“I testify before God to the greatness, the inconceivable greatness of this revelation” Bahá’u’lláh
The first time I heard the name Bahá’u’lláh was in Cardiff at a Public Meeting in Dumfries Place in 1964 and I was 17.
My journey to that meeting began a number of years before, when, as a very strong Catholic, I wanted answers to ‘life’s great questions’, such as: was there really a God; where did the dinosaurs come into the creation story of Adam and Eve; and did only Catholics go to heaven? My mother was an Irish Roman Catholic and would only marry my father on the condition that any children would be brought up Catholic. He kept his promise, and my two sisters and myself became devoted Catholics. In the 1960’s both my sisters Kathleen and Mary also became Bahá’ís.
We came from a working class background and my father was a labourer in the foundries. He was a Communist atheist with a strong sense of social justice. He actively taught my sisters and me to loathe racial prejudice and to be concerned about the poor and less fortunate. Although not having a religious belief, he had a very strong moral code. Lying was abhorred and gossiping about people forbidden. I loved my father dearly and used to worry about his soul as he was not a Catholic and therefore not of ‘the saved’. This concern was the beginning of my questioning my faith in the Catholic Church and its teachings.
When I was fifteen I went with my Catholic school to Rome, and visited St Peter’s and Castel Gandolfo (the Pope’s summer residence) where we celebrated Mass with Pope John the 23rd. I thought it was the most wonderful moment of my life, but strangely it was directly after this experience that I began to question all my long-held beliefs. Shortly after this trip I left school and worked in a solicitor’s office as a telephone answerer/tea maker. This office (not there anymore) was right next to the Catholic Cathedral of St. David’s in the Centre of Cardiff, and I used to go there almost every lunch break and pray for answers. I used to pray ‘O God I am an atheist please help me’. My sole comfort was the words of Christ ‘Knock and it will open, seek and you will find’.
For a number of years I continued in my search for answers, speaking with priests, my parents, friends, neighbours, work mates and so on, in fact anyone who would listen; but no-one could help. Then one day the mother of a friend, Mrs Sawyer, having become fed up with my incessant questions about God and the Universe, said “I can’t help you but Ernie’s dancing partner up the Club is interested in these subjects” (she and her husband Ernie were regulars at the Home Guard Club on our council estate of Ely). “I’ll arrange for her to come around to meet you.” Good as her word, Mrs Sawyer asked her friend Doreen to come to her house and we met in her kitchen the following Sunday. My life changed from that moment.
Doreen was in her mid-forties and the mother of five children. She and her family had recently suffered a terrible tragedy. Her 14-year-old son Peter had accidentally electrocuted himself connecting a live extension lead to a tape recorder, and had died in front of her. This tragedy had prompted a search for answers about the next life, the purpose of life, and the existence of God.
After that initial meeting she invited me to continue our discussion at her home which was just around the corner from where I lived. She said she had a son, Vivian, who, although an atheist, liked to join in such discussions. So the next Wednesday I went to the first of many meetings in 245 Heol Trelai, Ely, and it was there my spiritual search took off.
Over the next two years the three of us studied together many things which were completely new to me. It was Doreen who opened my mind to the station of Muhammad and to Buddhist teachings and the Hindu scriptures. I became absolutely enthralled and was open to all new thoughts and ideas. Among other subjects, we looked at Theosophy with Madame Blavatsky, the Occult with Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, the teachings of Krishna Murti, Christian Science, Spiritualism, and Astrology. Doreen would read out pages of interesting subjects to me and I loved it!
A book that had a great effect on me at that time was called In Tune with the Infinite by Ralph Waldo Trine. He wrote about the ‘Golden Thread’ (the spiritual teachings) that ran through all great Religions. Also one of my great interests was the subject of life after death and I read a number of books on the subject. The one I found really fascinating was Through the Mists by the well-known spiritualist Robert Lees.
I clearly remember Doreen asking me if I would like to go to a meeting on the Bahá’í Faith. She told me she had seen a newspaper advertisement 18 years ago (1946), liked what she’d read and never forgot the name Bahá’í. I happily agreed and Doreen and I attended that Public Meeting.
The speaker was Zebbie Whitehead and he spoke about Bahá’u’lláh and His teachings. For me the jigsaw pieces fell into place and many of my questions were answered. We were invited to a fireside the following week at the home of David and Barbara Lewis.
We found out later that David and Barbara Lewis had just returned from a Bahá’í pilgrimage to Haifa and had prayed at the Holy Shrines that two people would attend their next Meeting in Cardiff and, in fact, about six new people came. As well as Doreen and me, another person from Ely (our council estate) came along and in fact lived in the same street as Doreen. His name was Stan Lane and he had once been the Welsh body building champion. He too became a Bahá’í but died just a few years later of a heart attack.
