In a faith without clergy, Bahá’ís all over the world are learning about the importance of two inter-connected principles: individual initiative and universal participation.
In a culture of statistics, we’re asked regularly to give a tally of the numbers of people participating in the core activities, as if this is the only true measure of participation. For those of us living in communities that are largely inactive, this can be really discouraging! We long to have more people to do things with, particularly when we’ve watched so many of our friends withdraw from active service or even resign from the Faith.
So let’s look at what the Writings tell us about universal participation and see if we can get some comfort and ideas to help move our communities forward.
What is Universal Participation?
The House of Justice defines it this way:
. . . the dedicated effort of every believer in teaching, in living the Bahá’í life, in contributing to the Fund, and particularly in the persistent effort to understand more and more the significance of Bahá’u’lláh’s Revelation.
Every believer can contribute to the Fund. Not all believers can give public talks, not all are called upon to serve on administrative institutions. But all can pray, fight their own spiritual battles, and contribute to the Fund. If every believer will carry out these sacred duties, we shall be astonished at the accession of power which will result to the whole body, and which in its turn will give rise to further growth and the showering of greater blessings on all of us. (Universal House of Justice, Wellspring of Guidance, p. 37-38)
In this definition, we see the elements include:
- dedicated effort in teaching
- live the Bahá’í life
- contribute to the Fund
- persistent effort to understand the significance of Bahá’u’lláh’s Revelation
- give public talks
- serve on administrative institutions
- fight their own spiritual battles
Another element, for those who can’t do more, is to deputize someone who can:
Those who cannot pioneer or do travel teaching will want to participate by contributing to the International Deputization Fund. Let them remember Bahá’u’lláh’s injunction: “Centre your energies in the propagation of the Faith of God. Whoso is worthy of so high a calling, let him arise and promote it. Whoso is unable, it is his duty to appoint him who will, in his stead, proclaim this Revelation …” Let the Bahá’ís of the world join in the true spirit of universal participation and win all the victories while there is yet time. Let each assume his full measure of responsibility that all may share the laurels of accomplishment at the end of the Plan. (The Universal House of Justice, Messages 1963 to 1986, p. 141)
With this definition, who are we to judge whether or not someone is participating?! Whether someone is labelled “visible or invisible; active or inactive”, only God knows the truth of who is participating and who isn’t!
Universal participation isn’t a principle for just the Bahá’ís though! It belongs to everyone in the world!
A more universal participation of the whole village in the spiritual activities, such as prayers, Nineteen Day Feast, contribution to the fund, teaching, etc (The Universal House of Justice, Messages 1963 to 1986, p. 492)
History will find it almost incomprehensible that, in an age paying tribute to an egalitarian philosophy, development planning should view the masses as essentially recipients of benefits from aid and training:
As the purpose of development is being redefined, it will become necessary also to look again at assumptions about the appropriate roles to be played by the protagonists in the process. The crucial role of government, at whatever level, requires no elaboration. Future generations, however, will find almost incomprehensible the circumstance that, in an age paying tribute to an egalitarian philosophy and related democratic principles, development planning should view the masses of humanity as essentially recipients of benefits from aid and training. Despite acknowledgement of participation as a principle, the scope of the decision making left to most of the world’s population is at best secondary, limited to a range of choices formulated by agencies inaccessible to them and determined by goals that are often irreconcilable with their perceptions of reality. (Universal House of Justice, Prosperity of Humankind, 1995)
Why is Universal Participation Important?
