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An Informal History of a Rural Baha'i Community

The history of the Baha'i faith has tended to focus on prominent individuals, and large national communities. The few local histories that exist are of old, relatively large and well-established communities. What I'm attempting to do here is tell a small, local story - typical in some ways, atypical in others. It is, after all, the local experience that impacts the life of the individual Baha'i the most, and that experience is very often overlooked. This history is based upon my own personal experiences: my memory, notes I took through the years, stories I've been told by local Baha'is, and information I gleaned when I was Secretary of an LSA (1985-87).

It is impossible to tell the story without referring to individuals, by to protect their privacy, any names I use will be invented. For the same reason, I will not reveal the location of the county. The reader should also note that all of the people I mention are multi-dimensional human beings, some of whom I've known over a long period of time. In this paper I criticize some of their actions, but I am also aware that every one I mention here is, in his or her own way, a lover of Baha'u'llah that did the best they knew how.

The County's population was between 40,000 and 50,000 during the period from 1970 to the present. The City currently has a population of 13,000. There are also two smaller incorporated cities of 8,000 and 400. Neither of them developed a Baha'i community of any kind, but each was home to an "isolated believer", including myself. The County was also divided into two judicial districts initially, which was changed into one municipal court district by state proposition in 1994. The localities important to this story are the largest city, and the unincorporated area immediately surrounding it -- the JD community.

The first Baha'i in the county was not a pioneer, but a native son. Fred Williams became a Baha'i while stationed overseas in the military in 1972. He said many times that the Baha'is there told him "Don't go back to the States, they'll administrate you to death." He returned home, however, and later married Donna, who at the time had no idea of his religious beliefs, and was a fundamentalist Christian. Fred did not inform the nearest LSA about his wedding plans, but someone did. He got a phone call from the Secretary of the LSA on his wedding day begging him to reconsider, and later received a formal letter waring him that failure to have a proper Baha'i wedding would cost him his administrative rights. On this letter, he wrote the words "Kiss my butt" and sent it back to them. Naturally, he paid the penalty for this bit of bravado. However, his geographical isolation meant that the loss of voting rights was not very troublesome to him, and it was brief in any case. Eventually, he did tell Donna about the Faith, and when she became a Baha'i, they had the required Baha'i marriage ceremony. By the late 70s, both of them were active in a local Baha'i group. Partly because of this incident, partly because of a strong anti-authoritarian streak in his nature, Fred remains very suspicious of Baha'i authorities.

From the mid to late 70s sporadic attempts were made by pioneers from large urban areas to establish a Baha'i community in the county. The most successful attempt for which records exist lasted from 1978-1982. The impression I've been given is that this tiny community was dominated by young people who came in during the massive influx of youth into the Baha'i Faith in the early 70s. In theory, these pioneers are supposed to "teach the Faith" and bring in enough new converts to establish an LSA, but these early efforts were unsuccessful, and the young missionaries left in disappointment. The local believers left behind were either unwilling or unable to organize without this outside support, and I've been unable to discover any evidence of Baha'i community activity between 1982 and 1985.

In the late spring of 1985 two Baha'i couples moved into the City and began taking steps to organize again. I myself became a Baha'i that summer just as the group was forming. That fall, John and Julia Reardon moved into the City and the first LSA was formed. John had been the chariman of the LSA in the nearby college town that has the largest and best organized community in the area. He was quite passsionate about the need to teach the Faith and was full of enthusiastic ideas. For a brief period he emerged as something of a leader in the region and was elected as delegate to the National Convention in 1987 and 1988.

The first LSA was jeopardized almost immediately when one of its members moved out of town. Another two were persistently inactive. The remaining six consisted of the Reardons, another couple who lived a peripatetic life working for the Forest Service, myself, and one other lady. The Williams lived in the JD, along with another inactive believer, and there was no organization at this point in the other locality. Fred and Donna later said they stayed aloof from the community at first to make sure that people were really staying to establish a community, having had just about enough of pioneers floating in and out of town. Nevertheless, the City organized, holding regular Feasts, Holy Days, and weekly LSA meetings. This last was rather excessive considering the size of the community, and was largely due to John's determination to bring in new believers. The LSA was saved by Ridvan by the declaration of Duke Bartlett, a young man from a longtime local family.

