Different religions have a version of the same joke: How did the rabbi (or pastor) get rid of a bat infestation in their synagogue (or church)? By giving the creatures bar mitzvahs (or by confirming them)—“and they never came back.” The joke gets at a truth universally acknowledged: It’s hard for organized religions to retain young people.
Although their religion dates back less than 200 years, Baha’is are no different. “I hear anecdotes about people going off to college,” said Joyce Litoff, from the U.S. Baha’i National Center Communications Office, “and they may think themselves a Baha’i, but like many people leaving home for the first time, they’re kind of experimenting.” (Still, she noted, “many of them come back to the faith.”) The Baha’is have a rite of passage for adolescent believers, who at 15 years old can formally declare themselves members by signing a declaration card affirming their belief in the tenets of the religion. However, the faith has also developed a singular focus on even younger people, who have not yet made that declaration.
The Baha’i Junior Youth Empowerment Program is only about 20 years old, having begun in Colombia, primarily as part of a literacy program. It’s a product of the Ruhi Institute, which falls under Colombia’s national Baha’i Spiritual Assembly (any locality with nine or more Baha’is may form a Spiritual Assembly, the governing body for the local faith community), and is dedicated “to the development of human resources for the spiritual, social, and cultural development of the Colombian people.” However, its influence now extends to Baha’is around the globe through the materials put out by its publishing wing, DL Publications. The multidisciplinary program has a simple mission: world peace, one small step at a time.
Baha’is are dedicated to transformation of both the self and the globe that will culminate in a universal peace, in which worldwide material and spiritual prosperity reigns, and a dynamic harmony allows humanity to realize its full potential. They believe this era was inaugurated in mid-19th-century Persia, through the teachings of their founder, the Baha’u’llah, (the son of a Persian royal court minister born in 1817, his title means “the Glory of God”), and his ideological predecessor and contemporary, the Bab, (meaning “Gate”), who they believe prepared the ground for the Baha’u’llah’s teachings. These two figures’ words constitute the Baha’i faith’s sacred writings, which are focused on the belief that all religions are derived from one God, the components of which form “one unfolding religion,” which has been progressively revealed throughout human history.
Global peace isn’t an abstraction for Baha’is, whose central administrative body, the Universal House of Justice, is located not in the religion’s native Iran, but in Haifa, Israel, due to the Persian government’s hostility to the Baha’u’llah in his own time. It was during his imprisonment in Tehran as a follower of the Bab that he experienced what he identified as a divine revelation. This realization, which the Baha’is liken to Moses at the Burning Bush, the descent of the Holy Spirit on Christ in the form of a dove at his baptism in the river Jordan, and the Buddha’s enlightenment under the bodhi tree, was that he had been appointed the Baha’u’llah, the “Divine Educator for this day,” tasked with sharing the message of impending world unity. He was ultimately expelled from his native country, and died a captive of the Ottoman Empire in what is today Akko, Israel. State suppression of the Baha’i religion continued after Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979, when Baha’is were expelled from university education and teaching, and it persists up until today. In the 21st century, educators in Iran are still subject to imprisonment for conducting informal higher-level education of Baha’i youth.
Nevertheless, both material and spiritual education remain crucial to the Baha’is, for whom religion and science are complementary, and who believe that universal education is a necessary component of world peace. Actor Rainn Wilson (The Office’s Dwight Schrute) is a “cradle” Baha’i who wandered away from the faith as a young adult, only to return later in life, and he credits Ruhi Institute classes with his wife’s eventual conversion as an adult. The Junior Youth Empowerment Program, for young people between the ages of roughly 12 and 15, forms one of four Baha’i “core activities” through the institute, gatherings meant to foster social action and individual spiritual growth through community discussions. The other three core activities include classes for younger children between 5 and 11, devotional prayer gatherings, and study circles of Ruhi Institute materials for adults. Baha’i informational literature describes its training institute curricula as “an ongoing conversation taking place among friends in thousands upon thousands of spaces,” a form of distance-learning that systematically connects Baha’i communities through common frames of reference and understanding. This uniformity is a crucial concept in a faith dedicated to unity of peoples.
