Many U.S. Baha’i communities have moved nearly all activities that would usually take place indoors to online platforms since the pandemic broke out earlier this year.
Yet not everyone has access to reliable devices, digital literacy, a stable Internet connection, quiet space or other resources that make online engagement possible, as the team coordinating activities in the Indian Creek neighborhood of Stone Mountain, Georgia, discovered.
Public health experts suggest that meetings held outdoors, with masks and distancing, carry a much lower chance of spreading the coronavirus than do indoor gatherings.
With this guidance in mind, the Indian Creek team moved its online activities outdoors — including a July 27–31 summer youth camp with 14 participants, most between 15 and 18 years old. Only two were members of the Baha’i Faith.
Meeting outdoors sounds simple but in practice requires a great deal of coordination. Thus, camp organizers considered location, transportation, physical distancing, cooling, and health supplies, says Jasmine Miller-Kleinhenz, a member of the Indian Creek neighborhood team who also serves as an Auxiliary Board member, an appointed adviser to Baha’i communities.
Location: Group study requires a peaceful setting and access to restrooms. Without a suitable park in the Indian Creek neighborhood, organizers looked to the backyards and porches of two adjacent houses owned by Baha’is (one of which belongs to the Miller-Kleinhenz family) a few miles from the neighborhood. It would have been a long walk, so the organizers deliberated on other forms of transportation.
Transportation: The idea of giving the participants rides in cars struck the organizers as too risky, since the virus could easily spread in enclosed spaces. It occurred to them that participants could bicycle to camp using the Stone Mountain Trail instead. Since many participants don’t own bikes, Baha’is in the Atlanta area lent their personal bikes and helmets for the week.
Physical distancing: The outdoor study space was arranged to allow for the recommended six feet between participants’ chairs. Each was asked to stick to their designated chair and supplies to minimize touching of shared surfaces. Recreation time featured games allowing physical distancing, such as kickball, line dancing and jump rope. Masks added another layer of protection — though participants needed a few reminders to keep them on, since the heat made wearing them uncomfortable.
Cooling: Late July in Georgia means temperatures in the upper 80s and low 90s, with humidity compounding the heat. As campers met from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., prevention of overheating and dehydration was essential during those long hours of study, devotions, meals and art activities. Miller-Kleinhenz’s brother set up tarps across the study spaces to shade the participants. The Baha’i Unity Center in nearby Decatur lent fans. Ice water and popsicles helped participants stay hydrated and cool.
Health supplies: Typically, camp organizers ask the community to help out with meals, as was the case for this one. But the pandemic presented needs for many additional supplies, including masks, hand sanitizer and disinfectant cleaners. Baha’is in the Atlanta area responded enthusiastically to the call for help and donated all these supplies. “At this time, everyone wants to make a contribution,” reflects Miller-Kleinhenz. The need for social distancing has disrupted usual methods of helping out in person, but “volunteers could just drop something off and know they were supporting the community.” Donated meals and art supplies were set out by a single volunteer to minimize contact.
All this work to adhere to public health guidelines paid off. Not only did participants stay healthy, but they had an enriching experience studying Ruhi Institute training courses — Reflections on the Life of the Spirit and Arising to Serve — as well as building fellowship with each other.
Maekaylia Jackson, an Indian Creek resident who has been involved in Baha’i activities for over a year, says the bonding the camp participants felt would have been harder to achieve online.
As participants biked to the camp together each morning, faster members slowed down so everyone could move at the same pace. In situations like rain, she recalls, “we had to make decisions together.” Friendships were also strengthened during recreational breaks, which created “transitions … that motivated us to get back in there” and engage energetically with the study materials, says Jackson.
According to Miller-Kleinhenz, the camp contributed to “a reinvigoration of activity in the neighborhood.” Now community-building activities in Indian Creek are held outdoors almost every day, under a big shade tree or on people’s porches.
And while the pandemic initially put a damper on activities, the neighborhood coordinating team has observed that these challenging conditions actually are increasing the desire for conversations that connect social reality to spiritual teachings, especially among youth.
This article originally appeared on bahai.us and in The American Bahá’í (vol. 51, no. 5, Nov./Dec. 2020/Jan. 2021, p. 27).