Thursday, October 11, 2012

Children of the Feast

I received a phone call the other day that hearkened to a series of conversations I have had with many friends over the years. "How", they asked, "can we get our community to be more active?"

As usual, I was able to supply a quick answer that was both honest and truthful: "I don't know."

I said honest and truthful; I didn't say helpful.

The conversation, as you can expect, was quite one-sided, since I asked the person to describe their community. After all, how can you begin to work together to try and find a solution if both parties are not aware of the problem? Once I filtered through the emotion, the scenario was not all that unusual. It is something I have heard about time and again. The community is a small one, on the verge of becoming medium-sized. In other words, there are about 30 - 40 people.

"32", she said, "if you don't include the kids."

And that, to me, was at the heart of the issue: "if you don't include the kids". After all, "Our Faith is just as much for children", it says in a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi, "as for older people". How can we talk about a community if we don't include the kids? Mind you, this isn't unusual. A lot of people do it. But it does raise a lot of questions.

It seems that this particular community has a lot of families with young children, and the average attendance at Feast is between 2 and 5. People, not age.

"Why?" That seemed like the logical question to ask, and the response was exactly what you would expect. "People are too busy."

Anyways, let me pause here to say that I don't have any answers for this community, but I have heard variations on this theme for long enough to know some questions that can be asked. And I am very happy to say that this particular community is beginning to ask them.

What are they? I'm so glad you asked, dear Reader.

First of all, is the Feast family-friendly? And I don't mean do people say hi when you come in. I mean, is the Feast in a place that is accessible the children, and at a time when families can attend? My son has to get up at 6:30 in the morning to get ready to catch his bus to go to school I cannot ask him to attend a Feast that begins at 7:30, much less 8:00 at night. He would be a total zombie the next day. And while that might be kind of cool around Halloween, it doesn't bode well for his capacity to learn the rest of the year.

I am very happy to say that in my own community the Feast begins a little bit earlier than in most others. They are very accommodating to families with small children.

Oh, that also brings up the issue of dinner. Many of us in this society get home from work between 5 and 6, and then have to prepare dinner. Of course, we then need to eat it and get ready to go to the Feast, by which time it is already 7:30 or 8:00. What do we do in those circumstances?

Well, it may just be me, but that seems like a no-brainer (speaking of zombies): Eat together. (But don't eat brains.) I can think of no better way to prepare for a Feast than to join those I love in a meal together. If there are some in the community who can help out by preparing food for those who may have less time, even better. There is nothing like service to help unite a community, so why not get together for a community dinner and then have the Feast? On most days I'm home by 3, and that's only if I'm out to begin with. I work out my home office. It's quite easy for me to prepare a meal for 20 during the day, and let it simmer while I work. And for those with the time, but not the money, I'm sure the community would be willing to buy the food for someone who can prepare it.

So that is one thing done: have it at a time when families can actually attend. Oh, and don't presume. Actually go out and ask them. Consult. Figure it out. There is nothing that says we have to begin our Feast at 7:30. We are only told to try and have it "on the first day of the Bahá'í month, that is to say the Bahá'í day, beginning at the sunset", or sometime from sunset on the evening before the day to sunset of the day itself.

Now that we know when to hold the Feast, the next question is what to do. We all know that we begin with prayers, but the Writings do not say how long that has to be. If the children are not in the habit of sitting for 20 or 30 minutes of prayer, it takes a peculiar kind of sadist to try and make them sit still for that long. Why not have the next few Feasts with fewer prayers? If you know that you will have a large number of children who are unaccustomed to long prayers, try having the prayers sung. "Music", the Guardian said, "is permitted during the spiritual part -- or any part -- of the 19 Day Feast." If the community wants, they can even have the children move during the devotions. Again, there is nothing in the Writings that says you have to sit still. This is just a cultural bias. There are many parts of the world where you show your respect and devotion by the way in which you move with the words. We just need to teach the children respect, which is a condition of the heart, not a state of the body. Oh, and don't take my word for it. Read "Stirrings of the Spirit", and see what that compilation on the Feast says about the devotional portion of the Feast, and what it doesn't say.

But what about the Administrative portion? Surely the children shouldn't be there for that.

Why not? look at this quote from the Universal House of Justice: "...children should be trained to understand the spiritual significance of the gatherings of the followers of the Blessed Beauty, and to appreciate the honour and bounty of being able to take part in them, whatever their outward form may be. It is realized that some Bahá'í observances are lengthy and it is difficult for very small children to remain quiet for so long. In such cases one or other of the parents may have to miss part of the meeting in order to care for the child. The Spiritual Assembly can also perhaps help the parents by providing for a children's observance, suited to their capacities, in a separate room during part of the community's observance. Attendance at the whole of the adult celebration thus becomes a sign of growing maturity and a distinction to be earned by good behaviour."

They recognize that "some Baha'i observances are lengthy", but that doesn't mean they have to be. In a large community, sure. But there you would have the resources to provide for a good children's program. In a small community, what is it that you are consulting about that is so important that the children cannot participate? When we learn to include the children in our consultations, which is fairly easy in a smaller community, then we build stronger bonds between the various age groups. We enhance the training of our children int he ways of our community. We reap the incalculable benefits of their ideas, and encourage them to share their insights.

They learn the value of consultation, as well as the importance of discipline. Just because the children are welcome, and truly welcome in all areas, does not mean that the rest of the community should be held hostage by them. There will, of course, be times when some of the children may be unruly, and it is at times like that when the parents need to remove them. "This is not", says the Universal House of Justice, "merely necessary to ensure the properly dignified conduct of Bahá'í meetings but is an aspect of the training of children in courtesy, consideration for others, reverence, and obedience to their parents."

It is during this consultative time that the parents need to show great patience in allowing the children the time to formulate their ideas. The adults themselves will also need to learn to speak in such a manner that the children understand what is going on. Not only is this good for the community in their consultations, but it also develops various skills that help us explain the teachings of the Faith to those who may not be aware of them. After all, if we can explain things to a child in the Feast, then we have a better chance of adults understanding what we say, too.

Finally, there is the social portion of the celebration of the Feast. (Have you ever noticed that the table of contents in the compilation from the World Centre on the Feast refers to the Feast Celebration?) In other words, the party. What kid doesn't love to eat and play with others? And as a parent you can even make it a bit of a reward. "Because it is the Feast, you can stay up an extra 30 minutes tonight." What a great way to help further instill the love of the Faith (he says, with his tongue in his cheek.)

But seriously, we can truly make the Feast something that the children look forward to attending. Hey, we can even make it something that the parents look forward to attending. This is what it should be, anyways: a time of joyous celebration with those you love. as well as an opportunity to talk about those things that matter most to you and the community.

When we do this consciously, and fully aware of what the Writings say about the Feast, then we all become children of that great institution of our Faith: the Feast.

"It is the hope of the House of Justice that every Feast will be a feast of love when the children will give and receive the tangible affection of the community and its individual members."

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