The year 1986 was dominated by establishing goals for the Six Year Plan. A very elaborate local plan was developed, largely through John's efforts and rubber-stamped by the rest of the LSA, but none of these activites ever really got off the ground. The only exception was a booth at the local fair which became an annual event for some time after.

In late 1986, the City hosted District Convention and John was elected delegate. He attended the National Convention the next spring, and it was clear that all was not well with him when he returned. He gave the LSA a thorough dressing down for its lack of teaching, pointing out that three of its members had plans to move out and the community was falling apart. He declared that Baha'is were "nothing but a bunch of potluckers", referring to the favorite social gathering that's practically an unofficial institution, and he generally complained about all the things that were being done. Part of John's rage was the pressure of trying to do the impossible. Viewed objectively, how could the six of us,each of us with demanding lives of our own, be expected to convert enough people in a conservative rural area to a non-Christian religion in the space of a year and a half, to replace those who were leaving, with no outside support or assistance? And when the City community did attract the attention of Baha'i authorities, it was not attention of the positive kind.

What had happened when John was in Wilmette is that some literature from a Remeyite sect had been slipped under the door of his hotel room. The pamphlet was called "Teaching the Cause of God", a subject John was much interested in, and he initially assumed this was something the NSA had given to all the delegates. However, when he read it he came away believing he had the answer to everything that was wrong in the Baha'i community: there is no living Guardian.

Soon after his scolding, he presented the case for a living Guardian at an LSA meeting. This literally blew the community in half - one side finding his reasoning compelling, the other hysterically afraid of the "covenant-breakers". John himself actually reported to an ABM that "I'm turning myself in for my own protection."

How could otherwise devoted Baha'is find themselves, however briefly, attracted to the arguments of the Remeyites? First of all, we were either uninformed or had never thought deeply about the issues surrounding the ending of the Guardianship. The case seemed strong initially, because it is based on the Will and Testament of 'Abdu'l-Baha and Shoghi Effendi's "Dispensation of Baha'u'llah". Secondly, this tapped into a deep vein of dissatisfaction that we normally keep to ourselves. There really was as much talk about what was wrong with the mainstream Baha'i community as there was about the arguments presented in John's pamphlet. Three of us were, at one point, ready to withdraw from the Baha'i Faith.

The ABM contacted us all by phone and we found her threatening and patronizing by turns. What brought this incident to a dead stop was not anything she said, but the arrival of requested materials form this sect, which revealed it to be apocalyptic in its orientation, relying as much on Biblical prophecy as the Baha'i Writings, and it did not even appear to have a Guardian, but a claimant to some other kind of authority. So even though it was traumatic, this investigation was brief. However, the underlying questions and disatisfactions were never adequately addressed and would arise again.

The city community fell apart in the summer of 1987 when one couple moved out of the County and I myself moved to the JD. The Williams and I constituted the first group ever formed there. Some months afterwards, the Reardons also moved out there, leaving the City community largely defunct and inactive, and the JD the new hub of Baha'i activity. (There were sporadic attempts to form a city group over the next few years.) The main frustration during 1988 was that both of these families now had children of an age to be involved in various clubs and sports activities and finding a mutually agreeable time to meet was a challenging task. We did, however, establish regular children's classes for these two families, and this became a major focus of community life for the next three years or so.

On a broader level, there were a series of "town meetings" throughout our district, which increased intercommunity ties. During this time, John developed a travel teaching project with enthusiastic volunteers from communities all over the area. Sometime during 1989 or '90, however, the District Teaching Community stopped the project, claiming that John was "over-zealous", that he could not expect to have "free rein" over such a project like this, and accused him of "looking for leadership". John found this action absolutely devastating, and this once enthusiastic and successful teacher of the Faith never again made much effort in either teaching or administration.

