As a college student, the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted my education and typical patterns of life, just as it has for countless numbers of souls throughout the globe. I study and serve a community near Boston, but when my school closed, I returned home to live with my family near Washington DC. Like others living and serving in Boston, I have tried to find creative ways to continue to build community, especially during this time when our careers, our work, our social lives, and our health have been impacted by factors outside of our control, often leaving us scared and concerned for both ourselves and for the wellbeing of our communities.
Despite the challenging circumstances created by the pandemic, Baha’is around the world have continued their efforts to build community. Many of these endeavors have undergone changes in form and process, but the character of these efforts which seek to bring Baha’u’llah’s central principle, unity, to all people has remained unchanged. I recently asked some of my friends engaged in this work about their observations and their community-building efforts during the pandemic, and here are some of the points that came from our conversations.
Heightened Receptivity to Community Building
One common feature that many of my friends observed was a heightened receptivity on the part of their friends and neighbors to social interaction with members of their community. A friend I was talking to noted that their community saw this as a practical need and also observed that the recent lack of social interaction had heightened people’s desire to have meaningful conversations with others: “People are definitely realizing the importance and need for community and individual connections. People are craving more human interaction and are more inclined to have conversations.” This heightened receptivity to interaction within their local community, they said, lent itself to opening conversations about building community and addressing issues collectively at a grassroots level, conversations which opened the door to introducing the activities of the Ruhi Institute and inviting their friends and neighbors to participate.
Other friends described how one of the main functions of the Institute Process is connecting people and creating true unity founded on compassion and love, connections which are needed especially when social interaction must occur at a distance. People, now more than ever, desire to connect with one another in a meaningful way, and the community building activities give us the opportunity to “create and strengthen bonds that we normally rely on but which are now absent due to the current circumstances.”
Another friend felt that there were also more opportunities to elevate conversations. These conversations were founded on a deepened awareness among their neighbors about their material and spiritual reality and the realities faced by other members of their community. This friend noted that, “The conversations I’ve been having are elevated. People are searching for answers about why this is happening and are seeking something deeper, which is where we have an opportunity to share a message of unity.” Most of my friends have been turning to the recent message from the Universal House of Justice sent to the Baha’is of the world on Naw Ruz addressing the pandemic:
…elevated conversations […] whether remotely or in person, have been a source of comfort and inspiration to many. Such efforts on your part provide a valuable service at this hour when many souls are perplexed and dismayed, unsure of what will be.1
Other friends similarly noticed how society is increasingly recognizing the need for oneness and interdependence as a means of resolving this global pandemic that is so expansive in its effects. The Naw Ruz message of the Universal House of Justice clearly addresses this discernible need for oneness:
Seldom has it been more evident that society’s collective strength is dependent on the unity it can manifest in action, from the international stage to the grassroots.
Activities Taking On New Form
Because of this heightened receptivity to both social interaction and to elevated conversations about our individual and collective lives and wellbeing, my friends were able to invite their friends and neighbors to participate in community building activities. They also found new ways to continue the activities that were ongoing before the pandemic. The House of Justice again addresses many of these transformations happening in activities across the globe:
Though having to adapt to new circumstances, the believers have used creative means to strengthen bonds of friendship, and to foster among themselves and those known to them, spiritual consciousness and qualities of tranquillity, confidence, and reliance on God.
These activities, both new and old, have mostly moved online. Although the tools and applications that my friends described varied, all noted that face-to-face interaction was still possible through virtual technology platforms. While elevated conversations are sometimes challenging when conducting study circles remotely, these apps have been a valuable resource for connecting and interacting in a personable way. These types of technologies have enabled meaningful and elevated conversations that have been increasing in number and potency, often leading to the natural emergence of study circles. In Boston, the number of study circles in the cluster has increased significantly. Friends in that region also noted an increase in their devotional character of their communities, with frequent devotionals held virtually for the health and wellbeing of society. Other friends felt that study circles and devotionals were able to meet more frequently when moved to a virtual format because people have more free time and a heightened enthusiasm for engaging with others about themes relevant to what they and their communities are facing.
Some friends who are children’s class teachers and animators of junior youth spiritual empowerment program groups faced challenges in continuing their activities, but ultimately, through consultation with others in similar situations and with support and guidance from the institutions of the Faith, they were able to move their activities online. Children’s class teachers have found meaningful ways to engage with children, continuing to teach them virtues in a new remote manner with the help of online resources. Some classes have been able to happen virtually with the support of family members, which my friends observed was a great way to extend the reach of the activities to the families of the children and to deepen those relationships. One class was able to deliver sanitized packages to the homes of the children containing coloring pages and art supplies.
Several animators have described that their relationships with junior youth have continued virtually and that this new online format has been a great opportunity to deepen bonds of friendship with entire families and talk about how they are adapting to their reality. With the aid of resources for online instruction, several animators have been able to continue meeting with their group (both individually and together). Several animators mentioned that the junior youth in their groups were more eager to engage in the educational component and to study texts about youth of similar ages to them going through challenging experiences and being of service to their communities.
Helping the Most Vulnerable
Reflecting the sentiment expressed by the House of Justice, many of my friends expressed “great concern for the well-being of humanity, especially for those who are most vulnerable.” Many groups have been especially impacted by the pandemic, such as those who have limited access to medical care, those who are particularly burdened by the economic constraints that social distancing has imposed, and those who face challenging home environments from which they are no longer able to separate themselves, among many others.
The friends I spoke to were cognizant of the vulnerabilities that members of their communities faced as a result of the pandemic, and saw the community building efforts as part of a solution. One friend articulated that “what people need during this time is community building, which can provide resiliency and hope.”
Given the limited ability for many communities to engage in service projects outside the home, my friends felt that one of the most significant ways that community building could help vulnerable populations was providing a message of hope to those. This spiritual service can take many directions, but ultimately taps into humanity’s need for “hope and the strength of spirit that faith imparts,” as the House of Justice states. Understanding the nature of crisis and victory through the Revelation of Baha’u’llah and the many instances throughout the history of the Faith that exemplify this theme, as well as applying this concept to the state and struggles of the world today, has been helpful for friends exploring the current conditions of society with their friends and neighbors who feel hopeless and uncertain. Many have also found that sharing some sections of the Naw Ruz message of the Universal House of Justice has led to elevated conversations that inspire hope:
However difficult matters are at present, and however close to the limits of their endurance some sections of societies are brought, humanity will ultimately pass through this ordeal, and it will emerge on the other side with greater insight and with a deeper appreciation of its inherent oneness and interdependence… May your minds be ever bent upon the needs of the communities to which you belong, the condition of the societies in which you live, and the welfare of the entire family of humanity, to whom you are all brothers and sisters.
These are a few observations of what it’s been like to continue to build community where I live, even when we have to be apart. I’d love to hear your experiences so please feel free to share in the comments section below.