The Bahá'í Faith is not quite 170 years old, with about six million adherents spread out over just about every country and continent. For many believers, the chance to attend a conference or a session of Bahá'í school is the only time they experience the fellowship of many fellow believers all in one place.
A weekend or a week at one of the permanent campuses, or a session arranged regionally, can be a wonderfully confirming experience for adults, but is especially important to children. When my son was growing up, we lived in small rural cities, where he was often the only Bahá'í child in his school. Summer youth camps and weekend teen conferences gave him a chance to hang out with like-minded kids--and also make friends who would stay with him for years.
In the USA, we have three permanent schools: Greenacre - beside the Piscataqua River near Eliot Maine, Louhelen - near Davison, Michigan, and Bosch - deep in the redwood forest north of Santa Cruz.
There are also two institutes, the Native American Bahá'í Institute in Arizona, and Louis Gregory Institute near Henderson, South Carolina. Regional Bahá'í Schools offer special sessions at rented spaces, campgrounds and college campuses, usually in the summer or over school breaks.
Today's review is of the one closest to me at the moment: Louhelen Bahá'í School Retreat and Conference Center. It was founded in 1931, and initially used for summer programs on the teachings of the Faith. The campus has grown substantially over the years, and remains a leading center of Bahá'í learning, offering courses and seminars relating to the teachings of Bahá'u'lláh, founder of the Bahá'í Faith. In addition, it offers space and services to the local community for business conferences, health seminars and a variety of other events.
The school is set in fields and woodlands about an hour's drive north of Detroit, Michigan. There are motel style dormitories, a cafeteria with full food service, bookstore, library, auditorium and classrooms, all set in a broad arc around patio, lawns and children's playground. Ancillary buildings provide unobtrusive housing for permanent staff, as well as workout room, shop and maintenance equipment. One of the oldest buildings has been restored as a retreat for quiet personal devotions.
The average weekend session will begin with dinner on Friday night and end after lunch on Sunday. There will be a welcoming session after dinner, and time to visit the bookstore later for lattes or ice cream and pastries while socializing. Morning begins with early prayers, breakfast, music and devotions as a group, after which children go to their classrooms and activities while the adults study. Morning break includes coffee, tea and muffins, and children have snacks in their classrooms. Meals are family buffet style, and have won awards from hospitality magazines. Afternoon sessions continue the study and evening session on Saturday nights usually include music and sometimes a talent show.
There is plenty to entertain the entire family, with skilled teachers and inspirational speakers, interesting topics and activities, beautiful natural setting and a demonstration of community life guided by the principles of trustworthiness, respect and courtesy toward all.
Among the teachings of the Bahá'í Faith which inspire Louhelen's atmosphere:
- serving humanity as a means of loving God
- respecting the truths found in all great world religions
- valuing and welcoming all races, religions and nations
- striving to eliminate prejudices and overcome racism
- valuing equally the capacities of women and men
- celebrating the uniqueness and nobility of each person
- working to build unity and justice through deeds, not words alone.
If you attend in winter months, be prepared for a chilly walk along open covered walkways from dormitory rooms up the slope to cafeteria and classrooms. In summer, bring bug spray for the mosquitoes. There is no swimming pool, no TV, no phones in the rooms, and Internet access is only in the bookstore and library. Leave radios, games and other electronics at home--but you won't really miss them.
The Bahá'í school experience designed to be a retreat from the hustle, anxiety and distractions of life. Louhelen is not a rustic campground, however. It is modern, comfortable and apart from tub/showers shared by every two rooms, is contemporary. No lions, tigers or bears, but plenty of songbirds, deer and wildflowers.
"…every Bahá'í summer school should combine the threefold features of devotion, study and recreation. Only through such a harmonious combination of these three elements can the institution of the summer school yield the maximum of beneficent results, fulfill its true function of deepening the knowledge, stimulating the zeal, and fostering the spirit of fellowship…" Shoghi Effendi, from a letter dated August 15, 1938