Charlie with his wife Barbara in January 2011, Western Australia

I was born during the Second World War in Nottingham, England.  My dear father passed away from TB when I was just four years old, and my mother courageously took full responsibility for raising my younger brother and myself.  We moved to live with her parents in Rainham, Kent, which was our home throughout our childhood and teenage years.  My mother re-married seven years later, and I had to adapt to living with a step-father.

The family were practising members of the Church of England, and fairly early on, my mother, Mollie, gave me a choice  –  I could either join the Boy Scouts or the church choir.  I opted for the latter, so became familiar with all the Anglican hymns, psalms and liturgy, eventually becoming the principal boy soloist in the choir.  But then my voice broke, the motivation for going to church declined, and before long I was questioning the very tenets that I was expected to follow.  What worried me most was that I was not supposed to mix with Catholics!  I also felt that I wanted to be friends with everyone, regardless of creed, class or race, and this attitude was not really encouraged.  By the time I went to university in Bristol I was well on the way to becoming an agnostic, or rather a humanist  –  anxious to get involved in any cause that worked for peace and upheld equal rights for everyone.  My field of study  –  Geography  –  lent itself to a world view and to a desire to travel.

I had wanted to become a teacher since childhood, and this desire has never waned.  Upon graduating and completing a PGCE at Bristol  –  certainly the most stimulating and fulfilling year in my whole formal education  –  I immediately accepted a post at Monks Park Comprehensive School in North Bristol, and there learnt to work with young people and help them face their challenges, both in and out of school.  My idealism found an outlet in CND, and I became an ardent marcher and advocate of non-violence as a solution to the world’s problems.  And yet deep within was an unconscious spiritual yearning.  I felt I needed to travel around the world, now that I had gained my qualifications and could cope with teaching.  If I could travel, I reasoned, I would become a better person and a better teacher in the long run, and I ought to do this before “settling down” and raising a family, as society expected.

Thus on 3rd September 1967, I left the white cliffs of Dover on a ferry bound for Ostende, with the world before me.  I had answered a newspaper advert to join a group of adventurers who would travel by Land Rover from UK to Kathmandu in Nepal, and planned to go on from there to Malaysia and then Australia, by any means available.

It was the journey of a lifetime.   Not only was I exposed to all the major world religions at first hand, but I also came across the Bahá’í Faith and accepted it!

So many vivid memories of this trip come to mind  –  seeing the commercialisation of Christian holy places in Jerusalem; floating in the Dead Sea; having violent dysentery in Baghdad; making an unofficial border crossing into Iran, since normal borders had been closed due to cholera, and being shot at on the way;  receiving warm hospitality from a Muslim family in Shiraz;  learning to sit on my haunches like the people of Afghanistan, Pakistan and India; becoming overcome by the stench of the main river passing through Kabul, which served as an open toilet; crossing through the Khyber Pass at night; marvelling at snake charmers and the Taj Mahal in India; playing in a band with a pop group in Darjeeling; gazing at the glory of the full Himalayan range in a vivid red sunset; travelling third class in the luggage rack on Indian railways; visiting the golden Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon; living with Buddhist monks in Bangkok and teaching them English in return for free food; visiting mosques, temples, shrines and avidly soaking up anything I could learn about Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist beliefs; forming strong bonds with so many new friends of different cultures, and then, sadly, leaving them again.

I ended up in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where my meagre funds ran out, and I had to find some way of earning money to continue the journey.  I found a small Chinese-run private school known as Pudu Commercial, where Mr Cheah, the Principal, generously offered me a job teaching English and Geography to his senior students, who were almost the same age as I was.  After classes on the very first day, one of these students approached and with great confidence invited me to read a small pamphlet.  It was entitled The Bahá’í Faith.   Immediately, I could accept the logic that all religions came from the same God and had been revealed at different times and places.  After all, I’d just seen this on my travels!  But I wasn’t sure that I really believed in God, so my enthusiasm was purely intellectual.  I was soon promoting the Faith among the Pudu students, encouraging them to investigate a movement that had such capacity to unite.  The young man, Steven, became a good friend, and he began inviting me to his home at weekends, where I met the whole family and was soon attending Feasts and other Bahá’í activities.  I remember going to what must have been the National Bahá’í Centre in Kuala Lumpur and noticing that all these people never stopped talking!

But after some six months in this delightful equatorial country, whose verdant landscape, enticing smells and beautiful people so touched my heart, it was time to move on  –  to Singapore, then on a boat to Sydney via Indonesia and Papua New Guinea.

My time in Australia was characterised by enormous fluctuations in mood, as I faced the challenges of finding a job, overcoming loneliness, and living in the outback.  I was determined to try my hand at jobs other than teaching, so worked variously as an encyclopedia salesman, a labourer in a cardboard box factory, a musician, and then as a geological assistant in Western Australia.

