The Stony Path to the Second Milestone in Sault Ste. Marie

Written by Chandyn Bachiu

Kalila Hamilton-Bachiu (left), Chandyn Hamilton-Bachiu (right), and Louisa van Lith in the middle. This photo was taken November 2019 during the community’s celebration of the Bicentenary of the Birth of the Báb.

Louisa van Lith has lived in Sault Ste. Marie (Soo) for almost her whole life. In the spring of 2019, through reading the guidance of the Universal House of Justice, she realized that herculean effort was needed in order to help those in the Soo begin to establish the activities that would truly help their community develop both materially and spiritually. With that came the realization that these efforts would need outside resources and assistance, and a lot of personal sacrifice. So she sat down with her husband, Frank van Lith, for a consultation. “The initial step was asking ourselves: were we ready for the sacrifice that was needed if we were to arise and serve? Do I really want the full weight of Bahá’u’lláh’s assistance to come to me?” Louisa says, “Because I believe that if you ask, it will come. So we had to brace ourselves for the sacrifice to our daily pattern of life if we walk through every door that Bahá’u’lláh opens.” Louisa realized that these efforts would need outside resources and assistance, and a lot of personal sacrifice.

For many Bahá’ís labouring in their communities, a number of milestones of growth have been useful in structuring the progress of the work. These function as indicators of how rooted certain processes have become in the community, particularly the establishment of activities such as children’s classes, study circles and junior youth groups. Reaching these milestones is not about checking a box, but about the extent to which the uplifting powers released by the Creative Word of God are present in a community. Over the past two years, a small band of friends in the remote Northern cluster of Sault Ste. Marie have been working hard to achieve the second milestone.

The question arose then: how do we start? Having now gone through the process, Louisa says the steps were to: “Consult with people who have successfully started a program. Look for members who are interested in moving forward with that kind of commitment; be open to whatever that commitment might look like. Ask yourself if you’re ready for that level of intensity to come to your community. If you’re eager for it, ask for help, and start walking the steps (they are concrete if you ask for guidance). The activities are hard to understand when looking at them; you only grasp the process once you’ve gone through it.” 

Applying this wisdom, assistance came from the Sudbury cluster, another Northern cluster that acts as the reservoir cluster to many Northern communities. Myself and my sister, Kalila, who have been involved in activities in Sudbury, arose to serve in Sault Ste. Marie, and Louisa and Frank offered their home as a place for us to stay. And so, in the summer of 2019, a small group of us went to the Soo and started to meet youth and their families in the focus neighbourhood of Parkland. 

From September through December the program gathered momentum, soon engaging some 50 junior youth. A nucleus was formed around the two youth, Louisa, and another friend from the American side of the community, Holly Morrison. The entire Sault community had arisen around this nucleus of activity. Those not able to directly participate in service provided monetary support and assistance in the form of rides and food and prayers. The community members even took turns acting as adult supervisors during the junior youth group. “Having this particular project gave a focus for activity,” Louisa says. 

The program continued up to the beginning of Covid-19 in March 2020. At that time, the activities fell for many reasons, and the pandemic proved too much of an obstacle to continue. The youth moved back to Sudbury and for a while the Soo community focused on the pattern of Feasts and devotionals, this time online. 

In the summer of 2020, the restrictions had loosened a bit with a small reprieve in the steady rise of cases in the North. The Sudbury-Sault friends took this opportunity to strengthen the institute process alongside renewing the junior youth program in Parkland. Despite many obstacles, the friends rallied enough to engage some ten youth from Parkland in the study of Ruhi Book 1. After this last (but vital) aspect of a programme of growth was established, it was clear that the conditions of the second milestone were met. 

After a two-week visit from the Sudbury friends that summer, the Sault team sustained the junior youth program and study of the Ruhi materials outdoors in the fall, while the weather was still warm. However, the absence of a space where activities could be held, and the shifting conditions of the raging pandemic, proved too big a challenge for the small team to sustain these activities.

In the summer of 2021, Louisa and the Soo community steeled themselves and resolved to be systematic in action. The Sudbury team came again and old roots were dug up in the youth and junior youth. They faced new challenges: families that were previously engaged in the program had moved away, and the pandemic continued to rear its ugly head. However, this time when the Sudbury friends departed, Louisa and Frank remained adamant in their commitment. Rain or shine, regardless of attendance, they insisted on holding the group.

Being systematic in action is difficult, and can sometimes feel discouraging. Louisa reflects: “I was wondering when I was going to see success in the group. I wondered: Are we doing it right?” However, she realized that she should steer away from the notion of success, because it takes time to see the fruits of the seeds she was planting in the junior youth. “Four years is how long Sudbury’s been doing it, to see the fruits. How do you know if what you’re doing is successful? Time is all it takes… all this discouragement: put it in perspective: you’re not going to see transformation after 8 classes.” And in an impromptu park meeting this past weekend, the first glimmerings of these fruits were shown in the junior youth as they sat in the dimming evening, collaboratively and joyfully recounting the tale of Rose and Musonda in “Breezes of Confirmation”. 

This systematic pattern is both challenging and rewarding. Louisa, always planning, is already looking at the reality of the group as it heads into the winter months. Can they maintain their inspiring, systematic activity in the deep, dark cold of winter? We will have to see. The words of the Master come to mind as we think of their continued efforts, “My only joy in this swiftly passing world was to tread the stony path of God and to endure hard tests and all material griefs.”[1] And, for now the friends in the Soo are a torch burning brightly in the rugged, vast expanse of Northern Ontario.

[1] ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá

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