The Lawton family on pilgrimage in 2010
I (Rob) was born in Lewisham hospital in 1953. I was a ‘blue baby’ and needed an urgent blood transfusion. They pumped me full of Rhesus monkey blood. To this day I’m convinced it is the reason I have long arms, and even at 65 years of age I constantly monkey about and who can blame me?
My family was working class. Dad was a journeyman joiner and started work at 14 years of age in a local Dartford foundry. Mum was a nursery nurse but she soon became a stay-at-home mother when three boys came along. We were a very happy family until the summer of 1961. On a seaside holiday in Littlehampton my eldest brother Jim who was 11 at the time, disappeared. We went home without him in the end. His body washed ashore some weeks later, and Dad had to go and identify him.
We never talked about it after that. Mum and Dad internalised the pain. They both lost their faith in God. We grew even closer together as a loving family unit and we stayed that way: me, my younger brother Peter, Mum, Dad and a succession of dogs.
Much to everybody’s surprise I managed to get a place at Dartford Grammar School for Boys. My school’s claim to fame? I had a school atlas that had “M Jagger 1B” written in the inside cover. Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones was on the cusp of stardom by then. I eventually scraped enough ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels to get to the NE London Polytechnic to study Surveying, but it was at Dartford Grammar School where I met my future wife.
Denise Dix was a year younger than me, and had grown up on a small dairy farm on Dartford Marshes with her parents, uncle and grandparents. It was a free and happy existence for both Denise and her younger sister. She went to a Catholic convent school from age 4 to 16. Her mother’s family had a long association with the local C of E church and her mother and grandmother went every Sunday. Despite finding it a bit boring, Denise eventually became a Sunday School teacher. It was ‘high’ church; incense was used during services and there was a confession box too.
At 16 Denise secured a place in the Sixth Form at Dartford Grammar School for Girls. It was just down the road from the boys’ school and had adjacent playing fields. Despite the schools being very separate, joint activities were mooted for the Sixth Form pupils for the first time ever. This revolutionary idea meant that during a geography/geology evening course I first met up with Denise. We both managed a good pass in ‘O’ level Geology too!
Denise went onto Bognor Regis Teacher Training College, where she studied comparative religion. There she became aware and interested in other faiths, particularly Buddhism. I had read many books by a Buddhist monk during the Sixth Form and had become attracted to the idea of meditation. During our three years at separate colleges, mine in Walthamstow in London and Denise in Sussex some 80 miles apart, we were already engaged. During term time we met up most weekends either back at home, or I would ride to Bognor on my motorcycle. But it gradually became apparent to me that if I wasn’t to put a ring on Denise’s finger fairly soon, then any number of strapping Bognor PE students jolly well might. Denise of course did little to dissuade me. We finally got married in the local church in Crayford soon after we left college in 1975, almost four years from having first met.
It was on our honeymoon in Cornwall, with my back against a tree on a hot sunny day in Trelissick Gardens, where I made the step of asking for answers. I had been a seeker before: C of E Sunday School during my primary years, Methodist church with my best friend in juniors, the Christian Union at the grammar school, a Billy Graham crusade at Earl’s Court and finally a flirt with Buddhism and anything alternative at NE London Polytechnic in the early 1970s.
Why that question on my honeymoon, and why was it different from my earlier seeking?
I had come to realise that many of my earlier religious allegiances had relied upon my being led to conclusions by other people: teachers at school and evangelists. My beliefs were dependent upon friendships and social circles. It seemed to me that when key people left my church to go on to other things, the buzz went with them. I had become disillusioned with tradition.
Denise and I were on honeymoon, we were freed from parental shackles, we had just finished three years at college, and we didn’t want to settle down with a job and a mortgage. It turned out that we were just weeks away from a new life as volunteer teachers in Nigeria, a new beginning, and a simple silent request to God for guidance on a pathway through life. That moment in Trelissick Gardens seemed to herald the start of our journey of discovery of the Bahá’í Faith.
