Sunday, 27 May 2007

Processes of the 5th Epoch

The following is a commentary on a letter addressed by the Universal House of Justice to the Bahá'ís of the World dated January 17, 2003. In tracing the origins and thrust of the key processes of the current Plans, it provides a framework for understanding our current stage of development, and the "paradigm of opportunity" that frames our efforts until the conclusion of the first century of the Formative Age of our Faith in 2021.



Dear friends,

At the humbling request of an example, friend and teacher in so many things, I have written a commentary on the latest mesage from the House of Justice that amounts to an extended study of the Five Year Plan and our place in it at this critical juncture. It is the basis of further work in this largely unexplored arena of scholarship that is of such vital and urgent interest to all the believers in the Most Great Name and to the aspirations of our beloved Universal House of Justice. I hope it prompts similar study, exploration and sharing of the guidance from our World Centre, and of the day to day practice, breakthroughs, set-backs and insights of the people of Baha, from minds brighter and pens more gifted than mine.

With love,

Ismael



-----Original Message-----

UHJ:
17 January 2003

To the Baha'is of the World

Dearly loved Friends,

We have followed, with immense gratitude to Baha'u'llah, the unfoldment of the Five Year Plan in the two years since our message of 9 January 2001 tothe Conference of the Continental Boards of Counsellors. It is heartening, indeed, to see the culture of learning that is taking root everywhere, as the Baha'i world community focuses on advancing the process of entry by troops.
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IV: First para. sets as context for this message the Jan. 9 2001 letter of the Universal house of Justice and in the "culture of learning" "taking root" everywhere. In their letter of 22 August 2002, the House of Justice explained that "the Four Year Plan, the Twelve Month Plan and the current Five Year Plan have been designed as progressive steps in achieving this change of Baha'i culture." (para. 4) In Ridvan 2000, they first wrote: "The quantitative difference resulted mainly from a more critical qualitative difference. The culture of the Baha'i community experienced a change." (para 2.) and in the same 2000 message they clarified what was meant: "The members of the community came gradually to appreciate how systematization would facilitate the processes of growth and development. This raising of consciousness was a huge step that led to an upgrading of teaching activities and a change in the culture of the community." In their January 9 2001message, the House of Justice clarified the direction in which they were impulsing the cultural change of the community, namely, the outlook and attitudes associated with "a culture of growth":

"When training and encouragement are effective, a culture of growth is nourished in which the believers see their duty to teach as a natural consequence of having accepted Bahá'u'lláh. They "raise high the sacred torch of faith," as was 'Abdu'l-Bahá's wish, "labor ceaselessly, by day and by night," and "consecrate every fleeting moment of their lives to the diffusion of the divine fragrance and the exaltation of God's holy Word." So enkindled do their hearts become with the fire of the love of God that whosoever approaches them feels its warmth. They strive to be channels of the spirit, pure of heart, selfless and humble, possessing certitude and the courage that stems from reliance on God. In such a culture, teaching is the dominating passion of the lives of the believers. Fear of failure finds no place. Mutual support, commitment to learning, and appreciation of diversity of action are the prevailing norms."A week later, on January 16, 2001, the beloved linked this budding cultural change to the Counsellors' Conference and to the Fifth Epoch: "As the time for the Conference drew near, there were signs that the Faith had arrived at a point in its development beyond which a new horizon opens before us. Such intimations were communicated in our report last Ridvan of the change in culture of the Bahá’í community as training institutes emerged, as the construction projects on Mount Carmel approached their completion, and as the internal processes of institutional consolidation and the external processes towards world unity became more fully synchronized. They were elaborated in the message we addressed to the Conference of the Continental Boards of Counselors a few days ago. But the extraordinary dynamics at work throughout the Conference crystallized these indications into a recognizable reality. With a spirit of exultation we are moved to announce to you: the Faith of Baha'u'llah now enters the fifth epoch of its Formative Age". So the Four Year Plan may be deemed to have been successful in its central goal - to kick start a process of cultural change in the Baha'i community, so that at its close "the Faith had arrived at a point in its development beyond which a new horizon opens before us." The new horizon is the "culture of growth" associated with Fifth Epoch.

Finally, having outlined the spiritual attitudes and dispositions that foster a culture of growth in the January 9 letter, they specify in their 22 August 2002 letter to me the pattern of activity that, together with those attitudes, defines such a culture of growth:

"The culture now emerging is one in which groups of Baha'u'llah's followers explore together the truths in His Teachings, freely open their study circles, devotional gatherings and children's classes to their friends and neighbours, and invest their efforts confidently in plans of action designed at the level of the cluster, that makes growth a manageable goal."

