The transformative power of prayer: How devotional gatherings are taking root in Uganda

KAMULI DISTRICT, Uganda — Humanity has always relied on prayer as a source of guidance and connection with God.

In the latest episode of the Baha’i World News Service podcast, Charles Oloro and Michael Okiria from Uganda speak about how growing numbers of people are attending regular gatherings for collective prayer and experiencing its transformative power. Known as devotional gatherings, these spaces are open to all people in a community and free of ritual; no one person has a special role. The gatherings are also offering people in the community space to discuss their spiritual and material needs.

“We are seeing this new culture of friends coming together and turning to God to actually seek guidance for whatever is happening in their communities,” Mr. Oloro says. “Any soul can come to this space and inhale these heavenly fragrances.”

Mr. Okiria and Mr. Oloro spoke with the Baha’i World News Service when they were at the Baha’i World Centre as part of a consultation among representatives of eight localities around the world where a robust Baha’i educational and community building process is engaging thousands or tens of thousands of people. The two were representing a cluster of villages and towns in Uganda known as Kamuli South. At the heart of these community building efforts has been local populations building capacity to contribute to social change through applying fundamental Baha’i principles to their social reality.

“People are actually talking among themselves about the needs of the community and consulting together to try to find some solutions to the challenges their communities are facing,” Mr. Okiria explains.

In February, the Universal House of Justice also published a compilation of Baha’i writings and guidance about prayer and devotional life, available on the Baha’i Reference Library.

Podcast: The transformative power of prayer: How devotional gatherings are taking root in Uganda

An interview with representatives of a community in Uganda explores how collective prayer is influencing society at large.

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A Huntsville Baha’i Celebrates Her 100th Birthday

Friends, family and Baha’is from across North Alabama joined in the celebration.

A beloved remarkable member of the Huntsville Baha’i Community, Marjorie Stee Waddell, celebrated her 100th birthday today, Saturday, August 3rd!

Born in the Peruvian Andes as the second of six children, Marjorie Stee spent her childhood traveling throughout the Americas due to her father’s profession as a manager of copper mines in North, Central, and South America. After spending most of her teens in northern Quebec, she later earned a PhD at Cornell University

Marjorie declared her belief in Bahá’u’lláh as a young woman, after being taught about the Bahai Faith by Hand of the Cause John Robarts in Toronto. Her love for the Faith and her eagerness to teach others about Bahá’u’lláh took her on a wide range of travels, including pioneering in1954 to El Salvador. At another time, Marjorie also served on the first National Spiritual Assembly of Columbia.  

In 1956 she traveled on pilgrimage to Haifa, Israel, where she experienced a highlight of her life: meeting the beloved Guardian Shoghi Effendi and his wife, Hand of the Cause Ruhiyyih Khanum. Due to her pioneering status, she was granted the honor of sitting next to the beloved Guardian at dinner on the first night there. She had the bounty of having lunch with the Guardian and Ruhiyyih most days during her visit.   With sparkling eyes and awed tones, she never tired of sharing the story of when she dined with them. 

Marjorie and co-host Regina Colston (left) make a presentation at a Baha’i-sponsored international event in 1984.

Shortly after she and her family moved to Huntsville in 1967, she taught at Alabama A&M University from 1968 to 1989. Mr. Robarts was a special guest for Marjorie and the Baha’i Community when he visited Huntsville and spoke at a Baha’i youth conference at Alabama A&M in the 1980’s.

Marjorie’s heritage was reflected in her love for diversity in all things international.

Active in the Bahá’í community, she also served on the Huntsville Local Spiritual Assembly for over 30 years, including during the years of a teaching focus in Triana. Her enthusiasm and love of teaching the Faith was always reflected in her sweet smile and friendliness to all who crossed her path.

Exploring how Houses of Worship are connecting with their societies

The House of Worship in New Delhi, India, has several environmental initiatives on site. For example, the gardens are irrigated with treated wastewater, and solar panels provide electricity for the buildings.