The primary course materials for the Junior Youth Empowerment Program curriculum are workbooks, which encompass subjects like mathematics and literacy, and are taught through hypothetical scenarios featuring fictional young people. They’re part academic, part moral object lesson. For example, the book Thinking About Numbers juxtaposes discussions between a young student and their teacher about ethical labor practices, with word problems you might see in a middle-school pre-algebra book. Apart from the workbooks, the Junior Youth Empowerment Program is a lot like scouting: Meetings are held regularly, typically weekly, along with annual camps, and they’re designed to be led by the young people themselves. Groups are presided over by an older trained facilitator, called an animator, whose primary function is to draw out what the Baha’is see as youth’s nascent enthusiasm for justice, through small, grassroots-level community service projects. Animators motivate groups, serve as a sounding board for ideas, and answer questions, as the young people they oversee work to understand the world they’re trying to change.
Early adolescence is a developmental period that many cultures tend to write off as difficult and unpleasant, merely to be endured and survived by both parent and child alike. Baha’is, on the other hand, take this time seriously—and not just for individuals, but for humanity as a whole. While the Baha’i faith itself is relatively recent, it takes a long view: Every 500 to 1,000 years, they believe, a new spiritual teacher arrives to reveal more divine truth, according to humanity’s ability to receive it. They acknowledge Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad as being among those teachers, and most recently, the Bab and the the Baha’u’llah.
Those teachings can be condensed as follows, and appear frequently in Baha’i literature:
We are one human family
World religions are from one God
Prejudice of all forms must end
Women and men are equal
We must provide education for all
Justice and equity are the foundations of peace
Science and religion are in harmony
Having passed through “its stages of infancy and childhood, establishing unity at the level of the family, tribe, and nation,” according to a pamphlet celebrating the bicentennial of the Baha’u’llah’s and Bab’s births, “we are now passing through a turbulent adolescence and nearing a stage of maturity, when unity can be realized at the global level.” The Junior Youth Empowerment Program takes much the same view when dealing with turbulent individuals in early adolescence, not shrinking away from the challenges presented by the age, certain that true maturity will follow. In a Journal of Baha’i Studies article, author Sona Farid-Arbab wrote that the Baha’u’llah’s oldest grandson, Shoghi Effendi (known as the Guardian of the Baha’i Faith, who kept and advanced its teachings after its founder’s death), described his grandfather’s vision of a culminating new “race of men, incomparable in character.” Farid-Arbab wryly acknowledges that “their emergence will not be a sudden phenomenon.”
Accordingly, Baha’is can face the turbulent adolescence, either on an individual or global level, with equanimity, since they see it as a promise of great things to come. “Some people think that we’re really Pollyannish,” said Litoff. But Baha’is are playing the long game: “We’re focusing on the building of this foundation for the future maturity,” she said. Of course Baha’is are saddened by global strife and tribulation, she explained, but they are “not too wrapped up in the current state of the world.” Rather, they are pragmatic.
“We don’t wring our hands,” Litoff said, “because we have work to do.”
Around the time the Ruhi Institute was developing its Junior Youth courses, at the turn of the 21st century, MRI technology was beginning to confirm that adolescence was a developmental phase of tremendous cognitive growth, akin almost to the one undergone in the first few years of life. In her book And Then They Stopped Talking to Me: Making Sense of Middle School, author Judith Warner describes how in 1999, the National Institute of Mental Health determined that boys of around 12 years old and girls around 11 years old underwent an “overproduction” in the frontal lobes of their brains, the executive functioning part of the brain focused on “organizing, planning, maintaining self-control, and strategizing,” which was complemented by a “pruning” of the synapses the brain no longer needed, rendering more efficient the connections that remained. A parallel discovery by researchers showed that a simultaneous process helps accelerate the process by which different regions of the brain communicate. “These were enormous discoveries,” Warner writes, “For the first time, they provided a biological explanation for the age-old observation that something special seems to happen to the 12-year-old human mind […] Kids really do become more able to reason, reflect, and engage in formal learning right around puberty.” Those changes include improved abstract thinking, increased self-awareness and empathy, and the ability to consider a problem from different perspectives. Warner writes that neuroscientists believe these changes are lifelong, meaning early adolescence is, a “phase that, if things go well, can help kids get the foundational building blocks in place for success in their later lives.”
