By Lynn Starr
I see your sadness about withdrawing from the Baha’i Faith. It seems like you gained something from wonderful friendships, prayers, teachings, songs, and that those still touch your heart in a positive way. And yet, something drove you to remove yourself from the rolls of the Baha’i Faith. I wonder if you became a Bahá’í because you found in it, ideals that were close to your heart?
It is not unusual for people to be drawn to the Faith because they see in it the fulfilment of the ideals which are dear to their hearts. (The Universal House of Justice, 1989 Jun 21, ‘Dialogue‘, ‘A Modest Proposal’ etc)
After listening to you talk, reading articles, and watching the videos on YouTube, all from disenfranchised Bahá’ís, I still do not fully understand what it was in the Faith that you no longer can affiliate with. It seems to have something to do with things about the Faith you felt separated from.
It might be good to ask yourself whether it is Baha’u’llah and the Central Figures you felt separated from or whether it was your local community, the Baha’is you knew, or some other reason.
To deny that one is a Bahá’í while one still believes in Bahá’u’lláh is not withdrawal . . . (Universal House of Justice, Lights of Guidance, p. 57-58)
Before you leave, there are some things I hope you’ll draw comfort from. Focusing on deepening your understanding of the teachings could really help you see that your ideals are facets of the Purpose of God, which will help you endure all manner of suffering and frustration:
But, if a soul truly recognizes Bahá’u’lláh, and his understanding of the teachings deepens, he will gradually see how his own ideals are but facets in the all-embracing Purpose of God, and will be willing to endure all manner of suffering and frustration for the sake of the fulfilment of that divine Purpose. If, however, the believer allows his own ideals and purposes to retain their pre-eminence in his thinking, and he finds he cannot pursue them as he wishes, it may result in his leaving the Faith to pursue them in other ways. This is what would seem to have happened to the friends you speak of. (The Universal House of Justice, 1989 Jun 21, ‘Dialogue‘, ‘A Modest Proposal’ etc)
Interestingly, in recent years, I have felt that I could not go along with whatever the purpose is in the Baha’i community/area where I reside. So, I chose to stop attending local meetings or events, and get more understanding of who the Central Figures were, and to find positive and supportive experiences with Baha’is who were not in my community. I ended up going to Facebook and the internet to explore other Baha’i situations. Through these avenues I ended up finding there were Baha’is I could relate to where I did not feel separated from them. The following quote comforted me. Baha’u’llah himself withdrew from a toxic situation in His community where disunity prevailed.
Embarking on an action reminiscent of His solitary retirement to the mountains of Kurdistan when the unfaithful were shamefully destroying the Cause of God, Bahá’u’lláh, who at this time was residing in the house of Amru’llah, withdrew with His family to the nearby house of Rida Big which was rented by His order, and refused to associate with anybody. This was on 10 March 1866. The reason for this withdrawal, which fortunately was of short duration, was similar to that which had motivated Him to retire to Kurdistan a decade earlier: namely, to relieve the tension and alleviate the feelings of enmity which during the course of years had been engendered in the hearts of some by Mírzá Yahyá and were fanned into flame by his latest actions. (Adib Taherzadeh, The Child of the Covenant, p. 120)
What I have discovered is that many clusters in my state (California, United States) are going through a very scary process of deterioration. I have been saying something about this for more years than I would like to admit! Our cluster structure has fallen apart and it is hard to get the friends to volunteer for necessary services. There are many possible reasons for what appears to be a process of deterioration in a Bahá’í community or geographical area.
Neglecting the education of new believers can lead to people leaving the Faith. It might be valuable to compare what happened in your Bahá’í situation to what the Universal House of Justice describes in the following quote:
It is not enough to bring people into the Faith, one must educate them and deepen their love for it and their knowledge of its teachings, after they declare themselves. As the Bahá’ís are few in number, especially the active teachers, and there is a great deal of work to be done, the education of these new believers is often sadly neglected, and then results are seen such as the resignations you have had recently. (Universal House of Justice, Lights of Guidance, p. 567)
Perhaps you turned to other work than the Cause because you weren’t given the help, stimulation, teaching, opportunity to serve, or comradeship that you needed.