In late 1989, an elderly couple, William and Antonia Fenwick, moved in as pioneers, giving the community a boost. He was a Knight of Baha'u'llah, and she was the scion of an important Baha'i family, so the pair were treated with a good deal of respect and deference. Another couple also moved in, and we had a couple of new believers, which brought the total in the JD community to twelve. This brief period from late '89 to the summer of '91, when Antonia died, was probably the best as far as community functioning was concerned. Finding meeting times was still difficult, so all community business, including LSA meetings, children's classes, and Feasts were held on Saturday mornings. These "marathon Saturdays" were often difficult, especially for those with small children, but at least the community was working. In 1990, there were also some new people who had moved into the City, and some time in the early '90s they were able to establish an LSA again.

In 1991, however, the JD began to fall apart. When Antonia died, the smooth functioning of the community died with her. The couple of new believers wer disenchanted with the endless emphasis on business meetings and lack of spiritual focus, and they left the Faith, with the final straw being a scolding from an Assistant about how teaching was being neglected. Another couple moved out. Will became more and more difficult as the years went by and his health declined. He tended to expect that everyone would defer to him during meetings, and would deliver long-winded lectures to us about "the teaching work", which meant that the LSA often could not get through the agenda before everybody started going home. His own favorite teaching project was to hang around fast food restaurants and entangle strangers into conversations about world peace. The patrons of such places soon learned to avoid him like the plague, and of course, he didn't convert anyone. However, no one dared question the wisdom of his actions, and some praised him for it, in spite of the fact that it contributed to the bad reputation the Baha'i Faith began acquiring locally.

At one point, probably during 1995 or '96, Will called an ABM in frustration, claiming that no one, especially John, was "cooperating" with him. Fred and Donna were quite resentful at the way they were suddenly summoned to this meeting, and John and Julia were defensive and angry. The whole thing turned into a gripe session where nothing was resolved.

I moved out of the JD in early 1994. I spent six months in the City community before moving into the tiny incorporated city where I still make my home. I expected, at the time, that I would be able to participate in community life in the JD and City communities, which are both within easy driving distance. However, the JD (by now it was the MCD) was more or less at a standstill, with the same old scheduling problems and burnout. The City community became dominated by Peggy Ramirez, who as secretary expected that everyone would pretty much do as she said. In fact, she did not tolerate any opposition. (At least, while I was there. In later years, I've heard, she learned to be less dictatorial.) Most of the time, it was easy for her, since by now that community consisted of struggling, impoverished recently-divorced mothers, recovering (and sometimes current)addicts and alcoholics, and people with mental problems. These last came into the Faith through a "pancakes in the park" project that was ongoing through the '90s. A variety of people wandered into, and quickly out of, the Baha'i community. For example, one convert left soon after being arrested for making and selling pornography. Overall, we weren't exactly attracting "people of capacity". In fact, Julia refused to have anything to do with the City community, based on simple fear of some of these people.

Peggy is no great organizer. The community's calendar, when they bothered to print one, would be jammed with activities, only a few of which would actually take place. Last-minute, unannounced cancellations were the rule rather than the exception, and as a result, my own activity declined sharply during these years. Community life was a very chaotic, on-again, off-again affair.

Peggy bought a big Victorian that was divided up into apartments, donating one of them as a "Baha'i Center". Unfortunately, when police were looking for her son on a drug charge, they showed up at that Baha'i Center, which he had given as his address.

Her favorite project was an intercommunity Baha'i school that ran at a nearby camp. This project, however, has left this impoverished community deeply in debt. To her credit, Peggy has picked up a good deal of the tab personally, but there are unpaid bills and money became a very touchy issue. Fred bluntly asked Peggy where all the money was going, and was just as bluntly told to mind his own business, whereupon he closed his checkbook. Duke's sink into inactivity in 1997, and Will's death in 1999 also deprived the City of major contributors. There seemed to be no consideration of the actual ability fo the local community to support this project, and some aspects of it are downright irresponsible. I've been told that Will was, very sensibly, planning to move closer to his children, and Peggy talked him out of it, primarily for financial reasons.