The Baha’i Junior Youth Empowerment Program philosophy corresponds with the findings of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill psychologist Mitch Prinstein, whose work Warner describes in her book. She writes that Prinstein believes the brain circuitry of kids between the ages of 10 and 13 is primed to be especially receptive to approval, admiration, improved social standing, and being noticed, and preteens and early teens are more likely to act in pursuit of them more “than at any other point in their lives.” Litoff said the program, which channels the energy of adolescence into a productive, outward-looking focus on service to others, acknowledges that every child goes through a period of trying to determine their personal values and what they believe at this time in their lives.
Because of this philosophy, the animators are there to let young members work together to identify needs in their own neighborhoods, sometimes surveying neighbors to do so, and to work to meet those needs themselves, with minimal interference. These service projects can be small: Junior Youth animator Naghmeh Taefi, a cheerful young woman who spoke to me enthusiastically about her work, gave the example of a group of young people who noticed a lot of fast traffic in an area where children liked to play, so they lobbied their home owners association to install a “Slow—Children Playing” sign. As another Baha’i I spoke with observed about this particular project, it not only gave the young people a sense of accomplishment and of agency, it also gave them practical real-world skills for engaging with institutions and authorities in order to affect a desired outcome.
According to Farid-Arbab’s Baha’i Studies article, at the program’s inception, “it was noticed that the Baha’i faith was attracting large numbers of youth between the ages of 12 and 15. They tended to form a very special kind of attachment,” to both the faith and its ideals. Based on the results the Baha’is saw as they rolled out the Junior Youth program, first in Colombia, then in more and more locations, “[t]ens of thousands of youngsters,” said the article, formed “a testimony to the efficacy of its content and the spiritual and social concepts.” These results “made it clear that much of the literature on the characteristics of individuals in this age range was bound to specific cultures and historical circumstances and did not offer sufficient insight into the reality of a human being during early adolescence.”
And course materials in the Junior Youth Program workbook series do not shy away from reality. Glimmers of Hope, a series of lessons with the primary intent of improving language skills, tracks the story of Kibomi, a 12-year-old boy from a war-torn African nation searching for his sister after their parents are killed. In one chapter, reading comprehension questions are followed by some thought experiments: “What would you think and do in the following situations in order not to become bitter?” Scenarios include the sudden death of a friend, receiving a scolding from a teacher, being a victim of racial, religious, or other discrimination, and a parent losing their job. While contemporary societies “wish to extend childhood,” the book’s introduction states, “among the generality of humankind, living under precarious conditions, a person is, by the age of 15, already shouldering weighty responsibilities.”
Warner’s book tends to agree. She provides a brief history of American adolescence, beginning with the assertion that life in early America was so difficult, girls typically did not reach menarche until they were 17. It was not, she contends, until the advent of child labor laws and compulsory schooling in the first half of the 20th century, which forced adolescents out of factories and apprenticeships and into each other’s company for most of the day in schools, that anxieties about cliquishness and social standing became commonplace. In Warner’s telling, our Americentric worldview means we think of middle school as something Hobbesian and competitive, but it has not been the case historically, nor is it the case globally. As she puts it, “biology loads the gun, environment pulls the trigger.”
Since the Baha’i religion believes in the unity of all humanity, and that all religions come from God, the Junior Youth Empowerment Program aims to provide a positive environment for young adolescents of all faith backgrounds. Litoff said that the program “is for all kids, based on Baha’i principles,” but is not exclusively for Baha’is, whose faith forbids them to proselytize. Taefi confirms that this is the case in the Research Triangle of North Carolina, where she lives and works. She said in an email there are about 150 kids in the Junior Youth program where she is, about 40 of whom are Baha’i themselves. Since the groups are based on the neighborhoods in which its members live, she said there may only be one or two Baha’i youth in a given one. This isn’t a problem for Baha’is. “The Baha’i faith is the oneness of all religions and all backgrounds,” Taefi said, “So we welcome anyone who is interested in the community-building process.” Accordingly, much of the Junior Youth Empowerment Program is simply “Baha’i-inspired,” which according to the animator instruction book, means it “address[es] themes from a Baha’i perspective, but not in the mode of religious instruction.”
