Community-Building and the Reframing of Service

Members of a community in Brazil plant flowers. (Photo: Baha'i World Centre)

Baha’is and their friends around the world are currently engaged in a process of community-building that primarily consists of four core activities: the education of children, the spiritual empowerment of junior youth, the strengthening of the devotional character of communities through prayer gatherings and collective worship, and engagement in the institute process which serves both to deepen our understanding of the Baha’i teachings and to develop our skills to carry out these various acts of service. These are obviously not the only arenas of service for Baha’is. For example, the Universal House of Justice has begun to increasingly emphasize the role Baha’is play in social action, or efforts to improve the social and material conditions of our communities, as well as public discourse, or the infusion of Baha’i ideals into spaces dedicated to discussing social issues such as the media, governments, and civil society organizations.

However, these four avenues of service are described as the “core” activities for a reason – to emphasize their centrality to the community development process occurring in cities and villages around the world. Despite the simplicity and straightforwardness of these activities (in terms of their design, although rarely how they unfold in practice!), this conceptualization of community-building in many ways represents a profound shift in the Baha’i community’s approach to service that has important consequences for Baha’is, and particularly youth.

To appreciate this, let’s take a moment to reflect on the state of the Baha’i community about a century ago, around the time Abdu’l-Baha began disseminating his letters to North America, which are known as the Tablets of the Divine Plan. In the eighth tablet, written in April 1916 and addressed to the Baha’is of the United States and Canada, Abdu’l-Baha describes three things that Baha’is must do in order to become “Apostles of Baha’u’llah”: demonstrate firmness in the Covenant of God, exhibit fellowship and love amongst the believers, and “…travel to all parts of the continent, nay, rather, to all parts of the world” teaching the Faith. Abdu’l-Baha further elaborated on the third condition, stating:

Consequently, a number of souls may arise and act in accordance with the aforesaid conditions, and hasten to all parts of the world…Thus in a short space of time, most wonderful results will be produced, the banner of universal peace will be waving on the apex of the world and the lights of the oneness of the world of humanity may illumine the universe.1

The pressing need for this type of service from the Baha’i community was self-explanatory. At that time, there were only a few Baha’i communities scattered around the world, and no National Spiritual Assemblies had yet to be formally established. The only way for the Faith to become a global religion was for Baha’is to leave their home communities and travel to places in which the Cause of Baha’u’llah had yet to be shared.

What a difference a century has made! Under the guidance and direction of ‘Abdu’l-Baha’, Shoghi Effendi, and the Universal House of Justice, the Baha’i Faith has truly emerged as a world-embracing religion in just a few decades. Today, there are nearly 200 National Spiritual Assemblies operating around the world, Baha’i communities are established in thousands of localities in virtually every region of globe, and the Faith has been embraced by peoples of nearly every nationality, ethnicity, race, and social class.

It is within this historical context that the contemporary approach to community-building must be fully understood and appreciated. In the past, service was often equated with pioneering or travel teaching, particularly for those communities and individuals that were blessed with the material capacities to do so. One of the beautiful aspects of Baha’i culture is that this emphasis on traveling and service has been internalized by Baha’i youth, many of which decide to postpone formal educational activities in order to perform a “year of service” at some point in their lives. While leaving one’s home community and traveling to a different part of the world in order to carry out acts of teaching and service is surely a noble endeavor and an amazing opportunity for personal growth and development, there is, in my humble opinion, one unintended consequence of the emphasis on these activities: it creates the perception that to truly serve, one must go live somewhere else. “Normal life” is devoted to education, work, and family, while real service occurs once you leave the confines of your community and move to a foreign land.

Don’t get me wrong – there is still a great need in many places in the world for more Baha’is, and dedicating a portion of your life to serving a community other than your own is still a noble sacrifice. But the beauty of the current approach to community-building is that it underscores both the need and the ability for all of us to serve wherever we reside. Service is not only that thing you do in some other place for a designated period of time. It is a daily activity of tending to the moral development of children, both your own and those of your neighbors; galvanizing the junior youth in your area to commit themselves to a process of personal and social transformation; gathering together with your friends and family in order to share prayers and strengthen the devotional character of your community; and studying the Writings of the Faith in a formal and systematic process in order to develop our skills and abilities for carrying out these acts of service. It is about developing our own communities as much as the communities of others. It is a recognition that service must be an integrated and coherent facet of our everyday existence, rather than simply a temporary hiatus from “normal life.”


