The Oxford-Perth cluster first advanced beyond a couple dozen activities just last year, through holding more frequent institute campaigns every cycle. These regular institute campaigns strengthened a dynamic youth movement and opened pockets in the cluster to children’s classes and junior youth groups, and soon the cluster could see a path towards the vision of establishing 100 core activities in the cluster by Ridván 2021. When the pandemic hit, however, they had to consider what other possibilities of growth lay before them Between July and October 2020, following the 10th July 2020 letter from the National Spiritual Assembly, the cluster has doubled the number of devotional gatherings occuring and experienced a corresponding growth in participation.
At the outset of the pandemic, a number of older friends from the cluster lost their employment and had free time on weekdays. They decided to spend time studying the Writings together. Through their study of Ruhi Book 11.1 Material Means, the participants explored the concept of generosity. They studied how generosity flows outwards, but also implies a more inward generosity, and this led them to a collective decision:
“We were looking for a way to practice what we were learning in our intensive study. At the beginning of the pandemic, there were ways we could assist materially, say, with the food bank in Stratford…but it turned out that they were actually overwhelmed at that time. So, we then talked about how generosity could be different. It could also be offered in a spiritual sense, for example, by offering hope. But how could we offer something without leaving our homes? We started thinking, perhaps we could use this virtual platform to share the Revelation of Baha’u’llah with others. This is actually a real gift we can offer those around us.”
The group realized that generosity could be practiced through inviting friends into the realm of the heart. The implications of applying their learning from this higher-level book were then supported by the next book they decided to study, Ruhi Book 10.2, Consultation. The group naturally began to consult on what they were learning from their online devotional gatherings: the length of the devotionals, thematic content, the approach to invitations, and questions such as how to infuse an online space with reverence.
The group had also begun to hold daily dawn prayers at the start of the pandemic. As the weather improved in the spring, they distributed physical invitations to invite more friends to join, when socially distant visits became possible. At first, two or three people attended the dawn prayers each day, and eventually grew to up to fifteen participants, including a number of friends of the Faith. The group thought deeply about the quality of the conversations they were having, as even those invitations were precious moments to connect with people. “How could we impart hope like the House of Justice described in the Ridván letter? How could we let people know this is a Source they can come to for joy and comfort?” One of the hosts of the devotional gathering reflected that:
“The pandemic seems to have offered us time to slow down. We’re always so busy. I saw this in the willingness of people to come into the devotional space. Being a little tentative and not knowing who is going to be there, what it will be like. But there was the ease of attending from home, to not be on camera initially but still have that sense of connection. Some elderly friends have been very ill too, but still attend every morning.”
Strengthening a pattern of devotional life in the cluster is also leading to additional spaces for study. Each morning, dawn prayers last for approximately twenty minutes, but the group noticed that people wanted to stay and chat. They have since dedicated the Monday session as a longer time, where guidance or a theme from Book 2 is studied.
These efforts have ultimately engaged almost all the believers in the Oxford-Perth cluster who, though living far from one another across the county, reconnected through prayer. As a result, attendance at Feast has increased and many have noted greater vibrancy in the cluster. The tutor of the Ruhi Book 11.1 and 10.2 study, Oonagh Vaucrosson, reflected on what seemed to bind the hearts in this group, which later began seeing themselves as a nucleus.
“Beyond personal prayer, the regular practice of connecting to the Word of God in a space with others is transformative. We’re really thinking about the guidance related to how we interact with one another, beyond what is the normal socially accepted standard, you know? This idea of “let your heart burn with loving kindness” is a very FULL heart opening. It’s saying, “I’m IN this”. Before the pandemic, many of the friends said they were used to being reserved, of holding themselves back. Regularly connecting day by day in this way was transformative. And through that process, there was a realization, that if we want to have others open up, we have to open up too. Even if children and youth are the focus at times, we all have valuable work in expressing the Cause and sharing it.”
Thus, the pandemic has offered moments of both crisis and victory. Pre-pandemic, the growth of a number of activities were largely on the shoulders of youth and mothers of young families. These have also continued in a different form, according to present conditions. The generality of the believers would support periodically by offering rides or meals, but the pandemic has shifted circumstances for many of the friends, opening new vistas to the older Bahá’ís in the cluster.
You can read more reflections on this experience at Oonagh Vaucrosson’s blog here.
You can also read more about the impact of intergenerational friendships emerging in the Oxford-Perth cluster here.