I became a Bahá’í on a bus.
It may not be the time-honoured way of beginning these stories but hey …!
I grew up in Kingston upon Hull, or Hull as it’s generally known. Our family consisted of my parents, my grandma and, when I was 6½ years old, my brother was born. It was he that called me Ish when he was very small, a nickname I love that has stayed with me all my life. We didn’t have much money but there was a lot of love. My mum had given up work she enjoyed in the wholesale department of WH Smith to look after us shortly before I was born, and my dad was an ex-Royal Navy man, now a bus driver who worked long hours.
It might have been the sleeplessness that did it. Having always found it difficult to get to sleep at night, as a child the hours between going to bed and falling asleep left my mind free to roam. When very young I’d imagine myself into stories and tried to think about the concept of the universe going on forever and to imagine infinity. Talk about being doomed to failure! Living in a family that was quietly religious left my mind free to wander and to wonder. There was much more religious uniformity then than now. RE lessons at school led to Christianity at first being all I knew, but as my awareness grew of other faiths they remained, initially, on the periphery of my thoughts, with Christianity central to my way of thinking. My very immature self thanked God for having being born into the “right” religion. Later on, of course, this grew into the question of why there are so many religions. Surely it wasn’t only people from one faith going to ‘heaven’? RE lessons at my school consisted of lessons about Christianity. Once, a new girl came into school from a Catholic background and while the rest of us had RE lessons she was allowed to read bible stories and work on these. She was still in the same classroom though, so heard everything that was said. How times have changed!
As a teenager I went for a number of years staunchly disbelieving in anything spiritual but toward the end of my teens this was changing. I began to search. I read many books on various religions and beliefs and at one point I was sitting in bed reading something in the bible and feeling guilty. There I was, reading the book of God and all I could think was: there has to be something more, there has to be something more, closely followed by a cry from the heart to God, the universe, anyone, “Please show me!!” This cry continued to be part of my life.
The following is something I only connected in retrospect. It was too close at the time to know there might be a relationship between what had happened and what followed.
About six months after that first pleaI felt a pressing need to go to Iceland. I just HAD to go there. I knew nothing about Iceland, what it was like, how far it was and, as those that know me will attest, I don’t do cold so this was very odd! But the feeling got stronger and stronger and I knew it was something I had to do so. I spoke to my parents who resigned themselves to the inevitable and gave me their blessing. The search began in earnest. This wasn’t going to be a quick trip, I was going to live there and I’d need a job so began to study the best way to get there and to learn something about the country. Being before the days of the internet and easy access to information, it took six months between beginning to look into how this could be achieved, from initial investigations to actually setting sail. I eventually placed an advertisement in the morning paper in Reykjavík, listing my qualifications and saying I was looking for a job. I had two replies: one from a farmer in northern Iceland who wanted someone for the summer and the other from the Federation of Icelandic Co-operative Societies who wanted someone to type their foreign correspondence in business English. This latter was the job I took. I had an interview in the UK and was accepted. Early April 1971 found me setting off, with the blessing of my parents, on one of the firm’s cargo vessels, the Arnafell, from my home city to Reykjavík, a journey of three and a half days.
It was rather a rough voyage, at least I thought so. The North Atlantic at that time of the year was decidedly choppy but eventually we docked in Reykjavík harbour and I disembarked, half a stone lighter and with my head still swimming, but eager to begin a new adventure.
I started work a few days later. I was still reading, still investigating, and for the next few months I just enjoyed living and working in this new environment … until that particular day when I got on the bus to go back to where I was living.
I’d just taken my seat when two young ladies got on the bus and sat down in front of me. They turned and asked me, in English, if I know where a particular hotel was. I did, and offered to show them when we got nearer. The conversation turned to what we were all doing there. I, of course, was working and they told me they were Canadian Indians (nowadays known correctly as First Nation Canadians) who were in Iceland to help set up the Bahá’í North Atlantic Oceanic Conference. I asked what that was and they told me about the Bahá’í Faith. When they told me about progressive revelation I felt as though I had been crawling interminably through a hot desert, crawling on and on, tired and parched, and someone had just given me a drink of cool water. The realisation that this was it, that this was what I had been searching for swept through me as a physical sensation. They told me the Founder’s name was Bahá’u’lláh. May He forgive me, but I thought “O gosh, what’s my mum going to say??”! We talked until it was time for them to get off the bus and as they were going they said to me “If you ever get tired of the old world order, then search for the new, because there is one.” With that they were gone, and I continued home.
Back home, I paced backwards and forwards in my small room to digest what had been said. Such a brief glimpse of the truth. Much too restless to sit down, I started worrying, “What if I never see them again? What if they go away and I never hear about the Faith again?” I couldn’t bear it any longer; there was only one thing to do. I finally sat down and wrote them a letter asking them to contact me. I didn’t know their names so addressed the envelope: “To the Canadian Indian girls who spoke to the English girl on the bus”! I got back on the bus and went to the hotel to ask the receptionist if she’d put it on the notice board. We had a chuckle over the address on the envelope and she said she’d do it.
