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Archive for August, 2010

The Feast of Names

It is my hope that the Nineteen Day Feast may become firmly established and organized so that the holy realities which are behind this meeting may leave behind all prejudices and conflict, and make their hearts as a treasury of love…These spiritual gatherings must be held with the utmost purity and consecration, so that from the site itself, and its earth and the air about it, one will inhale the fragrant breathings of the Holy Spirit.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá

One of my earliest postings on “Sounds of Laughter” told of our first Nineteen-Day Feast in the Carib Territory (click here for that link…I just learned about putting links on these entries from my friend Leila’s wonderful blog “A Light in the Sea,” in which she reflects on her experiences as a pioneer in St. Lucia. Incidentally, another great blog from the Caribbean Initiative is “Serve Like the Soil” by Cara in St. Thomas).

Since that Feast of Qawl (Speech) back in November, nine months have elapsed, and fourteen Feasts have come and gone. And much remains the same. There is still no electricity in the Bahá’í Centre, so our nighttime Feasts and devotions continue to be held by candlelight. There is still (we hang our heads in shame) no Treasurer’s report, as the local Fund is yet to be established in the Carib Territory…although this must, must happen soon, as contributing to the Bahá’í Fund (click on the link to learn more about it—it’s something beautiful), is the sacred privilege of every Bahá’í. There is still no Feast Letter, since Dominica does not yet have a National Spiritual Asssembly (hee-hee, these links are fun. I can already sense that I’m gonna go overboard with them). Occasionally, someone’s cousin will still wander into Feast with a bottle of rum. And, most importantly, there is still an atmosphere of profound joy within the four wooden walls of the St. Cyr Bahá’í Centre. Yes, much has remained the same in the course of these nine months and fourteen Nineteen-Day Feasts.

But much has also changed.

For one thing, the tattered old pictures of Caribbean Flags and Queen Elisabeth that once adorned the Centre’s walls have been replaced by vibrant paintings from the children and youth of the Carib Territory (“A Collective Beautification Project”). And this transformation of the Centre has mirrored, in a sense, the (gradual but steady!) transformation of the community. Most notably, the majority of our activities—children’s classes, junior youth groups, devotional gatherings, and study circles—are no longer carried out by the pioneers (who are assuming more and more of a background role), but by local youth, adults, and children, yearning to contribute meaningfully to the betterment of their community.

And the community has grown. In fact, pretty soon (hopefully!) we’ll have to hold separate Nineteen-Day Feasts in each Hamlet, as the most recent Feast filled our little Centre to capacity. Granted, this particular Feast had some special visitors, such as my friend Tamara, one of the new members of Kira’s children’s class, one of the participants in Vern’s newly formed junior youth group…and the Carib Chief.

But I get ahead of myself—there’s an interesting backstory to this.

Ever since our Reflection Gathering in Trinidad, Francillia had been wanting to visit the Chief, to share with him a bit about the Bahá’í Faith, and the community-building activities that the local friends are striving to carry out here. The Chief, of course, is a very busy man, and his full schedule of travel and meetings made it difficult for Francillia to secure an appointment with him. It so happened, though, that the Chief was free on the Tuesday morning of our teaching campaign in mid-July. Buoyed by prayer and the assurance that the message they carried was the mightiest instrument for the healing of the world and the means of upliftment for its peoples, Francillia and Ismenie—a youth in the community—ascended the Horseback Ridge Hill in Salybia to the counsel chambers of the Carib Chief.

The Chief greeted them warmly, and, right away, began asking questions about the Faith, of which he knew very little. As Francillia and Ismenie shared with him the Faith’s essential teachings, and explained the nature of the activities the Bahá’ís in the Carib Territory are engaged it, the Chief’s interest seemed to grow. At the end of the visit, he asked that he please be invited to an upcoming gathering.

The very next day, the Carib Council—a group of the Chief’s advisors—convened for their weekly meeting. In the consultation, one of the council members, who also happens to serve as a lay-Priest at the Catholic Church, raised a concern about the spreading influence of the Bahá’í Faith in the Carib Territory. In the phone call he placed to Francillia immediately after the council meeting, the Chief explained that the timing of her visit was fortuitous…because had he not met with her and Ismenie, he would not have been prepared to defend the Faith to his council members. Yet, as the Chief had been made aware of how the work of the Faith was benefitting the Carib Territory, he was able to impart to his council members that they had nothing to worry about. In fact, he told him, they needed to offer their support to the Bahá’í Community in whatever way possible.

