Burned By the Southern Flame
Nora Kobusinge – United States of America
I woke up one day last week and knew I would need to go to the emergency room sooner rather than later. Well, there goes my trip to the Southern Flame Summer School, again this year. Usually held in Miami, Florida, this year the school was moved to central Florida in a small city called Fruitland Park. But I can’t go if I’m stuck in hospital. I grumbled this thought silently to myself and my spirit dropped another notch. Tried to cheer myself up, remembered the weekend just past when family came to visit. We had had a wonderful time together. But the smile on my face became a grimace as a shot of pain flashed down my leg. It was swollen and had been growing bigger. The pain grew in direct proportion to the size of my leg. Later I gave up and got myself to the ER. Hours and hours sitting in a freezing waiting room, answering the questions of the registrar, the triage nurse, showing her the selfies of my leg which I took yesterday. She could see that it was bigger today. Waiting again because triage wanted me to get a bed. Waiting to go back where it was even colder, but where they also gave you heated blankets.
My age, my race and my gender puts me in multiple high-risk categories for a stroke. Since I had suffered no external injury, maybe the swelling was being caused by a blood clot. I didn’t think so. But they had to make sure. More waiting. Now the ER nurse, blood-pressure cuff, tourniquet for blood draw, needles, and gurney-roll down to the floor where all the big medical machines are housed. Now I’m flat on my back in Siberia ’cause those machines have to be kept cold. Ultrasound, warm goo that quickly turns cold, up and down my leg. Whir, beep and squeak as the tech captures pictures of my veins. She’s a sweet, pleasant girl from Ghana. Has a gap in her front teeth like I do. Yes, my sistah. All done. Now they can roll me back upstairs. To wait. For the results. Quick hello from the doctor before she disappears. Still waiting. Finally the doctor’s back, stands at the foot of my bed. She gives me a slight smile. The results of the ultrasound are in, there are no blood clots lurking in your veins waiting to shoot you in the head. Okay. Thank you. Can I go home now? More waiting, to be discharged. See ya.
Back home, I went to bed. Lay in the dark thinking I guess I don’t really want to go to the Bahá’í summer school anyway. But Bahá’u’lláh, this year it’s only a 2 hour drive from me. I can do that. Not with swollen legs…..I lay in the dark going back and forth, in my mind, between myself and Bahá’u’lláh. By morning I had convinced myself I didn’t want to go, I couldn’t afford the (small) fee, I’m too depressed and anyway there’s only 1 week left to register. Hmmm, my legs have gotten smaller overnight. I spent the next few days sinking deeper into my usual post-hospital-visit depression, more and more convinced that I didn’t want to go. But my legs were now back to normal. And the topic this year of the summer school is on race unity. One of the reasons why I joined the faith in the first place. The numerous Bahá’í writings on this topic are bold, frank and unequivocal about the issue of race. “The resolution to these challenges lies in recognizing and embracing the truth at the heart of Bahá’u’lláh’s Revelation -the incontrovertible truth that humanity is one. Ignorance of this truth-which embodies the very spirit of the Age-is itself a form of oppression, for without it, it is impossible to build a truly just and peaceful world.” (National Spiritual Assembly, USA, 2/25/2017)
So I bargained with Bahá’u’lláh. Okay, I will go to the summer school but only by Your will. If You want me to go, make a way for me. Then I filled out the form requesting a scholarship. Remember, I was down to the wire. I had not made the slightest indication to anyone that I was even considering attending the school. The sweet soul in charge of scholarships finally got hold of me, she called the treasurer of the closest LSA to me. (I am in a registered group). Before I knew it, I was granted a scholarship by the generosity of my friends and now the Southern Flame blazed on the horizon. Ya Bahá’u’lláh Abha!
But I grumbled as I began the two hour drive, through swamps and fields to Fruitland Park. Like a spoiled child, I don’t like sleeping in strange beds, I haven’t slept in a dorm room for decades, I hate sharing a bathroom and on and on. I consoled myself that I could leave at anytime if things got to be too much for me. Soon my friends arrived and I was pulled out of myself and abandoned my complaints. The next day would be the opening devotions, plenary sessions and breakout groups.
