Growing up in a Bahá’í family
I was seven years old when my parents, Earl and Audrey Cameron, first found the Faith. My father’s childhood friend, Roy Stines, had arrived in London to attend the Centenary of the Bahá’í Faith being held at the Royal Albert Hall.
My father had, for some years, been searching for the true meaning of life: he had unanswered questions – why are we here and what was our purpose? He had been filming a Tarzan film in Thailand some months before and had found himself drawn to the Buddhist temples in Chiang Mai where he spent many an hour praying and meditating and asking God the purpose of our existence.
It was on his return to London just a few months later that he received the call from his friend, Roy Stines, asking him whether he would like to attend a Conference at the Albert Hall. My father was at first reluctant, believing this to be just another ‘fuddy duddy’ religion, as he put it. Roy assured him that this was different, to which my father replied ‘they all say they’re different’. My mother felt that as Roy had taken the trouble to invite him and that he was from his home (Bermuda), that he should go and so it was that my father found himself at the Royal Albert Hall on that fateful night.
As soon as my father walked into the huge auditorium and saw the diverse mixture of races, he was completely enthralled by the atmosphere and the spirit of love in that vast hall. He did indeed know then, that this was different and he returned home full of excitement and joy at what he had discovered, desperate to share the evening’s events with my mother. On his return home, he spoke to her about the meeting and all the radiant people he’d met, and my mother, too, became excited about the Faith.
My father learnt from Roy that there was a Bahá’í Centre in Knightsbridge at 27 Rutland Gate where weekly meetings were held. They looked up the address on the map and decided to attend one of these meetings. Soon afterwards Roy went back to Bermuda, and his sister-in-law, Rosalyn Stines came to London and met with them and encouraged them to go to a meeting. After about four months of attending some of the meetings at Rutland Gate they both became followers of Bahá’u’lláh. It was quite a big step for my mother as she was of Jewish background and her parents were very strong in the Jewish Faith. Her grand-father had been a well-known rabbi in London. As for my Dad, he was from a Christian background but certainly would not have referred to himself as a Christian, although as a child he went fairly regularly to church and to Sunday School. It was less than a year later, after my father’s introduction to the Faith at the London Congress at the Royal Albert Hall, that my parents became Bahá’ís.
Being a Bahá’í
I remember thinking as a child that being a Bahá’í was different, but in a good way. As a family, we got the chance to travel around the country, attending conferences, one day schools, summer and winter schools, both in the UK and overseas, as well as having our weekly firesides. There was never a time when I thought ‘this isn’t for me’, in fact it was quite the opposite. I was and, of course, still am, enormously grateful that my parents found the Faith. Growing up, there was never a doubt in my mind that I would not be a Bahá’í – it was simply a natural progression from being a Bahá’í child to a Bahá’í youth and, later, a Bahá’í adult. It was the same with all my siblings.
I never felt deprived in any way or embarrassed to be a Bahá’í as a child. I was proud of being somewhat unique in that I believed in something that was infinitely precious. Not only did it bring our family together, it meant that we had something in common and created a unity that we may not have had otherwise.
At the time of my parents’ declaration, we were living in Richmond and it was decided that we should move into the Kensington & Chelsea community so that there would be less travelling to our school, the French Lycée, which I and my siblings were attending (with the exception of Philippa who was not yet born!) With my father often away filming, it was down to my mother to find the family accommodation and she was particularly skilled in this area. I often think this was due to her Jewish background as very rarely did she take no for an answer! By some miracle, she found a very large flat above a bank in South Kensington for which we paid a paltry rent simply because the bank manager, for security purposes, wanted a family to inhabit it. However, there were some hiccups prior to our moving in. It was pouring with rain on the day of the move and we arrived at our new flat in a Pickford van, looking forward to being settled into our new home. My father went into the bank to pick up the keys. He introduced himself to the Manager, saying “I am Mr Cameron and I will be living upstairs with my family above the bank”. The Manager very hesitatingly said “You are Mr Cameron?” with a hint of surprise, and my father said, “That’s correct”. He said, “Just a minute” and disappeared for a lot longer than a minute. It was in fact twenty minutes. Having spent so many years in England, my father knew what his problem was and he also knew that all agreements had been signed and accepted. It was a very wet November afternoon with the rain pouring down outside and all our furniture on a very big van with my mother and us four children waiting to move in and, to top it all, he had a very bad cold with a slight temperature. But there was no stopping my father!
