Teaching Children, and Myself, About Service and Truthfulness
July 25, 2010
I've done my alloted time now: taught a Bahá'í children's class at a St. Paul public housing community center two weeks running, with around 10 children each time. None of whom are Bahá'ís, and neither are their parents. We learned about service and truthfulness. Well, I learned, and I hope they did too. And they taught me about karma. Perhaps I'll go back and help out some more.
First, who are these kids? A mixture of Asian and African immigrants, whites and African-Americans. Some of the Bahá'ís of St. Paul had met a few parents, and one in particular struck up a friendship with the community director. They came up with a plan for these classes, which teach virtues and morality from a Bahá'í perspective without getting into religious indoctrination. Some weeks there are fewer, some there are more — I did not attend this past week, and learned that the boys from one of the prior weeks came back and brought a bunch of friends, resulting in 20 children!
In prior summers' St. Paul's efforts at children's classes have faltered a bit. But this summer we finally have the core group of resources, and a primary planner, who are dedicated to making it happen. We want to see the kids have an opportunity for constructive and enriching activities, to form cross-cultural friendships, to learn about being good people in a world that doesn't always favor the good.
We start with prayers, including inviting the children to share any prayers they know (from any religious context). Then we try to have a song; I brought my acoustic guitar, rusty skills and un-glamorous voice. That is followed by a lesson on a passage from the Bahá'í writings, and finally by an activity (coloring, painting, etc) or game. Somewhere in there we provide snacks.
The two lessons I co/taught were on service and honesty. In the first one, we worked on learning "That one indeed is a man who, today, dedicateth himself to the service of the entire human race"  and in the second, "Truthfulness is the foundation of all human virtues" . We did this by repeating the quotation several times, learning the meaning of specific words, and then illustrating with several concrete examples. Finally we finished with a story that would further demonstrate the intent of the lesson. These are tough sentences for kids aged 7 to 11, who seem to come from a life that hasn't taught them the lessons I would expect based on my own privileged childhood.
The word "foundation" gave them some trouble. One 11 year old basically knew what it meant, and we had to explain it several times to the other kids. I admit I was surprised by this, and wondered just what these kids are learning. Then, some time later, we were talking about the story of the boy who cried wolf (in relation to truthfulness of course), and two sisters remarked that this is an example of karma! And then they proceeded to perfectly define karma! (at least in the American sense of the word). This demonstrated what I already believed to be true: they do not lack capacity, only knowledge.
I was also amazed when I heard their responses to a question about making a difference in the world: all of the answers were about nature. One child wanted to get everyone to recycle, another wanted to clean up the parks and common areas, and another spoke of filtering the oil out of the ocean and putting it back in the ground where it belongs. Meanwhile, two of these girls were drinking from liter bottles of sugary soft drinks, having no idea how bad that is for them, and that the plastic was made from that very same petroleum. But they had the first steps — they cared.
The Bahá'ís believe that building a world civilization that promotes the interests and well-being of all is not merely a pie-in-the-sky ideal: it is a potential reality that we must create, together. We believe that social and economic development is multi-faceted, and will ultimately be unsuccessful unles we provide each and all with the moral compass and spiritual foundation for making wise decisions. These children's classes are, the world-over, a key element of what we are doing to fulfill that grand idea of "building God's kingdom on Earth." Having experienced a glimmer of that, those words are now more fully transformed into meaning in my own mind.
- Bahá'u'lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, p 250. The passage whence this quotation comes is breathtaking, heralding a day when governments would agree on the means of peace, when peoples will have adopted a common language and currency, and all see themselves as members of the same human race.
- 'Abdu'l-Bahá, cited in Shoghi Effendi, The Advent of Divine Justice, p 26.