Role of sacred space: A conversation on places of worship

Religious leaders, students, scholars, and others recently met at the Baha’i House of Worship in New Delhi, India, to explore the role that sacred spaces play in contemporary Indian society.

NEW DELHI — A diverse group of participants in India’s capital city explored the role that places of worship play in contemporary society.

Held on Thursday on the grounds of the Baha’i Lotus Temple, a well-known place of worship in India and abroad, a symposium organized by the country’s Baha’i community brought together about 80 people, including religious leaders, students, scholars, and others. Participants examined how temples, churches, mosques, and other sacred sites can aim to unite people and stimulate deep contemplation on spiritual reality as well as life’s foundational questions.

This conversation has particular significance in the country, where religious coexistence is a prevalent topic of discussion, organizers explained. Some speakers noted that places of worship are vital for collective religious experience. The symposium gave speakers an opportunity to reflect on how these sacred spaces can be more inclusive and create a unifying dialogue.

“These places of worship offer opportunities for creative transformation of individuals and communities,” said Bindu Puri, the chair of the Center for Philosophy at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. “They can create spaces where people come together across religions.”

Bindu Puri, chair of the Center for Philosophy at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, discusses the role of places of worship in society.

Nilakshi Rajkhowa of India’s Baha’i community explained: “Sites for worship have been a mainstay in the spiritual life of the individual as well as the community. Therefore, it seemed timely to begin what we hope will be an ongoing conversation from which to glean insights about these sacred places.”

Participants explored the concept of a House of Worship in the Baha’i writings, which explain that such structures should be open to everyone, regardless of religion, background, ethnicity, or gender. Several speakers expressed their particular appreciation for the Baha’i House of Worship in New Delhi; the thousands who visit the lotus-shaped structure daily see it as a haven in which to pray and meditate. The Temple is also a catalyst for service in the surrounding neighborhood, providing space for and stimulating participation in a dynamic educational process that involves people of all ages in systematic study and action aimed at uplifting their neighborhoods spiritually, socially, and materially.

“This is a beginning of a series of conversations about the role of places of worship in society,” said Carmel Tripathi, with India’s Baha’i community. “Most of the participants expressed that they really needed a space like this to share their thoughts, and we are eager to organize more gatherings about this topic with the media, students, and others.”

In the Americas, a spirit of oneness moves communities in anticipation of bicentenary

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The Huntsville Bahá’í Community is preparing for the 200th anniversary of the birth of the Báb, and will hold its observance at Burritt on the Mountain at 6pm, Oct. 28. Check back here often for details.

VANCOUVER, BRITISH COLUMBIA, Canada — The global momentum of bicentenary preparations is building through the Americas. Artistic expressions, thoughtful presentations on the past and present, and other activities give a glimpse of how the continent’s diverse populations are readying themselves for the upcoming historic anniversary of the Báb’s birth.

During this period, neighborhoods across Canada are experiencing a new impulse of energy. In one neighborhood of Vancouver, devotional gatherings as well as educational programs for children and youth are increasing in these months.

“As a team we are seeing every moment before this bicentenary as precious,” says Hoda Toloui-Wallace, who lives in the area. “Our orientation is to reach out to as many friends to become protagonists in the betterment of society. There is a real spirit of joy in seeing more people channel their energies and find their place on a path of service.”

Young people in Ecuador participate in a recent three-day gathering to learn more about the lives and teachings of the Bab and Baha’u’llah.

Across the United States, communities are drawing growing numbers to local celebrations and other activities. Many places held special summer school gatherings, placing a particular focus on the life and teachings of the Báb. Energizing conferences have allowed participants to reflect on ways to generously serve their community and intensify this effort in the lead-up to the October bicentenary. Artistic endeavors are also underway through the creation of paintings, craft projects, and film screenings.

In Buenos Aires, Argentina, the Bahá’ís are putting a special focus on the history of the Faith in the city. A series of events is planned for September to commemorate the centenary of the arrival of Martha Root, a notable early Bahá’í, in the Argentine capital. Also, on the day of the bicentenary of the birth of the Báb in October, a special gathering will be held at the resting place of May Maxwell, a prominent early American Bahá’í who died in Buenos Aires in 1940.

This deep connection with history also found expression in Vila Velha, Brazil, where the local community is planning a drama featuring monologues of six early followers of the Báb.

“The six of us are very excited about it. We are enjoying writing the monologues,” says Bahiyyih Maani Hessari. “We’re nervous for the play, but we’re also very happy and willing to do our best.”

Communities through the United States have been preparing for the upcoming bicentenary. These photos (clockwise from left) show a devotional gathering inside the Prayer Hogan at the Native American Baha’i Institute in the Navajo Nation, a special gathering in Dallas, and the participants in the Indiana Baha’i Summer School. These gatherings are among many happening as part of an increase in community building efforts before the October celebrations.

