garbage pickup day!

July 13, 2013: Due to some logistical problems—our usual host and some of the children were away, we couldn’t get rides for the rest—we decided to do something a little different. We brought gloves and bags, gathered up the children we found in the neighbourhood, and picked up garbage around the apartment building where we hold classes. They were so excited. “I’ve never picked up trash before!” one of them exclaimed. They did a great job of it, each one of them going out of their way to fill up their bags before tossing them into the bins nearby. All the while we talked about keeping our shared spaces clean, taking care of our planet, and above all, the importance of service, noting how wonderful people would feel when they see that the neighbourhood is clean and garbage-free.

After the cleanup was done (and we dunked our bags in the garbage bin, NBA style) we surprised the children by taking them to the local corner store for popsicles. I don’t even have to say how excited they were—you can guess. It was only fair though, seeing as the weather was getting close to 30 degrees Celsius (86 F). The best part? As we were walking back to their apartment building, we pointed out to them how excited they were to pick up trash, without even knowing that they would be getting popsicles at the end—that they had shown enthusiasm for service, regardless of rewards. We asked them, would they consider picking up trash again, even without the popsicles? “Yes,” they answered in unison.

Gems, gems, everywhere, sparkling and bright. What a joy it is to help uncover them.

cooperation and reciprocity (take 4)

Today’s lesson: cooperation and reciprocity.

June 15, 2013: 5 children, 7–10 years old. For the past little while (starting this winter, in fact), our junior youth have been planning a service project: come to the children’s class and serve hot chocolate and cookies to their younger siblings and cousins. Everything finally worked out this week, and they were able to follow through. The children loved it, of course—who would turn down hot chocolate and cookies? It also gave us the opportunity to discuss the qualities we show when serving, and reinforced our lesson about the need for cooperation and reciprocity—when we all serve together, everyone benefits. Unfortunately, the junior youth were so busy with other activities (football matches, family visits, and so on) that they couldn’t stay for long, but it was nice that they were finally able to put their plans to serve into action. We learned a good lesson, too: when you make plans, whether in a children’s class or in a junior youth group, make sure that you act on them sooner rather than later, in order to avoid losing the enthusiasm to serve, which could lead to discouragement. (Not to mention the fact that we had expected to be serving hot chocolate in February, not June.)

father's day artTo finish off the class, we printed out colouring pages for Father’s Day, for the children to colour and give to their fathers. I got one, too, signed by all of them, since our own baby boy will be coming soon. (Quynh got a mother’s day card last month, too.) They’re all very excited to meet the baby; they spent a while during last week’s class thinking up and writing down names. Most of the names seem to come from boy bands and other celebrities, like Justin, Harry, Niall, Liam, Zack, Cody, and so on. Some were a little more unusual, like “Toutou” for example. This week, we challenged them to come up with some really unusual (even crazy) names, and they obliged, serving up gems such as Kratos, Tim Horton, Muscle, Goomba, Scorpion King, Benkie Barn, Crustino Ronundio, Spirit Bomb, Special Beam Cannon, Lightning Tsunami, President Of The United States, The Strongest Zeus In The World, and—probably my favourite—The Best In The World Is The Boy Who Love His Father. We shared some good laughs, and revelled in the children’s creativity. (I hope they won’t be disappointed if we choose more commonplace names!)

knowing god

Today’s lesson: knowing god.

January 26, 2013: We had a great, dynamic class. With just a few hiccups. When we arrived at our hosts’ home, we found one of the children was sick, so we poured some hot water for her and started with a healing prayer, after discussing some things she could do besides praying that would help her get better. After prayers, we reviewed the lesson and started on the story. The children loved the imagery of angels bringing raindrops to the ground; they come from a Christian background, and I guess they have a strong belief in angels. We reiterated the contradiction pointed out by the blacksmith, and we were about to ask the children what conclusions they could make about the illiterate blacksmith leaving a great scholar unable to address those contradictions, when our second hiccup arrived. The other half of our participants arrived late, due to a power outage (and a late meal) at home, so we stopped and greeted them. After starting over, we decided to keep the energy going with a few games, which we had planned anyway. We often play the detective game, so they loved playing it again; they also enjoyed charades, although some of them had trouble imagining how to express certain things with their bodies—how would you show a volcano, for example, or snow? Finally, we ended the day by making nine-pointed snowflakes with them.

snowflake modelling

such beautiful symmetry.

