How was this possible during the pandemic?
What insights were gained?
Over the course of the pandemic thus far, the SE Neighborhood Team in Grand Rapids, Michigan, has advanced towards sustaining nearly 20 core activities. Though this is but a small milestone, given the vision of having 1,000s of families engaged, some meaningful insights have emerged in the team’s process of growth.
1) “Stumbling blocks can be made [into] stepping stones for progress” — Universal House of Justice, 28 December 2010
The Bahá’í Writings contain countless reminders that tests are opportunities for growth; the SE neighborhood team has found this to be true, not just at the level of the individual, but also at the level of the community. Although the pandemic brought many obstacles — such as isolation, the loss of in-person activities, and grief from witnessing the suffering of people around the world — it also has brought many blessings:
- Since activities had to decrease in size, the team invited more of the neighborhood youth to arise as protagonists of the institute process. By trusting these friends of the faith to take on more responsibility for the progress of the neighborhood, activities have multiplied more quickly than ever before.
- Conversations on racial justice and unity became commonplace, as the racially disproportionate consequences of the pandemic highlighted the inequitable, oppressive systems and attitudes that impact families of color. A study circle that started in honor of George Floyd resulted in two youth from the neighborhood offering full-time periods of service and arising as the first tutors from among the neighborhood’s population.
- The spirit of solidarity and love has strengthened among members of the neighborhood team through having to come up with creative— sometimes even wild— strategies to continue hosting activities safely. Much humor, for example, has come from the various attempts to maintain outdoor study circles through Michigan’s freezing temperatures. By finding ways to make the impossible possible, the team of youth serving in the neighborhood has learned to rely on each other, and to enjoy the process of trial and error in their efforts to serve.
2) “Small steps, if they are regular and rapid, add up to a great distance travelled.” — Universal House of Justice, Ridvan 2016
The process of multiplying our core activities has been relatively simple. The team has just looked for small, easy opportunities to have meaningful conversations with youth, invite them into the institute process, and accompany them to begin serving. In many cases, all three of these steps may begin within the span of the same week: an invitation is made to two or three youth to contribute to the progress of their community, a small study circle is started the next day, and after their first study of a section, the youth are accompanied to share prayers with children or junior youth. This sharing of prayers has proven to sow the seeds for a future junior youth group or children’s class. When action starts simply in this way, it is very easy to build on it week after week.
3) “Progress of many people through the sequence of courses is more likely to occur when the friends are able to associate their studies to specific action.” — International Teaching Centre, Training Institutes: Attaining a Higher Level of Functioning
The SE Neighborhood Team works towards the goal of having each session of study circles be accompanied by action in the field. Even seemingly small learnings can be shared with others immediately. If the first session of a study of Book 1 starts with devotions, participants gain insight into the power of prayer, and learn to read prayers with reverence. If they complete the very first section, they have begun to develop the ability to understand the Bahá’í Writings. These are capacities they can share with others immediately, by offering a prayer or discussing a quotation with family, friends, or children in the neighborhood. Momentum is generated through this simple but immediate action, and the study circles become invigorated. The youth are able to quickly see themselves as protagonists in an effort to transform their community, and witness the power of each Institute course to propel their endeavors.
4) “As the number of local friends who can act as tutors grows, the capacity to establish study circles necessarily increases.” — International Teaching Centre, Training Institutes: Attaining a Higher Level of Functioning
A key contributor to growth in the neighborhood has been raising up two local tutors, which has doubled the size of the neighborhood team. These tutors share cultural, linguistic, and experiential knowledge with many of the other families in the neighborhood, which has led to deepened trust and enthusiasm for the Institute activities. On a very practical level, having two additional friends with the capacity to tutor and accompany has made it feasible to invite larger numbers of youth into the process.
5) “Where there is love, nothing is too much trouble, and there is always time” — `Abdu’l-Bahá
Raising up new human resources takes time. At the start of the pandemic, two pioneers were serving for a few hours a week in the neighborhood, and were accompanying one study circle with three participants. The spirit of love was as strong in that small study circle, as was the vision shared by the participants to transform their community. The love for each other and desire to work together to contribute to change motivated two of the participants as well as the two tutors to clear away scheduling obstacles so they could offer 3-5 hours, five days a week to their service together. For some, setting aside this time for service was relatively simple; for others, this required great material sacrifice. The joy of being together has been immense, and the spirit of loving support among the team members has made the obstacle of time easier to overcome. Just this cycle, these 3-5 hours a day offered by the four team members have been sufficient to welcome 17 new youth into the institute, and to accompany those new youth to begin five new educational activities, bringing the total core activities in the neighborhood to 16.
Anisa Everett, Grand Rapids, Michigan