Sylvia with her husband, David

A STEP IN FAITH

To take a step in faith is to take a step into the dark and as the light of faith attracts, our eagerness increases and we stumble into our comfortable zone of certainty, but to others we have left the familiarity and passed into an alien place and we cannot be reached.

“You will lose all your friends” an aunt announced when I declared my faith on 9th October 1969. We are taught to pray for departed souls so I pray for her, and many others in the next world, for them to see why I embraced that light and request these departed souls to assist the rest of our family to acknowledge, in principle, the purpose and beauty of the Revelation of Bahá’u’lláh, but also to accept me carrying the banner of faith in these difficult times when the words “God” and “spirit” are not the conversations of dinner tables.

CHILDHOOD

I was born in 1939 and as a child I was always asking questions. I went to Sunday school and one day the teacher said, “Someday Jesus will return. Will you open the door of your heart and let Him in?” She patted her heart and I did too declaring that I would, and please please Jesus come back in my lifetime!  The passion for “the return” never left me and I used to go round the churchyard reading the gravestones, and an excited anticipation started to grow. I was eight then and living in a place called Marshside on the coast of Southport, just north of Liverpool where ‘Abdu’l-Bahá visited in 1913. Here shrimpers used to go past with their carts, and we used to go and collect the horse manure to feed the roses.

Unknown to me, in a shrimpers cottage just a few streets away the message of Bahá’u’lláh had reached these shores and regular prayer meetings were held. Perhaps, I reflected some 20 years later, the Divine Fragrances had been scattered and I was affected. This story belongs to another to tell but the young shrimper boy of eight who witnessed his aunt returning from Liverpool “ a changed woman”, after unintentionally meeting ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in 1913, had also been affected and used to read the gravestones until at the age of 80 Harold Wright discovered the secret and embraced the faith. “The very stones” will teach the faith, it is said.

At the age of 11 I was confirmed and prayed to be given a sign. I was supposed to “rise up” when the Bishop laid his hands on my head and wondered why I didn’t elevate. My endless questions did not make me popular and so my journey in faith took me along rocky roads, for I saw things differently. Prayer always played an important part and I remember once praying so hard for Mum and Dad not to die, (nothing really serious in retrospect), because I was too young to look after my brothers.  A wave came over me, engulfing me as if God were saying, “Ok, ok, I heard you!”  This was the first of many experiences when I hammered the gates of heaven with a prayer.

TEENS AND TWENTIES

I managed to get four ‘O’ levels from school and was waiting to enter the civil service. At the age of 17, whilst working in a factory, I met my husband, David, who was doing summer work there, and during the six years of courtship he must have wondered what he was letting himself in for, but I must have had other qualities other than endless questions.  But he didn’t always listen anyway, so I was alone in my quest. My brother, David Hopper, became a Bahá’í in the early 1960s, whilst at Nottingham University, just before we married in 1962. I remember seeing a book called The Hidden Words, and peeped inside. This was the first stirrings of my soul but I didn’t know it then. I was actually hostile to my brother’s declaration, saying how can a religion unite the people when there are so many different faiths? I then set on a path to discover what the other faiths were and held the Bahá’í Faith at a distance.

Having two children kept us busy and the questioning continued. We were still attending the Methodist Church in Ainsdale, a suburb of Southport. Our house was a modern semi, and previously owned by a religious group and I decided that there were more prayers said in this house than there were bricks!  By this time I had attended a few firesides, where I met gentle, loving people with no robust opinions – well, not then anyway!  So I found my intellectual urge satisfied in part by these firesides and by listening to sermons, particularly about the “return” and one day the Minister said. “You call yourselves Christians?” I gasped inside and examined the statement as he continued, “If you are, you must be out there teaching the Sikhs and the Jews and the Muslims that there is only one way to God and that’s through Jesus Christ!”  I was disappointed.  How could I do this?  But I was getting used to disappointments by now. How could I teach Jews and others only about Jesus, assuming they didn’t know anyway? And what about the other Christian Churches? Why Methodist the only way?  So with these thoughts in my mind I shook the Minister’s hand on leaving, as tradition dictated, and asked the question. “Do you mean we have to tell all these people of other faiths that only the Methodist way is the only way?” He didn’t have an answer.

