In neighborhoods and villages around the world, tens, hundreds, and in some places, thousands of people, inspired by the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh, are engaged in activities that aim to “build community.” In their efforts, we can already see signs of the emergence of new patterns of collective life: a village coming together regularly at the hour of dawn to summon divine assistance before the day’s work; a group of people combining skills and knowledge to carry out a reforestation project; neighbors consulting on ways to establish classes for the spiritual education of their children; a population beginning to shed age-old prejudices and build new patterns of interaction based on justice and unity; young adults, in rural and urban settings, initiating small-scale agricultural projects to support their communities—examples like these and many more are springing up from every continent and multiplying.
The current global crisis has raised awareness about the importance of human solidarity and collective action. Within this context, it seems timely to ask ourselves: What is the place of community in our modern world and what is the kind of community towards which we aspire?
The image that is evoked by the word community can be quite different from one person to the next. Some think of a community simply as those who live in the same geographic area, regardless of whether its members interact; others use the word to refer to a collection of people who share common interests or are motivated by the pursuit of a common goal; and, for many, community is seen as a population that shares a common ethnic identity and set of traditions. We also come across people who believe that the sense of togetherness that we need as human beings can be fulfilled through virtual networks, and some thinkers even predict that the whole concept of a community as it has been traditionally known will eventually disappear.
Although certain aspects of the conceptions above may be valuable, the relationships that sustain society are also being reconceptualized by many in light of the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh. Our understanding of community, then, will need to move beyond anything humanity currently knows or has experienced. To build a common vision of community, we turn to the messages of the Universal House of Justice. For instance, in 1996, the House of Justice described a community as
a comprehensive unit of civilization composed of individuals, families, and institutions that are originators and encouragers of systems, agencies and organizations working together with a common purpose for the welfare of people both within and beyond its borders; it is a composition of diverse, interacting participants that are achieving unity in an unremitting quest for spiritual and social progress.1Universal House of Justice, Riḍván 1996. Available at www.bahai.org/r/045175659
The House of Justice has also written about “vibrant communities,” describing them as being characterized by “tolerance and love and guided by a strong sense of purpose and collective will” and explaining that they provide an “environment in which the capacities of all components––men, women, youth and children––are developed and their powers multiplied in unified action.”2Universal House of Justice, from a letter to the Conference of the Continental Boards of Counsellors dated 26 December 1995. Available at www.bahai.org/r/864076551
Over the past decade, Bahá’í community-building efforts have unfolded in smaller geographic areas like neighborhoods and villages. This process has been very similar to the organic processes that take place in nature. Indeed, creating something new in social reality is, like the growth of a tree, an organic process that begins by planting a seed in fertile soil.
The process begins with a group of people inspired by a hopeful vision of change who take action together within the context of a neighborhood or village. The initial steps they take are not random or haphazard but rather unfold within a framework defined by the growing experience of the worldwide Bahá’í community. The various elements that cohere to advance this process include classes for the spiritual education of children; groups of junior youth who, together with an older youth, support one another, study together, and carry out acts of service; the opening of homes and community centers for collective prayer and discussions about the progress of a neighborhood or village; regular visits by neighbors to meet with one another and strengthen bonds of friendship; educational programs for youth and adults in which they reflect on the spiritual dimension of life and prepare themselves for a life of service; and in some places, initiatives that seek to enhance the social and material well-being of a population. Whatever the form and arrangement of activities, however, the process of community building is a process of transformation in which a population takes ownership of its own spiritual and social development.
The fruit of the process of community building is a unit of civilization that is characterized by the principles and teachings of Bahá’u’lláh. The House of Justice has explained the long-term nature of these efforts:
The work advancing in every corner of the globe today represents the latest stage of the ongoing Bahá’í endeavour to create the nucleus of the glorious civilization enshrined in His teachings, the building of which is an enterprise of infinite complexity and scale, one that will demand centuries of exertion by humanity to bring to fruition. There are no shortcuts, no formulas. Only as effort is made to draw on insights from His Revelation, to tap into the accumulating knowledge of the human race, to apply His teachings intelligently to the life of humanity, and to consult on the questions that arise will the necessary learning occur and capacity be developed.3Universal House of Justice, Riḍván 2010. Available at www.bahai.org/r/178319844
We are, of course, too early in these efforts to know exactly what the entire process looks like, what stages we will have to pass through, what obstacles we might face along the way, and what capacities will need to be developed at each stage of development by the members of the community, individually and collectively. These are questions we must ask ourselves in the years and decades to come, and answers to these questions will become clear to us as we engage in a systematic process of learning.
