A Modest Proposal:
Recommendations Toward the
Since the fourth epoch of the Age of Transition has dawned, and momentous events both within and without the Baha'i community have ushered in our rapid emergence from obscurity, a new sense of maturation and openness has begun to infuse the followers of Baha'u'llah. No longer a minuscule band of true believers braving the odds in a hostile world, the worldwide Baha'i community is now a dynamic, awakening force; its millions of adherents flexing new spiritual muscle, beginning to look outward beyond their confines and meeting the eyes of mankind as they begin to look in. This maturational process, though, is fraught with all the difficulties, transitions, and growing pains inherent in any rapidly-changing organism.
Chief among any organism's growth adjustments is the major shift from closed system to open system; from dependence to independence. In the growth and maturation cycle of almost all higher life forms there is a natural and even beautiful process of a decreasing need for nurturance and a consequent and increasing need for self-realization and unprotected development. The seed becomes sprout becomes sapling becomes tree and bears fruit; the bird gradually learns flight; the child becomes a woman. As growth and maturation in the physical realm leads from attachment to detachment, so the cycle of spiritual maturity in a given community is a function of increasing autonomy and openness to discovery, awareness, and change.
No objective observer could fail to recognize the signal growth and maturation of the American Baha'i community since its inception 91 years ago. Moving from a tiny enclave of co-religionists to what has now become a well-known and dynamic community
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of faith, the Baha'is of the United States far outweigh in activity and influence our modest size of about 100,000 believers. However, there is clear and compelling evidence that the fortunes of the United States Baha'i community have stagnated, at least by some objective measures, within the past decade. Americans are loathe to face such stagnancy or admit that any decline is occurring, but even a cursory look at a few basic facts and indicators reveals the trends:
Declarations have slowed to a maintenance pace. In the 1960s and early '70s,10,000 declarations a year, many among young people, were not unusual. Since 1974, enrollments have hovered around the 3,000 per year level, which is approximately what it takes to replace attrition to withdrawals, pioneering, deaths, etc.
Youth declarations have dropped even more precipitously as we have been unable to sustain the influx of youth and young adults at levels comparable to the 1969-1973 period, when unprecedented numbers of youth enrolled in the Faith. Consequently the total of 19,000 Baha'i youth in the American Baha'i community in the peak year (1971) has declined to a total of 2,800 in 1987.
While the goals of the Nine, Five, and Seven Year Plans were, for the most part, won, the American Baha'i community has yet to achieve anything close to widespread enrollments and the beginning of the process of "entry by troops" expected here for over a decade.
Inactivity and alienation are difficult to measure quantitatively. However, the most commonly accepted gauge of inactivity-Baha'is who are listed as being "address unknown" status-now comprise a staggering percentage of the total community: 40-45,000 names of 100,000 believers. In the 1970s, this figure generally stayed within the 30 percent range, while now almost 50 percent of our community are "address unknown"-a figure that likely indicates increasing inactivity and alienation among the believers.
The national Fund faces a greater deficit than ever before, and contributions, while up monetarily each year, continue to represent stagnant or even smaller numbers of participants, both in terms of
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individual contributors and local Spiritual Assemblies. And most seriously, many conscientious Baha'is are convinced that a spiritual malaise has settled upon our small community, infecting us with a lassitude that has compromised our ability to grow and be healthy.
These are serious and troubling matters. But they are not new, nor are they insurmountable. The Baha'i community of the United States has faced similar tests and periods of dormancy before, and has redoubled its efforts and overcome its trials. Such effort was often painful, requiring much personal sacrifice as well as the sacrifice of sacred cows; but the results were great victories like those realized during the Ten Year Crusade and Nine Year Plan.
And not all, certainly, is bleak. There has been great progress and a veritable explosion of Baha'i culture in the past 20 years, with signal developments in the areas of Baha'i scholarship, development of Baha'i institutions, social and economic development, and the level of maturity of the community, to name just a few areas. No one discounts or denies that growth, but the problems remain large and seemingly intractable, and could seriously erode the aforementioned gains if not addressed.
