Stephen Vickers

As a child I was always interested in religion and faith.  My mother was brought up as an evangelical Protestant, and had some wonderful, saintly and generous relatives who were lay preachers.  As she grew to adulthood, however, she found an evangelical, literal approach to the Bible intellectually difficult to accept and spiritually unsatisfying and became a Catholic in the 1950s.  My father was brought up as an Anglican yet lost his faith while serving as an RAF pilot in the Second World War – the loss of friends to warfare and accidents made him somewhat angry with God.  He never ceased believing that there was a God, however, in that, as he pointed out to me, “We have to conclude that there’s something so clever it made itself”.  Even in a Big Bang, he reasoned, matter would be required, as would space into which to expand.  At the time when Mum converted to Catholicism any convert, and their spouse, were required to promise to bring up their children as Catholics, but my father would not sign such an agreement, and eventually the RC Bishop of Birmingham gave special dispensation for my mother to declare even if my brothers and I were to have a more general religious education.

My elder brother Patrick (“Paddy”) and I spoke a lot about religion, and we decided to attend church from when we were about 11; our parents chose the local Anglican Sunday School which met in a primary school near our home.  We also took confirmation classes, and were confirmed by laying on of hands by the Bishop of Birmingham in perhaps 1964 or 1965.  Naively I expected a flash of green light and to feel like a new being as the hands touched my head, yet this was not my experience.   I still really felt like I belonged, however, and the Sunday School brought me a lot of good friends, with some of whom I am still in touch today, and several Silhillian (natives of Solihull) friends became Bahá’ís.

While a teenager, I attended the Anglican Youth Club on Fridays, and on Sundays accompanied some of my school friends to Habonim, the Jewish Youth Club in Birmingham, and was most impressed by the charitable nature and musical, literary and scientific achievements of my fellows.  This experience taught me to be respectful of many faiths, and I think opened my ears to the Bahá’í Faith when I began to look at it.

My first contact with the Faith was when I was about 8.  My mother’s best friend Audrie Rogers (later Reynolds) was, I knew, a follower of a weird religion, yet was not allowed to mention it in our house.  Still, we all liked her and looked forward to her visits.

In 1963 we were driving to France for our holidays, and drove past the Royal Albert Hall.  The building was festooned with a banner proclaiming “The Bahá’í Faith – The earth is but one country”, and people were streaming out of the building dressed in a plethora of national costumes.  “What’s this?”, we asked my Dad, whom we thought the fount of all knowledge.  “That”, quoth he, “is Audrie’s religion”.  “What do they believe?”, we enquired.  “In some ways it’s an admirable religion, they believe that all religions come from the same God and should be united, but they’ve added to the confusion by inventing a new one.”  Soon after this, Audrie married a chap from North Dakota, whom she had met at this centenary conference, and we attended our first Bahá’í wedding.

That was all I knew about the Bahá’í Faith for some years, and to be frank never gave it a thought for the next five years.  In 1969, however, I was travelling in Eastern Europe, then a rather more unfamiliar place to Westerners than it is today.  I picked up a letter from my mum at the Poste Restante in Bucharest, which included the sentences, “Do you remember Audrie’s religion, the Bahá’í Faith?  Well, Paddy’s come back from France [Pad spent a few months at a college near Bordeaux, whether to their benefit or his I’ve yet to discern], and he’s full of it.”

Indeed he was.  On my return, I was assailed by my brother’s zeal for the Faith.  I was given books, Bible lessons, history lessons, etc, and never gave him a single word of encouragement, lest the pressure on me intensify.  Secretly, however, I read the books, hoping to find the flaws which would permit me to persuade my brother of the inaccuracies of his Faith.

In the Summer of 1969 two things happened in quick succession which led me to my realising that  “There is a power in this Cause, far beyond the ken of men and angels”.  The first involved Paddy, our church youth club friend Rocky, and I, travelling to Scotland.  As I drove North the other two were having a detailed discussion in the back of the van, with Rocky conceding a few theological points.  The standard of discussion was high, and there were many references to Biblical passages. (Rocky preceded me into the Faith, declaring the following Naw-Rúz.)  Upon our arrival we met two American teenage girls whom Paddy, to my acute embarrassment, began regaling about the Faith.   One of them, it transpired, was attending firesides in Des Moines, Iowa, which confirmed to me that Bahá’ís get about.  Four years later this lady and I were married, which shows that teaching efforts can on occasion have unforeseen consequences!

