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Considering the good of the whole:
Ridvan festival marks election of Baha'i assembly members

By Laurie Fox, for The Dallas Morning News, April 18, 1998

It's an election where everyone is considered a candidate, and yet there are no commercials, yard signs or heated debates. The governing body is chosen by secret ballot, and campaigning is forbidden.

Every spring - just when the election season heats up for state and local candidates seeking public office - members of the Baha'i faith around the world quietly choose leaders for their administrative bodies, or "spiritual assemblies."

"We're spared from expending the energy that goes into how to win an election," said Susan Rauscher, a longtime member of the Dallas Baha'i community. "We don't really think in those terms. Being of service is held in high regard, but we don't develop strategies of working into a position where the public will recognize us."

The elections of the nine-member assemblies coincide with the annual festival of Ridvan, which means "paradise." For 12 days - April 21 to May 2 - Baha'is celebrate the time in 1863 when Baha'u'llah, their prophet founder, resided in a Baghdad garden and proclaimed his mission as God's messenger for this age. Assemblies are elected on the first day.

"We have a sense that somewhere in that 24-hour period, all over the world, Baha'is will reflect about those in their community who possess the qualities to serve," said Ms. Rauscher. "There's a certain rhythm, a continuity."

A spiritual assembly is elected by the local Baha'i community at large. Members write down the names of the nine adults they consider most dedicated, and the ballots are counted.

From overseeing educational programs, publicity and publishing to conducting devotional services and handling Baha'i money, the assembly assumes day-to-day operations and long-term planning.

The group also is responsible for arranging the feast that comes on the 19th day of each Baha'i month, when the community meets for worship, fellowship and a business meeting.

Meetings are governed by "consultation," considered to be the bedrock of the faith. Consultation is described as a frank but loving exchange of opinion. Every member is expected to become a student of consultation and to enter meetings free of everyday distractions.

The roughly 2,000 Baha'is in the Dallas area are governed by about 25 local assemblies. Members who have jobs and families said they often find it difficult to give their assembly the attention it deserves.

"It's a matter of being sincere and dedicated, otherwise it can be your undoing," said Dr. Wallace Carter, chairman of the Arlington spiritual assembly. "You come into a meeting carrying a variety of issues from your day. You just have to take stock and spiritually prepare. It's vital that you decompress."

Dr. Robert Henderson, secretary general of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of the United States, said assembly members are chosen for their intellect, character and service.

"When you have an entire group of adults with a common commitment to the advancement of the whole, you'll get better decisions," he said. "There's a reliance on prayer and agreement that we'll discuss it until we work it out.

"Human beings are created noble by God. The more you ask a person to be noble, the more they will."

Members believe that they must search out the truth on every issue and encourage the voicing of all opinions. Discord, Baha'is say, keeps truth hidden.

"There's not a partisan, adversarial position," Dr. Henderson said. "We discover the truth and find the most effective way to solve it based on spiritual guidance and practical reality. That doesn't mean that there won't be a clash of differing opinions, but that's essential.

"It's far more challenging than most debates in the boardrooms or political arenas. There's much more resting on the shoulders of a member of a Baha'i spiritual assembly."

Using instructions set forth by Abdu'l-Baha, Baha'u'llah's eldest son and an interpreter of his father's writings, the group is instructed to conduct meetings in love and harmony, elect a chairman and set bylaws and ensure that a majority of voices prevail.

In addition to the local committees, Baha'is have national and international assemblies. The 88-year-old national assembly is chosen, usually in October, by delegates to an annual convention.

Members of the Universal House of Justice, the faith's international governing body, are elected every five years at the World Centre of the Baha'i Faith in Haifa, Israel.

Local assemblies meet about once a week. But meetings can be held more often if there are several issues at stake. The Dallas Baha'is met 70 times last year.

A three-inch notebook from the Universal House of Justice provides guidelines.

All members start each meeting by reading from a book of Baha'i prayers, originally written in Persian or Arabic, or say a simple blessing.

"We are servants of thine... [who] detached ourselves from all besides thee ... Make us the signs of thy divine guidance," Tim Perry, a member of the Dallas spiritual assembly, recited at a recent meeting.

The group discussed the upcoming 19-day feast, planned other activities and took stock of finances.

"We're not super-brains or super-leaders," said Walter Palmer, a member of the Dallas spiritual assembly. "We're taking the words of Baha'u'llah and the administrative affairs of the community to advance human progress."

Amanda Green, who's part of the spiritual assembly in Bedford, said she enjoys the group because members must listen to one another and reach decisions together.

"We've grown up in the 'me' generation," she said. "In the consultation process, our idea is put on the table; then we divorce ourselves from it. The ego is taken out of the process."

Dr. Carter said: "We're taught in this country to get your idea out there, advocate it and fight for it. That's the American way. But it's not the Baha'i way."