God is good. All the time.

Shortly after the council meeting, the Chief traveled abroad…and when he returned, Francillia invited him to the Feast of Asmá.* And he came. This Feast of Names was, I feel, the best one yet…and not only because of the Chief’s presence. Some of the youth and children in the community had, in the days leading up to the Feast, been busy making preparations. They pored through the prayerbooks and selected fifty Names of God, which they carefully wrote out on small notecards, for people to read during the devotional portion. With colored pieces of tissue paper, they decorated the Centre from wall to wall, and covered the chalkboard with a bright sign proclaiming: “Feast of Asmá!” The Junior Youth from the St. Cyr group, which is studying Walking the Straight Path, made sock puppets and put together a delightful puppet show based on one of the stories. The Feast was hosted by Vern, a 17-year-old new believer. She welcomed everyone to Feast with confidence and joy; in the administrative portion she shared stories of her experience animating a junior youth group; for the social person, she served lovingly prepared corned beef sandwiches and ginger juice.

During the devotions, the Chief read a Hidden Word. In the social portion, as we munched on our sandwiches, Francillia proposed to the group that we serenade our special guest. “Let’s sing ‘I think You’re Wonderful’!” she suggested. So we tuned up the Ukulele, someone grabbed the drum, and we belted out the most rollicking rendition we could muster. The Chief was beaming.

I think you’re wonderful
When somebody says that to me
I feel wonderful, as wonderful can be
It makes me want to say
The same thing to somebody new
And by the way, I’ve been meaning to say
I think you’re wonderful, too!

The quote from ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in the beginning of this posting speaks of how, when a 19-Day Feast is carried out with purity and consecration, from the site itself, and even the earth and air about it, one will inhale the fragrant breathings of the Holy Spirit. I have to admit that I don’t always perceive those “fragrant breathings” (perhaps because not all gatherings emanate the requisite purity and consecration, but more likely because my spiritual perception is not so finely-tuned). But at this recent Feast of Names, I felt them. Palpably. And something tells me the Chief did, too.

A snapshot of some of the friends during the social portion. The Chief is seated beside the hot pink songbooks.

_________

*“Technically, “ Feast is meant to be just for Bahá’ís (in fact, it’s the only Bahá’í activity generally not open to the wider community), since only Bahá’ís are permitted to give to the Fund, and sensitive issues may be discussed during the administrative portion, among other reasons. Yet—as in everything we do—love and inclusivity are the most important things, and no visitor should ever be turned away from a Feast. Here, where there are always new people popping into the Centre, it’d be tricky to keep Feast as a Bahá’í-only affair. So we took the liberty of inviting the Chief. We hope that’s OK. 🙂

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All walking is discovery. On foot we take the time to see things whole.
~Hal Borland

Two things (always happen when you take a walk along the Carib Territory Road). The first is that, when venturing out of your home in Gaulette River and onto the Road, whatever plans you made for the day will probably not unfold as expected. Secondly, whatever amount of time you allotted for getting from Point A to Point B must be tripled, or perhaps quadrupled. ‘Cause you never know what might happen along the way.

My dearly loved friend Tamara is visiting from Iraq/the States, and in the week that she’d been here, she hadn’t yet experienced the Northern hamlets of the Carib Territory: Bataca, Crayfish River, Salybia. So, last Saturday morning, when Vern and Marvis invited us to take a long walk down the road to visit their Auntie Mims in Bataca, we readily acceded. Not only would this be a good opportunity for Tamara to see more of the Carib Reserve, but Mims lives in a really cool place, with a big, inviting hammock on the front porch, and an art-filled stage where cultural festivals (such as the Miss Kalinago Pageant in September) are held.

Normally, it takes about an hour and a half to reach Bataca on foot, so we put on some good walking shoes (well, good walking flip-flops), filled up our water bottles, and were off. We hadn’t taken three steps to the north when a big red Dumper pulled up beside us. A familiar voice shouted from the front, “Hop in back!” Marvis and Emelda, and a couple of Yes We Care workers, it turned out, were nestled (quite cozily!) in the Dumper’s cab, and were headed to Bataca to deliver food parcels for the infirm and elderly (this is part of the mission of Yes We Care, a wonderful program for which Emelda serves as coordinator). So we “hopped”—well, awkwardly climbed—into the back, and found a seat among the bags of food. I love riding in the back of vehicles, especially here. The breeze is cool, the view is sensational, and—in the absence of a Disneyland or Six Flags in the Carib Territory—this is the closest you come to taking a roller coaster ride.

