LA Study Class Newsletter [#26]

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My Notes:

The main topic of this edition of the newsletter is a discussion of the 5 Year Plan (1974-79) and its goals. It includes the thoughts of a then member of the US NSA (Betts) and also mentions, very frankly, a marked decrease in the growth rate of the Baha’i community – as measured by new enrollments. This decrease in growth has since continued and just recently there was a comment from a person at the US National Assembly that it is currently the lowest (since records have been kept). The Baha’i community in the US is in danger of total quantitative stagnation. I’d like to talk about this and explore it is so and perhaps offer some salient ideas about how it may be reversed. But that will be for a future post.

As well, the newsletter includes a few more reader’s comments. They show not only how far reaching the newsletter was but just what exactly individual Baha’is thought of it.

If this is your first newsletter, you might also want to read the introduction to the LA study class, here.

On with the 70′s class . . .

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Hermosa Beach, California 90254
“Have you hugged your
boa constrictor today?”

Vol. III, No. 4 — April, 1978

It seemed, back in 1973, the American Baha’i Community had at last — at long last — turned the corner. We came off the Nine Year Plan in blitzkrieg fashion. Toward the end of the Plan, new Local Assemblies were being formed at a pace of more than 100 a year. By the year’s end, there were over 900 Local Spiritual Assemblies in the country. The ranks of the believers were expanded as never before.

When the House of Justice established the new Five Year Plan (1974-79) goals at 1,400 Local Assemblies in the United States, there was no doubt that we could achieve that mark — and not even have to strain much to do so.

It is now four years since the House set domestic expansion goals for America, we are nowhere near attaining most of them. We have about 1,000 Assemblies (roughly 50 to 100 more than when we began work in 1973). The Faith, once bursting with enthusiastic growth, seems to have stagnated for the last several years. What went wrong?

Essentially, that is the question our study class asked Richard Betts, one of three members of the National Spiritual Assembly living in the Los Angeles are. At 39, Betts is the yougest member of the national body. He has served on the NSA since July, 1973.

He summarized passages from the Writings, noting that the purpose of man is to carry forward an ever-advancing civilization and that the goal of the World Order of Baha’u’llah is to safeguard the interests and promote the unity of the human race. This principle of the oneness of mankind is the distinguishing characteristic of the Faith, Betts said, noting that the role of religion is to spiritualize the human race and act as the best means of establishing world order. All pretty basic stuff, all of which we are pretty much familiar with.

These idealistic goals will be attained through a slow but steady growth process in which the Faith permeates and influences the affairs of man, Betts said. And then he read from an address that few — if any — of us had heard of or knew about. In 1953, Ruhiyyih Khanum represented Shoghi Effendi at the dedication ceremonies of the Wilmette House of Worship. At that time, she read on his behalf, what amounted to an analysis of the historical states of the spiritual development of mankind. Shoghi Effendi’s ten-stage survey of humanity’s spiritual growth began by describing the first period as a 6,000-year-long epoch during which various Manifestations began the transformation of the human race. The second period culminated with the declaration of the Bab in 1844. Period three ended with the Bab’s martyrdom before a military firing squad in Tabriz, Iran. The fourth period began with Baha’u’llah’s incarceration in the Siyah Chal [Ed. the Black Pit, alt: Siyyah-Chal] and His realization of His religious mission. Period five covered the declaration of Baha’u’llah in the Garden of Ridvan. The sixth step included Baha’u’llah’s banishment to Adrianople and ‘Akka, and the period of His letters to the kings and rulers of the planet. The seventh period covered the beginning of Abdu’l-Baha’s ministry while still held in the Most Great Prison and His writing of the Tablets of the Divine Plan — the first organized approach to the systematic expansion of the Faith. Period eight covered the series of national plans, the First and Second Seven Year Plans ending respectively, in 1944 and 1953. Period nine in this spiritual development of the human race ended with the centenary of the declaration of Baha’u’llah at the Ridvan Garden (1963). The final period covers the penetration of the Faith to all corners of the planet and numerous crusades in carrying the message to all. We are now in that final period.

Bretts said the current Five Year Plan is best understood in the perspective of all this. The plan involves consolidating victories won in previous plans, a vast expansion of the number of locations where Baha’is reside, and the development of the distinctive character of Baha’i life. With respect to attaining these goals, Bretts pointed out that we have pretty much preserved the victories of earlier plans and have at least begun the process of developing the distinctive character of Baha’i life. This last is a qualitative goal and one which is somewhat difficult to measure in terms of success. The development of the Comprehensive Deepening Program represents an effort by the National Spiritual Assembly to begin work on that goal. The revamping of the declaration and enrollment process also is an outgrowth of that goal.

