I was born in Birmingham. My father was agnostic, and had nothing against religion, providing it did not intrude upon his life. However, my mother, at the end of World War Two, trained as a teacher, and landed a job in a Catholic school. She found the people that she worked with to be kind and sincere, and her own experience of Catholics was quite different from the prejudiced view she had heard in chapel, when she was a girl. She decided to convert to Catholicism, and attended the classes. However, there was an obstacle. The church in those days demanded that if she were to be a Catholic, the family should promise to raise the children as Catholics. This my father saw as totally unreasonable, and he refused, on principle, to sign away his two sons.
After perhaps eighteen months of impasse (I was probably still a pre-schooler), the (Catholic) Bishop of Birmingham waived the rule for my mother’s sake, and she was baptised into the Catholic church. I was sent to the local “state” primary school in Stechford, Birmingham, and raised as broadly Church of England. This approach continued when we moved to Solihull, and I had to change grammar schools.
When I was fourteen years old, and returning from a holiday abroad, our family (I now had two younger brothers for the price of one) was stuck in a traffic jam opposite the Royal Albert Hall in London. A big banner proclaimed that a world “Congress” of the Bahá’í Faith was taking place. I asked my father what that B word was, and he replied that it was a religion, Bahá’í. So I asked what they believed. “Well, they think that all the religions come from God, so they recognise Krishna and Muhammad as well as Jesus; but then they go and spoil it all by adding their own prophet, called Bahá’u’lláh.” I remember feeling happiness at the first part of the sentence, which rang true, and disappointment with the second part. My father never seemed to understand the concept of “progressive revelation”, in which each religion builds on the one before. “Oh, I’ve never heard of that,” I said. At my grammar school in Solihull, we had marked the main world religions on a map, according to their areas of geographical dominance. This Bahá’í one had not appeared on our map. I watched the people coming out of the Albert Hall, a great variety of colours and many in national costumes, and remember thinking, that although there couldn’t be too many in any part of the world (it was not on our school map), they clearly were very well distributed around the world! When I said I had not heard of this religion, my father replied that Audrie was a Bahá’í!
Audrie (Rogers) had been my mother’s best friend at the High School, and used to visit us from time to time. She seemed quite special to me, and always spoke to us boys as if we mattered. Her being a Bahá’í was a strong point in the favour of this new religion! “I bet Audrie’s in there now,” my mother said, in a somewhat disapproving tone. Well, she was, and found a husband there – an American Bahá’í called Johnny Reynolds, who worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Native Americans had always held a fascination for Audrie, and Bahá’u’lláh had found a way to take her among them.
Audrie and Johnny’s wedding took place later that year in Chester. As Audrie and my mother had been so close in the past, our family was invited. The wedding seemed lovely to me, with plenty of flowers and a warm atmosphere. There were some very friendly people, including quite a few with brown faces. I supposed them to be from India. A chap called Eddie Kollaart chatted to me. The readings were all about love, and it all left a good feeling, although my mother wasn’t at all impressed. And then I never heard the word Bahá’í again for six years.
When I left school at eighteen, I started training to be a primary school teacher. As I had been good at French at school, I studied French as one of my subjects. This led to my being on a month’s exchange, at a teacher training institution in France, in May 1969. There were four of us from my college, plus one student, Derek, from a college in Liverpool. I have no idea why he was there by himself, but he was put with us for the duration of the exchange. One day, while Derek was still in bed, we went across to the office to collect our mail, and Derek had received a little parcel. When he opened it, it contained two paperback books. “Oh, I know what this is. My girl friend belongs to this religion, and she has sent me these books to read.” “Oh, what religion is that?” I asked. “You will never have heard of it,” said Derek. “Well, tell me what it is!” “It’s called the Bahá’í Faith,” said Derek, who was much embarrassed by having to own up to having a girl friend who was into weird religions. “Oh, I know all about that!” I said, airily – although actually I would have had trouble filling the back of a postage stamp with information. “I’d like to read one of those books!”
There were two titles: Bahá’u’lláh and the New Era and Thief in the Night. “You can have that one,” he said, passing me Thief in the Night. “I’ve already read it. It sets out to prove that Bahá’u’lláh is the return of Christ, which it does about a hundred and fifty times over, by looking at quotes from the Old and New Testaments. It gets boring, really. I’ll read this other one.”