After the twenty minutes came and went, Dad called one of the staff in the bank and asked what was going on. He was asked politely to wait a minute and then also promptly disappeared. After a couple of minutes, the Manager reappeared and my father asked him what the problem was. He replied, “Oh, there is no problem”, with a very red face and handed over the keys. My father knew he had them over a barrel, so to speak. When the rental agreement was signed, it would not have occurred to them that the Mr Cameron referred to would be a man of colour! How times have changed with the advent of Bahá’u’lláh, but even in the 1960s, racism was fairly prevalent. Strangely enough, after a few months, my father got on extremely well with all the bank staff and, of course, the subject concerning the keys never came up again.
My parents chose an international school, mainly, I think, because I, too, had encountered racism as a child when I attended a kindergarten school in Barnes and a note was sent to my parents saying that ‘I wouldn’t fit in’! Ironically this happened again when I joined the Brownies! Soon after, my parents got to hear through an actor friend about the Lycée Français, which was attended, we were assured, by multicultural pupils. To them, this seemed like a godsend and we were immediately enrolled. Sure enough, we never encountered any racism or bullying at the Lycée and being a Bahá’í did not really raise any eyebrows because of the diversity of the pupils attending.
I never had any problem with letting my school-friends know I was a Bahá’í. In fact, some years later, one of our au pairs and an ex-boyfriend became Bahá’ís, after learning about the Faith from me and other Bahá’í friends, and attending firesides in our home.
Our new home at 113 Old Brompton Road had become a hub for many visiting Bahá’ís, both from the UK and further afield, and we had the bounty of having the Taherzadeh family stay with us on numerous occasions, as well as many other Bahá’ís. We also regularly attended the Feasts and watched as the community grew and became a thriving Local Spiritual Assembly.
My mother became our children’s class teacher at the Bahá’í Centre soon after we started living in South Kensington and I remember us walking from Knightsbridge station through Brompton Oratory to the Bahá’í Centre every Sunday. Our fellow ‘classmates’ were, amongst others, Shoreh and Shohab Youssefian, Irene Momtaz, Parvin Afnan, Winnie and Alwyn Lutchmaya, and Javid and Roxana Djalili.
Home Front Pioneering
After three years living in South Kensington, my parents decided to home-front pioneer to Ealing where there were seven Bahá’ís and they made up the nine. My mother was secretary of the Ealing Bahá’í community for many years and, for a time, my father was Chairman. We were to live there for nine years and every Friday, without fail, we would hold a fireside which would be attended by up to 60 people, both Bahá’ís and friends of the Bahá’ís. My mother would make dinner for those who wished to come at 7 p.m. and at 8 p.m. the fireside would begin. Distinguished attendees included Hand of the Cause Enoch Olinga, Joe Jamieson, and Charles Macdonald, amongst others. I have fond memories of my beloved mother cooking the fireside dinner still in her coat when she returned from work. In fact, my mother became very involved in organising coaches filled with Bahá’ís to various conferences throughout the country, as well as helping to organise the yearly Ealing floats.
I remember one memorable evening when we invited famous actor, Sidney Poitier, to a dinner at our home. He had been a good friend of my father’s for many years and had shown some interest in the Faith. We invited Charles Macdonald and his wife, Yvonne, and, sure enough, the discussion turned to the Faith. I was so in awe of this tall, handsome man, sitting in our living-room, having been dropped off in a huge limousine, that I ended up doing a biography on him for a College project!
Life at 24, Deena Close in Ealing had fond memories for us, but we did experience some racism soon after we moved there: One Sunday, we had an Iranian Bahá’í family over to our place for the afternoon. We kids and their three children were all enjoying ourselves playing outside in the front of the house and in the garden. Deena Close was in a cul-de- sac and very safe. It was a very nice visit and it all went very well. An hour or so after they left, Dad found a brown envelope which had been pushed through the letter-box. He opened it and inside discovered it was from No. 25 (our next door neighbour), saying how he and his wife had invested a fair amount of money in buying their house and they did not intend to allow their neighbourhood to be turned into a slum. It was an incredible insult, particularly as the husband and father of the family who were visiting us was a highly qualified doctor of law.
My father showed the letter to my mother. His first instinct was to go over to his neighbour’s house, bang on his door and give him a piece of his mind. But then he thought that as this man had written the letter, he would have to come round and take up his ‘issue’ with him.
On the following day, my father did nothing other than spend the usual time working in the garden in the evening. There was a fence between our neighbour’s garden and ours. As our neighbour was out in his garden at the same time, he could not help seeing my father. Neither of them said anything. Then, on the following day, he could no longer contain himself and called out to Dad, “Oy”. As Dad’s name was not “Oy” he ignored it. Then, realising he was not getting a response, he said, very politely, “Earl, is it possible to have a talk?” My father slowly walked over to the fence where he was standing on the other side, looked him straight in the eyes and said, “I have nothing to talk to you about and don’t you ever put any of your filthy literature in my letterbox again. And don’t say one word to any of my children”. (He had been telling my brother, Simon, where he should leave his bicycle).
