WhyUnite? Introductory Baha’i Materials for Everyone

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

About the Author

Naysan is the editor of Baha'i Blog and he has worked in various avenues of media for two decades. He’s passionate about using the arts and media to support and explore the teachings of the Baha’i Faith and he has produced and collaborated on popular music projects like the "DawnBreaker Collective" and the successful Ruhi-inspired sequence of "MANA" albums. His experience as a producer for CNN was invaluable while working on a number of special projects for the Baha’i World Centre, including the "Building Momentum" and "Pilgrimage: A Sacred Experience" videos. If there’s a media-related Baha’i project out there, chances are that Naysan was involved with it somehow!

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Discussion 2 Comments

  1. This initiative, entitled ‘WhyUnite?’ is, indeed, a labor of love for husband and wife team Nathan and Sarah Thomas. Reading about their work in developing this wide collection of materials for introducing the Baha’i Faith to the world was an inspiration. Since I have also spent the last decade with a similar aim in mind, I take my hat off to them. Their approach is different than mine and, it seems to me, much more effective. The ‘menu of options’ for seekers to explore this newest of the Abrahamic religions, and the ‘toolkit for Baha’is’ to use when sharing the faith with others, is—I’m sure—just a beginning for them. At least, I hope it is just the beginning as they enrich and diversify their approach, their style and their content.

    I’m not surprised, though, that they are somewhat tired and financially spent after that 10 year labor. Their work was, and is, a massive task and deserving of the highest praise. After seeing how the market reacts in the next few years to what they have created in cyberspace, and after recouping their energies and finances, it will be interesting to see how their site, their initiative, develops. They already have an extensive core of resources for everyone even, of course, if they don’t add anything at all to their current resource base. They should feel proud of what they’ve been able to accomplish with, as they say, their limited means. I’m sure many others will benefit from their work in the months and years to come—as the Baha’i Faith grows in the years ahead within its new culture of learning, its paradigm shift, begun in the last two decades.

    Like the Thomas’s, I have also spent the last decade developing a similar approach to introducing a wide cross-section of internet users to the Baha’i Faith. I think the Thomas’s approach is more useful than mine for those on the world-wide-web who want to learn about this global organization, this new world religion. The ‘WhyUnite?’ initiative is more direct and overt than my approach, my internet activity, in the years 2003 to 2013. I’d give them an A+, that is, 95 to 100 out of 100; I’d rate my effort, at best, a B, 66 to 74 out of 100 in terms of simple utility, usefulness, to others. My approach, quite a different one from that of the Thomas’s, utilizes my website and my participation at some 8000 internet sites where I post and interact with others. I have not been out of pocket financially, but the process is certainly exhausting. I spread my energies very wide, and I rely on a creative literary process which is itself renewing. If it was not renewing, I’d be worn-out by now.

    I get millions of readers, plant millions of seeds and, like Nathan and Sarah, I watch and wait. I see how the market reacts, so to speak, and continue my own labor of love. My website is found at: http://www.ronpriceepoch.com/ ….and my forums and blogs are all over the internet found in the interstices of 300 million websites and their 3 billion users. The internet has been a teaching medium that, for a person like me who became a Baha’i in the 1950s, has been unbelievable. It’s teaching and consolidation, service and social activism, potential was unimaginable, in the years long ago, back in the 20th century.

  2. Nathan and Sarah, having never met, I can only say that, from what I have read, which is only what I see on this site. I am very impressed with what it is you are are trying to accomplish. My wife Linda and I are relatively new Baha’is having declared a little less than 3 years ago, and I especially like the idea of a more contemporary approach to the Faith. Prior to our declaration, which was on the same day, we had read several books given to us by Baha’i friends in the area, these were very helpful but obviously quite old. I was looking for something more contemporary, another way of saying, up to date. Books which address questions that people might have today re. the Faith, what it is, where it came from, how it applies to life today, how is it different from other Faith’s of our times…….many other issues.

    We both come from a Christian background in both United Methodist and Presbyterian Churches. For 12 years or so I was a United Methodist Pastor. Every now and again, I find myself looking back on those days and times and realize that even though as a Pastor I was feeling and voicing some very Baha’i ideas. I recall, just recently being reminded by a former Confirmation student, who found me on the internet, saying, “what I remember about you is you always told us to include everybody.” I also remember saying to people things like, “Don’t take my word, find our for yourself.” when it came to answering questions of Faith. Upon Declaring for the Baha’i Faith it came with the realization we had both, found our spiritual home!

    What I try to do is always be prepared for the opportunity presents itself, to talk about the Faith. Having materials like the one’s you have prepared would be great to have to pass on to others.

    Thanks for your hard work.

    Peace,
    Jay Banta

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