Much has already been learned about the early stages of community building: A group of people turns to the sacred Writings and the guidance of the Universal House of Justice and takes action within a framework defined by the growing experience of the worldwide Bahá’í community; it draws insights from the existing body of knowledge and reflects on experience; it has regular conversations in which questions are asked and ideas are clarified; and, as understanding advances, the group adjusts its plans, approaches, and activities. The result is that its efforts become more and more effective, and the process it is trying to promote advances. In this way, the Bahá’í community is gradually developing its capacity to operate in a mode of learning and, as an organic global community, is advancing collectively.
As people learn more about the process of community building and how to effectively contribute to it, certain questions arise. For instance, what is my conception of community and what contributions can I make to the development of my community? What are those qualities, skills, and abilities that need to be developed in individuals and in groups to build vibrant communities? What are the things that are needed to enhance the relationships in a community? In seeking answers to these questions, we turn to the guiding and operating principles involved. As we understand these principles better and internalize them, they begin to find expression in our actions. They influence how we see ourselves in relation to others which in turn influences how we interact with others.
There are many principles that are relevant to the process of community building. Foremost among these is the oneness of humankind. Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith, talked about the principle of oneness as “the pivot round which all the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh revolve.”4Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Bahá’u’lláh. Available at www.bahai.org/r/264008982 He said that it cannot be seen as a “mere outburst of ignorant emotionalism or an expression of vague and pious hope” and that it cannot be merely identified with the “reawakening of the spirit of brotherhood and good-will among men.”5Ibid. It has profound implications for every aspect of the organized life of society. Having the principle of oneness in mind as the guiding and operating principle sheds light on the process of community building and gives direction to our efforts as participants.
In His letter to Queen Victoria, Bahá’u’lláh writes: “Regard the world as the human body.” This metaphor of the human body, or a living organism, was also often used by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá when He wanted to illustrate the implications of the principle of the oneness of humankind. Like any analogy, there are limits to how much it can explain. Nevertheless, like the elements of the human body, “all the members of this endless universe are linked one to another.” He urged us to act as the members of one body, each connected to the other with “a linkage complete and perfect” 6‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Available at www.bahai.org/r/189063524 and contributing its part for the benefit of the whole. He said that “man cannot live singly and alone. He is in need of continuous cooperation and mutual help… He can never, singly and alone, provide himself with all the necessities of existence. Therefore, he is in need of cooperation and reciprocity.” The House of Justice, in commenting on this metaphor, has further explained:
In the human body, every cell, every organ, every nerve has its part to play. When all do so the body is healthy, vigorous, radiant, ready for every call made upon it. No cell, however humble, lives apart from the body, whether in serving it or receiving from it. This is true of the body of mankind in which God “has endowed each humble being with ability and talent”7Universal House of Justice, letter of September 1994 to the Bahá’ís of the World regarding subject of universal participation. Bahá’í Reference Library. Available at www.bahai.org/r/874127903
Some characteristics of the living organism suggest where to focus our efforts as individuals. For example, the cells of the body are intimately connected to each other; their existence is purely in relation to the whole body. There is no possibility for the cell to live without its connection to the rest. The purpose of the cell is to maintain the health of the body and, at the same time, its life depends on it. In this regard, a characteristic that stands out is the necessity for the basic units of the organism to be selfless. Cells, in their very essence, are selfless. They are made that way. They adapt their functions in order to respond to unforeseen needs or emergencies or to protect the organism. The cell also takes only what it needs from the organism. The behavior of healthy cells in the body illustrates well the high standard that the individual whose purpose is to work for the common good aspires to as a member of a group or community. This implies, for instance, giving of one’s time and energy generously, sacrificing when the situation requires it, being detached from the results of what we do, and carrying out our actions with sincerity and purity of heart.
This concept of selfless service and the responsibilities that everyone has in accomplishing the collective aim have many implications for the way we relate to others and to our work. It adds significance to various roles and responsibilities that we undertake. To see ourselves like the cells of the body implies that each of us gives our very best in fulfilling our responsibilities; each one is conscious that everything he or she does influences the functioning of the community. And since each of us is responsible not only for his or her part but also for the functioning of the whole, cooperation and reciprocity should characterize relationships. In such an environment, everyone strives to draw out the best in people and to help others develop their full potential and takes joy in the progress of others.