If some of these isolated and inactive people gradually turn to other work than the Cause we should not always blame them—they probably needed more help, more stimulating more teaching and Bahá’í comradeship that they received. (Shoghi Effendi, Lights of Guidance, p. 84)
Perhaps you were no longer able to draw upon spiritual strength or vitality from the community or Faith, or stayed away for some other reason, as described below:
Many of those who drift away from the Cause do so for the reason that they had ceased to go on developing. They became complacent, or indifferent, and consequently ceased to draw the spiritual strength and vitality from the Cause which they should have. (Shoghi Effendi, Lights of Guidance, p. 114)
Were you dealing with a problem that seemed to be too much to handle? Could this mean that you did not pass a test that you were given?
Sometimes, of course, people fail because of a test they just do not meet. (Shoghi Effendi, Lights of Guidance, p. 113)
Or maybe you turned to an Assembly for assistance and didn’t find in them, the “loving parents” they were meant to be. It’s possible that both of you are struggling with issues on the frontier of your spiritual growth. It is also possible that if you continue to work with the Assembly or other Institutions to resolve this painful situation, both you and the Assembly could experience tremendous development. In the compilation, Issues Concerning Community Functioning, there are several approaches outlined for dealing with malfunctioning Assemblies or other institutions. Trying these approaches could lead to a surprisingly good outcome. I have encountered situations where I strongly disagreed with an Assembly decision, that I took it to another Institution, and we all worked together to resolve the matter. In the process, we all grew from the experience!
As you know, there can be many reasons for Assemblies not to respond to the believers. Undoubtedly, in some cases, it is because the friends and the Assemblies are struggling with issues on the frontier of their spiritual growth. Such a process can lead to tremendous development on both the individual and the collective levels. (Universal House of Justice to an individual believer, 25 October, 1994)
Helping build the Kingdom of God on earth is definitely not easy. However, when you realize that something wonderful can happen when you participate in communicating honestly and lovingly with the Institutions and the friends, you might actually feel joy in your accomplishment.
Taking part in this process should be a source of joy to us since we are, in effect, helping to build the kingdom of God on Earth. (Universal House of Justice to an individual believer, 25 October, 1994)
This is definitely not an easy process. It is hard to be patient when our concerns have something to do with a subject that is very close to our hearts, and when progress seems to be lagging or to have ceased. However, patience is a tool that can yield positive results. Patience does not mean ignoring a problem. It can mean knowing when to take action and when to give others the right amount of time to process new information.
Nevertheless, patience is needed, particularly when it involves a subject that is close to our hearts, and when it seems that progress on the matter is lagging or has ceased entirely. (Universal House of Justice to an individual believer, 25 October, 1994)
One thing that has worked for me at times like this is to look to the Writings for comfort, for ideas, for examples to follow, and for encouragement:
We must maintain our confidence that the divinely ordained administrative system given to us by Bahá’u’lláh, and the inspiration of the Creative Word, will enable us to rise to these challenges. (Universal House of Justice to an individual believer, 25 October, 1994)
Also, if you are sick in my area, you will not get helped out by a supportive community and that has been a very heart-breaking thing. I don’t think this is done out of cruelty or malevolence, but the results can feel cruel. It seems like many of the Friends haven’t yet learned how to either give or draw on each other’s strength and consolation in times of need:
Indeed the believers have not yet fully learned to draw on each other’s love for strength and consolation in time of need. The Cause of God is endowed with tremendous powers, and the reason the believers do not gain more from it is because they have not learned to draw fully on these mighty forces of love and strength and harmony generated by the Faith. (Shoghi Effendi, Lights of Guidance, p. 93)