The second occurrence was more complex, and aspects of it still intrigue me years later (as does my wife, of course).  Audrie and her husband, Johnny Reynolds, came over that summer, and brought with them another pleasant North Dakotan Bahá’í with whom I enjoyed talking.  Then one day Audrie invited my mum to accompany her and Johnny to see Mrs Gloria Faizi, a pioneer to Hereford.  It being my day off from work, mum asked me to come too.  The contrast between Mrs Faizi’s serenity and the high pressure atmosphere in which she lived could not have been greater.  She lived in perhaps Hereford’s only high-rise building.  The other tenants were mostly families with few adults and lots of children, and the stairs up were covered with kids darting in and out calling to each other to “go forth and multiply” (well, that was the gist of what they said).  Mrs  Faizi was gracious and lovely to these children, although  their language and decorum fell somewhat short of her own.  Her flat was an oasis of calm, and I sat rapt by the conversation of this lady whom I thought to be in her twenties.  Three years later when she recognised me and came over to me, she had to introduce herself, since she was in fact in her late sixties.  In her flat, she showed us a pen of the Blessed Beauty, and although I said nothing I was impressed by her manners and the conviction in her voice.

After about two hours we decided to leave, and as I rose to go Mrs Faizi spoke to me.  “You haven’t said much”, she said, and asked me about myself.  I replied that there was nothing to tell but that I was working as a bread roundsman and would be starting at the University of Sussex in the Autumn. “Well”, quoth she, “I have a friend in Brighton whom you might like to visit.”  She gave me a piece of paper with the address “19 Stanford Avenue, Brighton”, which I put in my wallet.

When I arrived in Brighton, I thought of visiting this lady, yet I did not do so, knowing that in Britain people do not always welcome unexpected guests coming to see them (or as we say these days, “making home visits”).  I lived in a block-booked guest house with 15 other students and a landlord and landlady, the McClymonts, from Glasgow.  The former had been Army flyweight boxing champion, and was forever challenging students to fights for minor infringements of the house rules.  The reluctance of my fellows to enter a ring with this diminutive pugilist was derided as to their being “all mouth and no trousers”.  Being a rather conformist sort, I was never invited to box.  With the landlady, however, I had a great relationship, although I occasionally had to bite my lip rather than criticise her science (the reason mice can get into small holes, it transpires, is because they lack backbones!)  Similarly I let pass the fact that she put scouring powder on our face flannels before she cleaned the sinks with them, with the added advantage that I never suffered from any form of adolescent spots.

Seventeen days after I arrived in Brighton, on a Wednesday in mid-October, there was a knock on my door and two rather lovely young ladies stood there.  I instantly told them that they were at the wrong room. “No”, replied one. “Are you Steve?  Do you have a car?”  Instantly I understood.  Having skipped a year at school and then spent a year working and travelling, I was possessed of what was then a rare commodity among university students, a car.  The only others who had cars were either sons of car manufacturers or millionaires from exotic climes who ate in restaurants and wasted much of their time in Kensington and Chelsea.  These same cars were used to drive into the centre of Brighton where their owners then had to pay to park them. For myself, the possession of a car was a mixed blessing.  It made me the companion of choice for anyone who wished to visit a party more than two miles away, a position which was strengthened when I later eschewed alcohol.  On the other hand, weekend mornings involved a frantic search for a free parking space and then walking back miles. Weekdays were OK because I drove to Uni earlier than the traffic wardens emerged.  Whenever the car broke down, which occurred frequently, all my friends vanished. Passengers, however grateful, make reluctant mechanics, and many a Saturday saw me bowling a tyre or lugging a battery, appropriately labelled “heavy duty” across the town.