When we arrived at the room where the public meeting was to be held, the door was opened by a very old man who welcomed us in with a broad smile. He was the first Bahá’í I had ever set eyes on, and his name was Charles Dunning. I was to discover later that Charles Dunning had a great spiritual station; he was a Knight of Bahá’u’lláh and was held in great affection by Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith.
At that time in my life I was going through what could only be described as a ‘Gothic’ phase and all my actions and language were very dramatic. At that meeting I was dressed in black, had long black hair and lots of black eye makeup. After the talk I decided to ask the speaker a question that was all a part of the same ‘attitude’. When I asked rather aggressively “What do you think of the Occult?” the speaker replied “We do not meddle” then turned his attention to other people who at least outwardly appeared more receptive. Then a young girl (Joy Card/Sabour) came over to me and asked “Do you have any questions?” to which I replied “What are your beliefs about the next life?” I was very happy with her reply, and when invited to a fireside I agreed to go with Doreen.
It was at this fireside that I met Charles Dunning again and he said to me a number of times “You’ll go to Orkney, lass, you’ll go to Orkney”. I didn’t pay much attention as I thought it was just the ramblings of an old man but I found out later that he was the Knight of Bahá’u’lláh to the Orkney Islands and the first Bahá’í to pioneer to Belfast and had deep spiritual connections with these places.
My enduring memory of this fireside is David Lewis telling the story of the martyrdom of the Báb which had a lasting effect upon me. Doreen had requested a book written by the Founder of the Faith, Bahá’u’lláh. They wanted to give her a book about the Faith but she insisted on a book by Bahá’u’lláh, so she was given the Kitáb-i-Íqán and two weeks later said “I believe Bahá’u’lláh is a Manifestation of God”, declared her belief and joined the Bahá’í Community.
My interest in the Bahá’í Faith was going to be a big test for my mother. I had stopped going to Mass which was a huge blow to her. However, I decided to show that the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh were having a positive influence on me and so I made a great effort to change my behaviour. I tried to be less selfish and to be more considerate to my sisters and less reactionary in my language.
Not long after attending the regular firesides I was invited by David and Barbara to go to a Bahá’í Summer School in Harlech, North Wales. When I asked my parents’ permission to attend, my mother said she would have to ask the priest. On hearing the request he inquired if I had been brought up as a Catholic and if I understood the Catholic teachings. When the reply was “Yes” he said “Let her go then, and she will come back appreciating her own religion more”.
I went with David, Barbara and Erica (whom I shared a room with) and had a wonderful experience. David was so funny and I laughed a lot! Years later I realised no money had changed hands and that I had been their guest.
At this time many ardent Bahá’ís were desperately trying to get me to enrol. I knew Bahá’u’lláh was the Promised One but my plan was to wait until my mother made some acknowledgment that I had changed. So one Saturday morning whilst having a cup of coffee together, she said “You have really changed over the past few months Rita”. I thanked her, went around to Doreen’s house and said this was what I had been waiting for and that I would enrol on her (Doreen’s) birthday in two weeks’ time, Dec 17th 1966.
On becoming a Bahá’í, Doreen fully participated in all the activities and as well as attending firesides, held them weekly at her home. I really enjoyed meeting new people and especially attending the many day and weekend schools where inspiring talks were given and a higher vision constantly presented. Doreen’s son Vivian was initially very challenged by his mother joining a religion and changing her lifestyle, such as not drinking and partying. He came to the meetings to challenge but eventually found himself defending the Bahá’í Faith. Then one evening during a fireside meeting at his home in March 1966, encouraged by Sally Rowshan from Pontypridd, he declared his belief in Bahá’u’lláh. Over the years many wonderful souls came to 245 Heol Trelai such as Bill Sears, John Ferraby, Adib Tahirzadeh, as well as many dedicated travel-teachers.
Carl and Joyce Card very kindly took Viv and me to several day and weekend Bahá’í schools throughout Wales. I especially remember them taking us to Aberystwyth. Nora Maude and her then non-Bahá’í husband Derwent had organized this gathering. It was here we met and were impressed by an amazing teacher of the faith called Meherangiz Munsif. She was a force to be reckoned with!
Charles Dunning passed away in Cardiff on Christmas Day in 1967 and was buried next to Peter (Viv’s brother). That area is now a Bahá’í burial spot.
