Sundown tonight, March 19th, marks the beginning of a new year in the Bahá’í calendar – Naw Ruz. For those in the UK, it will be another religious holiday in lockdown. Reflecting on Naw Ruz, Sophie Gregory of the Bahá’í Office of Public affairs writes about the Bahá’í community’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic over the last year and how tonight’s holiday brings a renewed hope for the future.
This week, sunrise has been around 6:10. I know that because I, alongside the rest of the Bahá’í community, have been fasting between sunrise and sunset. This fast comes to an end on the evening of the 19th of March, as we celebrate ‘Naw Ruz’, literally ‘the new day’, the first day of the Bahá’í calendar year, falling on the spring equinox. The days are getting longer, warmer, brighter – not only physically, but also metaphorically, as we begin to see glimmerings of the end of the pandemic.
The Bahá’í fast is a special period that precedes the new year. It is essentially a time of meditation and prayer, of spiritual recuperation, during which we strive to make the necessary readjustments in our inner lives, refreshing and reinvigorating our connection to the spiritual attributes latent in our higher nature or soul. This year, this period of reflection has felt even more vital than previously. It has been a year of undeniable tumult. As we pass the anniversary of the UK’s first lockdown, and once again celebrate Naw Ruz on Zoom, it has become clear that even though it was the pandemic that catalysed change, we have needed to rethink our social structures for some time.
Over the course of the year, what was thrown into sharp relief was the number of injustices that continue to sit at the very heart of our social order. We have been forced to confront some of the racial, economic and gender inequalities embedded at each level of society. Alongside this, we have also witnessed an increase in inequalities in the social sphere, including a widening gap in education and increasing levels of isolation. These challenges have inspired us to reconsider what it is that we value and reward as a global community, and how these values must be reconfigured. It was also during this period, both in the crisis points of the pandemic and in the constructive response, that we were reminded of the essential oneness and interdependence of humanity, which became almost acutely tangible.
In is undeniable that, when faced with this incredible wake up call, there was a universal change in everyone’s behaviour and outlook, as people went out of their way to protect and serve others, particularly the vulnerable. Everyone pulled together, with faith and belief groups playing a significant part in this effort. Already organised, embedded within their communities, and motivated to serve others, religious communities mobilised almost immediately to offer their time and resources to support those around them. During the pandemic, over two thirds of councils reported an increase in working with faith groups, particularly with faith related food banks. The contribution of faith communities, from those offering food parcels, to supporting with education through tutoring, to offering virtual company to those who were isolated, was notable. Faith groups drew upon their resources, the common religious teachings of service to one’s neighbours, compassion, and generosity, and translated them into invaluable action at this time of crisis. These actions, alongside the work of countless volunteers and key workers, contributed to a movement towards a more cohesive society.
As the pandemic continued, communities sought hope in the mutual support they were offering each other, they sought hope in the promise of restrictions being lifted, in the imminent vaccination, and in the idea of renewal. However, it is undeniable that this hope did not always remain consistent. Yet, faith groups continued to serve their communities, despite the shared fatigue, despite the continuous ups and downs that were all facing. The Bahá’í community was part of these efforts: in Burnham, a chocolate shop was converted into a food bank; across London, stories of service were captured on this Instagram account; In Leith, Scotland, the community took over regular shopping for their neighbours and supported with tutoring children; Manchester saw Baha’is cooking and donating food to homeless shelters; and in Windsor in Belfast, neighbours were provided with ‘covid packs’. Among this continuous flurry of activity, which sat alongside the efforts of others, I found myself asking what it was about the hope that motivated faith communities that made it so enduring.
Having spoken to the Bahá’í community and those from other faith and belief backgrounds (and none), it became clear that the concept of hope itself looks different when connected to religion. For many religious people, hope is detached from the moments of crisis and victory that take place within the material world. Rather than being an insecure element, impacted by the events we see around us, hope is considered a spiritual quality and therefore exists beyond the tumult of this world. It is thus secure, unchanging, and a source of constant strength. Faith communities engage with a hope that connects to a wider sense that, despite the challenges that humanity collectively faces, it will continue advancing towards a more united, peaceful and equal society, if we choose to truly engage consistently with our capacity to be selfless, kind and generous.
In a letter to the world’s religious leaders, the guiding body of the Bahá’í faith, the Universal House of Justice, wrote that religion ‘reaches to the roots of human motivations’, it is religion that has been, and continues to be, ‘the seminal force in the civilising of human nature’, that has awakened in whole populations, through the examples of God’s Messengers, ‘capacities to love, to forgive, to create, to dare greatly, to overcome prejudice, to sacrifice for the common good’. The pandemic has already shown us glimpses of this capacity, and the power of hope that sits at the centre of faith and belief communities. It’s worth noting, also, that the benefits of this hope aren’t felt just by those of faith, but also the wider community.
Naw Ruz is, then, a time of renewed hope – it is the sign that we are moving towards a spiritual spring time. Not just for the Bahá’í community, but, in its connection with spring, as we begin to climb out of the cold of winter, also for the wider community. Last year, the pandemic acted as a catalyst for a significant amount of re-evaluation across our local, national and even global community. This year, perhaps, with many of these conversations being had more openly, we can begin rebuilding our society in a way that reflects our higher, more hopeful aspirations. We could start this by harnessing the power of local communities, the hope for the future that animates our faith communities, and the generosity and kindness that every person can exhibit. I will likely be able to spend the next Naw Ruz with my family, friends and community around me and find joy in the progress that has both been made and is being made towards a more just, more equitable, and more united world.
Note: This piece gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Religion and Global Society blog, nor of the London School of Economics.