I went home and cried. My husband, ever sympathetic but not understanding my inner turmoil, comforted me, saying, “You have two lovely children, and a lovely home and me, – what is the matter?”

“Something is missing in my life,” I replied, “and I don’t know what it is.”

THE MOMENT

Nine years had to lapse before I fell in love with Bahá’u’lláh.  In my journey in faith I stumbled and fell. I acknowledged the principles of the faith. I challenged and questioned and obtained, a document from the Foreign Office on the Martyrdom of the Báb, doubting the event. This “Doubting Thomas” was finally captivated at one of the regular Southport firesides at the home of Louise and John Turner when the speaker was talking about Vietnam.  George Bowers was the speaker, and he was saying that in spite of the war then (1969) there were villages where the Bahá’ís carried on as normal, so much so the government sent someone to see what was different and why were they managing? “We are Bahá’ís,” they said. “We are secure in the Ark of the Covenant.” Noah’s ark came to mind and the floods of despair and wars that seemed to permeate everywhere, so I simply said: “In that case I want to be a Bahá’í.  I want to be secure in the Ark of the Covenant!”  That day was special as Bill White also declared.  Bill, the husband of Crim White, had been travelling the road of investigation and we met many visitors at Lou and John’s home in Park Avenue.  Philip Hainsworth, Charles MacDonald, as well as Hands of the Cause John Ferraby and George Townshend visited Southport at one time or another where regular public meetings were held with these much loved Bahá’ís and also “Man of the Trees” Richard St Barbe-Baker.

This was the beginning of a love affair which remains to this day, but the first test was telling my husband that I was now a Bahá’í. I had intimated this for some months previously, for on reading Thief in the Night  I knew I could no longer hold out forever and pit my wits and wisdom against the greater power of wisdom that lay with the gentle Báb and the majestic love and beauty emanating in the Person of Bahá’u’lláh. My puny mind recognised the need to remove the “pith of self”, and so I took that first step and am still, 42 years later (2011) trying to remove that pith.

HOMES, HOUSES, AND FAMILIES

I am now 72 and have only lived in three houses. The first, as a child in Marshside, then, as a newly married couple in Ainsdale, only a 20-minute drive from my parents’ home. Now we are in Hillside, which is in-between and still near the sea, with sand hills stopping the sea reaching our front door.

We moved from the house of a 1,000 prayers after my father died to a smart semi-detached in an area near the famous Royal Birkdale Golf Course, and mother came to live with us. The children were now in their early teens. I juggled life being a mother, a daughter and a wife.  Sometimes I dropped the balls in the juggle when I didn’t know what role to play on my return home from work, as should I be a mother, a child or a wife?  By having a cat and dog the demands dictated of being the housekeeper seemed easier, so I may have neglected the other roles in retrospect.

One day I asked my husband, a chemistry teacher at the local grammar school where he was once a pupil and then a teacher until he retired, for some more housekeeping money. He said no, I had to wait until the end of the month. So, ever frugal, I managed, but then managed to get a part-time job in a shop selling fur and leather coats. I stood around all day looking the part, feeling smart and thoroughly bored.  I felt as though I was waiting for the animals to come back for their skins.

Then mother started to get confused so I moved to another shop selling everything from sweets to boiled ham, from firewood to potatoes. I loved this and had opportunities to teach the faith too. One day a friendly looking young man came in and I was wondering how to mention the word Bahá’í so I was stealing myself towards this when he asked for a condom, but what was worse he asked me if I could recommend one and had I tried it!  Interesting people.

In 1980, just before my mother died, a Bahá’í dentist in our community came to me as it was known I was struggling, juggling, and said that I could have a job with him working when the family came in after school, so I started on a career that developed the administrative side of me.  I loved this work developing an office, and even today some of the things I implemented are still being used.