In 1977 our two years working for Voluntary Service Overseas in Kaduna, Nigeria were up. We had lived in a largely Muslim community and our friendships had encompassed many different faiths. During one of our many long evening discussions with our VSO friends, they mentioned that we might like to read a book they had found in the British Council library. Thief in the Night by William Sears had certainly thrown up some interesting propositions for them. We both read the book and digested its contents. Little did we know at the time that its effect was to bear fruit in a few short years. Our VSO support officer, a young man called Richard (Dick) Poole, was a quietly supportive and positive presence, but it was many decades later, when we bumped into him at the UK National Bahá’í Convention, that we found out he is a Bahá’í.
On our return to the UK we found it difficult to adapt at first. Our African experiences didn’t mean anything to people back home, and our old friends had moved on or moved away. We were living in Sheffield where I was studying for my Masters degree in Town and Regional Planning, and we had joined the local church to help us to find friends in the community. Just how far we had both moved on was to be made clear during Christian Unity week. At an evening discussion group I became frustrated because there didn’t seem to be any way for the people in the group to see a way for the C of E to unite with the Catholics. I was looking for a way to unite the Christians and the Muslims! My African experience had caused me to question just how the Christians could really believe that Jesus offered the only pathway to God. Denise and I had made many good, sincere Muslim friends during our time in Kaduna, who clearly had found a pathway to God, although to be fair they too believed in exclusivity. The church group thought us mad.
“One World or None, Whose Side Are You On” ran the small advert in Sheffield’s free newspaper. There was an address and a reference to weekly meetings called “firesides”, all welcome. Just why this small advert should catch my eye, and more importantly strike a chord within me, I can only guess at. Certainly, its reference to one world seemed to offer at least a chance to discuss my privately held views of uniting religions, and my recent third world experience. Denise and I decided to go along and find out; we later recalled reading the book Thief in the Night back in Nigeria.
We arrived unannounced on the doorstep of an imposing house at 162 Psalter Lane, Sheffield and knocked. A man of about our age, who looked a little startled, opened the door. I mentioned the advert, and his smiling eyes opened wide and we were shown into a room of 8 or so people. The room had a large Persian carpet and all around there were pictures and ornaments from the Middle East. There was a moment of silence, it seemed that the occupants were a little stunned, the moment soon passed and then the questions began…. who were we, where had we heard about the meetings? We weremost welcome etc. etc.
The house belonged to Mrs Tarab Manavi, a warm and demonstrative Persian lady who was to play an influential role in our lives from then on. Also in the room that Wednesday night were Phil and Rita Croft, Ruth Bradley, Aideen McConkey, and Assad Naeimi. We stayed till late and promised to return.
I was determined to take it slowly, and we were visiting fireside meetings for just about a year when one night in May 1978, as we left, we calmly dropped two declaration cards (a process of registering membership in the Bahá’í Faith) into the hands of the secretary as we went through the door. Nobody had mentioned how we should become a Bahá’í, what to do, or when or why. There were tears and hugs and kisses as we were dragged back into the room for yet another cup of tea. Denise and I had discussed the idea of becoming Bahá’ís together; I could not imagine it not being so, and it was a moment of great warmth and unity and love.
We received our first invitation to a Feast on the night of our declarations. We had attended many Holy Day events during our year of investigations in 1977, invariably held at Tarab’s house, which were accompanied by huge volumes of the most amazing Persian food. The “Feast” would undoubtedly be a visit to remember, and it was.
We starved ourselves on the day of the Feast of Núr (June 1978), and turned up at a small one-bedroomed flat in Crookes (a suburb of Sheffield) belonging to a science student called Hooshang Zavareh. We crowded into the small sitting room, and after the reciting of prayers and readings, we were each presented with a signed prayer book dated 30 May 1978. After the reading of the Feast newsletter from the NSA, discussions were held about the topics and speakers for the next few firesides. During all this time our stomachs rumbled as we waited expectantly for the ‘feast’. It shortly arrived in the form of a small plate of biscuits and a cup of tea. That was our introduction to the concept of a “spiritual” feast.
