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  • Louis Venters

Of Temples and Trees: Social Change and the Emerging Bahá’í House of Worship in Rural Colombia

I recently read a thoughtful and inspiring article about unfolding plans for the establishment of a local Bahá’í house of worship in the village of Agua Azul in Norte del Cauca, a rural area with a large population of African descent between the Pacific Ocean and the Andes Mountains in southwestern Colombia. From what I’ve seen of the architectural renderings, the building itself will be simple, attractive, and functional, but not particularly remarkable in itself. What’s really exciting, I think, is what the project has meant for the social, economic, and intellectual development of the people of Norte del Cauca, one of the places in the world where the Bahá’í Faith is particularly deeply rooted and where its spiritual and social teachings are having a disproportionate effect on the population at large.

In concept, the Bahá’í temple is much more than a place of worship for the members of one small religion. It is a multifaceted institution, designed to serve all people, that is unfolding gradually as the worldwide Bahá’í community grows and develops. Known officially by the Arabic/Farsi title Mashriqu'l-Adhkár (“dawning-place of the mention of God”) the temple is rooted in the writings of the faith’s founders. In his Most Holy Book, Bahá’u’lláh says:

O people of the world! Build ye houses of worship throughout all the lands in the name of Him Who is the Lord of all religions. Make them as perfect as possible in the world of being, and adorn them with that which befitteth them, not with images and effigies. Then, with radiance and joy, celebrate therein the praise of your Lord, the Most Compassionate. Verily, by His remembrance the eye is cheered and the heart is filled with light.

Bahá’u’lláh and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá specified the nature and scope of the institution, eventually to be built in the heart of every city, town, and village: a nine-sided central edifice dedicated to individual and collective worship, free of sermons or rituals or sectarianism and open to all inhabitants, surrounded by beautiful gardens and agencies of social, scientific, and educational service for the entire community. The temple complex is thus the embodiment of the faith’s core principle of the reciprocity of worship and service, faith and reason. It is a concrete expression of the spiritual, social, and intellectual transformation of the world in what the Bahá’í writings claim is the era of humanity’s dawning maturity.

The world’s first such temple, in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, came the closest so far to fulfilling the vision in the faith’s scriptures, with a school, a hospital, and a travelers’ hostel surrounding the central edifice. The entire property was appropriated by the Soviet government in 1928 and the temple demolished in 1963. The second house of worship was raised half a world away in Wilmette, a northern suburb of Chicago in the United Staes. It was dedicated in 1953 and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. (The Wilmette temple is the spritual heart of the Bahá’í Faith in North America and a place that has been very important in my own family’s relationship with the religion. I happen to be heading there later this month, and I’m very much looking forward to participating in the opening of an impressive new welcome center that will significantly enhance visitors’ experience of the house of worship and its surrounding gardens.)

From the 1960s to the 1980s, as the faith established itself around the world, additional temples serving broad continental areas were raised in Australia, Germany, India, Panama, Uganda, and Western Samoa. The one in New Delhi, India, called the “Lotus Temple” because of its striking design, has become that country’s most visited building. A final continental temple, for South America, is currently under construction in Santiago, Chile. In 2012, the faith’s highest governing council announced that planning would begin for the first two temples designed to serve individual countries, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Papua New Guinea, and the first five local temples, in areas with significant Bahá’í populations in Cambodia, Colombia, India, Kenya, and Vanuatu.

The choice of Colombia as the location for one of the first local houses of worship comes as no surprise to anyone who is familiar with that country’s outsized contributions to the intellectual and cultural life of the global Bahá’í community. Beginning in the 1970s, the Bahá’ís in Colombia helped pioneer a worldwide movement to bring the faith’s teachings to people in rural areas and migrants to large cities. Among the fruits of the community’s efforts were the Ruhi Institute, the source of the curriculum for spiritual education adopted by Bahá’í communities around the world, and of SAT, an innovative alternative secondary school system that emphasizes the intellectual and economic empowerment of rural young people. (SAT has been successfuly implemented in a number of countries as well, mostly in Latin America; the Brookings Institution recently described it as an“educational revolution.”) On the northern coast, the colonial port city of Cartagena is home to Leonor Dely and Millero Congo, a musical group that skillfully blends the Bahá’í writings and Afro-Caribbean traditional music and has performed worldwide. Most recently, the Norte del Cauca area, home to the original Ruhi Institute campus, has been a site for the diffusion of learning about the junior youth spiritual empowerment program.

What emerges from this article is that a broad-based consultative process in which the Bahá’ís have sought to engage their neighbors in preparing for the construction of the temple has already begun to yield important new results. Initial discussions of the kinds of plants that should be included in the gardens surrounding the house of worship led to conversations about the need to restore the area's native ecosystem. A diverse group of inhabitants, including children and youth and traditional farmers--many of them not members of the Bahá’í Faith--has been receiving donations of native seeds, cultivating seedlings on the temple property, and making plans to reintroduce them into the surrounding countryside, where intensive sugarcane cultivation has devastated the indigenous forest.

Speaking in particular of the environmental project, one participant said: “When I began working on the land surrounding the House of Worship, I felt at that moment, that the thing that we were going to build was going to change the natural environment. This is a chance to change the destiny of the region.”

Another one noted more generally that “the House of Worship is the materialization of forty years of development in Norte del Cauca. Not only has the Bahá’í Faith developed in the region over these decades, but the region has developed together with the Bahá’í Faith.”

In this local temple project I think we are starting to get a taste of the capacity of the Bahá’í community to engage large numbers of people in the work of their collective development.

I’m looking forward to seeing what other fruits are borne from this movement in Colombia and the other areas where Bahá’í temples will rise in the next few years--including the island of Tanna, Vanuatu, evidently the hardest hit by Cyclone Pam last month.

And I hope that in the not too distant future, my own area in South Carolina--arguably the place in North America where the Bahá’í Faith has so far had the greatest effect on the life of society--will be ready to take similar steps!

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