I cannot imagine why anybody should be even vaguely interested in my story towards becoming a Bahá’í, but should it arouse the slightest curiosity in this subject, below are my recollections of how the events unfolded.
I will endeavour to make use of the suggested headings in order to produce a chronological sequence of items which led to my introduction, declaration and study of the Bahá’í way of life, and the pleasure I have experienced in trying to arrange my life in accordance with the Teachings of the Faith, and in the as yet un-achieved ambition to pass on the message to others I may encounter.
How I became a Bahá’í
I was, I believe, christened into the Protestant Church at Christ Church, Colliers Wood, London SW19. My family were not regular church-goers, but insisted that my brother (three years my junior) and I attend Sunday School. Here I was most interested to hear stories about life in rural India, which were told to us by a “Cleric” of the church, nicknamed “Rarzo”, because he had a very red nose (South London schoolboy humour) and who had spent some time as a Christian “Missionary”.
Insofar as my parents were not involved in the church, they taught me to behave in accordance with Christian virtues of honesty, love for all, and decency.
I was fortunate enough to win a scholarship to a Surrey Grammar School at a very early age for the so-called Eleven Plus, at the age of just over 10 years.
Between the ages of 4 and 10, i.e. 1939-1945, I was involved in the 2nd World War, being affected by the London Blitz and the V1 & V2 raids on Southern England. This necessitated my brother and me being evacuated twice, away from the bombing and rocket attacks which occurred in the area. My cousin. who was about the same age as I, was killed by a stray bomb, quite close to the place where we were sheltering at the time. I was encouraged to hate “Germans” who, I was told, were different from us! (Good example of prejudice.)
At the age of 13 I joined a children’s organisation “The Woodcraft Folk” which, similar to the Scouts and Guides movements, taught the virtues of honesty and uprightness, love of the outdoors, and loyalty to one’s fellows. In 1950, I attended an international children’s camp at Klagenfurt in Austria, where more than 2,000 young people from all over Europe came together in amity and friendship; this just six years after the cessation of hostilities in the global conflict. I met and made friends with many youngsters of my own age from many different nationalities including Germans, and I discovered that they were just like me in so many ways! I am sure that these experiences shaped my outlook on the Unity of Mankind, and I resolved to do all that I could to foster this spirit of international friendship.
At the age of 16, I left school, started full time work, and also continued as a group leader in the children’s “club” (I was not much older than the children in my group!). I and the other leaders endeavoured to teach children friendship among nations, an international, non-prejudiced view of life, the enjoyment of the great outdoors, via hikes, camps and rallies. To this day, I can perceive no differences in the virtues we were teaching then, to the fundamental beliefs we hold dear in our Faith today and for always. This culminated in my being elected as leader (Headman) for some 15 groups of children throughout South London, and all on a strictly voluntary basis, and in my spare time.
I was fortunate enough around that time to meet with and discuss events with a small number of far-seeing Socialist educators, without becoming involved in adult party politics. This undoubtedly influenced my views of life, and how human beings should conduct their affairs for the benefit of the majority of our fellow citizens, and the creation of a society fair for all. Again, I emphasize that I can see no difference between the principles which were being taught then, and the tenets of the Bahá’í Faith, only the understood source from which these principles emanate. And who can say that these great educators were not influenced consciously or subliminally, by the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh?
In 1963, I was invited to lead a “delegation” of English children to attend an international children’s camp at Artek in the then Soviet Union. Our party consisted of ten youngsters (between the ages on 10 and 14) plus one more leader, who was in fact my first wife. This was a remarkable experience by way of being a small, select group of youngsters, who took five days to travel from Ostende to Sinferopol by train (with only one night’s rest at Brest on the Polish/ Soviet Border) where we were met by our interpreter, appointed by the Soviet Pioneer Organisation, who was to accompany us throughout the rest of our journey to the Crimea, and subsequently to Moscow on our way home.
This amazing experience enabled me to meet with many people, mainly young persons from all around the globe, at a time when travel to any part of the Soviet states was extremely rare. During my time there I was accorded the title of “Honoured Guest of the Soviet Union”, an honour I guess I still possess to this day! Once again these experiences enabled me to develop my ideas on friendship between nations, especially the young, as being an essential pre-requisite of a future peaceful planet.
