How I became a Bahá’í
As much time has passed since I became a Bahá’í some of my memories are a little hazy and possibly even incorrect. I will try to recall them as accurately as possible. For some reason I seem to have fixed in my memory Easter 1964 for the time that I first came across the Bahá’í Faith although I can’t remember why. I `declared’ in February 1965 and I know that I was investigating the Bahá’í teachings for about a year before I decided to move on from Christianity and accept Bahá’u’lláh as God’s Manifestation for this age. I do know fairly clearly the processes that prepared me for accepting Bahá’u’lláh and I can vividly recall the seriousness with which I took the decision.
I was born in Swindon, Wiltshire, in 1948 and in 1955 moved to Burnley in Lancashire, which is where I became a Bahá’í ten years later. My father was from Swindon and my mother was from Burnley. They had met just before the war while on holiday in Blackpool and, by coincidence, were both from devout Methodist families and both practising Christians themselves. In Swindon I regularly attended the Sunday school and services at Ferndale Road Chapel and in Burnley I attended Wood Top Chapel in Florence Street with all my Burnley family which was my sister, my maternal grandparents, my mother’s sister and her husband and my two cousins. As I got older I sometimes read the lesson from the pulpit and went with my father to different chapels where he was the guest lay preacher. At Wood Top there was a very lively youth group and after service we would get together to talk, play harmless games and listen to pop music till very late. Being brought up among Methodists in the fifties and early sixties I never heard adults using bad language and very rarely came into contact with alcohol. On reflection it was a very innocent and spiritual lifestyle and very simple. As a young teenager I had, relative to my peers, a very highly developed sense of moral responsibility. I remember going door to door campaigning for Billy Graham and I remember deep discussions on moral issues with my parents. In essence I had a deeply held belief in a God of whom I was a little afraid and a longing for social justice in the world.
In 1963 when I was just fifteen, my mother informed me that she had suggested I become a member of the newly formed Burnley Young Socialists. It was being formed by the daughter of a work colleague of my mother’s and, more out of politeness than zeal, she had offered to encourage me to join. I went along and quite enjoyed the group’s activities. We were given some derelict rooms above a Co-op shop to decorate for our meetings and we spent a lot of time discussing trade unionism and world socialism.
Our first major campaign was for the release of Nelson Mandela in South Africa. The group became very bureaucratic and I was soon tempted away by some of its members to join the newly formed Burnley Association for the Arts. This is where I first heard about the Bahá’í Faith and in my memory the Arts Association was the source of an explosion of youth declarations. Almost every young person in the group became a Bahá’í, however temporarily. I know that by 1965 there were over twenty youth in Burnley and many had been connected in some way with someone in the Arts Association.
As far as I know, the Bahá’í Faith came to Burnley through Abbas and Shomais Afnan when Abbas was appointed Deputy Medical Officer of Health for the town. Apparently he had lent a book to a hospital worker, who took it more out of politeness than interest, but his friend’s children showed a great deal of interest. They were Michael and Margaret Cleasby and they were both members of the arts group. At the same time an old friend of Michael’s, Derek Cockshut, had moved back into town from London and had got a flat. He too was a member of the Arts’ Group. After the meetings of the Arts’ Group in the Friends Meeting House in Brierfield, the members would go to the pub opposite and it was here that Michael, Derek and others would discuss the Bahá’í Faith. These discussions raised my curiosity. Derek’s flat became the centre of all night firesides at which the Bahá’í Faith, world problems and Derek’s poetry were endlessly discussed. Then a Persian student, Fuad Monadjem, moved into Burnley and rented a house in Coal Clough Lane. This also became the centre of regular firesides. It was here I met Rouhi Araniwho was training as a nurse in Burnley. She later pioneered to Aberdeen where she met and married Farhang Afnan. They now live in Wembley and our children, Payam and Fiona, are very good friends with their children, Jalil and Manijeh.
My most enduring memories of those times were the frequent meetings, often several times a week, all weekends and often all night. Another memory is the importance of walking. I remember walking miles to and from firesides and those walks would be an extension of the discussion. Particularly walking to and from Peter and Carol Fothergill’s both in Burnley and at Fence. They later pioneered to the Scottish Islands (both to the Shetlands and later to Orkney). At weekends the group would get together and walk in the surrounding countryside, particularly the moorland, and these too would be mobile discussion groups. I read very little about the Faith even though I was studying for `O’ levels, preferring to listen and talk. The one book I liked was All Things Made New by Hand of the Cause John Ferraby. One day I went to Fuad’s house only to be asked if I would go to town and meet John Ferraby and bring him back to the meeting. I was in awe of him, having enjoyed his book so much. I did all this on the bus. Mr Ferraby talked to me about architecture.
