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Following tragedy, New Zealand’s Baha’is work for unity, healing

Baha'i New Zealand
A group of young people draw chalk art on a sidewalk in Christchurch. A group of families involved in Baha’i community building activities in a neighborhood began the street art activity to inspire hope following the 15 March terror attacks.

In the weeks after a deadly terror attack, the people of New Zealand, still in mourning and shock, are responding with a newfound resolve and dedication to eradicate prejudice and hatred from their society.

Public expressions of solidarity—including a nationally-broadcast memorial gathering Friday afternoon in Christchurch’s Hagley Park—highlight the spiritual qualities of the people, such as unity, tolerance, and kindness.

Amid the country’s outpouring of both grief and support for the 50 victims killed and 50 injured, the Baha’i community has joined its fellow citizens in efforts to promote mutual respect and social harmony. In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of New Zealand released a public statement condemning the attacks, expressing its profound sorrow, and conveying its hope that the tragedy will catalyze efforts to work toward peace, unity, and social inclusion. The National Assembly also encouraged the Baha’is “not to despair, but work steadily and show love to all,” in a letter dated 16 March.

“We wanted to encourage the Baha’i community, and indeed the people of Aotearoa New Zealand, to see through their deep shock to glimmerings of hope and to rally their energies towards drawing upon sources of spiritual strength to work towards a more united country where such a terrible act could never again occur,” explained Suzanne Mahon, the Secretary of the National Assembly.

Baha'i Street Art
This photo shows some of the hopeful and loving messages in the street art.

In Christchurch, some 20 individuals involved in Baha’i community-building activities in a neighborhood where some of the victims lived met the day after the attacks to consult on how to offer meaningful support. First, they decided to visit their neighboring families who had been struck by the tragedy to offer condolences and support. Also, adults, youth, and children in the neighborhood collectively initiated a street art project, writing hopeful and loving messages on sidewalks, using chalk. Their creative expression quickly caught on as others throughout the city were inspired to contribute to the sidewalk art. Messages included, “We are flowers of one garden” and statements about the importance of unity.

“This simple action that children, youth, and adults were able to take part in was an expression of love and solidarity and provided a wide range of people an outlet to express themselves in a meaningful way,” added Vahid Qualls, who assists with the neighborhood’s activities and is a member of the National Assembly.

Two days after the attack, the local Baha’i community of Christchurch dedicated its Sunday morning devotional gathering to those lost in the tragedy, their families, and communities.

The Baha’i community’s annual Race Unity Speech Awards, co-organized with the national police and other partners since 2001, will come at a crucial time this year. “We knew before that racial and religious prejudice can lead to hate and tragic violence, and that the work of promoting unity is serious and vital. But never before has it seemed so urgent,” said Aidan MacLeod, one of the event organizers.

Baha'i Race Unity
Students perform a haka, a dance traditional to the Maori people of New Zealand, during the 2017 Race Unity Speech Awards.

“People in New Zealand are now talking frankly about racial prejudice and the need for unity. People are saying that we have been too complacent. There’s a desire for both reflection and decisive action,” Mr. MacLeod added.

The annual event includes a special program in which high school students give speeches about race unity. This year, there will also be two conferences for youth throughout the country to discuss their efforts to work toward a more just and peaceful society.

New Zealand Baha'i
The New Zealand Baha’i community co-organizes a conference for youth alongside its annual Race Unity Speech Awards. Here, participants in last year’s conference consult during a small group session. (Credit: Tom Mackintosh)

Among many other developments, 16 religious leaders in New Zealand, including a Baha’i representative, sent a message of love and support to the Muslim community on Friday.

“Under such an onslaught we religious leaders are keenly aware of our need ... to draw upon the deepest resources of our diverse spiritualities and traditions. In this, the targeted Muslim people have themselves given noble and generous examples,” the religious representatives wrote.

Baha’is in New Zealand are also seeing at this time the power of devotional gatherings. The National Assembly encouraged the Baha’is to see devotional gatherings as “sources of spiritual strength over the coming weeks and months for thousands of New Zealanders.” Devotional gatherings offer a space to make the profound connection between prayer and selfless deeds that promote the betterment of humanity.



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