A fun little aside about vehicle names here. A “Dumper” is pretty much a big garbage truck, used for transport of equipment or oversized cargo.  A “Coaster” is what we in the States would refer to as a bus. But here, a “Bus” is what we’d call a van (we take a “Bus” to Roseau…unless we’re lucky enough to hitch a free ride on the back of a “Van”). A “Van” is the Dominican term for a pick-up truck. And a “Truck” is another word for a Dumper. Got that? 😉

So there we were in the back of the big red “Truck,” barreling towards Bataca. We made a few stops along the way to deliver the food bags, and to pick up a couple of youth who’d be joining us on the visit to Mims…but even with all the stops, we reached our destination far too quickly (I never want rides-on-the-back-of-vehicles to end. Unless, of course, it’s raining. But on this particular occasion, the rain doesn’t appear ‘til later in the story).

We walked up the steep hill to Mims’ place, only to find that Mims was out for the day. The youth opted to stay there, lounging in the hammock and helping Mims’ cousin make sashes for the upcoming Ms. Kalinago pageant. But Tamara and I had something else in mind: the Bataca Bakery, one of my favorite places in the Carib Territory. The best thing about it is its unassuming simplicity: at first glance, it just looks like a plain wooden house. The aroma of freshly baked bread gives it away, however, but when you walk up the rickety wooden steps and through the Bakery’s door, the bread is nowhere in sight. In fact, you won’t even see the word “bread”—this place has no signs, or anything else (aside from that tantazlising smell) that would indicate that bread is baked and sold here. In these parts, word of mouth is the most effective form of advertizing. Whyever would you waste money on a sign?

This bakery is not a place for one hoping to enjoy a cinnamon bun or an almond latte. The Bataca Bakery offers one item and one item alone: small loaves of crusty white bread. And they are divine…rivaling, even, my grandmother’s famous “Mrs. Markowitz’ Bread.” Yes, Weilers who are reading this, the Bataca bread is that good. We can buy these little loaves from the roadside shops in each hamlet, but nothing compares to procuring one fresh out of the oven. Tamara and I bought five loaves that day. We each polished off one and a half, and (rather reluctantly) saved the other two to share with the youth. With a quick stop for nice cold Cokes, we were fueled for the long walk home.

Of course, the walk ended up being much longer than we’d anticipated, but in the most wonderful of ways.

As we rounded a bend near Crayfish River, a call from somewhere above our heads reached our ears: “Den-Den!” We stopped. What was that? Where was it coming from? We looked around, and saw a figure waving its arms from the front porch of a home on a very steep hill. Was that….Dinnees? Dinnees! She has been mentioned a lot on this blog, I believe. Dinnees, who owns the house we live in, is our former neighbor/housemate, and we’ve missed her a lot since she and her son Dante moved to Crayfish River. We turned around and headed back around the bend and up that steep hill, where we were warmly greeted by Dinnees, her boyfriend Steve, Dante, and Steve’s daughter Sheriann. “We just finished lunch,” Dinnees told us. “If only you’dve come a little earlier! Would you like a glass of Tang with ice?” We nodded appreciatively. Tang may not seem like the most thrilling of beverages, but when you’ve been walking along a road in the mid-day sun, in the Caribbean, in the month of August, even Tang holds a mighty appeal. As we gulped down our drinks, Tamara remarked that she’d never enjoyed a glass of Tang quite so immensely. Nor had I. We sat on the front porch for a while, delighting in the cool breeze and the glorious ocean view. We watched two fishing boats make their way out to sea as Steve, a fisherman himself, told us stories of rough waters and miraculous catches. A fisherman’s life is a good one, it seems…especially as it involves a meal of fresh fish at the end of each day.