This concept of selfless service also has implications for the manner in which we approach the acts of service we undertake and our various roles and responsibilities in a community. Serving with selflessness and diligence requires making choices, because, unlike the cells, we have free will. To put the interests of the collective before our own and to devote ourselves to doing things with excellence; to be ready to collaborate; to prefer our brothers and sisters over ourselves; to orient ourselves toward that which brings about the well-being of the community; to move beyond the inertia that sometimes holds us back from working to the best of our ability––all of these are individual choices that have to be made consciously. To give of ourselves is embedded in our nature; it is a capacity within us that can be developed and strengthened through constant effort, prayer, reflection, and the acquisition of knowledge. Maybe a word of caution is also needed here: To put the interest of the community before our own does not imply that we lose our individuality. We do not become dissolved in the community. There are many references in the Writings that shed light on the question of serving the common good.
O My Servant!
Thou art even as a finely tempered sword concealed in the darkness of its sheath and its value hidden from the artificer’s knowledge. Wherefore come forth from the sheath of self and desire that thy worth may be made resplendent and manifest unto all the world.8Bahá’u’lláh, The Hidden Words. Available at www.bahai.org/r/261142065
Senses and faculties have been bestowed upon us, to be devoted to the service of the general good; so that we, distinguished above all other forms of life for perceptiveness and reason, should labor at all times and along all lines, whether the occasion be great or small, ordinary or extraordinary, until all mankind are safely gathered into the impregnable stronghold of knowledge.9‘Abdu’l-Bahá, The Secret of Divine Civilization. Available at www.bahai.org/r/574361742
How excellent, how honorable is man if he arises to fulfil his responsibilities; how wretched and contemptible, if he shuts his eyes to the welfare of society and wastes his precious life in pursuing his own selfish interests and personal advantages.10Ibid.
In these early stages of building this new kind of community that reflects the divine teachings, we have to learn how to manage the apparent tension between pursuing our own interests and contributing to the common good. It is a very real tension within human beings. Undoubtedly, this will always be the case, since it is part of human nature. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá has explained:
Man is in the ultimate degree of materiality and the beginning of spirituality; that is, he is at the end of imperfection and the beginning of perfection. He is at the furthermost degree of darkness and the beginning of the light. That is why the station of man is said to be the end of night and the beginning of day, meaning that he encompasses all the degrees of imperfection and that he potentially possesses all the degrees of perfection. He has both an animal side and an angelic side, and the role of the educator is to so train human souls that the angelic side may overcome the animal. Thus, should the divine powers, which are identical with perfection, overcome in man the satanic powers, which are absolute imperfection, he becomes the noblest of all creatures, but should the converse take place, he becomes the vilest of all beings. That is why he is the end of imperfection and the beginning of perfection.11‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions. Available at www.bahai.org/r/265818142
Although this tension will always be there, the Bahá’í writings also explain that the desire to do good is inherent in human nature because we are created noble. This desire to do good, however, needs to be cultivated and strengthened. It is through faith and our spiritual alignment with the will of God that we are enabled to do this.
The image of the functioning of the human body also gives us insights into the quality of the relationships that should exist within a healthy community. In the human body, we can appreciate how healthy interactions take place and how they contribute to maintaining unity and harmony among the diverse parts. Different organs, each with their own assigned functions, work together to allow new capacities to emerge––capacities that are manifested only when all the parts are functioning properly, each in its own sphere, and in perfect synchronization. Some of these capacities are associated with a specific organ while others do not belong to any particular one; the emergence of such capacities requires cooperation and reciprocity among the parts of the body. Whenever this cooperation breaks down or is replaced by competition, the body’s ability to manifest these capacities is inhibited.
The intention of this presentation is not to present a thorough analysis of the process of community building. It is simply to share a few ideas for reflection on the efforts of Bahá’í communities worldwide to bring about a new kind of community and ultimately contribute to the emergence of a peaceful and just world civilization envisioned in the sacred Writings. In this connection, we have spent some time examining the implications of the principle of the oneness of humankind. The analogy of a human body was used to see how the principle of oneness is foundational to our conception of a community and guides our choices and our actions.
