Two weeks ago I spent three inspiring, exhausting, chilly Spring days in dust-filled tents cozily squeezed in beside over 1,000 other youth between the ages of 15 and 30 who came from all over parts of South Africa, Mozambique, Swaziland, and Seychelles for no other purpose than to discuss how to make the world a better place. Daunted by how to even describe the full power of such an event in a blog post afterwards (and further postponed by getting sick after the conference and having little desire to do anything but sit in my bed and watch Friends for a week), I’ve finally decided to at least attempt to convey a tiny glimpse into the amazingness that was the Johannesburg Baha’i Youth Conference. To keep it simple, I’ve decided to present the reasons for its amazingness in list form:
Reason #1: Unity
This one is probably the single most incredible underlying factor in everything we did at the conference, including the existence of the conference itself. As I think I mentioned in my previous post, this conference was one of 114 youth conferences that have happened/are happening all over the word all for the same exact purpose of figuring out how as youth we can best render service to mankind and learn how to better support each other in our community-building activities. It was a historic event in many ways, as it is the first time the Universal House of Justice, the governing body of the Baha’is that provides guidance to Baha’i communities globally, has called for such conferences to take place around the world specifically focusing on youth. Likewise, the immensely positive response to the Universal House of Justice, in which tens of thousands of youth, Baha’i and otherwise, have gathered together in their respective parts of the globe reveals the vast scope of the occasion. From big, well-known cities like Chicago and Paris to far-off, less well-known ones like Port Moresby,Papua New Guinea and Antananarivo, Madagascar, it is incredible to fathom that the youth in every single one of these places came together as a result of the same set of guidance from the Universal House of Justice in Israel, inspired by one common vision of service to humanity, all to discuss similar themes and help each other in going on to transform their words into actions. Sitting among the diverse group of youth at the Johannesburg conference, I couldn’t help but feel inspired not only by the energetic group of people around me, but also by the ever-present thought in the back of my mind of the even wider family of youth I knew were joining us in every other corner of the globe.
Reason #2: DiversityI know I just kind of implied this one with the unity stuff, but I don’t just mean diversity in a geographical or cultural sense (although, making new friends from Saudi Arabia, Australia, Italy, South Africa, and Swaziland all in one weekend was pretty awesome), but also in terms of people’s lifestyles and even economic background. People always talk about the evident segregation that often exists between racial groups whether in the U.S. or here in South Africa, but I feel like an equally common form of segregation that is less often discussed are those based on different economic circumstances. Especially in Joburg, where crime is a huge issue and the most dangerous areas also tend to be the least economically well-off ones, the divide becomes even deeper when people remain confined to their nice, gated communities. The thing I liked about the conference was that some youth had a lot of money, some had barely any, and none of this seemed to matter in any way. It was just another opportunity to learn from people’s experiences and gain a better awareness of the different kinds of struggles people have had to face in their lives.
Reason #3: Hope
This is a big one. I don’t know about you, but I can’t even describe the number of times I’ve had people say to me, “Why bother trying to make the world a better place. No matter how much you try to fix things, in the end, people just suck and nothing will really change. There will always be war. There will always be hatred. You can never have world peace and a unified world. All you can do is make the most of your own life and do what’s best for you.” (okay, this is a compilation of what people have said. No one has said all of this at once, but you get the point.) Not to mention the interesting reaction I often encounter when describing the Baha’i Faith to people and its central purpose of unifying mankind: “Is it a hippy religion?” ….What is it about the prospect of a unified world in the future that is so unimaginable to people? Okay, I mean I guess looking at the current state of things, I could understand people’s pessimism, but I think if people actually took a second to look at the seeds of unity and change that have taken root all over the world, and particularly in the mindsets and actions of today’s youth, it would be impossible to ignore the vast potential there. That is why an event like this conference is so important. I wish that every single person with an ounce of pessimism in their hearts and vision of doubt about the good in the world in their minds could have witnessed this incredible gathering of youth. I wish they could have seen all of the high-school aged youth, even the ones in their beanies and skinny jeans and ‘yeah, I’m cool cuz I rap and wear sunglasses at night’-facades (I particularly enjoyed the rapper kid who came up to me to complement me on my American accent and inquire into how he can get one), voluntarily spending their weekend studying passages about service and making plans to teach children and start groups for younger youth in their communities. These same youth, who much of our society still glances at and brushes off as materialistic, apathetic, and self-centered beings, are capable of initiating so much change in the world when simply given a bit of direction and encouragement.
