Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Via BNASSAA: Lessons Learned: BNASAA after 20 years

Mary K. Radpour

            This paper summarizes my personal understanding of some of the lessons learned in the 20 years of BNASAA’s service to a population of Bahá’is facing the challenges posed by HIV-AIDS, and issues of sexuality, addiction, and abuse.
            The first lesson can be summarized in the Master’s words in the Tablets of the Divine Plan: “Fellowship, fellowship!  Love, love! Unity, unity!”   BNASAA can be congratulated upon its conscientious and creative efforts to foster unity with a population of people whose painful pasts could contribute to a high degree of reactivity.  In spite of this potential for conflict, BNASAA has created a spirit of community which is extraordinary.  In fact, as civility and connectedness become issues of national concern, it becomes all the more useful to inquire into how such a phenomenon has been fostered.
Despite some complaints about the “alphabet” of issues BNASAa addresses, it appears to have been wise to include all these issues under a single umbrella, as the people impacted by them share a common history of oppression.  The last 40 years in North America have involved the emergence of  “identity “ politics;  those who have been voiceless have joined together to claim a right to be heard, whether with regard to issues of race, gender, sexual orientation, or religious and ethnic origin.  Because a history of oppression engenders a hyper-vigilance with regard to issues of power, consultations among those voiceless souls are fraught with the risk of irrationality and reactivity. BNASAA has developed an exceptionally cooperative process which protects against these risks, ensures safety and is captured in the guidelines used to open every BNASAA sharing circle.  Its success is measured by the atmosphere of spirituality which characterizes BNASAA workshops, by the sense of intimacy engendered, by the sense of community which evolves, and by the deep commitment to a process of transformation which characterizes those who participate.
What learning has shaped this process?  How do we restore power to the powerless?
·         We provide not anonymity, but confidentiality, through emphasizing repeatedly the importance of caution in sharing the stories of others. In some cases, we have used a process of screening attendees at conferences to ensure that no one comes as an observer.  We have also asked some persons not to attend conferences when we felt they were unable to honor confidentiality.
·         We offer an uninterrupted opportunity to speak; through the use of a feather or an object which confers upon the speaker the right to the floor, we support the right and the importance of giving each person a chance to share what is in his/her heart.
·         We ask traumatized people to take responsibility for their own healing process. We provide opportunities for private conversations with members of the Coordinating Committee, but these must be sought by those who wish them.
·         We assert the right of each person to determine whether they may be touched or hugged and offer them a model for setting limits, clarifying the difference between intimacy and familiarity.
·         We recognize the essential role of truthfulness in healing and growth, even when that truth concerns the speaker’s struggle to understand the laws of Bahá’u’llah; we assign the opening speaker in the sharing circle to someone who models this virtue.
·         We understand the essential nature of compassion.  Without the presence of compassion, the truth will not be spoken, as is reflected in Bahá’u’llah’s description of these virtues: “The heaven of divine wisdom is illumined with the two luminaries of consultation and compassion…” Compassion therefore becomes a norm within each BNASAA event.
·         Participation in the sharing circle does not involve “confession,” which implies a request for forgiveness. Instead, it is a truthful effort to explore the dynamics of our own behavior, to take personal responsibility and to seek the path to nobility.
·         We faithfully uphold the Covenant and trust that obedience to the law brings blessings, and disobedience invites challenges: “the canopy of world order is upraised upon the two pillars of reward and punishment.”  We recognize that growth is painful and that mutual support fosters steadfastness through that pain.
·         We share our understanding that the Bahá’i Revelation brings a new model of morality to the world.  This model forbids coercion and therefore eliminates shunning and shaming others.  It recognizes that all spiritual growth involves movement from imperfection to greater perfection. It informs us that great spiritual lessons result from making mistakes and reflecting upon their outcome. It frees us from paralyzing shame and guilt and encourages us to keep striving for excellence. Moreover, it grants the gift of teaching to those who can guide others as a result of the mistakes they have made. It acknowledges that true spiritual progress results from a process of reflection as to how to apply spiritual principles to practical challenges.
·         In the sharing circle, we learn two important principles: 1) that every soul has its own journey and that no one has the right to tell another how to walk its own path, and 2) that to turn our hearts away from God is to be estranged from our own selves. 

