I was born in Swansea in 1967, the youngest of four children, into a pretty traditional Christian household. My dad was a factory manager, and my mum was a stay-at-home mum. We moved around a fair bit in the early years, as dad’s career took him to new companies. We left Swansea when I was eighteen months old, and went to Nottingham for a few years, before living in Ipswich, and finally on to Worthing when I was eleven.
Gareth (second left) and siblings. Christmas 1971
Both my parents are Baptists, so we all went to Sunday School, but despite always being of a religious ‘slant’, and going through a few periods of intense inner-immersion into the spiritual world in my teenage years, I was keenly aware that something was missing. For years I was unable to quite put my finger on what it was. Even though I loved the hymns (and still do) it all seemed a bit ‘cold’ and impersonal. Obviously, I now realise that my soul was crying out for something more than mere tradition, more than stock phrases and being told what to think by someone I didn’t know, and who didn’t know me.
There were a few other moments of clarity regarding the church over the years, such as why Christians were waiting for Christ to return in the same form as before. Despite being plainly written in the Bible that Jesus says “I will return, but you will not recognise me”. Why do all the images of Christ show Him as pale-skinned and blue-eyed, when He was a middle-eastern Jew with black hair and dark skin? How on earth can He have been born on December 25thwhen there were lambs in the field? It all seemed laughably absurd…. but everyone else seemed to just accept it as fact. The church just lost its authority over me. It was never the message that was in doubt, but the level of blatant superstition was an obstacle too great to overcome.
When I first met my wife, Meenou, she brought with her the answer to so many questions I’d been inwardly asking. She was a Bahá’í (born into a Bahá’í family), and her whole outlook was one of inclusivity, and not exclusivity, which was always missing in other religious traditions. Not their intrinsic message, of course…but how their outward practice had evolved over generations; the “I go to church once a week, so I’m saved, but you’re going to burn” mentality. Meenou would always answer my questions as best she could, but never prompted me in any direction. It had to be my journey of discovery, my independent investigation of the Truth. I was always encouraged to read the Writings first, and look for the answers that way. Years later I discovered she’d also asked her family not to push Bahá’í thought onto me either, even after we were married. She was nurturing my Faith, by protecting me from outside opinions, and allowing me time to form my own.
After we married in August 1994 I got a job in North London and we moved to a rented flat in Palmers Green. By November, Meenou was pregnant with our first child, our son Neysan, and we realised very early on that there was no way we were going to bring up children in the city, so we moved back to Worthing early the following year. That meant a daily rail commute of four hours for me, which was a pain, but did give me plenty of time to read. However, one day I looked around the carriage and at the headlines in the papers of the other passengers, and realised there must be more to life than this doom and gloom. When I got home I told Meenou I wanted to seriously start investigating the Faith, and she pointed to the Bahá’í books on the shelf and told me to start reading. It’s remarkable how much you can read in four hours a day!
Minou and me, Naw Ruz 1996
Paris Talks was the first Bahá’í book I ever read, and I loved it! It felt so natural, so obvious, so right for this day and age, not some ancient arbitrary pronouncements on why you mustn’t eat shellfish on a Friday, or that you’d go to hell if you used your prayer sandals to nip to the supermarket! It was a forward-looking Faith, not a backward-looking one. Our efforts had to be about building the future, not burying ourselves in the past.
I’m a scientist by training, trade, and inclination, so having a Faith that says science and religion are two sides of the same coin was enormously appealing. Add that to Progressive Revelation, no clergy, the equality of sexes, and universal education for girls as well as boys…it was a breath of fresh air. Finally, I had found a sensible faith, one grounded in reality, one which really did want the best for everyone on the planet, so, in early 1996, I declared, and it was the best decision I have ever made. Mind you, it did come as a shock to find myself elected onto the Worthing LSA within a year, and being on one LSA or another pretty much ever since!
In May 1996 we visited Meenou’s parents who were pioneering in Pula, Croatia, and it gave me a fantastic chance to spend time discussing things with her father, Syrous. He had a lifetime of serious studying of the Faith to share. All you had to do was ask. It was also that trip which cemented my desire to live abroad one day, and to experience life in a different culture. We’ve not managed it yet, but one day we’ll pioneer somewhere.
Gareth, Mona, Mahnaz and Syrous. Croatia, 1996
March 1998 saw the birth of our twin daughters Anisa and Mona, and fortunately I was able to find a new job in Horsham, so I was only twenty minutes from home, which was a huge benefit for family life. It was a hectic few years, juggling family and Bahá’í responsibilities, so having a Thomas Breakwell Bahá’í School in Sussex was a God-send.
My first full pilgrimage, which all my family attended, came in November 2009. For so many years I’d heard stories about how amazing it was to be in the shrines, and it was such a blessing to be able to go when our children were old enough to really benefit from the experience. Despite the octagon and dome of the Shrine of the Bab being covered up for renovation, the Ridván gardens being closed, and it being the wettest fortnight Haifa had ever experienced – the flooding was at least a foot deep down where we stayed near the port – pilgrimage was a truly amazing experience. It is possibly the only time in life when you get to step outside of this world and experience heaven itself; within minutes of meeting other pilgrims, it felt like we’d known them for years! I would have done anything to have stayed longer, and every day since we have been back we look forward to the next time we can go again.
Anisa, Mona, Gareth, pilgrimage guide, Meenou, Neysan. Haifa 2009
So that’s my story. It’s been an interesting journey, definitely full of ups and downs, as it’s not an easy Faith, by any means. It expects a much higher standard and level of sacrifice than other faiths, but then it does have a much greater goal to achieve. We’re not unifying a tribe or neighbourhood. We’ve got a whole planet to advance. Then again, maybe the next Manifestation will be unifying the Universe…now that would be an even scarier target to be given!
Sussex, August 2018