  1. Abdu’l‑Baha, Tablets of the Divine Plan, 8: Tablet to the Baha’is of the United States and Canada []

About the Author

Matt Giani is a research scientist at the University of Texas at Austin. His research focuses on stratification and social mobility in education, with an emphasis on helping underprivileged students make successful transitions to college after high school. Matt draws his inspiration from his exuberant daughter Clara, his incredible wife Shadi, and the Baha'i teachings.

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Discussion 7 Comments

  1. This article speaks to me so much!!! Before I became a Baha’i I was doing acta of service in my community and as a Baha’i I want to keep on doing those. Love my community

  2. Matt, thanks very much for this article, which is very well done. I love the way you have surfaced the false dichotomy between service in one’s community and service elsewhere. This shift in mentality is a really important one if we’re going to build true, spiritual communities around the world. Great job!

  3. Members of Baha’i Area Teaching Committees and especially members of LSAs must absolutely “lead by example” in DOING Service to the community-at-large [i.e., neighborhoods, etc.]. The Universal House of Justice has repeated in several documents to NSAs and to the world-wide community that participation is to be done by all ages…not primarily by the youths. To suit, the only thing that ensures the exponential growth of The Faith which directly and proportionally determines The Faith’s influence on the material world [geo-political, economic, environmental & health, etc., as well as increasing the vibratory intensity from the invisible world] is Sacrificial Effort which is exemplified by The Master, and brings us confirmations [divine assistance] from The Supreme Concourse! Anything less than Sacrificial Effort causes growth of The Faith to languish, even when there positive things happening. Service means Action and when members of LSAs demonstrate each of them is willing to “serve” 24/7–even when physically impossible–that is how I interpret the meaning of what The Master said,
    “…..and all the friends and loved ones, one and all to bestir themselves and arise with heart and soul and in one accord, to diffuse the sweet savors of God, to teach His Cause and to promote His Faith. It behooveth them not to rest for a moment, neither to seek repose. They must disperse themselves in every land, pass by every clime and travel throughout all regions. Bestirred, without rest and steadfast to the end they must raise in every land the triumphal cry “O Thou the Glory of Glories!” (Ya-Bahá’u’l-Abhá!)
    ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Baháí World Faith – ‘Abdu’l-Bahá Section, p. 441

    “Wherefore, rest ye neither day nor night and seek no ease. Tell ye the secrets of servitude, follow the pathway of service, till ye attain the promised succour that cometh from the realms of God.”
    ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, p. 271

    It doesn’t me we neglect our health, rather it portends what happens when our hearts and minds are focused on such effort.

  4. Shogi Effendi Qoute,
    “It is our primary task to keep a most Vigilant Eye on the manner and character of its growth, to combat effectively the forces of separation and sectarian tendencies, lest the Spirit of the Cause be obscured, its unity be threatened, its Teachings suffer corruptions; lest extreme orthodoxy, on the one hand, and the irresponsible freedom on the other, cause it to deviate from that Strait Path which alone can lead it to success.”
    With the growing core activities and the majority of the Bahai and Bahai youth focused on these core activities some Bahais are being marginalized and feeling separated. This is of no fault of the “process” but the lack of the Knowledge of the tenets and all
    inclusive nature of the Bahai Cause. Within any process the spiritual growth of the community must move with it. “let your heart burn with loving kindness for all who may cross your path” whether or not they are in Book One or Book six or completed the Sequence. The Sequence does not make you a lover of Baha’u’llah or determine your place in the Kingdom it is for enhancing our “capacity for service” and Love of Baha’u’llah and if someone chooses another path to Baha’u’llah they should not be made to feel less than some who has made it to Book Three. Shoghi once described how in his time people were boasting about how they just did the Kitab’Iqan as if they just did Paris. The Books sent down by the Manifestion are not to be done but read, understood, and put into Action. This is the Day for Action, so let your actions be “for the love of Baha’u’llah”

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