BAHA’I WORLD CENTRE — In the second podcast episode about Baha’i Houses of Worship, Felipe Duhart and Eduardo Rioseco of Chile, Santos Odhiambo of Uganda, and M. A. Ghanbari of India explore the impact that Temples are having on visitors and on surrounding populations. Creating a sacred space open to all has given rise to greater consciousness of and action for the betterment of society.

Continental Bahá’í House of Worship of South America (Santiago, Chile) with Santiago in the distance

“Service is the way to transform ourselves and society,” explains Mr. Rioseco. “And in the Houses of Worship, really you can find many avenues to do that. It’s a question that each visitor and each person that interacts with the House of Worship takes home. How do we keep transforming ourselves and society—in our neighborhood, in our family, in our workplace? Wherever we interact with others this question accompanies us. And the Temple inspires us in all those places.”

Podcast: Exploring how Houses of Worship are connecting with their societies.

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The interviews followed a unique gathering last month at the Baha’i World Centre, where more than 30 individuals gathered to explore what is being learned about all 10 Temples currently in operation. The participants hailed from Australia, Cambodia, Chile, Colombia, Germany, India, Panama, Samoa, Uganda, and the United States.

The community near the House of Worship in Kampala, Uganda, is reflecting on what it means to interact with a Temple, drawing on the power of prayer and divine guidance, Santos Odhiambo, the Secretary of the National Spiritual Assembly of Uganda, explains in the latest BWNS podcast episode.

The latest Baha’i World News Service podcast episode features insights emerging from some of the Baha’i Temples around the world.

Listen to part One of the discussion here.

In natural disasters, capacities of local communities vital

Opening of the High-level Segment of the Economic and Social Council and the Ministerial Segment of the High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development

BIC NEW YORK — With a rising risk of natural disasters around the world, the relationship between local capacity and preparedness and international and national assistance was examined as part of a dynamic discussion hosted by the Baha’i International Community (BIC).

“As we move from the global level to the regional, national, local, and community, the silos that sometimes divide us start to dissipate. We see at the community level, the community leader is also a neighbor, also a teacher. Everyone wears so many hats,” said Daniel Perell, a BIC representative. “That level of common enterprise that is so common at the neighborhood level needs to rise up to the international level.”

International response to natural disasters is vital to bringing to stricken areas urgent humanitarian relief, material resources, and knowledge. But alongside aid, the role of local capacity and preparedness is a vital area of learning, speakers noted. For the Baha’i community, the power of unity and collective enterprise as well as the importance of certain capacities at the local level has been demonstrated in a number of cases natural disaster recovery in recent years.

Dozens of participants, representing a diversity of non-governmental organizations with experience in natural disaster response and recovery, joined the discussion held on Friday alongside the United Nations’ High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development. The event was co-organized by the BIC, the U.N. Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, and the Global Network of Civil Society Organisations for Disaster Reduction. Mami Mizutori, the Assistant Secretary-General and Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction, also attended and spoke.SLIDESHOW 
4 imagesThe Baha’i International Community’s delegation to the United Nations High Level Political Forum

The Forum, which began on 9 July and continues through Thursday, is an annual gathering for U.N. member states and NGOs to reflect on progress in the Sustainable Development Goals, 17 global targets that the international community aims to reach by 2030Friday’s panel was one of three organized by the BIC, focusing on different target areas of the Development Goals. The other two panels, held on Thursday, focused on how education can empower youth to contribute to the progress of their societies and conceptualizing peace not merely as an absence of conflict but as a condition of collective thriving.

In its statement to the Forum, the BIC commended the international community’s consensus around the Sustainable Development Goals, but cautioned that “translating those aspirations into lived reality will require a tremendous expansion of Agenda 2030’s ‘spirit of strengthened global solidarity’. Crucial in this regard will be ensuring that recognition of the interconnected nature of humanity is a principal consideration in both policy-making and action.”

