Academic journal article The Journal of Baha'i Studies

Race, Place, and Clusters: Current Vision and Possible Strategies

Academic journal article The Journal of Baha'i Studies

Race, Place, and Clusters: Current Vision and Possible Strategies

Article excerpt

Division of people of various races, ethnicities, and classes, coupled with estrangement and oppression in many forms, continue to be problematic aspects of human society. In North America, the cause of division related to race is partially the result of persistent prejudice and discrimination, but also of structural inequalities that reduce the potential of human life and threaten the stability of society. Therefore, continuing to think about racial unity in terms of individual relationships or personal prejudice, while important, is not a sufficient response to the need for cultural unity. Structural issues of inequality are essential as well, but these are complex and not easily resolved.

Since its birth in Iran in the mid-nineteenth century, the Bahá'í Faith has emerged as a religious community with significant capacity to unite people across traditional barriers of race, class, nationality, gender, and creed. The cardinal teaching of the Bahá'í Faith, in fact, is the oneness of all humanity. Bahá'í institutions have paid special attention to the issue of racial disunity in North America ever since Abdu'l-Bahá's visit to the American shores in 1912, when, through both word and deed, He pointedly encouraged interracial fellowship and the disavowal of traditional norms of racial segregation and discrimination. He urged people to overcome all racial barriers through means such as intermarriage, and to worship together as one; these were remarkable exhortations for a time when even casual social mixture of the races was uncommon and when racially segregated religious congregations were the norm.1

More than a century after Abdu'l-Bahá's visit to North America and a half century after the civil rights era yielded major legislative accomplishments that lessened overt racial discrimination, substantial differences of access and opportunity still linger. This suggests that it is timely to re-examine how to overcome problems of racial disunity, prejudice, and unequal opportunity in the present day. Of the many ways we could look at this- spiritually, psychologically, legally, socially, spatially, etc.-this paper focuses on the interaction between "place" (meaning spatial geographic location) and the institute process (meaning the system of education, expansion, and consolidation currently guiding worldwide plans of the Bahá'í community). Place is important to consider because many social and economic attributes are spatially arranged: lack of access to opportunity is highly associated with place of residence, such as in high-poverty neighborhoods. The institute process is important because of its great potential to address this problem and because at present it is the major tool for the expansion and consolidation of the Bahá'í community, which has a solid record of positive work in building unity among diverse peoples. Indeed, the current Bahá'í planning agenda is but the latest stage in a long line of multi-year expansion plans dating back to the 1930s and, conceptually, dating back even further to Abdu'l-Bahá's letters written from 1916 to 1917 and collected in the volume, Tablets of the Divine Plan.2 Tablets of the Divine Plan and subsequent plan-related documents focused on expanding the global reach of the Bahá'í Faith. With the latest planning phase, particularly since 2001, the Bahá'í community's planning process entered a new era. The global community, building on previous experience, began to deepen its presence in (and service to) villages and neighborhoods throughout the world. Such deepened presence was possible only because of the evolution of particular tools and strategies related to expansion, consolidation, and social action.

This paper will look at how the Bahá'í vision concerning matters related to racial prejudice and unequal opportunity is proposed to operate in an era of geographic clusters, with a focus on neighborhoods and villages. Clusters are the spatial configuration framing the current expansion and consolidation work of the Bahá'í Faith, and both neighborhoods and villages are the places, or levels of action, in which much current Bahá'í expansion and consolidation takes place. …

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