The Rhythms and Routines of Bahá'í CommunitiesAs a worldwide community, with individuals from more than 2,100 ethnic and tribal groups who reside in more than 230 countries and territories, the Bahá'í Faith is certainly among the most diverse bodies of people on earth.
More often than not, such diversity extends to the local and national levels, as people from a wide variety of backgrounds, ages, professions, and educational levels come together in more than 132,000 localities around the world with common aims: to worship the Creator, promote peace and unity, and serve humanity.
A Bahá'í preschool in the Bolivian Andes.
Yet whether in an isolated African village or a cosmopolitan center in North America, the structures that govern the rhythms and routines of Bahá'í community life are both flexible enough to accommodate this diversity and yet strong enough to maintain the essential unity of the Faith, which, unlike the world's other major religions, has resisted splitting into sects and sub-groups.
The result is a rich community life. Not only do most Bahá'í communities of any significant size sponsor a wide range of activities -- from social events to economic development projects -- individuals within Bahá'í communities also find a joyful and supportive group of friends who, despite the sometimes wide difference in their backgrounds, find common ground in the high ideals and principles of the Faith.
Roberto Eghrari of Brazil recalls an encounter at a national Bahá'í meeting recently that illustrated this sense of unity in diversity. "I was watching three people standing together, discussing issues of community development," said Mr. Eghrari, who is a member of the national Bahá'í governing body of the Bahá'ís of Brazil. "One was a woman ticket seller for a circus, from Bahia, in the north. She is illiterate, but is nevertheless quite articulate. Another was an indigenous person, from the Kariri-Xoco tribe in the state of Alagoas, in the Northeast. And another was a man of Iranian background, who has a PhD in nuclear engineering.
"And it struck me how unusual this would be in many places, where it is often felt that only highly educated people are articulate and able to discuss important issues," Mr. Eghrari said, who is himself trained as an electronics engineer. "But that is not true among Bahá'ís. It is accepted that everyone is equal, and that everyone -- whether highly educated or not -- can and should participate in discussions about such things as the future of their communities."
The local Spiritual Assembly of Johannesburg, South Africa.
Common activities in Bahá'í communities include classes for the education of children, devotional services, study classes, discussions on global issues, social events, the observance of holy days, marriages, and funeral services. Many local Spiritual Assemblies around the world also oversee small-scale educational, economic or environmental development projects. Such efforts range from the sponsorship of community health workers to small agricultural projects.
The centerpiece of Bahá'í community life is the Nineteen-Day Feast. Held once every 19 days, the Feast is the local community's regular worship gathering -- and more.
Open to both adults and children, the Feast is the regular gathering that promotes and sustains the unity of the local Bahá'í community. The Feast always contains three elements: spiritual devotion, administrative consultation, and social fellowship. As such, the Feast combines religious worship with grassroots governance and social enjoyment.
Yet its program is adaptable to a wide variety of cultural and social needs. Music is often a component of its program, and such music often reflects the geographic and cultural setting. In the southern United States, for example, Feast might well feature Gospel-style music, while in Asia the songs might be pentatonic.
"One thing that is a common theme in our Feasts in Kenya is a love of music," said Charles Mungonya, a 52-year-old sales and marketing specialist in Nairobi who has been a Bahá'í since 1961. And the music at Feast, Mr. Mungonya said, itself reflects the diversity of the community.
"We have about 40 different tribal groups in Kenya, and almost all of them are represented in the Faith," said Mr. Mungonya. "And in the cities and towns, especially, you will find Bahá'ís from many different backgrounds coming together. This is unusual. Most other religious groups in Kenya are likely to be from a single tribe.
"But we see multi-tribal groups that come together to enter into 'one fold' and pray together and worship together and socialize together. Yet even in Bahá'í communities here where, because of geography, one tribe predominates, the music is from different groups and is often sung in 5 or 6 different languages. Because most of our Bahá'í songs come from all over," said Mr. Mungonya. "And diverse music is enjoyed by everyone, we find."
The use of the word "feast" might seem to imply that a large meal will be served. That is not necessarily the case. While food and beverages are usually served, the term itself is meant to suggest that the community should enjoy a "spiritual feast" of worship, companionship and unity. Bahá'u'lláh stressed the importance of gathering every nineteen days, "to bind your hearts together," even if nothing more than water is served.
During the devotional program, selections from the Bahá'í writings, and often the scriptures from other religions, are read aloud. A general discussion follows, allowing every member a voice in community affairs and making the Feast an "arena of democracy at the very root of society." The Feast ends with a period for socializing.
While the Feast serves to bind Bahá'ís and their families more closely together, Bahá'í communities as a whole are not isolated from society at large. Indeed, Bahá'u'lláh encouraged His followers to be fully involved with the rest of humanity. And most Bahá'ís lead lives that would not seem out of place in their native society -- following their professions, raising families, participating in local affairs -- save perhaps for a strong commitment to the high moral and ethical standards that are encouraged by the Faith.
In Belfast, Northern Ireland, for example, many of the women members of the Bahá'í community there have been involved for years with other women in quiet efforts to promote peace in that strife-torn country. It was something that Bahá'í women did as a natural extension of their belief in the importance of tolerance and peace, and this effort evolved as a consequence of their collaboration with other women's organizations.
"We've been essentially working in the background," said Patrica Ann Irvine, a 50-year-old mother. "The women's organizations have been primarily concerned with anything to do with women and children. As Bahá'ís, we participated in this, but we also always talked about peace. Not in the Northern Ireland specific sense, but in the global sense, and we like to think that some of this has filtered through."
There is also a great deal of communication and other forms of networking that goes on between Bahá'í communities at the local, national and international levels -- all of which serves to connect the individual and their participation at the local level to the great global issues of our time.
Many Bahá'í communities around the world sponsor local seminars or panel discussions on issues such as the equality of women and men, the need to eliminate racism, or the importance of promoting human rights.
The Bahá'í community of Brazil, for example, itself sponsored a number of events at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. Among other things, members of the community assisted in organizing a major cultural program during the Summit and in erecting a special Peace Monument to commemorate the meeting.
"By participating in such international events, or working on global issues at the local level, we feel a part of something that has a much larger purpose," said Mr. Eghrari of Brazil. "Being part of the whole world is very much a part of our vision."