The council estate we lived on had other Bahá’í’s living there. One elderly lady that Viv and I visited often was Mary Fuller. She had been a friend of Rose Jones (the first Bahá’í in Cardiff) and had once been a ‘deep-trance medium’. It had taken her 15 years to become a Bahá’í as she had been deeply involved with the Spiritualist Church. We found her really sweet and hospitable with many interesting stories to share.
From the age of 18 to 20, I attended Drama College in Cardiff Castle and was on fire with the Faith, talking to everyone about Bahá’u’lláh and reading The Hidden Words to all and sundry, mistakenly thinking that everyone would be as enthusiastic as I was. This unfortunately was not the reality! After Drama College I joined a professional Puppet Theatre that toured throughout Wales. I shared the Faith very enthusiastically with all the cast. Generally, people appreciated the teachings and years later, when we met up again at reunions, they all asked the same question of me “Are you still a Bahá’í?” One of my previous fellow students who asked me this question had become the Director of Social Services in North Wales!
After the Caricature Theatre I joined a company doing a series with puppets for television. The television series was Captain Scarlett and it was the production company run by Gerry Anderson. They also made the television series Thunderbirds and were based in Slough. There were no Bahá’í’s living in Slough or Windsor then, though I did once visit an elderly Bahá’í who lived in a village close to Windsor (I think it was Twyford) called Isobel Slade. She kindly gave me a lovely photograph of ‘Abdul-Bahá. She had once served on the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’í’s of the British Isles. As I was not happy working for this company and living in Slough/Windsor, after the series ended I went back to live in Cardiff.
Returning to Wales, I served on the Local Spiritual Assembly of Cardiff but didn’t have any definite plans. The National Spiritual Assembly was calling for pioneers/travel teachers to go to the Scottish Islands. At a gathering in Swansea, I overheard an elderly Bahá’í called Dee Dewar/Telfor say she felt she should go to the Orkney Islands as no-one else was arising to go there. This set me thinking, “well, if Dee can consider going with all her responsibilities (I was thinking primarily about her dog, a long haired Labrador), then I should as I am free”.
Pioneering to Orkney
Shortly after I contacted all the agencies involved, I was off to the Orkney Islands (just as Charles had predicted). I didn’t actually know where they were or how to get there, but by the grace of God, Carl Card from Cardiff was going on a travel teaching trip to Scotland, and he suggested we travel there together. We left on June 1st 1967 from Cardiff for Inverness via Edinburgh where there was a weekend school taking place.
That evening in an Edinburgh Guest House I memorised the Tablet of Ahmad ready for my visit to Orkney. Charles Macdonald from the National Assembly was the main speaker at the school and when he discovered I was on my way to Orkney he said that at noon every day he would turn his eyes to the islands and pray on my behalf for the success of my teaching activities. I felt very blessed but totally unworthy of his kindness. After Edinburgh we went to Inverness and stayed at the home of Harold and Betty Shepherd where they showed us great hospitality. I stayed another night with a couple that Harold and Betty thought would enjoy having me visit them. I can’t remember their names but I do remember he was blind and had a sweet black dog.
The next morning I was picked up by a lovely couple called Topsy and Jimmy Bennett who had volunteered to drive me to the boat at Scrabster which would take me to Orkney. It was a journey of four hours there and four hours back! This was such a wonderful service and I very much appreciated their kindness.
The boat (St Ola) docked at Stromness, then I caught a bus to Kirkwall where I was met by the Newman sisters from Wales who were travel-teaching in Orkney. They took me to the home of Jackie and Daryoush Mehrabi where I was to stay until I found somewhere to live. When I first arrived in Kirkwall I remember feeling quite scared as my first impression was of a grey, dark and oppressive place. I found it very difficult to go out and stayed indoors for nearly a week. I must have had a little glimmer of what Charles Dunning had experienced nearly fifteen years before and he was 69 when he arose to serve in Orkney. All the buildings in the town were of grey stone slate and were very close to each other, giving me this feeling of oppression. The main exception was the Cathedral of St. Magnus in the centre of town which is built with red stone and is very beautiful.
One day when still living with Jackie and Daryoush I was offered a job in the newspaper / bookshop in the Centre of Kirkwall. The owners had heard that a young Bahá’í had come to live in Kirkwall and they offered me a job. I worked in the store for six months throughout a bitterly cold winter where the wind blew up from the sea. Working in the shop and serving on the newspaper counter meant I made friends with local people and felt very much a part of Orkney life.
Eventually I found a room in the Centre of Kirkwall in 14 Garden Street. The house was owned by Willie Seatter who was a chef, and a dear man who was very kind to me. I was told that Dr Ernest Miller had stayed in the same house when he had come travel-teaching. He came first in 1958 and would come for a visit every two to three months. When I lived there a number of people were lodging there also, and I had the top room with a shared bathroom. Gradually, by getting to know the place and the people, all my misgivings went away. I always felt very safe in Orkney.