His face turned very red and all he could say was “it’s a pity you feel this way”. “Let me tell you something”, Dad said. “I did not buy this house for people like you to tell me or my family how we should live or who we should invite to our house. You mind your own business and we will mind ours”. Naturally, he was not expecting this kind of a reaction and Dad had to let him know that he was not some little guy who could be pushed around by a group of pathetic racists. My parents had learnt that a few people on the estate (our neighbours at No. 32 and No. 14), as well as he and his wife, had been getting together for whatever reason best known to themselves to discuss, presumably, keeping the estate ‘white’.
Six months later, he and his wife sold their house and moved out. Within eighteen months, the cost of all of the houses on the estate had increased to three times their original price. While I write this, the houses on that estate are worth well in excess of £450,000. When we moved there in 1967, they cost just over £10,000.
My parents thought that attending the French summer schools, which we did for many years, would help our French language skills and enable us to interact with the French Bahá’í friends. This was a great idea and one which we thoroughly approved of, except that they had forgotten, in their selflessness, that they didn’t speak a word of French themselves! No matter! During sessions, the beloved friends would sit with them at the back of the room and translate what was being said. Usually, by the end of the summer school, they would have acquired a few French words which they would test out on us, much to our hilarity. I still remember my father calling out ‘pyjama’ when it was time for bed with quite an acceptable French accent!
Move to Welwyn Hatfield
After nine happy years in the Ealing community, both my parents felt that the time had now come to make a move and go to an area where we as a family could be of greater service to our beloved Faith and so we decided on Welwyn Hatfield as they needed Bahá’ís there to make up an Assembly.
We found a house in Bell Bar, near Potters Bar with four bedrooms which suited us fine. We knew it would not be difficult to rent our house out at Deena Close and this would cover the rent in our new place.
Whilst we were living in Bell Bar, I had the bounty of being invited to go to Iran for a three week holiday, staying with a Bahá’í family. The year was 1977 and it was the year before Ayatollah Khomeini was to return to Iran from Paris where he had been exiled. I was lucky enough to travel around Iran with the family and their friends and was able to visit not only Tehran, but Isfahan, Nur, Racht, and wonderful Shiraz where I was incredibly blessed to be one of the last Western visitors to see the House of the Báb before it was destroyed. I met with Mr Afnan and, while we sat, talked about our beloved Bahá’í community and drank tea in the beautiful garden with the orange tree, he said ‘I will pray for Hatfield’. Soon after, I returned to Hatfield, and we had our LSA!
Pioneering to the Solomon Islands
My parents had always wanted to pioneer overseas and, as a film actor, my father had filmed on location in various countries in Africa; however, each time, we considered the opportunity to pioneer, there were various reasons why the time wasn’t right, mainly because of our schooling. However, by this time, I and my siblings were of an age where transferring our education overseas would not be so much of an issue, so the time was opportune!
We had become friendly with Counsellor Suhail Ala’i through his mother and he suggested that we might want to pioneer to the South Pacific. He had been made aware of an ice cream business up for sale in the Solomon Islands and he was on his way to International Convention and, if this was of interest, he would discuss the proposition with Bruce Saunders, a member of the NSA of the Solomon Islands. Of course, we were intrigued and, after receiving a letter from Bruce, together with details of the ice cream business that was for sale, my parents decided that my father should go out to see whether we could make a living out there.
The asking price for the business was USD23,000. It was a big risk as my father had not ever had any previous experience of running a business. This was a major step and Dad was beginning to think of ways of getting out of this and making his way back to the UK where he felt a lot more secure. Bruce invited him to his house to meet the owner, an American by the name of Fox who had started the ice cream business some years before, but had gone into shipping, had become a millionaire and was now living in New York. It was a coincidence that he was visiting the Solomons at that time. After being introduced to Dad, he said: “I believe you are interested in buying the Dairy” (its former name). “Well, yes and no”, Dad replied. “Your price is far too high”. “$23,000 is a reasonable price”, he said. “What price do you have in mind?” he asked Dad. “My offer is $11,000”, said Dad, realising that he would not even consider it. He said, “There is no way we could accept that price”. And it was left at that. And Dad thought, “Now I can return to England knowing that at least I had made the effort.”