The House of Justice has asked us to bend our efforts and thoughts in this direction:
We now ask you to bend your efforts and thoughts, with equal enthusiasm, to the requirements of universal participation. (The Universal House of Justice, Messages 1963 to 1986, p. 42)
Our spiritual lives will be enriched:
As you note, one of the objectives of the Nine Year Plan is universal participation in Bahá’í community life. This can be possible when each believer understands that his personal spiritual life will be enriched and universal blessings will descend only if each Bahá’í participates in contributing, however poor he may be, however small the contribution, and in whatever form it is offered. (Universal House of Justice, The Compilation of Compilations vol II, p. 64)
It’s important for teaching the Faith:
The second challenge facing us is to raise the intensity of teaching to a pitch never before attained, in order to realize that “vast increase” called for in the Plan. Universal participation and constant action will win this goal. Every believer has a part to play, and is capable of playing it, for every soul meets others, and, as promised by Bahá’u’lláh, “Whosoever ariseth to aid Our Cause God will render him victorious….” (Universal House of Justice, Promoting Entry by Troops, p. 7)
It will endow the Bahá’í community with the strength needed to overcome the forces of spiritual disintegration engulfing the non-Bahá’í world, and can become an ocean of oneness that will cover the face of the planet:
The universal participation of the believers in every aspect of the Faith — in contributing to the Fund, in teaching, deepening, living the Bahá’í life, administering the affairs of the community, and, above all, in the life of prayer and devotion to God — will endow the Bahá’í community with such strength that it can overcome the forces of spiritual disintegration which are engulfing the non-Bahá’í world, and can become an ocean of oneness that will cover the face of the planet. We ask every one of you to ponder these matters deeply, and to join us in fervent prayer that this momentary crisis will prove to have been a providential test that will spur the community of the Greatest Name to new heights of dedication and triumphant achievement. (The Universal House of Justice, Messages 1963 to 1986, p. 178)
How Do We Get There?
The House of Justice has given us some ideas:
Greater attention to universal participation and the spiritual enrichment of individual believers
- Promote universal participation in the life of the Faith and an increased sense of their Bahá’í identity among children, youth and adults.
- Encourage, where feasible, the practice of dawn prayer.
- Encourage individual believers to adopt teaching goals for themselves.
- Carry out activities designed to deepen the believers in both a spiritual and intellectual understanding of the Cause.
- Encourage believers to make greater use of Bahá’í’ literature.
- Encourage the believers to enhance their command of language to assist them to understand the Bahá’í writings ever more clearly.
- Develop and foster Bahá’í scholarship and lend support to the Associations for Bahá’í Studies. (The Universal House of Justice, Messages 1963 to 1986, p. 722)
Before our long-cherished goal of universal participation can be realized, we need to start building community in small settings first, as we learn the ways and methods:
If the friends persist in their efforts to learn the ways and methods of community building in small settings in this way, the long-cherished goal of universal participation in the affairs of the Faith will, we are certain, move by several orders of magnitude within grasp. (Universal House of Justice, Ridván Message 2010, paragraph 6)
‘Abdu’l-Bahá tells us the real secret of universal participation lies in 4 principles:
- the friends should love each other
- constantly encourage each other
- work together
- be as one soul in one body
The real secret of universal participation lies in the Master’s oft expressed wish that the friends should love each other, constantly encourage each other, work together, be as one soul in one body, and in so doing become a true, organic, healthy body animated and illumined by the spirit. (Universal House of Justice, Messages 1963 to 1986, p. 43)
What is needed now is the awakening of all believers to the immediacy of the challenge:
What is needed now is the awakening of all believers to the immediacy of the challenge so that each may assume his share of the responsibility for taking the Teachings to all humanity. Universal participation … must be pressed toward attainment in every continent, country and island of the globe. Every Bahá’í, however humble or inarticulate, must become intent on fulfilling his role as a bearer of the Divine Message. (Universal House of Justice, Unlocking the Power of Action)
The 19 Day Feast is a way to achieve this awakening to the need:
The feasts are designed to ensure universal participation in the affairs of the community and the cultivation of the spirit of brotherhood and fellowship. (Misc Baha’i, Brittanica article, p. 7)
Let’s not forget making efforts to reach the minorities:
Efforts to reach the minorities should be increased and broadened to include all minority groups such as the Indians, Spanish-speaking people, Japanese and Chinese. Indeed, every stratum of American society must be reached and can be reached with the healing Message, if the believers will but arise and go forth with the spirit which is conquering the citadels of the southern states. Such a program, coupled as it must be with continuous consolidation, can be effectively carried out by universal participation on the part of every lover of Bahá’u’lláh. (Universal House of Justice, NSA USA – Developing Distinctive Baha’i Communities)
Local Assemblies could appoint people to do certain tasks:
When the goals are finally decided upon, it is important that they should be announced to the friends. It should be borne in mind that Shoghi Effendi longed to see every believer involved in Bahá’í service, so that universal participation may be achieved. It would be most effective if the Local Assembly, prior to such an announcement, would appoint local committees, to each of which a branch of activity or one or more of the local goals could be assigned. Such committees need not consist of many members. When the committee appointments are made, the Local Assembly will be fully prepared to announce its goals and its committee appointments to the community at a Nineteen Day Feast or a specially called meeting of the community. (Universal House of Justice, NSA USA – Developing Distinctive Baha’i Communities)
Community building is a logical place to acquire these skills, as we raise capacity to take charge of our own development:
Those who serve in these settings, both local inhabitants and visiting teachers, would rightly view their work in terms of community building…. a process that seeks to raise capacity within a population to take charge of its own spiritual, social and intellectual development. (Universal House of Justice, Ridván Message, 2010, paragraph 5)
What Causes People to Withdraw from Active Service?