Not long afterwards, maybe the next evening, there was a knock on my door and they were there. I was so happy. Over conversation they told me that during their stay at the hotel they’d not looked at the notice board except for this one occasion and had found my letter. We talked and I showed them the books I’d been reading and told them of my search. In my heart I knew I was a Bahá’í but I wanted to read and learn more before declaring my belief in Bahá’u’lláh. They put me in touch with the family of Maddie and Ray Wingett from Canada who were there as pioneers and who held weekly firesides. I was also invited to the evenings of the Conference to meet the Bahá’ís and this is what I did first. The Conference was held on 3-5 September 1971.
Those evenings at the Conference were a magical time. It was the most moving, eye-opening experience of my life. One of my earliest memories there was of a large room and many Bahá’ís. Someone said “Let’s sing Alláh-u-Abhá!”. We all formed a large circle, people from all parts of the world, and I was gathered into this loving community where, with arms on each other’s shoulders, we sang. I had never known such joy. Love filled the room and must have overflowed the whole building. There were also a lot of Bahá’í youth present and the evenings were filled with guitar music and song.
And on this hangs a funny story.
Everything so far had been casual dress and I was happy about that because clothes were expensive in Iceland and my coat, while looking good on the outside, had a lining that was rather worn and a bit torn so I was careful where I took it off. I was also wearing a jumper with rolled back sleeves. One evening, after arriving at the conference venue, I slowly climbed the stairs towards two elegantly dressed gentlemen wearing bow ties and jackets with tails. “This can’t be right” I thought. Then I heard those fateful words, “May I take your coat…?”
My heart sank. “I’ve come for the Bahá’í Conference” I said. “Yes, yes” was the reply. I had to hand over my coat and they didn’t bat an eyelid at my nice-but-seen-better-days-coat as they put it on the hanger, nor did they comment on my casual dress. They then took me into a room where there were long tables set out with white tablecloths, at which elegantly dressed people, the ladies with their hair piled high on top of their heads, were beginning to sit. At this point, extremely conscious of my very informal jumper I repeated “I’m here for the Bahá’í Conference.” “Yes, yes” they repeated, seated me at one of the tables and left. Looking round, I knew no one. Should I just crawl under the table or brave it out? No one had spoken to me, can’t think why! It was then I realised the tables were set with wine glasses and I knew then that they’d definitely made a mistake! I approached a serving lady and explained why I was there. “Ah, it’s been moved upstairs!” I was so glad to get out of there! On my way out of the door I turned and looked and there was my boss’s boss and his wife. It was the annual dinner of the firm’s bank. Luckily, they didn’t see me as I left, gathered up my coat and set off up the stairs.
Over the next few weeks I went regularly to the Wingett’s firesides. There were a number of Canadian pioneers in Iceland at the time as it was a goal area for Canada. Some of them were enduring a certain amount of hardship in their living conditions but they were all joyful. One very tall gentleman was living with his wife in a little summer house behind someone’s home which was so small he could only stand up in one place. I loved these people and learning about our beloved Faith. Then one evening, late in the year, I knew I couldn’t wait a moment longer. Suddenly my heart was telling me I had to declare my belief in Bahá’u’lláh, and I had to do it right away. I got on the bus to the local Bahá’í Centre and that’s when I declared my faith and committed myself to Bahá’u’lláh.
It was quite a lively scene there, in Iceland at that time, with quite a number of youth becoming Bahá’ís and I missed this when I returned to the UK in the summer of the following year, 1972. At first I worked in the company’s London Office for a few months before leaving and returning to Hull. When I got there I found myself in a city of a quarter of a million people and discovered I was the only Bahá’í. A lady reporter who worked for the Hull Daily Mail had done an article about my going to Iceland while I was there. I called to see her when I got back and she asked if I had any news. I told her about becoming a Bahá’í and she told me she’d like to do an article on that. We met for lunch and talked about the Faith and a few days later a fair-sized article appeared. I had asked the NSA for a few leaflets in case there were any enquiries but that didn’t happen on this occasion.
Back in the UK I lived in a number of places, mostly as an isolated believer for many years and when I moved to Northampton I’d got used to it and didn’t get in touch right away. One day, during the holy year, I felt moved to contact the Bahá’ís again and, towards the end of summer 1992, I wrote to the NSA to let them know I was now in Northampton and to ask if there were any other Bahá’ís there. They put me in touch with the local community (a real, live community!) and a day or two later a friendly face appeared at my door in the person of Ken Howlett to take me to the Feast. He thought I might prefer not to go on my own. It was wonderful! There were adults and youth, there was Persian chanting of prayers and they were all so glad I’d joined them and I was so happy to be there.
The following Riḍván I was elected onto the Northampton Spiritual Assembly and also elected as secretary. I’ve been honoured to serve in that role ever since, with the exception of one year. I really thought I’d maybe got a year off that year until the voting continued and I found myself as treasurer! Being secretary all these years reminds me of another story. Before my last year at school, I’d always planned to study sciences during the final year. However, the school was due to close at the same time I was due to leave and the science teacher left a year early for a new job, so I studied commercial subjects instead and learned to become a secretary …
However, if I’d followed a science pathway I doubt I’d have found a job in Iceland with my qualifications. At the time I didn’t really enjoy office work, it was just better than the alternative, and when I left that career I thought “At least I’ll never have to do another set of minutes as long as I live …”. Now I say I’ll do the minutes for Bahá’u’lláh but don’t anyone else ask me!