The Bahá’í Community in Orkney was growing and we had a number of visitors. I especially remember Ernest Gregory who was the Auxiliary Board member for, amongst other areas, the Scottish Islands and Iceland. Ernest inspired me with the Guardian’s vision of the destiny of the Scottish Islands and he gave me his copy of Tablets of the Divine Plan. His wife Joan also came with him. Other visitors were John and Val Morley and Phillip Hinton, to name just a few. Brian Donald was a regular visitor who played the guitar.
Not long after I had arrived in Kirkwall we had three visitors; one was a young man from San Francisco called Mike Munro, who had been waiting in London for a visa to go to India and serve the Faith there. He had taken up the offer to join Martin Beckett and Stephen Jenkerson on a short trip up to Orkney as they had a spare seat in their car. Mike said as soon as he arrived he knew this was where he should be and decided to change his plans and stay in Orkney. He went back to London and returned about six weeks later. He lived in ‘Little Gorse Cottage’ overlooking Kirkwall, which belonged to Betty and Harold Shepherd. Mike looked and sounded Californian and he used to visit a snooker club in Kirkwall to get to know local people. One time, whilst walking up the hill back to his cottage, a car stopped and the driver asked if he wanted a lift? Mike accepted and invited him in for a coffee. The young Orcadian had seen Mike in Kirkwall and had really wanted to get to know him. His name was Ian McLeod. Mike and Ian became friends and Mike taught him the Faith. Ian declared his belief in Bahá’u’lláh and then Ian’s sister Moira investigated the Faith and became a Bahá’í. They both served on the first Local Spiritual Assembly of Kirkwall.
One Saturday evening, just as the shop I was working in was closing, one of the people I knew through the Newman sisters called Ernie Bertram came hurrying into the shop and asked if I would do him a great favour. He had to rush off that evening to London as his daughter was in some kind of trouble. He didn’t want to leave his wife Violet by herself and wondered if I would stay with her for the week. Of course I agreed and had a lovely week with Violet. We got on really well and had long conversations about the Faith. At the end of the week she became a Bahá’í and not long after that her husband declared. Both of them served on the first Local spiritual assembly of Kirkwall.
The people of Kirkwall greatly respected Jackie and Daryoush. Daryoush had become a watchmaker after a terrible accident had left him paralyzed and in a wheelchair. We had a number of visiting travel-teachers during the summer months and another pioneer Adele Senior came to live in Orkney; also Colleen, Sheila and Eric King (relatives of David Hofman) came and stayed. Eventually Colleen married Ian and they had three sons.
I left Orkney briefly in December 1967 to do a month’s tour with the Caricature Puppet Theatre in Wales. When I returned to Kirkwall in January 1968 I worked as a waitress in the Kirkwall Hotel. The hours were long and for a while I saw little of the Bahá’í Community.
The formation of the first Local Spiritual Assembly of Kirkwall at Ridván 1968 was a great achievement. We had a special celebration in a hotel in Kirkwall, and Philip Hainsworth came and represented the National Spiritual Assembly.
Abdu’l-Bahá had in the Tablets of the Divine Plan directed the American Bahai’s to travel-teach to many places including the Orkney Islands. Mike’s visit as an American had certainly been a catalyst for growth. He had not only been a great teacher and an inspirational thinker but had organised a very successful Bahá’í week and had encouraged everyone to be experimental in our proclamation activities. His efforts had helped bring to fruition the devoted and dedicated work of all the previous pioneers and travel teachers to Orkney. Until he had shared the Faith with Ian and Moira McLeod, no Orcadian who had become a Bahá’í had managed to stay in the Faith. The National Assembly decided that as Mike and I planned to leave in May we could not serve on the newly-formed Local Spiritual Assembly. Mike had decided to return to California and I couldn’t imagine staying without him as we had been such a good teaching team. At lunch in a café on the day I was about to leave, a young girl I had worked with in the Kirkwall Hotel asked me to tell her about the Bahá’í Faith, so as the minutes ticked by before I had to catch the ferry, I was ardently teaching the Faith. She’d had a year to find out about the Faith from me but chose my last hour to inquire! Later she and her boyfriend became Bahá’í’s. In May 1968 both Mike and I left Orkney; he returned to America and I to Cardiff.
