I was brought up as a Catholic but was, for many years, dissatisfied with the dogma of the Catholic Church. Nothing seemed to make any sense to me.  When I was a teenager I began to investigate other religions, i.e. sects of Christianity.  I joined all sorts of churches, from the Mormons to the Salvation Army: as far as I was concerned if they had good singing I would join.  While studying ophthalmic nursing I lived in Cadogan Gardens – in fact probably only a few doors away from where ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was the guest of Lady Blomfield.  Little did I know who had walked those streets before me?

Some years later I went to live in Guernsey and in the local newspaper saw adverts with the word Bahá’í.  The name attracted me, especially when much later in the same newspaper there was a photograph of an Indian lady wearing a sari together with an article about the Bahá’í Faith.  All was revealed.  This was a religion while begun in Iran was predominantly Indian, or so I thought.  Later in the newspaper I read an article about the Iranian Revolution and the persecution of the Bahá’ís in that country.  I was incensed.  Nobody should be persecuted for any of their beliefs, let alone their religion.  This bothered me, a lot.

A few months later there was to be a public meeting organized by the Bahá’ís about the Bahá’í Faith.  I decided to go.  Curiosity got the better of me.  I didn’t know what to expect.  In fact, I had second thoughts about going, but since I was already at the venue I decided to open the door of the meeting room. I was surprised, but very pleased to see my homeopath, Sandra Jenkins, and Adele Stevens-Cox whom I had seen from time to time at various auctions.  The film being shown was By Way of the Gate.  At the time I didn’t think much of it.  I wonder what I would think if I saw it now?  The young man visiting the island and showing the film was Viv Bartlett.  I had a conversation with him and it appeared that when I was a district midwife in Cardiff he and his wife and their families lived in my area of responsibility.  It was quite likely that our paths crossed more than once.  Close to my flat in Cardiff lived David and Barbara Lewis.  With those people around me I didn’t stand a chance!

The following week I borrowed Hand of the Cause John Ferraby’s book  All Things Made New from the library.  I can’t say I agreed with all of it, but I found myself at the next Bahá’í fireside, and the next, and the next, and as I had questions, so there were answers, answers I couldn’t dispute.  It was only a matter of time.  I signed my card on November 26, 1982 or 1983; I don’t remember the exact year.

I don’t think my life changed in any significant way after becoming a Bahá’í.  My family has never understood, neither do they want to understand, my being a Bahá’í: they are not hostile, merely indifferent.  My friends, on the other hand, have been without exception fully supportive, though not at all interested in joining.

As a Bahá’í on the island of Guernsey I was always busy.  For a small community we seemed to be fairly active most of the time.  We had a Local Spiritual Assembly so there were regular Assembly meetings, 19-Day Feasts were always well attended, holy days, deepenings, firesides, public meetings and radio broadcasts.   We organized a Cross Border Conference with friends from England and France that was not only a lot of fun, it gave birth to lasting friendships.

In 1985 I made my first Pilgrimage: surely a highlight in any Bahá’í’s life.  Pilgrimage was not what I expected, in fact; I don’t know what I expected.  My first visit to the Shrine of the Báb was a hair-raising experience.  I didn’t know what awaited me and I most certainly was not prepared.  I walked straight in and walked down to the front and began to look about me.  Suddenly, I felt as though I was being pushed quite forcefully out of the Shrine.  I turned and ran out, tears streaming down my face.  I think the Báb was telling me something.  Since then I have made sure I am as prepared as I can be before entering the holy Shrines.  About 1986 I was appointed Assistant for the Channel Islands, my Auxiliary Board member being the wonderful and unforgettable Paul Booth.  Also in 1986 I had the added bounty of singing in the choir at the opening of the House of Worship in New Delhi India.  This was yet another highlight in my Bahá’í life.

In January 1989, after the call from the Universal House of Justice for pioneers to open those countries not yet open to the Faith, I went to Lithuania to try to find a job that would allow me to get a work visa.  My maternal grandparents were Lithuanian and this enabled me to get a visitors’ visa for five days.  Through my translator I made it known that I would like to find work so that I could live in Lithuania for about three years.  My translator was quite taken-aback.  “Nobody wants to stay here for three years. Why?” She asked.  At that time it was Soviet Lithuania and I was unsure what to say so I said I thought it would be interesting to learn about the county my grandparents had come from.  This was good enough.  Rita, my translator, took me to several places to enquire about work but nobody was interested.  To be honest, I wasn’t too disappointed because I didn’t think I wanted to pioneer to Soviet Lithuania.  I just didn’t like what I saw.  However, after being interviewed by a very powerful lady who later became the first Prime Minister in independent Lithuania, on my last day I found myself at 5.30pm being offered a job teaching banking English to bank employees (I had been working in banks for several years), and at 7.30pm that same day I was on the train back to Moscow for my flight to London.

A few months later found me installed in Lithuania.  I realized that I had no qualifications to teach even conversational English so I took a correspondence course in TEFL from a college in Scotland while in Lithuania – I was afraid to leave in case I couldn’t get back, a course I not only thoroughly enjoyed but from which I learnt a great deal.