Some have been the victims of backbiting – this is the leading cause!:
If any soul speak ill of an absent one, the only result will clearly be this: he will dampen the zeal of the friends and tend to make them indifferent. For backbiting is divisive, it is the leading cause among the friends of a disposition to withdraw. (‘Abdu’l-Bahá: Selections From The Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, pp. 230-231)
Some were not educated and deepened after they declared:
It is not enough to bring people into the Faith, one must educate them and deepen their love for it and their knowledge of its teachings, after they declare themselves. As the Bahá’ís are few in number, especially the active teachers, and there is a great deal of work to be done, the education of these new believers is often sadly neglected, and then results are seen such as the resignations you have had recently. (Universal House of Justice, Lights of Guidance, p. 567)
Some needed more help and comradeship than they received:
If some of these isolated and inactive people gradually turn to other work than the Cause we should not always blame them — they probably needed more help, more stimulating more teaching and Bahá’í comradeship that they received. (Shoghi Effendi, Lights of Guidance, p. 84)
Some are weak and immature and not capable of carrying on an active administrative burden:
It is very discouraging to find inactive and unresponsive believers; on the other hand we must always realize that some souls are weak and immature and not capable of carrying on an active administrative burden. They need encouragement, the love of their fellow Bahá’ís and assistance. To blame them for not doing more for the Cause is useless and they may actually have a very firm belief in Bahá’u’lláh which with care could be fanned into flame. (Shoghi Effendi, NSA USA – Developing Distinctive Baha’i Communities)
Some ceased to go on developing; became complacent, or indifferent, and stopped drawing spiritual strength and vitality from the Cause:
Many of those who drift away from the Cause do so for the reason that they had ceased to go on developing. They became complacent, or indifferent, and consequently ceased to draw the spiritual strength and vitality from the Cause which they should have. (Shoghi Effendi, Lights of Guidance, p. 113)
Some people fail a test they don’t meet – often from each other:
Sometimes, of course, people fail because of a test they just do not meet, and often our severest tests come from each other. Certainly the believers should try to avert such things, and if they happen, remedy them through love. (Shoghi Effendi, Lights of Guidance, p. 113)
Some withdraw to relieve tension and alleviate feelings of enmity that have arisen:
Embarking on an action reminiscent of His solitary retirement to the mountains of Kurdistan when the unfaithful were shamefully destroying the Cause of God, Bahá’u’lláh, who at this time was residing in the house of Amru’llah, withdrew with His family to the nearby house of Rida Big which was rented by His order, and refused to associate with anybody. This was on 10 March 1866. The reason for this withdrawal, which fortunately was of short duration, was similar to that which had motivated Him to retire to Kurdistan a decade earlier: namely, to relieve the tension and alleviate the feelings of enmity which during the course of years had been engendered in the hearts of some by Mírzá Yahyá and were fanned into flame by his latest actions. (Adib Taherzadeh, The Child of the Covenant, p. 120)
Some have busied themselves with the things of this world:
Grieve thou not over those that have busied themselves with the things of this world, and have forgotten the remembrance of God, the Most Great. By Him Who is the Eternal Truth! The day is approaching when the wrathful anger of the Almighty will have taken hold of them. He, verily, is the Omnipotent, the All-Subduing, the Most Powerful. He shall cleanse the earth from the defilement of their corruption, and shall give it for an heritage unto such of His servants as are nigh unto Him. (Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 207)
