I was one of six children brought up in a traditionally Christian home. My mother was a daughter of the vicarage, and going to Sunday School or church was a natural part of our lives, as it had been for her. My father’s faith was less defined – his mother claimed to be a spiritualist medium, but this seemed to me, as a child, to be an end in itself, and didn’t have the comfortable associations of Sunday School trips and tea parties, or hymns and flower festivals. My mother did at times attend the spiritualist meeting with my father and “sat in the dark watching little lights flit round the place”, but she had no time for my grandmother’s “messages”. Looking back it is ironic that over the years it has been my mother, not my father, who has several times experienced unexplained knowledge of something yet to happen, and has seen and heard loved ones who have died, but she accepts this as part of life, and is not interested in giving it a special name.
As a young teenager I attended the Girl Crusader Bible Study Classes held in our town. I read the Bible every day and got a prize for being able to recite the names of the books of the Bible. When I put myself up for confirmation in the Church of England I got a little taste of the petty exclusiveness that can occur in the established faiths, when the fact that I went to Crusaders (not run by the local church) and not Pathfinders (which was), meant my credentials for confirmation were in doubt, so I had to attend extra sessions.
Cromer Church was, at that time, very evangelical, and in the summer we were visited by a team from the Children’s Special Service Mission (CSSM). These were university students from Christian Unions who gave us a lot of fun on the beach during the holidays, and encouraged us to “ask Jesus into our hearts”, which we did, so as not to seem ungrateful. The emphasis was very much on saving souls and as time passed I became less interested in my soul and more interested in how we should be living in this world, especially in relation to other faiths. I never got much satisfaction if I broached the subject, just being told “God would be the judge”.
When I left home I tried to keep up the church habit for a while, but became more disillusioned when the church I attended in Birmingham were not quite as delighted to meet the rabble of youngsters I used to collect to take to service, as I thought they should be. (I was working at a primary school in a very deprived area and the children jumped at any chance of going somewhere different).
Once married, the church habit was abandoned. My husband had grown up in a very church- centred home and had had his fill of organised religion so we left it all behind us (after our church wedding..) However, once we had our first child and she began to need guidance and discipline I began to feel I wanted to be able to refer to something with more depth and authority than “because I say so!” when asked “Why can’t I?”, and I began to look around for a spiritual home. Church life in Beccles at that time was not appealing. Congregations were flocking here and there in pursuit of their favourite vicar or self-appointed pastor and the whole thing seemed more like a popularity contest than a serious effort to create a Christian community. I was drawn to the Quakers and had just begun to investigate them seriously when I first heard of the Bahá’ís.
As a young mum at home, I attended what was then the Housewives’ Register – an organisation for “lively minded women” and it was here that I met Hugh and Deborah McKinley and learned that there existed a Faith which embodied all the things that made sense to me, and that it was established all over the world. I took home a yellow leaflet that I held dear and read and reread.
Some time later, again at ‘Housewives’, I heard Richard Morgan talk about his art, and he referred to the inspiration he drew from the Bahá’í writings. I was so pleased to find someone nearby and accessible who could tell me more about this new Faith, and over the next two years my husband Graham and I went to many lovely firesides in different homes, and met a stream of wonderfully inspiring people as they travelled through the area. I was very touched and impressed to see that my husband, who was not socially confident and rarely spoke out in a group, joined in discussions readily among the Bahá’ís. Another confirmation that we were on the right path was when an old friend from an earlier stage of our lives appeared at a fireside as the speaker. He had met the Faith in the interval and was active in the community life of the Bahá’ís.
I am not an impulsive person and like to think a decision through and feel sure I know all the facts before I make a significant choice, so I asked for and read Principles of Bahá’í Administration, and I think that’s probably what confirmed me in the decision to sign up. Until then, I’d been very resistant to the idea of yet another religion with another name, but when I understood the prescription for the new administration I realised I needed to be part of it. I also realised that unfortunately the names of the earlier faiths had come to have negative connotations that could not be disregarded. We talked about it, and realised we came at the Faith very differently, but both felt at home in it, so we set a date (our 15th wedding anniversary) on which to declare. This allowed us to celebrate Christmas with the family and drink the sloe gin we had laid down before making our commitments! My brothers treated this period rather as a light hearted wake; we were going to join a weird religion and give up drink, and needed to be given a send off.