The Bahá’í world is still in the early stages of the process of community building, and there is a great deal to be done before the process reaches fruition. In light of the challenges facing humanity, the task before us may seem daunting indeed, but we are committed to this process over the long term and are inspired to make constant efforts to better understand the relevant principles and to reflect this understanding in our approaches. We draw on spiritual forces to assist us and to propel us forward, and the most powerful force binding us together is the force of universal love. ‘Abdu’l-Baha addresses us: “Strive to increase the love-power of reality” and “to make your hearts greater centers of attraction and to create new ideals and relationships.”12‘Abdu’l-Bahá, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá on Divine Philosophy, (Boston: The Tudor Press, 1918), 107. Love, He writes, is “the magnetic force that directeth the movements of the spheres in the celestial realms” and “the establisher of true civilization in this mortal world.”13‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Available at www.bahai.org/r/407306067
Now our Local Spiritual Assembly1A Local Spiritual Assembly is a nine-member administrative and spiritual body tasked with overseeing the affairs of the Bahá’í community of a particular locality. Local Spiritual Assemblies are elected annually in an electoral process free from nominations, campaigning, and electioneering. See http://www.bahai.org/beliefs/essential-relationships/administrative-order/local-spiritual-assembly. will meet and lead the reconstruction process for the community to follow. We know that we should not depend on aid donors, but that we should take charge of our own development. For the reconstruction process, we will use the same tools and instruments that we used for the expansion and consolidation of our community.
– a resident of Namasmetene village, Tanna island, Vanuatu
In 2014 the Universal House of Justice2The Universal House of Justice is the international governing council of the Bahá’í Faith, ordained by Bahá’u’lláh in His book of laws. It is a nine-member body, elected every five years by the entire membership of all national Bahá’í assemblies. See http://www.bahai.org/the-universal-house-of-justice. highlighted the island of Tanna, in the South Pacific nation of Vanuatu, as an example of that pattern of collective life,
spiritual, dynamic, transformative, that Bahá’ís and their like-minded collaborators everywhere are working to bring about. Groups for young adolescents were flourishing,
urged on by the support of village chiefs who see how the participants are spiritually empowered. Youth were learning to dispel
the languor of passivity within themselves and residents of all ages were being
galvanized into constructive action3Riḍván 2014 message of the Universal House of Justice A full third of the island’s 30,000 inhabitants were engaged in an expanding conversation about the significance of a local House of Worship4Houses of Worship, also referred to as Mashriqu’l-Adhkárs (Dawning Place of the Mention of God), are places of worship that give expression to a pattern of community life that seeks to integrate communal prayer and devotion with acts of service for the betterment of society. Open to those of all religions, Houses of Worship are devoted to prayer, meditation, and reading of the Word of God. Each is also associated with institutions for social and economic development, such as schools, hospitals, orphanages. See http://www.bahai.org/action/devotional-life/mashriqul-adhkar. to be established in their midst.
Less than a year later, Tanna was decimated by the strongest cyclone5Cyclone, hurricane, and typhoon will be used interchangeably, according to the nomenclature of each area. ever recorded, by wind speed, in the South Pacific. Ninety percent of all structures were damaged or destroyed. Communications were completely cut off.
Looking at the constructive responses to this devastation gives us a deeper understanding of the significance of the patterns of action to which Bahá’í communities everywhere have committed themselves through their community-building efforts.
In numerous parts of the world, as growing numbers contribute to processes of social transformation, they come to view themselves as protagonists in the ongoing advancement of society. And when natural disasters have struck some of these communities, they have applied what they have learned to response and recovery efforts. In the process, they have shown qualities of resilience, selflessness, resourcefulness, and creativity.
The Bahá’í International Community United Nations Office,6See www.bic.org. in addition to its engagement with various global fora, provides assistance and advice to national Bahá’í communities in the aftermath of major natural disasters. In recent years, it has strengthened a global process of learning among national communities in light of growing experience in this area. The Bahá’í International Community seeks to facilitate exploration of the means by which Bahá’í communities’ response to natural disasters can become more coherent with the framework for action guiding other major areas of Bahá’í endeavor. It strives to expand understanding of how communities can reflect and draw strength from key principles, among these: that a prospering society
must achieve a dynamic coherence between the material and spiritual requirements of life,7Riḍván 2010 message of the Universal House of Justice to the Bahá’ís of the world that
social change is not a project that one group of people carries out on behalf of another8ibid. that
every member of the human family has not only the right to benefit from a materially and spiritually prosperous civilization but also an obligation to contribute towards its construction,9Social Action, A paper prepared by the Office of Social and Economic Development at the Bahá’í World Centre, 26 November 2012 that
the scope and complexity of social action must be commensurate with the human resources available in a village or neighborhood to carry it forward,10Riḍván 2010 message of the Universal House of Justice to the Bahá’ís of the world that
access to knowledge is the right of every human being, and participation in its generation, application and diffusion a responsibility that all must shoulder in the great enterprise of building a prosperous world civilization,11ibid. and that
every contribution Bahá’ís make to the life of their society is aimed at fostering unity.12Riḍván 2017 message of the Universal House of Justice to the Bahá’ís of the world
Efforts along these lines are still in early stages in many areas. Yet sufficient experience has been generated that a few initial observations, drawn from the work of the Office, can now be offered for consideration and further exploration.