First Feast at the Lawtons’ in Sheffield, 1978
L to R: Hooshang Zavareh, Ruth Bradley, Nurian & Assad Naeimi, Neshat Nateq
Bearwood Summer School in 1978 was our first large event. It was held at a residential boarding school in Reading, and it remains memorable for many reasons. Most immediately, upon our arrival there was the standard of accommodation: dormitories, bare and basic in the best public school tradition. Secondly there was the concept of sharing chores (universal participation as it was called). All the cooking and cleaning was on a rota. At Bearwood we were tested by the great diversity of the Bahá’í community, by the difference in viewpoint and the cultural mix. Our experiences in Sheffield up until then had been fairly parochial.
Hand of the Cause Mr Faizi was in attendance. The significance of a Hand of the Cause didn’t mean a lot to me, new as I was to the Faith, and I don’t remember ever getting near enough to speak with him. What I found a little disturbing, I remember, was what I perceived as the tendency of some Bahá’ís towards a kind of hero worship that was out of step with the egalitarian teachings of the Faith. I had understood that in the Bahá’í Faith no individual had any station other than as an individual, and this following, it seemed to me, was distinctly out of step. The amount of jewellery worn by some of the women was also something that I had simply not encountered before, anywhere. Of course, I now appreciate the respect that is accorded to The Hands of the Cause, and having met Mr Faizi on pilgrimage, it is easy to understand his popularity. I imagine that it was also a trial for him to be constantly pursued in this way. The other point of note is that since Bearwood I have not seen such a display of wealth in the Bahá’í community. I imagine this is due to the revolution in Iran that followed soon after, and the huge financial sacrifices that the Persian friends in particular made to maintain the flow of funds into the Lifeblood of the Cause.
Mr Faizi was not the only blessed soul to grace that Summer School either. I can remember working with two people in particular in the kitchens. Mary Hardy was the chief cook and bottle washer; I liked her immensely, and worked more than my required number of shifts. She was also the NSA secretary I think at the time. When not in the kitchen I remember Mary as always wearing a pink felt hat. The other person I recall sitting next to at lunch was someone who asked me a lot of questions about myself as a new believer, but offered little information about himself. Eventually he informed me that he worked in Haifa. He didn’t say doing what, but he did tell me his name: Ian Semple. It meant nothing to me at the time, and it was only after the school that somebody explained to me that he was one of the nine members of the Universal House of Justice. Humility of such high order. My faith was confirmed and my love for that august body increased.
Bernard Leach (the world-famous potter) also attended the Bearwood Summer School. I can remember sitting out on the sun terrace talking to him with a young potter Darya Kaboli from Hebden Bridge. I had seen some of Bernard’s pottery in Nigeria, where he had set up a school that still produced his distinctive wares. We continued to visit Dara at his pottery in Hebden Bridge for some years after, but alas we lost contact with him and haven’t seen him in years.
Upon our return to Sheffield we were shortly to become involved in efforts to prevent the persecution of the Bahá’ís in Iran after the events of the revolution in Iran, and the UK community’s response via the media and the MPs. Our Bahá’í education was an accelerated process. I well remember the request from the NSA to send telegrams to the Ayatollah Khomeini. I had by this time been elected Secretary to the Local Spiritual Assembly (LSA), and so I queued at the main post office in Sheffield waiting to send the telegram; the look on the face of the lady assistant when told the name of the recipient was a sight to behold, and how well the world-wide campaign worked too, achieving a stay in the rate of executions.
Our visits to the MPs were generally well received, Kevin Baron being particularly supportive, but I recall one visit in particular when supporting the case of Ferdos Ghaderian from the Doncaster community. Their MP wasn’t too impressed that we Bahá’ís were seeking his support and yet didn’t, in his view, support democracy. Although Bahá’ís may vote in elections, subject to certain constraints, the way we go about this did not make sense to him. He gave us a bit of a rough ride.
