Ann Shaw at age 18
This is the story of how I became a Bahá’í before I even heard the word. Is that possible to claim? Well, who knows, but I do. My registration card is dated November 1961. I became a Bahá’í in the summer of 1960. I don’t remember the exact date, but I remember the event very clearly. I was a very ordinary, very quiet, shy and, in some ways, naïve teenager (nearly fifteen). I know I was often in trouble at school because I wanted to understand rather than to learn. At school we had to learn psalms (not too bad because they were poetic and memorable) and the shorter catechism (impossible because I kept on wanting to know what it meant, only to be told that I was a trouble-maker and I didn’t have to understand, just learn!)
When I was about 12 or 13 our RE teacher (her qualification for the job was that her father had been a vicar some 50 or so years before – nice little old lady whom I hurt without meaning to) told us stories from the Bible and had us reading parts of it. One story, of course, was the Adam/Eve/Cain/Abel one. Everyone in the class was asleep, I think, and we came to the bit about Cain going away and marrying a woman from another tribe. Up pipes Ann (fool!), “But, please Miss, How?” That question must have been asked thousands of times, but our teacher had clearly never come across it. “How?” – “Yes, I don’t understand, there WAS nobody else.” “She was from another tribe.” “But there wasn’t one, was there?” “Be quiet, you wicked, wicked girl!’” She didn’t know the answer, of course. That was the problem. And I really had hurt her, which was sad. I wasn’t a troublemaker, though, so I just shut up and tried to puzzle it out for myself. So, I suppose, I was a thoughtful child at least.
I was fourteen, coming on fifteen, or twenty in my own mind (born August 1945) and living in the cathedral city of Canterbury – a city full of churches and church people. But I had never felt comfortable with the Christianity that I was taught at school, or that I heard about in the comments of friends who were church goers. My parents had no faith and had taught me to make up my own mind what I believed, as long, of course, as it didn’t challenge any of their views and attitudes. School friends considered me to be “a heathen”.
So, one lovely summer day, I was walking along Church Street (St Paul’s) and wondering how it could be that all these different religions I had heard of thought that their founder was the one true God. Then I thought, “wait a minute, they all speak different languages. What if they are all talking about the same person, but calling Him something different?” But no, that wouldn’t work. The dates were all wrong. I had, of course, heard about the promise of Christ’s return and it struck me – maybe He had, and nobody realised.
“Well,” I promised, “if you came back, I wouldn’t deny You. I would know it was You.” The thought was so overwhelming that I stopped in my tracks (just outside the little sub-post office of St. George’s). The sun was glaring down as I stood there, immobile. I must have looked like a complete idiot. But I knew something important had happened and it had struck me into immobility. In its way, a conversion on the road to Damascus, or rather, a conversion on the road to Canterbury. The sunlight was streaming down on me and I felt so certain; so transformed by my own vow!
I used to “date” David, the son of Joan and Brian Giddings, but had never heard mention of anything to do with the Bahá’í Faith. I had seen a picture of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá which hung in their sitting room, and even wondered who he was, but never asked. One day he asked if I would like to go for a walk to the house of a friend to pick up a record he had loaned. Of course I would. So we went, and when we arrived at a little flat, shared by two nurses, there was quite a crowd of people there. I heard the end of a sentence “…that is what we call progressive revelation.” No more. A stranger had arrived and the subject was changed immediately. It was a pleasant visit, but no more than that; but it stayed in my mind. David went back to school in York, and I had no contact with the nurses.
Something inside me kept nagging. “You have to know, you have to know…You said you would recognise Him. You promised.” After David went back to school, I knew I had to do something. I was shy and brought up to be very reserved in a time when girls didn’t make approaches to strangers for any reason. I knew the first name of the nurse who had spoken the tantalising words and I knew where the house was, but not the address. So I wrote a note and took it. There was nobody in (for which I was very thankful). I put the note through the door addressed only to ‘Zoha’ and asking what she had been talking about.