I read Thief in the Night inside two days. It was absolutely clear that what Jesus would want me to do, now, was to recognise Bahá’u’lláh and adopt the new name, Bahá’í. I remember sitting on my bed, in the dormitory in France, thinking: “Well, it’s either a big coincidence (the apparent fulfilment of biblical prophecy), in which case I have to sweep both Christianity and the Bahá’í Faith aside; or else it’s all true, and I must become a Bahá’í.” I had already decided that as nation-states were simply based on historical accident, and did not match ethnic or language boundaries, world government had to be the answer. I used to read “Q” magazine, which was in favour of world government, (the later rock magazine having the same title I imagine to be pure coincidence). I had made myself a badge saying “World Federal Republic”, which I wore to school. So now I had found a religion which confirmed my ideas – world currency, world government, no class prejudice. The idea of choosing a world second language, however, was a new one to me.
Derek and I spent some hours walking the grounds of the college, with him telling me more things which he had picked up from going to Bahá’í meetings. I thought about my family and friends, and decided that there were five who would probably accept the Faith: my fiancée, Ann; my mother, Marjorie; my brother Steve; and my friends Rocky Grove and Chris Elliott. Rocky probably took less than a year, Steve maybe a year, Ann took two years, my mother about twelve years. Chris Elliott’s family moved away so I never got to tell him about the Faith! I gave Derek my home address so that his girl friend could send me some Bahá’í addresses.
When I got home, I had terrible trouble finding the Bahá’ís. The chief librarian had never heard of them. Nothing in the phone book. But I persisted, and found a book in the library, Bahá’u’lláh by Balyuzi. I took it home and read it, more information! And then I found, inside the back cover, “Donated by P. Turton, 42, Cheltondale Road, Solihull.” Yippee! At last! So I consulted the phone book, and yes, there was an entry for Turton, at that address. A lady answered the phone.
“Could I speak to P. Turton, please?” Sort of hesitant silence at the other end. “Do you mean Philip?” “I don’t know. The person who donated the Bahá’í book to the library.” Deep breath. “I’m afraid Philip has been dead for five years.” We had a conversation for several minutes, about Philip and his sister, and about how Mrs. Turton had not seen any Bahá’í adverts in the newspaper for quite a while. So I thanked her profusely. Back to square one. Then I got a letter from Derek’s girl friend, whose name was Rita. (She is now called Rita Burns, and lives in the East Midlands). Ha! Sure to get an address now! It was a lovely, chatty letter. She had met some Bahá’ís from Birmingham, she said, at a weekend school. One even lived in Solihull – my area, she observed. But no names, no addresses. And that was how it stayed. I was telling people I was a Bahá’í, but I wasn’t in touch with anyone else.
Audrie to the rescue. She was visiting her relations in England that summer, and dropped in on my family while I was away in Scotland. My mother told Audrie of my interest, and she arranged for me to receive an invitation to a Bahá’í event, which was while I was away in Scotland! But at last I had a name, and an address, in Birmingham, but probably near to the Solihull boundary. It turned out to be only yards over the line, and was walking distance (just) from my summer job weeding pavements for Solihull Council.
So one lunchtime, I left my workplace and walked until I found this house. I rang the doorbell. “Hello,” I said. “My name is Paddy Vickers, and I’m a Bahá’í.” The owner of the house was called Patrick Green, and he was very welcoming. He had been told of my existence, and lent me a couple of books to read. I set off back to my workplace, armed with Principles of Bahá’í Administration and one other book. Ann and I started going to firesides on Friday nights – at the very first one we saw a lady called Hazel Baller signing a card, and we figured out that this was some kind of enrolment process! Back in those days, they did not want people to rush into “declaring” themselves Bahá’ís, and I kept being given other books to read, which seemed to be some kind of delaying tactic. I had to resort to pretending that I had read The Will and Testament of `Abdu’l-Bahá, when I had not actually read the contents, just the front cover really.
I realised that my acceptance into the Bahá’í community was not going to happen, without some kind of grand gesture. So I turned up again at Patrick and Patricia Green’s house, in the pouring rain, on a wrong night, and announced that I had come to declare as a Bahá’í. (As far as I was concerned, I had been a Bahá’í for months!) It was the first time I had ever been hugged by a man, and I squirmed uncomfortably, especially as my hair, skin and clothes were dripping wet! This was December 1969.