In many cases, though, the cause is backbiting, which is not only divisive, but is the leading cause of all withdrawals from the Faith. I remember that as a young Baha’I, I had a dear friend who would say she was “analysing the situation” when she was really backbiting against someone. At the time, I did not know that this was backbiting. The community members ended up becoming angry with one another, and factions even formed among the Friends. I was so upset that I stayed away from community events for several months. I then had an opportunity to leave that area, which I did. Subsequently, I began to suspect that backbiting had occurred. Consequently, I spent a lot of time deepening on the subject. I looked to the Writings to find the definition of backbiting and to learn what sorts of behaviours could be construed as backbiting. I still cry to this day about some of the sad things that could have been prevented had I known better. The following quote gives an excellent description of what happens when backbiting occurs:
If any soul speak ill of an absent one, the only result will clearly be this: he will dampen the zeal of the friends and tend to make them indifferent. For backbiting is divisive, it is the leading cause among the friends of a disposition to withdraw. (‘Abdu’l-Bahá: Selections From The Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, pp. 230-231)
The Baha’is, like many others in our society face difficulties just living and working in a crazy world and I think this overwhelms most of us. It can be hard to know what the right thing to do is. We might think we are doing the right thing, only to discover later that it was not in keeping with what Baha’is are supposed to do. According to Shoghi Effendi:
Generally speaking nine-tenths of the friends’ troubles are because they don’t do the Bahá’í thing, in relation to each other, to the administrative bodies or in their personal lives. (Shoghi Effendi, Lights of Guidance, p. 114)
When a community is not drawn together when everyone is going through difficult life challenges, it becomes hard to maintain one’s Faith. When people say and do hurtful things, or don’t act sympathetically when someone is hurting, it can be extremely upsetting. Perhaps we might not realize that the people involved have not reached a point of maturity to act differently. Such problems can interfere with teaching, harmonious relationships, and can cause the Friends to discourage one another:
One of the greatest problems in the Cause is the relation of the believers to each other; for their immaturity (shared with the rest of humanity) and imperfections retard the work, create complications, and discourage each other. (Shoghi Effendi, The Unfolding Destiny of the British Bahá’í Community, p. 449)
In order to deal with such difficult and even heart-wrenching situations, a forgiving and loving attitude are needed. That does not mean that we should allow unfair or unkind situations to continue indefinitely. At a certain point, taking administrative action may be called for. However, this should be done with love, kindness, compassion and a desire for all the Friends to come away from the situation feeling like they are loved and have been treated fairly.
And yet we must put up with these things and try and combat them through love, patience and forgiveness individually, and proper administrative action collectively. (Shoghi Effendi, The Unfolding Destiny of the British Bahá’í Community, p. 449)
Enduring the intolerance of others can be very painful. However, if we continue to strive for loving interchanges with others, such efforts are not wasted, for as Shoghi Effendi points out:
The energy we expend in enduring the intolerance of some individuals of our community is not lost. It is transformed into fortitude, steadfastness and magnanimity. (Shoghi Effendi, Lights of Guidance, p. 603)
I have read things by Shoghi Effendi that remind me that the Baha’is are not perfect, and that they can be a test and trial, but that the Faith and its Manifestations of God, and their writings are the real thing, inspiring, move a person’s heart, and change their behavior for the better. Dealing with interpersonal difficulties in a community or other problems that may crop up can be very frustrating. A lot of patience is needed while a remedy for the problems is being sought. When we are patient and kind to one another, we have a better chance of resolving our difficulties. This creates the opportunity for everyone to learn and grow, which will contribute to the growth of the entire community. As Shoghi Effendi has stated:
The friends must be patient with each other and must realize that the Cause is still in its infancy and its institutions are not yet functioning perfectly. The greater the patience, the loving understanding and the forbearance the believers show towards each other and their shortcomings, the greater will be the progress of the whole Bahá’í community at large. (Shoghi Effendi, The Compilation of Compilations vol II, p. 9)
There are times when the actions of others really test our patience and understanding. By learning how to love the people that bother us the most, we can help mend broken hearts and relationships. In Baha’u’llah and the New Era (Bahá’í Publishing Trust), 1980, p. 82-83, ‘Abdu’l-Baha has spoken to how we can remedy such a situation by being loving:
- To be silent concerning the faults of others, to pray for them, and to help them, through kindness, to correct their faults.