Marriage and family life in Wales
Viv had spent the last two years in the Merchant Navy and on his return to Wales had pioneered to Newport and was actively engaged in teaching the Faith. We were great friends and I supported his weekly firesides. I was unsure about my future plans and whilst happy to be back in Wales felt the need to pioneer again. There was an atmosphere of pioneering prevalent in the Bahá’í community at the time so once more I pioneered to the Scottish Islands, but this time to the Outer Hebrides. The plan was to form a Local Spiritual Assembly in Stornoway and I arrived there on the 19th of April. We formed the first Local Spiritual Assembly of the Outer Hebrides on April 21st 1970. The first Local Spiritual Assembly of Newport was also formed in April 1970.
Before going to the Outer Hebrides Viv and I had decided to get married (when I first met Viv at 16 I knew he was the one for me, but it took him seven years and a dream of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to come to the same realization!). I returned to Cardiff after a number of months in the Hebrides and on September 19th 1970 we were married. We couldn’t afford to go abroad for our honeymoon so went to a caravan park for two weeks. The park was in a seaside village called Rhoose just eight miles west of Cardiff, where I had spent most of my holidays as a child. We experienced a great bounty on our honeymoon as, unknown to us, a weekend school had been arranged in the same village at which Hand of the Cause John Robarts and his wife Audrey were attending. Imagine how thrilled and blessed we felt. The talks of John Robarts had a profound effect upon me, especially when he spoke about the power of the Long Obligatory Prayer and the 500 ‘Removers of Difficulties’.
The other Hands of the Cause I had the privilege of hearing speak at summer or weekend Schools were Mr Faizi who spoke about child education and Ugo Giachery who spoke about the Guardian. Dr Varqa spoke about the law of Huqu’qulláh. Also I heard talks by Rúhíyyih Khanum, Bill Sears, Collis Featherstone, Paul Haney and Mr Samandari. Each of these talks gave me a higher vision and inspired me. Altogether I met ten Hands of the Cause. Although I did not meet the Hand of the Cause Dorothy Baker, as she passed away before I was a Bahá’í, she had a great influence on me through the book Copper to Gold, the story of her life written by her grand-daughter.
About six years into our marriage Viv received the honour of being invited to serve as an Auxiliary Board member. He served with great energy and enthusiasm for nearly twenty five years and during that time, myself and our two daughters travelled with him all over Wales and beyond. This meant we were fortunate to participate in many activities and stayed with many friends and families all devotedly serving the Faith.
The community of Newport was very active and engaged in many teaching activities. We held firesides in our home in the council estate of Bettws in Newport at least twice and often three times a week with many travel teachers staying with us. We loved singing, and Viv played the guitar, so we held musical evenings in our home which many young people attended. We had a number of mainly youth declarations. Every week Christine Holden/Abbas would take a children’s class with our two daughters, and this grew into a class for the street. Our community loved to attend gatherings at the home of Siroosh and Mahnaz Firoozmand as they showed everyone great hospitality.
My two daughters Fleur and Leila were born in Newport. When I became a mother I knew this was my most important task and the best occupation. I decided to dedicate myself as a mother and so stayed at home until Leila was eleven. I then retrained in office skills but before I had a chance to return to full-time work I became pregnant with my son Kalim.
After living in Newport for ten years we decided in 1981 to do home front pioneering to the Welsh Valleys. We moved to the village of Abercarn and eventually helped form the first Local Spiritually Assembly of Islwyn. After boundary changes we became a part of the Local Spiritual Assembly of Caerphilly. Living in the valleys was a big test for me as amongst other challenges being a Bahá’í meant we were viewed with prejudice and suspicion by many of our neighbours. The Welsh valleys are very conservative and inward-looking, whereas Cardiff, my home town and only 20 miles away, was friendly, multicultural and progressive. I felt it was like living on another planet, and it took many years for me to feel settled.
Having lived in Abercarn now for nearly thirty years, I love it here. Everything gradually changed. We have many friends and wonderful neighbours, and have experienced a number of declarations. At one time we had the bounty of Claire and Habib Behi and Gawain Williams living in the house next door. They had such youthful and creative energy and were very kind and hospitable. At one time we were the only all Welsh community (made up of native believers in Wales). Over the thirty years we have lived in Abercarn we have held firesides, youth weekend schools, deepening days and deepening weekends, artistic gatherings, Holy Day gatherings, devotional meetings, childrens classes and study circles.
We went on our first family pilgrimage in 1986 when I was six months pregnant. I felt very privileged to be able to take my unborn child to the Holy places and felt this would bestow great blessings.
My son Kalim was born in Abercarn and life took another turn as he suffered intensely throughout his childhood with eczema and food allergies. Our family was severely tested seeing to his needs and Fleur, Leila, Viv and myself worked together to alleviate his sufferings. We all love Kalim very much as he has a wonderful personality and a great sense of humour which is a credit to him, as he has endured a lot through constant and chronic eczema. My three children are ardent teachers of the Faith, and during their schooldays a number of their friends became Bahá’ís.