We actually had three teachers present, since I had to leave early for a meeting elsewhere in town. Quynh, who usually facilitates our neighbourhood junior youth group nowadays, helped out. I should also mention that the children who arrived halfway through actually came with their older sisters, who take part in the junior youth group; both of them joined in with the class and enjoyed it a lot. We’re planning to ask them to help teach the children’s class as an upcoming service project, so it was great to have them around. After the class, they even went with Quynh to talk to one of their friends—who’s come to the class before—about joining them in a new junior youth group. Apparently it went really well, and their friend is excited about joining the group! Awesome. Seeing this kind of coherence in action is so refreshing and feels like such a confirmation: both of our efforts, and of the course we’re following under the guidance of the Universal House of Justice. We’re really seeing a community being built before our eyes, slowly but surely.

coherence: an example

One of the key words we hear in many of the recent letters from the Universal House of Justice is “coherence”, referring to the smooth interaction between the different core activities promoted by the worldwide Baha’i community. I came across a great example of coherence recently in a neighbourhood of Ottawa.

A neighbourhood children’s class had been formed during the previous year, and had continued for a while with gradually decreasing participation until by the end only one child was attending with any regularity (i.e. sometimes). Then, in May of this year, a collective effort began to promote the Junior Youth Empowerment Program, with which many of you are no doubt familiar. This neighbourhood was chosen as a focus for outreach, and through the many conversations that took place, a solid base was gathered for the establishment of a regular junior youth group there. At the same time, several families expressed interest in sending their younger children to attend a program for spiritual and moral education, and a strong base was built up to revitalize the ailing children’s class. The first class during this period saw a surge of interest, as attendance rose from one to nine children. Since then, the class now averages six to seven children each week.

One of the important aims of the Junior Youth Empowerment Program, of course, is to help young people develop the moral strength and ability to serve humanity. One of the ways this is expressed in the program is for the participants to engage in service projects. The junior youth group that was formed in this neighbourhood decided, as part of its first service project, to help organize the upcoming lesson for the local children’s class. The junior youth divided up roles between them, one of them volunteering to read a story, one of them to teach a song, and so on. Each one of them also brought some material contribution, such as a tablecloth, paper plates, carrots, apples, and other snacks. After a brief meeting with the regular children’s class teacher a few days before, the junior youth gathered for the class and carried out their service project—bringing two new children along with them to participate!

This example taught me a few things about how these different community-building activities can work together. For instance, the enthusiasm of the junior youth to participate in that program makes them want to encourage others to join—whether their peers joining the same group, or, as we’ve seen, younger siblings joining in a children’s class. For different ages, different needs, and different programs, driving further growth through their interactions. This should be relevant to those who are teaching children’s classes with decreasing attendance. The question remains, as always: from where should we raise up the necessary human resources to offer these different programs? Perhaps, in the course of time, we need look no further than the very same neighbourhood in which we are serving. As they experience the joy of serving humankind, at least some of these junior youth will be inspired and will arise to the challenge of giving back to their community in the same way others gave to them. Those junior youth will become youth and young adults, and will empower junior youth in the same way they were empowered, and will teach children who will, in time, repeat the cycle. That’s coherence.

springing forward

steadfastnessSpring has been a busy thing this year! Apart from remaining active in teaching children’s classes, I’ve been busy completing what must be the most demanding personal project I’ve ever taken: paperwork for my wife, a native of Vietnam, to immigrate to Canada. Thankfully, the long process is over now, and we’re finally able to be together for good. It took a lot of steadfastness and patience, and I can’t help thinking it must have made us both stronger and more united. It also made me think a lot about humanity’s crying need for complete unity. As I considered the complicated bureaucratic system that kept us apart so long and was such a challenge to our relationship, I thought: “This is why the world has to be one country.” If all of us treated others as beloved members of one human family, and citizens of one world, would there be a need for borders, those arbitrary lines in the sand that keep us apart?