In current, 17 January 2003, message they describe this "culture of growth" as a "culture of learning", and they associate the Five Year Plan with its "taking root" "everywhere". In sum, the House of Justice sees in the first two years of the Five Year Plan the grassroots diffusion of a culture that increasingly appreciates "how systematization would facilitate the processes of growth and development"; "in which the believers see their duty to teach as a natural consequence of having accepted Bahá'u'lláh"; in which "teaching is the dominating passion of the lives of the believers. Fear of failure finds no place. Mutual support, commitment to learning, and appreciation of diversity of action are the prevailing norms"; "one in which groups of Baha'u'llah's followers explore together the truths in His Teachings, freely open their study circles, devotional gatherings and children's classes to their friends and neighbours, and invest their efforts confidently in plans of action designed at the level of the cluster, that makes growth a manageable goal."
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UHJ:
At this juncture, when the collective experience of the community has taken so significant a step forward, we think it timely to review with you the insights thus far gained and to clarify issues that have arisen.
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IV: The "taking root" of the "culture of learning" is in this described as "so significant a step forward" in "the collective experience of the community". So we are making good progress! The next line, "to review with you the insights thus far gained and to clarify issues that have arisen" is very important, as it exemplifies the culture of learning we are begining to understand. The House of Justice is guiding us, not only on the basis of pure inspiration, but through a painstaking process of gathering a body of evidence from around the world, formulating models, testing them, refining them, and diffusing best practice. This is why it's so important for us to rally round the core activities and participate even if at this early stage their effectiveness is variable. Without universal participation in these processes the required evidence based will not be generated, models and systems not refined and improved, and our effectiveness limited. In this line, the House of Justice begins to share with us the fruits of the systematic learning taking place at the World Centre on the basis of our participation and activity.
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UHJ:
During the initial months of the Plan, National Spiritual Assemblies proceeded with relative ease to divide the territories under their jurisdiction into areas consisting of adjacent localities, called clusters, using criteria that were purely geographic and social and did not relate tothe strength of local Baha'i communities. Reports received at the WorldCentre indicate that there are now close to 17,000 clusters worldwide,excluding those countries where, for one reason or another, the operation ofthe Faith is restricted.

The number of clusters per country varies widely--from India with its 1,580to Singapore, which necessarily sees itself as one cluster. Some of the groupings are sparsely populated areas with only a few thousand inhabitants,while the boundaries of others encompass several million people. For themost part, large urban centres under the jurisdiction of one Local Spiritual Assembly have been designated single clusters, these in turn being divided into sectors, so as to facilitate planning and implementation.
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We have been in the course of the Five Year Plan laying the groundwork for a global campaign of growth of unprecedented proportions. The first step in this endeavour has been to divide the Baha'i world into clusters on "purely geographic and social" criteria that "did not relate to the strength of local Baha'i communities." This approach, as has been mentione, is not the fruit of a sudden flash of inspiration, but of many years of experimentation and analysis, crystallised in the April 1998 on Training Institutes prepared for and approved by the Universal House of Justice. There it is explained:

"Essential as local teaching projects are, however, it should be realized that, at this point in the history of the Faith, most believers reside in communities in which the Local Spiritual Assemblies are but nascent institutions. Therefore, emphasis has now to be placed, in many countries, on implementing projects that concentrate on a small region, usually a cluster of villages with one or two towns. Even though most institutes have barely begun their work, in more than a few regions the effects of human resource development are already noticeable in the enthusiasm for service of groups who have been attending courses. Without doubt, the number of such regions will multiply rapidly in the months ahead, and it is crucial that teaching projects be promptly established in any region where the institute is exerting influence.
"For a number of years, the International Teaching Centre has promoted projects of this kind under the designation "Long-Term Teaching Project". As a result, there is now ample experience in the Bahá'í world which can be readily shared among national communities through the Counsellors. While such projects aim at bringing large numbers into the Faith at an accelerating pace, they are not concerned merely with enrolments; nor is teaching carried out superficially. These projects involve a complex set of interrelated activities for expansion and consolidation which, together, result in a steady influx of new believers. Specifically, every effort is made to incorporate a significant percentage of the newly enrolled friends immediately into the institute programme, extending thereby the human resource base in the region."
One year later, in the introduction to the One Year Plan by the House of Justice (26 November 1999), the House of Justice, on the basis of the findings of the International Teaching Centre, established a number of cluster-based pilot projects to test and learn from and eventually incorporate into the furture Plans:
"Ample attention must also be given to further systematization of teaching efforts, whether undertaken by the individual or directed by the institutions. In this respect, the International Teaching Centre has identified certain patterns of systematic expansion and consolidation for relatively small geographical areas consisting of a manageable number of localities. Through the collaboration of Counsellors and National Spiritual Assemblies, several "Area Growth Programmes" are being established in each continent. They will be carefully monitored during the Twelve Month Plan and their methods will be refined so that this approach can be incorporated into subsequent Plans."
In February 2000, the House of Justice produced a document on "Training Institutes and Systematic Growth", in which these pilot Area Growth Programmes were defined:
"This approach to systematized teaching is being developed in the context of an “Area Growth Program,” which focuses on a relatively small geographical area with a manageable number of localities. At the heart of the Area Growth Program is a systematic institute process under the direction of the national or regional institute. As a growing number of believers pass through the courses of the training institute, the pool of human resources for various expansion and consolidation undertakings increases. Auxiliary Board members and their assistants will encourage these believers to utilize their newly acquired capabilities in teaching the Faith and in acts of service, such as holding devotional meetings, deepening one’s fellow believers, and conducting children’s classes. Grassroots involvement, where the local believers consult together, take action, and support one another in individual or group activities, is a fundamental characteristic of an Area Growth Program... As increasing numbers of Bahá’ís go through the institute courses and, in so doing, develop a stronger Bahá’í identity and desire to serve, a dynamic for growth is created in our communities Even if only a fraction of the participants become active teachers, having more and more Bahá’ís proceed through a sequence of courses generates a spirit that motivates the believers and revitalizes the community. For this reason the strategy of the Area Growth Programs is to have the teaching and expansion work revolve around the institutes."
The Four Year Plan focused on the systematisation of human resource development. Its fairest fruit was the refinement and establishment of the training institutes as effective "engines of growth". The One Year Plan, we are told in the same letter, focused on the systematisation of teaching. The aim of the Area Growth Programmes was to generate a body of evidence to achieve similarly transforming results in the teaching work:
"The learning that has taken place about the systematic development of human resources will now be extended to the process of learning about the systematization of teaching. Through the implementation of Area Growth Programs around the world a new body of experience will emerge that will inform our approach to teaching and our strategies about growth for the next two decades. These efforts at systematic and unabated action represent the deep desire and commitment of every Bahá'í “to fulfill the intentions of a Plan whose major aim is to accelerate that process which will make it possible for growing numbers of the world’s people to find the Object of their quest and thus to build a united, peaceful and prosperous life.” " ("Training Institutes and Systematic Growth" February 2000)
The learning of this experience was incorporated into the January 9 message under the section on "Systematic Programmes of Growth", which called for the entire Baha'i world to be divided into clusters, so that we now have 17,000! Already the body of experience being generated is furnishing such different models as those of Singapore and India. The evolving learning context of our labours is stated with particular clarity in a message from the Office of Social and Economic Development dated 26 December 2002:
"In the Four Year Plan, priority was given to the creation of a network of institutes, and a culture of learning emerged. In the Twelve Month Plan, programs for the Baha'i education of children were developed and experiments with intensive growth were conducted. In the current Plan, these elements are integrated within a structure of geographical areas, or clusters, to create a pattern of systematic action, in which the processes of expansion and consolidation will reinforce one another."
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UHJ:
With the various countries and territories divided into manageable areas, national communities moved quickly ahead to categorize clusters according tothe stages of the development of the Faith mentioned in our 9 January message. The exercise afforded a realistic means for viewing the prospects of the community, but the task of refining the criteria needed for valid assessments is proving to be an ongoing challenge to institutions. To assign a cluster to one or another category is not to make a statement about status. Rather, it is a way of evaluating its capacity for growth, in order that an approach compatible with its evolving development can be adopted. Rigid criteria are obviously counterproductive, but a well-defined scheme to carry out evaluation is essential. Two criteria seem especially important:the strength of the human resources raised up by the training institute for the expansion and consolidation of the Faith in the cluster, and the ability of the institutions to mobilize these resources in the field of service.
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IV:
The clusters were identified in the first instance without reference to the strength of the community. Only then have they been categorised according to their "capacity for growth". This is not "a statement about status", rather it is a recignition born from the "body of experience" generated earlier that large scale, sustainable growth requires a minimum level of infrastructure in the form of:

"a high level of enthusiasm among a sizable group of devoted and capable believers who understand the prerequisites for sustainable growth and can take the ownership of the program; some basic experience on the part of a few communities in the cluster in holding classes for spiritual education of children, devotional meetings, and the Nineteen Day Feast; the existence of a reasonable degree of administrative capacity in at least a few Local Spiritual Assemblies; the active involvement of several assistants to Auxiliary Board members in promoting community life; a pronounced spirit of collaboration among the various institutions working in the area; and above all, the strong presence of the training institutes with a scheme of coordination that supports the systematic multiplication of study circles."

Progress to this point has been divided in the January 9 letter into four stages or categories of "capacity for growth":

1) "not yet be open to the Faith"
2) containing "a few isolated localities and groups"
3)"established communities... gaining strength through a vigorous institute process"
4)"strong communities of deepened believers ...in a position to take on the challenges of systematic and accelerated expansion and consolidation"

While the division of the community into clusters has been relatively straightforward, "the task of refining the criteria needed for valid assessments is proving to be an ongoing challenge to institutions." To assist us, the House of Justice provides two key criteria: "the strength of the human resources raised up by the training institute forthe expansion and consolidation of the Faith in the cluster, and the ability of the institutions to mobilize these resources in the field of service." The first is linked to the number of people that go through the sequence of courses of the training institute. This means that development is linked to the training institute specifically, and that human resource development efforts outside the institute, although valuable and sometimes critical, are not the key mechanism in building a "coherent pattern of growth" which is the key aim of the Five Year Plan. For this "coherence" and "pattern" to be maintained and refined, we need to generate a body of experience around a global intitute process. Hence the measure of progress is not simply the "strength of the human resources raised up", but rather "the strength of the human resources raised up by the training institute" specifically.

The second criterion is "the ability of the institutions to mobilize these resources in the field of service." This means that this is not simply a numbers game. It is not enough to have a vigorous institute process integrating the participation of a substantial and growing proportion of the Baha'i community and its friends, family, neighbours and associates. The souls that are being enriched by their participation must further be mobilised by the institutions in "individual and collective exertions" for progress to be achieved. This one will be harder to measure, but must be integrated into our evaluations of progress for our "assessments" to be "valid". The task is given to the institutions. In their 22 August message to an individual, emphasis is placed on the elected representatives. In messages to the Counsellors and analyses of the institute process the onus is placed on the learned arm. The word emphasised in both cases is "encouragement." Thus in the UHJ message on Training Institutes and Systematic Growth of Feb 2000, we read:

"As a growing number of believers pass through the courses of the training institute, the pool of human resources for various expansion and consolidation undertakings increases. Auxiliary Board members and their assistants will encourage these believers to utilize their newly acquired capabilities in teaching the Faith and in acts of service, such as holding devotional meetings, deepening one’s fellow believers, and conducting children’s classes."

And in the January 9 letter it is unquivocally stated:

"Training alone, of course, does not necessarily lead to an upsurge in teaching activity. In every avenue of service, the friends need sustained encouragement. Our expectation is that the Auxiliary Board members, together with their assistants, will give special thought to how individual initiative can be cultivated, particularly as it relates to teaching. When training and encouragement are effective, a culture of growth is nourished in which the believers see their duty to teach as a natural consequence of having accepted Bahá'u'lláh."