Soon I had a note back inviting me to a ‘fireside’ at the Bahá’í Centre. I was to meet Zoha Adl in Canterbury and she would take me there. (Zoa was Persian and a Bahá’í of Zoroastrian descent, working as a nurse in the Kent and Canterbury Hospital). I went, of course. Arriving at the rendezvous, a tall, dark haired, young man explained that Zoha couldn’t get to the meeting but that he would show me the way. This was Arthur Weinberg. I was a shy, naïve, young girl. I had been very thoroughly warned about strange men and I checked for a moment. I knew I shouldn’t go with him. But I was a teenager (very confident about my ability to cope – even though shy) and here, asking me to go along in Zoha’s name, was a very handsome young man. Should I, shouldn’t I? I hesitated for all of a fraction of a second and went with him. It was my only chance to contact this strange idea I had barely heard, and anyway, could a man who looked like this be bad? I deserved to come to grief, but of course I didn’t.
The explanation that I had wanted to hear, about progressive revelation, was explained. I accepted it instantly. Did I have any questions? Nary a one – the whole thing made so much sense. It had to be right!
I went to firesides and deepenings all that summer. I was a Bahá’í, but nobody was aware of it. They didn’t ask. I didn’t ask questions, so I’m sure they never thought I would be a Bahá’í. I didn’t need to ask questions. I understood all that was told to me, understood the Writings with all my heart. Who needs a head to understand such things? Never curious, I was aware that people expected me to ask questions and I struggled week on week to find some sensible queries, but any I came up with were always answered by the next passage we studied, and I was bereft of questions again. They must have thought me dumb! Several times I tried to indicate that I would like to be a Bahá’í, but nobody picked me up on it. Each time, I would walk home through the park, carried on what seemed like a cloud of bright yellow butterflies.
In September, when I went back to school, I would take a Bahá’í book amongst my text books and leave it prominently on my desk, hoping someone would ask about it, but they never did.
In 1961, I was 16, had left school and was studying at the local college. It didn’t work there either. I met many Bahá’ís who came to Canterbury. To all of them I tried to say that I believed in this Revelation, but I didn’t know how to go about it. The one important question to ask, and I couldn’t. When I hinted, they ignored. When I said openly I wanted to be a Bahá’í, they misunderstood.
In November, Parvin Furutan and Joan Giddings were going to a meeting with Hand of the Cause Bill Sears at 27 Rutland Gate and invited me to go with them. On a bus from Victoria station, I asked Parvin, “What do I have to do to be a Bahá’í?” “Do you want to be a Bahá’í?” Of course I did. I had been trying to tell them that for months. “Joan,” Parvin shouted across the aisle of the bus, “Ann’s just declared!” “Ssh, be quiet!” was Joan’s response. “You don’t have to tell everybody in the bus!” Arriving at Rutland Gate, my good news was broadcast all around, though, and a registration card was filled out for me. So it was official. Bill Sears heard the news and I was treated to a bear hug and swung around. It was a very heady evening.
The Canterbury Bahá’ís were delighted, of course. David wasn’t – he dropped me fairly rapidly. That hurt (and how!) but these things happen – we were too young for the marriage we had spoken of anyway, and it wouldn’t have done. Not that I saw it then.
I was given a prayer book and taken through the Will and Testament of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, which was no problem to accept. I went to my first Feast. I didn’t know at the time anything about the administration. The first Feast that I attended was in the house of Henry and Gladys Backwell (Dick Backwell’s parents). When I arrived, there was an LSA meeting going on (I didn’t know what that was) so I had to wait in the back room until it had finished. I didn’t mind, but I didn’t understand. Then I was allowed in, and there were some prayers and readings. Then came the business section (which I had also never heard of) and a tin was circulated for donations. This was not explained to me and was quite unexpected. Not that I minded. Not knowing, though, meant that I was unprepared. I had in my pocket my whole week’s pocket money – a ten-shilling note – and nothing else. So, of course, given no option and with a tin under my nose, I popped the ten-shilling note in. So – ten bob. Nothing. But it meant I walked everywhere for the next week and couldn’t replace laddered nylons! And I was embarrassed. No harm in walking or wearing laddered nylons and I don’t suppose minor embarrassment did me any harm either.
