course of their studies, once it becomes known that they are Baha’is.”

Other forms of persecution torment the Bahá’í s in Iran as well. An open letter dated 6 September 2016 to Iran’s President from the BIC draws his attention to the economic oppression faced by the Bahá’í s there. The letter highlights the stark contradiction between statements espoused by the Iranian government regarding economic justice, equality for all, and reducing unemployment on the one hand, and the unrelenting efforts to impoverish a section of its own citizens on the other.

“The Bahá’í community in Iran wasn’t going to let itself go quietly into the night. It wasn’t going to allow itself to be suffocated in this way,” said Mr. Vaillancourt.

A distinctly non-adversarial approach to oppression fundamentally characterizes the Bahá’í attitude towards social change. The Bahá’í response to oppression draws on a conviction in the oneness of humanity. It recognizes the need for coherence between the spiritual and material dimensions of life. It is based on a long-term perspective characterized by faith, patience, and perseverance. It at once calls for obedience to the law and a commitment to meet hatred and persecution with love and kindness. And, ultimately, this posture has at its very center an emphasis on service to the welfare of one’s fellow human beings.

“I think we see in the world today the breakdown of communities that people would not have thought could happen so easily. We’ve come to realize that living side by side is not enough. We need to live together and know one another, and the best way to know one another is to start working for the betterment of society,” said Ms. Ala’i.

“As the Bahá’ís in Iran have begun to do this in a more conscious way, other Iranians have come to know their Bahá’í neighbors and understand that much of what they had heard about the Bahá’ís from the government and clergy were lies. As they have become more involved in the life of the communities where they live, the Bahá’ís have witnessed an immense change in the attitude of other Iranians towards them.”

The Bahá’í response to oppression is not oppositional and ultimately strives toward higher degrees of unity. Its emphasis is not only on collective action, but on inner transformation.

This strategy is a conscious one employed by the Bahá’í community. Going beyond the tendency to react to oppression, war, or natural disaster with apathy or anger, the Bahá’í response counters inhumanity with patience, deception with truthfulness, cruelty with good will, and keeps its attention on long-term, beneficial, and productive action.

The Bahá’í Institute for Higher Education embodies all of these elements.

“BIHE is an extraordinary achievement,” commented Mr. Vaillancourt. “Perhaps the least known, longest-running, and most successful form of peacefully answering oppression that history has ever seen. It sets the best example I know of for this particular Bahá’í attitude to answering persecution or answering the challenging forces of our time, where we try to have an attitude, posture, and response of constructive resilience.”


Listen to the podcast episode associated with this Bahá’í World News Service story.

By Bahá'í World News Service

In Norte del Cauca, the land is blanketed by sugar cane plantations. They run for miles, under the watchful gaze of the Andes.

Scattered amid the expanse of monoculture fields, villages and small farms dot the terrain. In recent decades, these traditional farms and the lush greenery of the region have been largely overtaken by vast fields of sugar cane crop.

Here, in the village of Agua Azul, and in neighboring communities, people have been talking about the revival of the natural habitat. This conversation was catalyzed in April 2012, when it was announced that a Baha’i House of Worship was to be built here for the people of the region.

Over the period since the announcement, as the community has set out to prepare itself for this momentous development, a heightened consciousness of the nature and purpose of the House of Worship has given rise to an acute awareness about the physical environment and its relationship to the spiritual and social well-being of the population.

“There were several meetings early on, when plans for the Temple were announced,” explains Ximena Osorio, a representative of the Colombian Baha’i community. “People were inspired by the concept of the House of Worship, how it brought together devotion and service, how it was to be a place of worship for everyone.”

“Gradually, conversations arose about the types of trees and flowers that would surround the Temple,” says Ms. Osorio. “They wanted the landscape to capture the beauty and diversity of the region.”

Over time, the conversation evolved. “An idea emerged,” continues Ms. Osorio. “We would grow a native forest on the land surrounding the Temple site. ”

The idea took root, and a team coalesced around the project.

Hernan Zapata, affectionately referred to within the community as “Don Hernan”, recently joined the initiative. A traditional farmer from the neighboring village of Mingo, he has worked the land his entire life.

Today, his is one of the remaining traditional farms in the region, and many of the species which are found on his land have all but disappeared in surrounding areas. His land provides a glimpse into the rich ecological diversity that had characterized Norte del Cauca only decades ago.

“The truth is that Norte del Cauca was once an immense forest,” explains Don Hernan. “But all of that has been destroyed. Now none of it exists.”

“One thing I want with this project,” he explains, “is that new generations should know what once existed. This native forest that we are going to grow should be a school, should be a place of learning.”

Don Hernan Zapata plants new trees along a fence surrounding the site for the House of Worship.

The project has captured the imagination of many others in the region as well. Throughout neighboring villages, individuals have begun to donate seeds and plants that can be grown on the land around the Temple site and in a greenhouse that has been built for the project by local volunteers.

Contributions have included indigenous species, such as the rare “Burilico” tree, which is near extinction in the region.

A volunteer works in a greenhouse dedicated to the development of plants to surround the House of Worship.

For Gilberto Valencia, a local factory worker and member of the project team, this initiative has connected him to his family history in Norte del Cauca.

“I’ve always been very motivated to know more about the land and about farming because, while I am not a farmer, I come from a long line of farmers. My father and his father always had a farm that they cultivated for the subsistence of the family, and for the sale of goods to others.”

The project inspired Mr. Valencia, who is married and a father, to begin studying environmental engineering.

“When I began working on the land surrounding the House of Worship, I felt at that moment, that the thing that we were going to build was going to change the natural environment,” he said. “This is a chance to change the destiny of the region.”

Mr. Valencia now works on the project alongside his ten year old son, Jason, the project team’s newest and youngest member.

In recent months, Jason has found himself immersed in the project, helping to transplant seeds and saplings to the temple site and working alongside his father to cultivate and protect the surrounding land.

“I have learned about trees I never knew existed,” says Jason, speaking about his experience. “I love working with my father on this project because, together, we’re going to revive many of the plants that have been lost.”

Gilberto Valencia (center right) and his son Jason (center left) after a day of planting.

For Alex Hernan Alvarez, a resident of Agua Azul and member of the project team, what is happening in the village has profound implications for the children.

“Here, in Norte del Cauca, we don’t have land or spaces like this, open for everyone. I have three children, and it is very gratifying for me to think that I will leave something for them,” says Mr. Alvarez.

“Knowing that a verdant forest and magnificent House of Worship will bloom for future generations inspires in me a profound sense of dedication.”

Speaking of one of the indigenous trees of the region – the ‘Saman’ tree – Mr. Alvarez states, “The Saman is a traditional tree, beautiful and large. When my children go to the land to pray, they will have a place to sit, under that tree. This motivates me every day. This brings me joy.”

While the House of Worship is not yet built, in many important ways, it is already carrying out its purpose, inspiring the inhabitants of the region to connect with the sacred and reach for greater heights of service to their communities.

In Agua Azul, youth contribute to the construction of benches surrounding an area where plants are being cultivated for the land surrounding the site for the Baha’i House of Worship.

“The idea of the Temple, what it represents,” says Ms. Osorio, “is in itself cultivating in all of us – children, youth and adults – an appreciation for the importance of a life centered around worship of God and service to humanity.”