So the two criteria of this letter refer back to the two key elements in this passage from the January 9 letter: training and encouragement. Assistants and Auxiliary Board members should be consulting as to "how individual initiative can be cultivated, particularly as it relates to teaching."
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UHJ:
Focus in almost every country has now turned to stimulating the movement of its priority clusters from their current stage of growth to the next.What has become strikingly clear is that progress in this respect depends largely on the efficacy of the parallel process aimed at helping an ever-increasing number of friends to move through the main sequence of courses offered by the institute serving the area. The rise in activity around the world testifies to the success of these courses in evoking the spirit of enterprise required to carry out the divers actions that growth in a cluster, at whatever stage, demands.
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IV:
In this paragraph, the development of clusters to the point where they can engage in sustainable campaigns of growth is unambiguously linked to the institute process. This is not a statement of principle, but the outcome of experience. Thus the House of Justice writes that "it is becoming strikingly clear". Whatever the limitations that individuals may perceive in existing institute materials and systems, the fact is that, on a global scale, the institute process os working, and that progress depends largely on the proportion of the community going through the sequence of courses offered by the Training Institute. The sequential aspect is very important. It is not merely the number of people engaged in study circles, but also the number of people progressing from the beginning to the end of the sequence. This is explained by the House of Justice in their February 2000 message on training institutes and systematic growth:

"Elements of a system that can meet the training needs of large numbers of believers have already been tested worldwide and have proven themselves. Study circles, reinforced by extension courses and special campaigns, have shown their ability to lend structure to the process of spiritual education at the grassroots. The value of a sequence of courses, each one following the other in a logical pattern and each one building on the achievements of the previous ones, has become abundantly clear. Various models are emerging that provide insight into how such sequences can be used to create training programs. In one example the main sequence, much like the trunk of a tree, supports courses branching out from it, each branch dedicated to some specific area of training. In another, several tracks of courses, each with its own focus, run parallel. Institutes will do well to examine these elements and approaches and employ them in a manner that responds to the opportunities before them."In this as in most countries this is linked to Ruhi books 1-7, although as the quote implies other effective models exist. A study of the guidance shows that the emphasis on Ruhi is an indispensable preliminary to building the experience and capacity to refine materials and methods on the basis, not of personal predilaction, but systematic, evidence based learning as explained by the House of Justice in the same letter:

"As part of its mandate to assess institute curricula that are available in the Bahá’í world, the International Teaching Centre has found the Ruhi Institute materials to be particularly appropriate. Many national communities are using the Ruhi Institute curriculum either as the focus of their training institute or as one of its tracks of study.
"The Ruhi Institute curriculum had been tested and adapted over many years. It has enabled the friends in different countries to get the institute system up and running in a short time. Rather than having the participants be passive listeners to a wide array of unconnected talks, the Ruhi Institute materials seek to engage the friends fully in the process of learning. Bahá’ís with diverse cultural and educational backgrounds have found the curriculum’s deceptively simple approach, based heavily on connecting the believers to the Creative Word, both appealing and empowering.
"Even in those countries where the Ruhi Institute materials have been chosen as the main curriculum or as one of the institute tracks, modifications and adaptations for local conditions have occasionally been made. In a few countries a beginning course has been developed for new believers which precedes Book 1. In some areas the Ruhi Institute books have been supplemented with other materials to suit the local requirements. Over time, through systematic educational experience, other sequential curricula will be developed in various parts of the world that display the same coherence that the Ruhi Institute materials have achieved but are derived from the experience of different national communities."
So new materials are anticipated, but based on experience. Ruhi's strength as a starting point of the Institute process is that no other material has been tested and refined on such a scale, over such a length of time, in such diveristy of cultural settings, and within a context of large scale expansion. In following the principle of learning from best practice and evolving through evidence and experience, the Baha'i world as a whole, under the guidance of the learned arm, has been taking Ruhi as a starting point to what is a long term process of curricular development. The principle behind this is clearly expressed in the April 1998 document commissioned and approved by the Universal House of Justice on Training Institutes. Speaking of Training Institutes in "small communities with a large percentage of knowledgeable believers", especially in "Western Europe", they write:
"As they strive to work in this way, these institutes face a difficulty inherent in their communities' lack of experience in large-scale expansion, experience upon which they could draw to design appropriate curricular elements. While their present strength enables them to formulate with relative ease courses which impart knowledge of the Faith or examine spiritual and social issues, they struggle with the content of teacher training programmes that would offer practical advice and insights. Utilizing materials developed in other parts of the world, where such experience exists, helps overcome this difficulty. The long-term solution, however, is for the appropriate institutions to establish systematic teaching plans that are approached with an attitude of learning. Training and teaching, then, become two parallel processes that fuel each other: Training courses raise the enthusiasm of the friends for teaching and help them acquire the necessary skills. Increased experience in the teaching field is reflected in the constantly improving content of training courses."
The application of Ruhi to the Five Year Plan, then, is but a means for a "culture of learning" to "take root" at the grassroots, and furnish the body of experience that will lead to our own distinctive innovations.
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UHJ:
Particularly heartwarming to observe is a growing sense of initiative and resourcefulness throughout the Baha'i world, along with courage and audacity.

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IV:
This is a strong theme and cause for celebration in this message, eroding and steadily leaving behind the limiting culture, described in the 22 August message, "in which the believer is a member of a congregation, leadership comes from an individual or individuals presumed to be qualified for the purpose, and personal participation is fitted into a schedule dominated by concerns of a very different nature".

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UHJ:
Consecration, zeal, confidence and tenacity--these are among the qualities that are distinguishing the believers in every continent. They are exemplified by, but are certainly not limited to, those who are arising to pioneer on the home front. As we had hoped, goals for the opening of virgin clusters are being readily met by enthusiastic participants of institute programmes who, equipped with the knowledge and skills acquired through training courses, set out to establish the Faith in a new area and bring a fledgling community into being.