Life as a Bahá’í in Soviet Lithuania

Finding people to talk with was not a problem; I was a foreigner and most people wanted to know why I was in Lithuania.  Giving the Message was also not a problem: the problem was knowing when to speak and when to keep my mouth shut.  Never the less, in September 1990 we built the first Local Spiritual Assembly of Vilnius.  One amusing incident occurred when a seeker who had been reading the only literature I had – The Promise of World Peace and the booklet about August Forel and The Bahá’í Faith, both in Russian (I had no literature in Lithuanian), came to see me to return the booklets because she really wasn’t interested in the Faith.     I misunderstood and welcomed her into the Faith.  I believe she thought it maybe was OK, and since I had said that she could leave the Faith if she so wished she didn’t say anything, just smiled.  She is still a member of the Vilnius community.

Being without literature in the local language was a big drawback, but in spite of this the numbers grew although some of those early believers have moved away from Lithuania: two dear friends have passed away but their daughters are stalwart Bahá’ís as are their husbands.  On the whole the others have remained steadfast.  In September 1990 we built the first Local Spiritual Assembly in Vilnius.

Life in Independent Lithuania

Following the Moscow coup in August 1991 and the subsequent independence of Lithuania, among other Soviet Republics, it became possible to reach out to other areas.  We had help from two pioneers from Canada, Ted and Janine Taylor who settled in Kaunas in 1992 and set about teaching the Faith with great energy and enthusiasm.  Later, when they had returned to Canada and I had moved to Kaunas I was astonished at the number of people to whom they had given the Message of Bahá’u’lláh.  So many people knew of the Faith in less than a year, the time Ted and Janine spent in Kaunas.  When I moved to Kaunas there were two local Bahá’ís.  A pioneer from the United States, Tom Keedy arrived at the end of 1991 and settled in Klaipeda in a school teaching post.  Tom left for the US in May 1993 and that left Klaipeda closed to the Faith.

I went by rickety, broken down Soviet bus to Klaipeda spending the night in a cheap, cold hotel.  It was possible at that time to give talks about the Faith in the various schools of higher education and in this way I made contacts.  Then travel back to Vilnius or later Kaunas either by rickety bus or by train with broken windows and a fair smattering of drunks.  Travelling by local transport was cheap in those days so I just bought all four berths in the compartment and locked myself in, not opening the door until I had reached my destination.  I did this journey every two weeks for about two years, but not until a friend from Vilnius moved to Klaipeda with his family having been offered a position as a cardiologist at one of the hospitals there did the Faith really open in that city.

Around the mid 90s a retired husband wife team, Patty and Eugene Van Zanten joined us from Alaska.  This devoted couple spent time in Vilnius and other towns; in fact, they went to wherever and whenever they were asked.  Eugene played the guitar and was never seen without it on his back.  Whenever you saw the Van Zantens you heard singing.  Patty and Eugene stayed in Lithuania for about ten years spreading the Message to all who would listen, and to some who didn’t want to listen, before returning to their family in the USA.  In 2004 a retired lady from Germany, Doris Katzenstein moved to Lithuania, settling in the small coastal town of Palanga.  Doris has made many friends, and although hampered by the lack of speaking the local language gets the Word out to whomever she comes into contact.

There were travelling teachers from time to time but two especially stand out in my mind.  One was Emil Lou, a medical student from the US at that time studying in Marseilles, and the other, Firozeh Gruber from California, a young lady who had just finished her medical studies.  Both these young people brought to this pioneer such joy and companionship as is difficult to imagine.  I cried when they left.  On occasion one or two Polish friends would join me in Kaunas and I would from time to time join them in Poland or Kaliningrad, the Soviet enclave.  For me this meant another long journey on a rickety Soviet bus.

In 1991 I was elected as a delegate to the first, and last, election of the Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the USSR.  In 1992, again I was a delegate at the first election of the Regional Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the Baltic States in the presence of Hand of the Cause ‘Ali-Akbar Furutan, and served on that Assembly for some years.  1999 was the first election of the Bahá’ís of Lithuania and once again I was honoured to serve on that Assembly for several years.  Surely, though, a great highlight is being a delegate at International Convention.

Towards the end of 1993 we were blessed with the visit of Amatu’l-Bahá Rúhíyyih Khánum who spent a few days proclaiming the Faith through public meetings, a press conference, television interview and, of course inspiring the local believers with her talks and stories of her life.  I had the bounty of being with her throughout those few days and, of course, I was in awe of her, but she soon put me at ease, reminding me numerous times that her father was a Scot, as I am.  I have been so blessed.

After settling in Kaunas the Faith grew, but very slowly.  The churches were now open and people, quite rightly, could worship as they wished, most of them returning to the Catholic Church.  We held advertised devotional meetings every two weeks for about two or more years.  It was difficult to find venues in which to hold these meetings because administrators of reading rooms and such like would refuse to let us use or rent one of their rooms.  We were Bahá’ís so were looked upon with much suspicion.  Eventually we rented a hotel room – at great cost, but it served the purpose.  One evening a lady whom we hadn’t seen before came to the meeting; we were very happy, but she was confused about the topic: she thought she had come to hear about the Bahamas.  We didn’t see her again.  We couldn’t carry on with the hotel room arrangement because it was just too costly for us.

Later we held children’s classes using the Virtues Guide.  My friend taught the children in one room and I worked with the mothers in the other.  We used my flat for the classes that continued for quite a long time.  I don’t remember why they stopped.  Ruhi Institute courses have been carried out, but here in Kaunas my contacts are more interested in attending the regular devotional meetings that I hold in my own flat.  Of course they enjoy the special celebrations as I do, and while they seem to love the Faith and are quite knowledgeable no one wants to take that final step – just yet.

It has been one blessing after another since becoming a Bahá’í 30 years ago.

____________________

Helen Smith

Kaunas,  Lithuania, April  2012

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