When I first met the Bahá’í faith I was 40, married with two children and living happily with them in the small country town of Bridgnorth in Shropshire. I was content with my life except in one area – that of spiritual fulfilment. I had grown up loving Sunday School, the Bible and Christ. Going to church never satisfied me although empty churches remained a great place for prayer. Many things puzzled me about my Christian faith, mainly all the divisions within religion and their attitude of being the only way to God.
I was a yoga teacher and had grown to love the teachings of Buddha and Krishna. Yoga is not a religion but a spiritual path and I wanted to advance along that path. I went to different churches and studied different religions but still felt they were only part of the answer. I was sure there was only one God, who was all encompassing. Christ had taught us to love all mankind, so I developed what I called “my own religion” based on the love of God, Christ and Mankind. I meditated often and asked for guidance; I was still searching.
I worked at the Midlands Electricity Board and one day I noticed a lady looking at washing machines. She decided to buy one and so we sat down to do the paper work. She said to me “you look happy” and I replied “it’s my yoga but you look happy too”. She said it was her faith and that she was a Bahá’í. Next she paraphrased a quote from ‘Abdu’l-Bahá “If you are not happy now, what are you waiting for?” I remember to this day those words she quoted. I told her I had never heard of the Bahá’í faith and she said she would bring me a book to read. Her name then was Pari Yeganeh. She had just been to a local park and prayed to be led to a waiting soul. I read the book The Earth is but One Country and was amazed to find this book was so close to what I had called “my own religion”.
I left the book for her to collect behind the counter and unfortunately, or fortunately, I was then away for several weeks with an old back problem. In the meantime Pari had returned the washing machine (this had caused quite an uproar as there was nothing wrong with it) and she wanted her money back; the shop wanted her to have an exchange. Pari said she didn’t know what had made her buy it in the first place! When I got back to work, the book had gone and I didn’t see Pari again until we met one day walking in the High Street. She said it was the Bahá’í New Year and she was having a party to celebrate. With great trepidation I went along on my own as my husband was out of the country. This was another marvel as I am sure he would have told me not to go. Bahá’í is a strange name – different religious sects have such a bad name – but I was curious and this was a religion I wanted to know more about.
I must say I was warmly welcomed to the party and surrounded by a very friendly group of people. They told me about firesides being held at this house every Friday night and Pari gave me another book to read, Paris Talks consisting of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s talks in Paris. I found this book to be even more interesting because it dealt with spiritual subjects in an easy to understand way. After that I lived for Friday night firesides. Also, as Pari was only a pioneer to Bridgnorth, and there were no other Bahá’ís there, she took me to other communities and I met many different Bahá’ís from different backgrounds. Coupled with my hunger to read Bahá’í books, I found so many answers to what I had thought of as unanswerable problems. I started to see hope for the world where I thought there was none. This was the time of the atom bomb. I listened to news programmes with new ears, and after reading The Hidden Words I knew in my heart that Bahá’u’lláh was a Messenger from God. I developed a greater understanding of Christ and the other Messengers. I was happy, I was excited and I thought that everyone was waiting for this news.
I am afraid my enthusiasm outweighed my wisdom and I nearly lost my job. My husband was also cool and didn’t want to know. I wanted to declare my beliefs but also wanted his approval to ensure unity in the family. Later, he would tell everyone about the faith and said it was good for everyone except him as he didn’t need anything, but he did agree to me becoming a Bahá’í five months after that Naw-Ruz party, so I was overjoyed. We hosted many events at our house, and I became involved with youth projects. At last I felt I had a role to play in making this world a better place to live in, and to grow spiritually. Even the local vicar used to pop in for spiritual refreshment, as he put it, and had Bahá’ís say prayers in his church. I was living on cloud nine, my eldest daughter had become a Bahá’í but, unbeknown to me, my life was shortly about to change out of all recognition.