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IV:
This relates back to the stirring letter of the House of Justice of January 10 2002:
"The clearly defined plans now in place multiply teaching opportunities for those wishing to serve the Faith in the international field as short- or long-term pioneers. Most of the needs of the clusters in a given country should increasingly be met by homefront pioneers as the Plan unfolds. But, given the sheer number of geographic areas which require systematic attention in order to advance, international pioneers will have a notable role to play. Their participation will be especially effective in the programmes of growth spreading throughout the world if they have developed abilities to foster the institute process.

...The movement of pioneers and travelling teachers from one place to another is an indispensable feature of the Baha’i community... Apart from the services such staunch souls are able to render to the Cause of God, this intermingling of the peoples of the world is vital to the patterns of life that the followers of Baha’u’llah are striving to establish and which are destined to provide an example for the rest of humanity to emulate."

Emphasis, again, is placed on pioneers who are "enthusiastic participants of institute programmes... equipped with the knowledge and skills acquired throughtraining courses"

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UHJ:
In most clusters, movement from one stage of growth to the next is being defined in terms of the multiplication of study circles, devotional meetings and children's classes, and the expansion they engender. Devotional meetings begin to flourish as consciousness of the spiritual dimension of human existence is raised among the believers in an area through institute courses.Children's classes, too, are a natural outgrowth of the training received early in the study of the main sequence. As both activities are made open to the wider community through a variety of well-conceived and imaginative means, they attract a growing number of seekers, who, more often than not, are eager to attend firesides and join study circles. Many go on subsequently to declare their faith in Baha'u'llah and, from the outset,view their role in the community as that of active participants in a dynamic process of growth.Individual and collective exertions in the teaching field intensify correspondingly, further fuelling the process. Established communities are revitalized, and newly formed ones soon gain the privilege of electing their Local Spiritual Assemblies.
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IV:
Here we have an elaboration of the "culture" which the House of Justice describes as its aim in their 22 August letter. There are three key elements: devotionals, children's classes and study circles. The institute process is seen to be the mainspring of the devotional meetings and children's classes. Energise the institute process, we are told, and your devotionals and children's classes will flourish. When the devotionals and children's classes, on the other hand, are opened to the wider community through "well conceived and imaginative means", these become the point of contact between seekers and study circles and firesides. The mention of firesides in this context is significant, as it is the first in a message to the Baha'i world since well before the 4 Year Plan. It emphasises that the three core activities are not a replacement of personal teaching, and that personal teaching efforts must not suffer as a result of our engagement in the process, but on the contrary, increase. This is made clear in a letter on behalf of the Universal House of Justice to an individual dated 31 October 2002:

"It is not possible, given all of the instructions and exhortations addressed to the believers by Baha’u’lláh, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi, that the House of Justice would ever advise communities that are free to pursue teaching plans that it was not timely to talk about such efforts and enrol new Bahà’is. Nor could it, contrary to Baha’u’lláh’s explicit command, allow any other activity in the Bahá’i community to diminish the responsibility of individuals to teach the Cause. Precisely the opposite is true. A major object of the recent emphasis on establishing training institutes is to increase the capacity of individuals to teach the Cause effectively. Study circles, which are local extensions of an institute, are intended to serve this purpose. While it is highly desirable to include seekers in study circles wherever possible, the individual believer retains the inescapable duty to teach the Faith on his or her own initiative. Anyone who carefully reads the messages of the House of Justice will find that it has consistently exhorted and encouraged individuals to teach the Faith, pointing to the many possibilities of exploiting the opportunities that the turmoil of the present age provides. In this regard, there is abundant evidence from countries around the world, including the United States, that the institutions of the Faith at all levels and institutes through their courses focus attention on the importance of teaching."

The link between the institute process and firesides was first drawn in the February 2000 message on Institutes and Systematic Growth in the section on the impact of institutes on teaching and growth:

"Reports also suggest that there has been a marked increase in the number of firesides around the world, an indication of the level of teaching undertaken at the initiative of the individual. In Ireland a national program entitled “Core Project,” whose goal is to establish 20 firesides, has been operating in conjunction with a series of training institute courses. A similar trend has been noted in Slovakia, which launched a national fireside campaign during the last year of the Four Year Plan. In the southern region of the United States individual initiative has manifested itself in a growing number of firesides, particularly by institute participants. There has also been a notable rise in the number of firesides across the southern part of Australia in Victoria, New South Wales, and Western Australia, as well as in some island communities of the Pacific, such as Tonga, where over 660 souls have entered the Faith in the last three years. The National Spiritual Assembly of Japan has far exceeded its fireside goal for the Four Year Plan."

The cycle of study circles, devotional meetings and children's classes, with their interdependence and reciprocal effects, is held to be the key to the intensification of the "individual and collective exertions in the teaching field", which in turn are seen as the requisite for the "revitalisation" of "established communities", and the election of Spiritual Assemblies in newly formed communities.