Steven came out from Malaysia to join me in Perth, since he planned to accompany me to the UK and continue his education there.  Because of him, I found myself again enmeshed in the Bahá’í community  –  at first unwillingly, but later with a feeling that perhaps this was my destiny.  We ended up in Sydney, where all attempts to get Steven a UK visa met with failure.  But the delay had far-reaching consequences.  While waiting for the next passenger liner back to the UK, I had nothing to do except get down to a proper study of the Writings.  By day, I collected money for the Wheelchair and Disabled Society.  By night I studied all Bahá’í books within reach, attended firesides, and sought out learned Bahá’ís for questioning.  I even went to a weekend youth meeting at Yerrinbool, Australia’s principal site for summer and winter schools, and, naturally, there were many visits to the Bahá’í House of Worship at Ingleside in the northern suburbs.

Finally, after spending all night reading the Kitab-i-Iqan, I was ready to sign my declaration card.  What finally convinced me was the insight from the Kitab-i-Iqan  that God exists, but there are veils that blind us to accepting Him and His Manifestations.  I looked up at the night sky and suddenly saw the moon shining through a break in the swiftly moving clouds. The analogy was clear.  Up there was the sun of truth, existing all the time  –  and down here was I, deceived by the clouds of self and prejudice.  Early in the morning of 16th May 1968, I rang the then Secretary of the National Spiritual Assembly, Pieter de Vogel, and with heart beating, declared my Faith in Bahá’u’lláh.  Once I had accepted the existence of God, there was no problem in accepting Bahá’u’lláh, since the intellectual attraction was already there.

So what changed at that unforgettable moment?  I immediately became infused with inner peace and great spiritual joy, fuelled by the understanding that it had taken me a journey to the far side of the world, highlighted by exposure to so many emotional  experiences, to enable me to at last find the way to achieve my teenage dreams of unity and justice.

I now had to learn to pray, not as before, which was mere regurgitation devoid of meaning, but in a new, more meaningful manner.   I returned to the UK by ship, on fire with the Faith and anxious to teach everyone I met.  My parents were horrified that I had accepted this “Middle Eastern religion”, and my brother thought that I was deluded.  But my wise old grandfather Charles said that there was no problem, since there are many roads to God.  I revisited all my friends and former students in Bristol, but was deeply saddened when no-one could share my enthusiasm.  I resolved to return to Australia on the “ten pound” migrant scheme, and pick up new friendships I had formed with the Bahá’ís.

And so, just two years after my declaration in Sydney, and once again working as a high-school teacher in Western Australia, I found myself drawn to a major teaching conference in Adelaide called by the National Spiritual Assembly in order to appeal for friends who could fulfil Nine Year Plan pioneer goals in the Pacific.  I had nothing to lose, so when the call came for volunteers to come forward, I had no hesitation in offering to go anywhere where the need was greatest.  Again, it seemed as though this was my destiny.  The Continental Pioneer Committee for Australia, an earnest group of ladies, took me on one side and said that because I was a teacher and spoke French, I should go to the New Hebrides.  But if I really wanted to go to the Pacific, they urged, I should find myself a wife.

The very next day, upon returning to Perth on the transcontinental train, I did indeed meet the person who was later to became my partner in life  –  Barbara.

I duly went to the New Hebrides in early 1971 to take up a post as teacher at Nur Bahá’í School in Port Vila, thereby relieving Knight of Bahá’u’lláh Bertha Dobbins from school-teaching and enabling her to be free to travel.  But at the end of that first year, the school had to close  –  largely for financial reasons  –  and I returned to Perth to marry Barbara  –  the first wedding of two Bahá’í members ever to be held in that state.  Because of all the tests in that first year, I was very reluctant to go back to Port Vila, especially to such an uncertain future.  But with encouragement from the National Spiritual Assembly and the knowledge that we were under the protection of Bahá’u’lláh, we flew to Port Vila on our honeymoon, and have been there ever since.  [Vanuatu is an island nation in the South Pacific Ocean.  Before its independence in 1980 it was known as the New Hebrides – Ed.]

All my life, I have been busy.  As one of my flat mates in Perth, Hedi Moani, once said:  “Charlie, work is attracted to you!”  But since becoming a Bahá’í, life has been even busier, and it has never stopped.