The Burnley firesides had a steady stream of visiting speakers, some of whom had travelled great distances to be at the fireside. I particularly remember Aldi Robarts, son of Hand of the Cause John Robarts. I especially remember him speaking at the home of Phoebe Brown. He lived in or near Newcastle but came several times to Burnley. I also remember accompanying Betty Reed to catch the bus to Manchester and having a long conversation with her while we waited for her bus to leave. At that time she was secretary of the National Spiritual Assembly and later became a Counsellor for Europe. As youth we also made frequent visits to Manchester, either to the Bahá’í Centre on Wilmslow Road or to a regular fireside in Didsbury at the home of Jimmy and Ruth Habibi. These meetings we would travel to by bus. A group of us would catch the Manchester bus, which took an hour, and in Manchester catch the bus to Didsbury. I remember we used to pass a travel agents in Manchester that had in it a picture of the Shrine of the Báb. One of my particular friends was Shahram Mottahed who lived at the Bahá’í Centre and was studying for his ‘A’ levels. He was very good at card tricks. I remember youth events in the basement and remember meeting Erica Lewis there (later Erica Leith).
The catalyst that determined me to ‘declare’ was a visit to York Winter School in January 1965. A friend, Barry Watson, called round late in the afternoon and asked if I fancied going to York for a few days? It was short notice but I threw a few things into a bag and off we went. I remember the bus that crossed the Pennines from Burnley to Halifax had ice on the inside where the condensation had frozen. As we sat in Halifax bus station waiting for our connection to Leeds, freezing cold, I began to wonder why on earth I had agreed to go? Needless to say, the winter school had a profound effect on me and it was only a matter of time before I ‘declared’. The person who influenced me most at the winter school was Bahiyyih Nakhjavani. I knew nothing of her illustrious family. She was at boarding school with May Hofman in Dolgellau in mid-Wales. Both their fathers were members of the Universal House of Justice elected for the first time just under two years before, in 1963.
My main problem in ‘declaring’ was my parents, who were deeply upset at the idea of me leaving Christianity. In the end I decided to ’declare’ in February without telling them. I declared at a fireside at the flat of Marion Whiteley, who later married Michael Cleasby (and is now Marion Pollitt). When my parents finally guessed that I had become a Bahá’í they were very upset. My experience was shared by many of the young Bahá’ís in Burnley and so the Spiritual Assembly decided to book a room in the best hotel in town and invite parents to meet with mature Bahá’ís from other communities. Philip and Lois Hainsworth, George and Elsie Bowers and Joe Jamieson attended. My parents were particularly impressed with Joe Jamieson who had become a Bahá’í in 1948 and who had been a Methodist lay preacher previously. For most of the parents, meeting respectable, mature Bahá’ís, put their minds at rest and it was a totally successful idea.
In the summer of 1965 I attended the summer school in Colleg Harlech. It followed a youth summer school in Berlin that I was meant to go to but for some reason I didn’t go. A group from Northern Ireland was in Berlin. Also in the party was Lesley Gibson (who was to marry Adib Taherzadeh and then later Paddy O’Mara) and others whom I do not remember. As a result, I made a few visits to Belfast and befriended Barry Leach. Also Christine Leatham (later married to Ian Wemyss. She passed away in 2008 in Pershore, Worcs). Denis McKeown was also there in Belfast as a student. I also made a tour of Southern Ireland. I stayed with Gillian Phillips in Limerick and she gave me a copy of The Seven Valleys which I still have today. Then I went to Cork and stayed in the home of a very gracious elderly lady whose name I forget. The Irish Bahá’ís would know. From there to Dublin where I stayed at the home of Philip and Jane O’Brien. Lesley was also there and I met Rosemary McGill (later O’Mara) and her mother Dr Margaret McGill and Zebbie Whitehead. I was in Dublin as a friend of John Bohlig, a youth who pioneered to Dublin from America. (He later became inactive or left the Faith when he returned to the US).
During these years in visiting various weekend schools I befriended Peter Jamieson who lived in Newcastle. At a visit to Dalston Hall near Carlisle for a weekend school I remember Peter being asked about his father. I was so surprised to find that his father was a Bahá’í, not realising he was the son of Joe Jamieson. I also visited Carlisle and stayed in the home of John Twiname. Fuad Sabour was there and he had broken his leg by being run over on a zebra crossing. Many years later when I was in conversation with Noreen Tehrani in Rutland Gate about our stories of our past I began to realise that on one trip to Dalston Hall I had gone with her and other youth back to her family home in Port Carlisle. She had a tiny car and I think we were five in the car.
Also during my time in Burnley I volunteered to visit Leeds on a regular basis. A teaching committee of some description asked people if they could commit to visiting other communities that needed support. I went regularly on the bus to Leeds. They had a little Bahá’í centre which was probably rented. It was very small. Shahin Fatheazam and his fiancé, who was not then a Bahá’í, would host the meetings. It was while I was carrying out this little project that Philip and Lois Hainsworthmoved back from Uganda and set up house in Horsforth, near Leeds. Philip took me under his wing and I would bus over to Leeds and meet Philip and go with him to other communities. I particularly remember going to Sheffield with him. I remember Una Cowardin Sheffield and many years later, while living in Northampton, discovered that Una had pioneered to Sheffield from Northampton in the early fifties.