Community-building capacities in times of disaster
While the initiatives described above are not focused on disaster response or recovery, experience has demonstrated that the abilities these community-building efforts strengthen, as well as the patterns of thought and behavior they foster, can have a significant impact in times of natural disaster. Consider, for example, the experience of the Bahá’ís in Vanuatu as they worked to recover from the devastation of Cyclone Pam in 2015.19See http://news.bahai.org/story/1095/. One community member wrote:
The qualities we have gained over the years and the capacities we have developed while serving the Cause [have] truly helped us in dealing with the aftermath of the cyclone. For example, being able to read the reality of a situation, collecting statistics, planning, consulting, reflecting, being systematic, report writing, all these have been instrumental in the effectiveness of the relief operation for the first two weeks after the cyclone.
Some of the ways that Bahá’í community building efforts have assisted local populations in responding effectively to natural disasters include the following.
Systems of coordination and communication
The capacity to organize large numbers in coordinated action has clear implications for response efforts. As community-building activities grow to the point where hundreds of inhabitants are supporting the participation of thousands of their fellow residents, systems emerge to manage the growing complexity. In some cases, Area Teaching Committees20An Area Teaching Committee is a small deliberative body that seeks to foster beneficial patterns of community life in a locality. It works to support those arising to offer acts of service in various areas, such as establishing spaces for shared prayer and elevated discussion at the local level or building a culture of community members visiting one another in their homes. Area Teaching Committees are supported in their duties from the regional or sub-regional level. and their channels of support, Auxiliary Board members21Auxiliary Board members are individuals of proven ability and character who have been appointed to facilitate the growth and development of the Bahá’í Faith within a defined geographic area. Auxiliary Board members seek to support, encourage, inspire, and assist those in their area of focus. While holding a position of moral leadership, they exercise no institutional power or formal authority. See http://www.bahai.org/beliefs/essential-relationships/administrative-order/institution-counsellors. and their assistants, and schemes of coordination associated with the training institute have found that the capabilities they have developed have enabled them to facilitate communication and organize efforts in crisis conditions.
Operating at the level of the cluster but connected both to the region or nation, and to the neighborhood or village, such institutions and agencies have, for example, gathered information about local needs and conditions. They have facilitated the movement of relief supplies and their input has helped tailor national efforts to the needs of local populations. In the process, they have influenced Bahá’ís’ view of themselves and their role in responding to the adversity at hand. Such dynamics were evident following the powerful earthquake that Haiti experienced in 2010. One report explains:
From their experience with their respective communities through the expansion and consolidation work, the Cluster agencies22Cluster agencies are composed of individuals working within a small geographic area to coordinate the contributions of the Bahá’í community to the betterment of society, primarily through the strengthening of the institute process and the mobilization of those who are trained. were most familiar with the needs and nuances of their neighbors, and therefore would be in the best position to determine how the available relief aid should be distributed. … Upon receipt of the supplies, each Cluster determined the method and process to be used for their distribution in the neighborhoods within their Cluster. … The devolution of the relief response to the Cluster level proved to be empowering to the Bahá’í community. It was noted early on that the Bahá’ís, who themselves werevictimsof the disaster, were transformed into protagonists when presented with the challenge and opportunity of service, arising to action upon being given the opportunity and responsibility to deliver aid to their neighbors.
Organizational skills such as the ability to maintain basic statistics, to plan based on resources, and to operate in a mode of learning—characterized by regular reflection on efforts undertaken, results seen, and adjustments needed—similarly allow response efforts to expand as needed in scale and scope. The ability to gather accurate data and formulate actionable plans around it can be pivotal in disaster conditions. When eastern regions of India faced a powerful cyclone in 1999, the Bahá’í community did not have access to updated statistics, nor was it able to effectively utilize the data it did have. Response efforts were therefore coordinated primarily by individual Bahá’ís according to whatever information was personally available to them. When the same region faced severe flooding in 2011, however:
Relief and counseling were systematically provided through [cluster agencies]. Because updated data was available, there was a steady flow of information sharing, and intensive visits were made to the homes of those affected. No one was left alone. … There was a growing realization, both among the Bahá’ís as well as among friends from the wider society, that they were witnessing a strong, united, and supportive religious community.
The ability to mobilize resources at the grassroots is, itself, a capacity of great value, and one that is well appreciated in humanitarian circles.
