I would not describe my upbringing as particularly religious. I did attend a Sunday school for a while but it was the influence of my Mother and her devoted caring that had the greatest influence on my early life. Her strength was derived from a strong Christian belief though to outward seeming she was not a practising Christian in the sense of regular church going.
In 1969 I met Saeedeh Saidnia, a young pupil nurse from Isfahan, Iran who was training at the Brook Hospital in Shooters Hill. Saeedeh was a Bahá’í and over the next 16 months, as our relationship became closer, I began to investigate the Bahá’í Faith; reading books like “Bahá’u’lláh and the New Era” and attending firesides and meetings at the Bahá’í Centre in Rutland Gate, London.
It was when we decided to get married and began to organise our “Special Day” that I came to know more about the Faith of Bahá’u’lláh and its administration. There was the registry office wedding to organize, which was simple compared to the organisation of the Bahá’í wedding; permission to be obtained from Saeedeh’s parents who had not met me and were still in Iran and then for the ceremony, a representative from the Bahá’í community to officiate.
In 1971 there were no Bahá’ís living in Welling so our Bahá’í wedding took place in my parent’s home officiated by Mrs Joan Giddings of Canterbury. The Registry Office ceremony took place earlier in the day at Sidcup. This was on 4th September 1971 and on that day I recited the Holy Verse as a Bahá’í. Saeedeh had only just heard of my declaration, barely a week before, and it made our Bahá’í wedding ceremony very special indeed.
I had declared my belief in Baha’u’llah to my spiritual Mother, Mrs Munsiff. We had met in the Ceylon Tea Centre in Oxford Street and I remember her asking me “Do you accept Baha’u’llah as the latest Manifestation of God? ..Do you believe this? Do you accept that?” I found myself answering “yes” to everything. She smiled and told me “then you are a Bahá’í.” I think she kissed me and I signed a card. I clearly remember walking back to work bouncing down Bond Street, feeling like a different, changed person.
Married in the eyes of both the Bahá’í Community and UK law we had decided to live apart for a few days until we could fly to Iran and to have a formal “white” wedding in the presence of Saeedeh’s parents and family. We had decided on this as a gesture of respect. Saeedeh was their only daughter and I wanted them to be able to celebrate our union first hand. And so, on the 10th September in the evening we had our wedding party.
Saeedeh’s parents had arranged a wonderful party in the grounds of an Hotel in Isfahan, Saeedeh’s home town. I had never experienced anything like the noise and colour and laughter and love that surrounded us that night. Looking back it seems as if I was watching myself on a film: walking between lines of torch bearers as we entered the garden, the trees covered with tiny lights, the tables laden with fruit and everywhere we went – smiles, cheers, dancing, clapping and calling out congratulations. Such genuine happiness, such loving kindness and absolutely no alcohol – this was for me a real confirmation of the power of the Bahá’í Faith.
So Saeedeh’s parents celebrated their daughter’s wedding and they had prepared the whole of the second floor of their home as a bridal chamber. I remember the silken covers were pale blue and the whole bed had roses scattered across with odd petals dropping to the marble floor. Quite magical!
We stayed for a month in Iran but were unable to visit Shiraz and the house of the Báb as preparations were under way in Shiraz for the Shah’s celebrations of 2,500 years of Monarchy.
On our return we settled down in Dartford, Kent. We lost contact with some friends as we were not invited to every social event as we ‘did not drink’ and people found this weird. My family were happy for me and Saeedeh but still had problems under-standing why we did not ‘celebrate’ Christmas. I think they saw it as more me turning my back on being ‘English’, somehow abandoning my birthright. Over the years my family came to respect my beliefs (though not always to accept or understand them) and many times since my Mother, in particular, has told me how happy she is that I do not drink alcohol. It is strange that today, in 2011,although alcohol is available as never before, it is now far more socially acceptable not to drink than it was in the 70’s.