But I digress.  It transpired that these young ladies lived in a women’s guest house, the counterpart to our own.  One of their friends was ill and they wished to transport her to the university’s medical centre.  This we did, and the physician decided to keep her “for observation”.  Myself and my two initial visitors returned to Brighton.  Wishing to make their further acquaintance, I invited them chez moi for a cup of coffee.  I did not trouble them with the information that I possessed neither coffee, milk, nor cups, lest they refuse the promise of my lavish hospitality, so I explained that I was going to put the kettle on the stove and did so, tiptoed downstairs and crawling under the window so they wouldn’t see me, I ran up the street to a crockery shop, called out “Please wrap up the three cheapest cups you’ve got” and ran up the road to the supermarket where I bought coffee, milk etc.  I returned to the crockery shop where I paid for my cups, crawled under my window once again and tiptoed up to the students’ gas ring on the top floor, where the kettle was boiling merrily.

Unwrapping the first cup, it was not the cup which interested me – rather, the page it was wrapped in.  Half a page of a Brighton Evening Argus of some months before, it was an advert for the Bahá’í Faith, giving  four columns of detail on that faith’s beliefs and encouraging the reader to come to 19 Stanford Avenue any Wednesday.  I pulled Mrs Faizi’s paper from my wallet – the address was the same.  It was a Wednesday – I decided that I had better go.

I was so shocked by the coincidence that I could hardly put two words together, thus the two ladies, no doubt relieved to escape the lack of conversation and reeling under the impact of my over-strong yet lowest quality coffee (how else can a raw and impoverished student judge a jar save on its price?), they made their excuses and left.  That evening saw me (still racked with embarrassment lest the hosts not be pleased to see me) at the door of no 19 apologising for being there but citing Mrs Faizi as my authority.  “Oh yes”, the hostess replied, ushering me in, “we’ve been praying for you to come.”  There followed a year of very exciting firesides, every Wednesday.  I went to a university judo class from six until seven fifteen, changed on the run, and dashed across calm to the fireside. The Kouchekzadehs and John Reeve worked mostly from Some Answered Questions, which suited my Christian beliefs very well.  I was constantly challenging, not because I was disrespectful, but because with the things of God one should not make a mistake.  If God had sent another Messenger, Manifestation or Whomever, it was our duty to follow Him, but if ’twas but a false prophet, one was leading people astray.  If the latter, I was not scared of being pitchforked into any fiery furnaces or eternal damnation, partly I thought that if I really investigated the claims of Bahá’u’lláh through the words of Christ and still made an incorrect decision, that should provide considerable mitigation in any celestial court proceedings.  Largely though, my thinking was not about me or my soul, it was about humanity as a whole.  Since the Bahá’í  Faith seemed so sensible, and given that it was possible to prove its veracity by prayer, by the power of logic and by reference to the recorded words of the Founders of other Faiths (rather than those of their followers), it could only be a decade or two before the whole world became Bahá’í .  This made it doubly important to check every detail, every area of concern, before declaring, lest I “deceive many”.

It later transpired that my hosts thought my constant questions suggested that I would never declare, and there were many others at those well-attended Wednesday firesides whom the Bahá’ís thought far readier to accept the Faith.  Be that as it may, near the end of my first year I decided that there was sadly nothing I could find wrong with the Faith, and that sadly I would have to embrace it, however inconvenient that might prove to my life.  I was enamoured of a Catholic lady, and as a Political Science student and a Young Liberal I rather planned to serve humanity through the conventional political system (oh, the arrogance of youth!).  I explained my dilemma to my mum, and she suggested a way out.  If I were to ask the learned Father Danny McHugh to show me the flaws in the Bahá’í argument for the station of the Blessed Beauty, he would do so with ease.  Wonderful, this was the answer.  I sent Fr McHugh a copy of the compilation Bahá’í World Faith and a week later turned up at the Friary to get my answer.  The good father was so dismissive and offhand, even insulting, about the Writings, and gave me neither empirical nor spiritual evidence for his comments, that he, without meaning to, banished any remaining guilt I had about “abandoning Christianity”, and I realised that that was not what I was doing, but seeing its fulfilment.  Having said that, with the eye of an old man I now worry about how little the young Bahá’ís know of the scriptures of other faiths and even our own faith, and  worry that we have lost the spirit of search and spiritual striving, but these  youngsters will no doubt study more diligently in their dotage.  Fr McHugh had not even tried to address a single word of Bahá’u’lláh and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, and merely tried the “Well, you know, these sorts of things are all very well, but…”   Forever in his debt, I left determined to become a Bahá’í.

