A couple of months ago I wrote a post here on Baha’i Blog called 10 Great Introductory Books on the Baha’i Faith and my aim was to showcase some of the books available for those who want to learn more about the Baha’i Faith. The reality though, is that different people learn in different ways and maybe some of those books are not for everyone, or you’re simply looking for new materials to share with your friends, so that’s why I’m happy to introduce an awesome new initiative called WhyUnite?.
WhyUnite? is series of compelling introductory materials about the Baha’i Faith and the aim is to provide individuals with a variety of options to help them in their exploration of the Faith. Based on the idea that each person learns differently, and that every individual has a unique path they must follow in order to find the truth, meaning, and purpose that will help them reach their fullest potential in the world, WhyUnite? offers a choice of books, compilations, video talks, interviews, events, and more to help introduce the Faith.
This initiative has been a labor of love for husband and wife team Nathan and Sarah Thomas, and I managed to catch up with Nathan to find out more about these wonderful new resources.
Baha’i Blog: Can you tell me a little bit about the initiative and how it all works?
The WhyUnite? Project is a personal initiative to develop an all new collection of materials for introducing the Baha’i Faith to the world. We have three types of materials at this point. Each approaches the teachings, principles, vision, and practicing of this faith from a different perspective. There’s a set of introductory titles that includes books and video fireside talks. There is a set of video interviews of Baha’is telling their stories. And there is a set of video deepening talks about practicing the Baha’i faith. We’ve tried to create a ‘menu of options’ for seekers to explore this amazing religion on their own terms. We also wanted to give Baha’is a toolkit they can use when sharing the faith with others.
Baha’i Blog: How did this initiative come about and why was it started?
The project is something that my wife and I started as a way to be of service to the Baha’i Faith. We both have marketing and technology backgrounds, so coming up with the strategy was fairly straightforward for us. We just asked ourselves, ‘what do we think the Faith needs?’
We used as much of the amazing self-publishing and online distribution tools as we could to keep our operations lean and mean and our costs low. The fact is, producing semi-good quality materials has never been more affordable. We did however hire a few talented folks for editing and design work, which really helped. The nice thing is that we were able to tap into a talented pool of folks to help us using online tools. All the work was done virtually. I’ve never even met my designer or my typesetter in person, for example.
On the other hand, I did not have much multimedia, publishing, and production experience. So I had to teach myself on nights and weekends how to film, edit, and produce videos. I also had to learn how to set up and run a book publishing operation at the same time. I probably bit off more than I could chew looking back now, but hindsight is always that way. In any event, it took a few years and a lot of trial and error, but I think that I learned enough to be dangerous. We got this first version of all the content out into the market and we’re pretty happy about it. We’ll see how it goes. Hopefully, if people like it, then we may create some more content.
Baha’i Blog: What’s the main aim of this initiative and why do you think an initiative like this so is important?
We wanted to create materials for introducing the Baha’i Faith from a variety of lenses. We have met so many people that come at their search for ‘spiritual truth’ from different perspectives that we felt we needed to address those journeys explicitly. There are a lot of great books out there that explore concepts and themes, and then BAM, throw the Baha’i Faith at the end as the solution! These types of materials may work with a certain audience. But for us, we wanted to create something a little more straightforward.
We felt there was also a market for just some Baha’i Faith 101 type materials that were pretty basic, full of stories and analogies and quotes, but still lighthearted and fun to read. And so we created introductory titles around things like comparative religion, self-realization, and service to humanity.
We also wanted to tell stories. We found that video was the most effective way to do that. So we recorded scores of interviews from people from a variety of backgrounds sharing their experiences as Baha’is. I talked with people from a wide array of Christian denominations and backgrounds. I also talked with people from Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, Native Traditions, even agnostic and atheist backgrounds. I interviewed a former preacher, the daughter of a Shinto priest, the son of a Baptist minister, and a scientist who grew up in an atheist family, all people who became Baha’is. I talked with teachers, psychologists, a mailman, a former nuclear submarine officer, lawyers, artists, surgeons, college students, professional dancers, accountants, and more. I talked with young and old alike. And I also interviewed a good number of people who grew up in the Baha’i Faith and then accepted it for themselves. Everyone had a great story to tell. I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed interviewing so many amazing people. Sitting down and hearing these wonderful stories was like getting a taste of heaven.