Ruth Bradley (from Sheffield) and I gave an interview about the Faith on BBC Radio Sheffield. It was my first radio interview and I was very nervous. I told my work mates about it and they all promised to listen in. When my turn came to answer my mouth had dried up and made a funny choking sound. I quickly recovered and continued but my work mates had heard it and gave me a good leg pulling the next day.
On the teaching front, Ruth and I, accompanied by Tarab Manavi, were to travel weekly to Worksop for many months in support of the LSA goal to open up the district. We would pray, put up postcards in shops and place adverts in the local newspaper. Lois Hainsworth travelled to Worksop, where she had been raised, to talk at a public meeting we had arranged. A man did declare his faith in Bahá’u’lláh but did not remain in the Faith for long.
Rotherham was also one of the teaching goals for Sheffield. It was there that we bought our first house, in North Anston, within the goal area, and set about garnering an assembly. We convinced our good Bahá’í friends Neshat and Nabil Rahim from Bahrain to purchase a house in North Anston too. They were pursuing their respective studies at the University of Sheffield. Other Persian friends joined us including Suzan Dehghani and Helen Agahi, both recent refugees from Iran. Mohammed and Lyn were a young couple recently married and Shahram Dalvand whose family were from Newcastle also moved in during his studies. The wave of persecutions in Iran reached new heights at this time and we were to be touched by two martyrdoms. Mohammed’s father was executed by firing squad, and in 1983, Shahram’s sister Shirin, was one of ten women martyrs hanged for their beliefs, in an incident that made world headlines. She was just 21 years of age. To be touched by such violence is a test of your faith. The injustice burns into your soul. It confirms or crushes your belief. We grew closer as friends.
Our community expanded over several years with a number of declarations, and eventually we achieved our assembly. We certainly had some characters. Two couples who declared their faith in Bahá’u’lláh came into the Faith from the spiritualist church. Our fireside discussions and deepenings were frequently interrupted by such declarations as “Oh! Denise your father is standing behind you”. Denise’s father had been dead for a decade or so. One lady could transmogrify and take on the voice of someone “coming through”. Her husband would conduct automatic handwriting, his hand spiritually guided in a similar way. Eventually they drifted away. It had become apparent to them that the Faith could not take such activities into its fold, and they did not wish to give them up.
These Rotherham years were to be the start of our family. Our first child Simon had arrived in 1980 while we lived in Sheffield, Katie followed on two years later during our Rotherham years and Tom two years on from her. We had to wait a further six years before Henry, our fourth child, arrived during our Scunthorpe years. The focus in the community changed and most activities centred on the children. We would hold Holy Day celebrations for our Bahá’í friends but also invite many other children and parents from outside of the community. On one Holy day picnic, the Mayor of Rotherham attended and planted a commemorative tree in the Central Park.
Tree planting for Naw Ruz 1986 in Clifton Park, Rotherham
L to R: (unknown), Helen Agahi, Lyn and Layla, Neshat and Ahmad, Sandra Agahi, Steve Willis, Rob, Mayor and Mayoress, (unknown)
My work commitments and a 6-day working week impacted on the level of activities. I was privileged to serve several terms of office as an Auxiliary Board member’s assistant for both protection and propagation, serving at various times under Bahadur Haqjoo in Manchester and Madeline Hellaby in Skipton. Both of these blessed souls were to exert a strong influence over me and I believe prepare me well for the future.
The Rotherham Bahá’í Teaching Committee c.1984
Siamac Dehghani, Steve Willis, Rob with Katie, Sasan Dehghani, Denise, Carol Dehghani
My work for several years was as a salesman in the motor trade. I would drive extensively throughout the area. It allowed me to drop into Bahá’í communities over my lunchtimes to spend time with them and share news stories. I had regular stops in Chesterfield with the Arminian family, and in Doncaster with the Ghaderian family. It was a great way to split the day.
