1,400 Enjoy ABS Conference on `Abdu’l-Baha’s Vision for North America

More than 1,400 people from the United States, Canada, and countries as far away as Australia attended the 36th annual conference of the Association for Bahá’í Studies August 9-12 in Montreal. 

The conference featured a series of plenary sessions focusing on the theme of “The Vision of `Abdu’l-Baha for North America.” After a series of welcome messages on Thursday evening, Douglas Martin, former member of the Universal House of Justice, spoke about “A Hundred Years On,” looking at `Abdu’l-Bahá’s impact on the world of 1912 and His continuing influence down through the decades to today.

Friday morning the subject was the “Journey Towards Justice: Reflection from the Front Line,” reflecting `Abdu’l-Baha’s constant call for a realization of the oneness of humanity and the inclusion it demanded. Louise Mandell, a prominent Canadian lawyer concerned about the legal rights of First Nations, spoke first about the struggle to get and protect the rights of native peoples to their lands recognized and the racist assumptions about their legal and social systems that allowed the territories to be declared terra nullius, a place where a legal framework for land ownership did not exist (and, therefore, the crown needed to create one). 

Mandell was followed by a panel consisting of June Thomas, an African American scholar; lawyer Douglas White III, Kwulsultun, Chief of the Snuneymuxw First Nations tribe from British Columbia; and Mina Yazdani, a Persian scholar who is an expert about the persecution of the Iranian Baha’i community. They offered comments about the quest for justice for minority groups. 

Roshan Danesh, another Canadian attorney who chaired the panel, noted common strategies for dehumanizing minorities that were used against First Nations, African Americans, and Persian Baha’is.

Saturday morning a plenary panel focused on the “Moral and Spiritual Education of the Youth: Secular and Religious Perspectives in Quebec, One Hundred Years After `Abdu’l-Baha’s Visit to Montreal.” Claire Lapointe, the director of the Department of Educational Foundations and Practices at Laval University, described the evolution of Quebec society from 1912 to 1997, when the public school system became nonconfessional.

Luc Begin, a professor in the Department of Philosophy and the director of the Institute of Applied Ethics at Laval University, then described the ethics and religions program implemented in the schools in the province of Quebec starting in 2008, while Lyse Langlois, a professor of human resources management, ethics, and professionalism at Laval University, concluded with an analysis of Baha’i concepts for the spiritual education of young people and its focus on social transformation.

The morning closed with an address on “Pursuing Justice” by Irwin Cotler, a member of the Canadian Parliament who was Canada’s Attorney General and Minister of Justice from 2003 to 2006.

The Saturday evening plenary session featured Shapur Rassekh, who delivered the Hasan Balyuzi Lecture on “`Abdu’l-Baha, The Standard-bearer of a New Civilization.”

The theme of the Sunday morning plenary session was “Examining the Impact of `Abdu’l-Baha’s Visit.” Robert Stockman, Director of the Wilmette Institute, discussed “What `Abdu’l-Baha’s Visit Teaches Us.” He reviewed the ways `Abdu’l-Baha critiqued and gently corrected attitudes about race, religion, and progress; carried out efforts to develop the capacities of the Baha’i community (that in some ways resemble the core activities); and prepared the North American Baha’is for the major priorities of the ministry of Shoghi Effendi.

Louis Venters, a professor of African American and Southern history at Francis Marion University, spoke about “’Abdu’l-Baha, Louis Gregory, and the Southern Interracial Movement in the Era of the Great War,” noting ways in which `Abdu’l-Baha’s talks influenced southern whites.

Patricia Verge (a writer and editor) and Bob Watts (an adjunct professor at Queen’s University) spoke about “Returning to Tyendinaga: Collaborating to Tell the Story of Canada’s First Baha’is of Aboriginal Ancestry,” an account of Jim and Melba Loft and their return to the Mohawk Reserve.

The final speaker on the Sunday morning panel was Elizabeth Wright, a sociologist who worked in the Baha’i Community of Canada’s Office for the Promotion of Woman for a decade; she spoke about “The Evolution of the Bahá’í Faith Among Francophone Canadians,” offering numbers that charted the growth of the Faith among French-speaking Canadians up to the present.

The Sunday panel was followed by a screening of segments of “The Luminous Journey,” a film about `Abdu’l-Baha’s North American sojourn being produced by Anne Gordon Perry and Tim Perry.

Ann Boyles, a member of the Continental Board of Counselors, provided concluding remarks  in “Three Small Words: How the Master Forged Instruments of Systematic Action in North America.”

The Sunday session and the conference ended with artistic presentations by the children in the 6-8 and 9-11 year old classes, which had been held throughout the conference.

In addition to the plenary sessions, dozens of simultaneous sessions covering a wide range of topics fleshed out the program. The Wilmette Institute was the topic in two sessions–one that focused on fostering Baha’i scholarship at universities and one that considered ways in which Baha’i courses could be offered at universities.

Friday evening the Executive Committee of the Association for Baha’i Studies presented Awards for Distinguished Scholarship to Linda Covey, Janak Palta McGilligan, and Louis Venters.

All plenary sessions began with moving devotional programs, integrating artistic expression into the scholarly concerns of the gathering. Friday evening ended with an Arts Gala.

A number of lunch and dinner sessions were also held: two on the Wilmette Institute; one on the next phase of the Education Under Fire campaign; one showing the Education Under Fire documentary; one on the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education; and a Special Interest Group networking session.

Throughout the conference the Baha’i Shrine (the Maxwell home) in Montreal, the only one in the West, had special hours for visiting.

All in all, many felt that the 36th Annual Conference was perhaps the best one yet—a conference that demonstrated the rapid diversification and maturing depth of Baha’i scholarship.