A couple of days later, Dad got the news from his Manager that they had decided to accept his offer. It was now a matter of when and how Dad would pay the $11,000 and it was now in the hands of Alf Shultz, the Manager of the shipping company who asked the big question “How will you be paying?” Dad said: “Within a couple of months, when I go back to the UK and sell the house.” This took him by surprise. “I thought you were able to pay for the premises now”, he said. “I did not agree to do this”, Dad replied. “Well, we will just have to put the place up for sale again as we are not prepared to wait until you sell your home in England”. “That’s OK”, Dad replied, seeing another opportunity to get out of this venture.
A few days later, Mrs Blum, Bruce Saunders’ mother-in-law, who had been in the Solomons for a number of years, agreed to put down a deposit of $5,000 to stop the business from going back on sale. Dad now had no choice but to keep his word and buy the business. There was now nothing left for him to do but go back to the UK and get down to the job of selling the house.
My father’s next priority, however, was to learn how to make ice cream. He got in touch with Reading University through a friend who told him that they did an ice-cream-making course there. A five-day course was more than sufficient.
Six months later, after his return to England, the house was sold and Dad was on his way back to the Solomons, to start our very own ice cream parlour!
The people of the Solomons are very friendly and easy-going. They have a great sense of humour and a great sense of loyalty to their job, certainly this was evident in our business. It is in a very remote part of the world, with a good proportion of its inhabitants travelling outside of its borders. Many Solomon Islanders walk around in bare feet and it was not unusual to see the Prime Minister browsing the market-place bare-footed on a Saturday morning. We all really loved the people there, especially appreciating their wonderful sense of humour.
After meeting the Bahá’í community and being warmly welcomed by the friends, my father was voted onto the Local Spiritual Assembly, and later onto the National Spiritual Assembly. There is a very nice Bahá’í Centre in Honiara where we would meet for our Feast every nineteen days. Before and after every Feast, there would be some singing and guitar playing. Almost every local Bahá’í could play the guitar and the Bahá’í meetings were a great delight – there was so much love pouring out from the friends. Indeed, many of the Bahá’ís could barely read, but they loved the Faith. There were also many learned Solomon Islanders who had recognised this great Message brought by Bahá’u’lláh and were extremely dedicated to the Faith.
Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands, is situated on the island of Guadalcanal. The first Bahá’ís to go there were Alvin and Gertrude Blum who were originally from New York and a very energetic and go-ahead couple. For a number of years, they served the Faith very well and helped to build a strong community there. The Solomons had been a British Protectorate for many years and there would have been a small community of English people in various administrative jobs when they arrived. During the war, the Americans fought quite a fierce battle against the Japanese. There is quite a big harbour in Guadalcanal which is called Iron Bottom Sound because of the many ships that were sunk there during a very big naval battle. During the 15 years we spent there, there was a bomb disposal unit searching for unexploded mine bombs and at least three times a week you would hear a bomb go off which had been detonated. As we know, there are so many parts of the world where wars have been fought and millions are being spent to help detonate these bombs.
During our time in the Solomon Islands, we held regular firesides and went out teaching to the outlying villages. Our little ice cream business proved to be a good little earner and enabled my siblings and myself to travel back and forth from Europe to the Solomons. Both Simon and Helen were at Glasgow University by this time and I, after working in London for about six months, joined my parents the following year, and soon after got a job at the National Bank of the Solomon Islands where I remained for a couple of years. In 1982, I married a Scottish logger and one year later, on 15th June 1983, our gorgeous daughter, Louisa, was born at No 9 Hospital, after a 9 hour labour and at exactly 9 a.m.!
Bahá’í International Community, Geneva
Sadly, this marriage did not last, and after two years together, we separated. Soon after, I learnt from Gerry Knight, a Bahá’í working at the Bahá’í International Community in New York, that they were looking for a secretary to work in their Geneva arm. I jumped at the chance as it was an opportunity not only to serve the Faith but use my knowledge of French in the process. And so it was that I found myself at Geneva airport with just Louisa (nearly three years old) and a suitcase. We were met at the airport by Gianni Ballerio who was married to May Hofman at the time. They very kindly arranged for me to stay with a Swiss Bahá’í in Geneva whilst they organised the paperwork for me to start at BIC. Although I was excited at starting work there, deep down I was concerned that as it was only part-time, how would I make up the financial shortfall as I was shocked at how expensive the cost of living was in Switzerland. But I thought, ‘leave it in the hands of Bahá’u’lláh, He’ll sort it out!’