In these twenty years, BNASAA has learned some specific truths about the issues it concerns itself with:
Though HIV/AIDS is less immediately life-threatening than it was 20 years ago, nevertheless those who suffer from this illness are in need of compassion and support from the Bahá’i community.  Moreover, the Bahá’i community itself needs these souls so as to refine its capacity for compassion.  When the Bahá’i community found itself flirting with the desire to pretend that our community had no homosexual believers, it was putting itself at risk. Truthfulness about the challenges we are facing is in itself transformative. A community must be capable of responding compassionately, or it will turn upon itself.  It cannot sustain the fiction that it is possible to be insulated from tests. 

            We have learned that it is in issues of sexuality that the spiritual life is most intimately and subtly refined, for true spiritual intimacy cannot flower in the presence of any kind of abuse of power.  Understanding the law of chastity involves far more than abstaining from sexual intercourse outside of marriage; it involves using our power of attraction with a clear sense of healthy boundaries.  It has far-ranging implications for language, dress, humor, and entertainment, and it requires a refinement of taste in the use of the arts.  Frank consultation about these implications bestows a deeper understanding of the “choice wine” in the laws of Bahá’u’llah.

            We have learned a great deal about homosexuality in general as well as in particular.  Despite current political posturing about homosexuality, we have learned that homosexuality is not solely genetic or the result of “recruitment.”  We understand homosexuality to result from a subtle combination of forces, including but not restricted to the following:
  • gender stereotyping and a widespread cultural prejudice against feminine qualities,
  •  the impact of genetics and its intersection with social bias;
  • variations in fetal development which contribute to variations in perceived masculinity and femininity;
  • family dynamics related to rigid or confusing gender roles;
  • emotional abuse in the family, leading to sexual confusion;
  • harsh and rigid attitudes about sex and sexuality;
  • toxic sexual ignorance about normal sexual development and body functions;
  • premature sexualization and sexual abuse;
  • compulsive sexual behaviors adopted to cope with generalized anxiety;
  • the accessibility of pornographic images, especially as they impact children and pre-adolescents.

We accept that confusion about sexuality is the norm among adolescents and that a hyper-sexualized society aggravates this confusion. We understand that sexual orientation is fluid and changes over time.  We have learned that certain aspects of sexuality, such as sexual orientation or certain sexual practices become more resistant to change when they have a long history; they become “cemented,” as it were, in neural pathways and are experienced as fixed and unchangeable.  It is therefore not helpful to suggest that these can be easily changed, nor is it helpful to argue that they cannot be changed.  For some people, overcoming homosexuality means overcoming fears which have blocked heterosexual attraction. For others, overcoming homosexuality means accepting same-sex attraction as a permanent burden, such as blindness or being hearing-impaired.  What is helpful is learning that we are not alone in the struggle to make sense of such things and that each person’s sexual history is unique as is each person’s self-perception and sense of identity. Also, there are significant differences between male and female sexuality.  Therefore, there will be wide variations in how challenging it would be to make a commitment to change.  True respect for each soul’s journey involves standing by to be supportive in all instances.    
            We have learned that secrecy and a sense of shame are disabling and that telling the truth in a safe, supportive and confidential environment is liberating.  “Coming out” about one’s sexual orientation can be an affirmation of a truth about oneself. While it may appear to be a step toward embracing a gay identity, it also is a step toward claiming responsibility for oneself, which is ultimately a spiritual virtue.  It can therefore be a step toward exploring the context of that truth and seeking to change that orientation, or it can be a move toward self-acceptance and an increasing capacity for celibacy. Movement toward obedience to the Covenant with regard to homosexuality may proceed through these stages: 
  • coming out and committing to truthfulness;
  • understanding the dynamics of homosexual attraction,
  • reflection upon the relationship between body and soul;
  • setting limits on promiscuity;
  • moving toward celibacy;
  • exploring the possibility of heterosexual relating;
  • committing to marriage and the nurturing of a family;
  • committing to a life of service, regardless of sexual orientation.