I’ve also served as an assistant for protection for Auxiliary Board members Shahriar Razavi, Viv Craig and Talieh Mann(-Kapoor) and am currently serving as propagation assistant for Auxiliary Board member Rouhiya Sweet and it has been an honour to serve and be inspired by these wonderful people in these different capacities. So far we haven’t found the key to unlocking the hearts here in Northampton but this is only a matter of time.
I have been blessed with a loving and understanding family throughout my life. From when I was growing up to my husband and two sons who have never complained when I’ve been away and without whose support I would not have been able to do the things I’ve done.
I’ve also been blessed to go on pilgrimage twice. The first time was in 2004, over thirty years after I became a Bahá’í. I stayed at a small hotel at the top of Mount Carmel and as I was walking along the road towards the top of the terraces on the first day, I caught a glimpse ahead of the Shrine of the Báb down the mountainside, shining in the sunlight. The smell of the warmth and the plants, wild and cultivated, blended together in one intoxicating mix that I just wanted to bottle and take home. I had never realised, from seeing pictures of the Shrine of the Báb, just how majestic and moving it is. The pictures just don’t prepare you for the scale of the building. Being able to go there is a bounty beyond measure. The Shrine of Bahá’u’lláh is different. The structure is not imposing in the same way, but the feeling inside is indescribable. The nearest I can get is inadequately to say it feels like halfway between this world and the next. Time just melts away in a feeling of reverence and awe.
On a lighter note, don’t do what I did! On our free afternoon on pilgrimage I went down to the bay in order to take photographs up the mountainside as the lights on the terraces came on. When I’d finished taking photos I walked up to the gates at the base, completely forgetting they were locked at dusk and I was shut out. I wanted to get up to the Pilgrim Reception Centre for a talk that evening so turned left and looked for some steps. I really struggle with those steps but found a flight and set off up. After what seemed an age, and with many stops to catch my breath, I reached the top of the flight feeling very hot, only to discover they led to someone’s back garden and there was nothing to do except go back down again and look for another set. By the time I got to the top of those I was late for the talk and was so hot I felt as though I was steaming! I couldn’t go in and sit next to someone in that state so decided to wait for a bus and just go back to the hotel. I sat at the bus stop and waited. And waited … Eventually the bus to pick up the pilgrims pulled up close by so, cool by now, I decided to take that. I’d just sat down when the bus went past …
The second time I went was in 2011. This time the groups were much bigger and things were a bit different, but the feelings were still the same. I have a couple of small stories to tell about this visit.
The first is an incident that took place when a couple of other girls and myself set off down the terraces from the Pilgrim Reception Centre after lunch. We walked to the bottom only to find the gates were locked. Yes, those gates again! Unable immediately to walk back up, and certainly unwilling, we decided to sit and say some rounds of the Remover of Difficulties. We had prayed for only a few minutes when someone came down the terraces with the key and opened the gates for us, much to our relief! Thank you!
The second story is about the bougainvillea plants that grow in the gardens. I was looking all throughout pilgrimage, when walking in the gardens, to see if any of the pink bracts that surround the flowers had fallen onto the ground. I wanted a pair to press into my prayer book as I thought they’d make a beautiful memento of my visit. Alas, the gardens were so immaculately kept I didn’t find a single one, and I certainly wasn’t going to pick one, so resigned myself to not finding any. By the last day of the visit I was still looking when we visited 4 Haparsim Street. There were many bougainvilleas growing around the building and on the rail at the side of the steps, all flowering profusely, but the ground was just as clean and immaculate. At the end of our visit, I came out of the house and paused at the top of the steps. Suddenly a brief gust of wind got up and blew lots and lots of the pairs of bracts to the ground. I smiled to myself, picked up one pair and said a whispered “thank you”. I still have these fixed into my prayer book and they always remind me of this occasion.
Our community in Northampton has become smaller as people have passed away or gone elsewhere for work but we still have a nucleus of loving friends. Just as Vicky and Tom Leith were preparing to go to China, Luke and Tish Roskams moved here. We hold intensive prayer meetings for teaching and try to reach out to the local commuity; we hold firesides and also healing prayer meetings and one called Reflections, which is like a Tranquillity Zone on a topic with discussion afterwards, and these are open to all. We have a longing to expand our community and regularly discuss this at our intensive prayer meetings. As we plan for the future we remember Abdu’l-Bahá’s injunction:
Lift up your hearts above the present and look with eyes of faith into the future! Today the seed is sown, the grain falls upon the earth, but behold the day will come when it shall rise a glorious tree and the branches thereof shall be laden with fruit. Rejoice and be glad that this day has dawned, try to realise its power, for it is indeed wonderful! God has crowned you with honour and in your hearts has He set a radiant star; verily the light thereof shall brighten the whole world!
Susan (Ish) Phillips
Northampton, August 2018
Susan as a young woman