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Junior Youth Groups
Throughout the week around the Central neighborhood of Minneapolis, groups of middle school students come together in the evenings as part of a Bahá'í initiative to “bring people together and build spiritual communities,” says Kevalin, a Junior Youth Coordinator for Minneapolis. In this neighborhood of Minneapolis, she says that there are “close to 40 or 50 junior youth in the program, and they all live within twelve blocks of each other.”
Junior Youth are considered by Bahá'ís to be ages 12 to 15. Kevalin describes the program as one that
helps junior youth to shape their own characters and feel empowered that they have control over their own selves, and through their relationship with God, they can really decide in which direction their life is going to go and develop qualities like kindness and generosity
She also discusses that the Junior Youth Program
creates connections between people that live in the same area, which enables them to work towards the betterment of their own community and take charge of its spiritual and social development.
The Junior Youth Program is close to people’s hearts in the Bahá'í community in Minneapolis. One Bahá'í in the community said
“The most exciting thing for me about the Faith at this time is the Junior Youth Spiritual Empowerment Program.”
A 15-year-old who just recently began working with a Junior Youth Group said of the junior youth that she works with, “You see them become happy.” Another person reflected
The more I think about society, the more important Junior Youth Groups seem to me right now.
The leaders of the Junior Youth Groups are called animators. One animator, Gerald, discusses how, when starting a junior youth group, he “spends his evening going throughout the neighborhood and meeting youth and asking them if they’re interested in contributing to the betterment of the neighborhood. And they are, always. Or they’re shy and we just tell them to come anyways, and they realize they’re interested.”
Both Kevalin and Gerald stressed the importance of talking to parents before their junior youth begins in the program. Gerald said, “We always try to make sure that people know it’s a Bahá'í inspired program, and if they don’t know anything about the Baha’i faith, share with them a little bit about what the Bahá'í faith believes about the role of different religions and ethnicities in this world and this concept of the oneness of mankind. And then explain that this program exists to further that and help young people understand that principle.” Kevalin echoed what Gerald said, adding, “I think parents understand that spiritual education is important. I think people are very attracted to the model of the program, especially that it creates this spirit of serving others.”
One Junior Youth Group, animated by Kevalin, meets on Wednesday evenings at the Sabathani Center in Minneapolis. She and Gerald walk around the neighborhood to pick up the junior youth in the program. Before they begin, the animators share a prayer together at the Center. As clicking heels are heard getting closer from down the hall, they worry if they will finish before someone comes--praying in public can be awkward, they say afterwards.
After their prayers, Kevalin and Gerald are ready to pick up kids. Sometimes, a junior youth isn’t home, or has chores to do, or just got home from playing basketball and is exhausted. Other times, the junior youth is waiting to be picked up to go to the group, or is playing outside and comes as soon as they sees Kevalin or Gerald. The group begins with prayers, using Bahá'í prayer books or separate notecards with a Bahá'í prayer. Some junior youth read a prayer, and others do not, but everyone sits quietly as people read.
After their prayers, the junior youth began to plan their current project: planning a garden. They decided they wanted strawberries, cucumbers, acorn squash, peas, watermelon and more in their garden. On a big sheet of paper, they figured out where each food will be planted in the garden. One girl used her phone to figure out how much distance radishes need while the others continue coloring and planning.
Once a plan was made, they went outside to walk around the garden, and then returned inside to play Sharks and Minnows for the remaining time. Kevalin and Gerald drove people back in a car, and the Junior Youth Group was over for the night.
When asked about the prayer component of the group, Gerald said that although it may be awkward at first if the junior youth has never prayed before, it “helps the junior youth realize that they don’t have to be their worst selves, like they are in school. They can actually be kind to one another and no one is going to call them a nerd, and it just sets things off on a good start.”
With forty to fifty junior youth in the program, conversation between animators often turn to the junior youth in their group. While driving through Minneapolis, the question is often, “Would this be a good place for a Junior Youth Group?” The importance of middle school education is huge for the animators, and discussion often revolves around how to educate junior youth so they can better the world. Junior Youth are seen as a place to begin to "engage people of all ages," Kevalin says. She notes that younger siblings often want to come to the group, and that a free english class for adults was sparked when animators made visited the homes of the junior youth and talked with parents about what they need in the community. One person who has been in the community for decades said of the groups
"The junior youth activities are going to be a big change. We're just starting to see the effects of that . . . [it] has been very exciting, as it has a lot of opportunity to involve people in the neighborhood, not to become Baha’is, but just to be involved in their lives. The young need to realize their potential and realize what they can do."