- To look always at the good and not at the bad. If a man has ten good qualities and one bad one, to look at the ten and forget the one; and if a man has ten bad qualities and one good one, to look at the one and forget the ten.
- Never to allow ourselves to speak one unkind word about another, even though that other be our enemy.
At the same time, I put up with a lot of malfunctioning communities and people because I thought I had to or I would be a bad Baha’i; I think differently now. I don’t plan to lose any more years of my life being unhappy or afraid to say what is on my mind. Although I believe in being kind and careful in articulating my feelings, opinions and what I agree and disagree with, I do not think it is healthy for me to hold such information inside, and I refuse to do so from here on out.
I am planning to write some hard-hitting letters to all the Institutions about this, because many good people have left a Faith that I believe is a wonderful thing, because they could no longer be part of a community where they did not believe in “doing” what was being done or not being done in the spheres of Baha’i activity that they were involved in.
I am doing this because I believe it is the right thing to do, as per the quote from Shoghi Effendi in Issues Concerning Community Functioning 1.2.1 Individual Example:
Shoghi Effendi, in a letter dated 30 September 1949 written on his behalf to an individual believer, states that “the first and best way” to remedy the malfunctioning of a Bahá’í community is for the individual to “do what is right”.
I’m also doing this because Shoghi Effendi has told us:
And yet we must . . . try and combat them through . . . proper administrative action collectively. (Shoghi Effendi, The Unfolding Destiny of the British Bahá’í Community, p. 449)
Furthermore, the House of Justice has said we have the right to take doubts and concerns to the Counsellors:
When you have doubts and concerns about your own plans, confide in the Counsellors; when something they do causes you worry, talk to them in the proper spirit of Bahá’í consultation. Remember that they, like yourselves, are burdened with the work of the Cause and are beset with many concerns in its service, and they need your sympathetic understanding of the challenges they face. Open your hearts and your minds to them; regard them as your confidants, your loving friends. And be ever ready to extend to them your hand in support. (The Universal House of Justice, 1994 May 19, response to US NSA)
One Auxiliary Board Member I have shared with expressed concerns about a “congregational attitude” that exists with many Baha’is in North America. They kind of go along with the crowd and don’t think “out of the box.” This sort of attitude has been a real turn off to both my husband and me, as well as a few other people that I know.
Learning what “universal participation” means in a Faith that has no clergy is new for all of us. It involves learning to love, a hard skill to acquire when so many of us have grown up in a world riddled with violence and abuse:
The real secret of universal participation lies in the Master’s oft expressed wish that the friends should love each other, constantly encourage each other, work together, be as one soul in one body, and in so doing become a true, organic, healthy body animated and illumined by the spirit. (Universal House of Justice, Messages 1963 to 1986, p. 43)
Until now, I have not known how to talk about this in a manner which I think is not angry or pointing any fingers at anybody. And yet, people who are fine people, who have left the Faith for what apparently are very good reasons, pull at my heartstrings. After all, ‘Abdu’l-Baha, himself, said that it was better to have no religion than to have one where hypocrisy reigned, where service to others was not the main focus, or where unfair and unkind things were done to people often enough to be of concern.
Abdu’l-Bahá says: ‘If religion be the cause of disunity, then irreligion is surely to be preferred.’ (Bahiyyih Khanum, p. 202)
I think that situations in many communities have reached this unhappy state of existence. However, the videos, Frontiers of Learning, people I have met at the Wilmette Institute, BNASSA, and books like Helping Joe Strong and the like, have shown me that there are good Bahá’í communities and clusters out there, where the Faith is influencing people in positive ways and where the friends are united and happy.
I hope you believe me when I say that I have respect and empathy for you and can’t begin imagine how hard it was to sort out what the right thing for you to do was. If you want to talk with me about anything I have said in this post, I would be more than happy to do so. Contact me through this website and I promise to respond!
With prayers and loving greetings,