In 1965, I headed a similar delegation to the then Czechoslovakia, from which the friendships forged during that Summer remain intact to this day.
In the Summer of 1966, I headed a delegation of British voluntary children’s organisations, as “liaison” person to attend a meeting in Frankfurt, in an attempt to “bring together” the Pioneer Organisation of the Soviet Union (with its 22 million members) with the “Falcon” children’s groups of Western Europe, with its mere 350,000 members!
Throughout the period between 1959 and 1967, my personal life consisted of getting married, having two children, and working as an Estimator for Mechanical Services Engineers in London, and subsequently in Slough, following my move from South London to Sandhurst in Berkshire.
In 1980, I was divorced, and awarded custody of my two children.
Introduction to the Bahá’í Faith
Shortly after this, I met by pure chance in London, Miss Parvin Vahdat with whom I fell in love. We married in 1983, and were blessed by the birth of our beloved son, Aryan in 1986. Parvin was the first Bahá’í I had ever met (in fact the first person of Persian origin I had met). She introduced me to many friends from Persian and other backgrounds, but to her great credit, she never exerted any pressure on me to study and adopt her Bahá’í Faith. However, I enjoyed the company of these new found friends very much, and our social life revolved very much in meeting with them and spending a good deal of our spare time in their company.
As I became aware of the tenets of the Faith, I discovered that I agreed with its teachings, especially with regard to the social aspects. The things with which I had become acquainted in my earlier life began to fall into place, and I attended and participated in Bahá’í open meetings, summer schools and various gatherings, both in the U.K, and at Landegg in Switzerland, where I attended a summer school conducted by Professor Suheil Bushrui.
I have to state, at this stage, that during my investigation of the Bahá’í Faith, I was guided by some brilliant educators, some of them considerably younger than I, who were conversant with the history of the Faith, and who were quite remarkable in their ability to proclaim the message.
One of the main attractions to me was the absence of clergy among the leadership of the Bahá’í communities, and I greatly admired the democratic methods by which our leaders were appointed.
To summarise my thoughts around that time, I fully absorbed the social tenets of the religion, and slowly began to realise from whence these teachings came.
There was no “flash of light”, no feeling that I would have to abandon any of my previous allegiances, just a general acceptance of the fact that I was a Bahá’í, and was enhancing my previous beliefs, without having to abandon any of the teachings with which I had endeavoured to conduct my affairs.
I had had it in my mind to declare for some years prior to my actual declaration, but was waiting for a suitable time to let my intentions become known.
I declared my acceptance of, and allegiance to the Faith of Bahá’u’lláh on the night of 26 June 1986 in the maternity unit of the Royal Berkshire Hospital, shortly before the birth of our son, Aryan, in order that we should both be “born” at the same time!
The rest of this narrative is far too boring for anybody to wish to read, so I will conclude this “epistle” now.
Early Days as a Bahá’í
In November 1988, I attended my first pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
The background to this was that Parvin had applied, and been accepted to undertake a pilgrimage before I had declared, and when Aryan was not yet born.
We were advised that we could proceed to Haifa as both being Bahá’ís, without having to “rejoin the queue”, and we decided to take Aryan, who was just 18 months old with us. It is difficult to attend and participate fully in the busy schedule of a full nine day pilgrimage, and indeed the World Centre advises that if possible only youngsters of 9 years and above should attend, assuming that this is practicable.
Nevertheless, the experience of taking part in the full programme left an indelible memory for both Parvin and me, and among the deeply moving events and visits to the Holy Places which touched our hearts, was attending the evening talks given by Hands of the Cause Mr Furutan and Dr Varqa, at the old Centre adjacent to the Shrine of The Bab. We returned fresh and re-invigorated to our local Bahá’í functions.
Also, during that year (1988), as a family, we attended a Summer School in Llandegg, Switzerland, which was conducted by Professor Bushrui, with participants from various countries in Europe and beyond. We were able to deepen our knowledge of the Teachings, and to share our experiences of Bahá’í life with new friends.
Back home in Sandhurst, which is part of the Borough of Bracknell Forest, we were able to form our first Local Spiritual Assembly, the background of this being that, as far as I am aware, Parvin was the first Bahá’í to live in this area, and we were joined by the Khorassani family who had recently “pioneered” to this location from Yorkshire, and had ‘declarations’ from Mr Gerald (Jed) King and Dr Kathy Hadfield.
