Fiona and Keith McDonald

A Journey Like No Other

I was born in Carshalton, Surrey in 1950 and grew up in nearby Croydon.  Religion never meant much to me.  My parents sometimes went to church at Christmas or Easter and I went to a school next-door to our parish church, but nothing stuck. About the closest I had got to a religious experience was in 1969 when Crystal Palace were promoted to the First Division for the first time ever after a late-season run, though religious persecution followed soon afterwards when I landed up in hospital having my appendix removed instead of going to Selhurst Park to watch “our” first game in the top flight against the star-studded Manchester United whose team included Best, Charlton and Law.  Oh, and I got a bit religious about a girl when I was at school.

In other words, I didn’t have a clue about religion other than knowing that it made no sense for a person to be a Christian because he is born in a particular part of the world and for another to be a Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist or whatever simply because he was born somewhere else.  How could one religion be ‘true’ and the others ‘false’ when it was a freak of birth whether or not you made it onto the bus that was going to Heaven or the one that was going to Hell?

I grew up in Croydon.  We liked to think of ourselves as being in the more upmarket ‘Surrey’, not ‘South London’, but no-one was fooled.  After leaving school at 18, I became a cadet on our local newspaper in September, 1969 just a few weeks after I lost my appendix.  As part of the cadetship, I had to work in the paper’s district office at Epsom.

It was Epsom in 1971 where I first bumped into the Faith.  One of the local Bahá’ís came into our office (a room really, over a betting shop) to place an ad.  He interrupted our afternoon card game but he was a local celebrity because he was an actor and there was a bit of “nudge, nudge, know who that is then?” when he walked in.  He was known to all the journalists there as a Bahá’í.

Then on December 4, 1971  I had two religious experiences.  First, Palace trounced Sheffield United 5-1, scoring one of the most spectacular goals I had ever seen in the process.  Then that evening I went with my mate, Dave, from the opposition paper to a concert in Kingston.  A band called Quintessence were playing.  I knew nothing about them but Dave, a music guru, recommended them.  I’d never been to a gig like it.  The band were into a sort of hippie Hinduism and incorporated a lot of chanting into their songs.  There was a joy and an indefinable spirit about the whole evening that converted me instantly into a fan.  En route, while waiting for the bus, Dave started talking about his religion, the Bahá’í Faith.  He told me what Bahá’ís believed and it seemed to make sense, particularly the fact that Bahá’ís regarded all religions as coming from God and no one religion was ‘right’ and the others ‘wrong’.

Would I like to come to a Bahá’í meeting, Dave asked me?  Why not, I decided.  Oh, a couple of musicians were going to be playing, he added.  England Dan and John Ford Coley were Bahá’ís from America currently touring the UK.

So I went along to the meeting at Bourne Hall in Ewell.  They sang some great songs.  There was a talk.  Again, it made sense but I wondered why people needed to believe in God to practise these things.

God was the problem for me.  I didn’t know whether I really believed in God or not. At least, the Bahá’ís didn’t portray Him as an old man with a beard up in the sky.  In fact, they didn’t portray Him at all, and it was the same with the founder Prophet, Bahá’u’lláh — they weren’t allowed to depict Him or have his photograph because the Faith didn’t want people to worship His image.  I liked that idea.  But, still, God was a problem.

I kind of believed in something that was vaguely Godlike.  After all, the world seemed to run too smoothly to be an accident or freak of nature.  But was there something we call God sitting there orchestrating everything and talking to humanity at different times through chosen individuals (prophets)?  It was a big ask.

Still, the Bahá’ís were great to hang out with.  At that time in Epsom, there were a lot of young people coming into the Faith through the local art school.  I just loved being part of this crowd.  They were into music — big on Quintessence — and their parties were a blast.  For a start, there was no alcohol at these parties because Bahá’ís didn’t drink.  I couldn’t imagine it being possible to have a good time at a party without beer and I was very apprehensive about the first party I went to . . . but it turned out to be a fantastic night.  Lots of dancing, no awkward coupling, no-one off their heads with booze.  Many an evening or weekend, I would just hang out with this crowd and it was the best bunch of friends I’d ever had.  Sure, religion was a recurring theme but I didn’t feel I was being brainwashed or that my acceptance of their religion was a condition of them accepting me.  We would go up to London together.  One time we went to an all-night Quintessence gig at the Lyceum off the Strand and joyously danced the night away.