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UHJ:
The coherence thus achieved through the establishment of study circles, devotional meetings and children's classes provides the initial impulse for growth in a cluster, an impulse that gathers strength as these core activities multiply in number. Campaigns that help a sizeable group of believers advance far enough in the main sequence of courses to perform the necessary acts of service lend impetus to this multiplication of activity.
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IV:
This paragraph identifies the establishment of the essential infrastructure for growth (study circles, children's classes, devotional meetings), as achieving a "coherence" which generates "the initial impulse for growth". Thus sustainable growth is linked to a "coherence" of approach. This is a crucial theme in the Five Year Plan. Already in the February 2000 document on Training Institutes and Systematic Growth the House of Justice explained:
"In countries where Regional Bahá’í Councils exist, close interaction between the Councils and the training institutes is vitally important and can create “a galvanic coherence of the processes effecting expansion and consolidation in a region,” and “the practical matching of the training services of institutes to the developmental needs of local communities.”
Here coherence of the processes of expansion and consolidation is seen as "galvanic" and linked to the relationship between the Regional Councils and Training institutes. It is the "coherence" of Ruhi materials that is highlighted as their strength in the same letter. Specialized training institute courses such as on Huququllah or giving to the funds have been discouraged by the House of Justice in that document because they detract from the "coherence" of what must be a "systematic program for increasing the human resources of the Bahá’í community". Deepening on these subjects, it is suggested in this letter, is crucial for every individual, but is peripheral to the institute process specifically. In that document, the House of Justice concludes:

"Clearly it is the institute process that is at the core of the coherent vision that is guiding us in advancing the process of entry by troops. As the House of Justice expressed in the same message: “Understanding of the necessity for systematization in the development of human resources is everywhere taking hold.” It is also understood that the process upon which we have embarked through the training institutes is a long-term one."

The link between "coherence" and "impulse" had already been made in the House of Justice's letter of January 10 2002: "In the months since the launching of the Five Year Plan, national communities have adopted measures that are giving a dynamic thrust and added coherence to their activities." Coherence here is linked to "dynamic thrust" in our activities - a coherence which, as we have seen, has "at the core" the institute process. In Ridvan 2002 the meaning of coherence was made fully explicit, with its associated potential:

"By combining study circles, devotional meetings and children's classes within the framework of clusters, a model of coherence in lines of action has been put in place and is already producing welcome results. Worldwide application of this model, we feel confident, holds immense possibilities for the progress of the Cause in the years ahead."

So, on the basis of experimentation and experience, the House of Justice has developed a "a model of coherence in lines of action" consisting of "study circles, devotional meetings and children's classes within the framework of clusters". The Five Year Plan's single task is the "worldwide application of this model", generating a body of experience that will launch us into a new and unprecedented, evidence based, global campaign of growth.

When the basic infrastructure of this model emerges in a given cluster, attention must be focused on its "multiplication". What is envisaged, then, is not a single devotional meeting, study circle and children's class for the entire community, but a multiplication, the running in parallel of multiple devotionals, study circles, and children's classes, which as they grow "in number", add "strength" to the "impulse for growth".

A means to achieve this multiplication are "campaigns" that help "a sizeable group of believers" to go through the sequence of institute courses that are linked to the "necessary acts of service". This sentence brings clarity to the prerequisite for intensive growth identified in the January 9, 2001 letter as:
"a high level of enthusiasm among a sizable group of devoted and capable believers who understand the prerequisites for sustainable growth and can take the ownership of the program"

The "sizable group of devoted and capable believers who understand the prerequisites for sustainable growth and can take the ownership of the program", then, consists in the main of "a sizeable group of believers advance far enough in the main sequence of courses to perform the necessary acts of service lend impetus to this multiplication of activity." In Ruhi terms, this likely means a sizeable group of believers who have completed books 1-7.
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UHJ:
It is evident, then, that a systematic approach to training has created away for Baha'is to reach out to the surrounding society, share Baha'u'llah's message with friends, family, neighbours and co-workers, and expose them to the richness of His teachings. This outward-looking orientation is one ofthe finest fruits of the grassroots learning taking place. The pattern of activity that is being established in clusters around the globe constitutesa proven means of accelerating expansion and consolidation. Yet this is only a beginning.
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IV:
In the past, the emphasis has been placed on teaching campaigns targeting a given population, with the immediate objective of enrolling them in the Cause. In the Five Year Plan, such campaigns are only appropriate to communities who fulfill the requisites for intensive programmes of growth. For the bulk of the community, not yet at that stage, the focus has shifted from "a population" as such, to, specifically and explicitly, on "friends, family, neighbours and co-workers". In their 22 August 2002 letter, likewise, the House of Justice writes of a culture where Baha'is "freely open their study circles, devotional gatherings and children's classes to their friends and neighbours". This is described in the letter under study as a way "to reach out to the surrounding society", and an "outward-looking orientation" which is "one of the finest fruits of the grassroots learning taking place". The immediate aim of these endeavours, moreover, is not enrolment in the community, but participation in study circles, devotionals and children's classes. What seems to be in the process of emergence is a culture where the diversity of teaching is a function, not primarily of a core of talented teachers bringing in enrolments, but of the entire community, little by little, connecting their social circles to Baha'i community life, resulting in a proportion of these new friends becoming Baha'is who are already engaged in a process of growth, while presumably a substantial proportion of other friends and associates, while not declared Baha'is, feed and sustain the "outward looking orientation" that is the ultimate key to sustaining growth and consolidation in the long term.

Again in this paragraph we have an emphasis on the evidence based approach that has led to the present approach: "The pattern of activity that is being established in clusters around the globe constitutes a proven means of accelerating expansion and consolidation." The pattern is described not merely as tried and tested but as "proven".

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UHJ:
In many parts of the world, bringing large numbers into the ranks of Baha'u'llah's followers has traditionally not been a formidable task. It is therefore encouraging to see that, in some of the more developed clusters, carefully designed projects are being added to the existing pattern of growth to reach receptive populations and lift the rate of expansion to a higher level. Such projects accelerate the tempo of teaching, already on the rise through the efforts of individuals. And, where large-scale enrolment is beginning to result, provision is being made to ensure that a certain percentage of the new believers immediately enter the institute programme, for, as we have emphasized in several messages, these friends will be called upon to serve the needs of an ever-growing Baha'i population. They help deepen the generality of the Baha'is by visiting them regularly, they teach children, arrange devotional meetings and form study circles, making it possible to sustain expansion.
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IV
For communities who have not yet reached the stage where they engage in intensive growth programmes, this paragraph opens a vista of the dynamics that will obtain. here intensive programmes of growth do target "receptive populations and lift the rate of expansion to a higher level.". These campaigns take place in the context of an "existing pattern of growth", where the tempo of teaching is "already on the rise through the efforts of individuals." The infrastructure on institute programmes then allows "a certain percentage of the new believers immediately enter the institute programme, for, as we have emphasized in several messages, these friends will be called upon to serve the needs of an ever-growing Baha'i population."