As the fishing boats began drifting towards the horizon, with the sun languidly following suit, we deemed it time to head back down the road. Gaulette River was still a ways away. On the outskirts of Crayfish River, we passed a familiar craft shop on our right, with large baskets hanging from a roof of dried palm leaves. Seated on a small wooden bench beside the shop was the basket-weaver himself: Mr. David Burton, one of the first Bahá’ís in the Carib Territory. Although advanced in age, Mr. Burton works six days a week on construction projects in the northern city of Portsmouth, and as a result, we rarely see him. Yet the few times we were able to visit, he received us with kindness and joy, and a warm “Alláh-u-Abhá” (a common greeting amongst Bahá’ís, meaning “God is Most Glorious). He called us over as soon as he spotted us, and quickly rose to offer us his seat on the small wooden bench. “Would you eat some ripe figs?” he inquired. We smiled. “Of course!” Mr. Burton darted into the craft shop, and returned bearing a basketful of bananas, which he placed into our hands. As we peeled our ripe figs, our host told us of business at the craft shop (quite slow during off-season…tourists don’t seem to favor the Caribbean in the summertime), and showed us how he carves birds, butterflies, and the Dominican flag in a calabash shell. As we admired his handiwork, I was reminded of a quote from Bahá’u’lláh:

The one true God, exalted be He, loveth to witness handiworks of high craftsmanship produced by His loved ones. Blessed art thou, for what thy skill hath produced hath reached the presence of they Lord, the Exiled, the Wronged. Please God every one of His friends may be enabled to acquire one of the crafts, and be confirmed in adhering to what hath been ordained in the Book of God, the All-Glorious, the All-Wise.

When we’d finished our ripe figs and learned the intricacies of calabash carving, we bid good day to our friend, thanked him for his kind hospitality, and resumed our walk down the road. We hadn’t gotten far when a voice called from behind us: “Heeeey! You all are just going to walk past without stopping in to say hello?” It’s true—we’d committed what is a cardinal sin in these parts: passing by the home of a friend without even giving a shout. We turned around sheepishly, to see dear Ms. Linda—juice maker extraordinaire, and my teacher of many good church songs—standing in her doorway smiling at us. “Are you too busy to come inside for a cold glass of guava juice?” she asked. We assured her that we were never too busy for a glass of her famous juice, and settled ourselves comfortably on her living room sofa. All the juice here is quite good—it’s totally natural, consisting only of the fruit from the tree in the yard, water, and maybe a bit of brown sugar. But there is something extra special about Ms. Linda’s juice. Maybe because she adds ice, and mixes it in a blender. Or maybe ‘cause she makes it with so much love, and shares it with every passerby who has time to stop and say hello. I still felt a little ashamed that we hadn’t initially stopped to say hello.

We chatted for a while as we sipped our delicious juice, until Ms. Linda needed to get ready for her Saturday evening church service, and we were back on the road. Just after we passed the “Thank you for visiting Salybia” sign, we spotted Marvis and Vern—who’d reached home long before we did—waving to us from their granny’s home on the hill. “Come up!” they called. I absolutely adore Marvis and Vern’s granny. Her name is Jeanine, but she’s known in the community as Ma Ti Pop. She’s got a fiery personality, but a very big heart. She loves to drink coffee, nap beneath the big Grafted Mango tree in her yard, and make suggestive jokes. J When she saw us approaching, she threw up her hands. “Oh no!” she lamented. “I have nothing to offer you!” Last time, she’d treated me to a heaping plate of chicken and green bananas. The time before, it was bakes (fry bread) and coffee with milk. It makes her very happy to feed people, and the fact that she had nothing to serve that afternoon was clearly distressing her. We showered her with hugs, and reassured her that our bellies were very full already, and that we were content with just a hug and a smile. “At least let me offer you a seat,” she insisted. She pulled two green plastic chairs into her tiny living room, and we sat down contentedly, gazing through the window at the sea and sky…both of which, we soon noticed, were turning grey. Rain was coming, and we decided to make a run for it.

Now, pretty much the only time when one can make it from Point A to Point B directly (that is, without making a myriad stops to shoot the breeze, drink a glass of guava juice, etc) is when rain is falling. The moment the skies start to darken, folks grab their laundry from the line, scurry inside, and tightly close their doors and windows, not to re-emerge until the rains pass. Sure enough, as we headed down Ma Ti Pop’s hill and back onto the (now empty!) Carib Territory Road, we felt the first raindrops on our shoulders. We quickened our pace, but the downpour was faster. We started to sort of trot, but then realized we were already soaking wet, so we might as well slow down. Besides, who wants to run when your belly is full of Bataca Bread, Tang, ripe figs, and guava juice?

