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Baha’i education efforts move online in a hurry

Green Acre
Green Acre

Baha’i centers of learning in the United States are, appropriately, learning every day about how to serve their neighbors and the Baha’i community as Americans shelter in place during the COVID-19 crisis. 

Experimentation and consultation are focusing on how to use the internet for educational programs, not to mention staff meetings. Prayer gatherings and home visits are more likely to take place through videoconferences or phone calls. Dramatic and artistic events, whether presentations or interactive, could take forms that don’t require people to gather.

As early as February there were conversations about moving some content and activities online, says Robert Sapiro, administrator of Green Acre Baha’i School in Eliot, Maine. 

Recent events, he says with a chuckle, have “greatly accelerated” those consultations.

But even through all the breathtaking developments, one thing stays the same: a focus on empowering people through the Baha’i teachings to make positive transformations in themselves and their communities. “Right now, the main question is, how quickly can we adapt?” 

For instance, in collaboration with children’s class teachers in Eliot’s Baha’i community, “We’re getting ready to explore how to get some of the lessons online with video as well as activities for families to do throughout the week. And we’re going to have a weekly Zoom gathering of the parents to see how it works, see what they’re learning about this process,” Sapiro says. Videoconferencing tools are also helping a women’s gathering, “Refresh and Gladden,” continue a weekly prayer and meditation space normally held at the school.

The pandemic has challenged plans to produce The Bus Stop, a play that was to be staged as part of the school’s outreach across the region on racial justice, amity, nobility and resilience. However, web conversations centered on the Baha’i teachings on race and the oneness of humanity may well be coming, with the aim of maintaining the “intimate space” that has characterized such conversations up till now.

Other Baha’i centers of learning are similarly planning online support for learning, such as podcasts and web talks.

Especially for centers that are used to functioning as gathering places marked by a spiritual atmosphere and mindful hospitality, it’s a big change in approach. And uncertainty is ahead, as it is everywhere.

Three permanent centers of learning all have canceled programs at least through the end of May by directive of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of the United States, which manages them. They are Green Acre; Bosch Baha’i School near Santa Cruz, California; and Louhelen Baha’i School in Davison, Michigan. All are planning flexibly, to meet needs as best they can regardless of whether the facilities reopen in June.

“It’s a rapidly changing environment,” says Sapiro. “We’re constantly exchanging information.”

Routinely those centers hold Baha’i study and training sessions for all ages, seminars on specialized topics, family gatherings, and regional or local planning meetings for community building. Increasingly they have reached out to neighboring communities for discourse and discussion gatherings as well as the arts and drama. 

Meanwhile, Baha’i seasonal schools, a feature of Baha’i life nationwide for close to a century, are adjusting their plans case by case. Normally, most of these three- to five-day retreats are held from late spring through summer in about 20 states. So far, committees organizing a late April school in Missouri and a September session in Texas report they have suspended or postponed those events.  

The Wilmette Institute, an online distance learning center, decided to expand temporarily beyond its usual college-level study after the staff consulted online with about 20 of its 80 adjunct faculty members on March 15. 

“We really felt an urgent need to try and provide more online educational services that were free,” especially for youth and children, says Robert Stockman, the institute’s director. While many communities continue to bring activities together on web video or in person, “there will be gaps,” especially where Baha’i communities are sparse. “Some people will be too far away from anything local.”   

So task forces were organized to pull together material for a variety of ages. And on March 17 the institute rolled out the first of a series of free informal programs, each centered on multiple webinar-style sessions. When possible faculty are using fresh approaches to lectures and participant interaction. And once each webinar is finished it gets posted on the Wilmette Institute YouTube channel for future use — along with several dozen web talks the institute has presented the past few years. 

The first program has already started. “Community Tech to Cope with Social Distancing” shares how web video and social media can help people locally conduct devotional gatherings, study circles, spiritual education classes and other meetings. 

Upcoming subjects, each with webinars possibly to run weekly, include: 

  • “Baha’i Conversations on Climate Change,” with topics including the urgent nature of action to slow global warming and how the making and consumption of material goods impact the environment throughout their life cycle.

  • “The Divine Educators,” on various religions and their Founders,  

  • “Collaborative Storytelling Adventure,” especially for children and junior youth.

  • “Transformative Leadership for Youth,” a version of a leadership seminar that has been utilized in more than 40 countries in the fields of education, youth empowerment, and public health, among others.   

More webinars and short videos by faculty and friends of the institute are anticipated, and the institute welcomes suggestions and potential volunteers. 

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