But, the nub of the issue — the homefront expansion and consolidation of the Baha’i localities — is another story. At the beginning of the Five Year Plan, our goals were to have at least 7,000 localities in the United States where Baha’is reside. We now have about 5,000 such places. We were to have at least 1,400 Local Spiritual Assemblies, including no fewer than 25 on Indian reservations. We are barely above the 1,000 mark. (Betts mentioned that the NSA thought the Indian reservation quota would be the toughest domestic goal to win; instead, it was one of the first accomplished.) Class members asked him if there had been a dro in the enrollment rate which might explain some of the slowing growth trend. He replied that adult enrollment is growing slightly, although youth enrollment is down. And he put the current American Baha’i population at about 70,000 persons.

Indicating that the problem of the American Baha’i Community is not as grave as it would seem, Betts said the relocation of as few as 200-300 Baha’is could mean the difference between winning and losing the homefront goals. Even so, the NSA member said, “Things are now down to the 11th hour and we have a lot to do before midnight.” He was asked if the American Baha’i Community isnot, in fact, teetering on the brink of disaster with respect to winning the plan goals. Betts responded that this is not the first time the Community has come right down to the wire before making its goals. The First and Second Seven Year Plans were both won in the final year; it was only in the Nine Year Plan (completed in 1973) that the homefront goals were achieve much before the deadline. He explained his optimism by saying, “If one loses genuine confidence, then defeat is at hand.”

Perceiving a new mood of success following a successful Baha’i proclamation earlier this year in the small border town of El Centro, California, just north of Mexico, Betts said “all we need is a handful of Baha’is” and victory “is still possible.”

He also touched on some of the negative aspects of the American Baha’i Community, noting that the divorce rate among Baha’i couples appears to be on the rise and the number of youth enrollments is dropping. Enrollments are coming in at a rate of about 150 a month, which Betts called a “very slow growth” for the Faith in the United States. He said National Assembly members are watching for any signs of a growth spurt, figuring any place where about 500 persons enroll in the Faith during the course of a year heralds the “entry by troops in the Cause.”

That remark triggered a reaction among class members, many of whom voiced displeasure at he entire mass teaching/mass enrollment concept. Betts, however, defended the practice, saying it had been almost totally misunderstood and misapplied in home front teaching. Teaching the masses means reaching most Americans with the Baha’i message. Somehow this idea got twisted into a campaign that concentrated on the poor. A further complication arose when the notion got out that teaching the masses also meant taking an indirect approach to the Faith, that is, teaching the Baha’i Faith without mentioning Baha’u’llah. That practice soon led to trouble with persons being enrolled in the Faith without having any real idea of what they were doing. When word og this reached Wilmette, the National Assembly stepped in and bega downplaying teaching the masses until someone could figure out how to make the idea work as it was designed. Even though teaching the masses, or mass teaching, depending on who is using he phrase, has been misinterpreted and misused, Betts said the total effect of the experimet has been a good one. The mass teaching concept shook up a placid Baha’i administration and forced local communities to become more flexible in their approach to teaching the Faith.

Betts shed some light on a question that perplexed class members (and many others in the American Baha’i Community). In the early 1970′s, the Community’s growth rate was steady, if not phenomenal. We were riding the crest of a boom and — suddendly — things went bust. For the last four years we have been unsuccessful at doing the same thing that worked in the period of the late 1960′s and early 1970′s. Class members asked Betts: What went wrong?

Essentially, he said, the mood of the country took a turn that the Baha’i Community failed to follow. The 1960′s was a period of intense social activism. Beginning with the civil rights movement and ending with the anti-Vietnam war activism, people were involved in causes on a collective level. Individuals put their lives on the line for one movement or another. This was a good time for the Faith. Our social principles enjoyed broad appeal and many people were attracted to the Faith because of these ideals. But somewhere in the early 1970′s, the public mood shifted. The Vietnam war ended on a sour note. Americans became more introspective and introverted. Self-improvement became trendy and a variety of self-realization movements came into vogue. People turned from social activism to personal concerns and materialism reestablished its influence.

But the Baha’i teaching strategy did not change and there was no effort to capitalize on this new mood, Betts said. Instead of emphasizing the power of the Faith to spiritually transform individuals, we kept plonking at the same old themes which, by the mid-1970′s, had simply lost much of their punch. The Baha’i Faith has not addressed the issue of personal salvation in its teaching work, eventhough no religious revelation in the history of man has more to say about how man can related to God, Betts said.

Looking ahead, he said issues that remain to be resolved include the racial question which has been relatively calm in recent years, but which could flare up at any time. Racial polatization remains very much in effect in the United States and, while a measure of racial equality has been attained, race unity still elludes us. Baha’is, at least, are committed to the concept of racial unity, althoughmuch more needs to be done within the Community. He also sugested that the American Baha’i Community would do well to emphasize the issues of morality and rectitude of conduct among the believers and the administrative institutions, as well. Betts said that, while we are now in a cycle of personal awareness and emphasis on the individual, that could give way to, say, more nationwide awareness of human rights as an issue (one of the major themes of the Carter administration).

