The arts have been integral and vibrant throughout the current wave of worldwide conferences taking place across Ontario. In both rural and urban contexts, the over 3000 friends who have so far gathered together in over a dozen conferences have experienced the way “the arts as a whole, so integral a part of the development of a community from the start, stand out in such settings as an important means of generating joy, strengthening bonds of unity, disseminating knowledge, and consolidating understanding, as well as of acquainting those in the wider society with the principles of the Cause.”
Across the panorama of conferences taking place throughout Ontario, one can see the way in which families engaged in community building work are expressing their understanding through the use of the arts. This continues to be expressed in many ways: in small groups exploring themes deeply by creating visual art together as well as through the advance preparation of songs, cultural performances, and even special food. In a number of conferences, Indigenous participants have offered meaningful contributions and across the province, the presence of movement, singing, drumming and dance have uplifted the hearts and generated joy.
Disseminating Knowledge and Consolidating Understanding
Chris Welter, was one of three Indigenous participants who attended the Central East conference, offered an opening prayer as well as a land acknowledgment, which was eloquently described as a way of setting right intentions for both the spirit and the people gathered together at the Bethany Centre for Learning. Prayers in Indigenous languages were shared at the London and Hamilton conferences and a young Mohawk Bahá’í youth performed an Indigenous fancy shawl dance as an expression of her joy to be amongst those at the Sudbury Conference.
In early June, some 120 friends from the Oxford-Perth-Huron and Gray-Bruce clusters held their conference in Stratford. The weekend began with a focus on building vibrant communities with presentations by toddlers, children, junior youth and youth, including songs, a scripted play about truthfulness and dances. Breakout groups then developed a tree mural that highlighted characteristics of a vibrant community. One of the highlights of the conference was the afternoon arts activity focused on educational endeavours. Participants chose whether they wanted to join a dance, drama, spoken word/poetry or visual art group, each of which was intergenerational. When the final pieces were shared, the songs, dance, poetry and visual art that emerged inspired everyone. Each piece was informed by three lines from the fourth paragraph of the 30 December 2021 message of the House of Justice, one of which was: “They are committed to the prosperity of all, recognizing that the welfare of individuals rests in the welfare of society at large.”
On the very same weekend, hearts were burning bright in the Central-East subregion, where 250 active participants both in person and on Zoom thought about their community in a new way: as collaborators awaiting our every effort to engage in creating a vibrant community life. While some created beautiful posters and paintings describing their group’s consultations, others wrote songs with words pulled directly from the material, while still more turned to the arts to describe feelings they had no words for. On Saturday night the participants who were staying on-site or close by enjoyed an arts night around a musical bonfire.
This music set the tone for the following morning, when the participants looked back at the years that have led up to today in the area. A special historical video was prepared for the conference, depicting aspects of the very beginnings of the teaching work in the Central-East subregion. This was an emotional part of the conference for many, and more stories were shared afterwards driving home the message: the work continues. “I remember those days and many of those individuals who were an inspiration to me and my generation,” one participant said.
In Hamilton, this same theme of the distance traversed was explored through the use of a collectively created clothesline of experiences that charted different inflection points in the history of the community. This participatory and visual activity allowed participants to see their efforts reflected in a tangible way, exclaiming “we’ve really come a long way!”
Strengthening Bonds of Unity
In a number of neighbourhood-based conferences across Ontario, it became clear that, while youth have been at the forefront of planning and hosting all aspects of their conferences, their parents are increasingly taking ownership of their own role in the community building process and contributing in manifold ways through engaging in the arts.
At the conference in the Kipps’ Lane neighbourhood of London, a group of Nepali families stayed up until the early hours of the morning preparing Momo, a traditional handmade dumpling for the over 200 people gathered.
In the McQuesten neighbourhood of Hamilton, the youth participants, gathered in a circle of chairs, delved into a discussion regarding their role in their neighbourhood—in a space they’d designed and decorated themselves. Through engaging with the conference material, the junior youth decided to start a small vegetable garden in the back of the Neighbourhood Centre, with seedlings donated by the Urban Farm in McQuesten. The arts, especially collective drumming and singing played an important part. At lunch time there was a drumming circle that drew some neighbours and parents. The atmosphere was truly energizing for everyone who participated.
The three Toronto neighbourhood conferences, which were each attended by some 150-200 friends, all had youth at the heart of the planning process. In the West neighbourhood conference, one group of parents thoughtfully studied unit 3 of Book 7 about the arts at the grassroots and, as a result, recognized their feelings of loss around African culture in their children. This led them to work together to rehearse and prepare a beautiful Nigerian dance, which touched the hearts of many at the conference.
