Growing up in a small town has its benefits: kids often enjoy a tight-knit community and relative safety. But they may not have as many opportunities to expand their horizons as their urban peers do.
Take Federalsburg, Maryland, a town of 2,700 nestled near the center of the Delmarva Peninsula between Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. “Federalsburg is a town with a lot of children and not much to do,” says high school student Joseph Foster. “They get bored and turn to other stuff.”
In May, a team of Baha’is was traveling the Peninsula, engaging residents in conversations about building community through prayer and service. Brett Emmons of Dover, Delaware, was on that team.
Through conversations in several small towns in Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Emmons learned about Federalsburg’s potential, and he made an initial visit there.
A week later in Ridgely, the team was planning to support a neighborhood festival that they had helped a few young adults to organize. But a thunderstorm canceled that gathering. “The large visiting team with me decided to try to salvage the day by visiting in Federalsburg, only 20 minutes away,” Emmons recounts. As they entered the town, the storm clouds parted, as though signaling the receptivity the team would encounter when they knocked on residents’ doors.
One of the first people they met who showed interest was Jubeana Laurent, a high school student from Federalsburg’s Haitian community.
On Memorial Day weekend, Laurent traveled to neighboring Delaware for a camp organized by the team, which brought young people of a variety of ages together to learn about being of service to their neighborhoods. With accompaniment and consultation, she soon began teaching a children’s class.
“The group gives me more ideas about my future and what I want to do for my country. One of my favorite books is Walking the Straight Path,” a Baha’i-inspired story collection used in many junior youth groups, she says.
As a devout Christian, Laurent often draws inspiration from Bible verses when planning the children’s class she teaches. In fact, faith in Christ is part of what has attracted a number of Federalsburg residents to engage in Baha’i-inspired activities, according to Caroline Mazloom of Baltimore County, Maryland.
Mazloom, assisted by Emmons and other friends, advises Baha’i communities in the region as a member of the Auxiliary Board. “Prayer and service really resonate with these youth and children,” she says. “They all go to church, feel a connection to the love of God, and love the prayers and quotes” that are featured in materials for children’s classes and junior youth groups, many of which are from Baha’i writings.
Emmons agrees: “Unleashing that power of prayer and songs has been a big learning for us. Church is a big influence in both the Haitian and African American communities.” Black people comprise nearly half of Federalsburg’s population.
Another learning has been the importance of flexibility in training the teens leading activities. “We are following the enthusiasm for service, wherever we may find it,” Emmons reflects. “Most important is that they develop an enthusiasm and commitment to prayer, service and study, and they feel ownership of their activities.”
Indeed, the Baha’i team emphasizes that the local youth take full ownership of the activities, with Emmons, Mazloom, and their colleagues playing a supporting, rather than a leading, role. “We’re looking for souls who really have a vision to own this, to take it over,” says Mazloom.
That approach has so far proven remarkably successful, with 57 Baha’i-inspired activities in Maryland’s Eastern Shore area as of August. Devotionals, youth gatherings, and planning meetings abound. Additionally, 50 young people are participating in children’s classes and junior youth groups, which are led by eight junior youths (ages 12 to 14) and five youths (15 to 17).
Joseph Foster is one of the teens who are leading activities. In May, he met Emmons, who recognized Foster’s capacity for mentoring children. Collaborating with other local teens, Foster now facilitates activities with children and preteens in two neighborhoods. He feels inspired by the excitement of the kids he’s teaching, who show enthusiasm for the “life lessons” they discuss. “When they get older, they’ll do the same thing” by leading their own children’s classes, he predicts.
This article originally appeared on bahai.us and in The American Bahá’í (vol. 52, no. 4, Nov./Dec. 2021, p. 6).