People are the central agents of their lives and are the first and last responders to any crisis, wrote the Secretary General of the United Nations, asserting that efforts to reduce vulnerability and strengthen resilience must necessarily begin at the local level.23One Humanity: Shared Responsibility, Report of the Secretary-General for the World Humanitarian Summit, 2 February 2016 Generating broad-based movement within a population has been shown to be as much a matter of relationships, volition, and collective agency, as it is of funding, supplies, and logistics. In this regard, it is only natural that efforts to build unity of thought, vision, and action around the elements of the current series of global plans defined by the Universal House of Justice have assisted communities to draw more effectively on internal resources in times of need. In the flooding mentioned above:
… it was quite clear that the real strength lay in the Local Spiritual Assemblies. Their level of activity did not appear to be as great as compared to many NGOs [non-governmental organizations] and the resources that were available to the Local Assemblies were also limited. But they discovered that the real manpower was in the field, in the grassroots resources, which the Local Assemblies had. Although many outside relief agencies came in with food and other resources, they had no way to distribute these quickly. On the other hand, even the poorest of Bahá’í Assemblies was able to mobilize efforts rapidly. One Local Assembly, in utmost poverty and with humility, arranged for food and distributed it to more than 600 people. They contributed ideas, gave guidance and participated in the relief work.
Drawing on the power of consensus and unity
Fostering cooperation and a sense of shared endeavor across a diverse populace is another capacity that is intimately related to both Bahá’í community-building endeavors and disaster response initiatives. As effort is made to welcome increasing numbers into thoughtful discussion on the direction of their collective development, decision-making processes become more participatory. Perspectives of young and old, women and men, from diverse backgrounds are sought and considered—an approach that, in turn, attracts the participation of others. Throughout this process, Bahá’ís are learning how to help participants employ elements of the principle of consultation.24For selected readings on consultation, see http://www.bahai.org/beliefs/universal-peace/articles-resources/consultation-quotes. Among these: that the deliberative process must take as its goal the search for truth and exploration of relevant realities, rather than the promotion of personal interests and agendas; that the participation of each individual is to be characterized by qualities such as prayerfulness, humility, detachment, and patience; that while
the shining spark of truth cometh forth only after the clash of differing opinions,25‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Bahá’í World Centre, 1982 lightweight edition the
first condition is absolute love and harmony amongst the members;26ibid. that once a view has been contributed, it belongs to the group as a whole, to use or set aside as best serves the issue at hand; and that once a decision has been reached, all members are to lend their full support to its implementation and fair-minded assessment.
As such dynamics take root in a community, the population becomes better able to make collective decisions about the allocation of limited resources. Moreover, it seeks to do so in ways that are unifying, supported by all, and reflective of true consensus, rather than simply the contested outcome of a majority of voices. This becomes invaluable when supplies are scarce and contact with the external world tenuous. Following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, many local Bahá’í communities provided relief equally to all or experimented with matching assistance to household size. But one community, in consultation with both the local population and a national-level Bahá’í task force, provided supplies first and most extensively to families whose needs were seen to be most urgent. Those involved understood that basing support on subjective judgments of hardship had the potential to create certain challenges, and tensions did arise at times. But the community was able to draw on consultative capacities to constructively resolve these differences. In this regard, one organizer noted that the distribution:
… was accomplished without fights and shouting, or appropriation by authorities at different levels, but with calm and understanding. Emerging jealousies were resolved with dialogue.
As a community gains capacity to both draw on the talents of all its members and to meet their needs, its ability to act according to the principle of the oneness of humankind is strengthened. Striving to serve others without distinction, its members learn how to discern the often-subtle dynamics that contradict the imperatives of unity. Bahá’í agencies in one coastal town in the Philippines, for example, noticed that while relief supplies generally reached population centers such as their own, a small offshore island was largely overlooked. When Typhoon Haiyan struck in 2013, the Bahá’í community used its limited resources to help meet the needs of the residents of that island, most of whom were not Bahá’ís.
