Around the world, young people come together to talk about community service

In Brief: 
  • From July through October, the worldwide Bahá’í community organized 114 regional youth conferences.
  • Drawing more than 80,000 young people, the events promoted a vigorous discussion on how participants might commit “to a life of service.”
  • The meetings sought to inspire youth from diverse backgrounds to consider deeply what it means to look beyond their own concerns and work for the betterment of the world.

ULAANBAATAR, Mongolia—With temperatures below freezing here for most of the year, Mongolians cherish the short summer, a season for celebrating and enjoying the good weather.

So it was significant when more than 800 youth from all parts of the country chose to gather in August to discuss what it means to be a young person and how they can contribute to the social and spiritual advancement of their region.

“If we strive towards the betterment of society together, we will be able to correct social ills and create a new civilization,” said one youth.

Those remarks reflected the inspiration felt by the more than 80,000 young people who participated in a series of 114 youth conferences that were undertaken around the world by the worldwide Bahá’í community during the months of July through October 2013.

Called for by the Universal House of Justice, the international governing body of the Bahá’í Faith, the conferences had the aim of helping youth around the world commit themselves “to a life of service” and to encouraging them to work for the “transformation” of society so that “the light of justice may shed its radiance upon the whole world.”

By all accounts, the meetings were overwhelmingly successful in inspiring and motivating young people from diverse backgrounds to consider deeply what it means to look beyond their own concerns and work to help others.

“What I took to be the goal was to inspire and move youth to action, to serve their communities and to overcome obstacles in their way to serve, and to clarify their vision about how they could meaningfully serve and help transform their communities,” said Ann Boyles, a member of the Continental Board of Councilors for the Americas, who was present at four conferences.

“And I think many participants came away with a sense of clarity not only that they can serve in their neighborhood—but also that this is happening all over the world, as a global movement, and that there are thousands and thousands of other youth who share with them a deep conviction that they can actually work together for the betterment of society by learning how to promote unity and the transformation of their communities in small settings around the world,” said Dr. Boyles.

Broad reflection

Youth attending the conferences were asked to reflect deeply on a series of broad questions. These included: What is the role of your generation in society? What is special about the period of youth? What is the nature of friendship and how can one foster support for service to others? What role do youth have in building a “vibrant” new life in their communities? And how can one balance work, marriage and education with the vision of building a new society in the world?

“They were given these broad themes, and invited to think about them,” said Dr. Boyles. “But the actions they decided to undertake were really all their own. Nobody was telling them what to do.”

Many young people pledged to return to their home communities and begin service projects. Such commitments to action included things like acting as facilitators of groups for the spiritual empowerment of younger youth or volunteering to teach moral education classes for children.

In Bophal, India, one youth said: “Until the conference I had never thought about my community. All I knew and thought of was of my work and career. But during these three days, I came to understand that the purpose of my life is to care for others. So when I go home, I will gather the younger youth in my neighborhood and help them to develop the capacities they need to bring about constructive change in our community.”

At the conference in Cali, Colombia, youth drew maps of their neighborhoods and villages, analyzed their needs and opportunities, and planned the next steps. The young representatives from the community of Alegrías, a village of about 2,000 inhabitants, wrote down the names of their closest friends and planned to invite them to a gathering where they would share the concepts discussed during the conference, and invite these friends to serve their communities alongside them.

Local officials involved

In many places, local officials praised the conferences and their purpose. At a conference in Kenya, for example, a local chief attended the first session and expressed his support for the efforts of the Bahá’í community to bring youth together and facilitate their efforts to rise to build a better society.

In Otavalo, Ecuador, the mayor visited the conference and expressed happiness at seeing young people from different backgrounds working together, noting the “beauty of the diversity of the human race.”

The conferences were open to youth of all religions, and many who are not Bahá’ís participated. In Dakar, it was estimated that more than half of the conference attendees were friends of Bahá’ís, from other religious backgrounds.

The conference also featured extensive use of music and the arts. In Helsinki, Finland, for example, young people wrote a spoken-word poem about the qualities of a person who assists younger youth, performed a skit exploring the power of language to strengthen or impede one’s desire to be of service, and created a visual presentation where they intertwined strips of fabric to show the level of trust and faith implied in mutual support.

At the conference in Nuku’alofa, Tonga, young people used songs, skits, dances, and visual arts to articulate the concepts they were exploring. One group, for example, presented a poster that illustrated how young people are like a coral reef that will one day become an island, and how, with service at the center of their lives, they must be united against the waves of negative forces in order to build healthy and vibrant communities.

In Bidor, Malaysia, a group of youth from a particular village discussed the conditions that had led some peers to travel to bigger towns and cities for employment, highlighting the contribution that they felt their generation could make by staying in the village and helping it to advance materially and spiritually. Another group considered how the processes of studying, getting married, or having children are enriched when one places service to the community as a cornerstone for living. “Now that we have a child,” said one young mother from Kampung Das, “I don’t want to stop working for the betterment of my community. I hope that my efforts will contribute to creating a healthy environment for our child to grow up in.”