Most of my readers are aware by now that I am an unenrolled Baha'i, practicing my faith without being a formal part of the administrative order. Since people sometimes share with me their own frustrating experiences in the community, I thought I would share my own approach. I would caution you that there are no magic answers, no easy way to make things better, but if we can support and help one another, then we can all advance on the Path.
TAKE CARE OF YOUR SPIRITUAL HEALTH
Your own relationship with God is the center of everything; it must come before any sort of attempt to change the community. It is, remember, the reason why we were created. Keep your prayer life going; read the Writings. If your devotional life isn't meaningful, then find a way to make it meaningful. One thing that helped me tremendously was the discovery of new, provisional translations of the Writings available on the web. Each new translation helps us know Baha'u'llah that much better.
It is important to realize that no matter what the Baha'i administration or your local community does or doesn't do, they can't take the love of Baha'u'llah out of your heart. The institutions are irrelevant when it comes to your spiritual life.
BUILD A SUPPORT NETWORK
Make and/or keep contacts with people who think like you do. A few old-time local friends are worth their weight in gold. If you can't find anyone locally, then join Baha'i email forums where you can make friends. If you aren't accustomed to Baha'i cyberspace, you will be amazed at the diversity and dynamism that exists in the Baha'i community. We are often so isolated in our little communities that we think all Baha'is are alike. A cyberspace community doesn't replace a real one, but it beats the heck out of being alone. I have heard more than one person say that their cyberspace community was what kept them from withdrawing from the Faith entirely.
GET EDUCATED ON THE ISSUES
The biggest issue concerning Baha'i community life is that it is centered on administration instead of the mashriq'u'l-adhkar (House of Worship). This is supposed to be a local institution co-equal with the local "House of Justice" (spiritual assembly). This is the spiritual and charitable center many people are missing. The Baha'i Library has a compilation on the mashriq, along with some articles on the topic. I found that Writings and articles on the mashriq'u'l-adhkar gave me more hope than anything else I read since resigning my membership.
If you are upset over something else that seems to be a permanent feature of the Baha'i Faith, you may find that the Writings allow more ways of looking at it than you think. Do your homework, before you give up on the Faith.
WORK FOR CONSTRUCTIVE CHANGE
How much influence you have on your community varies a good deal with your local situation, and even your own personality. However, if you can find any way to do it, then try to deepen your community on the mashriq'u'l-adhkar and push for that spiritual focus. Remember that the mashriq is the spiritual community, not the building, so there's nothing stopping you from creating that locally. If necessary, just hold spiritual meetings with a few close friends, or even just one if that's all you can get. Be creative and experiment with different ways of making these meetings meaningful, without worrying about what you are "supposed" to do. If your friends find inspiration in Christian hymns or Sufi whirling, then go for it! Even if all you do is come together to share gripes, give support, and say a few prayers, then it's a start towards building a real community. This way you can build an alternative model for what community life can be: mashriq-centered, not assembly-centered.
While I would never recommend to anyone that they leave the Baha'i community, or even that they become inactive, I do think a person should stay away from activities they find frustrating. That's how the anger and disillusionment build up. If you'd rather be horse-whipped than sit through one more LSA meeting, then for heaven's sake, don't go! So what if they can't get a quorum; it's not worth your mental health. Tell them to find another person to fill the office you are holding, but offer to do something that is more meaningful to you and congenial to your temperament and abilities. It's not your problem if they can't find anyone else to be Treasurer. Maybe you can interest them in your spiritual meetings instead. Don't be guilt-tripped into taking on jobs you hate; there are more important things about being a Baha'i than whatever project the community is doing anyway.
I have, for the most part, been assuming that the quality of community life is the primary reason for most disillusionment. However, if your main concern is one of the broader issues: exclusion of women from the House of Justice, censorship, due process for those accused of violations etc. then the course you take depends very much upon your own courage and the strength of your convictions. The Baha'i administrative order has proven itself to be implacably opposed to any sort of structural reform and is quite ruthless in its dealings with dissenters. Anyone who takes a stand on these could be putting their good standing, or even membership, in the community at risk.
Author's note: This article first appeared on Themestream December 18, 2000.
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