So we strolled. And the rain didn’t last long. By the time we reached the final bend in the road before home, the skies were dry, the windows were re-opened, and the good people of Gaulette River were calling out their hellos.

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Hello friends,

For this week’s posting, I’ll be taking you on a little photo tour of our new Bahá’í Centre (yeah, they use the British spelling here, the novelty of which never wears off for me!). It is still the same, sweet little one-room structure, nestled between the St. Cyr Post Office and Kimberly and Granny’s home on the side of the Carib Territory Road…but it has undergone a beautiful renovation.

This renovation took place last month, while Liz was visiting. Being the daughter of great visual artist Bunch Washington, and having a keen eye for aesthetics, she couldn’t help but notice the shabbiness of the Centre’s interior. The walls were covered with faded pictures of world flags, London, and Queen Elisabeth (of all people). There was a picture or two of the Holy Land, but they were matted on ratty old paper, and hung–quite unsymmetrically–in the inside of the doors. Here are a couple of photos that show the Centre in its previous state (notice Queen Elisabeth in the second photo, right above my head):

We asked Francillia  if it’d be okay if we (gently) laid Queen Elisabeth and the shabby old London posters to rest, and re-organize the rest of the wall-hangings, and she was all for it. Little did we know that this simple act of re-arranging would unleash an outpouring of creative energy on the part of the neighborhood children and youth, resulting in a truly collective (and spontaneous!) beautification project.

When we began taking down those old posters from the Centre’s wooden walls, it was just three of us: Liz, Marvis, and myself. But pretty soon Dillon and Briana appeared. And then Vern and Emmon. And Delbert, and Pim-Pim, and Kira, and Barrinton. Everyone wanted to help…and before we knew it, the Centre was being transformed. But here’s the coolest thing about it: no one was told what to do. Everyone found their own space of wall, cabinet, or door, and set about making it beautiful with whatever means available to them. Someone found some glitter glue, someone else found some finger paint, someone else took those pictures of the Holy Land–geting soft and wrinkled around the edges–and cut and re-matted them so they looked brand new. That tiny Centre was spilling over with creativity, and empowerment, and inspiration. We’d begun early in the morning, and stayed there til the sun went down and we could no longer see the paintbrushes in our hands.

Here are some pictures of the NEW, and oh-so-improved, Community Baha’i Centre:

These pictures of the Holy Land now occupy the center panel of one of the walls. One of the youth, while standing back and beholding the pictures of those heavenly gardens, proclaimed: “One day, we’re gonna full a whole LIAT plane with Carib Territory Baha’is, and make our Pilgrimage. It’s gonna be so nice, man. Yeah.”

These lions were painted by Barrinton, an 18-year-old with great artistic ability. He also painted a scene with a waterfall and palm trees on one of the other wooden cabinets. When I walked in and saw him writing a large word under the lions, I admit that I got a little nervous…but was humbled to discover that the word he’d written with so much care and meticulousness was none other than “UNITY.”

Pim-Pim and I worked on this cabinet together. We thought this would be a good quote for the Centre since it’s featured in both “Breezes of Confirmation” (the first Junior Youth book) and “Reflections on the Life of the Spirit” (Ruhi Book 1), two texts regularly studied in the Centre…plus, it’s welcoming and friendly. 😉 Pim-Pim, also a gifted artist, loves to depict the ring-stone symbol, and recently made a beautiful watercolor painting of it with an intricate flower border. St. John Stoute, one of the Local Spiritual Assembly members, painted the red and yellow birds (or are they seahorses? Well, they are lovely, either way).

The colorful masterpiece on this section of wall was created by Mr. Dillon Bannis, who has just turned six. He worked on it all day long, and was exceedingly proud of his creation. You can see that he signed his name in block letters in the bottom right hand corner, and even returned to the Centre the very next morning to put the finishing touches on his work. It was clear how delighted he was to be able to contribute to this project in a meaningful way, and I often catch him stariing at his section of wall in admiration.

This 9-Pointed star was made by Marvis, who found some scraps of fabric, a needle and thread, colorful foam shapes, and some glitter glue…and a couple of hours later, produced this beautiful handiwork. I love it so much that I used it as my facebook profile picture for a couple of weeks.

This wooden carving of the Greatest Name was made by Marvis’ uncle, Petit Freire, a gifted wood crafter. He didn’t know the significace of the symbol he was carving when he first made it, but once he learned, he exclaimed, “Oh! I should have made a huge one, then!”

