Continental, National, and Local Houses of Worship
With the dedication of the House of Worship in Wilmette in 1953, the Guardian called for the construction of mother temples on other continents and, as Bahá’í National Assemblies were established in countries around the world, for the acquisition of lands to be used for future national temples. Like the North American House of Worship, these Mashriqu’l-Adhkárs represented beacons—visible manifestations of what will, over time, emerge in countless communities throughout the world. In contrast to the House of Worship in ‘Ishqábád, these continental temples did not emerge from matrices of intense local activity; rather, they represented a vision of worship and service to which emerging national Bahá’í communities in all parts of the world could orient themselves. They emerged over decades, their development guided by Shoghi Effendi and the Universal House of Justice: Africa (Kampala, Uganda) and Australia (Sydney) in 1961, Europe (Langenhain, Germany) in 1964, Central America (Panama City) in 1972, Oceania (Apia, Samoa) in 1984, and the Indian Subcontinent (Bahapur, New Delhi) in 1986. Only the South American Temple remained for many years unbuilt, and it was not until October 2016 that some 3,000 people from around the world gathered in Santiago, Chile, for its dedication—a moment that marked the culmination of a process set in motion over a century before.
By this time, the Bahá’í world community had embarked on a further stage in the development of the institution of the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár. In 2001, in its annual message to the Bahá’í world on the occasion of the Festival of Riḍván, the Universal House of Justice not only announced the construction of this final continental House of Worship, it also heralded the launch of a long-term process of raising up … national Houses of Worship, as circumstances in national communities permit; 11 years later, at Riḍván 2012, it identified the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Papua New Guinea as the first two sites. This was an historic development, but there was more: in that same message, the House of Justice also announced that the first local Houses of Worship would be constructed in Battambang, Cambodia; Bihar Sharif, India; Matunda Soy, Kenya; Norte del Cauca, Colombia; and Tanna, Vanuatu. Progress on two of these local temples was very swift, and in September 2017—less than a year after the dedication of the final continental House of Worship—the world’s first local Bahá’í Mashriqu’l-Adhkár was dedicated in Battambang; this was followed, in July 2018, by the second, in Norte de Cauca, and plans are currently underway for the construction of the remaining three local and the two national temples.
To explore the reasons why the construction of these national and local Mashriqu’l-Adhkárs is timely and to understand their significance, it is helpful to examine the way they are described by the world-governing body. This will also aid us to reflect how the current process differs from efforts to build places of worship in previous religious dispensations.
In its message to those gathered for the dedication of the Santiago House of Worship, the Universal House of Justice described how the Bahá’í community in the city, supported by Bahá’ís from other communities throughout North, Central, and South America, learned how to prepare the surrounding population for the emergence of the House of Worship; this involved developing the capacity to engage increasing numbers of the city’s population to participate systematically in community-building endeavours and to sustain their actions over time. Through these efforts, visitors began to go to the Temple both to pray and to consult about the practical and spiritual dimensions of the enterprise. Through such means, construction and grassroots expansion efforts were for the first time united, marking a pivotal point in the global temple-building process.
This emphasis on the preparation of the population for the emergence of the Temple is related to the processes of growth that have been pursued persistently and unitedly by the Bahá’í world community since 1996 as the latest stage in its global program of expansion and consolidation—processes that can be viewed as the latest stage in a systematic process to spread the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh to all the peoples of the world. From the inception of the Faith, its teachings were carried afar by lone travelling teachers; during the time of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, efforts became more focused, as individuals arose to travel or pioneer in the far-flung countries or territories mentioned by Him in His Charter for the expansion of the Bahá’í community throughout the world, the Tablets of the Divine Plan. Under the direction of Shoghi Effendi, the diffusion was further broadened, as Bahá’ís settled and worked to establish communities in many more locations. Over time, these communities have taken root and flourished to the point where, during the past two decades, their members have learned how to effectively engage with friends, neighbors, coworkers, acquaintances, and receptive populations to work with them for the common weal.
In its Riḍván 2012 letter, the Universal House of Justice wrote:
… Humanity is weary for want of a pattern of life to which to aspire; we look to you to foster communities whose ways will give hope to the world.
To this end, Bahá’ís have focused on four core community-building areas: the enhancement of the devotional character of the community, particularly through the holding of gatherings where all are welcome to join in prayer, meditation, and the sharing of inspirational and sacred readings from their own faiths and traditions; the spiritual education of children; a program for the moral and spiritual empowerment of young adolescents; and the study of materials that will develop participants’ capacities to become protagonists themselves in these community-building processes.
Efforts to establish this pattern of life, which the Universal House of Justice describes as a spiritual endeavour, one in which the whole community participates, unite both worship and service. Here, one can see the connection to the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár, which, Wherever it is established, … will naturally be an integral component of the process of community building that surrounds it—an awareness that is growing in localities where Houses of Worship are emerging. While these core activities are all intertwined, the one that is first encouraged and forms the basis of the eventual emergence of a local House of Worship is the holding of devotional gatherings—its seeds.
In some countries, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Papua New Guinea, these seeds have grown to the extent that the movement of entire populations toward the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh is becoming evident; thus, giving physical shape to the spiritual reality through the construction of a national House of Worship is timely. And as these teachings penetrate deeper and deeper into the soil of society, more national Houses of Worship will emerge. A similar process is visible in some small geographic areas (called clusters) such as Battambang, Bihar Sharif, Matunda Soy, Norte del Cauca, and Tanna that have facilitated the raising up of great numbers of protagonists in the community-building activities within a concentrated space. As the Universal House of Justice noted at Riḍván 2012, The correlation of worship and service is especially pronounced in those clusters around the world where Bahá’í communities have significantly grown in size and vitality, and where engagement in social action is apparent. In such instances, the construction of a House of Worship becomes a logical extension of their efforts.
Clearly, much is being learned through these undertakings, and more will be written about them in the coming years. As such universal places of worship are given shape in more and more communities, providing for all inhabitants a haven for the deepest contemplation on spiritual reality and foundational questions of life, including individual and collective responsibility for the betterment of society and serving as an integral part of the process of community building,members of the Bahá’í community are aware that ceaseless cooperation and mutual support as well as sacrifice must be the hallmark of their efforts. This, they have embraced in a spirit of joy and with a profound commitment to the process, eager to nurture communities of spiritual distinction and to galvanize an entire people to reach for a more profound sense of unified purpose.
By Ann Boyles