Last week I spent 7 days working alongside 30 other staff to facilitate a Baha'i camp for over 70 youth. There is much to share. I attended the first Carmel session ever in 1995 as an awkward 13 year old and I've only missed two or three years since, transitioning along the way from a camper to a counselor to an organizer. It was this camp, plus a few other annual events, that brought me out of my spiritual lethargy. They inspired me to actually sit down and read a Baha'i book just before my 17th birthday and get involved throughout the year with other Baha'i youth.
For those who don't know, the Baha'i camps in Oregon have always been pretty advanced compared to the rest of the country. Just a few years ago, there were four in the state (now three) plus another two on the Washington side not far from Portland. Most states have only one or two, if any. Going back even further, there was an old camp called "Lobstock" in Lobster Valley (you can tell some hippies were involved in naming that one!) that galvanized dozens of youth into direct travel teaching projects around the state. There were also other smaller intermittent youth gatherings. Back in the 1980s when only a small section of the public knew of the Faith, these periodic gatherings provided a dose of medicine to isolated believers who were starved for the fellowship of other Baha'is. Annual gatherings became the focal point for growth over a large area, providing a Baha'i education and facilitating social connections between hundreds of people.
But that was the eighties. Around the year 2000 things started to change in the worldwide Baha'i community. In the United States, public recognition of the Faith grew dramatically, so Baha'is were no longer worried about people thinking they're in a weird cult. The Baha'i community grew dramatically, maybe even doubling in some towns and cities. The Universal House of Justice announced the new administrative structures of the Regional Council and the Cluster, providing groupings of states or counties with corresponding institutions to manage growth. They also announced as far back as the early nineties the formation of Training Institutes that would provide systematic growth instead of the haphazard stumbling along that is characterized by spontaneous bursts of energy.
These training institutes were under the jurisdiction of the Regional Councils of larger nations, or the National Assemblies of smaller ones. They advanced a sequence of courses designed to build capacity and orient people toward service such as children's classes and devotional gatherings. The Cluster became the organizing unit for reflecting and cooperating, and it was large enough to gather substantial human resources. The sequence of courses completely avoided the reliance on inspirational or charismatic speakers to inspire and educate, exactly the opposite of what the Baha'i schools typified. The courses focused on localised growth year-round, exactly the opposite of an annual event. By contrast, the schools in the US were still organized by an office of the National Spiritual Assembly, not the Regional Councils or training institutes.
Naturally, there was tension between these seemingly incongruent systems of education. It was manifested at first by an avoidance of the schools by those in the forefront of Cluster growth activities (rightly so, considering how busy they were), but also by the attendance at the schools of those disengaged from Cluster growth. In the mid-2000s the Oregon Baha'i schools experimented with incorporating institute courses at the camps, or by making the plans for Cluster growth the focus of the intensive study at the camps. These were met with mixed results. For those already engaged, repeating the same material of study at camp became redundant, and using Ruhi Book 1 as an introductory course for non-Baha'is is not the intended use of the material. For some, studying the Plans of the House of Justice brought them into alignment with where the Baha'i community was going.
What happened next is not surprising. As a result of the House of Justice asking to align resources with the current Plan, the National Spiritual Assembly did not re-appoint most of the sitting members of the school committees around the country. The new members of 2008 were often people already working for the Regional Councils, such as Institute Coordinators. This was the year I was first appointed to the Oregon School Committee. It was very chaotic. Many of the people had never even attended one of the schools. The majority of members asked not to be reappointed the following year, but it did provide the desired shake-up. In 2009 all three schools were analyzed in depth. Each was looked at to see if we should actually continue and whether it was meeting a legitimate need: a family summer camp, a short winter school, and a youth camp. Each had been going on for decades. Certainly, they should not simply continue out of tradition.
We decided to look into moving the summer camp to a new location. It was very difficult to find resources to help with the winter school, and after holding it, we decided to let it go. Then comes the youth camp, Carmel. In discussing it, the main question seemed to be whether it fulfilled a need, and whether that need could also be met in local communities. It may be that holding a big energetic camp is similar to the centralized children's classes that Baha'is hosted for decades: when people are trained, canceling the centralized class actually became the impetus for neighborhood classes. Maybe canceling the youth camp would encourage the growth of junior youth groups. It was tentatively decided that 2009 would be the last year hosting the camp, and that the needs of youth could be met with the growing Institute courses and junior youth groups around the state.