The purpose of this essay is to attempt a beginning at the discussion of potential remedies for our plight. `Abdu'l-Baha assures us that the solutions to tests and difficulties come from frank and honest consultation. Hopefully, this proposal will serve to launch earnest and soul-searching discussion within the community. By no means does this essay pretend to be; all-inclusive, nor does it portend to have all or even one of the answers. We have restricted our observations and proposals to a limited range of national policy issues that can be consulted on and implemented or rejected in a timely manner. It is our hope that the implementation of new policies, designed to open up the f1ow of information between the believers and their institutions, will bring about more honest communication and consultation and thereby assist us all to more effectively address such issues as deficiencies in Baha’i devotional life, or problems with racism,
prejudice, cultural pluralism, and sexism in our midst-problems which many readers may view as more fundamental than the one's we raise here. It is the fondest hope of the authors that these observations and recommendations will be accepted in the spirit of loving and honest consultation, and not taken personally by any one or looked on as hostile, destructively critical, or dissembling in any way.
One caveat: We begin with a fundamental assumption: that the members of the American Baha' i community are essentially good and sincere Baha'is. This is a declaration of faith founded on the belief that renewal and growth can only come when it is assumed that there exists a potential for change; that the most successful endeavors come when high self-esteem flourishes; that high expectations assure outstanding results. We can repeat the many ills which test the members of the community; we know that our pain is no different from the pain of countless others who are not Baha'is; we recognize that violations of Baha'i law occur in communities across our land. Nevertheless, we believe that another litany of our shortcomings will not inspire us to the task before us. Too often we hear lack of progress in the Cause blamed on a parallel lack of spirituality or commitment in the body of the believers. While there may be some truth to such assertions, a fair observer must acknowledge that our leadership and our ingrained traditions and even some of our time-honored spiritual shibboleths must also bear at least partial responsibility for our community's slow growth.
Again and again, Baha'u'llah and `Abdu'l-Baha, although profoundly aware of our limits, emphasize the good that we can do, as all great teachers must. Few have improved because they have been told that they are worthless or, once again, failing to attain their assigned goals; they succeed to the extent they see before them a vision of their own potential for perfection. This vision motivates our willingness to discuss openly disappointments, miscalculations, and mistakes, for beyond them is a love no paralysis of will, no crippling, time honored administrative tradition, no amount o(f apathy criticism can destroy. Love, therefor, emboldens us and perhaps makes us appear arrogant or (foolish; but we offer these proposals believing, as all lovers do, that anything is possible.
1. The Guardian's admonition to "drown your troubles in a sea of new believers" has oft been alluded to in communications from the Universal House of Justice, but never really realized in the United States. Cultural conditions here may prevent such entry by troops now, but sufficient resources have never been allocated, whether locally or nationally, to find out if that is the case. In fact, the large enrollments in the South and elsewhere during the last period of rapid expansion in our community were a source of much controversy, and led to an emphasis on consolidation that the effect of stifling further expansion by depriving it of resources and administrative support Today, less than 10 percent of the national Fund contributions are spent in the service of teaching. And while more money does not necessarily equate with more teaching, at least an increased commitment would demonstrate our priorities are in order.
ISSUE: If we want to spread our Faith, we need to put our money where our mouth is.
PROPOSAL: (A) Establish a National Teaching Fund, to be used solely for teaching activities by a rejuvenated National Teaching Committee with full power to encourage and create large-scale enrollments through providing grants to local spiritual assemblies for teaching projects; (B) Utilize these Funds for long range teaching projects with deputized full-time Baha'i teachers.
OBJECTIVE: That contributions to the national Fund will increase once a new emphasis is placed on support of teachings projects, and the teaching work that proceeds from such contributions will bring unprecedented expansion of the Cause to the United Stages.
2. The process of excessive centralization, so often castigated in the writings, has gone too far in the US, both at the local and the national levels.