Soon after returning to Australia as a Bahá’í in 1970 I began service on the Regional Teaching Committee for Western Australia as its secretary.  Then, once at my pioneer post in Vanuatu, I was secretary of the Regional Teaching Committee for the New Hebrides, then under the jurisdiction of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the South Pacific.  On my arrival, there were just four Local Spiritual Assemblies in the country, and special emphasis was placed on opening up all the northern islands of the archipelago to the Faith.  Accordingly, straight after our return to Port Vila in 1972, Barbara and I made a teaching trip to the islands of Malakula and Santo, and became the first Bahá’ís ever to set foot on the mountainous islands of Ambae and Maewo, as well as officially proclaiming the Faith to three community leaders who subsequently became the first and second Presidents of Vanuatu and the nation’s first Prime Minister.

In early 1972, I managed to obtain a post in the Statistics Office of the Condominium Government of the New Hebrides, with special responsibility for conducting censuses.  This provided a wonderful opportunity to travel around the whole archipelago, which at the time was preparing for its independence from the two colonial governments –  Britain and France.  Meanwhile, the Bahá’í community was slowly expanding, and by 1977 was ready to establish its own National Spiritual Assembly  –  two years before the country itself gained its political independence.  I had already been elected to the NSA of the South West Pacific at Ridvan 1974  –  an event coinciding with the birth of our first-born child, Daniel  –  and when the New Hebrides raised its own national institution, I became its secretary.

The subsequent years have seen the Bahá’í community expand from hundreds to thousands;  the rise in the number of Local Spiritual Assemblies from 12 in 1977 to 42 in 2011;  the rapid growth of the institute process and the four core activities;  the establishment of intensive programmes of growth in 6 out of 18 clusters; sound relations with leaders of society; the proliferation of prayers, books and materials in the vernacular language, Bislama; the establishment of the Faith in over 200 localities; and the recent focus on the transformation of flourishing neighbourhoods.  Tanna island is now a Learning Site for the Junior Youth Programme, while Santo island has the renowned Rowhani Bahá’í School that caters for the spiritual, moral and intellectual development of over 200 students.  [In its message to the Bahá’ís of the World at Ridván 2012, the Universal House of Justice names Tanna cluster as a site for the establishment of one of the first local Houses of Worship – Ed.]

I have served on the National Spiritual Assembly of Vanuatu since 1977, apart from a short break of 7 years when I was an Auxiliary Board member, and am still its secretary.  Barbara served on the National Spiritual Assembly for a number of years, and is currently serving on the Local Spiritual Assembly of Port Vila.  Both of us have been looking after children’s classes for as long as we can remember, as well as junior youth groups and study circles.  I am heavily involved in translating Bahá’í texts and books from English and French into Bislama, the lingua franca of Vanuatu.

To earn our living, both of us are still teaching.  Barbara has retired from full-time work, but is regularly called upon as a relief teacher in primary schools.  After working in statistics until just before Independence, I was fortunate to be able to teach at the main English-medium secondary school in the country, Malapoa College, for 20 years, and have now been at the Vanuatu Institute of Teacher Education for another 12 years.  It is such a joy that I can integrate the Faith with my work.  Not only am I able to run a regular weekly study circle for over 20 trainees at VITE , but I’m also able to directly introduce the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh into a course on “personal development” that is obligatory for all.  I’m also a part-time lecturer at the University of the South Pacific’s campus in Port Vila, as well as curriculum writer and an external examiner for Pacific schools in Geography and Development Studies.

We live on the edge of Port Vila, in a house overlooking the vast Pacific Ocean, the “Ocean of Light”.   Our two sons, Daniel and Sam, grew up here  –  in fact they had their mother as one of their teachers in primary school and their father in secondary school  –  but have now found jobs and wives in Australia.  We now have four grand-daughters (Hero, Harper, Ava and Mila).

As I reflect on over forty years of pioneer service in Vanuatu, I cannot help but marvel at the bounties that have come.   Our sons were raised in a safe, natural environment where they could walk to school and everyone was their friend.  We live in a country that has warm and receptive people, where we can eat organic, healthy food and have daily swims in the ocean, where it is so easy to teach the Faith, and where the Bahá’í community is currently undertaking activities at the frontiers of learning.  When I first left the shores of Australia, I had deep regrets that I would never be able to pursue two great loves in my life  –  cricket and music.  But on the contrary, I was able to play cricket for almost 30 years and ensure that my sons were also brought up in the game.  And as for music  –  so many opportunities have come to play the piano and guitar and to sing  –  both in the Bahá’í and wider communities.  In the Pacific, music is the key to people’s hearts, and there is nothing finer than to join in the choral, harmonized singing that takes place in all the thirty five Bahá’í Centres around the country.  We have been part of the establishment of the new nation of Vanuatu and participated in its material and spiritual development.

We have indeed been truly blessed in service to Bahá’u’lláh.

___________________

Charlie Pierce

Port Vila, Vanuatu, September 2011

Steven and Charlie in Sydney, 1967

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