Carmel was oriented toward junior youth. When youth reached 18 or older, they came as counselors and went through extra training to prepare them for the week. The counselor training, the classes for the junior youth, and the classes for the 15-17 year olds were all home-made, and often a speaker was flown in for the youth class. While the attendees were in classes, the counselors were sitting around doing other things.
In 2009, the camp became driven by Ruhi Book 5. The counselor training was mostly drawn from sections of Book 5, and the junior youth classes were facilitated by the counselors using ecological camp material developed by the Ruhi Institute. The amount of time preparing material dropped nearly in half, and the material was actually better. Importantly, the counselors were now gaining skills and experience that they could take back to their communities and put into action year-round. That same year, people working for the Regional Training Institute helped train and facilitate the counselors and the junior youth program, although the youth class was still taught by a guest speaker.
Reflecting that year, it was also obvious that the school was serving needs that wouldn't be met otherwise. The majority of the campers were from areas with no activities, and the act of canceling the school would not be an instigator of their missing Cluster growth activities. Foregoing the school would simply be less of a good thing for many isolated Baha'i families. My own personal transformation growing up came through attending these types of intensive gatherings and seeing the strong contrast between the Baha'i Faith and the general public. It was actually the annual gatherings that gave me the impetus to engage in year-round activities, and I saw numerous transformations in 2009 similar to what I experienced as a teenager. Importantly, the school had just transformed itself to be in alignment with current Plans, and a youth camp could entirely avoid the problems of experienced at the family camp while trying to integrate the Institute courses. By its nature a summer camp for youth always has a fresh batch each year with no experience. Even if a camper had studied the exact material in their home community, they would be in the minority, and may not even remember the material enough to make a difference.
Going into 2010, the school hung on, and made another change. The class offered to youth was actually Ruhi Book 5, unit 1, instead of a knowledgeable guest speaker. That year only two of the 30 youth had ever taken Book 5, and only one of those was bothered by having to take it again. For the rest, their experience at camp became integrated with the process of growth being encouraged in their home communities. By 2011, the youth had the option of Book 5, unit 1 or 2. Those involved in the second unit were of the right age to come back the following year as a counselor, so the camp became fully oriented towards the study and practice of Ruhi Book 5. The junior youth material became more diversified as more material became available over the years. In 2010 the Baha'i-specific book Spirit of Faith was offered, and in 2011 it became a mix for the three grades of junior youth attending. In 2012 it was Eco-Camp, Spirit of Faith, and Power of the Holy Spirit. These study materials were supplemented with crafts, games, campfire devotions, night-walks, skits, scavenger hunts, and sports.
Arriving home from the 2010 Carmel Baha'i School, my wife told me she was pregnant, and thus ended my time on the School Committee. I continued as the instructor for the 2011 and 2012, Book 5 unit 2 classes. Participants actually fulfilled their practice by breaking into pairs, then with an hour to prepare, facilitated a discussion with about 10 junior youth from the camp on the topic of media and advertising.
Yet there is still tension between the schools and Cluster growth activities. I've heard people suggest that Carmel might be damaging to the development of youth or that it draws resources away from more important things or that it is the wrong application of the material (despite Book 5 actually recommending week-long retreats for junior youth). Any gathering of multiple junior youth groups would look almost identical to what is already happening at Carmel, unless it excluded those who are not already in a group. The House of Justice addressed this tension in its 2010 Ridvan message:
"To read the writings of the Faith and to strive to obtain a more adequate understanding of the significance of Bahá’u’lláh’s stupendous Revelation are obligations laid on every one of His followers. All are enjoined to delve into the ocean of His Revelation and to partake, in keeping with their capacities and inclinations, of the pearls of wisdom that lie therein. In this light, local deepening classes, winter and summer schools, and specially arranged gatherings in which individual believers knowledgeable in the writings were able to share with others insights into specific subjects emerged naturally as prominent features of Bahá’í life. Just as the habit of daily reading will remain an integral part of Bahá’í identity, so will these forms of study continue to hold a place in the collective life of the community. But understanding the implications of the Revelation, both in terms of individual growth and social progress, increases manifold when study and service are joined and carried out concurrently. There, in the field of service, knowledge is tested, questions arise out of practice, and new levels of understanding are achieved. In the system of distance education that has now been established in country after country—the principal elements of which include the study circle, the tutor and the curriculum of the Ruhi Institute—the worldwide Bahá’í community has acquired the capacity to enable thousands, nay millions, to study the writings in small groups with the explicit purpose of translating the Bahá’í teachings into reality, carrying the work of the Faith forward into its next stage: sustained large-scale expansion and consolidation."