Although I had read all the books then available to me via the friends in Canterbury, I still knew precious little about the administration or even the accepted ways of doing things. Praying had become a very personal matter to me. For some strange reason, I felt that I had a “special” enough relationship with Bahá’u’lláh to speak freely. The prayer book I had been given I decided to use over and above these “conversations”, starting at the front, understanding what was in them and using each one once I had some of the meaning. It took me some months to work through the book. You will be aware that the obligatory prayers are at the back of the prayer book! At least they were then. It came as a surprise to me that there were prayers I should have been using all along. The friends were obviously not aware of my lack of knowledge; maybe they were defensive about imposing laws on me too quickly.
In 1962, after my “dating” David had ended, Brian Giddings asked me to write to a young Scot who had declared his faith on the tanker of which Brian was the captain (Tom Shaw 1934 – 2017). That started a pen-friendship which culminated in our engagement (21st April 1963) and marriage (July 1964). Tom always insisted that Brian had been matchmaking when he asked me to write. Brian would never admit it, but he always had a little smile when it was mentioned. Friends warned me that I shouldn’t marry an older man (11 years older) because he would be old before me and need care while I was still young enough to need a life of my own. I didn’t think it mattered one jot – and I was right. Eventually, ill health did come to him, although he wasn’t all that old when it did (actually when he was 33, a short time before our first son, Neil, was born in 1967).
A young Tom Shaw
When Tom came home on leave, he helped to form the Spiritual Assembly of Glasgow – he was staying in that city while studying for his Master’s ticket. He also became a member of the Scottish Teaching Committee, if that’s what it was called in 1963. We made our first, independent home in Glasgow in 1965. I was still not old enough to be on the LSA but made some good friends amongst the believers in Glasgow. In 1963, Tom had achieved his Master’s ticket but after going back to sea (taking me with him) he decided to stay as part of the Glasgow community, so he joined a course to study physiotherapy in Glasgow. That was when his health started to break down and he had to quit but he tried so hard to stay ashore and in Glasgow. He took a job as a van driver for British Rail, then as a bus driver in Glasgow, but shortly after our son was born we couldn’t afford to stay any longer and we moved back to live with his mother in Ayrshire and he studied for his Highers to get into Strathclyde University to study maths but the course was not what he had expected and he gave up and went back to sea. At about that time our second son, Alistair, was born. After a while he took a job as a recruitment officer for Denholm Shipping Company in Glasgow and we pioneered to Dumbarton to be part of the first LSA there. Eventually that LSA fell apart with members moving away to pursue their own destinies.
We decided, after some months, to make a move to the Western Isles where Tom found work as a teacher of navigation and seamanship, (still fondly remembered by many of his students and their parents) and I became a member of the LSA. That didn’t work either, Tom’s lifetime of discipline didn’t sit well with unwilling young men playing up, knowing that they could not be disciplined, and he went back to sea. In all this time his health was getting worse and, eventually, he had to come home to the Islands and retire (aged 60).
From time to time, Tom’s faith wavered but towards the end of his life, while he could still talk and think clearly, he assured me that he was a Bahá’í, wanted to be known as a Bahá’í and would be buried as a Bahá’í. He had never lost his faith in Baha’u’llah, although he had become inactive. His funeral service consisted of Bahá’í prayers and readings, as well as readings from other persuasions, for the sake of his sisters and other mourners. Our second son sang for him at the funeral service, the R L Stevenson poem: “Home is the sailor, home from sea…”
He was a brave and honest man, who suffered a great deal for much of his life and his suffering ended at the end of August 2017 at the age of 83, after 53 years of marriage and 51 years after he was told that he would be wheelchair bound within 10 years (it took another 35 years until he had to give in to that “indignity”. Now, a wheelchair user myself, I know how that felt).
Brian Giddings didn’t get it so far wrong!
Ann (Brill) Shaw
Isle of Lewis, July 2020
Tom Shaw with Arthur and Marion Weinberg
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