I was born on 31 October 1922 and was brought up in the Christian faith. At the age of 15 I became disillusioned with the dogmas of the church. What was meant by the Trinity? Was I supposed to believe that bread and wine literally became the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ? Was the virgin birth fact or fiction? No answers to my questions satisfied me and I ceased to go to church and proceeded to find my own answers. After much thought I came to certain conclusions which I put into words, at the age of 19, in the following poem:
Doubt DispelledOnly darkness, deepening darkness, dull despair, Can there be a Great Creator comes the whisper thro’ the air? Can there be a God All-Seeing, loving, caring, Pardoning, pitying, showing mercy, sparing? Is the hand of Love outstretched to bless? Or is this world the home of wickedness? O ye of little faith, why do you doubt? Why do you lock your heart to keep your Saviour out? Where is your faith, your hope, your love That you thus question God above? Only look at nature and you’ll see God, in every flower and plant and tree. Not in the dark and smoky town Where the street lamps burn when the sun goes down. Not near the factories bustle and din, Not among drinking and gambling and sin But, out in the open on mountain, in wood, That’s where God’s presence is understood. Where the whispering leaves and the babbling brook Tell you more than a man-made book. Where the heather, the gorse, the wind on the moor The waves and the spume and the gulls on the shore Fill you with wonder – then doubt fades away For God’s in His heaven they everyone say.
Having come to the conclusion that God existed, I then asked myself: Do I believe in Jesus Christ as the Son of God? Again my investigation resulted in believing that Jesus must be what He claimed to be. I did not, however, return to the church. I felt that Churchianity and Christianity were not synonymous. I often thought that I needed to look for something, some sect which was for me, but the effort of investigating every sect of Christianity to find the truth seemed more than I could undertake. So I did only one thing. I prayed. The only prayer I knew was the Lord’s Prayer but I added one sentence of my own or I thought it was my own at the time even though it seemed to me to be an odd thing for me to say.
“O God, guide me to the straight path.”
No immediate guidance was forthcoming so I followed my own form of religion until 1952 when, conversing with my sister Irene Bennett, I learnt of something which seemed to me to make sense. She had read the book Bahá’u’lláh and the New Era and told me about this strange Faith. I was interested but didn’t think it was to change my life. Irene, however, was so intrigued by what she read that she lent me the book saying that she wanted to know what I thought about it. The book was put on one side, of no interest to me. I was too disillusioned by religion to want to waste time reading the book. My sister, however, was persistent, saying “I want to know what you think. Please read it to the end and let me know.” So one night when my husband, Harold Shepherd, was on late duty, I picked up the book saying to myself “I’ll read this book and then tell Irene it’s a load of rubbish.” I began. I read and read, becoming more and more excited as I proceeded. This is what I believe. This is what I ask of religion and when I reached chapter 11, I stopped. I sat spell-bound and it was as though a shower of golden lights above me sent down sparklers and a voice in my head said: “This is IT.”
I waited for my husband to come home to tell him that I had found something wonderful. He thought I had gone mad and told me to go to bed. Next day I wrote to my sister and told her I wanted to be a Bahá’í and asked her what she thought about becoming a Bahá’í, but at that time she felt that it would be deserting Christ.
My next step was to find a Bahá’í, and one night I knocked on the door of Louis Ross Enfield, the Chairman of the Local Spiritual Assembly of Manchester, and learnt that meetings were held every Tuesday in Albert Joseph’s premises. I began to attend, thinking that I wasn’t good enough to be a Bahá’í and that they might not accept me. After about six months from first reading about the Faith, I learnt that there would be no trouble in being accepted as a Bahá’í and all I had to do was to write a letter stating my belief and I was in. One day when I was trying to tell Harold how much the Bahá’í Faith meant to me, he said “Oh go and be a Bahá’í then.” I wasted no time, wrote my letter, and became a Bahá’í in November 1952.
I was absolutely certain that if only I could persuade Harold to read Bahá’u’lláh and the New Era he would accept the Faith as readily as I had done. How to achieve this simple thing, however, became a problem. The minute I opened my mouth on the subject I was told not to mention it again. All I could do was pray for his enlightenment. In the meantime my sister Irene had gone to Kenya and, learning that a Bahá’í called Ted Cardell was in Nairobi, I sent his address to Irene and she contacted him. This became the turning point in her life and just before the Fast of 1953 she declared her belief in Bahá’u’lláh. All her letters contained news of her teaching work there, in East Africa, where she penetrated Mau Mau country, sometimes alone in her car, to meet Ali Nakhjavani and Philip Hainsworth, who were achieving such wonderful results in Uganda. These letters did nothing to dispel Harold’s antagonism to the Faith and I was forced, in order to keep a happy atmosphere in my home life, to ask Irene not to mention the Faith in her letters.