(The Universal House of Justice, Ridván 2010 Message, par. 9)
This is a wonderful clarification. It says the schools are a form of study, and they will continue to hold a place in Baha'i community life. However, they are clearly not as important as systematic community growth. It is the institute courses and the service associated with them that is the foundation for large-scale teaching. Having annual gatherings is just a tool, a thing, not an institution or something that is mis-aligned with other processes. It is what it is. If they can directly support Cluster growth, all the better, but if they can't we can still have them. If they are a waste of energy, we can stop having them. Fasting doesn't support direct teaching, yet we still do it. Of course, the schools can and do directly support Cluster growth, but how they fit in on a hierarchy of importance is still up in the air. In 2005 the House of Justice wrote in a letter to the Counselors:
"Perhaps the task that will occupy the attention of you and your auxiliaries above all others is to assist the community in its effort to maintain focus. This ability, slowly acquired through successive Plans, represents one of its most valuable assets, hard won through discipline, commitment and foresight as the friends and their institutions have learned to pursue the single aim of advancing the process of entry by troops. On the one hand, you will find it necessary to discourage the tendency to confuse focus with uniformity or exclusivity. To maintain focus does not imply that special needs and interests are neglected, much less that essential activities are dropped in order to accommodate others. Clearly, there are a host of elements that comprise Baha'i community life, shaped over the decades, which must be further refined and developed. On the other hand, you will want to take every opportunity to reinforce the disposition to prioritize--one which recognizes that not all activities have the same importance at a given stage of growth, that some must necessarily take precedence over others, that even the most well-intentioned proposals can cause distraction, dissipate energy or impede progress. What should be plainly acknowledged is that the time available for the friends to serve the Faith in every community is not without limits. It is only natural to expect that the preponderating share of this limited resource would be expended in meeting the provisions of the Plan."
(The Universal House of Justice, To the Conference of the Continental Boards of Counsellors, 27 Dec 2005)
Once again, this paragraph provides a beautiful clarification to the tension experienced with Baha'i schools. It not only addresses elements of Baha'i community life that have been shaped over the decades, but also emphasizes that all elements must be prioritized and evaluated based on needs and resources, avoiding uniformity and exclusivity. The "most well-intentioned proposals" can simply be a waste of energy in light of other priorities. So where do the schools fit in? I think a few administrative changes could assist in prioritizing. For example, if the organization of schools was done by the Regional Councils instead of a single national office, then it would be easier to compare resources side-by-side with Cluster agencies and other appointees. Much depends on having financial resources to prioritize, and that requires a stronger National Baha'i Fund.
My fear is that the administrative capacity to hold these large gatherings may slip away while energy is focused elsewhere. With time, summer schools will clearly be further developed, but if a school is allowed to slip away for a single year, it would take enormous energy to bring it back. Keeping a camp going that has been in place for 18 years is rather easy. People anticipate it and plan for it. Building up attendance takes years. A lot of details fall into place as long as organizers have attended the previous year. Where are the mops? How and when do we reserve the camp for next year? How much food do we need?
In the case of Carmel, there are a few things I worry about. To keep running we need at least 60 students to keep us out of the red, a strong head cook, a strong youth class facilitator, at least a dozen awesome youth counselors, and two strong older youth - male and female - to run the counselor program and coordinate during the week. All these positions are best done by someone with prior experience at the camp and who also brings skills in crafts, games, and music. Each year for the past few years these have been hanging by a thread. Most everyone currently serving has plans to stop sometime soon; from having a baby, being away for school, or gone for international service. Yet each year it always comes off incredibly well (sometimes at the last minute), because when it comes down to it, a core group continues to see the virtue in it and won't let it fail. I hope it stays that way.