In 1997 John ran into Internet material from the Orthodox Baha'is, bringing up all the old unresolved questions about the Guardianship again. I was not so deeply involved in this outbreak of CB fever, but spent much time on the phone with Duke. I looked at the material myself, being more prepared and sensible than I had been the first time, then closed the book on it, having come to my own conclusions which coincide with neither the Remeyites nor the official Baha'i view. However, the aftermath of this episode had more serious consequences than the first for the local Baha'i community. Duke announced during an LSA meeting that he could no longer in good conscience serve on the Assembly, since he didn't believe in the administrative order. The news that there was a covenant-breaker in our midst was spread far and wide by Peggy. This, and the way he was treated by the ABM pushed him into permanent inactivity. Fred also became inactive, more over disgust at Baha'i officials than attraction to the ideas of the Orthodox Baha'is. John, however, could not resolve these issues, and resigned from the Faith. He stayed completely away from all of us for the next two years.

In 1998, a new couple moved in to help Will. They bought a piece of property outside of town with grandiose plans for what can only be described as a Baha'i dude ranch. Exactly what this project is supposed to achieve, I've never been able to discover, but it is rightly regarded with considerable suspicion by the locals. The couple does lots of complaining about the lack of support they get.

The next year (1999) was marked by three significant events: John decided he had made a terrible mistake and asked for his membership back, Will passed away, and I resigned my own membership.

The year 2000 brought a restoration of the MCD assembly, although there is not much activity there. One member reported that their first meeting was three hours spent largely on scheduling Feasts and Holy Days. The city was only able to keep its assembly by refusing to honor a request to be removed from the rolls sent in by a lady who has been inactive for the last fifteen years. There are only four active members in that community, and it remains deeply in debt.

Update - January 2001: Recent conversions in the city community has brought the number of adult believers on the rolls to around 14-15. These recent converts, like the earlier ones, are among the marginalized. Peggy's generous side, as always, outweighs practicalities. It also looks as if the activity rate still is low. The county community meets only sporadically.

Update - January 2004: Since Peggy moved out of the area, the locus of activity here has shifted back to the county community. Along with the usual Feasts and LSA meeting, there are weekly devotional gatherings, which I attend, when I can. There hasn't been any declarations, that I'm aware of, but there has been several new people move in. They seem vaguely aware that there is a "history" here, but nobody much talks of it.

This shifting, back and forth, between the city and county communities has been going on since around 1990 -- one reason why I get so exasperated with the artificial division imposed upon the two communities. We always have one community pulling together, and the other falling apart, rather than one, strong ongoing community.

However, I must say that, since spending the last four years talking to disillusioned, inactive, and estranged Baha'is, I have gotten over a good deal of the anger that initially prompted me to write this history. Whatever flaws this community had in terms of organization, it never has been overly controlling, nor have the Baha'is here been inclined to go turning people in for minor misdeeds or unorthodox opinions (the Remeyite episodes were an exception). Nor have I had the experience, that so many unenrolled and ex-Baha'is report, of having their Baha'i friends suddenly drop them. I have been invited to, and welcomed at, non-administrative events -- which is not something they really have to do. Indeed, my isolated status when I was enrolled has led to a situation where none of the Baha'is who have moved into the area in recent years are even aware of my resignation. In return, I don't go out of my way to introduce controversy here -- although I have spoken of my online activity to a handful of old and close friends.

Update - September 2005: The city community has entirely collapsed; the LSA exists only on paper. The county community now has around 13-14 people, but it meets only sporadically, and there are severe internal tensions on the LSA. The nose of the woman who has been pushing a Baha'i dude ranch is very much out of joint because the community very wisely told her that this project was never accepted or approved by the LSA, but I guess she thinks the community owes her something. I really don't understand the mentality that a tiny community that can't even get together for Feast regularly is supposed to invest in such a silly and expensive boondoggle. At least the locals have enough God-given good sense not to do it. The Baha'is of this area have had enough of impossible dreams and schemes; it needs a focus on just basic worship and fellowship -- which is what I think the majority of the active Baha'is left here are trying to do.