Some have lost their vision of the Cause, or never had a proper grasp of its implications before entering it:
Just because some people have lost their vision of the Cause, or never had a proper grasp of its implications before entering it, and leave the fold, should not cause undue discouragement. There are bound to be such cases, and although every moral support should be given them, if they still wish to withdraw, they fall off — as you said — like withered leaves from the Tree of the Faith, and do it no real harm. (Shoghi Effendi, The Unfolding Destiny of the British Baha’i Community, p. 448)
Some allows their own ideals and purposes to retain their pre-eminence and leave when they find they cannot pursue them as they wish:
It is not unusual for people to be drawn to the Faith because they see in it the fulfilment of the ideals which are dear to their hearts. But, if a soul truly recognizes Bahá’u’lláh, and his understanding of the teachings deepens, he will gradually see how his own ideals are but facets in the all-embracing Purpose of God, and will be willing to endure all manner of suffering and frustration for the sake of the fulfilment of that divine Purpose. If, however, the believer allows his own ideals and purposes to retain their pre-eminence in his thinking, and he finds he cannot pursue them as he wishes, it may result in his leaving the Faith to pursue them in other ways. This is what would seem to have happened to the friends you speak of. (The Universal House of Justice, 1989 Jun 21, ‘Dialogue’, ‘A Modest Proposal’ etc)
Some find the bitterness of discord sweet:
In a similar way, thou beholdest some women who have abandoned the Testament, and to them the bitterness of discord is sweet. They keep aloof from the Extended Shadow and dwell under the shade of a “black smoke.” Alas for them and grief for them! They will surely lament and find themselves in loss. Verily, this is but an evident truth! (Abdu’l-Bahá, Tablets of Abdu’l-Bahá v1, p. 130)
Some resign so they can break a law with impunity:
A believer cannot escape administrative expulsion by the ruse of resigning from the Faith in order to break its law with impunity. However, the Assembly should be satisfied that there was indeed such an ulterior motive behind the withdrawal. A believer’s record of inactivity and his general attitude to the Faith may well lead the Assembly to conclude that his withdrawal was bona fide . . . and in such a case the withdrawal may be accepted. (Universal House of Justice, NSA USA – Developing Distinctive Baha’i Communities)
Or worse, some have dissimulated their faith so they can break a law:
To deny that one is a Bahá’í while one still believes in Bahá’u’lláh is not withdrawal, it is dissimulation of one’s faith, and Bahá’í laws does not countenance the dissimulation of a believer’s faith for the purpose of breaking the law. “If a believer who did not like a particular law were to be permitted to leave the community to break the law, and then rejoin with impunity, this would make a mockery of the Law of God… It is abundantly clear from his letters that he has continually believed in Bahá’u’lláh, that he know the law that marriage is conditioned on the consent of parents, that he dissimulated his faith in order to be able to break this law with impunity. He must, therefore, be regarded as a Bahá’í without administrative rights… (Universal House of Justice, Lights of Guidance, p. 57-58)
Taking on Roles that Aren’t Ours to Do:
In this year’s Ridvan Message, we’re reminded yet again, that:
Everyone has a share in this enterprise; the contribution of each serves to enrich the whole. (Universal House of Justice, Ridvan Message 2014, paragraph 5)
It reminds me of a theory I like to call “Big Toenail”. It’s one of my rants, so bear with me!
