Bahá’ís and Social Action

The Bahá'í ethos of easing the burdens of others inspires believers to build schools and improve hea

There is an oft-quoted Bahá’í maxim that says that if religion brings about more hatred than harmony then we are better off without religion. It is by this measure that Bahá’ís also measure their own worth as a community.

Service to the world of humanity, becoming the cause of harmony, easing the burden of everyone whose path they cross, and making sure that their behaviour each day is better than the previous day's - these are all goals which Bahá’ís worldwide attempt to realize through their daily lives.

As a matter of faith, Bahá’ís – since the earliest days of their religion - have been active in setting up social projects to serve the needs of communities around the world. The vast majority of these have looked beyond the confines of self-help objectives for the Bahá’í community alone. In fact, it may be fair to say that such Bahá’í projects have only been ‘inward looking’ when intense persecution in certain countries has made it impossible for them to extend their desire to serve the wider community.

Schools have been the most popular amongst these social action projects and there are numerous well established Bahá’í inspired schools the world over – for example in Macau, India, Guyana and Zambia. However, projects also relate to other areas of life - such as agriculture, literacy, empowerment, health, challenging racism and environmental protection. The Bahá’í ethos in initiating such projects is simple. They are designed to raise the capacity of populations to take charge of their own lives and to develop the skills, knowledge and insights to progress their communities. Projects are developed in free and open consultation and in a spirit of equality and respect for populations and their traditions.

In recent years, the entire Bahá'í world community has become engaged in three lines of social action that are proving to be core activities for community building. In a predominately voluntary capacity, Bahá’ís are getting involved in a comprehensive syllabus of child and young teenage education, hosting meetings for prayer and reflection, and propagating study groups in neighbourhoods which use the Bahá'í sacred writings to train participants to become useful members of society.

As Bahá’ís we believe that a human being’s purpose is essentially a spiritual one. We are born into this life to develop our spiritual potential. But in Bahá’í metaphor this physical existence is a mere shadow of our true reality. The body is the temple of the soul and is destroyed on our physical death only to release the bird of our soul from its mortal cage. Since life’s purpose is to develop spiritual qualities while in a physical frame, then projects that aid individuals to focus on the spiritual – by pausing to reflect in devotional gatherings or by considering spiritual texts and reflecting them in a life of service to others – is actually core to human development.

Photo: André Spicer
Show Hide image

“It’s scary to do it again”: the five-year-old fined £150 for running a lemonade stand

Enforcement officers penalised a child selling home-made lemonade in the street. Her father tells the full story. 

It was a lively Saturday afternoon in east London’s Mile End. Groups of people streamed through residential streets on their way to a music festival in the local park; booming bass could be heard from the surrounding houses.

One five-year-old girl who lived in the area had an idea. She had been to her school’s summer fête recently and looked longingly at the stalls. She loved the idea of setting up her own stall, and today was a good day for it.

“She eventually came round to the idea of selling lemonade,” her father André Spicer tells me. So he and his daughter went to their local shop to buy some lemons. They mixed a few jugs of lemonade, the girl made a fetching A4 sign with some lemons drawn on it – 50p for a small cup, £1 for a large – and they carried a table from home to the end of their road. 

“People suddenly started coming up and buying stuff, pretty quickly, and they were very happy,” Spicer recalls. “People looked overjoyed at this cute little girl on the side of the road – community feel and all that sort of stuff.”

But the heart-warming scene was soon interrupted. After about half an hour of what Spicer describes as “brisk” trade – his daughter’s recipe secret was some mint and a little bit of cucumber, for a “bit of a British touch” – four enforcement officers came striding up to the stand.

Three were in uniform, and one was in plain clothes. One uniformed officer turned the camera on his vest on, and began reciting a legal script at the weeping five-year-old.

“You’re trading without a licence, pursuant to x, y, z act and blah dah dah dah, really going through a script,” Spicer tells me, saying they showed no compassion for his daughter. “This is my job, I’m doing it and that’s it, basically.”

The girl burst into tears the moment they arrived.

“Officials have some degree of intimidation. I’m a grown adult, so I wasn’t super intimidated, but I was a bit shocked,” says Spicer. “But my daughter was intimidated. She started crying straight away.”

As they continued to recite their legalese, her father picked her up to try to comfort her – but that didn’t stop the officers giving her stall a £150 fine and handing them a penalty notice. “TRADING WITHOUT LICENCE,” it screamed.


Picture: André Spicer

“She was crying and repeating, ‘I’ve done a bad thing’,” says Spicer. “As we walked home, I had to try and convince her that it wasn’t her, it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her who had done something bad.”

She cried all the way home, and it wasn’t until she watched her favourite film, Brave, that she calmed down. It was then that Spicer suggested next time they would “do it all correctly”, get a permit, and set up another stand.

“No, I don’t want to, it’s a bit scary to do it again,” she replied. Her father hopes that “she’ll be able to get over it”, and that her enterprising spirit will return.

The Council has since apologised and cancelled the fine, and called on its officials to “show common sense and to use their powers sensibly”.

But Spicer felt “there’s a bigger principle here”, and wrote a piece for the Telegraph arguing that children in modern Britain are too restricted.

He would “absolutely” encourage his daughter to set up another stall, and “I’d encourage other people to go and do it as well. It’s a great way to spend a bit of time with the kids in the holidays, and they might learn something.”

A fitting reminder of the great life lesson: when life gives you a fixed penalty notice, make lemonade.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.