The Baha’i House of Worship is a temple located near Sydney’s northern beaches. It is the symbolic home of the Baha’i community of Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific and the only Baha’i temple in Australia. The temple is open for people of all backgrounds and religions to pray in or meditate. It also functions as a place of dialogue, bringing people together for discussion on issues of common concern to humanity.
Each week the Baha’i temple holds a Sunday service at 11am, where people come together to hear readings from the Baha’i scriptures and from the religious texts of other faiths (without commentary). Often the services have a theme, like universal peace, reconciliation, the family or equality, topics that are of interest or of benefit to broader society. The service is enhanced with a Capella music and there is no sermon or collection; all are welcome to donate towards the temple’s upkeep. On a usual Sunday the temple may see 200 to 700 people, depending on whether it is a special day of celebration or reflection. The temple was opened in 1961 and it attracts a diverse group of worshipers, including European, Asian and Islander Baha'is, as well as many who came to Australia in the 1980s because of persecution from the Iranian government.
The Baha’i community also holds regular devotional meetings in homes and public venues, where they reflect on spiritual ideas like hope or discuss how to put into practice Baha’i teachings. They have an active and engaged youth empowerment program, which gather regularly and run conferences where they think about how to use their energy and ideas towards the betterment of society. In previous years youth groups have generated initiatives like litter gathering in parks, creating spaces in the community where families can gather together and feel safe and consult on how to address social and economic needs and raising awareness about homelessness and youth mental health.
As the government closed Australia’s places of worship, Ida Walker, a member of the community, noted that it encouraged the Baha’i community to think more strategically about how to connect people to their sacred space—the temple. They are livestreaming services from social media platforms which, positively, are being viewed by people outside of Sydney and overseas.
From Ida’s perspective, on the whole, members of their Baha’i community have adapted to the situation. They quickly moved activities online and encouraged resilience, hopefulness and a practical approach to reach out to people in their neighbourhoods who may be feeling a loss of hope or unease about how to stay connected and whether things will be okay. Their counselling body has been helpful in this regard, offering advice and support for those who need it. For others, this has been a time of great creativity.
However, the temple closure itself hasn’t been felt too keenly by the community. “People enjoy being in the sacred space but being a Baha’i means being in the service of the local community.” There is an emphasis on having an outward-looking orientation—on being a "community of practice"—and on each person creating their own sacred space, said Ida. Therefore, their energies have been focused not so much on keeping the temple functions going, but on reaching out into the broader community, on getting to know their neighbours, respectively, and offering a helping hand wherever possible.
Ida shared the heartwarming story of an elderly member of the community who lives in government housing with many other elderly residents. At the start of the lockdown she made up packs for everyone in her building containing uplifting words and two pieces of paper—one red, one green—which she laminated. She advised that the residents should stick the red paper in their window if they needed help, or the green to indicate they were ok. The packs were so popular that other people asked her to make some for their friends and neighbours to use. There is a sense that we are all “one human family” and that “the suffering of one impacts us all”, Ida reflected, which has motivated the congregation to reach out. “We all need to help each other so we all can become more compassionate and kinder.”
While 2020 was to have been a time of celebration for Australia’s Baha’i community, acknowledging the centenary of the arrival of the Baha’i faith to Australia, it has been very much a year of reflection, on focusing on what is important and valuable at this time.
As the lockdown restrictions begin to ease, Ida believes the relationships developed by members of the congregation in the community will be sustained and that people will take the opportunity to be more “meaningful”. One of the important things to come from this, she noted, is that we have learned to have conversations about challenges. For Ida, this process began with the bushfires, which ravaged parts of Australia just before the pandemic. “In other countries it is more common to deal with widespread crises and disasters” but this is something new for Australia. “We are learning to deal with these kinds of issues and how to respond to challenges like food sustainability and to foster resilience.” “We have gained a deeper sense of suffering now”, as well as a “stronger sense of how we are all interconnected.”
Photo: Interior of the Baha'i House of Worship, Sydney by Rufusferret. Used under Creative Commons licence CC BY-SA 3.0