One of the persistent problems of the American Baha’i Community is bureaucracy and dysfunction at the National Office. Class members asked Betts about that. He conceded there are staff problems at the National Center, saying there is too much lag time between teh presentation of a problem and its resolution. A large administrative load is handled by relatively few people, and staff turnover compounds the problem. Betts said one of the distressing aspects of this is that, in some cases, employees at the National Center have exercized what amounts to a “pocket veto” by simply refusing to carry out policies or directives with which they did not agree. In other cases, people are sincere but so afraid of doing the wrong thing that they take excrutiating — and time consuming — care trying to follow instructions from the National Assembly.

Motivating the American Baha’i Community and getting the National Center on track is a “slow and difficult process” with its ups and down, Betts said. But, optimism and the conviction that we are making progress prevails and, “if we lose that sense that victory is ours, we will taste defeat much more often,” he commented.

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HUMBLE APOLOGIES DEPT. We regret the fact that our April newsletter is so late in coming out. The reason is that shiftless Bob Ballenger did not get around to writing up the notes until recently. He’s a newspaper reporter and claims that the pressure of writing stories on California’s June 6 primary election kept him from getting to the notes. That may even be true. Ballenger promises everything will be normal with him… atleast until the November general elections.

LETTERS DEPT.

We got a note from Dr. John Cornell of Reedley, California, who taught our class on Baha’i justice in March. While complimenting us on the newsletter summary, he wrote, “I would like to call your attention to one error, however. It was not I who said that individuals cannot administer justice. I maintain just the opposite. It is easy to understand how you could have thought that came from me, because ideas were bouncing around the room think and fast. It is precisely to counteract what we consider to be this mistaken notion that we made a special section on justice by individuals on pp. 28-29 of our study course, Six Lessons on Baha’i Law.”

Nahed Rushdy of Barrhead, Alberta, Canada, writes: “It’s amazing how efficient these California Baha’is are. I’ve been receiving your newsletter since the annual meeting of the Association of Baha’i Studies in Vancouver [in late December, 1977] and I’ve been planning to write and tell you how much I enjoy reading it… Reading the newsletter is almost like being there in person. It’s great food for thought while I’m working in a small country town in Northern Alberta. Hope to make it to the class some day.”

Sohaila Samimi of Portugal writes: “Thanks so much for sending me the newsletter — not that I agree with or enjoy reading every single one. I personally think the scathing remarks are absolutely not mind-opening an dconstructive and sound like they belong to the mid-’60s. The beauty of giving an intelligent, gentle but precise and loving idea is what is so unique about the Faith. It has never been tried before and, if so, has been abandoned as impossible — which makes the challenge all the more exhilarating and mind blowing. I do not think blasting people and tearing them apart does anything except ease the frustration in our hearts and furnish an easy channel for our egos and makes this beautiful refuge as cold and lifeless as the rest of the world. Excuse the poetry, but it’s not gentle rain of spring that opens blossoms and buds. By all means, inquire and probe and think and so on — but actually what are we doing in the name of open-mindedness and etc?”

Alan Coupe of Burlington, Ontario, Canada writes: “Thanks very much for putting me on the list for the study class notes. I enjoyed reading the commentary on my presentation (Zarathustra and the Baha’i Faith, at the Canadian Association conference in Vancouver). Did someone use a tape recorder? If not, then they took very good notes. You may be interested in knowing that the Universal House [of Justice] has advised me in a letter that there is nothing in the Baha’i writings to suggest that 2 or more Manifestations cannot appear at the same time.”

CHANGE OF CLASS TREASURER: Please note that from now on class newsletter subscriptions should be sent to: Mr. Anthony Lee, [Ed. personal address follows]. Subscriptions are $12 per year (12 issues) for those living in the United States and are free for those outside the U.S. Back issues and copies of written presentations are $1 apiece for all.

NEXT CLASS: Since these notes are being sent very late, it should be noted that the next class was already held — on May 7. Notes from that class are being prepared and will be sent out in June. Since they probably will not be mailed before the June class, however, we wish to notify everyone that the next class session will be Sunday, June 4, at 2:00 pm at the home of Tony Lee [Ed. personal address and phone nuber follows]. The topic of the class will be John S. Hatcher’s essay “The Mataphorical Nature of Physical Reality.” All class members will be expected to have read the most recent issue of World Order (the Summer 1977 issue) and was published as Vol. No. 3 of Etudes Baha’i Studies, a publication of the Canadian Association for Studies on the Baha’i Faith.

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Related Links:

The original scanned documents can be found here.