In 1982 my daughter developed leukaemia and we were thrown into crisis. She got well again, marrying and raising two boys, but the drama ever leaves its mark. I guess one victory was the fact that my husband and I said the long healing prayer every Sunday, for that was a familiar routine for him, at the home of a lovely Bahá’í. He never made any comment. He is a man of few words.

We did a lot of fund raising for leukaemia then, and this opened the way for further fund raising for Project Ghana, where we sent our used household items, school equipment and books to a community called Assesseo.  Our group of different faiths did this for eight years under the umbrella of the Local Assembly, as the Churches and other groups in the town were not interested. This story is for another time.

Our daughter was now married with grandchildren on the way; our son was planning to marry and emigrate to Australia, and elderly members of the family were getting frailer.  My juggling was slowing down so I left the dentist in 1995, as the demands on family life became too much, and immersed myself in serving more fully the Bahá’í community.

SUMMER SCHOOLS AND CONFERENCES

Fortunately due to lovingly juggling family life for most of my Bahá’í life I have been able to attend many of the weekend conferences and summer schools. I do not have any clear highlights for any of these except the Arts Academy where I was able to explore the creative part of me. This gentle nurturing from the UK art events to three overseas summer schools in Cyprus and Bulgaria has encouraged me to attempt writing a play about the “Secret of Divine Civilisation”. As with all these events I was totally immersed in the spirit of the occasion and this fed my soul which enabled me to cope with the varied tests and challenges of life.

PILGRIMAGE

I have been on three pilgrimages, and once as a companion, and each pilgrimage came at the right time. We are invited by the Universal House of Justice and almost as if they know we are ready then the invitation comes. December 1982 was the first one and that year on April 21st our daughter was diagnosed with Leukaemia. I wrote to Dr David Ruhe who was a medical doctor serving on the Universal House of Justice at that time and he said prayers for Carolyn and assured me on many medical points. He wrote the letter on a flight across the Atlantic. My family said to still go and during the following months Carolyn got into remission. 1993 was the second pilgrimage which came unexpectedly early as with the third in 2010.

On the two early pilgrimages inspiring talks were often given in the Old Pilgrim house by members of the Universal House of Justice. These were very special and I made notes and listened and absorbed. I learnt that the first time we look, the second we absorb, and the third we are confirmed. This I feel is true. Of special memory was the time spent in the Monument Gardens saying prayers for family and friends and completely leaving my heart there in trust that these prayers would be answered in His time. I haven’t made any request to go again. I am quite content. On one occasion I fell asleep and said to Hand of the Cause Mr Faizi that I was sorry to miss his talk and he said that my very soul will have taken on what is important.

I have had many loving friends from the UK serving at the world centre such as George and Elsie Bowers, Miriam Taeed, and recently Joy Sabour to name just a few. I made other friends but only one has remained in constant contact, Margaret Rayner from Newcastle NSW Australia.

One memorable event was holding hands with Rúíyyih Khánum and the pilgrims in the House of Abdu’l-Bahá singing “Allah’u’abha.

SERVING THE BAHAI INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY

I actually like using this phrase in my teaching efforts, as it rolls off my tongue with confidence. It’s nicer than saying, “Oh I’m just a housewife!”

I had been serving as secretary for the National Conferences Committee for about nine years, for Southport was an ideal town for conferences, when the National Spiritual Assembly decided to move me to a new committee serving Bahá’í youth planning a year of service. I soon became secretary to the UK Year of Service Desk. This was a most rewarding and delightful job, as I could be at home with David, now retired.  He keeps his hand in with chemistry and is one of the chief examiners for marking exam papers to ‘A’ level.  This job twice a year directs him to the computer so we have to share it and I come down at 6 a.m. to catch up with my e-mails. Our house now is too big for us but familiar, and as the computer is in the living room I can choose to watch TV programmes or immerse myself in the wide world of networking, and surf with waves of joy and enthusiasm. To tell the story of the period of service on YOS Desk would take for ever. Sadly, I cannot share these pleasurable stories with David, but we are able to enjoy other things so long as I don’t go overboard teaching the faith!

