07 Oct Love Means Rebuilding
First I want to tell you a quick story about a city. My city. Then we’ll talk about what it can mean for the growth of your local Baha’i community.
My wife and I recently moved to Jersey City, New Jersey, so close to Manhattan that we’re staring it in the face every morning when we wake up. JC is the definition of an up-and-coming town — there are a handful of high-rises under construction at any given time, there are tempting new restaurant options every time we walk over by Grove Street, and tens of thousands of new people like us making it home.
It wasn’t always like this. If you tell someone who hasn’t been here in the last few years that you’ve just moved in, they normally look at you like you’re nuts. Like many American cities, JC has seen its share of ups and downs. A century back, around the time that Howard Colby Ives left his home here every morning to visit Abdu’l-Baha across the river, Jersey City was prospering, with its docks full of ships, factories running at full tilt, and a respectable cultural life that its citizens were proud of. By the 1970’s, however, this place was a run-down wreck. Middle class people had moved to the suburbs, companies had stopped investing in downtown, and crime rates were at historic highs. In the 80’s things got even worse.
What could be done?
Simply put, Jersey City adopted an “outward looking orientation”. City leaders consulted on the challenges, helped dream up a vision of what JC could be based on its strengths and geographical advantages, and started to implement the changes. Derelict warehouses were torn down. New residential districts were created with parks and mass transit in mind. Subway stations were rebuilt and old carriages replaced. Pedestrian plazas were put in (currently, you can sit and play on a piano in the middle of Newark Avenue). Jersey City became a place worth visiting and living.
Then the city started telling its story.
But make no mistake, they’re not trying to appeal to everyone. Like any good marketer, they’ve identified their receptive population. As the mayor was recently quoted in the New York Times: “Someone wants to live in Manhattan, they’re going to live in Manhattan. We can compete with families thinking about Brooklyn [and] Queens.”With new ad campaigns targeted to these younger generations who otherwise would be focused on moving elsewhere, the city is planning for 50-70,ooo new residents by the end of this decade. Which is a lot, especially for an already established city with more than a quarter million people already here.
The story is spreading. Previous negative impressions of the area are diminishing along with the availability of rock-bottom rents. Recent migrants and pleased long-timers and telling their friends and family.
Okay, “great”, you say. Good for this gentrifying Northeastern US city. But what in the world does this have to do with Baha’i anything?
Just like a great city, most local Baha’i communities in the West have had their ups and downs. Many older Baha’is think back longingly on the 60’s and 70’s as a kind of golden era when the community was bigger, more energetic, and it was changing the world. Growth was everywhere, and it was easy to see.
For good and evil, things never seem to stay the same. For the last couple of decades, growth in the American Baha’i community has been limited, at best. Most of us feel more loved and guided by the House of Justice than ever, but many feel like our efforts are dispersed and ineffective. The old ways don’t seem to work anymore, and the culture for the new ones is still in its infancy and often misunderstood.
What can we do?
Develop an outward looking orientation, just like the House of Justice asked us to.
Just like Jersey City, our local Baha’i communities need to sit down with each other in a loving atmosphere and concentrate on building something worth coming to, whether it’s a warm and invigorating devotional gathering, study circles to help build new spiritual skills, a junior youth program to serve your neighborhood, or something else.
When you’ve decided what your community should focus on, it’s time to build a website so that seekers and Baha’is can find you and become part of your story. You may think that no one is searching for you on the internet, but trust me: they are.
When its good enough for the people in your Baha’i community to actually want to bring themselves and their family instead of just showing up out of a duty to “support the Core Activities”, then you know it’s time to invite seekers.
When seekers like it and invite their friends, it’s time to advertise to receptive populations on social media.
Rinse and repeat as necessary.