This cabinet was a collaborative effort, combining the talents of Vern, Kira, and Emmon. The other half, which didn’t fit in the picture, depicts a woman with a conversation bubble proclaiming: “Let truthfulness be your foundation!” Vern also made a banner with the quote “So powerful is the light of unity that it can illumine the whole earth,” but it fell down after a day or so. The glue we’d used, apparently, is not quite so powerful as the light of unity.

We painted the edges of the windows bright blue, like some of the holy sites in Akka and Haifa. This thin panel of wood is what we use as a chalkboard for the children’s classes and reflection meetings. And of course, the picture of ‘Abdu’l-Baha, beaming as He beholds the colors and vibrancy and warmth of the Carib Territory Baha’i Centre.

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Let them never forget the imperative to tend to the needs of the children of the world, and offer them lessons that develop their spiritual faculties and lay the foundations of a noble and upright character.

Universal House of Justice, 20 October 2008

We stopped teaching our children’s classes immediately after returning from Trinidad. It may seem like a strange course of action, as part of the reason we’re here is to help establish and promote these classes…but the main reason we’re in Dominica, as articulated by the Universal House of Justice in the 2010 Ridván Message is to help “raise capacity within a population to take charge of its own spiritual, social and intellectual development.”

That time and energy we spent preparing for and teaching those children’s classes, we realized, could be much better spent training and accompanying children’s class teachers. Pretty obvious, right?

There is a Great Law of the Universe called “Ask and Ye Shall Receive”…and I guess I need constant reminders that—in this earthly experience—it’s as dependable as the law of gravity (provided we’re not asking for something that will impede our, or others’, development). Predictably, once we started focusing our prayers and efforts in the direction of finding children’s class teachers, two of them dropped from the sky…and are now bringing more vim, vigor, and creativity to the St. Cyr class than we ever could have hoped for.

So the St. Cyr classes were covered. But the Gaulette River and Mahaut (pronounced Mah-HO) River kids remained teacher-less. Nothing appeared to be resulting from our increased searching and supplications, and we began to question the reliability of the Great Law of the Universe. But then, last week, I took a walk down to Mahaut River to buy some current from Mr. Paul’s wholesale shop (light here, like cell phone credit, is pay-as-you-go, and our meter had reached zero two nights before. Another Great Law of the Universe, which I’m sure we’re all well familiar with, is its Omnipresent Sense of Humor…which dictates that our current always seems to run out on a Friday night. This wouldn’t be a problem, except that Mr. Paul is a 7th-Day Adventist, and—Saturday being his Sabbath—the wholesale shop is closed. It also happens to be the only place to buy current in the Carib Territory).

Anyhow. It must’ve been a Sunday morning, as I walked down the Mahaut River stretch of the Carib Territory Road, when 9-year-old Daniela (known by the neighborhood kids as Tu-Tu) came running up to me. “Den-Den!” she called. “It have children’s class this week?” I sighed. These conversations made my heart heavy, and I felt so tempted to just re-start that class myself. There are few things worse than disappointing a child.

“Sweetie,” I began, “the classes are on hold for a while, remember?”

Tu-Tu tilted her head. “Why?”

Deep breath. “Well…we have to find someone who will be able to keep teaching the class when Roushy and I leave next year…and, uh, we haven’t found anyone yet.” In effort to end the conversation, I handed Tu-Tu a piece of chewing gum (as if this would make up for the lack of a children’s class) and moved towards Mr. Paul’s shop.  But Tu-Tu stayed rooted to the spot, just looking at me. She suddenly nodded decisively, took my hand, and said “Let’s go talk to my sister. She’ll teach the class.”

Her sister?

Minutes later, I found myself walking across an overgrown lawn and standing on the doorstep of a small concrete home. A makeshift swing hung from the guava tree beside us, and the yard was strewn with fallen leaves and pieces of garbage. Somehow, I’d never noticed this house before. “Jessy!” Tu-Tu hollered. “Thewhitelady is here to talk to you about a children’s class!” (I am known by one of two names in Dominica: Den-Den or Whitelady).