We still continued to travel teach, visiting Holland, Sweden, Luxembourg, Denmark and Norway, Guernsey and Malta. We returned many times to the Scottish Islands as a travel teaching family, visiting Orkney, Shetland and the Hebrides.
Travel teaching experiences
When Fleur was ten, she and I went together in 1982 on a travel-teaching trip to the Isle of Skye. There were no Bahá’í’s on the Isle then and it was a goal area. We went first to Inverness where we consulted with the Local Spiritual Assembly and were given some guidance and addresses of people we might contact from previous visits of travel teachers to Skye.
We caught the train, then ferry and bus to Skye. I had booked us into a bed and breakfast in Portree for Saturday and Sunday, then at a guest house further into the island for the rest of the time. The plan then was to meet up with Marjorie Georgi and Cathie Boyd the following week at the Kyle of Lochalsh to man a Bahá’í exhibition. Then back to Inverness and home to Wales.
There were some highs and lows during this trip. Our B&B in Portree was very cold and austere. We were told to leave after breakfast and not to return until the evening. Fleur and I went into the town. It was Sunday and everywhere was closed; it was also raining and there was no-one around. I must have said a prayer for God’s assistance because suddenly a miracle happened. In the middle of an empty square I saw a brightly lit coach. We went in and asked the driver if Fleur and I could go to wherever he was heading, just to get out of the rain and into the warmth. The occupants, on hearing our request, said “Come on in, come and join us!” It turned out it was a coach full of Glaswegians on a trip around Skye; they had spare seats at the back and welcomed us in! We spent a wonderful day with them and went all over the island. They stopped at the tourist places such as Dunvegan Castle and were so kind and friendly. During the trip cheerful Scottish music was playing and the interior was lovely and warm. Then Fleur turned to me and said “This is one of the happiest times of my life!” and I thought “Thank You God!” To top it all, we were sitting behind two French tourists who, just like us, had found themselves cold, wet and alone in Portree and had asked to join the coach shortly before us. Fleur and I really bonded with these lovely girls and we were able to share the Bahá’í Faith with them. They showed a lot of interest in the teachings, we exchanged addresses and a few weeks later they sent us a postcard from France.
Another memorable travel-teaching experience happened in Orkney. During our stay we were told that Hand of the Cause Ruhiyyih Khanum was on a short visit. We were to have a meeting with her when she arrived at the home of Terry Pickles (a pioneer). After that Ruhiyyih Khanum would meet the community at the Orkney Bahá’í Centre (a house once owned by Shoghi Effendi’s doctor, Dr Froubisher).
Before these meetings I decided to do some shopping in the town. I was walking along the street when around the corner came Rúhíyyih Khánum and Violette Nakhjavani. Imagine my surprise. I went up and introduced myself as a visiting travel-teacher. Ruhiyyih Khanum said she was visiting Orkney to see where Charles Dunning had lived and served.
Although our family had participated in many travel teaching trips, one has had wide reaching and unexpected results. We decided to combine a travel teaching trip with a visit to members of Viv’s family who now lived in North Uist in the Inner Hebrides. Viv’s book Finding the Real You/From a Moth into an Eagle had been published and he was giving a talk on this subject at a Public Meeting in Benbecula. A man who attended bought the book and chatted intensely to Viv about the Faith. He had been a Major in the Army, had served in Northern Ireland and whilst there had witnessed many disturbing things. He had left the Army and was staying in a cottage his family owned in a remote area of South Uist where he had come to find tranquility and solace. He said he had been attracted to the title of the talk and looked forward to reading the book. We gave him our address and hoped we would hear from him. His name was Pelham Roberts. After a number of years we received a communication from him saying he had married and that he and his wife had started a charity in Cambodia where they were living.
Then one day out of the blue we received a phone call from Pelham. He was now a teacher in Atlantic College (one of a number of world colleges dedicated to excellence in education in an atmosphere of international understanding). Atlantic College is on the coast just outside Cardiff and was about to hold a World Religions Conference. Pelham found out that they didn’t have a representative of the Bahá’í Faith included on the programme, and when he enquired why, was told that although we had participated in many conferences in the past they had lost contact with the Bahá’í’s and didn’t have an address. He said he had our address and would contact us and invite us to attend. Viv went as the Bahá’í Representative, was introduced to the Conference by Pelham and at the introductory session Pelham spoke with great love about Bahá’u’lláh. As a result of Pelham reintroducing us to the College, we have been attending every conference since then and have met up with Pelham many times. Over the years we have spoken about the Faith to thousands of young people from all over the world. Also there have been three specially conducted tours at the Bahá’í World Center in Haifa for about nineteen students and two teachers (each trip) from Atlantic College on a visit to Israel as a part of their studies. These bounties were the fruits of our travel-teaching trip to the remote Scottish Islands!