Another particular experience stands out in my mind.  I travelled to Edinburgh to attend the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.  While there I contacted the Bahá’ís and went to a meeting.  When I boarded the train back to London, it was fairly crowded and eventually chose a seat opposite an older woman.  I got out my copy of Paris Talks and started reading.  After about an hour, the lady asked what I was reading.  When I told her, she knew the book — Sybil Kirkland was a longstanding American Bahá’í from Wisconsin.  We became friends, I saw her in London and we wrote regularly to each other.  Of all the 500 or so people on the train to sit opposite!

At work, I completed my cadetship and got a new job on a local paper in the Medway Towns, Kent.  Leaving my Bahá’í friends in Epsom was hard, particularly as I was going to a place that had no Bahá’ís.

A few weeks after leaving Epsom, Pat, one of the Bahá’ís, asked if I wanted to go with him to the Bahá’í Scottish Summer School at a place called Carbisdale, a youth hostel in a modern castle, north of Inverness at Culrain, Sutherland.  I jumped at the chance to be with some Bahá’ís again.  We drove from Epsom to Carbisdale, the roads getting narrower and narrower as we drove further north, signs of human civilisation rarer and rarer.  Carbisdale was in the Highlands and it felt like I was entering another world.

It was a fairly small gathering of about 50 or so but it remains to this day the best Bahá’í event I have ever been to.  I only really knew a couple of people there but I was immediately made to feel like one of the crowd.  Everybody was so friendly. There were two Hands of the Cause, I think (Dr. Muhajir and Mr Faizi) and everyone showed them tremendous respect.  There was also music.  Various Bahá’ís got up and sang their songs in a way that touched me quite profoundly.  I can still hear those songs in my head and see the faces, and feel the spirit.  Then there was the fun.  We had so many laughs, an innocent kind of fun — nothing at others’ expense or with off-colour undertones.  There was even bagpipes at dawn.

One of the singers was Fiona, whom I had briefly met once at a Bahá’í meeting in Epsom when she sang.  She remembered my jacket and air of aloofness!  I became particularly close to her, her friend, Pam, and a former Epsom Bahá’í, Ann.  We sat and talked a lot, and, most memorably, they took me out to high tea one afternoon. Talk about bribery and corruption: three gorgeous girls and cake . . . how could I resist?  It was at that high tea that I decided it was stupid not to sign a card and officially become a Bahá’í.  Back in Epsom one time, I remember someone saying to me: “It’s no good sitting on the side of the pool. The only way to enjoy the water is to dive in.”  I decided that these people had something I wanted to experience and I couldn’t truly do that from outside the Faith. Not having had a religious upbringing, I wasn’t really “into” religion and certainly not “into” prayer but I decided that it was time to try and change all that.  I declared on the eve of the Martyrdom of the Báb, 1973.

Above all, I saw the Bahá’í Faith as the way to change the world.  At that time, we had come through the era of Flower Power with its theme of peace and love, but post-Woodstock it was becoming clear that the hippie philosophy alone was unsustainable.  The Faith took things much further and imbued it with the key instrument of Bahá’u’lláh’s Station as the Manifestation of God for this Age.  The “proof” of His claim for me was in the exemplary story of His life, much of it spent in enforced exile.  There was no hypocrisy; no saying one thing and doing another; no sign of ego, no putdowns of other Manifestations such as Jesus or Mohammed. And this was the glue which held everything together: I had never experienced such a vibrant spirit of love and unity as there was at that summer school: Bahá’u’lláh was the foundation on which everything else was built.  And there in the Scottish Highlands over tea and cakes, deep conversations and revelry, all framed by beautiful music, I saw that this was what the world needed.