We made our declarations at the home of Richard and Rosemary Morgan, which was very fitting as they had been endlessly patient and hospitable as we’d investigated and deliberated. The rest of the Waveney Community was there at their Geldeston home and it was a very joyful occasion, on December 28th 1983.
The years that followed were full of Bahá’í activities and adventures. The first major event I remember was the North Sea Border Conference which was held at Blackfriars Hall in Norwich. I have a distinct memory of a moment when those present were asked to raise their hands if they had any relatives who had experienced persecution in Iran, and my shock when half the hall raised their hands. It made real what I knew of the difficulties there were for Bahá’ís in Iran.
Waveney Community became very well known for its carnivals and we took part in Notting Hill Carnival, as well as many nearer home, always proclaiming the unity of mankind in spectacular and colourful fashion. The community’s creativity was also put to very good use in the creation of the walk through installation made for the Liverpool conference. Visiting artists stayed with us and more friendships were made. The “Ridvan” benches I helped to paint are still in good shape, and the fountain designed to replicate that found in the Ridvan gardens still graces the gardens of a Bahá’í friend nearby. I remember too a meeting of the then National Teaching Committee which took place here in Beccles in January 1987– we played host to Hugh Adamson, the then National Secretary of the UK National Spiritual Assembly and also, to a young Shariar Razavi, who was so tired I was quite concerned about him. They shared my young son’s bedroom, complete with a frieze of brightly coloured traffic. Rocky Grove, Jan Meghrabi and others stayed with nearby Bahá’ís and it was a very snowy weekend, so travel between us was not easy.
We were lucky enough to be able to host meetings with some very special people – I particularly remember Nathan Rutstein coming and entertaining us with his anecdotes (with Shamsi Navidi vainly attempting to keep him on topic), and Gloria Faizi also spoke at a gathering in our house. I think it would have been in 1988 or thereabouts.
We were fortunate enough to be able to go on Pilgrimage as a family in 1988, and I have since made a three day visit and been able to visit the lower half of the wonderful terraces.
In 1994 Graham and I found ourselves in Tanzania with a group of Bahá’ís from Kenya, facilitating a workshop for Baha’is interested in developing early years’ education. How that came about was a convoluted tale, but it started with my noticing a small ad in the Bahá’i Journal, and was given form and function by a fortunate meeting with an American Baha’i, Patrick Bergin, who was working in East Africa, but studying for a PhD supervised from the University of East Anglia, so visiting Norwich. Our relationship with Tanzania deepened when one of the workshop attendees, Ruth Mnyampi, came to stay with us a year or two later and was able to spend time in primary schools here, going back laden with ideas and resources for the school she had started in Tabora after the workshop. Ongoing fund-raising here in Waveney supported the translation and publication of “The Yellow Book” (a highly respected Bahá’í publication about all you need to know to run a pre-school) into Swahili, to make it accessible to the many Tanzanian Bahá’ís who did not speak or read English.
In 1995 our daughter served as a volunteer at the Kampala Bahá’í Centre and met there Peter and Grace Manins, who had travelled to East Africa to introduce their children to Grace’s home country and relatives, and to pay their respects at the grave of her father, Enoch Olinga. As a result of that meeting the Manins family spent four weeks of the summer with us and took part in the carnivals, and as a consequence of that, my husband stayed with them in New Zealand a year or two later. Certainly joining the Bahá’í Faith has brought an international element to our lives, which I greatly enjoy. Peter, who had withdrawn from the Faith some time earlier, re-declared during their trip to Africa and relished the chance to be an active part of our community while he was here.
Back in the UK I was a member of Waveney LSA from 1984 until it disbanded following the boundary changes in 2000, and I was secretary for many of those years. I have served as Suffolk’s delegate to National Convention on numerous occasions and was an active assistant in the organisation and running of the East Anglia Easter School when it was at Felixstowe, and later at Haughley Green, doing everything from organising the children’s classes (pre CRB checks!) to catering. Meeting Bahá’ís from Holland at the Easter school gave me the interest and courage to attend a Dutch residential school at Nijmegen one Easter, with my daughter Zoe, and reinforced my awareness of the scope of the worldwide Bahá’í community.
I serve on the Board of Suffolk Interfaith Resource so sometimes have the opportunity to contribute a particularly Bahá’í view, and serve as a tutor, giving introductory lectures on the Faith when asked, and generally trying to facilitate mutual knowledge and understanding between those of different faith and culture.
Suffolk, September 2012