But it's still really a tough row to hoe. The "cluster" idea -- which is actually quite a good one, an idea that was brought up fifteen years ago during "John's" squashed teaching project -- is mostly centered on Ruhi. And, sorry, some folks are just allergic to the kind of robotic rote learning that the Ruhi classes use. Anyway, it's really sad that an idea that spontaneously rose up from the grassroots was squashed at the time, and now it's suddenly the best thing since sliced bread. It's a whole lot tougher to whip up enthusiasm the second time around. You can't tell people to turn energy and enthusiasm on and off in accordance with official approval.

Conclusion:

What, then, can be learned from this story of frustration and failure? For over thirty years, Baha'is have moved here, attempting to establish a functioning commununity, without success. None of the converts made locally, including myself, are still active. The Baha'i children who have grown up here are equally inactive. The community that was once dominated by young people, then young families, is now aging, as those Baha'is from the baby-boom influx are reaching their middle years without having replaced themselves. The combination of bad debts, the addicts and mentally unstable converted during the park project, and Will's misguided proslytizing efforts in fast food restaurants has left a local impression, not entirely unjustified, that the Baha'is are a bunch of cultish kooks and wierdos. When Baha'i institutions are criticized, ordinary believers will often respond that they are "embryonic" and immature and that we must be patient. But locally some of us have waited half a lifetime for community life of even a very basic sort to be established. It is too much to ask for more patience. The reader will reach his or her own conclusions about the lessons contained in this story. These are mine:

1. We did not focus enough on the community's spiritual life. Administrative meetings and teaching projects took priority over meaningful worship or deepening. Time spent in administration was far out of line with the community's needs. The urgent need for the new converts needsd if the assembly was to survive meant that time was spent on planning teaching projects rather than serving the needs of already-existing believers. In it my belief that if we had set out from the very beginning to establish a community of believers rather than a community of proslytizing bureaucrats, I would have had a very different story to tell.

2.Our expectations were unrealistic. Projects were planned without regard for the capacity for local people to carry them out, either in terms of time, money, or ability. When ordinary believers, even the newest converts are expected to be self-sacrificing heros, frustration and disillusionment are an almost certain sequel.

3. There was a lack of concern for the needs of people in the community. New converts were often only offered the opportunity to participate in further proslytizing and administration; few were interested.

4. There was a lack of real community support for the projects that were undertaken. The LSAs we established were, for the most part, a one-person show. The "leader" simply attempted to drag the rest of the community into his/her ideas rather than seeking them from the community members in real consultation. In fact, one complain of longtime locals was that when they did come up with ideas, they were simply "taken over" by the current leader. The "leaders" themselves would become frustrated that they could ot rally the community around these activities. Many times people assented because they could not think of alternative projects to do. No one ever considered the possibility of simply not doing projects and focusing on communal worship. No one ever questioned the wisdom of spending time on activities that never resulted in a single new believer.

5. There was a lack of outside support. With the exception of transplanted pioneers, the local community was expected to develop itself on its own, even though it was clearly incapable of doing that. Even though there is an ABM for "propagation" that is supposed to help with community building, we only heard from ABMs when "protection" issued were involved.

6. The squelching of John's district-wide teaching project not only crushed a talented and devoted teacher of the Faith, but deprived the whole area of making valuable intercommunity connections. There is no guarentee that John's plan would have had results, but there was no sensible reason at all for it to be stopped.

7. The localities are divided in a way that throws an incredible roadblock into communities that are barely viable anyway. This is another case of administration existing as a goal in itself rather than being responsive to the needs of the community. To have eight people on one side of the line and three on the other is just ridiculous, and is the cause of a good deal of isolation and alienation.

8. Traditional Baha'is will almost certainly point to the brushes with convenant-breakers as a source of weakness in the community. However, I tend to view this as a symptom rather than a cause. The Remeyite sects did not make one local convert, but their literature tapped into already-existing dissatisfaction. The hysterical reaction of their fellow-believers and the harsh attitude of the ABMs involved also proved to be a source of alienation. Another problem is the traditional attitude that the teachings of Baha'u'llah are inseparable from the institutions. Once a Baha'i doubts the integrity of the institutions, which are in all-too-human hands, then doubting the entire revelation is not far behind. The withdrawals and inactivity that occurred in the late 1990s were largely for this reason. (October 2000)

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