I moved soon after declaring to Maidstone.  It had a budding Bahá’í community and I became a member of its first Spiritual Assembly.  I loved my short time in Maidstone.  We staged a big Bahá’í concert in the town.  Fiona had got together with some young Bahá’í army musicians based at London’s Kneller Hall and a fantastic blind Bahá’í pianist Francis.  The Maidstone concert was their debut together.  We got a good audience, the music was fantastic and it was a great success.

Working together on this concert brought Fiona and me closer together and we married in December 1974, though I have to say she was even more hesitant about the idea than I had been about becoming a Bahá’í — she turned me down twice! Our first home was in  Epsom, the place where my faith was born, and we both served on the Spiritual Assembly.  Then we moved to St Albans, where we helped form its first Spiritual Assembly and had our three daughters, Gemma, Anna and Natalie.

During our time together in England Fiona was appointed as one of the first two Assistants to the Auxiliary Board in Europe.  She was responsible for the whole of London.  I was also involved in a monthly national Bahá’í “tabloid”, Intercom-Bahá’í.

In 1982 we emigrated to Australia, spending our first year in Singleton, a small town of less than 10,000 people in northern New South Wales, where we helped form the first Local Spiritual Assembly.  Now-Universal House of Justice member Stephen Hall and his wife, Dicy, were on that Assembly too and he unwisely persuaded me to come out of cricketing retirement to play for his team.  I made a duck and dropped a catch.  Our Australian child, Philip, was born in Singleton — “Try not to push.  I’ll be there as soon as I can,” the doctor said from his morning surgery, where he still had a few more patients to see, as Fiona lay busting to give birth.

In Singleton I was editor of the local tri-weekly paper and during my time there I introduced a well-received weekly page on religion called Credo.

Then we spent a year as isolated believers in Maitland, between Singleton and Newcastle.

Next we moved 4000km across the country to Perth, Western Australia, where we bought a house in the goal area of Fremantle, Perth’s port city.  There were a couple of Bahá’ís there but it had never had an Assembly.  We helped form an Assembly a year later and we served on it for many years.  We moved six years ago to East Fremantle, a small community which had had an Assembly for almost as long as Fremantle but had always struggled to make the nine each Ridván.  We now have over 20 and the community is one of the most active in Western Australia with lots of study circles, devotional meetings, classes in schools and junior youth activities.

Fiona has served on the Australian National Spiritual Assembly for 20 years.  It meets every five weeks in Sydney and each flight takes four to five hours depending which way the wind is blowing.

I edited the Australian Bahá’í Bulletin for six years and served on the editorial board of the Herald of the South magazine for many years.  In 1992 I was chosen as one of Australia’s representatives at the Holy Year commemoration at the Bahá’í World Centre.

Our daughter Anna is living in London and teaching at an international school in Acton; her twin Gemma recently returned to Perth after living for many years in Melbourne and is managing youth and community programs; Natalie, in Perth, is married to Gary, they are both in the West Australian Police and they have a nearly one-year-old son, Jacob; Philip, also in Perth, is married to Naomi with two daughters and a son and he runs his own cabinet-making business.

We have now lived in Australia for 30 years and over the years I have inevitably lost contact with some of those wonderful people from the year and a half that I spent investigating the Faith.  Sadly, two of our friends from Carbisdale, Pam Lewis (Poulter) and Wendy Thorn (Scott), died much too young.  A few months ago, out of nowhere, I had a Facebook message from Janie, an American who was at Carbisdale and with whom I travelled back to London — we hadn’t been in contact since 1972. And a couple of years ago I had a wonderful reunion in Glasgow with Lindsay Moffat, one of those Epsom Bahá’ís.

Oh, and my other ‘religion’ is still Crystal Palace. It is mostly a religion of endless suffering that requires selfless devotion.


Keith McDonald

Perth, W. Australia

March 2012

Keith in 1973

Carbisdale Summer School – 1973

The McDonald family in 2011