I have to admit that I was confused by the opening plenary remarks. Sure, they were based on Bahá’í writings, guidance from the Universal House of Justice on the importance of home front pioneering. We mentioned people like Hand of The Cause, Enoch Olinga who pioneered all over the African continent. The last Hand of the Cause, Louis Gregory, and Magdalene Carney and other faithful servants of the Faith who worked tirelessly to share the news of Bahá’u’lláh ‘s Revelation and who just happen to be black. Now we studied maps of the US. Areas of the southeastern region where the need for intensive programs of growth are called for. Places where no one has ever heard of the Bahá’í faith.
“How wondrous the vision of the Plan’s Author! Placing before the friends the prospect of a day when the light of His Father’s Revelation would illuminate every corner of the world.”(Plan Message, 2015).
But not a thing was said about race unity. Oh no, I thought, don’t tell me I drove all this way just to hear us dance around this issue, again. Then the first breakout session. Mine was facilitated by Regional Counselor, Santosh Kamath, whom I trust and admire greatly. I will stay for this session and maybe leave after lunch. This session got off to a slow start. It’s hard to break the ice between a large group of strangers. But Santosh has an enviable skill in asking just the right questions to get you thinking deeply about the topic. And when you understand one thing he gets you to think about it’s implications. Masterful. So I stayed and attended the afternoon sessions as well. I’ll leave tomorrow. I’m definitely leaving tomorrow.
The next day, Sunday, rose beautiful but muggy. This time at the plenary session we were told to stay with one breakout group for the rest of the school because the issue of race unity needs to be discussed by people who trust each other. Moving from group to group does not engender trust.
During the plenaries we watched videos of William Sears telling us to be brave and that the Concourse on High is there to assist us as we go forth to do the work of the Cause. Speakers from national who have devoted their lives to working out the benefits and obstacles of race unity, attendees who shared stories of the successes of their individual efforts in their towns, communities and clusters. We watched a video of a young Sikh woman talk about the obstacles and racism she and her young brown sons face as members of a “different” religion. We still don’t understand that all religions are one. She was a powerful speaker, passionate, laid bare her soul and she spoke to an African American church congregation who clearly felt her pain. As did I. Ah, the issue of race in America.
“The nation is afflicted with a deep spiritual disorder, manifest in rampant materialism, widespread moral decay, and a deeply ingrained racial prejudice.” (National Spiritual Assembly, USA, 2/25/2017).
Abdu’l-Baha “unhesitatingly warned of dire consequences to American society and to the cause of world peace if her peoples failed to live up to the truth of the oneness of humanity-especially in the relations between black and white” (National Spiritual Assembly, USA, 2/25/2017)
And then I put it all together. I can’t go teach others about Bahá’u’lláh and that “humanity’s ultimate well-being is dependent upon its differences being transcended and its unity firmly established” (Universal House of Justice, Ridvan 2017). If I myself cannot “shower such kindness upon the seeker, exemplify to such a degree the spirit of the teachings that the recipient will be spontaneously impelled to identify himself with the Cause.” (Shoghi Effendi, Advent of Divine Justice,)
So for me the real work of the summer school was done in our breakout sessions. By now I had stopped kidding myself that I was going to leave early. The conversations in my group were meaningful and enlightening. We had been presented with a list of virtues like courage, detachment, justice, humility, kindness, compassion, honesty, duty, loyalty, forbearance and trustworthiness. The facilitators, Santosh and Lani asked us to choose one virtue from the list as the quality we want most to develop in ourselves. I chose humility because my pride in myself, my background, my heritage etc… this pride is often a stumbling block to my spiritual development. It was interesting as we went round the room sharing our flaws that most of the men chose humility and most of the women chose courage. I remember wondering to myself why all these white women lack courage. They have the world at their feet. Doors open for them with only the slightest tap, whereas people of color can pound on those same doors to no avail. But fear and timidity was their issue not mine. We talked about this fear. The group decided it was the fear of the unknown, the fear of leaving one’s comfort zone. And I admitted to myself that I sometimes have a similar fear. Stepping out of my comfort zone. So I am just like these white women. I’m here to work on me. I will participate in the discourses on race and social justice (I’ve heard and lived them all before) but I’m really here to work on Nora. “Today the most pressing of all tasks is the purification of character, the reforming of morals, the rectification of conduct. It behoveth the loved ones of God to arise among all peoples with such qualities and such acts that the sweet winds which blow over the gardens of holiness will perfume the whole earth…(Bahá’u’lláh’s Teachings on Spiritual Reality After all what is the purpose of our lives? “To acquire virtues.” (Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks).
