In case you were wondering if the goal of vibrant communities with neighborhood-level core activities only happens after an intensive program of growth is launched, read this absolutely beautiful story from a C-stage cluster in the Central region. In this case, an individual “felt the fear and did it anyway”, arising to serve, reaching out to their neighbors, working very hard and consistently to start a devotional meeting—and now there are several core activities in the neighborhood. The struggles—and the confirmations—in the story speak for themselves.
I am writing to inform you of the following activities in my neighborhood. Although I had been virtually inactive for the past few years, I was recently inspired on my recent pilgrimage, most specifically by the evening talk given by one of the members of the International Teaching Center, Mrs. Rachel Ndegwa.
While listening to her talk I gained a new understanding of what I needed to do when I returned to my community. Indeed, I had such a burning desire to rush home to do service that I could barely contain myself in my chair and spent the rest of the pilgrimage planning and praying for what I would do when I returned. More than anything I prayed for steadfastness, that my enthusiasm would not wane when I returned. . . .
Briefly my plan was to start a neighborhood devotional gathering. When I returned I designed an invitation and the first devotional program. Then I went out into my neighborhood. I went alone. Indeed I did not tell anyone about my plan except for my daughter who had accompanied me on pilgrimage. I felt that I needed to do it alone—to prove to myself that this would and could work even in the most stripped-down fashion—all alone. I remembered Martha Root's lonely travels and how much she accomplished. And I remembered a prayer by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá about being alone and yet still serving.
I begged Bahá’u’lláh to allow me to just speak to people I saw on the street even though there were probably not going to be many on a Monday afternoon. As I walked by my next-door neighbor's house, I saw that their two daughters, both young adults, were in the front yard. I approached them, gave them the invitation and devotional program, invited them, and then chit-chatted about our dogs. As I left their yard, I felt a sigh of relief and momentum build. "That wasn't so hard," I told myself. Within 25 minutes, I had handed out 5 invitations which was exactly my goal for that day! In particular I felt good about one woman who seem to magically walk out of her front door as if waiting for me. She had a lovely smile, and we greeted each other warmly. She commented positively on the program, saying that she was gratified to see a quote from the Qur’án. She told me she was Muslim.
I learned from this first outing that by saying, "Hi, I'm your neighbor," people let down their guard and listened to what I had to say. These were my neighbors, and they were happy to greet a fellow neighbor.
The next few days went out again, but I was less successful in handing out invitations. I felt disappointed. The next day, I was awakened by a knock on the door. It was my Muslim neighbor! She came in and told me that she had shown the program to her husband. She explained that her husband was in the process of establishing a non-profit organization to create a community center for youth. She showed me a flyer which explained his plan and pointed to the bullet that said that they would like to provide classes on the history of world religions to youth. She told me that her husband had sent her over to ask me if I would be willing to teach such a class. I said, "Yes! Indeed, let's start right away here in the neighborhood. We don't need to wait for a physical center to be built." She said, "okay" and we decided that her children would be the first students. I was elated beyond words!
Two days later, this beautiful soul came to our first neighborhood devotions with all her beautiful children. And we had our first children's class right away following the devotions.
In the meantime, that Wednesday, we had the first Ruhi Book 1 study circle in our home that my daughter had organized by inviting a couple of her friends with whom she had spoken about spiritual matters and who had shown receptivity.
Within 10 days of initiating our plans, our home had turned into a neighborhood gathering point hosting 3 core activities! I was overjoyed and grateful beyond belief. I offered many prayers of thanksgiving and gratitude. I was also in awe of the process and the wisdom of our Institutions.
Three weeks passed and we continued having devotions, study circles which had grown to 5 participants, and children's classes which had grown to 9 children. I realized that this enterprise was going to be one that required a long-term commitment, and a lot of hard work.
In the meantime, since the first day that I had gone out, I had re-visited my next-door neighbor. I had found out from the daughters that the mother was ill. I made her some freshly squeezed orange juice and knocked on her door. Her husband answered and ushered me into the living room. While on pilgrimage I had prayed specifically for this family. Indeed, I prayed fervently on more than one occasion as I had always had a good feeling about them. The daughters especially were very sweet girls and I had enjoyed my conversations with the mother. So, that day, when I went into their home, it felt like a new beginning.
We spoke for nearly 2 hours. I told her that I had recently returned from pilgrimage and had been praying for them. I went home feeling very happy.
I continued to call this neighbor a couple of times a week. One day, she said she would come over. And she did. When the time seemed right I explained about the study circle and said it is sort of like a Bible study. She immediately showed interest. I explained a bit more about it, and she said she would like to come. I was pleasantly surprised. She asked me if she could also bring her daughters and her son. She explained that she had not been involved in her church for several years, but she would like her children to come also to receive spiritual education. I explained that I also offered a children's class that her son would be welcome to attend, and she gladly agreed.
Today her son joined the children's class. He was the only white boy in a class of 8; the rest are African Americans. Even though the predominant ethnicity in this part of Indiana is white, the class has turned out to be mostly black. The children all get along—here is this little boy sitting happily between two black children watching a movie after children's classes.
So far, 4 neighborhood families had participated in at least 1 core activity, and all core activities now have neighborhood participation.
I have left out many details. There are other contacts and conversations that have not reached a point of fruition. But all of this involves small, daily interactions with neighbors—people who share my block and with whom the possibility of creating a new kind of spiritual community in our neighborhood exists. I feel that it is the small acts, the imperfections, the uncertainties that make the story so compelling—even as I have lived it and now recount it.
The main point of this story, and the main lesson I have learned, is that when we do what we are supposed to do results follow. I consider myself to be an ordinary Bahá’í with plenty of flaws. I had lost hope. Then, by the Grace of God, I found the solution through the blessing of pilgrimage, and was not only confirmed by the actual experience as described above, but by the Ridvan Message that came out while I was in the midst of my efforts.
I have been so busy, that I still have not participated in other community activities such as the Feast or Holy Day gatherings. I know that I will, but I have been actively engaged in what I know I need to do, and the confirmations keep coming. I am sharing this story because many have told me that they are inspired by it and that I must share it.
I do not know what lies ahead, but I do know that what has occurred in the past 6 weeks is more than I ever imagined possible.