Friday’s disaster response panel showed the diversity of organizations that are thinking about the critical role of local communities. Central to this is the relationship between national and international policy and local capacity and ability to organize. Several speakers discussed the importance of global disaster response and recovery, but noted that national and international policies need to be made in concert with local communities and informed by their own practices.SLIDESHOW 
4 imagesWilly Missak, who works with Oxfam in Vanuatu, shares his country’s experience in connecting policymaking to community practices, explaining that meaningful policies come when the government and civil society organizations work together.

Willy Missak, who works with Oxfam in Vanuatu, shared his country’s experience in connecting policy-making to community practices, explaining that effective policies come when the government and civil society organizations work together. Transformation, he noted, comes from unified action at the grassroots, but this needs to be coordinated with the national level.

Kathryn Adams, executive director of Haiti-based LIDÈ, spoke about her organization’s efforts to help locals develop expertise in medical, psychological, legal, and other skills necessary to disaster response. “We don’t do enough in disaster response to embed resilience. By that I mean finding ways to turn disaster response into an opportunity to empower people to build tools for future use,” Dr. Adams explained.

The Baha’i community’s experience indicates that people can exhibit remarkable resilience, selflessness, resourcefulness, and creativity during times of disaster. In its 2016 statement, Rising Together: Building the Capacity to Recover from Within, the Baha’i International Community wrote that communities “that have been especially effective in responding have – prior to the disaster – been consciously working to create distinctive and beneficial patterns of collective life.” In short, localities where the fabric of community life is strong are more resilient and better equipped to respond to disasters.

In Spain, a dynamic conversation aims to prevent radicalization

A university course in Madrid, co-organized by Spain’s Baha’i community, brought together emerging and leading perspectives from academics, journalists, and government and military officials who are grappling with violent radicalization. (Credit: Sebastian Dubiel)

TRES CANTOS, Spain — In Spain, academics, journalists, and government and military officials are grappling with violent radicalization, attempting to understand its root causes and to prevent its proliferation. A recent university course co-organized by the country’s Baha’i community brought to light some of the emerging and leading thoughts from a variety of perspectives.

“The purpose of this course is to continue reflecting on the nature of radicalization and ways of addressing it, paying special attention to religion’s impact in society,” said Leila Sant, with the Spanish Baha’i community’s Office of Public Affairs. “In addition, the course tries to offer different perspectives on this phenomenon of radicalization in an effort to give a complete, unfragmented picture.”

The class was offered through a university in Madrid (UAM) from 1 to 3 July. More than 20 specialists in various fields were involved in offering the course, which was organized around about a dozen roundtable discussions. Organized in collaboration with UAM Professor Ricardo Garcia, the course not only allowed students to benefit from the insights being shared, but also opened a dynamic space for contributors to deepen their own understanding of the complexity of violent radicalization.

For several years the Baha’i Office of Public Affairs has been engaged in a discourse on the role of religion in society, which led to a focus on the causes of violent radicalization. The Baha’i writings teach that true religion has a central role in overcoming religious fanaticism, that the power latent in religion can transform anger and hatred into love and respect for the inherent dignity of others. The university course was a natural outcome of this long-term effort, Ms. Sant explained. The Office has recently organized related spaces, such as a day-long seminar on the same theme as well as a roundtable discussion with journalists about the social impact of news.

The relationship between religion and radicalization featured prominently in the course. Prof. Garcia noted that religion can be regarded as both the cause and the solution of radicalization; combatting religious extremism requires understanding the logic of religion, giving due regard to its influence on the lives of many people, and learning to work with religious communities to build social harmony.

The course went beyond simplistic ideas about radicalization to explore its many dimensions.

“It is positive for society to be open to new ideas that are introduced through nonviolence, to listen to perspectives other than your own. That is healthy,” Ms. Sant explained in the course’s opening session. “However radicalization is characterized by seeing a group of people as other than your own, seeing things as black and white, seeing very absolute ideas. This can take you eventually toward othering and violence.”