In 1984 our names came up on the long waiting list for pilgrimage, and we eagerly prepared for our time in the Holy Land. As seasoned world travellers we decided to spend a week in Jerusalem prior to our pilgrimage. We wanted to visit the holy places of the Jews and of Christendom and Islam. We found Jerusalem to be a pressure cooker of unrest. The Palestinians had until recently been holed up in encampments, and to cap it all as we sat drinking mint tea with a shop keeper in Jerusalem Old Town, we were verbally attacked by several fundamentalist Jews for spending our time and money in the Arab quarter of the Old City.
Of all the holy places we visited, only the garden of Gethsemane had any peace and solitude about it. The birthplace of Christ in the Old Town was marred by a dishevelled man (presumably the guardian) comatose on the seat in the inner sanctuary itself. The Dome of the Rock and the wailing wall had to be appreciated at some distance, and the checkpoints, although understandable, were becoming tiresome. At Bethlehem we finally gave up queuing at the armed checkpoint and bag search and we never did access the church, but we were entertained by Father Christmas whizzing around the cobbled square in a black Mercedes ringing a hand bell and presumably shouting “Happy Christmas” as it was the Eastern Orthodox Christmas Day.
We resolved to continue with our road trip which would finally take us to Haifa. We headed off across desert roads in our Ford Fiesta hire car, bound for Jericho and the Dead Sea. Several hours later we were cruising along the shores of the Dead Sea looking for somewhere to bathe. The roads were completely empty and we saw no one. For mile after mile the security fence and the associated minefield prevented us from gaining access to the water. Eventually we gave up, turned around and drove back towards Jericho, feeling very disappointed.
Our approach to the outskirts of Jericho showed a rather depressing place, with empty internment camps and a few poor people in areas of very poor housing. Our map showed the road going to Nazareth further north, and then turning left to Haifa …. easy.
We were stopped within a few short miles by a uniformed gentleman with a machine gun. He pointed out politely but firmly that we were not in fact going to drive to Nazareth because the area wasn’t safe (it was mainly Palestinian), but we were to turn around and drive straight back to Jerusalem. Well, in my experience it’s best not to argue with someone who has a machine gun, so we did just that; in fact we gave Jerusalem a miss and carried on to Tel Aviv.
So it was that our eventual arrival in Haifa was by local bus from Tel Aviv, and it heralded the most amazing nine days of our Bahá’í lives thus far. We shared our pilgrimage with a group of Baha’is drawn from all over the world, from Australia to Alaska. Every day was filled with laughter and love. The guides were knowledgeable, humble, patient and unerringly polite. The Holy places took our breath away with their physical beauty and spiritually loaded atmosphere. The organisation was faultless and the pilgrims were treated like royalty. Friendships were forged and stories exchanged over shared meals and shared trips. There were so many different characters in the group.
Howard, an Australian, had made and lost a fortune. I found him on his knees in the Chamber of the Universal House of Justice, which had only recently been completed and opened up as part of the pilgrimage. He was at the back of the group, who were for the main part listening to the guide telling us about the building and its purpose. Howard was turning over the corner of a vast carpet that covered much of the highly polished floor of the chamber. We had been told a little of the carpet’s provenance and he was carefully counting the number of knots per square inch. He was attempting to place a value on it! How we laughed about it later on. We also had a trip to the roof of the seat of the House of Justice, something that is not done now. The views down into the bay of Haifa were simply astonishing.
On our spare day we ventured into the Old Town of Akká, where we were keen to explore the historic souk and the many squares and narrow lanes. We loved the sounds and smells of the souk and the hustle and bustle of the narrow lanes. We had been warned not to take any notice of anyone approaching us claiming to be Bahá’ís, who might offer us a service as a guide; as seasoned travellers in many third world countries this did not in the least perturb us.
We were richly rewarded when we first came across the caravanserai that so many early pilgrims frequented. Better still, we stumbled across a Turkish bath quite nearby which was not on any tourist trail, although it was a small local museum. It was the public bath that Bahá’u’lláh is said to have used and where he met the first Bahá’í pilgrim in great secrecy. We had it to ourselves and we spent quite some time in quiet contemplation.