We talked about the (not always) subconscious sense of their own superiority that white people carry around like an invisible backpack. This attitude is a huge stumbling block to the unity of blacks and whites in America. You cannot convince me you love me if the sense of your own superiority (and, by implication, my inferiority) is wrapped around your whole attitude. Well-meaning white people always wonder why they can’t befriend black people. The answer is simple. We don’t trust you. We see your sense of superiority, we hear it in the language you use. Especially when you tell us “I don’t see black people.” Why not? Are you visually impaired? I’m standing right in front of you. I am guilty of this sense of superiority myself, when I meet people whom I perceive as lacking in formal education, who have never ventured beyond the confines of their hometowns….the list could go on and on. I am as prejudiced as the next person.
Then we talked about how the “white experience” is considered “the norm” by which all other peoples’ experiences are measured (and often found wanting). Santosh struggled to get us to first see, then admit, this truth. We danced around it. The Denial Two-Step.
Then someone raised the issue of finding the Persian community impenetrable. Lacking in inclusiveness and reciprocity. One young Persian father admitted that it was for this very reason that he vowed he would never marry a Persian woman. Instead he married a beautiful Russian girl. Their sincere efforts to raise their young children without prejudice touched my heart.
We discussed how the Faith struggles, not to welcome black people, but to retain them. What are we doing to make black people first join us then drift away. The answer is simple. Black people find the same racial barriers in the Bahá’í community as we do in the wider society. So we drift away……hurt and disillusioned.
I was starting to singe at the edges. For the rest of the school I filtered everything I heard through the following questions to myself. Do I do that? Have I said that to someone? I looked at everything through the prism of my own behavior, my own way of thinking, my words. And I began to burn. The shame and guilt of being everything I accused others of being. I am a part of the problem. We had stopped dancing and we were getting to the meat of the problem. Ourselves. Myself. Okay Bahá’u’lláh, I surrender. I was fully engulfed.
I must “assume a posture of humility”, and with my friends “supporting one another and advancing together, respectful of the knowledge that each one possesses at any given moment,” “engaged in a reciprocal process, one in which everyone learns.” Always “demonstrate the purity of our motives”, and “eschewing any trace of prejudice and paternalism, form bonds of true friendship that befit companions on a spiritual journey.” (Guidance from the Universal House of Justice) “Calm determination will be vital as they strive to demonstrate how stumbling blocks can be made stepping stones for progress. “And “a readiness to listen, with heightened spiritual perception, will be invaluable in identifying obstacles that may prevent some of the friends from appreciating the imperative of unified action” (Guidance to ABM).
There was a lady called Nosrat Scott sitting diametrically opposed to me. She would listen carefully to what I said. I listened as carefully to her contributions. But the following day, in the middle of the session, as I shared my frustrations with the core activities in my cluster she ordered me to come and sit next to her and she patted the empty seat by her side. She said she wanted someone with lots of energy to sit next to her. I wasn’t sure that what she perceived as my energy was not, in fact, my anger and deep frustration that we Bahá’ís are not walking our talk. But I crossed the room to go sit next to Nosrat and the discussion resumed.
My sense of humor leans toward the ironic. I often joke and amuse people who also see the ironies of life. As the session ended Nosrat began to talk to me about my complaints. Essentially, she brushed them away. “You’re wasting your energy. Stop wasting your energy and focus on the work that is suited to your talents.”(I wondered what she knew of my talents). But she was so insistent, trying to explain to me what she saw in me and how I was wasting my energy. I stopped deflecting and began to listen to her. To truly listen and hear what she was saying because I sensed it was important. But other people wanted to talk to me, my friends were waiting for me. So I listened and I moved on. I had to go to choir practice. After that, when I finally made it to my room, tried to sort out all the swirling emotions, thoughts, snippets of conversation. “The darkness of our times is “not the darkness of the tomb but the darkness of the womb’.” (Sikh woman). “Stumbling blocks into stepping stones”, “imperative of unified action”,” incontrovertible truth,” “heightened spiritual perception,” “a form of oppression”, “wasting your energy.” I couldn’t see through all the smoke billowing in my heart. So I prayed, told my prayer beads and waited. That was Sunday.