And I wish everyone could have witnessed those beautiful moments in the tents when, filled to capacity with youth of all ages and colors, they would fill with the sound of a thousand voices in any number of accents proclaiming their joy for life through a Zulu or Portuguese or English song about the oneness of mankind against the backdrop of pounding drums and clapping hands, accompanied by swaying hips and a contagious energy that manifested itself in vibrant dancing. If anyone with doubts about the possibility of a future global civilization characterized by love and unity felt the spirit in those tents at such moments and gazed upon the sea of youthful faces expressing such joy, I guarantee, at least for that moment, that their doubts would be dispelled. And, in their place, a new sentiment would take hold – one powerful enough to inspire them to think beyond their own limitations and feel compelled to join in the efforts towards the creation of such a world civilization: hope.
Reason #4: The Power of Youth
And of course, as a final amazingness reason, I cannot fail to mention the one that was kind of the central theme of the entire conference: youth. So many people talk about how important “the youth” are and how they are “our future” and how it is so important to educate them and guide them on the right path and all that other good stuff, which is all completely good and true, but how often does society actually look to the youth themselves for guidance? (and I apologize for my use of the word ‘society’ btw…I realize it’s an awful vague and cliché term that doesn’t really mean anything in itself but I can’t think of a better one at the moment). Like really, think of all the obnoxious jokes that go around about the “millennials” for instance and how lazy and privileged they are. I know that most people don’t actually subscribe to such ridiculous generalizations that attempt to characterize and pass judgement on an entire generation of people, but nonetheless, such stereotypes about today’s youth still seem to influence a lot of the way we’re treated (in school, in the workplace, in general). One thing that is so inspiring to me as a Baha’i is the absolutely vital and central role that youth play in the progress of the Faith, and really, in the progress of mankind. One of the central figures of the Baha’i Faith, the Báb (who foretold the coming of the founder, Baha’u’llah) was in fact only twenty five when He delivered his message to the world. Countless other youth became some of the first Baha’is and even sacrificed their lives alongside the Báb all to spread His teachings. They were the ones who enabled the Baha’i Faith to become the amazing and ever-growing world religion that it is today, and it is their example of courage and certitude and sacrifice that lends inspiration to the role of youth in the Faith today.
A lot of the conference was spent talking about the fact that as youth, we have a special capacity to serve that we may not have at other points in life: we’re at a period where we aren’t necessarily tied down by family or work obligations and don’t have a specific path ahead of us, which in many ways gives us a lot of freedom to devote our thoughts and time towards serving mankind. Another point of discussion, though, was the caution we must take in not having a fragmented approach to life in which we create false choices between things like serving and studying or serving and working — rather, by viewing everything we do in life as an opportunity to provide service to someone, all of our actions naturally become part of our overall efforts towards building a better world. We also have great potential to influence younger youth simply by nature of being older youth. As such, it is imperative that we take hold of this opportunity to work with junior youth and children in our communities to prepare them for lives of service and assist them in their moral and spiritual development.
So, not to go on and on about everything we discussed at the conference, but basically, youth are powerful. Not just powerful in the sense that we can do good things in the world, but powerful in the sense that we are absolutely vital to its transformation. In a sense, it is absolutely terrifying how much power we have — for it implies a huge responsibility and sense of urgency to take action and make the most of this fleeting period of our lives. But, bearing in mind the collective action and unified vision that such a task requires, and realizing the mutual support that comes from the global community of youth working towards the same goals, it is mostly just inspiring.