Course speakers also explored how partisan politics push people to have an us-and-them mentality about supporters of parties other than their own. In a saturated media environment that favors spectacle, only language that is divisive and extreme is heard, speakers explained.

“It is very important not to trivialize politics and to remember that in essence all human beings are equal in dignity,” noted Esteban Ibarra, the president of the Movement Against Intolerance.

Another theme that emerged was the importance of all people having an opportunity to benefit from and contribute to the progress of society. This is particularly vital for newcomers to the country. Speakers, including representatives of the national police and military, explained that social integration is promoted through mentorship and networks such as religious communities.

“In spite of the fact that in Spain there are equal opportunities, some groups find themselves in more disadvantaged social positions,” said Oscar Prieto, a professor from the University of Girona who has pioneered mentorship programs to help young people at risk of social exclusion. “It is because of the lack of people who support them and who act as informal mentors to solve common difficulties in daily life that some people have less possibilities of social advancement.”

Local and national media covered the course widely, as it featured prominent speakers such as the president of the country’s constitutional court, a leader in the country’s civil guard, and leading journalists. The organizers plan to publish a book with the discussions featured in the course and organize future courses through the university.

As momentous bicentenary approaches, Baha’i communities prepare

LANGENHAIN, Germany — After prayers in the Baha’i House of Worship, as sunlight passes through the dome’s diamond-shaped windows, a group walks down a geranium-lined path to the National Baha’i Center of Germany. Inside are sacred items related to the life of the Bab, the Prophet-Herald of the Baha’i Faith. The relics are part of an exhibition created by Germany’s Baha’i community to commemorate the upcoming bicentenary of the Bab’s birth.

In 1844, the Bab brought a new Revelation to humanity, setting in motion a spiritual movement that rapidly spread across what was then Persia. Stories of the Bab’s Cause and the heroism of those who followed it spread to the East and the West. His life and teachings captured the imaginations of numerous Western writers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The 200th anniversary of the Bab’s birth occurs on 29 October, and around the world people are preparing for the momentous occasion. The new exhibition in Germany is just one example. The exhibit, held from 21 April to 2 May, displayed three original items from the German Baha’i community’s archives, each related to the life of the Bab: a lock of His hair, some fragments of His clothes, and a piece of the wall of the castle of Mah-Ku, where He was imprisoned for nine months. The exhibit also includes original items related to the life of Baha’u’llah, as well as a passage written by the Bab about Baha’u’llah and another by Baha’u’llah about the Bab. Many hundreds of people from around the country attended the exhibit, and many expressed profound emotions at being able to see items so closely connected to the lives of those two Sacred Figures.

“The theme here was the Word of God and the remarkable connection between the Twin Manifestations of God,” explained Saba Khabirpour, the Secretary of Germany’s National Spiritual Assembly.

Germany’s Baha’is have undertaken numerous other steps to prepare. In nearby Gauangelloch, a village of 2,300, organizers of a spiritual education program for children and youth have been holding regular service projects, involving about 80 people, in honor of the Twin Bicentenaries. Efforts began in 2017 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Baha’u’llah, and they are continuing throughout the period linking that historic anniversary with the forthcoming bicentenary.

“Both celebrations are so intricately linked to the whole development of the community,” said Katrin, a Baha’i living in Gauangelloch. “It’s not just two big events that are separated by two years, but really they’re part of an ongoing process of community building.”

Amid the mounting joy and excitement, the bicentenary has especially animated young people, who are finding inspiration in the lives of the heroes and heroines of the Faith from the time of the Bab—individuals who courageously faced the dark forces of blind imitation, superstition, prejudice, and corruption. Many of them were youth and young adults, like the Bab Himself.

In February, a three-day youth conference brought together some 500 young people from around the country. They shared the stories of those early heroes—such as Tahirih and Badi. Though separated by time, participants could see the profound connection between the heroism of the Bab and His followers and the selfless and courageous service of so many young people working for unity today.