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UHJ:
All of this opens thrilling opportunities for Local Spiritual Assemblies.Theirs is the challenge, in collaboration with the Auxiliary Board members who counsel and assist them, to utilize the energies and talents of the swelling human resources available in their respective areas of jurisdiction both to create a vibrant community life and to begin influencing the society around them. In localities where Spiritual Assemblies do not exist or are not yet functioning at the necessary level, a step-by-step approach to the development of communities and Local Spiritual Assemblies is showing excellent promise.

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IV:
Here we return to the second criterion of progress identified in paragraph 6 of the letter. The focus here is clearly on Local Spiritual Assemblies with the support of the Auxiliary Board members to mobilize the human resources at their disposal.

In relation to the establishment and maturation of Local Spiritual Assemblies, as "step-by-step approach" is said to hold "excellent promise". This indicates in all probablility that the evidence base is in the process of being generated, but that early results of this approach have been positive. By encouraging this approach the body of experience will be widened so that, if "proven" as the pattern of three core activities in a cluster, it can be likewise disseminated. The difference between "proven" and "promising" is an indication of the systematic approach to learning animating the World Centre's guidance. As to what this step-by-step approach consists of, we are not told in this letter, although reference may be made to the following passage from the January 9 2001 message:

"Our message of 26 December 1995 delineating the features of the Four Year Plan made reference to the stages through which a community passes as it develops. The experience that has been gained in the ensuing years in working with communities at various stages will prove valuable to programs of growth. One of the first steps in implementing the program may well be a survey to determine the condition of each locality in the area. Among the initial goals for every community should be the establishment of study circles, children's classes, and devotional meetings, open to all the inhabitants of the locality. The observance of the Nineteen Day Feast has to be given due weight, and consistent effort should be made to strengthen the Local Spiritual Assemblies. Once communities are able to sustain the basic activities of Bahá'í life, a natural way to further their consolidation is to introduce small projects of social and economic development — for example, a literacy project, a project for the advancement of women or environmental preservation, or even a village school. As strength builds, the responsibility for increasing numbers of lines of action is to be devolved onto the Local Spiritual Assemblies."


The 26 Dec 1995 message elaborates as follows:

"However, in those many communities where no organized activities are taking place, whether or not a Local Spiritual Assembly has been elected, more basic challenges have to be addressed, and in this the Auxiliary Board members and their assistants must play a fundamental role. Concerted effort must be made to help the individual believers, men and women alike, increase their love for Baha'u'llah and His Cause and to bring them together in the Nineteen Day Feast as well as periodic meetings aimed at raising their awareness of their identity as a community. In those localities where the participation of women in community affairs is lagging, determined steps have to be taken to foster such participation. Effective measures have to be adopted so that the Local Spiritual Assembly is properly elected year after year and consistent progress in its functioning is made. The regular holding of Baha'i children's classes should be given high priority. Indeed in many parts of the world this is the first activity in a process of community building, which, if pursued vigorously, gives rise to the other developments. In all this, particular attention needs to be given to the youth, who are often the Faith's most enthusiastic supporters. The establishment of these activities defines a first stage in the process of community development, which, once attained, must be followed by subsequent stages until a community reaches a point where it can formulate its own plans of expansion and consolidation.

"In this context, we feel that the Auxiliary Board members should take further advantage of the possibility of naming, where appropriate, more than one assistant to a given community, with the intention of assigning each to promote one or more of these fundamental community activities."

The role of children's classes and the potential contributions of the institution of assistants to the Auxiliary Board bear highlighting.

In the January 9 excerpt above, socio-economic activity is the natural extension, not of intensive growth programmes, but of sustaining "the basic activities of Baha'i life", outlined in the letter of December 26 1995 and updated in the January 9 letter to include "the establishment of study circles, children's classes, and devotional meetings, open to all the inhabitants of the locality. The observance of the Nineteen Day Feast ... and strengthen[ing] the Local Spiritual Assemblies." It would appear from the January 9 letter that modest development projects are likely to be already in existence in communities ready to take o the challenge of intensive growth. Such activities would include " "small projects of social and economic development — for example, a literacy project, a project for the advancement of women or environmental preservation, or even a village school. As strength builds, the responsibility for increasing numbers of lines of action is to be devolved onto the Local Spiritual Assemblies."