When back in Brighton I telephoned my friend Rocky, who had now been a Bahá’í  for three months, at his office, and asked him when the Feasts were.  Learning that the next day was a Feast day, and thus that most communities would be celebrating that evening, I resolved to delay declaring for a day since I knew that Bahá’ís should attend the Feast and yet I had something that evening that I really wanted to do.

The following day (it was in June or July 1970) I set off for the Kouchekzadehs’ house, arriving before they were even dressed (to their embarrassment).  Being hospitable Persians, they welcomed me nevertheless and  lots of tea  was drunk and small talk made; I didn’t like to change the subject.  After an hour, and clearly perplexed, since I was usually a diligent student and spent weekdays at the university, they asked, ”We are very happy you are here, but did you come for anything in particular?”  “Oh yes”, said I, “I’ve decided to become a Bahá’í and I thought I had to sign a card”.  They were amazed; never had they thought I would declare, apparently.  They didn’t realise that I was just trying to satisfy myself that it really was true.  And do you know, I never told them about the wrapped cup.  I did tell John Reeve, however, who said that it was the only ad of that size that the LSA had ever put in the paper, and that its results had been decried as non-existent.

That day I received a telegram from Rocky, “Congratulations, Bahá’í I hope”.

A few days later I returned to my home in Solihull for the summer.  I didn’t tell anyone about my declaration, not even my mother.  Just before the next Feast, my brother’s fiancée, Ann, used to attend the Feasts in Birmingham and sit outside during the discursive part.  She and Paddy suggested that I might want to attend the Feast and “keep Ann company” out in the cold.  I replied that I would cheerfully attend the Feast and do whatever was required of me.

When we arrived, we were a little late, and the Chairman of the Birmingham Local Spiritual Assembly, Patrick Green,  was then on the National Spiritual Assembly, and had already announced to the assembled Friends that “Paddy’s brother” had declared.  We walked quietly into the prayers, and when they were finished Ann suggested we leave.  I said nothing, yet stayed in my seat.  Paddy told me that I had to leave; still I stayed in my seat.  This was, after all, my first Feast.  Patrick Green explained that since I was a Bahá’í I could stay.  Pad went absolutely white.  He had no idea of the year-long investigation I had carried out.  Ann too, thought I had deceived her.  I had told no lies, I had just been economical with the truth!

When I declared I was nineteen. Now, over the past 42 years the Faith has given me so much.  It spurred me to study two new fields, International Politics and Economics and then Education, and thus found me a new career in Educational Assessment.  I have worked for short periods in many countries, and whenever I have gone I have both found Bahá’í friends and have had the privilege of mentioning His name to education ministers and civil servants in several countries, as well as to  many teachers, lecturers and examiners.

Bahá’u’lláh has also given me many opportunities to serve.  The two areas where I feel I have been most useful are in areas where I have a little knowledge and which are orientated outward.  Thanks to Philip Hainsworth I was a Bahá’í representative to the Third UN Conference on the Law of the Sea, and thanks to the forbearance of the NSA I have tried to serve the wider British community through RE and RS, both as an NSA representative on the RE Council of England and Wales and as one of two Bahá’í consultants to the now-abolished Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, which established, through its non-statutory guidance, the right of all children to study the Faith if their parents wish it.  What makes this latter work particularly precious to me is that we were serving all the children, rather than just declared Bahá’ís.  I also taught for a decade at the Thomas Breakwell School (Thames Valley), an experience which I shall treasure for the rest of my days.  I have also served on two Local Spiritual Assemblies, Warwick and West Oxfordshire, as a delegate to around thirty UK Bahá’í National Conventions, and on a few committees, including the Midlands RTC during the 1970s, the former Bahá’í RE Agency (now the DEA RE Task Force), a National Statistics committee, and the Bahá’í Council for England.  The Faith has also shaped my activities in other ways.  Without the Faith I would have never become involved in the United Nations Association, of which I am a regional Vice-President.

I have also been blessed with the opportunity to serve through the distribution of Bahá’í literature, in that my wife and I have run for some thirty years the West Oxon Bahá’í Bookshop, probably the third most prolific local distributor, and with a couple of decades left in it yet.  Literature helps people to deepen and also provides then with material for teaching, as well as to widen their understanding of the world of faiths and of humankind in general.