One of the delights is helping with the children. I don’t do this often but it gives me a buzz when I get the chance, like the time I was waiting at the end of a conference and some children came up to me who were also waiting (for parents) and asked me give them a children’s class. I was at a table with a paper table cloth which would be thrown away so we all set to and taught each other about Progressive Revelation through drawing. We drew Adam and Eve and what they may possibly have looked like, and the fact that man forgot the difference between good and evil, and therefore it became necessary for God to remind the people, which He did with a burning bush. Noah’s ark fitted in too, and eventually when we filled the cloth the parents were ready and I had had a bounty of learning too. There is no doubt we should be both teachers and pupils at the same time.

SOCIAL LIFE AND HOLIDAYS

In our younger days we went potholing with the children and walking the hills and dales of the Lake District and Yorkshire.  We still walk with groups of friends but hills are getting to me now. I like to stand and stare too and from this a creative urge comes and often I do not have pen or paper handy, so it is lost to the ether.

We are currently blessed with good health and this has enabled us to make carbon footprints around the world. We have travelled to Australia, Chile, Argentina, Canada, South Africa, various places in Europe.  SAGA have had their money’s worth from us, and we in turn have had amazing experiences. This is a visual priority for David and for me sharing the Message. How many experiences I could tell now but the change in me is confidence!  I used to mention the word Bahá’í (as one friend said “Sylvia peppers her conversations with the Word!”) when David was out of earshot, until one day I said I am tired of this so as it is my responsibility to teach the faith I will do so.

Now I will bullet point responses to incidences the times I mention the word Bahá’í:

  • In a doorway in the Lofoton Islands north of Norway. “Oh, my uncle is a Bahá’í in Tasmania. He is a poet. Don’t know anything about Bahá’í. No, don’t tell me. Don’t want to know. You must visit him when you go travel teaching.”
  • By a waterfall observing a group with ‘Jesus Saves’ on the tee shirts. “Go on,” says David, “give them a leaflet.”
  • A mountain track talking with a doctor about healing. “What a lovely prayer. Tell me about the Bahá’í Faith?” Later her husband says, “A Bahá’í works in my office. She cannot walk very well and was persecuted in Iran.”
  • Crossing a fast flowing river near an iceberg meeting strangers. “You must be German,” I said. “My brother lives in Germany near the Bahá’í Temple.” “Oh, have you been to Haifa?” addressing David, “you must go to Haifa. Take your wife to Haifa!” and we moved on. He hasn’t taken me yet.
  • In Soweto, South Africa. “Please mama can I have a prayer for peace too?” “I have one left. Let’s say it out loud,” I respond.
  • In Namibia in the bush asking the bush guide to give the prayer cards I gave him to his chief.
  • Numerous occasions directing people to the web site

On buses and trains, in shops and whenever I can, I drop in the word Bahá’í when appropriate. “Well, that wasn’t appropriate” said David once.  But at home it is a different matter for some people are a bit wary waiting for the word!  Especially when we are having parties or playing cards. So I haven’t always been wise. Just over enthusiastic!

In Chile, in the spring, I was standing looking at an active volcano near Puerto Varas in Chile. Earlier I had prayed hard for an opportunity to teach nineteen people; if nothing else, just the word Bahá’í would do.

I thought how many of us stand and wait for the opportunity and then, when it comes, we gush with enthusiasm pouring out the heat of joy and melting the hearts. If only….

Normally when travelling I call in at the tourist offices and ask if there is a Bahá’í community in that town. Some interesting responses have come over the years but at Puerto Varas, in this very Spanish speaking town, it was closed. So I asked our local tour guide the question.