Further guidance is provided by the World Centre's Office of Social and Economic development in their 26 December 2002 letter:

"Building unity of thought and action around these central activities does not, however, require that all other pursuits be suspended. They must continue. A study of the messages of the Four Year Plan makes it clear that, individuals, communities, and institutions are to engage in a variety of endeavours, all of which contribute to collective learning and progress."In the 9 January 2001 message from the Universal House of Justice to the Continental Boards of Counsellors introducing the Five Year Plan, this multifarious and integrated perspective is reinforced: Baha'i communities are, of course, engaged in a range of indispensable endeavours such as public information activity, proclamation efforts, external affairs work, production of literature, and complex social and economic development projects. Most certainly, as plans are devised, they will also address these challenges."...Such activities must be pursued without unduly diverting energies and resources away from the central aim of the Plan. Nevertheless, in the light of the guidance discussed above, it is clear that social and economic development, in its proper context, is an integral element of the work of promoting entry by troops. To fail to engage in development work when the conditions are right is as deleterious to progress as to become prematurely preoccupied with it during the nascent stages of growth and consolidation."
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UHJ:
It is especially gratifying to note the high degree of participation of believers in the various aspects of the growth process. In cluster after cluster, the number of those shouldering the responsibilities of expansion and consolidation is steadily increasing. Meetings of consultation held at the cluster level serve to raise awareness of possibilities and generate enthusiasm. Here, free from the demands of formal decision-making, participants reflect on experience gained, share insights, explore approaches and acquire a better understanding of how each can contribute to achieving the aim of the Plan. In many cases, such interaction leads to consensus on a set of short-term goals, both individual and collective. Learning in action is becoming the outstanding feature of the emerging mode of operation.
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IV: For the thrid time, the emphasis is placed on the celebration of the degree of participation growing among believers. The sense of joy these passages exude should inspire every believer to deepen his or her participation in this "proven" and "coherent" pattern of activity which, with the institute process "at the core", is generating children's classes, devotional meetings and study circles in cluster after cluster, moving them from stage to stage till they are ready for intensive programmes of growth.

In this paragraph the place of area/cluster meetings is also emphasised and further clarified. the January 9 letter described:

"Throughout the endeavor, periodic meetings of consultation in the area need to reflect on issues, consider adjustments, and maintain enthusiasm and unity of thought. The best approach is to formulate plans for a few months at a time, beginning with one or two lines of action and gradually growing in complexity. Those who are actively involved in the implementation of plans, whether members of the institutions or not, should be encouraged to participate fully in the consultations. Other area-wide gatherings will also be necessary. Some of these will provide opportunity for the sharing of experience and further training. Others will focus on the use of the arts and the enrichment of culture. Together, such gatherings will support an intense process of action, consultation and learning."

What is made clear in the current message is that these meetings are not essentially planning meetings but rather are meant to be "free from the demands of formal decision-making". Their primary purpose is "to reflect on issues, consider adjustments, and maintain enthusiasm and unity of thought", to "reflect on experience gained, share insights, explore approaches and acquire a better understanding of how each can contribute to achieving the aim of the Plan". Planning "for a few months at a time, beginning with one or two lines of action and gradually growing in complexity", as outlined in the January 9 letter is not the central purpose of these meetings, but rather it is something that happens "in many cases", and only when "such interaction leads to consensus on a set of short-term goals, both individual and collective." The emphasis, then, is not on the "short-term goals" and "one or two lines of action", but rather on the quality of the interaction, involving reflection, sharing, exploration, and increased understanding of our potential contribution to the Plan. The key aim is nothing less, nor more, than "learning in action".
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UHJ:
Let there be no doubt that what we are witnessing is the gathering momentum of that process of the entry of humanity into the Cause by troops, foreshadowed in Baha'u'llah's Tablet to the King of Persia, eagerly anticipated by the Master, and described by the Guardian as the necessary prelude to mass conversion. In the vanguard of the process are those clusters which, although still relatively few in number, are now ready to launch intensive programmes of growth. The scale of expansion that is to mark the next stage of growth in these clusters calls for an intensity of effort yet to be achieved. May the prodigious output of energy devoted to this mighty undertaking be reinforced by the power of Divine assistance. Be assured of our heartfelt prayers in the Holy Shrines that Baha'u'llah may bless and confirm your endeavours to realize, to the fullest, the extraordinary opportunities of these precious days.
[signed: The Universal House of Justice]
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IV:
The emphatic and unequivocal assurance is give that the process of entry by troops is currently and beyond doubt "gathering momentum", and placed in the context of the prophetic words of our sacred writings. The focus of this paragraph shifts to the few clusters who are "at the vanguard of the process", ready even now to launch "intensive programmes of growth". It appears that once a cluster reaches such a state of readiness, the challenge before it is to muster a dramatically enhanced "intensity of effort", a "prodigious output of energy" which is assured Divine Assistance. It is for this reason that growth programmes are designated "intensive"

The role of effort has already been mentioned earlier in the message. The House of Justice suggested earlier in the message that it regards all that has been achieved thus far in the 17,000 clusters as preliminary, writing: "Yet this is only a beginning." This statement was not used primarily as a platform for opening vistas of future victories awaiting. Rather it was the basis of a call for "an intensity of effort yet to be achieved." It is the "yet to be achieved" that is most telling. Clearly the stage is set, and what is being asked for us is an "intensity" of effort, a "prodigious output of energy" that we have yet to reach. This "intensity" of "effort" emerges from the message as the key to actualising the potential in the clusters and initiatives we have put in place. It is not enough, it seems, to walk in the right direction, follow the guidance, participate in study circles, devotional meetings and children's classes, invite our friends, neighbours, family and co-workers. We must do this, but by itself it is insufficient. We are called to do this with an "intensity of effort" and "energy" nothing short of "prodigious". Why?

"Individual and collective exertions in the teaching field intensify correspondingly, further fuelling the process. Established communities are revitalized, and newly formed ones soon gain the privilege of electing their Local Spiritual Assemblies."

Clearly, the primary aim then is to "revitalise" our "established communities", and enable "newly formed ones" to attain "the privilege" of electing LSA's. And this can only happen as our "individual" and "collective" "exertions" "intensify". The closing prayer in this perspective is invested with tremendous urgency: "to realize, to the fullest, theextraordinary opportunities of these precious days".


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Ismael Velasco needs a nosh-up.
But where will he go for it?