Facilitating collective inquiry and action
The current series of global plans articulated by the House of Justice seeks to involve growing numbers in an informed exploration of the nature of human well-being and the means by which it can be advanced. This process is animated by the Revelation of Bahá’u’lláh but welcomes everyone of like mind. The House of Justice has written:
[E]very human being and every group of individuals, irrespective of whether they are counted among His followers, can take inspiration from His teachings, benefiting from whatever gems of wisdom and knowledge will aid them in addressing the challenges they face. … Numerous groups and organizations, animated by the spirit of world solidarity that is an indirect manifestation of Bahá’u’lláh’s conception of the principle of the oneness of humankind, will contribute to the civilization destined to emerge out of the welter and chaos of present-day society.27Riḍván 2010 message of the Universal House of Justice to the Bahá’ís of the world
Bahá’í communities around the world are discovering that working with those from the wider community in a spirit of collaboration and common enterprise allows far more to be achieved than would be by working alone. These habits of thought and qualities of spirit also prove fruitful in the realm of disaster response.
Bahá’ís in the eastern region of the Caribbean island of Dominica, for example, though numerically quite modest, facilitated a series of public discussions that delved into social and spiritual aspects of community health after Hurricane Maria in 2017.28See http://news.bahai.org/story/1250/. Participants in one such discussion identified a sense of normalcy and stability as a central need for community members, particularly among the younger generations. The local school was functioning, but instead of the uniforms customary for the area, students were wearing whatever clothes were available, which many felt contributed to a general sense of disorder in the community. School uniforms were therefore identified as a priority, but one that would not likely be addressed by external relief agencies. Further discussion, however, revealed that what was truly needed was not uniforms, but rather fabric: many local residents knew how to sew, and those consulting together wanted the community as a whole to have ownership in the process of re-establishing the school. As clarity on these points emerged, a government official who had been observing the proceedings stood up and announced that the Dominican government was seeking means to inject capital into villages affected by the storm, in an effort to reestablish local economies. If fabric could be secured, he declared, he would find funding to pay community members to sew the uniforms.
Engaging the institutions of society
The description above raises the issue of engaging the institutions of society. As community-building efforts multiply in an area and begin to exert an influence on the direction of community life, it is not uncommon for governmental agencies to reach out to the endeavors underway, providing a local population with its first experience of collaborating with governmental authorities from a position of confidence and mutual partnership, rather than need or apprehension. But benefits can flow in the other direction as well, even in the fraught atmosphere of a natural disaster. As one Bahá’í in Vanuatu wrote:
After the cyclone, I decided, after consulting with a member of the National Spiritual Assembly, to offer my volunteer services at the Provincial Government Headquarters’ Disaster Management Office. We had to organize the Disaster Management Office to respond effectively to the needs of the people by distributing the relief that was being donated by aid organizations. The Office had to collect statistics to be able to effectively distribute the relief supplies. We used the tools and instruments I had learned about while serving as a [training institute] coordinator. We divided Tanna into sectors and collected statistics according to infants, children, junior youth, and adults. We also introduced the Bahá’í principles of consultation, action, and reflection … Many aid organizations approach us when they encounter an obstacle. We suggest to them to work with the chiefs and consult with the people at the grassroots. We also suggested that the Office begin its operation every morning with prayers.
Tending to spiritual needs, drawing on spiritual powers
Around the world, Bahá’ís and their like-minded collaborators are working to strengthen the devotional character of their communities.29See http://www.bahai.org/action/devotional-life/. Reaching out to neighbors of all backgrounds, they seek to create, in the intimate setting of the home, spaces for shared worship, exploration of the deeper meaning of life, and purposeful discussion of issues of common concern. Such explicitly spiritual objectives might seem tangential to traditional humanitarian concerns. Yet in times of natural disaster, people the world over grapple with existential questions at the most fundamental levels. And communities where people worship together in a variety of settings, make a habit of visiting one another in their homes, and regularly engage in conversations of significance are better equipped to remain hopeful, to see meaning, and to persevere and recover when disasters occur. Communities in which social ties are strong and spiritual roots run deep are more resilient in the face of disaster.
Devotional gatherings are often simple and informal. Yet in some cases, spaces for shared worship have become a central element in more traditional service delivery and provision. During the flooding in India:
The relief committee along with the cluster development facilitator30A cluster development facilitator provides many of the functions of an Area Teaching Committee, supporting clusters at earlier stages of development until the level of activity grows to the point where a full Committee becomes necessary. visited homes of individuals and prayed with them. During these devotionals, they would see what help was required. In some instances, where homes were completely destroyed and they needed a roof over their heads, the relief committee was able to arrange for them to take temporary refuge in those few homes that had not been washed away. At a prayer meeting held at the local Bahá’í Centre … relief was provided in the form of financial assistance to the friends. Although they also needed help, most of the Bahá’ís declined the money because they wished to save the funds of the Faith.