Another car story is that on one of my visits to Leeds, Derek Cockshutarrived in a hire car with Roger Prentice and Arthur White. They had been to Sutton Coldfield for a weekend school and had been up all night and then come to Leeds. On the way back to Burnley I sat in the front seat and in those days cars had hinges on the outside of the door. Derek caught the hinge on a parked lorry at some speed and the door concertinaed. I turned round to see Roger and Arthur hugging each other. Back at the car hire place Derek was able to convince them that it was all their fault as the car was faulty.
In the summer of 1966 a group of us went on a youth project to Cornwall. There were four of us and we stayed in the home of Naomi Long in St Agnes. My future wife, Mina, also got to know Naomi as from Cornwall she moved to Cardiff to run the YWCA. Allan Carter was also in Cornwall and soon after died in mysterious circumstances falling from a cliff. The project was non-existent but we did get to meet Bernard Leach at a Feast. I also met Bob and Margaret Watkins who were visiting and on my way home to Burnley I stayed with Malcolm Lee’s sister in Exeter, Barbara Anderson; Susan Golden Kilford (‘Goldie’) in Winchester and Bob and Margaret Watkins in London. They took me for my first ever visit to the Guardian’s Resting Place.
Another memory is teaching conference at the Midland Hotel in Manchester. It was there several years in a row and always immediately after Christmas. I remember this because one year a big group of us went straight from York Winter School. I think it was at that meeting, partly because of the large group of youth, the attendance reached one hundred for the first time. There was a cheer at the news. Amazingly in 1978, just twelve to thirteen years later, over a thousand people gathered to listen to Hand of the Cause of God Rúhíyyih Khánumat Alexandra Palace. It was in the Midland Hotel that I saw a small, shabbily dressed man and as it was my nature I went over to him, shook him warmly by the hand and said, “Hello. I’m Kevin Beint.” He said, “Champion, champion, I’m Charles Dunning.” About three years later my future wife, Mina Rowshin, who was living in Cardiff, chanted at his funeral. She had regularly visited him in Cardiff and heard the stories of how the children in Orkney used to follow him down the street and call him names and throw stones at him. Many years later one of those children became a Bahá’í. Also he had told her that as a nurse it was important for her to stroke the forehead of patients and recite the Healing Prayer. Later still stories came out of how Shoghi Effendi had showered love on this Knight of Bahá’u’lláh when he visited Haifa.
As well as frequent visits to Manchester Bahá’í centre and the firesides in Didsbury I befriended Frankie Durairatnam who lived in Oldham and often stayed with him. Anne Parker from Glasgow also lived in Oldham. Frankie pioneered to Stafford where he still lives. Another Bahá’í I remember from Manchester days is Mike Blyth who eventually ended up in North Wales where he still lives.
Sometime while I was in Burnley I was asked to give a talk at York Winter School. I have no idea why I was asked. It must have been a plan to encourage new Bahá’ís. I based it on sections of Some Answered Questions by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. I dread to think now what it was like. I was so nervous that before the talk I noticed that my tie was resting in the soup. Hand of the Cause of God Abu’l-Qasim Faizi was in the audience and gave me encouraging nods and smiles. Later he gave me a big bear hug.
I finished my ‘A’ levels in the summer of 1967 and was not sure what I wanted to do as a career so I took a year out and joined Community Service Volunteers. At first they sent me to a children’s home called Quarrier’s Home at Bridge of Weir near Glasgow. There were a lot of students there entertaining the children for the summer. From there they sent me to Leicester to help in a school that had received a large influx of Asian children expelled from East Africa. I had no idea what I was doing but it was this experience that gave me the idea of becoming a teacher. The main Bahá’ís in Leicester were Aramesh and Dianne Mahbouby, Basil and Barbara George, Hilary and David Lewis and William Prince and his sisters Gwen and Mary. They lived at 148 London Road and most of the meetings were in their house as they had turned one room into a Bahá’í Centre. Barbara had met Basil while she was doing a year out in St Helena and Basil, a St Helenian, was now studying at Scraptoft College in Leicester to be a teacher. He later became director of education in St Helena. Many years later their daughter, Tara George, came to the UK to study and serve as a Bahá’í.
I remember one event when Aramesh and myself and Basil and Barbara went to visit Elizabeth Morley at her brother’s house in Barrow upon Soar. There was a flood and we finished up pushing Aramesh’s little van through the water. In Leicester I lived at the YMCA. The summer of 1968 I returned to Burnley and set about applying for university and teacher training colleges. During that summer Hand of the Cause Bill Sears made a tour of the UK and I attended several of his meetings, particularly in Kendal and Birmingham. He came to Burnley, especially to meet the young Bahá’ís there and we met in a Chinese restaurant and had a meal together. He encouraged youth who were thinking of studying to study in goal towns. In those days the Bahá’í Journal published a list of goal towns with nine little boxes. The boxes were filled in to show the number of Bahá’ís there and how many more were needed to form an Assembly. A place that had no boxes filled in was Bangor in North Wales. I knew it had a university so, following Bill Sears’ advice, I moved to Bangor. My parents were on holiday so I left them a note on the kitchen table saying I had moved to Bangor. I was just 20 at the time.
Kevin Beint, April 1990
Revised January 2012