“I can give this year to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá!” Dedicated Service in Thunder Bay

Written by Carolyne Dowdell

Our family moved to Thunder Bay in 1987 with the desire to serve and a love for Northern Ontario. I retired about three years ago now and I’ve been doing whatever I can to serve. I’ve realized that this, the Faith, is my passion. 

Thunder Bay, Ontario, (Photo: Unsplash)

Over the course of the pandemic, the northern subregion has evolved a lot, our identity is strengthened and connecting over Zoom and studying together has really helped. To give you an idea of distance across the north, Thunder Bay is a 12-hour drive west of Sudbury. It’s so beautiful here on the shores of Lake Superior, surrounded by nature. 

There’s a growing sense of momentum too.  Between last December and April of this year, the number of core activities in Thunder Bay went from 16 to 22 and the number of participants from 29 to 57.

Deciding to Serve

Even though I made the decision to serve in Northern Ontario many years ago, I’ve certainly been very inspired by Rebecca Hamilton-Bachiu and her daughters in Sudbury who offered a year of service. I realized that my love of service has never diminished and that I, too, can do a year of service here in my cluster. 

This idea came to me after reading the Winnipeg Bahá’í newsletter, where they were inviting people of all ages to consider periods of service. I thought, “Hey, that’s something I can do!” 

I tried it out in the cycle before I made the decision. We had an expansion phase in Thunder Bay in January and February and I thought, “I’m going to treat this expansion phase like I’m serving full time!” 

Everyday I made a plan of things I was going to do. We were having a morning devotional by then and I would ask myself: who can I visit and what can I read or study? I started keeping track of what I did, which helped me to step up and intensify. I’m also serving as the Institute Coordinator here, so there were many things supporting me. The Ontario-Wide Ruhi Book 1 Study in the fall was really beautiful and led to the Northern Book 1 study and then to a Book 2 Study. In the interim, Sudbury has pushed on to the third milestone!

Working with Children in the Windsor Neighbourhood

The first initiatives in Thunder Bay’s Windsor neighbourhood started about 10 years ago by a small group of youth familiar with the junior youth program, who did outreach and started building friendships. As fall came that year, there were challenges with meeting space and maintaining relationships. Within a few years, a small junior youth group formed and was sustained for several years, and a couple of us started a children’s group. In the summer of 2017, more intensive activity started after two young adults attended a study of Books 1 and 5 in Toronto.  We were excited about this opportunity to learn, and after their return a team was formed with more focus. We were also joined by a few youth from southern Ontario which really enriched our efforts.  Many new friendships were made and we were able to use one of the neighbourhood townhouses that had been set aside for community use for activities. The children’s group continued with a strong focus on arts and activities, and we held a kind of open house with 15-20 kids, many of whom came in groups, often taking care of their siblings. We did that for a few years. Then, there was an issue and the centre got shut down temporarily. Our resources were minimal and there wasn’t a sustainable process with youth animators yet. We’ve had the children’s class since, though with COVID, the space hasn’t been accessible regularly. 

I was just out in the neighbourhood yesterday and it was such a great time! I ran into the four families whose children attend the classes and was able to chat with all of them about resuming activities as Covid restrictions relax.  While visiting that day I also ran into two of the children who were in our children’s classes who are now youth! One young woman ran up to me to say hi and when she saw me, you could just feel the love we’ve had for these kids over the years. There’s this feeling of things coalescing now! 

There have been a lot of lessons for us over these last ten years in the neighbourhood. The children would sort of all float in and they would know we would be there at that time. That was a great way to gather. Once we’d had our gathering and colouring time together, then we would say a prayer, sing some songs and play games.  We’ve had a few stops and starts along the way. When we made it too complicated, we lost our momentum. Recently, we’ve decided to start with kids who are 8 and 9 so we can transition them into junior youth. Now they’re 9 and 10 and we’ll soon start with the junior youth texts. 

Thunder Bay, Ontario, (Photo: Unsplash)

An Assembly in a Mode of Learning

The feeling of momentum also extends to the Local Assembly, on which I serve. We’ve had comments amongst ourselves, that something feels different in the spirit of our meetings. In the June 4th letter from the National Spiritual Assembly to Members of Local Assemblies, they invited us to “find ways to strengthen the pattern of functioning” and how “the insights and capabilities that emerge from each member’s participation in the teaching work will increasingly enrich the Assembly’s consultation.”  They described time as being our most precious resource, and how: 

“The priorities of an Assembly, its agenda and communications and even its rhythm of meetings, can be re-imagined, shaped by its reading of the reality of the community in a mode of learning through study, consultation, action and reflection.”[1]

A gift-wrapped box (Photo: Unsplash)
A gift-wrapped box (Photo: Unsplash)

This is really happening in Thunder Bay! We recently mailed an actual letter to every Bahá’í household during the pandemic, saying we are here, and we are concerned about you. If there’s anything we can do, please call on us. It touched people very deeply, people we hadn’t seen for a long time. Then, we decided to hand deliver a box of chocolates for Ayyam-í-Há as a simple gift to each household. I did some of these visits and had the most beautiful experiences with Bahá’ís we hadn’t seen in a long while. Inspired by this letter from the NSA, the Assembly has decided to reach out to the friends again about what activities they’d like to engage in. 

Our ‘northern spirit’ team is also meeting again every week. Five of us are studying Book 10.1: Accompanying One Another on a Path of Service for just half an hour before we plan. We invite others to help as we go, and two of us are focused on the neighbourhood children’s class. Then we can come together to reflect and act, week by week as an expanding nucleus.

We had 15 core activities in December and our goal by April was to have 20. When we got to the reflection gathering we realized we actually had 22, but then people were just casually talking about 10 other new activities they were planning to start, so we were close to 32. We had set very low goals…but now we see that we can achieve a lot here.

One notable thing that we saw in our statistics is that we doubled the number of participants in core activities and also we doubled the number of friends from the wider community. I see that we could easily double again!

[1] National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of Canada, To Members of Local Spiritual Assemblies, July 4th, 2021

Get in touch with the neighbourhood team in this story, or share your own learning with Ontario Baha’i here.