The West Lafayette Conference: Conveying the Spirit and Joy

It all began Friday night, April 22, on the edge of Happy Hollow Ravine in West Lafayette, Indiana. Rain had been in the forecast for the opening event: a potluck dinner, campfire, nature hike, singing, and a round of s’mores around the fire. But the rain stayed away, and the hearts of participants began to gather. The hosts for the evening sang a prayer, “My Home Is the Home of Love,” and introductions and activities began. Later that night, several Bahá’ís and friends of the Faith transported all the waiting materials to the Unitarian Universalist Church where much of the program would occur over Saturday and Sunday, April 23-24. In addition to the usual conference furnishings, one of the Bahá’ís had transported a dozen small trees and potted plants to transform the main room into a garden.

Saturday’s program began with outdoor dawn devotions at the home of one of the study circle participants. Her husband played guitar for “Blessed Is the Spot” and “I’m Buildin’ Me a Home,” near a striking two-story sculpture in their lawn of a woman with her hands raised in prayer. The group also joined in a circle dance, with gestures inspired by the study circle process.

The program then moved to the church, where about 50 participants joined for a day of creative expression. It began with prayers, music, and the building of a symbolic web that connects all hearts, an activity adopted from an earlier conference. After the web was broken, a friend of the Faith and Book 1 participant created a sound bath with crystal bowls to symbolically heal the broken web. This was followed by a plenary on the Oneness of Humanity which started with a video of other worldwide conferences and the reading and contemplation of quotations from the Divine Physician, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the Universal House of Justice, and Shoghi Effendi. Breakout groups discussed the quotes and created artwork to express the concepts. In the remaining time before lunch, friends from a nearby community led a lively session of traditional African drumming, dancing, and storytelling.

After lunch, study circle participants led a pair of artistic workshops — one on storytelling and science, with a focus on personal journeys — and the other using visual arts to explore building community. During the storytelling workshop, a local TV reporter unexpectedly appeared and filmed, then interviewed the conference’s MC; creating a local news feature and web article. This was followed by a discussion on consultation and conflict resolution. The last part of the afternoon was a discussion of the “enkindled souls” described in the December 30 2021 message from the Universal House of Justice. With this perspective, participants celebrated recent victories in community building, adding them as paper leaves to a large tree depicted on a wall.

Dinner was next, followed by a jam session with drums, marimba, piano, and dancing.

Sunday morning began with a home breakfast for about 30 people, followed by a short yoga meditation led by a study circle participant. Some of the participants joined the host for a memorization activity on the prayer “Create in me a pure heart, O my God,” using an animation created by her daughter. People were moved by the words and art. One participant even mentioned that this was the first time that a prayer had reached her heart. Other art activities included quilting and collage-building.

After a lunch back at the church, a choir director who specializes in helping everyone sing, started the afternoon off with a sing-along.

A panel of leaders of diverse community service organizations presented information about their work. The most moving presentation was given by a young father and veteran who is working to provide transportation to workers whose employers aren’t on bus lines. The conference then considered spiritual education and the Institute process, with a presentation by a Bahá’í university student on how children’s classes and junior youth spiritual empowerment had helped him build towards a life of service to humanity. The afternoon’s activities ended with a contemplation of next steps to aid in community-building. People wrote their goals, big and small, on raindrops to add to the tree that had been filled with leaves representing victories on Saturday.

Gathered in a circle, everyone shared some part of the conference that had brought them joy. Often, tears were shed and friendships emphasized, and the conference ended with a song.

Unfortunately, starting Monday evening after the conference, participants began reporting COVID symptoms, although initial antigen tests were negative. On Wednesday, news of the first positive tests reached the organizing committee. Very few participants had been wearing masks, and unfortunately the conference became a spreading event. The committee moved quickly to notify participants so that they could limit the spread.

Two weeks later, a small reflection meeting was held via Zoom, with planners and workshop facilitators. Two of the presenters were excited about starting a monthly discussion in their neighborhood on spiritual topics and issues the community can address. It is beautiful to see that steps are being taken to spread the spirit of the conference out in concentric circles in West Lafayette.