Over the years my Bahá’í service has included serving on a number of different Local Spiritual Assemblies; being a delegate at National Convention; serving on the National Youth Committee in the early eighties (when I was in my forties!) and being a member of the Wales and the Marches Teaching Committee. I must admit I never felt my strengths were in an administrative post. An example of this was when serving on the Bahá’í group of Kirkwall I was elected as the minutes secretary. I duly found an old envelope at the bottom of my bag, scribbled the decisions around the edges and put it back in my bag where I forgot all about it. At the next meeting when asked to read the minutes I scrabbled at the bottom of my bag and triumphantly produced the same battered envelope and attempted to decipher my scribbles reading around the edges!
Then one Convention in Ipswich whilst waiting with the other delegates for the result of the election of the National Spiritual Assembly, I heard my name called. In a daze I found myself at the front of the stage having been elected to the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’í’s of the United Kingdom. I can honestly say that until that moment it had NEVER crossed my mind once that I would ever serve on the National Spiritual Assembly. My shock was immense, especially as I replaced Philip Hainsworth who had been serving on National Spiritual Assemblies in Africa and the British Isles for the last 48 years (my age when elected.)
I served on the National Spiritual Assembly for 15 years, during which time I had the privilege of participating in the election of the Universal House of Justice twice in Haifa and once from my armchair in Abercarn. This last was due to the dangers of flying near the Iraqi war zone. The votes were collected by the National Spiritual Assemblies then sent by post to the World Centre and counted by a few delegates in Haifa.
When elected to the National Spiritual Assembly in 1994 I became the first Welsh person living in Wales to serve on that Institution.
Representing the Bahá’í Faith at public occasions
Serving on the National Assembly meant that I found myself representing the National Spiritual Assembly at very prestigious occasions. My first was at a service at Llandaff Cathedral in the presence of the Queen and Prince Philip to celebrate the opening of the newly built Senedd (the seat of the Welsh Government).
Then Chris Abbas and I (she was representing the Council for Wales) attended a service, then a celebration for the new millennium, at the recently completed Millennium Stadium in Cardiff in the presence of Prince Charles, Prince William and Prince Harry.
The National Assembly hosted a meeting for Prince Andrew (who was representing the Queen during the Golden Jubilee Celebrations) at the National Office in Rutland Gate on July 11th 2002. A small selection of invited Bahá’í’s from all over the UK as well as the National Spiritual Assembly gathered in small groups in the Parvin Room and Prince Andrew circulated and chatted to each group. He made a comment that as he had come as the Queen’s representative this signified that the Faith had reached acceptance in the eyes of the British Establishment. He signed the visitor’s book before leaving, saying he had enjoyed meeting us and remarked that he hoped that the Bahá’í Faith would continue to grow and prosper.
Another role I had was to take the letter To the World’s Religious Leaders from the Universal House of Justice to the Welsh clergy. Firstly Chris Abbas and I met with the Archbishop of Wales Rowan Williams, just before he took up his post as Archbishop of Canterbury (the first ever Welsh Archbishop of Canterbury). Then secondly Chris and I presented the letter to the Catholic Archbishop Peter Smith, in Cardiff. A few weeks later Kathryn Delpak and I travelled to Chester to where Barry Morgan (later Archbishop of Wales) and the other bishops from the six dioceses of the Church in Wales were meeting for a conference. They were very appreciative and listened attentively as I gave a synopsis of the letter. They joined us for tea and the Bishop of Swansea spoke very highly of the work of John Butler with the homeless in Swansea. John should have been with us that day but unfortunately was sick and unable to attend. We presented the Welsh as well as the English versions of the letter, and the Welsh language version was much appreciated.
An unexpected opportunity came my way during the year of the Queen’s Golden Jubilee. I was invited to represent the National Spiritual Assembly and UK Bahá’í Community at the celebratory service in Westminster Abbey. When walking towards the Abbey clutching my official Invitation and feeling inadequate for such an honour, I called upon Martha Root for spiritual assistance as she had been the one to introduce Queen Marie of Romania to the Bahá’í Faith. Arriving at the Abbey I made my way to the entrance for religious representatives, but was then told that visitors must go to a different entrance. Rising to my full stature I announced that I was in fact a representative of a major religion. It seemed that as I was not a man and not dressed in religious attire they assumed I was a visitor. After my invitation was read and my status confirmed, I was duly welcomed in. After the necessary security scan I was told to go to the Robing Room to put on my robes. I explained that in fact I was already dressed for the occasion and would not be wearing any robes. When taken to the room set aside for the religious representatives I discovered they were indeed all men, and mostly wearing robes!