“The oneness of humanity was not a utopia or a dream for me anymore,” said one of the participants, reflecting on the impact of the conference. “The vision of Baha’u’llah became much more realistic to me to see how so many people were united.” Inspired by the gathering, participants re-dedicated themselves to serving their communities and made concrete plans for their return home.

“The idea was to have a spiritual impulse that would set the tone for this holy year,” explained Sahar, one of the organizers of the youth conference, held near Frankfurt. “The stories of these youth have inspired a lot of action and helped us to draw on spiritual concepts such as sacrifice, understanding your reality, service, teaching, and selflessness.”

Samuel, another of the conference’s organizers, found that the conference not only inspired the participants but helped them to see that they are not alone. “Many youth attending the conference said they felt much more reassured knowing that there are so many others walking this path of service,” he explained. “Really, just at this conference, there are 500 other youth learning about this.”

Other local communities around Germany are also preparing for the bicentenary, focusing on integrating the coming celebration into their community building efforts as well as visiting friends and family members to deepen connections and bonds of love. In Mannheim, for example, the community is organizing storytelling nights in different neighborhoods and plans to produce podcasts of the narratives being shared. In Muenster, a group formed a choir and is planning an artistic performance in honor of the bicentenary in October.

Bringing the insights of religion into development

BRUSSELS — Last week, Europe’s foremost annual conference on social and economic development brought together more than 8,000 participants, among them societal leaders and non-governmental organizations, to tackle the issue of global inequalities.

The conference, called European Development Days (EDD), reflected a shift that is occurring in development thinking. There is a growing recognition that social and economic development should not be viewed as an activity one group carries out for another. Nor is it any more viable to ignore the spiritual aspirations and convictions of a population and the vital contribution religion makes to development.

“It is not acceptable to see the masses of humanity as passive recipients of aid,” explained Rachel Bayani, representative of the Baha’i International Community (BIC) and moderator of one of the EDD panel discussions called “What’s religion got to do with it?”, held on 18 June. “Whatever the nature of the support from outside, development activity should emerge from within a community and belong to the people and institutions that are implementing it.”

Co-organized by World Vision International, ACT Alliance, Islamic Relief Worldwide, Brot für die Welt, EU-CORD Network, and the BIC, the panel explored how religious groups and faith-based organizations constitute a major component of local capacity in many settings.

“Faith and religion are what motivate most people in the world, for good or for ill. It’s hard to see how a development activity can emerge and belong to the people on the ground if those essential elements are not part of the equation,” Mrs. Bayani asserted in her opening remarks.

Six panelists from Europe, South America, and Asia, joined a packed room in a discussion that sought to move beyond simplistic conceptions of religion as either good or bad in the context of development. The discussion conveyed a more nuanced understanding, allowing for a genuine exploration of religion’s potential for constructive transformation.

Rev. Christo Greyling of World Vision International described the importance of working with local faith communities to create development policies and practices together, taking into consideration the aspirations, hopes, and beliefs of the true stakeholders—local populations. “You need to start specifically with the universal principles of the values that they already agreed on, values such as the dignity of human being, the need to stand up for justice,” Rev. Greyling said.

The importance of empowering local populations was echoed by other panelists, such as Henriette Geiger, with the European Commission’s Directorate-General for International Cooperation and Development: “Nothing can be imposed from the outside. You can only work with what you have locally.”

Other speakers highlighted the need to decouple religion and tradition and to see that many prevalent beliefs and practices in a population do not originate from religious scripture. “We need to read and understand the texts with more progressive and open minds and think of what is real religion, which is about spiritual things … and not go into the trap of tradition that is presented as religion,” said Mohammad Abou Zeid, a senior judge from the Family Court of Saida, Lebanon.

The space opened a rich discussion between religious actors and policymakers, bridging a historical divide that has proven unproductive and harmful for meaningful progress. More than 70 people attended the event. The panel discussion can be heard here.