“Is there a Bahá’í community in this town?”  He digested my English slowly and then said: “I have not heard that word since I was 13 years old.” A small volcano erupted in me and as we were moving on for tea and cakes he was busy mustering the rest of the tourists, so I asked if I could sit with him.

We sat together, two smiling faces, more than that two beaming faces, linked by a word. All Misutl, (we called him Michael Angelo) could remember were two words, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and Alláh’u’Abhá. We savoured these words instead of the cake and he told me he was a Bahá’í for three weeks as his friend was a Bahá’i. He used to go to meetings where he enjoyed the prayers and when the teacher asked what religion the pupils were he said he was a Bahá’í. The teacher told his mother and he got told off. Summer came and the Bahá’í child did not return to the school.

We got back into the coach. He picked up the microphone and said, “I have been having a most interesting conversation with one of your tourists, who is a Bahá’í and I haven’t heard that word since I was 13…..” The nineteen tourists heard the word, which I had been whispering for a few days, and subsequently no one asked me any questions. But the story doesn’t end there!

At the next stop, Punta Arenas, our English tour guide told our new local tour guide, Jaime, about the Bahá’í in the tour and he said: “I have not met a Bahá’í since I was eight years old. My teacher was called Miss Williams, and a boy called Fariborz, were Bahá’ís and all I learnt was that Bahá’ís do not kill.  But,” he added “they are going to build a temple here in Chile!”

I was introduced and once again the joy poured out of me and I gained such enthusiasm and courage I asked Jaime if I could take the message to one of the waiters, who was a beautiful gracious black boy from Peru. A time was arranged and through translation I delivered the most precious gift in a way I have never done before, and gave some small prayer cards and showed them the picture of the temple to be built in Santiago.

The other tourists remained impassive – but then the heat of volcanoes doesn’t affect everyone, only the noise and the roar. Maybe another time, another place.

Every day is a new beginning as I try and start with a prayer remembering who I am and why I am here, but ever since the moment of my declaration I have hidden from being unusual so saying prayers in privacy has been the norm for me, so it doesn’t always happen. Being different was the first test, but I didn’t lose my friends as I gained a universe. I was no longer parochial; I was a world citizen carrying the flag of faith from a far away place.

So keeping a sense of unity with the family became a priority but who is to say whether I have achieved this, looking back over 42 years?  My faith is still viewed with reserve, has moved forward a little to deference, and I am able to go to conferences and summer schools. I juggled with the varied responsibilities that family life shaped over the years and made mistakes, but the one mistake our large family levelled at me on embracing the New World Order is not viewed by me as other than a positive step towards contributing to the health and well-being of all who cross my path, irrespective of class, creed or colour.

This ongoing effort is blessed by the support of the teachings on unity and family life. I managed to teach the children two prayers but will never know if they are remembered or used. It was the best I could do. But the bounty of prayer is evident and in extreme difficulties my husband and I have prayed together and a way out of the maze has been found, yet we never discuss the merits and bounties of this. I am not alone in this and to my circle of friends I have reached out to share sorrows and be comforted.

THE JOURNEY CONTINUES

I wonder now, as we are older, that we may possibly live in four houses before we ‘pop our clogs’? But wherever we are, the strong and ever-growing Bahá’í community will lend support and joy in our old age. This will be for me anyway, but surely maybe a benefit for David too? It is so important to seek out the Bahá’í community for that spiritual strength. But for now it is Ruhi, teaching children, sharing a prayer, making home visits that are the tasks ahead, so I need courage for I am on home ground and this is a challenge. Opportunities are opening up with local schools through being on SACRE, as well as in the community and now I am involved in watering the seeds sown over 40 years by meeting people once again through supporting charity events, in the U3A, Philosophy in the Pub, and even facilitating a “World Religion” group. They remember I am a Bahá’í! Then in quieter moments when I do not need to support David in the leisure activities of walking, theatre, cinema, and TV, I creep to the computer and write my creative thoughts and aspirations and pray for strength to be a teacher in His Cause.

Sylvia Miley
Southport
November  2011

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