We were to return later in the week to Akká on organised visits to the houses where members of the holy family resided and where the Kitáb-i-Aqdas was revealed, and the wonderful iron-clad sea gate through which the Holy Family, as prisoners, entered the town of Akká.
So it was that our pilgrimage ended and once again we were faced with family life and the routine of the working week. I can recall that it was a jolt coming home to it all again.
At one time I attended a conference for assistants in the Manchester Bahá’í centre. I had been asked to present to the group on the subject of teaching. I wanted the talk to be thought-provoking (those who know me won’t be surprised) and I had the idea to use my industrial selling techniques as a framework on how to teach the Faith. I even took along some props to illustrate the point (boxes of brake pads!). I seem to recall that Hand of the Cause Mr John Robarts was at the same meeting and that he had been in insurance in a previous life. I was buoyed up by the idea.
So off I went:
- Research your customer base….identify some receptive souls (customers in my motor trade).
- Identify their needs…what aspects of the Faith will get them interested from the outset … get them on the hook – (find the unique selling point)
- Present them with your product…it should be easy because we both believe in it and live it … but offer it gently and slowly – (talk it up but keep it real)
- Leave them at the end with questions for a follow up visit.
- Be systematic and note all relevant details … names, addresses and contact numbers – (your customer database) now known as the community of interest.
- When you feel the time is right, ask them if they are ready for a commitment – (come away with their order for product)
I can’t say that it impressed everyone as I knew it wouldn’t, but the question and answer session was lively. The systematic nature and the selling aspect jarred with some of the friends who preferred a softer feel to teaching.
My time as a motor trade salesman ended abruptly with a surprise redundancy. It was time for a new direction in life.
That direction was to take my family to Scunthorpe. I had never been unemployed and had never drawn the dole . My redundancy package from Mintex ended at Naw-Rúz 1987. My new job at Scunthorpe Borough Council started on the following Monday. I still hadn’t drawn the dole. For the next thirty-odd years we remained at our house in Scunthorpe. We had moved into a goal area and within the plan time-scale had formed the first ever LSA in Scunthorpe…. just. We had moved to Scunthorpe to join our good friends Carol and Sasan Deghani whom we had known from our Sheffield days. In fact it was Sasan who had sent me details of the job at the Borough Council planning department. He also worked at the Council in the Property department. Suzan Deghani moved across from Rotherham to join her brother and our community. Several declarations followed from health service colleagues where Carol was working. Tina Ward was a nurse and Jenny a mental health psychologist. Daisy Ireland, at 91 years of age, was also elected to the LSA but the final member of the LSA was to be a trainee doctor who dropped in for a stint at Scunthorpe General Hospital. It was a short stint as it turned out, and the Assembly lapsed the next year, never to form again during our 30 years at our post. In that same first year Daisy passed away too, so the new LSA had a funeral to organise. It was to be my first funeral as a “celebrant” and I found it a very hard task to perform. Little did I know that I was to have a further, far more testing one within a few years.
Undaunted by the collapse of our LSA, we carried on as an active group. Lincolnshire was characterised by scattered Bahá’í families in the various market towns and the City of Lincoln. Some, like the Dunthornes in Louth, were quite isolated. We had three children by then and as a County Unit we decided to run a children’s class for all the young families in our Unit. What transpired was a rotating class on a fortnightly basis in each home that had children. The classes catered for children from Scunthorpe, Louth, Lincoln, Grimsby and Kexby, and ran for 17 years until our teenage children left for college or left home.