Also in Brazil, A Tarde, a major newspaper in Salvador, featured the Bahá’í community in its latest Sunday magazine. The special section featured 6-page cover article about the Bahá’ís of Salvador, their history from when Ms. Root first visited a century ago, their present efforts to contribute to life in Salvador, and their plans for the upcoming bicentenary celebrations.

Communities throughout the Americas have been holding special gatherings about the lives and teachings of the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh. For example, in Kingston, Jamaica, an arts workshop to create and present different creative works was held. In Ecuador, people in the country’s southern region recently met for a three-day camp focused on themes inspired by the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh’s vision for humanity. In La Bomba, Costa Rica, there are a variety of efforts such as a weekly devotional gathering that includes sharing accounts from the lives of the Báb and early heroes and heroines of the Bahá’í Faith. And in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, youth are meeting to learn and tell stories about the life of the Báb.

Elsewhere, along the continent, four Bahá’í Houses of Worship radiate the spirit of the bicentenary period, acting as a focal point for preparations. A gathering at the Temple in Agua Azul, Colombia, brought together dozens of community residents to discuss different themes from the life of the Báb. In all of the Houses of Worship in the Americas—in Chile, Colombia, Panama, and the United States—devotional gatherings will be held during the bicentenary holy days and plans are underway in some for live online broadcasts of the celebrations

Community members meet for a gathering on the grounds of the Baha’i House of Worship in Agua Azul, Colombia. The group was studying and reflecting about the life of the Bab.

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Baha’i studies: Aiming to apply spiritual principles to humanity’s social progress

(From left) Esther Maloney, Kyle Schmalenberg, and former Huntsville Baha’i Amelia Tyson speak on a panel about the media during the 43rd annual conference of the Association for Baha’i Studies in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. (Credit: Monib Sabet)

OTTAWA, ONTARIO, Canada — Baha’i studies involves the effort to understand Baha’u’llah’s teachings, correlate them with the perspectives of humanity across diverse fields, and attempt to apply them to humanity’s current issues and challenges. The Association for Baha’i Studies’ 43rd annual gathering, held earlier this month in Canada’s capital city, featured thought-provoking and lively discussions on topical issues. The 1,400 conference attendees reflected on their efforts to contribute to spiritual and social transformation through the application of principles such as justice and oneness.

“One can critique the current social structures, but more can be done to, for example, inspire a hopeful vision for society,” explained Julia Berger, the secretary of the Association’s executive committee.

This year’s four-day conference also reflected an important re-visioning of the Association’s annual gathering. “We’ve tried to reimagine the conference to look more broadly at the intellectual life of the Baha’i community. We’ve taken very deliberate steps and are highlighting nascent but significant initiatives,” Dr. Berger said.

(Photo gallery): The annual conference of the Association for Baha’i Studies brought together 1,400 people for a lively discussion on contributing to social progress. (Credit: Monib Sabet)

One of those initiatives is the Association’s effort with “working groups,” a collection of people building capacity to engage in a common professional or academic exploration and study. These groups—which meet throughout the year and are focused on topics such as media, economics, healthcare, education, and law—are beginning to analyze the implicit assumptions and concepts in their fields. Participants are relating this collaborative exploration of the deeper questions and concerns in their fields with the Baha’i teachings and the experiences of the community.

The group focused on economics, for example, began studying different threads of thought related to the extremes of wealth and poverty. Some then began exploring the role of community in economic life and how assumptions about human nature have shaped economic thought and practice. The growing Baha’i experience in community building and social action, as well as the Baha’i teachings about the nobility of people, also shed light on these questions.

The long-term objective is to help advance thinking in different fields in ways that foster the application of spiritual principles such as justice and unity to the needs of society, explained Selvi Adaikkalam Zabihi, who helps coordinate the working groups for the Association.

“We are in the early stages of this work, and our understanding is evolving as the groups move forward and we learn along with them,” Ms. Adaikkalam Zabihi noted.

This year’s plenary talks included topical themes such as racial justice, spiritual and moral development of youth, and reconciliation with indigenous people in Canada. Conference organizers explained that they wanted to highlight approaches and principles that would also aid Baha’i participation in the discourses of society.

(Photo gallery): The 43rd annual Association for Baha’i Studies conference created an opportunity for attendees to reflect on their efforts to contribute to spiritual and social transformation. (Credit: Louis Brunet)

The conference provided opportunities for individuals to strengthen their capacity to participate in broad conversations focused on social betterment. This participation includes the contribution of individuals to discourses in the social and professional spaces in which they find themselves. Baha’i communities also contribute to social discourses through the formal involvement of their national and international institutions with various agencies of their societies.

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.

Subscribe to the BWNS podcast for additional audio content.

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