In the North of Toronto, made up of several neighbourhood pockets, youth have been at the centre of the community building process since 2006. One conference attendee reflected:
“Here, you have young people who are adults, who have been fully raised in the institute process. The distance traversed was a very powerful theme in that context. Many of them spent weeks preparing arts and music to offer at the conference. There was such a spirit of joy because it was carried by so many. Through the arts you could really feel vibrant culture and how youth are at the centre of a community but how all the generations are behind each other. That was so powerful to witness. To see the diversity of culture and life circumstances and realities and how intentionally people were welcoming and including one another.”
A group of youth in the Peanut pocket who were studying the second book of the sequence of courses composed what became a theme song for the conference. This was pre-recorded so it could easily be shared and learned by all those who gathered along with a number of other songs they had composed. One song included the quote “the purpose for which mortal men have, from utter nothingness, stepped into the realm of being, is that they may work for the betterment of the world.” A family from the Roywood pocket prepared a dance to a Nigerian song about ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, which was also taught to everyone, who joyfully got up to participate.
At the conference that took place in the South-East of Toronto, youth stayed up late silk screening t-shirts by hand that were given to each participant. The beautiful full colour layout of the conference materials, which included visual artwork from those in the program, was also put together by the youth. They invited participants from all the activities to display their artwork as a gallery in the plenary space. Children had their artwork projected on a large screen during plenary sessions as they described its significance. A number of youth prepared and performed traditional Nepali and Indian dances in traditional dress, which touched the hearts of the many parents that attended the conference. In addition to the creation of dramas and posters throughout the small group spaces at the conference, an ongoing intergenerational textile-art project that involved sewing and embroidery around the theme of “a simple strand of love” served as a gathering place for participants of all ages. As friends sat together and worked to thread a needle or compose their piece, they encouraged one another with the making process. On the final afternoon, participants worked together on a collective clean-up service project to beautify the school grounds, and the conference concluded with a jubilant all-ages dance party on stage.
In order to allow the widest circle of friends to participate, the conference in Springdale, Brampton was spread over three days. During the first weekend, tents went up to host a ‘mela’, a common tradition in the neighbourhood among South Asians which translates to community festival. The purpose of the mela was to extend the first theme of Bahá’u’lláh’s vision for humanity to the population, introduce families to the core activities offered, and continue to register friends for the conference the following weekend.
Knowing that the community had a vision of what a mela has looked like historically, the team consulted with families on home visits about the types of activities that reflected the cultures present in the neighbourhood. One mother shared how, “Melas are not just for the children and young people. There should be activities that include the adults and grandparents because they are part of the community too. They should enjoy themselves too!” One activity was rangoli, a traditional Indian art form that enabled the parents to reflect on the vibrancy of the community. Specifically, they and their children reflected on how the work of building a better world will require the contributions of everyone. A mother who was with her daughter shared, “When my daughter talks about what she is doing for the community, I always think it is good. But I didn’t really think I could do things like that. When we kept talking more today about how helping the community needs many people working together, using their talents and doing what they can, I saw a bit more how I can do it. One of the youth showed me how my cooking, or making cha for the people in the camp is the way I am also contributing. And I love cooking! It’s more about how we all work together in whatever way we can.”
The joyful conversations were illuminated by reflecting on the quotation “Ye are all the fruits of one tree, the leaves of one branch, the flowers of one garden.” To help the community recognize the beauty and vibrancy of everyone’s contributions, the parents came together and created diverse flowers with the rangoli. As the flowers were being made, conversations around the progress of children and efforts to support youth filled the air. A mother who had been standing on the sidelines watching was so attracted by the art being created that she slowly made her way over to the table and contributed to the collective pieces as well.
The rangoli gave the parents a creative medium to advance their understanding around the community-building efforts and foster friendships as they worked together. One of the mothers who was present at the mela and expressed a lot of excitement was approached to create a design that could be used to guide the rangoli in the following days. “The most beautiful rangoli is made very big and everyone helps to make it together,” she shared. She sat with her family and the visiting tutor to think about the concepts that would be presented at the conference and how the pattern could reflect the same spirit. At the conference, the rangoli supplies were set out and without instruction, were quickly being utilized as friends arrived for the formal program to begin.
The joy and energy being released throughout Ontario comes through in the reflections of a participant from the Ottawa conference, which had over 700 attendees. As the final weeks of this wave of conferences unfolds, many are reminding one another:
“This is not a one-off. This is not a project. This conference was a large, but still a single, step forward in welcoming ever-larger numbers of people to join us in the work of constructing prosperous, purposeful and profoundly engaged communities right where we live.”
 Universal House of Justice, 30 December 2021