Out of the blue, my husband announced very calmly that he could see how happy I was and he wanted the same, but the Bahá’í life was not for him (he was a loner) and he left me. My two children were away from home and I found myself nearly penniless and alone. I cried until my face was sore. I had to stop. I found the best way was to put my head under ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s cloak and feel His love. Prayers took on a deeper meaning and I pulled myself through this very painful period of my life. My husband said his leaving was nothing to do with the Faith, he just wanted to find his own happiness, which I don’t think he ever did. He had expected me to be crushed by his departure and lack of financial support. However, this was not what happened. I turned my home into a Bed & Breakfast, and soon saved enough money to go on Pilgrimage to Haifa.
I asked advice from the Pioneering Committee on where I could pioneer to as I was now free. They enquired as to how many Bahá’ís lived in my area, my financial situation, and my qualifications as to whether I could support myself abroad. After careful consideration they suggested I stayed in Bridgnorth and that I concentrate on travel-teaching. With a friend’s help in looking after my B & B, and a change of job with more flexible hours, I found myself travelling and meeting many interesting people. This continued for three years until, in 1990, I found myself in Poland. I fell in love with the place and the people.
For the next couple of years I took more and more time off work and prolonged my stays in Poland and I made many friends. Some became Bahá’ís and some didn’t but they are still my friends to this day. The youth generally had great difficulty with their parents, being Catholic. The parents thought that becoming Bahá’ís meant that their children would go to hell – something no parent wants! I felt the youth needed support as they were very keen not to cause grief to their families, this also being part of their newly-found Bahá’í belief.
So I found myself in Poland. Money was not too great a difficulty as at that time, in 1992, the cost of living was low. Also I could come back to England to work for short periods. I walked into a job in a Polish University after they had been abandoned by an American teacher of English who caught sight of their hospitals, was in need of treatment, and was gone within days. I took a diploma in distance learning (this was required to hold the job).
My greatest joy was being asked to serve on the National Youth Committee. The youth had all the ideas; they just needed to be told they were good ideas and given help to put them into action. One idea was to make friends of youth in neighbouring countries. I lived close to the Slovak border so that was my responsibility. I regularly visited a town called Banska Bystrica where there were many youth. In fact, so many people thought the Bahá’í faith was only for youth! Eventually I was asked to live there in order to show that the Faith was for all age groups. I said that I had a long weekend coming up and if they could find me a flat and a job, I would come. They did both and so I went to live in Slovakia and was there for three years. One of my fondest memories was accompanying the youth to the Opening of the Terraces Ceremony in Haifa. Another was visiting the Romanian gypsies in Hungary. I had my petrol cap stolen there and immediately many of the gypsies disappeared into their sheds and came out with a large selection of old petrol caps; they were so ashamed mine had been stolen by one of them. After that one of the gypsies looked after my car while I was away visiting the gypsy friends.
In 2001 my daughter had her first child and needed support so that she could return to work, so off I went to Australia to help her. I had difficulty in getting residency, which meant having to leave the country twice a year to renew my visa. I decided to go to Thailand. I had been there before travel-teaching, and while in Haifa I had been told of a new project involving the hill tribe children, helping them to get an education. I had met the hill tribe people and was enthusiastic to be part of this new development. For the next nine years I travelled between Australia and Thailand. It was so rewarding seeing youth educated and getting into university; and one youth even having his own school in a very remote area, where there was no school before.
I have had so many adventures and have many stories to tell, but I will end here. Out of losing my own family, I have gained a world-wide family. The youth now have families of their own, some had their lives completely changed, some of their Bahá’í parents would never have met. I love them all and am so proud of what they have and what they are achieving. I have so many positive and happy memories and, God willing, I will continue giving that support where needed and be continually supported myself by the Concourse on High. They certainly have had their hands full guiding and protecting me, and still have! I couldn’t have done what I did without their support, a lone not young woman, no money, no language other than English, and no family support.
Sylvia Girling, May 2012