Back in 1966 – when I was a naïve 16 year old (shucks – now I’ve given away my age!) I was living in the United States for a year as an exchange High School student. For a young girl from Hove, Sussex it was quite a culture shock, and although my American family were extremely welcoming and kind, I found the whole American way of life quite different! It was during that year – mid way through the ‘swinging sixties’ with their sexual and political upheavals – that I was to come across the Baha’i Faith.
My background, as an only child of a Church of England Headmaster in rural Sussex had been safe, loving and protected. I enjoyed school greatly – being taught for 4 years by my father, and was given every opportunity to learn the piano, travel, and question everything. My parents had survived the war; Dad had been in Burma with the RAF fighting the Japanese, and my mother a driver in the London Fire Service in the Blitz, so they were relieved to be alive and safe after what they had both gone through. Life in the 1950s and ’60s was good. As a child at Sunday school I repeatedly asked our local Vicar why there were no women vicars, or in fact, very few women MPs, or surgeons. I found it very unfair. As a young teenager I began to question the inequalities of different life styles, and started to learn about different cultures and religions, whilst I continued to go to the local church and was confirmed. When at the age of 16 I was given the opportunity to go the United States as an Exchange Student for a year, I jumped at the chance to get away from this ‘safe’ haven and see the ‘real’ world, and despite the financial difficulties my parents sent me off on the trip and prepared to welcome an American 17-year-old girl into their home as my replacement for a year.
My American High School in rural Massachusetts was huge, and I found it quite strange that all the black students had to be ‘bussed in’ from Boston city 40 miles away (to make up the necessary quota of coloured students) – and that these black students were not permitted to participate in the same sports, music and drama activities. I also couldn’t get my head around the fact that water-fountains in the parks were for ‘whites only’, and although black young men were being sent off to Vietnam to fight and indeed die for their country, it was only the white boys who seemed to get any honours or recognition. Black athletes were winning all the races but not given any rewards. There were still reserved compartments on coaches and trains for ‘whites only’, and the only jobs I saw black people doing were menial ones. We had no black teachers in our school. Back home, in rural Sussex, I had not come across any racial problems. There had been a couple of Kenyan girls at my Grammar School back in the UK, who had been ‘kicked out’ of Kenya by Idi Amin, and I had made a point of being friendly to these new girls who arrived in the UK with nothing. We had interesting conversations about their faith (Islam) and for the first time I had begun to question my Christian upbringing.
Meanwhile, in Massachusetts there was another exchange student from Kenya – a big black guy called John – who was considered an ‘honorary white’ because of his being on the exchange programme, He and the other exchange students like myself, another girl from England and a girl from Norway, were a select group that were taken out and around to see different parts of the state and asked to give talks to groups about our backgrounds and home life. John was allowed therefore to take part in activities that other American black students couldn’t do. For example, because of his height he was an asset to the basketball team and allowed to travel on the ‘white’ bus to their games, whereas other black students on the team had to make their own way. I found this so distasteful and argued with the sports teacher that they were a team and should all bond together on the same bus. But it was not allowed. John was a happy-go-lucky chap who didn’t want to make a fuss and just accepted it, but I was quite upset about it.
Martin Luther King had given his famous “I have a dream” speech a couple of years earlier, and in my American Civilisation class we had studied this. Racial tensions were rife all over the States, with student riots and demonstrations, and politicians not doing very much to sort out the issues – or so it seemed to me. My host family – a well-off white Catholic family – were extremely generous, but, I felt, quite narrow-minded, and we often had serious discussions about race, religion and the discrimination that I saw everywhere. My conscience had been stirred by the unjustness of such discrimination. These feelings have remained with me all my life – whether it is sex or age discrimination, or disability discrimination which I later was to work through during my time in the Civil Service in the 1990s, helping to write the Employers’ Guide to Disability for the 1996 Disability Discrimination Act.
For my seventeenth birthday, my American host family took me with them on a trip to Chicago. It was November, very cold and wet – and after doing the usual tourist spots in Chicago, for some reason we went out to the Baha’i House of Worship at Wilmette on a tourist bus. We walked through the lovely gardens (in the snow) and I was impressed by the architecture of the building (who wouldn’t be!) – but at that stage in my life I was not looking for a new Faith. Still, I picked up some leaflets, took some photos, and walked through and out. I do remember being impressed by the “World is one Country” maxim and the fact that there should not be any discrimination between the sexes or races. But in our haste to catch the bus back to the city, I couldn’t spend any further time exploring the book shop.
After graduating from American High School, I had to return to my old Grammar School in Hove to complete my A levels, and then went to college. While there, I met my future husband Den. We married in my local church in Hove, and I began work in Winchester Library. Den was also working in the Library Service, and began investigating religions. He came across mention of the Baha’i Faith in a book and contacted the National Office for more details. When they came, and he showed them to me, I remembered my wintry trip all those years ago and said “I’ve got some leaflets on that”, and pulled out some rather tatty leaflets. We were put in touch with the unforgettable David and Barbara Lewis, and also met the Newman sisters – three lovely Welsh ladies who lived in Winchester. We started attending firesides. Den read Gleanings, The Book of Certitude, and The Hidden Words and was quickly convinced that this was what he’d been looking for. I took a bit longer, but the Faith’s principles were, I felt, unarguable, and they’ve stayed with me as we’ve moved from Hampshire to Wales, back to Hampshire, then Hertfordshire and finally Norfolk. I particularly enjoyed reading God Loves Laughter by William Sears, and that clinched it for me. Our families were probably unsure about the changes in our religious views, but they were supportive. I remember David Lewis telling my father about the Faith, and explaining that it wasn’t so strange to believe in a new Messenger of God who had originated in the Middle East – after all, Jesus hadn’t been born in Cardiff! (Although both David and my father had in fact been born in Wales!)
Today, fortunately, the world is more in tune with the different races. Athletes are all able to compete together, and discrimination of all kinds (at least in the civilised parts of the world) is at least legislated against. Men and women can compete equally for jobs. They are – as the Baha’is writings tell us – the two wings of a bird. The Baha’i Faith has shown me that now is the time for us all to put aside our petty differences and work together for the benefit of all humanity and world peace. For me, my religion is very personal, I believe everyone has the right and opportunity to study and make up their own mind, and I cannot – and will not – ‘force’ my faith on anyone, but if they ask why I am the way I am then I will willingly speak about the Faith.
I just wish I had taken the time to explore the Faith in more detail and in depth on that cold November day in 1966 and not ‘wasted’ several years.
Wendy Reader – Norfolk, February 2012