After a month or so of staying with Martine, I received the disappointing news that my work permit had been declined. I thought ‘what do I do now?’ I was alone in Geneva with a toddler. I needed to earn my living and I didn’t particularly feel like returning to the Solomons with my tail between my legs. Sue Hansen, who also worked at BIC suggested I could try one of the UN agencies, of which there were plenty. I suddenly remembered that I had worked for WHO in the Solomons on a temporary basis some months before coming out to Geneva and thought, ‘Of course, I could try WHO, the UN or many of the other agencies based here’. On contacting some of them and going for interviews, I was offered WHO, the UN and UNHCR, but chose WHO because I liked the building! I was to go on to spend five very happy years in and around Geneva, regularly attending the many Bahá’í activities and being welcomed lovingly by the wonderful Bahá’í friends and pioneers.
Gradually, though, I started to miss the Solomons and home and my job was becoming more and more stressful and was starting to affect my health, so I decided, albeit reluctantly, to return ‘home’. By this time, my mother had moved temporarily to Singapore so that Philippa could complete her schooling there, so I decided to join them. I enrolled Louisa in the French School of Singapore so that she could continue with her French (as this had turned out to be pretty much her first language) and I was able to secure a teaching post at a language school. We all stayed there for a year, and returned to the Solomons so that Louisa could start at Honiara International School.
Back to the Solomons
Some months after we arrived back, Philippa was offered a place at Mountview Drama School in London and it was agreed that Philippa and my mother would return to the UK so that she could study drama, the love of which she had no doubt inherited from my parents. About 15 months later, my mother discovered she had breast cancer which came as a great shock to us all. My father immediately returned to the UK for nine months to be with her, leaving me in charge of both the Boutique my mother had been managing and the ice cream business. Dad returned to the Solomons for the purpose of closing down and selling the business and our house. After a few months of being back, he got an urgent call from my sister Serena saying “Mummy is very ill and you should come as soon as possible”. He booked a flight and was back in England within a few days. Five days later, our beloved mother passed away, which was a traumatic experience for us all.
It was agreed that my brother Simon, who later went on to marry a wonderful Solomon Islander who worked for me in the Boutique – by this time I had taken over my mother’s business – would remain in our home in the Solomons, and my father would return to the UK for good for a well-earned rest. The family is still scattered, however, with my sister, Helen, husband and three children in China, myself and Serena and Dad in the UK, Philippa, the youngest in Australia and my daughter, Louisa, in Addis Ababa.
The first time I went on pilgrimage was with my daughter, Louisa. She was about 2½ at the time. My sister, Helen, had been working there for some months, so I had the opportunity to stay with her and visit the Holy Places, doubly blessed! Words can’t express how wonderful an experience it was, as every pilgrim can testify. I was also incredibly fortunate to have the opportunity to serve there for about four months, babysitting some of the children in the morning and helping out in the offices in the afternoon. We had a beautiful flat close to the Shrine of the Báb. I remember one morning whilst I was in the kitchen, going out into the living-room to check on my daughter and realising that she wasn’t there. I checked the whole flat to see if she had gone into the bathroom and realised, with a sinking feeling, that she must have gone out of the front door. I am not sure, to this day, how she managed to open it as she was barely three years’ old, but this was the only way she could have got out of the flat. Racing down the stairs, I saw this tiny blond-haired toddler walking purposefully down our alley, already quite a way ahead of me. Rushing up to her, I shakily said, ‘where are you going?’ Very firmly and with her little face full of determination, she said ‘Báb Shrine, goin’ Báb Shrine’. Heaving a sigh of relief and marvelling at the strength of her motivation, I said ‘Wonderful that you want to go, but do let me know next time so that we can go together!’
Fast forward some 25 years and Louisa is on her third international school, and is about to finish her contract at Sandford International School in Addis Ababa. She starts her new role as an Early Years teacher at the British School of Beijing in August this year.
Wedded in Warwickshire
After moving from London to Warwick where I served on the Local Spiritual Assembly, Louisa and I moved to Nuneaton where we stayed for a year. Towards the end of our time there, I met John and we had a wonderful wedding at the family home of a Bahá’í couple we were close to, attended by many of the Nuneaton friends. Their generosity towards making the wedding such a special day for us has never been forgotten.
John and I are about to celebrate our 10th anniversary and we live in a village in Northamptonshire. We have held regular Devotionals in our home and attend Bahá’í activities in different parts of the county. Though not a Bahá’í, John remains a staunch supporter of the Faith and has even done his first Ruhi book – I’m keeping my fingers crossed!
Our family has travelled to many parts of the world, and had many ups and downs, but best of all, we found the Bahá’í Faith. What more can we ask for?
Jane Cameron Sanders
Northamptonshire, June 2012