This continued for several years and I was unable to take a very active part in the Bahá’í community although I was a member of the Local Spiritual Assembly of Manchester. After attending several firesides Harold grew to know the Bahá’ís and in 1956 agreed to go to a Bahá’í Summer School in Glyncliffon, Wales, and from this point his attitude changed. In October of that year, while recovering from a bout of flu and therefore not feeling his usual energetic self, he picked up the book which I left lying about where he would see it and he read Bahá’u’lláh and the New Era. I knew nothing of this and one evening, having contracted the flu myself, I asked Harold to phone the Local Spiritual Assembly to tell them I couldn’t be at the meeting. I didn’t hear the phone lifted and soon realised that Harold had gone out. I dragged myself out of bed in order to phone myself. Imagine my astonishment when I learnt that Harold was with them handing in his letter of declaration! It was my birthday and the best birthday present I could have been given.
The Ten Year Crusade was half way through and the Home Front Goals were listed in the Bahá’í Journal. One day as I looked at the list, one town appeared to me to be in 3 dimensional print. It was Inverness. I said to a Bahá’í friend sitting with me: “I’m going to Inverness one day.” I didn’t dare to mention the idea to Harold who had worked night and day in order that his family should have everything they needed and at last he could take things easy. We had all we needed. Not long after this, Hugh McKinley came to Manchester and stayed at our house. I told him about my experience of Inverness and asked him if he could sow a few seeds in Harold’s mind. I think he must have done this very successfully for not long afterwards we were visiting Inverness to see if a move there would be possible.
Teaching Conference in Blackpool, 1958, was the turning point. Ernest Gregory ‘auctioned’ all the goal towns and all were taken by would-be pioneers except Inverness and Aberdeen. I turned to Harold and said – is it possible for us to go to Inverness? – and we agreed to make every effort to go. Everything seemed to be against us. My teaching qualifications were inadequate for Scottish Education, and Harold saw no hope of getting a job, but we went, took our tent and explored all possibilities. I had given in my notice to the Manchester Education Committee and my school at Chorlton Park held a leaving party for me. No one could understand my reason for leaving and all had tried to dissuade me. Where will you live? What about the education of your children? Isn’t the risk too great? But I knew that Inverness was for me and that Bahá’u’lláh would solve all my difficulties. The headmistress commissioned one of her staff, Mr Chambers, who wrote poetry as a hobby, to write a poem for me, and this was the result:
Lament for the ShepherdsThere’s a staff Who have quite forgotten what it’s like to laugh. And the cause of their concern Isn’t very hard to learn, Mrs S. We must confess We don’t want to see you go to Inverness. Good Scots food We’re afraid you’re going to find it’s rather crude Eating porridge by the ton, We’re quite sure can’t be much fun Sticky mess We must confess We don’t want to see you starve in Inverness. Mrs S. No more to see your bike will cause distress As you rattled through the yard (A little late, but going hard) Oh what a mess We must confess Are you sure you want to go to Inverness? Then there’s Ann She did her acrobatics with élan, Though she may have bent the bed Trying to stand upon her head It’s a mess We must confess We don’t want to see her go to Inverness. Brian too * Even if he missed the “cuck” he hit the “oo” Though his practice for the band Often got quite out of hand We must confess It’s a mess For there ain’t no wood notes wild in Inverness. In a tent! Well it’s true it’s not so hard to find the rent But if Harold’s any nouse he will build you all a house. What a mess We must confess We don’t want to see you go to Inverness. So here’s to Annie Laurie, And heather on the brae But we’d rather Betty Shepherd Would change her mind and stay.
Alan McGonagall Chambers
* ref. to his playing the cuckoo in the Toy Symphony
But we went, pitched our tent in Inverness, and all else fell into place. By the end of the first week we had purchased a house big enough to use as a Guest House. The Director of Education had promised to see me when I finally took up residence in Inverness and by October 1959 we were installed ready to take in guests in 1960. However, before January 1960 I had been offered a teaching post which I kept until September 1972 when, once again, the call for pioneers changed my abode once more and Harold and I went to Uganda.
To tell all the events that led up to the formation of the first Assembly in Inverness and all our experiences in Uganda would take a book. Suffice it to say that many miracles carried us safely through to our final destination in the Orkney Islands.
Orkney, November 1990
[Betty passed away on 25 August 2016.]