Thankfully, the influence of these concepts seem to be having a growing effect on the discourse of civil society, as we see many of the ideas and principles promulgated by Bahá’u’lláh popping up in the news: the establishment of various international unions and agreements, an international auxiliary language, even a world currency. By and large, though, most remain unaware of the source of these innovations, or how to go about implementing them correctly. Those who have tried have seen their hopes dashed by prejudice, corruption, greed, conflict, disunity and injustice. Without a proper moral foundation at its core, progress towards a better, just, and unified world is nigh-impossible. This is why teaching children’s classes, animating junior youth groups, and supporting the rest of those “core activities” of the Plans of the Universal House of Justice is so important for each of us: through our service, and the service of all those who collaborate with us, we are laying a strong foundation, an unshakeable core upon which will be built a new world that will manifest these principles for good—the “Day which shall not be followed by night.”

I just thought I’d share that reflection with you today. Summer is almost here, and together, my wife and I will be taking over a neighbourhood children’s class started by a friend of ours, hopefully to grow it past the handful of children who’ve been attending, and maybe, if we can find or train willing animators, to start a junior youth group as well. Also, I plan to finish a major improvement to this website soon, one that should make it a lot easier for readers to browse for the information they need. I know it’s been mentioned before but this time I mean it! 😛

service (take 4)

Today’s lesson: service.

After our team meeting this morning, we quickly drove over to the centre to find several of the parents already waiting for us inside with their children—a total of eight kids right off the bat. Some of the newer parents stayed at the side during the class. So many kids arriving early meant we had little time to prepare before the class; we may have to re-evaluate our preparation habits to compensate… we’d love to hear your experiences with preparing for children’s classes and any tips you may have to share.

We started with a few prayers; …. and I recited one, and one of the children did too. Since we had so many new faces present, we went around and introduced ourselves by giving our name, our age and what languages we spoke. Many of the children said they spoke mainly English and Tagalog, and I told them that we were counting on them to teach us how to speak Tagalog properly. Then we practiced the prayer we began learning last week, using the step method (adding a little at a time, and repeating). Next, we taught them the song “Look At Me” and sang it together; it’s an easy song that everyone seemed to pick up rapidly. After the song, we asked them if they remembered who ‘Abdu’l-Baha was, and used that to introduce the topic of service, which led into memorizing the quote and then into the story of ‘Abdu’l-Baha sending Lua Getsinger to visit the sick man. Everyone went quiet at the end, so I’m guessing it touched them.

After the story, we played the game noted in Book 3, “Help the Sick”, which involved locking wrists together and carrying each other across the floor to the “hospital”, which they all loved. I felt we were rushing through it a little, but at least we ended up with enough time to do the colouring at the end of class. We limited the number of colouring pens again, to test how well the children could share the colours, and they all seemed to do quite well. I took some time during the colouring to pass handouts to the parents, asking them to use them to study the material from the class (the song, quote, etc) with the children to help them remember.  We ended the class by getting back together and singing “Look At Me” one more time.

Overall, it was obvious that the home visits we’ve been doing with the parents have made a big difference; our interactions with them seem to be warm and loving (if still a little unfamiliar), and they already seem to be getting comfortable with us, and with taking their children to the class. It really seems to be a boon to us to be holding the class somewhere that’s already a hub of activity for them; they know exactly where it is and are comfortable with bringing their kids over. It truly does feel like a neighbourhood class.

Thanks to all of you for walking with us and serving with us. This truly is a captivating and exciting journey to be on.