Children’s class 1992
Back row L to R: Glynis Dunthorne, Denise Lawton, Rob Lawton, Yvonne Cassidy, Phil Cassidy
Middle row: Johnathon Cassidy, Jennifer Cassidy, Simon Lawton, Graham Dunthorne
Front row: Thomas Lawton, Fiona and Helena Dunthorne, Katie and Henry Lawton, Mariane Cassidy
Denise and I also served on the Easter School committee with Hugh and Deborah McKinley. They had started a small “do it yourself” Easter school in Suffolk some years earlier which grew year on year. It was a simple affair in the early days: all cooking was done by attendees and sleeping was either in classrooms, (the chairs and desks pushed to one side) on camp beds, or in tents in the school field. Later, a private school in Southwold provided better quality accommodation, although the organisation of the School was still very hands-on. Eventually the Easter School moved to a private school in Sheffield (after Hugh passed away) where it was oversubscribed year-on-year. The Morleys from Wakefield came onto the committee at that time, and were very instrumental in “polishing” the Sheffield school. Eventually the Easter Schools came to an end and the committee was disbanded.
When the Ruhi books first came out we formed a Book One group. It was facilitated from our nearest convenor who drove two hours each way from Nottingham. Soroush was the nicest of people to help us through the Book. It took us nearly a year to finish Book One and move on to Book Two. Our meetings were once a month. The transition however stalled seriously for quite some time when an unseen and tragic event shook our small group to the core and devastated activities for quite a while.
The night we eventually finished our Book One we had our usual goodbyes at the front door. Sarah, one of our closest contacts who had studied Book One with us was her usual joyful self, full of jokes and vitality. She hugged us perhaps a little more closely than normal and left for home.
The following morning she went into work earlier than normal and hanged herself in her office. Sarah was the director of the MIND office in Scunthorpe and suffered from bipolar disorder, something of which we had not an inkling.
To this day I have no idea what drove her to such a tragic act. At one point, in order to find some kind of explanation, I was tempted to think that Book One “The Life of the Spirit” somehow convinced her of a better life after death. We shall never know. The death being a suspicious one caused the need for a Coroner’s Inquest. Questions were asked about the Faith and its attitude to suicide. The courtroom process was most challenging for the Bahá’í witnesses.
Sarah had requested in her will that Suzanne and I should organise and conduct her funeral in a Bahá’í fashion. I cannot explain just how difficult that process was, to conduct her funeral in a manner befitting such a close and loved friend and in a way that her family, who had no knowledge of the Faith, could relate to and be comfortable with. All I can say is that on the day Bahá’u’lláh supported us all and the family were pleased with the service.
When we eventually came out of our stupor and decided to carry on with the Ruhi course, our convenor was Helen Agahi, who had been with us in the Rotherham community many years previously and who knew and supported us all through this tragic time.
It seems almost unbelievable that our next contact who quickly declared was a young lady who also suffered from bipolar disorder. She had known Sarah through MIND and was quickly attracted to the teachings. We supported her for many years through the ups and downs that her condition visited upon her.
I still do not understand the bipolar condition. Sitting with this friend through the lucid times as well as the hallucinogenic, the constant changes in her medication, and still her unshakeable belief in Bahá’u’lláh, it is a journey at once challenging and humbling. Her carer, who became a good friend, was in my opinion simply angelic.
The Bahá’ís had been encouraged to attract people of capacity for some years as part of the proclamation work. In Scunthorpe we managed to make inroads into three particular areas.
Firstly, Denise and I worked for North Lincolnshire Council for many years and came to know many of the councillors well. As a result, Denise sat on two regular committees. One was the county’s SACRE (Standing Advisory Council on Religious Education) and the other the N Lincs Multi Faith Partnership, which was an initiative by the Council during the Tony Blair years to foster community cohesion. Scunthorpe is an industrial steel town and has a large ethnic population of many religious persuasions. Denise quickly found herself the chairperson of that committee. As a Bahá’í it was recognised that she was steered towards recognising all faiths and none as equals and as such, would chair the meetings with impartiality. She is also a very capable and personable organiser! Our partnership was very active in the affairs of the Council, and I recall being asked to offer a Bahá’í prayer before the full Council Meeting on more than one occasion. It meant that we also got a seat around the table at Mayor-Making. As Denise’s consort I also was able to enjoy the splendid meal! It certainly fostered tolerance and understanding amongst the towns various churches and mosques. The council also fostered occasions to celebrate faith events in the calendar, such as Holocaust Memorial Day and World Religion Day.
