At the heart of the Wilmette Institute’s course on Social Action and Public Discourse is understanding the dynamic coherence that must exist among three lines of action that the Universal House of Justice has asked Bahá’í communities and individuals to undertake, all in pursuit of the “betterment of society”: expansion and consolidation, social action, and public discourse.
Most of the students in the October 2012 course came to it with little or no experience in either social action or public discourse (or what they had done in those two areas, they had not thought about it in the context in which the House of Justice explains them). After studying the messages from the Universal House of Justice deeply and thoughtfully, many found themselves stepping out bravely in the two areas of action, which were new to most of them. Here is a sample of the reports of what they have been inspired to undertake:
Carol Curtis, Salt Lake City, Utah
Although there is so much information and guidance to take in and reflect upon [in the course on Social Action and Public Discourse], I know I learned a great deal, although it seems to be mostly floating around in my mind, and I’m still trying to make sense of it all. The coherence and interlatedness of all the guidance, encouragement, and assistance given to us from the Universal House of Justice I feel is something we will still be learning about and trying to apply to our lives for a long, long time.
Social action and public discourse in a way are actions, activities, elements that will become more and more just part of our daily activities and absorbed into the way we think and lead our lives and pursue the goals we have as Bahá’ís, be they personal goals, institutional goals, or community goals.
These type of activities will become more and more just part of our lives, because any time a group of people, be it neighbors or otherwise come together, they will automatically become conscious of the needs within the group or changes that need to be made in their immediate environment. This will lead to social action and in the process produce public discourse at least among the group members, or possibly in a broader community setting.
We as Bahá’ís are being asked to be the catalyst for this action and change in our communities both in the Bahá’í community and the broader community. I am excited about what I consider my “new” understandings and look forward to applying these to what I may do now and in the future. I am always global in my thinking and always looking for connections and how things fit together, and with the readings we have covered [in the course] my personal concepts have broadened, and I continue to reflect on what I have learned and how it applies directly to me, and to my Bahá’í community and cluster, and to the broader society in which I live, and to the world in general.
Just a couple of weeks ago I was in a discussion on sustainability, and it quickly became a discussion about spiritual or moral principles since I expressed that as a Bahá’í, sustainability was a moral and justice-laden topic. Speaking up in this way is nothing new for me, but the study of the topics in this course on Social Action and Public Discourse has given me more self-confidence and other ways of approach I can use in different settings. I know I will continue to read and study the writings used in this course, which will further my potential for new action and discourse.
Tabby Anvari, Rochester, New York
Last night, at our monthly Unity Night held at the Rochester Bahá’í Center, we had an additional viewing [of the documentary] . . . with around twenty-five individuals, of which seven individuals were friends of the Faith and two first-time seekers.
The follow-up conversation resulted in two additional individuals asking to screen the DVD, one on December 11; the other will be done at a date yet to be determined, by one of our local vocalists focusing on a group of parents of African descent.
Chehreh Badii, Charlotte, North Carolina
‘Abdul-Bahá, as our Exemplar, has shown us how it is possible to engage in public discourse with people from all walks of life and outside one’s “home” country. The presence of attributes essential in one’s own approach to public discourse is not only important but necessary. Nothing speaks louder than how this Revelation has influenced our own characters. I have to make great effort at getting out into the public as I work from home, and most of the time I don’t have to leave the house.
Volunteering to assist certain organizations is one approach. Currently, I am working with the Bahá’í college club (the members are very few) to get the word out about the Education Under Fire video and to hold biweekly devotional gatherings. In addition, the Bahá’ís are involved with an interfaith organization in making sandwiches for the homeless.
Also, I was recently asked to help with a door-to-door teaching effort in a neighborhood. I used to get a bit frustrated about consulting with the friends to engage in activities and then find out that they’re really not all that interested. I think it’s in my personality to follow through with discussed plans. My attitude was that, if no steps are taken, we’ll never know what could be. But now, I realize that this is part of the growth process. I need to practice patience (with myself and others) and pray about what is best for all involved.
In the meantime, there is no excuse for me not to take on an individual initiative in starting up a neighborhood children’s class or devotional gathering. Energy produces energy, and, once the momentum gets going, more resources will present themselves.
Richard Thomas, Ann Arbor, Michigan
I will share my weekly learnings [from the course on Social Action and Public Discourse] with members of my Bahá’í community and non-Bahá’í community and make every effort to integrate the spiritual insights into my discussions of pressing social issues—for example, race relations, poverty, and so on. This learning goal was a bit ambitious! I was able to share some of the learnings with members of my Local Spiritual Assembly and Ruhi book 1 and 8 members.
I have shared some of the spiritual insights from the April 10, 2011, letter from the Universal House of Justice on race with some Bahá’ís. Last year I had an opportunity to conduct a session on the letter at the Louhelen Bahí’í School. . . . This learning goal has really expanded my understanding of how we as Bahá’ís should approach race as social action and public discourse. As a result of this course, I have gained some confidence in participating in online courses. I gained a lot of insight into social action and public discourse.
Josette Bevirt, Chula Vista, California
I will use the course [on Social Action and Public Discourse] as the foundation for my social action and political discourse endeavors. . . . I really want to base my actions on the Bahá’í writings and guidance from the Universal House of Justice. I really learned a lot about how we are to approach others, and also the overview of changes in society that has me considering where to put my efforts. While putting out fires has immediate appeal, it appears to be better to be involved at the level of policy making, where changes can be more broad-reaching.
I have been much more forward in teaching the Faith recently. A woman in the whirlpool at the Y got an earful when she probed about what class I was taking on line.
Another story: Last week my garage door wasn’t opening, and a repair guy showed up quickly to get me to work on time. All he did was move a lever 1/8 of an inch farther than I had, and it worked. I wondered out loud why this happened and was costing me $48. As I graciously paid him, these words popped out of my mouth: “I guess I better tell you about Bahá’u’lláh.” We spent about five precious minutes, and he wrote down Bahá’u’lláh’s name, and the name of the Faith. The right words flowed easily from my tongue, and it turns out his shop is not far from the local Bahá’í Center. He was quite receptive. It was a great way to start the day, and I was only about a minute late to work.
Carolyn Alperin, Hendersonville, North Carolina
[In the course on Social Action and Public Discourse] I learned that social action entails empowering people to take responsibility for their lives and communities. Social action is not just having a few humanitarian projects. In fact, comfortable Bahá’í communities that do not reach out into their communities in a systematic way can never make a difference. It is also important that Bahá’ís not try to solve all social problems or try to legislate solutions. We are interested in transformation of hearts and changing the world.
In the past, I thought that Bahá’í teaching was only about going door to door or inviting friends to devotional gatherings. Now I realize that teaching and social action go hand in hand. I hosted an Education Under Fire event at my house last Friday evening. I improved my hosting, inviting, and communication skills.
I also attended a local NAACP meeting two weeks ago. I was interested in finding a way to get involved in public discourse about important issues in my community. The skills I improved were those of communication, and meeting and getting to know and issues of importance to them.
I am seeing social action in a new light. Previously, I had supported individual humanitarian efforts, but now I see that our purpose in reaching out to other groups and organizations is not to solve problems, one by one, but to “identify problems, consult on possible solutions, engage in activities for social well-being,” and create change where possible.