            What have we learned about addiction?  We have learned that addiction is fundamentally about a lack of trust, isolating ourselves, choosing to numb out our pain, not believing that the world is a safe place in which we can reveal our struggles and ask for help, from God and from those who love us. We know that humility and truthfulness are essential pre-conditions to recovery, as without truthfulness, progress is impossible.
            We have learned that the world is built upon the principles of reward and punishment, that there are built-in negative life consequences to avoiding reality through addiction.  We have learned that these negative consequences can be a blessing and that lying to ourselves or others can be toxic. Despite our fears that we cannot handle negative consequences, we discover that we have more resilience than we once expected and that our self-regard grows as we courageously face life’s challenges. We have learned that everywhere we go, there we are; there is no escape from ourselves, but we always have access to spiritual power to resist the pull toward selfishness. We have learned that the more times one resists the pull of addiction, the greater the likelihood that we will succeed in overcoming it. 
            We have learned that service to others is an essential element of recovery.  We have learned that the best distraction from the siren call of self-pity is active concern for the well-being of others, and that undertaking service to others is transformative.  We understand that self-hatred is founded upon an untruth – that we are defined by our failures.  We know that within each of us is a God-given capacity to mirror forth nobility and that when we honor this truth in service to others, the light generated by that service eliminates all the shadows of unworthy deeds.

            We have come to understand that the most destructive legacy of abuse is the belief that one deserved it.  When those of us with a history of abuse realize that this belief is both untrue and destructive, we move toward spiritual freedom, we are freed from shame, and we acquire an understanding that our voice matters. Once we speak, we can discern the difference between the then of abuse and the now of safety with those who are willing to offer support.  We learn to accept that, while caution is manifested in our bodies, our soul can be courageous and transcend fear. Gradually our capacity for trust is reborn and we have the confidence to step forward into service to others. We begin to understand that our abuse has heightened our capacity for empathy and granted us expertise as healers. We begin to understand that we have sometimes been participants in our own humiliation, by choosing to associate with those who continue the pattern of abuse, and we begin to make new choices which involve asking for respect and fairness.  We learn from others what it means to be able to set limits.  We have learned from participation in the BNASAA sharing circle how to take responsibility for our own healing and how to ask for assistance in recognizing the possibilities within us. 

            As we reflect upon these lessons learned, it becomes obvious that the unifying element to the work of BNASAA is the nature of the human soul.  Regardless of the nature of the challenge faced by a suffering soul, his or her spiritual identity transcends all other identities, and the process of growth is universal.  Every human soul needs to have our personhood mirrored back to us if we are to understand who we are.  When others recognize and affirm our generosity, our courage, our compassion, our stead-fastness in service or our humility, these become essential elements of our personal identity. When we become encouragers of the spiritual reality of others, we are ourselves transformed through this refined capacity for perception. This spiritual identity remains with us even when the trappings of success in the material world are gone, and when age or illness diminish our material power. A materialistic society celebrates only power – the power to coerce, the power to attract attention, the power to seduce or manipulate.  When we create a community in which such values are disdained and instead the virtues of transcendence and nobility are celebrated, we are truly engaging in the spiritualization of humanity. Whatever lessons we have learned in BNASAA gatherings about abuse, addiction, sexuality, and facing the challenge of HIV/AIDS also apply to all the other spiritual life challenges: overcoming disunity, mastering the impulse to backbite, and struggling to find our path in service to our Beloved.  As the Master encouraged us:
How good it is if the friends be as close as sheaves of light, if they stand together side by side in a firm unbroken line.  For now have the rays of reality from the Sun of the world of existence, united in adoration all the worshippers of this light; and these rays have, through infinite grace, gathered all peoples together within this wide-spreading shelter; therefore must all souls become as one soul, and all hearts as one heart.  Let all be set free from the multiple identities that were born of passion and desire, and in the oneness of their love for God find a new way of life.”
            We have been blessed to be witness to the process of spiritual transformation. It has given us a much deeper understanding of what is meant by the verses:
  • God doth not burden a soul beyond its capacity.”
  • O Thou Whose tests are a healing medicine to such as are nigh unto Thee”
  • “He that is exalted among you shall be abased, and he that is abased shall be exalted…”
  • “If ye meet the abased or the down-trodden, turn not away disdainfully from them, for the King of Glory ever watcheth over them and surroundeth them with such tenderness as none can fathom except them that have suffered their wishes and desires to be merged in the Will of your Lord, the Gracious, the All-Wise.  O ye rich ones of the earth!  Flee not from the face of the poor that lieth in the dust, nay rather befriend him and suffer him to recount the tale of the woes with which God's inscrutable Decree hath caused him to be afflicted.  By the righteousness of God!  Whilst ye consort with him, the Concourse on high will be looking upon you, will be interceding for you, will be extolling your names and glorifying your action.  Blessed are the learned that pride not themselves on their attainments; and well is it with the righteous that mock not the sinful, but rather conceal their misdeeds, so that their own shortcomings may remain veiled to men's eyes.“

