Community and administration

Entries about Baha'i community life, about Baha'i administration, and about how the two intersect.

Musings on John Hatcher's commentary


Eric Hadley-Ives

In the October 16th (2007) issue of The American Baha’i a commentary by John Hatcher caught my attention. John Hatcher is a professor of English with specialized knowledge of medieval literature. He is also a productive Baha’i scholar, whose The Ocean of His Words (1997) has been influential on my own thinking about our religion. I often disagree with some of Dr. Hatcher’s opinions or understandings, but it has always seemed to me that in the vast majority of the essential matters we are in agreement, and I have benefitted from my study of his work.

The essential point of Hatcher’s commentary is that we Baha’is should be thankful to have the guidance of the Universal House of Justice (UHJ), we should take guidance from it seriously, study what it tells us, and do what it asks us to do. For a Baha’i, there isn’t anything controversial in these points. Catholics take their pope seriously. Tibetan Buddhists respectfully consider what the Dalai Lama says. Mormons care about the statements of President of the Church of Latter Day Saints. Even United Methodists care about the decisions of their General Conference (before I became a Baha’i I was baptized into the United Methodist Church). Any religion that wants to maintain unity, avoid factionalism, and coordinate mass efforts will have some sort of organizational structure with leadership, and members of that religion are going to need to give the leadership a certain degree of allegiance and loyalty.

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Baha'is hope move will help spread word of their religion

The Dallas Baha'i Center celebrates moving into a new home today. Last weekend, the Plano Baha'i Center celebrated the dedication of a new worship hall.

In recent years, several other Baha'i centers in North Texas have moved into better and larger facilities. It's a trend that reflects the growth and maturity of the local Baha'i community, said Regina Rafraf, a member of the nine-member Spiritual Assembly that leads the Dallas center.

"We are starting to come out of obscurity," she said.

{josquote}For people to be attracted to a religion, they need a building{/josquote}

The Dallas center is moving from cramped quarters near Northwest Highway and Midway Road to a five-acre campus in North Dallas that once was a Presbyterian church.

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The Baha'i Challenge

"We must seek the fragrance of the rose from whatever bush it is blooming—whether oriental or western. Be seekers of light, no matter from which lantern it shines forth. Be not lovers of the lantern. At one time the light has shone from a lantern in the East, now in the West. If it comes from North, South, from whatever direction it proceeds, follow the light."

- Abdu’l-Bahá,
"Promulgation of Universal Peace," pg. 248

Without a doubt, one of my favorite spiritual places in America is the Baha'i House of Worship (often called the "Baha'i Temple") in Wilmette, IL - near Chicago. I visit it as often as I can when I'm in Chicago. Whenever I visit, I find myself spiritually recharged and at the same time spiritually challenged.

{josquote}To borrow a catch phrase of a good friend of mine - the Baha'i Faith is "going ugly early."{/josquote}

I've been a formal member of the Baha'i faith twice in my life.

The first time in 1973, after visiting the magnificent building and becoming intrigued by what I considered, at that time, the revolutionary teachings of this relatively new religion.

At that time, I lived about 45 minutes from the House of Worship, and I visited often and became quite active and committed to its teachings, and remained so for a few years. Ironically, what drove me away was the rigid control of the Institutional aspect of the Faith - The Administrative Order, as it is called by the members. It spouted rules and regulations that seemed to contradict the principles that drew me to the Faith in the first place.

The second time was about eight years ago - when I became disheartened with the church that I was attending at that time and I renewed my membership after encountering the open and accepting attitude of the local Cincinnati Baha'i Community. But once again, as I became more involved, the Administrative Order once again caused me to become disenchanted.

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Ali Muhammad Varqa

Leader of the Baha’i faith who played a key role as an intermediary between the two branches of its administration

Dr Ali Muhammad Varqa acquired high status in a context of relative obscurity. Outside the narrow circles of the Baha'i religion, an international community of perhaps five million, he was little known. Yet in recent years, the Baha'i faith itself has graced headlines worldwide in direct consequence of the waves of persecution that have descended on its Iranian community, which forms the largest religious minority in that country. Varqa himself was forced to leave Iran after the 1979 revolution and seek refuge in Canada.

His grandfather, Mirza Ali Muhammad Varqa, was an early Baha'i martyr, torn to death by an Iranian government official in 1896, along with his teenage son. Baha'ism only dates from the 1860s, and this martyred grandfather was considered one of 19 apostles of the Baha'i prophet, Baha' Allah. He was appointed to the ranks of a narrow cadre known as Hands of the Cause of God, of whom 50 in total were placed in their post by successive Baha'i leaders up to 1957. Varqa was the very last of the Hands, bringing that particular institution to an end.

Although lacking a priesthood in the Christian sense, Baha'ism is a highly institutionalised religion that echoes both its Islamic origins and its later development in the West. Varqa's professional academic training reflected these two influences as well. He had degrees in economics and history from Tehran University, and a doctorate from the Sorbonne in hydraulics and irrigation in Iran. Later, he worked as a professor of physical geography and geomorphology at Tehran University.

{josquote}By devoting his energies to a post-Koranic religion that is a blend of original Shia Islam and Western values picked up by its founders during exile in the Ottoman empire, Varqa became a technocrat seeking to bring together Western knowhow with a novel religious tradition that concentrates on peace and universal brotherhood.{/josquote}

Such technocrats have been common throughout the Middle East since the early 20th century, and they have frequently been foci for economic and political development. Many of the Iranian revolutionaries of 1979, including Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the current President, had degrees in technical subjects.

It is a religious obligation for Baha'is to avoid all involvement in politics. Their efforts go instead into proselytising with the long-term aim of creating Baha'i states, and an even more long-term and, some would say, improbable goal of ushering in a Baha'i world state. Varqa was a technocrat whose loyalties were to a distant ideal and his energies went into a non-violent transformation of society.

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In search of simplicity

Simplicity ‘what ifs’

Let’s ask some hypothetical questions.

  1. What if we had a ‘self service’ approach to administering one’s membership, location, contact information and other details in the Faith (with minimal oversight) that encouraged individual responsibility and accountability and thus cut costs and administration time dramatically?
  2. What if we were committed to ‘mixing up’ membership in our Institutions? What if we elected a variety of people from all age groups and backgrounds including young, vibrant, energetic people to become members of our local, national, and international institutions — instead of electing pretty much the same people year after year who are, honestly, asked to make unfair sacrifices because we refuse to make a little effort and think of more people who could serve.
  3. {josquote}What if individual initiative was not a code word for, ‘nice project, you are on your own, good luck with that’?{/josquote}
  4. What if we had a ‘grant-style’ method of distributing the vast majority of our Baha’i resources to communities, groups, and individuals who come up with great ideas, projects, and initiatives to help grow the Faith?

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