I spoke on the phone with Arianna, a 12-year-old Baha’i in the Research Triangle area. She said the diversity of the Junior Youth program is part of its appeal for her. Speaking with poised eloquence, she describes her Junior Youth group’s recent food drive, in which they were able to donate 500 pounds of food to their local food bank in response to increased demand during the height of the pandemic. In her opinion, participation in the program is equipping her and her peers to better deal with the challenges of middle-school life, and beyond. “At this age we feel that, ‘Oh, we can do things ourselves,’” she said, “But you also see a lot of people saying, ‘Oh, they’re all still kids, they’re all young, they can’t really do anything.’ And I feel like the Junior Youth Empowerment Program does not say that we can’t do these things.” Participation in the Junior Youth Empowerment Program sets her and her friends apart by giving them purpose: “I see different people in school—all they do, they go to school, come home, and just play video games. They don’t notice all these things going on around them, they don’t do really anything, other than that.”
Have the Baha’is cracked the code with the Junior Youth program, and its formula of intellectual and grassroots social engagement? If the priests and rabbis in the old joke could replicate it, would the metaphorical bats stick around after their bar mitzvahs and confirmations?
“It depends on each individual,” Taefi wrote in her email, “But for the most part, [Junior Youth participants] are more confident in their beliefs as their spiritual perception has strengthened, and they are able to recognize the positive and negative forces, and stand up for their beliefs.” In Taefi’s experience, this tends to be the case more with graduates who stay on to lead Junior Youth groups or Baha’i children’s classes themselves. “Many of the Baha’is who have been involved in the program tend to continue to stay Baha’is through their adulthood as they become heavily connected with service and community life,” she wrote.
She believes this returning to teach and lead later in life is vital. When she was around 12, she said her family immigrated to the U.S. from Iran. “It was really exciting,” she said, “But it was at the same time really challenging, being in a new country, not knowing English, and I remember I was put in a regular class, and I didn’t know anything, and it was really difficult,” she said. “I had all these energies and all these excitements, and I just didn’t have anyone who can kind of help.” At that time, she explains, the Junior Youth program was still in its early stages of proliferation in the U.S., which she estimates was around 2010. Returning to work with middle schoolers has been crucial to her own spiritual journey after experiencing a period of alienation from her own faith at around 15 years old. The experience “kind of almost healed that earlier part of me. Because I am you know, still 12 sometimes,” she said with a laugh, “and just being able to help that age group, I started seeing a lot of transformation within myself as well, so that’s another reason why we really focus on youth as well, to help them mentor the children, and the junior youth, because it’s like a twofold process, it helps them and themselves, as well.”
At a time when our brains are especially primed to carry intensely clear and sharp memories that last the rest of our lives, early adolescents form long-lived narratives about who they are and how others see them, often “based on very partial, and often very poor, information,” Warner writes in And Then They Stopped Talking to Me. Junior Youth between “the ages of 11 through 14,” she holds, are “not yet capable of seeing it. Not without adult help, anyway.”She goes on to explain that while kids in this age range can start to sound a lot like adults when they speak, they lack the context and empathy that those with more life experience can bestow.
If Taefi’s experience is any indication, a turbulent adolescence can produce a maturity that synthesizes the experiences and lessons of youth for the good of others. The Baha’is are certain this process can and will be replicated on a civilizational scale. In the meantime, somewhere between Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill, a neighborhood group of children has a safer place to play.
This story is part of a series Tablet is publishing to promote religious literacy across different religious communities, supported by a grant from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.
Maggie Phillips is a freelance writer and former Tablet Journalism Fellow.