Soon Jessy—a very young mother with a toddler on her hip—appeared in the doorway, looking distracted. We’d exchanged hellos in passing, I realized, but I had never learned her name. “Hi,” I said awkwardly. “Uh, Daniela thought you might be interested in teaching a children’s class?” Jessy looked at her sister quizzically, and I rushed to offer a flustered explanation of the children’s class program. She listened patiently, but I couldn’t help but feel I was disturbing her/that she had too much else to worry about/that my very presence was a burden. All those doubts that creep in no matter how many times they’ve been proven specious. So, in the very same breath as inviting her to teach the class, I made an excuse for her not teaching. I don’t remember my exact words, but it was probably something like “Well-it-would-be-great-if-you-could-teach-but-I-know-you’re-probably-really-busy…” Eeeesh.

But Jessy smiled. “Sure, I’ll teach the class,” she said.

“Y-you will?”

“Yeah,” she replied. “Why not?” Yes, Den-Den, why not? Are your own prejudices and fears preventing you from recognizing the capacity in this young woman because she’s a teenage mother? Are you worried that the accompaniment process would be too slow and laborious? Well, sorry, Whitelady. You’re not getting out of this one so easily.

We arranged to meet the next day to plan and prepare for the class, which could be held, Jessy said, every Tuesday afternoon. But I was skeptical. I thought she’d probably just agreed out of politeness (and because we’d sort of ambushed her), and half-expected her to forget all about our meeting on Monday. Oh, me of little faith.

As I made my way to Jessy’s the following afternoon, an elderly couple sitting by the road greeted me. “Good afternoon!” they called. “Are you going to Jessy’s to prepare for the class?” Um, yes. Wait—how do they know? Sure, in the Carib Territory everyone knows everything about everyone else, but I still wasn’t prepared for this children’s class idea to be taken seriously. Huh. I guess this meant Jessy hadn’t forgotten after all.

Although there’s only one road here, I thought I’d taken a wrong turn when I reached Jessy’s home. There was the little concrete house, there was the guava tree with the rickety swing…but the yard had been transformed. The piles of litter were picked up, the grass and brambles had been cut, and every stray leaf had been removed from the lawn. Tu-Tu, Jessy, and another young woman I vaguely recognized were seated on the stoop. Tu-Tu jumped up when she saw me. “We’ve been waiting for you!” she exclaimed. The sisters introduced me to their cousin, Chris, who, they explained, lived next door and would be helping with the class. And who, it turns out, is a natural teacher. After we’d studied some excerpts from Ruhi Book Three, “Teaching Spiritual Education Classes for Children,” and planned out the first lesson, Chris started brainstorming. “Why don’t we invite all the parents to a celebration when we finish all the lessons?” she suggested. “The kids could recite all the prayers and quotes they learned, and could perform little skits for their families.” Uh, yeah. That sounds absolutely fantastic. “I’m gonna practice telling this story over and over,” she added, “because we have to tell it in such a way that it doesn’t put them to sleep. We need to make sure they really understand the main idea, no true?” True. True indeed. My goodness gracious.

I walked home in an incredulous daze. Where on earth did these two champions come from? Oh yeah: right down the road. They were there all along. How many other potential community-builders, I wondered, have we overlooked? A voice from across the road shook me from my thoughts. “Excuse me, Miss?” I turned, and rolled my eyes. It was a group of young men from the neighborhood, many of whom were notoriously troublesome, and I’d long since lost patience with their antics and cat-calling. I ignored them, and kept walking. I am deplorably far from attaining the station called for in the Bahá’í Writings, that of letting our hearts burn with loving-kindness for all who cross our path. I heard one of those troublemakers run up behind me, and this time I spun around. The fire in my eyes was not one of loving-kindness, and the poor young man sensed it. He stopped in his tracks, and blushed. “Sorry,” he stammered. “Sorry to bother you. I…I just wanted to know if the yard was okay?”

“What?” I asked, totally confused.

“The yard,” he said softly. “I…well…Jessy is my girlfriend. She told me about the children’s class tomorrow, and asked me to make the yard look nice. So I took the day off work today to clean it up. Does it look alright?”

I wanted to die of shame. Of shame, or of a bursting heart—unable to bear the enormity of the love I felt at that moment for Jessy, for Chris, for Tu-Tu, for this young father who’d sacrificed a day’s wages to beautify the yard, for the Great Laws of the Universe…and for the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh, reminding us that in each and every human being lie “gems of inestimable value.”

I guess some of us just need constant reminders.

*Tu-Tu is pictured, on the right, in the photograph above.

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