“Community is more than people living in the same area": Reflections on belonging to a community
For many years, Baha’i communities across the United Kingdom have been learning to build local communities that reflect and uphold the value of unity in diversity. This means building thriving neighbourhoods that centre around a common conviction in humanity’s oneness, coupled with a willingness to try to apply this value in their individual and collective lives.
In order to build these communities, Baha’is and their friends alike dedicate themselves to running activities for all age groups. These include classes for the spiritual education of children, groups to empower teenagers, study circles to learn about raising the capacity to carry out service to humanity, prayer meetings (or devotionals), and service projects. Though these may once have been considered activities for those who identify as Baha’is, they are open and include a wide array of people, from all walks of life, who are dedicated to the social progress of their communities.
By ensuring that these activities are open to all, making them as inclusive and accessible as possible, many long-held assumptions about what it means to belong to a community have been challenged and reimagined. One of these assumptions is the need for ‘us’ to be defined against ‘them’. In religious communities, this is often manifested as ‘believer’ vs ‘non believer’. Whilst it is natural, and indeed crucial, for people to be able to connect to these aspects of identity and community, too often these differences are emphasised to the point of undermining the shared humanity that ties each of us together. In its worst form, this leads to tension or estrangement.
"if our community includes just anyone who is around us, it brings a rich diversity to everything we do"
To promote the values of fairness, inclusion, tolerance, kindness and generosity within society, conceptions of what it means to belong – both at the national and the local level, will need to evolve.
During lockdown, many reconnected with their local communities. While community building activities were paused to protect people, those involved had the chance to reflect on how the initiatives with have changed their ideas about what ‘belonging to a community’ means.
Hoda, from Manchester, said that the activities she is part of reminded her of the interconnectedness of different people in the community. She said: “Sometimes we think community means the people who are similar to us - they study the same things, they’re the same race, they share the same beliefs - but I’ve realised if our community includes just anyone who is around us, it brings a rich diversity to everything we do.”
"I think it’s made me more open-minded in general because your reality is extended outside of your own little bubble.”
“Community is more than just people living in the same area, of even just our interactions. It’s caring for each other’s progress,” said Angie, in Hackney, defining the community as more than simply geography or identity.
Being involved in the initiatives that seek to strengthen these bonds among neighbourhoods not only transforms communities, but also individuals. Soraya, who lives in South London, said: “Teaching children’s classes and junior youth groups, I’ve learned more about the needs of younger youth and how to engage in conversations that motivate and inspire them to help them to see how they are full of potential, and are full of talents and potential that they can develop. So, it’s changed my view of growing. I think it’s made me more open-minded in general because your reality is extended outside of your own little bubble.”
This was echoed by Saksham, in Brighton, who said: “The community building process made me look at community in a more holistic manner, where everyone is needed to build a vibrant community that is inclusive for everyone. The fact that we need universal participation to build [these thriving communities] is important.”
During the pandemic, the challenges that continue to impact society were only emphasised further; however, the power of hope and of united and supportive communities was also highlighted. Communities of faith were particularly instrumental in supporting the vulnerable. It has become clearer that the support networks that a local community provides are indispensable, not only during moments of crisis, but in navigating our recovery going forward. If we want to unlock this potential, however, it’s important that we begin unpicking exclusive conceptions of belonging, weaving instead a societal fabric that is inclusive and values each and every individual and their contributions; that recognises the differences (or uniqueness) of the various communities that make up our society yet emphasises what we share.