Such centralization has inhibited the "grass roots" growth of new ideas and new energy. Moves such as the establishment of Town Meetings and the recasting of electoral districts into smaller units are positive, progressive actions the National Spiritual Assembly is to be applauded for taking. The Universal House of Justice has called for a "devolution of autonomy" in the affairs of the community, and more of this vital new trend should be pursued.
ISSUE: The chief unit of the Faith is the local community, and the community's voice in the affairs of the Faith has too often gone unheard or unheeded. As a corollary, the grass roots efforts borne of individual initiative have too often been unsupported, ignored, or not given adequate consideration by a well-meaning but over-protective national administration.
PROPOSAL: (A) That the National Spiritual Assembly adopt and publish a new policy emphasizing openness and decentralization in the affairs of the American Baha'i community; (B) That the National Spiritual Assembly consider a more Universal House of Justice-modeled administrative approach by establishing a national secretariat, with at least two or three NSA members based in Wilmette and responsible for the day-to-day direction of the NSA and its activities; (C) That American assemblies, both local and national, endeavor by policy to more actively seek out the views and input of their respective constituencies before undertaking any major initiative or program; (D) That the National Spiritual Assembly, its staff, committees, and agencies adopt a more open administrative style that will encourage and permit more individual initiative and the growth of nontraditional or unconventional approaches to Baha'i activity, with the aim of fostering unfettered and creative new approaches to teaching, consolidation, and administration.
OBJECTIVE: That activities undertaken with the prior knowledge and consultation of the community at large will be exponentially more successful, and that a new spirit of openness, tolerance, and acceptance off diversity on the part of the NSA will provide an example for the community and let a thousand flowers bloom.
The free flow of ideas and opinions is vital to the open consultation process and, more importantly, to the spirit of that cardinal Baha'i principle: the independent investigation of truth. Certainly, signing a declaration card does not strip the new believer of his or her access to said principle; yet we often act as if it were necessary to protect the Faith from its adherents. As a consequence, there are many who feel that the zeal with which our National Spiritual Assembly pursues the mandated policy of reviewing prospective publications and special materials (once necessary in the days of our community's infancy) has overstepped the bounds of moderation. Originally intended by Shoghi Effendi only to insure accuracy and dignity when presenting the Baha'i Faith to the public, review of publications has become a politicized process whereby reviewing bodies may impose their particular views of the Faith in unmitigated and unchecked censorship. This policy, now often utilized to silence disparate opinion and frank expression of non-mainstream views, has become a silent censor, hidden from the community at large and doubly dangerous because of its cloistered nature. As the recently "opened up" Letters column in The American Baha'i proves, Baha'is not only have a high level of interest in unfettered expression, but use such opportunities thoughtfully and responsibly. The Guardian himself declared that the review process was only a "temporary" measure and would "definitely be abolished" once the Faith was better known.
ISSUE: In a community that has "emerged from obscurity," review and its accompanying censorship have no place. In fact, since all non-Baha'is can openly write and publish freely on the subject of the Faith, Baha'is should certainly be afforded the same freedom.
PROPOSAL: That the National Spiritual Assembly petition the Universal House of Justice for the abolishment of review in the United States Baha’i community.
ALTERNATIVE PROPOSAL: Review be confined to introductory literature aimed at explaining the Baha’i Faith and teachings to the public produced by the Baha'i Publishing Trust (that is, material that would be perceived by the public as "official" literature of the American Baha'i community and its institutions). Evaluation of Baha'i scholarship, literature, and special materials produced by independent Baha' i publishers and companies should be made by those responsible for the material.
OBJECTIVE: If review is abolished, the flow of ideas, scholarly debate, and intellectual fervent will increase, becoming a boon to the quality of Baha'i life, individually and collectively. A climate in which people feel comfortable to speak out and share controversial or new ideas will be created. Also, non-Baha'is will begin to see a community that values and gives full expression to diversity.
The National Baha'i Convention is a wonderful institution, brimming with the spirit of the Baha’i electoral process and alive with potential dialogue and interchange between the believers' democratically elected delegates and their NSA. But for too long, the national convention has been a hollow shell of what it can be, with limited and even truncated time for consultation, with speechifying instead of meaningful exchange of views, and with the subsequent loss of the real opportunity to get to know one's fellow delegates. Even though the formal convention itself may be time- or agenda-limited by guidance from the World Centre, nothing prohibits us from extending it by holding a delegate conference beforehand.