We also appreciate that people in America like to hear a good inspiring talk once in a while. Look at how popular Sunday morning preachers are. I love watching some of these folks give incredibly informative and often loving talks. The fact is, people like to be encouraged. And while we don’t have ministers in the Baha’i Faith, we are encouraged to give talks and to seek out learned believers for wisdom and insights (of course always with the understanding that no one individual has an authoritative understanding – we make that very clear in the videos). I still think it is a powerful tool in our toolbox that we should use more often. We have some really great speakers in the Baha’i community. I wish we could use them more often! We recorded me giving some deepening talks about living the Baha’i life in my living room. We also included clips from other people talking about their experiences practicing the Faith for themselves. I think we came away with a good start that we could build on if people like it.
In the end, we wanted materials that we were excited to recommend to our friends. My wife and I have already recommended the books to several people, and we’ve gotten positive feedback. It’s just nice to have a conversation with someone and be able to pick and choose from a variety of materials the things we think would be appealing to this particular seeker.
Baha’i Blog: What sort of effect do you hope this has on readers/viewers and what are you hoping they walk away with?
I would love to see people finding their own way through the materials. We purposely did not structure the materials in an A, B, C / 1, 2, 3 format. We wanted to empower the seeker to take ownership of their own exploration of the faith, to ask the questions that were in their hearts, to use the way they learn best – be it visually, reading commentary, or studying the texts – and to make this experience personal. We also purposely tried to find new approaches to explaining the teachings, principles, practices, and vision of the Faith using the Writings as a foundation. We wanted to make it fresh and interesting, even for Baha’is who may think they have ‘heard it all.’ And so we added a lot of stories, analogies, and quotations along the way to give it all weight. We thought it might be nice to take a new approach to explaining the Faith that might give people new ways to think about being a Baha’i.
Personally, I think the experience of exploring any faith should be a magical one for a seeker. It should never feel overly structured or confined.
The fact is, I’m a product guy in my day job. I know the magic of great products and how they can capture the imagination of an audience. That is not something you can force, no matter how much you may want to create the magic. It has to come naturally and from the heart, at the right time, at the right place, for the right person. Good materials can facilitate that connection. They can engender that reaction. And so that’s what I was working to create with WhyUnite?.
And after interviewing scores of Baha’is and hearing their stories, I am truly confirmed in the belief that this faith is a mystical thing. Nobody in those interviews talked about being carried into the faith by anyone else. There may have been important people who helped them along the way, but in the end it was an intensely personal experience. It was always about the seeker and God. That’s where it began, and that’s where it ended. From what I’ve seen, no two people became confirmed believers in the same way. I think we have to internalize that. We have to embrace that. And we have to facilitate that by creating a platform for engagement that transcends all experiences. Give people the tools and see what they do. That’s why I created all these materials. Each path was unique and wonderful. And from what I’ve learned, it is a journey that never ends. Even if you’ve been a Baha’i all your life, we are all still seekers. So I hope people walk away from these materials with a new toolkit to use on their journey, a fresh perspective to reflect on what it means to be a Baha’i, and a new set of options for sharing it with the world.
Baha’i Blog: I like how you’ve given people the choice of books and videos to choose from. What’s the response been like so far and are you hoping to work on more material?
To be honest, the wide variety of content has been a mixed blessing. On the one hand, people love having different options available to them. So many people have different questions, care about different issues, and want different things in their spiritual search. Everyone is at a different place. So from that perspective, most people seem to gravitate to one title or another when they first see the materials.
Of course, the flip side is that it can be a bit overwhelming. People don’t always know where to start, or where to go next. I just tell them, follow your heart. Buy what speaks to you. I’ve learned a lot about where people are in their path by the titles that call to them. It’s very interesting to watch.
We are considering creating more books and videos, but we’ll see how it goes before we commit to anything. This whole effort, from conception to now, has taken over ten years, and we’re pretty tired and financially spent. We have a lot of ideas but we want to see how the market reacts before we move any further. We are really proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish with our limited means and capabilities, and we hope others like what we have done as well. If they do, then we’ll start thinking about what’s next.
Baha’i Blog: Thanks so much Nathan for taking the time to do this interview, and contratulations to you and Sarah on this wonderful and useful initiative.
To find out more about WhyUnite? and to watch examples of their videos and check out the variety of materials and options they offer, go to their website: whyunite.com