Bahá’u’lláh equated the world to a human body, where every cell, every organ, every nerve has its part to play. When all do so the body is healthy, vigorous, radiant, ready for every call made upon it
“Regard the world as the human body,” wrote Bahá’u’lláh to Queen Victoria. We can surely regard the Bahá’í world, the army of God, in the same way. In the human body, every cell, every organ, every nerve has its part to play. When all do so the body is healthy, vigorous, radiant, ready for every call made upon it. No cell, however humble, lives apart from the body, whether in serving it or receiving from it. This is true of the body of mankind in which God “hast endowed each and all with talents and faculties,” and is supremely true of the body of the Bahá’í World Community, for this body is already an organism, united in its aspirations, unified in its methods, seeking assistance and confirmation from the same Source, and illumined with the conscious knowledge of its unity. Therefore, in this organic, divinely guided, blessed and illumined body the participation of every believer is of the utmost importance, and is a source of power and vitality as yet unknown to us. For extensive and deep as has been the sharing in the glorious work of the Cause, who would claim that every single believer has succeeded in finding his or her fullest satisfaction in the life of the Cause? The Bahá’í World Community, growing like a healthy new body, develops new cells, new organs, new functions and powers as it presses on to its maturity, when every soul, living for the Cause of God, will receive from that Cause, health, assurance and the overflowing bounties of Bahá’u’lláh which are diffused through His divinely ordained order. (The Universal House of Justice, Messages 1963 to 1986, p. 42)
The parts of the body are so numerous but the oneness of the animating spirit of life unites them all in perfect combination:
Consider how numerous are these parts and members, but the oneness of the animating spirit of life unites them all in perfect combination. (Abdu’l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 320)
The parts are all perfectly connected. For example: the foot and the step are connected to the ear and the eye; the eye must look ahead before the step is taken. The ear must hear before the eye will carefully observe.
It is obvious that all created things are connected one to another by a linkage complete and perfect, even, for example, as are the members of the human body. Note how all the members and component parts of the human body are connected one to another. In the same way, all the members of this endless universe are linked one to another. The foot and the step, for example, are connected to the ear and the eye; the eye must look ahead before the step is taken. The ear must hear before the eye will carefully observe. (Abdu’l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Bahá, p. 47)
If any part is subjected to injury or becomes diseased, all the other parts and functions sympathetically respond and suffer:
It establishes such a unity in the bodily organism that if any part is subjected to injury or becomes diseased, all the other parts and functions sympathetically respond and suffer, owing to the perfect oneness existing. (Abdu’l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 320)
Whenever there is a deficiency in one part, the body produces a deficiency in the other members:
And whatever member of the human body is deficient, produceth a deficiency in the other members. The brain is connected with the heart and stomach, the lungs are connected with all the members. So is it with the other members of the body. (Abdu’l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Bahá, p. 47)
The mind directs and coordinates all the other parts; and if there’s some interruption in the power of the mind, all the members will fail to carry out their essential functions, deficiencies will appear and the power of the body will prove ineffective:
And each one of these members hath its own special function. The mind force — whether we call it pre-existent or contingent — doth direct and co-ordinate all the members of the human body, seeing to it that each part or member duly performeth its own special function. If, however, there be some interruption in the power of the mind, all the members will fail to carry out their essential functions, deficiencies will appear in the body and the functioning of its members, and the power will prove ineffective. (Abdu’l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Bahá, p. 47)
If man were all brain, eyes or ears, it would be equivalent to imperfection and the absence of hair, eyelashes, teeth and nails would be an absolute defect:
In the same way consider the body of man. It must be composed of different organs, parts and members. Human beauty and perfection require the existence of the ear, the eye, the brain and even that of the nails and hair; if man were all brain, eyes or ears, it would be equivalent to imperfection. So the absence of hair, eyelashes, teeth and nails would be an absolute defect, though in comparison with the eye they are without feeling, and in this resemble the mineral and plant; but their absence in the body of man is necessarily faulty and displeasing. (Abdu’l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions, p. 129)
No cell, however humble, lives apart from the body, whether in serving it or receiving from it:
In the human body, every cell, every organ, every nerve has its part to play. When all do so the body is healthy, vigorous, radiant, ready for every call made upon it. No cell, however humble, lives apart from the body, whether in serving it or receiving from it. (The Universal House of Justice, Messages 1963 to 1986, p. 42)
A unity in diversity of actions is called for, a condition in which different individuals will concentrate on different activities, because each person cannot do everything and all persons cannot do the same thing:
A unity in diversity of actions is called for, a condition in which different individuals will concentrate on different activities, appreciating the salutary effect of the aggregate on the growth and development of the Faith, because each person cannot do everything and all persons cannot do the same thing. This understanding is important to the maturity which, by the many demands being made upon it, the community is being forced to attain. (The Universal House of Justice, A Wider Horizon, Selected Letters 1983-1992, p. 80)
What Can We Do?