ISSUE: That the Baha'i National Convention is a vital opportunity to translate community concerns and perceptions into national action.
PROPOSAL: That each national convention be supplemented by holding a delegates’' conference just prior to convention with: (A) Sufficient time for delegates to prepare by mailing of NSA and committee reports at least one month beforehand; (B) the formation of small-group working sections and study groups on particular issues; and (C) publication of position papers produced by working groups of delegates around particular issues; (D) there be a pre--convention announcement the delegates of upcoming NSA issues/agenda items; and (E) increased levels of input and responsibility from the delegates concerning major capital expenditures the NSA expects in the coming year.
OBJECTIVE: That a growing sense in the community that the process of opening up our administration to new input and influence is important; and ultimately a much better and more responsive administration.
Many National Spiritual Assembly members, beginning with Horace Holley, have complained of the difficulty in serving administratively for long periods of time. Extended incumbencies, especially at the national level, tend in any governing body to produce stasis and inertia that can become hidebound and inflexible, thus turning such servants of the Cause from progressive forces to entrenched defenders of the status quo. For a Faith without a clergy, some would argue that we have created, by continuing to elect the same people to our National Spiritual Assembly, a professional class of administrators in the US Baha'i community. These leaders, then, tend to remain on administrative bodies because of their high level of visibility and name recognition, and thus generate extended incumbencies that insulate and draw them away from the concerns and activities of the rank-and-file believers. Dynamic leadership, important in any newly emerging group, cannot afford to lose contact with the experience of their constituency, and almost invariably does so in an extended incumbency.
ISSUE: That the Continental Board of Counselors has taken a significant and insightful step forward
in appointing Auxiliary Board members to renewable five year terms.
PROPOSAL: That we extend such insight to our Rulers; and that the terms of National Spiritual Assembly members (and local, where possible) be limited to five years of service, with re-election permissible after a one or two-year hiatus.
OBJECTIVE: That the coursing of new blood and new leadership through the Cause effected by such a move, and the parallel and consequent benefits of having recent NSA members return to active non-administrative involvement, would spawn an exciting, fresh new level of creativity and strength in our administrative affairs and in the community-at-large.
Our financial base as a community is, as we know, the "lifeblood of the Cause." Many observers have noted, however, that our accountability of how we spend our funds in lacking.
ISSUE: That we should do a better job of last-dollar financial accounting in terms of telling the believers exactly where their contributions have gone.
PROPOSAL: That we publish a clear, comprehensible, last-dollar annual report, detailing the expenditure of Baha'i funds, every year prior to national convention.
OBJECTIVE: If we publish a detailed annual report, the believers will see the myriad and important uses of their contributions more clearly, and will subsequently increase their giving.
No small amount of progress has been made over the past decade in the US Baha'i community in terms of uniting and bringing together the institutions of the Rulers and the Learned in consultation and in action. This is a trend that bodes well for the Baha'i future, and should be expanded and enhanced. In fact, the need for an advisory group, to provide fact-finding assistance, expert guidance, a wide spectrum of opinion, and consultative input on crucial questions facing the community, is an obvious use for the expansion and greater application of this trend. Most decision-making bodies use such think tanks to so advise them.
ISSUE: There is too large a gap between the local believer and the NSA in a large complex community like the United States, and that gap can be partially bridged by forming a think tank designed to advise the administrative order on crucial matters.