On Monday during the plenary we wrapped up. Covered some housekeeping points. Some brief encouraging remarks from the speakers and then back to our breakout sessions. Now we talked about the future. What are our ideas about our tasks when we return to our communities? How can we assist each other? During an earlier coffee break I had talked to An Ethiopian woman who told me that she had found that these summer schools were often a good way to make new friends. I exchanged contact information with Nosrat and some others. Santosh and Lani had impressed upon us the hope that these friendships would form the support and encouragement we all need in our efforts. As we began to take leave, some of us lingered not wanting it all to end. There is so much more to learn. Suddenly someone popped their head through the door and said people were looking for me. It was the choir. So I said a quick goodbye and rushed off to practice with the other musicians and singers. The evening session would be the final one of the summer school.
We sang and listened to wonderful artists playing the santoor, the cello and various guitars. We ended the night with a rendition of Mine Eyes Have seen the Glory. The lyrics of this hymn were written by Julia Ward Howe. She and her husband were staunch abolitionists. But what struck me was the fact that “Mine eyes have seen the Glory of the coming of the Lord. ” was the last sentence spoken in public by Martin Luther King before he was assassinated the following day. I was honored to sing the solo.
My good friend, Aruna Manisekaran and I had agreed to sing Adakah Penghalau (Remover of Difficulties) in the Malay language for Tuesday’s morning devotions. Aruna taught me that song. So we were up early to practice. After we sang, while waiting to be dismissed, Nosrat approached me again and leaning over me as I sat, she cupped my face in her hands. I became instantly attentive. ” Now I know who Nora is. I saw the real you on stage last night. Stop wasting your energy. That was Nora up there. You waste your energy like a fountain spraying and splashing indiscriminately, in all directions. Focus your energy. You have important work to do.” Aruna next to me sat very still. We usually joke and egg each other on. But she could see that something different was transpiring. She watched me humble myself in the face of Nosrat’s extraordinary certainty.
So we packed up, scribbled down final contacts, said goodbye and began the trek home.
I knew something profound had happened to me at this summer school that I fought tooth and nail to skip. I didn’t understand that “the summer school has been carrying on the divine work of bringing forth jewels from the mine of humanity…”(Letter on behalf of Shoghi Effendi, Bahá’í News, Feb 1926)
Could there be a jewel hidden in the depths of my soul, buried by all my sins? Nosrat seems to think so. But she doesn’t know how broken, disheartened and unworthy I really am. She sent me a little article in my email the following morning. It is called Instant and Exact Obedience, a story told by Mr Aziz Yazdi about the blessings that come to you when you act upon divine Instruction instantly and without question. The last line of the article took my breath away. Bahá’u’lláh says to the man who obeyed Him without question, “I saved the little boat because you were on it.” I felt a bolt of joy shoot through me and I began to cry. I cried long and hard, successive waves of profound joy. Because I finally understood why I’m still on the planet, why I’m still alive despite all the odds stacked against me, understood that I am the little boat mentioned in the story. Bahá’u’lláh saved me because I have important work to do in His Cause. And I knew what I had to do next. Pray. Since I’ve been back from summer school. I have been saying prayers for forgiveness, spiritual growth and of gratitude and praise. And no more bargaining with God, just ‘speak, Lord, for your servant is (finally) listening’.
Now I call Nosrat every two or three days and we chat, and bond and I seek her advice. She encourages me with stories of all her wonderful efforts to bring unity to whichever community she found herself in.
I have moved on an idea I got while still at summer school. An effort to prepare myself to start tackling this issue of race unity in our community. And I find myself more joyous and optimistic than when I started my safari to the summer school. On the importance and purpose of the summer schools:
“Such gatherings will give a chance to friends from different localities to come together and exchange views on the different problems of the Cause and also attract new souls to the spirit and teachings of the Faith. Not only will their knowledge of the writings deepen but also the unity of the Cause will be strengthened and the work of teaching enhanced.” (from a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to an individual believer, Baha’i News jun 1932)
Southern Flame Summer School, 2017. Nosrat is seated on the floor, in the center
This summer school is going to be a pivotal event in my life. It will be a marker in my spiritual growth. A rite of passage. And so I rise from the ashes of the blaze of the Southern Flame. Singed, toasted, humbled and filled with resolve. Having vowed to forget my weaknesses and focus on acquiring virtues and desiring God’s will for this life He has saved countless times. Trying, as Santosh says, to become “an effective and pleasing instrument of the Blessed Beauty.”
O be swift, my soul, to answer Him, be jubilant my feet. Our God is marching on! (Hymn: Mine eyes have seen the Glory)
United States of America
15 July, 2017