We pray that these insights may serve as a guide and a comfort to others who may never have entered the safety of a BNASAA event.  We hope that the lessons learned may contribute to the healing of the world and the creation of a true spiritual community.                                                                                                       MKR


  1. an anon reader remarked:

    This is a very important document posted, it gives the reader an "inside" to the backwards and dated research and logic that is fostered at BNASAA. Much of these theories have long disappeared from the scientific and medical communities, it's like looking back in time...

  2. "Entered the safety of a BNASSA event..."I am grateful to have been a participant at the 1989 event.It was indeed an eye-opener, though I never felt compelled to go back. This is a very interesting document. " Leave them to themselves". I won't be taking the bait on this one.

  3. No one is asking you to take a bait on anything. But this is a typical 'loyal' Bahai response. If you actually dare have a 'clash' of differing opinions as Abdul-Baha mentions, then suddenly we are just trying to 'bait' you, huh? I for one went to a BNASAA meeting. Was it a safe environment? Yeah, I guess so. Safer than your typical Bahai community (THAT in itself should tell you something). What did I feel? That it was a great place for people with deep troubles and demons who needed an understanding ear. So it has it's place. But it is NOT the place for well-adjusted gay people. Or heck even well-adjusted people living with HIV. The whole atmosphere is to reinforce the idea in someone who is gay or lesbian that they are diseased and that they are not there to question the official 'law'; all of course clothed in Bahai love and sweetness. Anyway, don't bite. Who cares?

  4. I must apologize for the post that began with "entered the safety of a bnasaa event" why is it all so secretive ? I am only grateful to have attended in that I am confident that my opinion is informed, at least in regards to my own needs. If there are so-called suffering souls who benefit from this group then that is great. I did not go there in the spirit of looking for help with sexuality issues. When I stated that I would not take the bait, what I meant was, I have run out of polite things to say in response to all the thinly veiled warm and fuzzy BS that this institution is trying to feed people. Who cares ? Probably no one.

  5. So, according to BNASAA, this is why you are gay?

    •gender stereotyping and a widespread cultural prejudice against feminine qualities,
    • the impact of genetics and its intersection with social bias;
    •variations in fetal development which contribute to variations in perceived masculinity and femininity;
    •family dynamics related to rigid or confusing gender roles;
    •emotional abuse in the family, leading to sexual confusion;
    •harsh and rigid attitudes about sex and sexuality;
    •toxic sexual ignorance about normal sexual development and body functions;
    •premature sexualization and sexual abuse;
    •compulsive sexual behaviors adopted to cope with generalized anxiety;
    •the accessibility of pornographic images, especially as they impact children and pre-adolescents.
    Holy shit is this a really twisted view. It stems from the assumptions, mostly, that being gay is based on environmental influences. They claim that there is "some" biological factor, but their claim is immediately tossed aside by their premise that genetics intersects social bias (?)_and, oh yeah, the huge list afterwards of entirely biased environmental "factors." Again, so this is why you are gay? Let's see. You were not stereotyped so badly in society that any feminine inclinations you might have had turned you into a homosexual. Your fetal development was normal and did not contribute to "perceived masculinity and femininity." We did not have a rigid family or an abusive family or one with harsh attitudes towards sexuality. You did not have generalized anxiety leading to compulsive sexual behaviors. And by God, we did not have access to pornography.

    This is appalling, and it makes people feel dirty and ashamed of who they are, contrary to their supposed beliefs that the group at BNASSA have been marginalized and need loving support.

    But, are we surprised? The Baha'i community is officially espousing an ignorant, antiquated philosophy of homosexuality!