PROPOSAL: That the NSA and the Continental Board appoint, from among elected delegates and other qualified believers recommended by Local Spiritual Assemblies, four regional advisory boards (in `Abdu'1-Baha's. designated regions). Special attention should be given to placing persons from minorities and lower-class backgrounds on the Advisory Boards and other national committees. All too often, these are Baha'is alienated from the Baha'i administration, which operates on a white corporate America model as much as any ideal Baha'i model. At present, national committees do not reflect the ethnic or class background of these groups. That is to say, even though national committees often have members from different ethnic backgrounds, they are usually drawn from middle and upper-middle class Baha'is who share a similar perspective on the Faith and its implications for humanity. Beyond participation by minorities, the Advisory Boards should also be comprised of active teachers, Baha'i scholars, and especially the elected delegates; and the consultation of these boards be open to the community at large. The NSA would then meet with each of the four boards once a year in the respective region, and consult on matters of concern and significance there.
OBJECTIVE: The affairs of the Faith, when seriously, and reflectively consulted on by a divers group of minds, can only be beneficially affected with additional input to our governing bodies.
8. One of the most sacred, important, and crucial responsibilities incumbent on the Administrative Order is its role in the establishment of world peace. Called on to be a herald of the Lesser Peace by Shoghi Effendi, the Universal House of Justice has certainly set in motion a mighty process by the release of The Promise of World Peace. National Spiritual Assemblies the world over have promulgated the peace message, but few have gone beyond simple proclamation. The principles enshrined in the peace message need to be studied, applied, and acted on at the national and local level in the United States, not only so that the Baha' is can put their principles into practice, but so the world can see we revere deeds more than words.
ISSUE: That world peace is a major goal of the Baha'i Faith, and that the American Baha'i community has a great bounty and responsibility toward urging its establishment.
PROPOSAL: That the National Spiritual Assembly appoint an executive-level National Peace Committee, empowered to make significant steps in the application of Baha'i ideals as they represent peace and word unity.
OBJECTIVE: That a National Peace Committee could have a real galvanizing impact, not only on the believers, but on the United States, its people, and its leaders.
Five years ago, the Universal House of Justice alluded to future glory for Baha'i institutions when it referred to "great humanitarian projects which will be launched" under the aegis of the administrative order. As a rule, though, Baha'i institutions have avoided involvement in humanitarian projects like famine relief, the resettlement of refugees (other than our own), or the provision of general assistance to victims of violence, natural disasters, or oppression. Many Baha'is argue, in fact, that our resources and energy must be used solely to build up the Baha'i pattern, because they are so limited, and should not be expended in the cause of "outside" concerns. This view has crippled our ability to show the world that our concern for humanity goes beyond a set of high-toned principles. The beginnings of a remedy for this perception have taken root in various social and economic development activities, but most have been limited and primarily local in their scope. The national coordination of annual social and economic development priorities, and the development of one goal area during each Plan for the general assistance of humanity, would much more closely parallel the Master's life and example.
ISSUE: If the Baha'i community could consult and agree on a more unified and specific approach to social and economic development at the national level, our effectiveness in demonstrating our concern for our fellow human beings and thus our teaching efforts would bear more fruit.
PROPOSAL: That the NSA establish in each successive Plan a specific area for the Baha'is to focus on-although not to the exclusion of other areas in the matter of social issues (for example, civil rights, human rights, drug abuse, minority employment, etc.). Further, that the national assembly itself take on the task of conceptualizing, planning, and carrying out the centerpiece activity of such a campaign.
OBJECTIVE: That the resultant campaigns would bring Baha'i solutions to bear on difficult community problems; cause a vital intermingling of Baha'is and non-Baha'is who are interested in solving society's problems: and provide every Baha' i with the assurance that his or her religion is interested in reaching out to others with a selfless and pure hearted concern.
The nine foregoing suggestions, as far as the authors know, violate no statutory provision in the Baha' i lexicon, nor do they go counter to any vital Baha'i spiritual principle. Their implementation would be a matter of simple legislation by the National Spiritual Assembly, and would only in a
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few cases involve further consultation with the Universal House of Justice. None, with the possible exception of numbers 1 and 9, would require any significant expenditure of funds. Most, if not all, would win wholehearted support by the majority of believers. And, perhaps most important, none of them are irreversible once adopted. All could be tried, and if found wanting, be easily jettisoned. Given the current state of our community, might it not be worthwhile to give at least some of them a chance?
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