Next the Deacon of Westminster Abbey, dressed in full fancy attire and brandishing a large and very ornate shepherd’s crook, came to give us the order of the ceremony. He informed us that all the dignitaries were seated waiting for the Queen and the rest of the Royal Family. Then to my shock he announced to all that Mrs Bartlett will lead the religious representatives through the length of the Abbey to the special seats laid out opposite the Royal Family. He then informed us that at the end of the service he would give me a sign and I was to stand up as a signal that the service was over and all the other religious representatives would follow my lead. We would then leave the Abbey through a side door and wait for the Queen and the Royals to meet and greet us. Thank God I had called upon Martha Root!
During the service I thought a lot about Queen Marie and Martha Root as I looked down the nave. Behind the Royal Family were seated all the crowned heads of Europe and their relatives. After the service we were greeted by the Royal Family, who shook our hands. We shared with them how honoured we felt at being able to participate in such an important occasion. Some descendants of Queen Marie of Romania introduced themselves to me as members of her family. One princess said she was Queen Marie’s granddaughter and another that she was her great-grandddaughter. I was able to share with them how much the Bahá’í world revered and respected Queen Marie and how honoured and happy I was to meet her as Queen Marie’s granddaughter. We spoke for a few minutes and it was a very warm and friendly exchange. As she left she said that she would like to get involved more with the Faith. I related this to the National Assembly and I believe a soirée was held for her by Guilda Walker a few months later.
Queen Marie’s great-granddaughter asked me if I had thought about her great-grandmother during the service and I was able to confirm that I had. She said “I thought you would”, and then mentioned that she had recently read a newly-published Bahá’í book about her great-grandmother. Once again I repeated that the Bahá’í world held her great-grandmother in high esteem and how happy I was to have met her and her mother today. She was very pleased to hear this.
Another great privilege came to me when asked if I would attend a ceremony in May 2007 at Buckingham Palace. This ceremony was to present a specially minted coin to the Queen from a prestigious organisation called the ‘Three Faiths Forum’ for her support of the different Faiths in the United Kingdom, especially in her Christmas messages. When I arrived at Buckingham Palace there were lots of tourists watching the Changing of the Guard.’ I went to the Main Gate, handed my invitation to the heavily armed guard and was invited to pass through. It all seemed very surreal with so many people watching me walk through these hallowed courtyards!
I was the second of the religious representatives to arrive, so was able to welcome the others when they came and to introduce myself as a representative of the Bahá’í community. Many of the religious representatives spoke very warmly of visiting either the Bahá’í World Centre or the Lotus Temple and a number had recently attended the funeral of Shamsi Navidi and held the Faith in great respect.
We were ushered up the Grand Staircase to the Music Room where we were told of the format of the ceremony. Our names would be called and one by one we would go through and curtsey and shake hands with the Queen. There would be a few speeches thanking the Queen, then the presentation of the medal. As we stood in groups of three or four, the Queen would then circulate and chat. Before we left we would have the opportunity to speak again individually. It was then that I assured her of the love of the Bahá’í Community. She thanked me, gave me a lovely smile and seemed quite touched.
We gathered afterwards at the music room and a BBC team interviewed us and some small snippets were shown in the programme The Royal Family.
To end I would like to share an amusing story that in some way sums up my life!
One time when travelling in Scotland I was asked to represent the National Spiritual Assembly at the formation of a new Local Spiritual Assembly. After the formation of the Assembly I was chatting to an older lady (I was now blonde and smartly dressed for such an occasion) who said to me “I met a Welsh girl who was a Bahá’í. She stayed with me many years ago. She was a funny young thing (meaning strange). I have often wondered what happened to her”. I replied “Did she have long black hair worn in two plaits, was very dramatic and worked with puppets?” “Yes” she said, “do you know what happened to her?” I answered “I certainly do; she stayed in the Faith, got married, had children and was eventually elected to serve on the National Spiritual Assembly. That young girl was me!” She was astonished! We really laughed at this.
I am so grateful that my weird and wonderful young self of the sixties had possessed the courage to be different and kept asking the right questions that led me to Bahá’u’lláh and His never-ending bounties.
Abercarn, Wales, March 2012
Editor’s note: Rita passed away on 11 December, 2013