If I have made any contribution to the British Bahá’í community, it has probably been in helping in the production and distribution of literature. When Ann and I married, we moved into a house in Birmingham. The Local Spiritual Assembly asked me whether I would be able to take over the “Sales Library”. This was a broken suitcase with a few books and a money jar inside. That was the start of one of our avenues of service as a family! The Bahá’í Publishing Trust allowed us a small amount of credit, I bought in some books and audio-visual items, and proudly laid them all out at the next Feast. The Bahá’ís simply were not used to looking at Bahá’í books, and the display was largely ignored. One young Bahá’í bought a postcard off me, costing 3d (three old pence), to make me feel better, I suspect. But that was just the start – things improved from there! I copied Geoff Ault’s idea of taking a box of books with me to every fireside I attended, every Feast, etc., whether within Birmingham or outside. And when we pioneered to Warwick District, we immediately started up the same practice, under the name Warwick Bahá’í Bookshop. I had realised that the books and leaflets were a deepening tool. Bahá’ís were spending money on the books, and therefore would probably read them! That seemed much more effective than trying to persuade other Bahá’ís to borrow books off you, which seemed to be the chief method then of encouraging other Bahá’ís to deepen themselves! The Bahá’í Publishing Trust asked us to be its agent, as we were selling more books than most, and the turnover grew from hundreds of pounds to thousands of pounds a year.
A young girl at the school I taught in asked her mother in what ways the Bahá’í Faith differed from the Church of England. A discussion with her mother about this made me realise that no book existed as a simple introduction to the Faith for children. There were plenty of Bahá’í books for children from Bahá’í families, but nothing which actually explained the Faith as such. “Somebody should write one,” soon became “I will have to write one”! The Bahá’í Faith became a useful tool for presenting the Faith both to adults and children!
By 1989, the supply of leaflets to go with exhibitions or on stalls, or for Bahá’ís to carry with them, seemed to have dried up, for no obvious reason. People would telephone us, desperately needing cheap introductory items, and we would not be able to supply anything! So Ann said to me,
“You know, I bet we could write our own. We could probably find a printer in Leamington (Spa) or even Southam”, (where we now lived). So I drove round the Southam industrial estate until I found a printing company who specialised in this kind of work. Twenty-two years later, we still use this same printer! Our first two leaflets were based on items we had previously compiled and photocopied for the annual Peace Festival in Leamington. Ann sat down with some drawing instruments and a drawing board and produced the star logo with the world inside. Then she set to and wrote, The Bahá’í Faith, What Is It?, which is now in its third edition and has sold over 350,000 copies, not counting the reprints in other countries. At one time, our expanding series of leaflets was marketed by the Los Angeles Bookshop, and a number of titles were reprinted in Australia, but we have never really had a proper distribution or marketing system. We just write the leaflets, and see what happens. There are currently more than 50 leaflets in print.
Ann and I also produced the Bahá’í quiz game, Spiritual Pursuit. Adam Thorne contributed some questions, and a large number of people have been involved in the production and assembly of the game, especially our daughter Helena. The game has had two print runs of 500 copies each time.
Helena joined the “Youthquake” dance group at the age of 12 in 1991 and was part of the group that toured Shetland. Following that, she formed Youthquake Midlands, which performed in public – mostly on the street – over 70 times over about four years. Apart from single days or evenings in various towns, there were four tours – two in England, one in Poland and one in the Czech Republic. The performances were generated by the youth themselves, but a support team of adults was required for transport and logistics. Apart from Ann and myself there were half a dozen other people involved in this.
Time has marched on. Helena is now married, and her husband Mark has also become a Bahá’í. They live in Birmingham and they have two children. Helena has just finished a stint as an Auxiliary Board member.
Apart from serving on Birmingham, Warwick and Stratford-upon-Avon Local Spiritual Assemblies, I also served on various committees including the West Midlands Regional Teaching Committee, the National Teaching Committee, the Bahá’í Publishing Trust, the Overseas Goals Committee and the West Midlands Cluster Area Teaching Committee (not all at once!). I spent thirteen years teaching as part of the Stratford-on-Avon Thomas Breakwell School, where I was also Director for a number of years.
I have recently retired from my daytime job as a schoolteacher, and we are again turning our hand to the production and distribution of Bahá’í literature, although medical problems restrict our activity to some degree. There is so much need for Bahá’í literature of so many types, and we hope we can spend more time filling in some of the gaps!