During the 1980’s we moved to Bexleyheath and both served on the first LSA of Bexley. I remember it was Mary Hardy who came to officiate for the NSA and a few years later I was asked to serve with Lois Hainsworth on the PICC (the Public information Committee). This small group was concerned with increasing and recording media coverage on the Faith. A few years later I served on the Proclamation Committee chaired by Hugh Adamson and had the opportunity to visit many LSA’s and groups in the South of England to introduce the newly prepared Proclamation Manual.
In 1983 we went on our first 9 day Pilgrimage – what an experience! Two episodes stand out for me in particular. The first- watching my 4 year old daughter place her head so lovingly on the sacred threshold; the second – walking around the pathways surrounding the Shrine of the Báb and thinking and feeling – Life could cease now…this was the summit of existence. I could happily stay here in this sacred spot for ever.
In 1988 I was appointed as Principal Lecturer at Thanet College in Broadstairs and we moved to Cliftonville to live and join the Bahá’í community of Thanet with our son, Aryan 14 and daughter Simone 9. Thanet was a large community with a number of Persian families who, over the 90’s, moved out to pioneer.
At the heart of the Community were Dr Rostam Beheshti and his wife Fey, whose firesides attracted many seekers, some of whom went on to declare and are still active today. I served as Chairman for 17 years, firstly on the Thanet LSA, then after the boundary changes, on the LSA of Margate.
Between 1990 and 2002, my working duties as head of International Relations gave me many opportunities to meet up with Bahá’ís in different countries. My first trip allowed me to celebrate Naw-Rúz in the Bahá’í Centre in Seoul, Korea. Later I met with a family friend who was living in Shanghai, China and a few years later to meet up with Mary Hardy in Eastern China. I was fortunate to be able to visit my son Aryan who was living for a short time in Zhuhai, Southern China, and then to visit the school that my daughter Simone was working in Anshun, central China. Here she was the first westerner to teach at the school. Then in 2006 she started working at the “Brilliant Stars” Kindergarten in Bratislava – a Bahá’í inspired, Bahá’í owned school.
Saeedeh and I had the bounty of visiting the Indian Lotus Temple together and then as a family attended the Chicago Conference in 2003 and visited the Illinois Bahá’í temple. Then on a trip to Central America I was able to find time to visit the Panama Temple. I think this impressed me most. It had neither the complex detail of the American building or the grace and imagination of the Indian Temple. It was so very simple with brickwork lattice walls, isolated on a hillside. I had first spotted it through my binoculars from several miles away – its pale roof picked out through the haze against the lush green vegetation. Somehow in its quiet, almost deserted atmosphere I felt that prayers ascended most purely here. This is difficult to explain except to say – given the chance to return to any of the temples, I would always choose Panama and indeed recommend Panama.
When asked ‘what attracted me to the Faith?’ or asked to explain how being a Bahá’í has changed my world view, I always say that it makes sense of the world. It explains the ‘why’ and the ‘what for’ of existence. The teachings are both simple & profound: telling us of our past, explaining the present and envisaging a beautiful and united future. My love of the natural world leaves me in awe of God’s creation and I often think that just a glimpse of a hummingbird flitting between shafts of sunlight from one flower to another is all you need to know with certainty that God created us. He created us because He loved us and created the beauty of the natural world for our physical and spiritual growth. Our physical growth is finite and limited to the beginnings of life on earth –our spiritual growth begins here on earth and continues on after death throughout the worlds of God beyond.
To me the Bahá’í teachings are simply logical; they are perfect because they are God given. What is imperfect is our understanding of the teachings and our inability to follow all the teachings. We are tested, we fail, we pray for forgiveness and strength and start again. We can only rely on God but the most heartening teaching is Bahá’u’lláh’s explanation that we are tested because we are loved. But we are assured that God will never test us beyond what we are capable of bearing. I find that wonderfully comforting.
John H Stedman