Tending to the devotional character of a community can also help local populations assess collective well-being according to a much fuller range of factors. In particular, it builds capacity to address spiritual and emotional maladies, as well as more obvious physical ones. In Dominica, after Hurricane Maria, it was seen that:
One of their concern[s] is that [a certain city] was the hub for fishing … but now it seems like the fishermen are very depressed and not motivated to go out fishing. We had some discussion how they as a community [can] help these men and what are some simple steps that they can take. It came to the conclusion that they have the equipment, but they just lost motivation. … [The community] agreed that they will look at the names of the fishermen and next time we meet we can all go in small group of 3 or 4 and meet with them and find out what makes them happy and how to bring back their spirit of joy in fishing.
Experience has shown that concern for the quality of devotional life, both individual and collective, helps members of disaster-stricken communities revive within themselves and others a spirit of joy and optimism about the future. It reinforces the will not only to survive, but to live in the highest sense of the term. When Cyclone Pam struck Vanuatu, for example, Bahá’ís were just days from Naw-Rúz,31See http://news.bahai.org/story/1159/. the Bahá’í new year festival, and in the midst of a period of daily fasting. Many lost virtually all their material goods. Yet in locality after locality, Bahá’ís celebrated the new year with the wider community around them. As one individual recounts:
After the cyclone our Local Spiritual Assembly made a plan to celebrate Naw-Rúz. The chiefs and all the people of the village were invited to celebrate it with us. Many believers fasted during the cyclone, and the people at our Naw-Rúz celebration commented that next year they are going to join the Bahá’ís in fasting … We are confident that whatever we have lost to the cyclone we will regain through the blessings of Bahá’u’lláh. During the celebrations we shared with the people that soon we will restart the spiritual educational process in the village—the children’s classes, the junior youth groups, and the study circles.
The path ahead
The Universal House of Justice has written that, as individual believers continue to labor at the level of the cluster, they will
find themselves drawn further and further into the life of societyand that
once human resources in a cluster are in sufficient abundance, and the pattern of growth firmly established, the community’s engagement with society can, and indeed must, increase.32Riḍván 2010 message of the Universal House of Justice to the Bahá’ís of the world As this process advances, Bahá’í communities are challenged to
extend the process of systematic learning in which they are engaged to encompass a widening range of human endeavors.33ibid.
Disaster response is one such area, and exploration of its requirements must continue for years to come. How is knowledge about resilient communities to be created and by whom? What are
progress understood to mean and entail? In what ways will relationships, assumptions, and arrangements common to contemporary discourse and practice need to shift? And how does the Person of Bahá’u’lláh, as well as the efforts of those working to put His teachings into practice, relate to the realities of traditional disaster response?
Insight into such questions will be gained incrementally, as capacity to sustain both transformative action and profound learning expands in more and more localities. Such a process will be driven in part by those who are working to apply the Revelation of Bahá’u’lláh to the construction of communities
whose ways will give hope to the world.34Riḍván 2012 message of the Universal House of Justice to the Bahá’ís of the world At the same time, the wider society is also recognizing the indispensability of principles enunciated by Bahá’u’lláh. For example, in 2016 the Secretary General of the United Nations convened the first World Humanitarian Summit, and in his report to that gathering he identified
unified visionas a prerequisite for transformational change:
In a globalized world, this vision needs to be inclusive and universal and to bring people, communities and countries together, while recognizing and transcending cultural, religious or political differences. It needs to be grounded in mutual benefit, where all stand to gain. At a time when many are expressing doubt in the ability of the international community to live up to the promises of the Charter of the United Nations … we need, more than ever, to reaffirm the values that connect us. Our vision for change must therefore be grounded in the value that unites us: our common humanity.35One Humanity: Shared Responsibility, Report of the Secretary-General for the World Humanitarian Summit, 2 February 2016
Such clear affirmations of the oneness of humankind, the
pivot round which all the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh revolve,36Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Bahá’u’lláh, Wilmette, IL: US Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1991 suggest the potential for progress in humanitarian efforts and other fields. And as Bahá’ís and their friends work to realize this potential in more villages, neighborhoods, cities, and towns, they will be contributing their share to
the emergence of a united and prospering world that might truly deserve to be called the kingdom of God on earth.37October 2017 message of the Universal House of Justice to all who celebrate the Glory of God
As we were approaching [the] village, we saw three Bahá’í youth … walking in the opposite direction under strong sun. We asked where they were going, and they said they were going to a nearby village to conduct their children’s classes and junior youth groups. Later, in the village, we saw that their houses were destroyed and still unbuilt.
– member of a team assessing damage from Cyclone Pam, Isla village, Tanna island, Vanuatu