I believe that the names of this initial Assembly were: Mrs Ferdous Khorassani, Miss Shohreh Khorassani, Mr Shameem Khorassani, Mr Derek Barnett, Mrs Tolou Scott, Dr Katharine Hadfield, Mr Gerald King, Mrs Parvin Stanley, Mr Brian Stanley.
During this “embryonic” stage of our development, we were guided and assisted by Mahin and Ray Humphrey, who lived nearby, but just outside our “catchment” area. This Assembly pursued a vigorous programme of regular meetings and contact with the local community, including a series of so-called Dignitary Evenings, where we invited guest speakers to address our local Mayor and leader of the council, plus other members of the non-Bahá’í general public. We were aided in this endeavour by our friendship with the Clerk to the Local Council, who became a good friend of our group, and attended many of our functions e.g. picnics and the like, but who never declared as a Bahá’í.
Two highlights of this period, I recall, were an Anglo-Persian Party, consisting of a Persian meal combined with some English folk dancing, and a concert, where several musical acts, both Bahá’í and non- Bahá’í performed without payment to a sizeable audience in the local memorial hall. I would like to think that these two unusual activities were responsible for bringing our small group to the attention of the population at large.
As for the Stanley family, we attended and participated in many local and national Bahá’í activities including annual Summer Schools, both in the U.K. (Warminster, Ardingly, Sidcot, Wellington et al.) and abroad – Greece, Cyprus (North and South), U.S A (Montana, Green Acre) etc.
We attended our second full pilgrimage in 2002, where once again, we travelled as a family, and were surprised to find ourselves back in the Holy Land, just one year later, as part of a 4-day visit that was arranged as an addition to the programme of a Summer School in Cyprus, and whereby the organisers, having obtained permission from the Universal House of Justice to visit, chartered a flight from Larnaca to Tel Aviv, on which some 160 of the participants of the School travelled together to conclude an unforgettable event with an unexpected short visit to the World Centre.
An ongoing facet of my Bahá’í life during many years was participation in the Thomas Breakwell Sunday School, which over a long period was very successful, firstly at its original location in Watlington, and subsequently at a school in Earley near Reading. This school was often the highlight of the week for local friends from across the Thames Valley area, and at the height of its popularity involved some 50 or more children in several classes, together with sessions for adults and in its latter stages a youth dance group and choir.
Parvin served as a teacher for approximately 15 years, and was among many great educators of children who gave up their time on Sunday mornings, and during weekdays preparing lessons and other social activities, and I would like to pay tribute to all of those dedicated friends including the Directors of the school, who worked so diligently to provide an ideal vehicle for so many enthralled youngsters to have the opportunity of “living the Bahá’í life”, if only for a short period in each week. Alas! The Thomas Breakwell Sunday School is no more. Personally, I took very little part in supporting this venture, but I am pleased that my wife and son had the benefit of being part of such a superbly organised Bahá’í activity.
During a period of approximately five years, I had the privilege and great pleasure in serving as a volunteer, working at the National Bahá’í Centre at 27 Rutland Gate. My duties involved meeting and greeting visitors to our National Hazirat’ul-Quds, which enabled me to have contact with Bahá’ís from all over the planet, and to provide them with a guided tour of our “headquarters” building, with its interesting artefacts, and to explain the significance of these premises to the U.K community. I believe that this building, which has been so lovingly restored and maintained is a great “teaching tool” for the Faith, and that we should encourage Bahá’í friends, and other associates to visit this impressive building.
Regrettably the Bracknell Local assembly has long ceased to exist, but its spirit is perpetuated in combined feasts, which continue to this day and bring together the friends from nearby locations. Our current activities include a weekly “informal” study circle in our home, where we meet on a weekly basis to study the writings and discuss and share our views on the contents of various books, with a view to enhancing our knowledge to enable us to spread the word whenever the opportunity arises.
I have endeavoured to set out a collection of thoughts and observations concerning my personal journey as a Bahá’í from my first connection with the Faith, to the present day. It is my hope that many experienced Bahá’í friends will submit their personal recollections, to allow a compendium of such experiences to be woven into a comprehensive history of the community in the United Kingdom.
Berkshire, December 2011