We can encourage people to do what they’re good at, knowing that not all of us will want to be involved in the institute process, nor do they need to be active participants in it; as long as they support it in ways that make sense to them:
Clearly such participation is not a requirement for every Bahá’í, who, in the final analysis, can choose the manner in which he or she will serve the Faith. What is essential is that the institute process be supported even by those who do not wish to take part in it. (Universal House of Justice, to an individual, 31 May 2001)
We can’t force anyone to arise to take their part – all we can do is to build up such love and unity within our own ranks that the people will be attracted by our example:
There is, unfortunately, no way that one can force his own good upon a man. The element of free will is there, and all we believers—and even the Manifestation of God Himself—can do is to offer the truth to mankind. If the people of the world persist, as they seem to be doing, in their blind materialism, they must bear the consequences in a prolongation of their present condition, and even a worsening of it. Our duty as Bahá’ís is to build up such a love and unity within our own ranks that the people will be attracted by this example to the Cause. We also must teach all we can and strengthen the Bahá’í Community in the administration. But more we cannot do to avert the great sufferings which seemingly still lie ahead of the world in its present evil state. ( Shoghi Effendi, Lights of Guidance, p. 113)
Assemblies could attempt to maintain contact and encourage them to become active again:
If believers become inactive it is naturally desirable that the Local Spiritual Assemblies attempt to maintain contact with them and encourage them to become active unless, of course, it is obvious that their personal situation precludes such activity. For example, a Bahá’í who is married to a non-Bahá’í may well have to limit his activities to some degree in order to maintain the unity of his family. (Universal House of Justice, NSA USA – Developing Distinctive Baha’i Communities)
Those of us who see that:
The field is indeed so immense, the period so critical, the Cause so great, the workers so few, the time so short, the privilege so priceless, that no follower of the Faith of Bahá’u’lláh, worthy to bear His name, can afford a moment’s hesitation. (Shoghi Effendi, The Advent of Divine Justice, p. 46-47)
We want to do something about it, and in doing so, we often take on roles that aren’t ours to take on, and then burn out. The House of Justice has cautioned us against taking the responsibility for the future of God’s Cause into our own hands and trying to force it into ways that we wish it to go. This is God’s Cause and despite the seeming slowness of the process, He has promised that its light will not fail. Our part is to cling tenaciously to the revealed word and to the institutions that He has created to preserve His Covenant; and to do our part:
The Universal House of Justice has emphasized the importance of our avoiding any tendency to take responsibility for the Cause into our own hands: ‘Service to the Cause of God requires absolute fidelity and integrity and unwavering faith in Him. No good but only evil can come from taking the responsibility for the future of God’s Cause into our own hands and trying to force it into ways that we wish it to go regardless of the clear texts and our own limitations. It is His Cause. He has promised that its light will not fail. Our part is to cling tenaciously to the revealed word and to the institutions that He has created to preserve His Covenant.’ (Universal House of Justice, Quickeners of Mankind, p. 119)
We can’t force anyone to arise to take their part – all we can do is to build up such love and unity within our own ranks that the people will be attracted by our example:
There is, unfortunately, no way that one can force his own good upon a man. The element of free will is there, and all we believers—and even the Manifestation of God Himself—can do is to offer the truth to mankind. If the people of the world persist, as they seem to be doing, in their blind materialism, they must bear the consequences in a prolongation of their present condition, and even a worsening of it. Our duty as Bahá’ís is to build up such a love and unity within our own ranks that the people will be attracted by this example to the Cause. We also must teach all we can and strengthen the Bahá’í Community in the administration. But more we cannot do to avert the great sufferings which seemingly still lie ahead of the world in its present evil state. (Shoghi Effendi, Lights of Guidance, p. 113)
Also, we can’t allow ourselves to become discouraged, trusting that the seeds we are so patiently sowing will assuredly germinate:
Do not feel discouraged if the work you are doing for His Cause does not bear rich and immediate fruit. The seeds you are so patiently and devotedly sowing will assuredly germinate, and future generations will reap an abundant harvest. The Master is watching over and blessing your historic services. Rest assured. (Shoghi Effendi, Japan Will Turn Ablaze, p. 65)
I’d like to end with this story!
How has this enhanced your understanding of encouraging universal participation? Post your comments below!