  6. To Quote the Article:
    "In the sharing circle, we learn two important principles: 1) that every soul has its own journey and that no one has the right to tell another how to walk its own path, and 2) that to turn our hearts away from God is to be estranged from our own selves. "

    I have attended two BNASSA sessions both at Bosch. As a straight therapist I found the meetings to be loving, open, respectful and healing. Within a few minutes of participating in the first talking circle I felt at peace and at home. I experienced a unity and trust that was lacking in my own Baha'i Community. There was no pretense of formalized perfection. There was a culture of 'We're all in this struggle together.'

    At the BNAASA sessions I attended, the reflections were not about getting 'cured' but gaining spiritual unconditional loving support for any issue one might be struggle with at the time.

    I met two wonderful deepened Baha'i men who were in the sessions and have since passed on due to HIV/AIDS. Both made a loving impact on me personally. They shared their story of being gay, feeling disenfranchised by there respective communities and how love of Baha'u'llah has carried them through their confusion and pain.

    I came away feeling that if the Faith is asking people to make choices of celibacy and to submit to scriptural and document interpretations as well as be couscous of current scientific information on the subjects of Sexuality Abuse Addiction and HIV/Aids; then the Baha'i Community needs to 'be patient and more patient' with those of us trying to understand our place in the Faith.

    This fall season has brought news of suicide by bullying, sexual abuse with administrative misconduct, as will as prominent gender reassignment possibilities. The Faith could and should be a haven for these souls who struggle with such large tests.

    There is a British movie titled 'Priest' made in 1994. It is about struggles within the Catholic Church with celibacy, homosexuality and abuse... not for the faint hearted. The outcome is brilliant and heartfelt.

    I praise BNAASA for it's valiant effort to bring forth issues and comfort for Baha'i struggling with choices. The choices are not so black and white as some would profess. A persons life span is complicated at best and change comes from a variety of options. BNAASA presents one option for Baha'i, it is a start. Evolution is a slow process. Those suffering are in need of a safe place to go for prayers and support.

    Ultimately individuals will have to come to understand what is God's Will for them in this day and age.

    Community. Come Unity.

  7. RE: "There was a culture of 'We're all in this struggle together." hmmm...

    SueB9 - it is simply false that there is a safe place... I was probably at the first one... I remember, not feeling safe (but I didn't care) and being hit on repeatedly by married men(I did care and was appalled and they were angry that I was an open gay man). I remember feeling that those of us who had or shit together, were successful, happy and out were made to feel diseased and unworthy of membership in the Baha'i community, simply because I was OK with who I was. I realized that names and faces were being recorded by those in power, and seemingly "understanding" (and again I didn't care) and that my time, as an openly gay man in the Baha'i faith was numbered unless i joined their unsafe, cheap, insincere, and unhappy lifestyle of pretending to be married.

    there is no refuge in the Baha'i Faith for GLBT people, just outmoded psychobabel and hypocrisy.

    I am glad Sueb9 as a straight therapist you felt safe, I simply did not, and never returned.

  8. Dear SueB9 the circle does start with someone telling the group what path they should walk. I went to one meeting and it was made VERY clear from the get go, that this group was NOT a place to challenge the Bahai 'law' on homosexuality. If not in BNAASA, then where does one discuss that some of us who are devout Bahais, just do not in any way shape or form believe in this supposed law. What it is is dogma. But you see, BNASAA is not a place for us. As you said, it is a place for those who are hurting from abuse or self-hate (for perceiving that they have a disease). So yeah, wonderful for those people, no one is denying that. But for all the rest of us who have gone (including a friend of mine who helped start the whole thing) to meetings as well-adjusted LGBT people who do not think that we are in anyway shape or form diseased, BNASAA is NOT the welcoming place you make it out to be. And maybe you haven't been in some time, but with the discovery of someone like Lynn Shcreiber being given a platform to espouse her views on changing ones sexual orientation, I take issue with your statement that "the reflections were not about getting 'cured' ". Now it seems that is definitely a part of BNASAA.
    At one time I thought that the question of sexuality could be discussed in a different way side by side with talks given by people like Lynn Shcreiber, but now I realize that that is futile within an organization like BNASAA. I mean seriously, how can you discuss that you can be an open gay Bahai and there is nothing wrong with that within a context of an organization that specifically associates you with addictions and abuse?