North Lincs Multi-Faith Partnership – peace day 2012
Claire (wheelchair) and Denise as Bahá’í representatives, Mayor and second right MP Nick Dakin
Secondly, for many years in the early days of Scunthorpe we would sit with a group of friends who had formed a babysitting circle. We were all young families who had moved away from our own families for work, and thus had no other support. One family was very active in the Labour Party and we would have chats about the Faith and other issues. Nick Dakin became the principal at the local sixth form college which figured in the top 20 colleges nation-wide for many years. Then to our surprise following the resignation of Elliot Morley MP, Nick put himself up for election and he became our MP. Shortly after, he became an active supporter of the Bahá’í Faith in committee work at the House of Commons. He had of course heard of the Faith many years earlier in the babysitting group.
Lastly, one spin off from this exposure was a phone call from Radio Humberside requesting us to do a regular series of broadcasts for their Thought for the Day slot. The talks were pre-recorded in the radio studio in the Civic Centre Scunthorpe, and we would record two at a time. We really enjoyed writing 90 second slots on Bahá’í themes, which carried on for several years.
In 2010 we were to enjoy our second pilgrimage. This time we took our three grown up sons with us; Katie couldn’t make it because as a teacher she couldn’t get time off school. The Arc (the buildings of the Bahá’í World Centre on the hillside in Haifa) had changed considerably since our previous visit, with new buildings and the magnificent terraces. The Shrine of the Báb was covered in scaffolding and sheeted over. The tiled dome and stonework were undergoing cleaning and replacement. The dome was also being strengthened inside with a ring beam to stop it spreading. I was pleased to spend some time with the technical team in charge of the restoration, as back in the UK I was employed as a Conservation Manager in the Planning Department of West Lindsey District Council, working on the restoration and repair of many listed buildings and structures. Our time with our sons was richly rewarding, giving our pilgrimage a totally different flavour. We were delighted that all three boys loved the experience and were greatly touched by the spirit of the place.
During what were to be our last few years in Scunthorpe, I was approached by Farshid Taleb, a long-time friend of our family. Farshid is one of the Deputies on the Regional Board of Trustees of Húqúqu’lláh for the UK and Ireland, and he asked if I would consider serving a term as a representative of that Board. There has only ever been one answer for me when called upon to serve the Faith: yes. That ‘yes’ started another period of deepening for me. I felt completely unworthy to perform this service, for Húqúqu’lláh is such a fundamental and deeply personal spiritual obligation. It touches the heart so intimately that it demands a particularly sensitive approach when talking about its requirements with a believer. I didn’t know whether I could fulfil the role, but I have been doubly privileged to be asked to continue in this capacity as Húqúqu’lláh representative following our subsequent move to Poole, Dorset.
In 2014 I suffered a short but nasty illness that left me partially deaf, following which Denise and I decided to retire a little early. We moved down to Poole to live near to our daughter Katie, husband Scott and our two grandchildren Ava and Oscar. It was not an easy decision to leave our three sons back in the north of England, especially when Simon was blessed with two children himself, May and Robyn. Within weeks we had been voted onto the LSA with Rob as chairman, and shortly after, Denise as Secretary. We also became the Bahá’í representatives on Faith Links, the interfaith organisation for Bournemouth and Poole. I was asked to serve on the local SACRE too. Our lives had taken yet another turn; we hadn’t served on an LSA in over 30 years, and now we were part of a much bigger community. Our only regret was leaving behind two lovely Bahá’í families; Natalija, our Lithuanian family, and Andrew whose family lived just outside Scunthorpe, and also our young lady whose mental health issues would still side-swipe her on occasion. Nowadays we are able to use Facebook as a wonderful way to keep in touch.
Rob Lawton Dorset, February 2019