Liz Emerson with husband Royce in 2011

My Bahá’í Journey

I wish I could say that I found the Bahá’í Faith purely by myself but I didn’t.  I had wonderful parents, John and Val Morley, who found it first and, as an observer, I witnessed their “independent investigation of truth”.  I wasted time though because, when it was my turn to “declare” at fifteen, I felt that I hadn’t personally investigated the Faith. Of course, on reflection, I had.  Isn’t hindsight a wonderful thing!!  I spent two more years investigating, procrastinating more like, and declared formally when I was seventeen.  I have friends who found the Faith for themselves and some even faced parental opposition and would loved to have had a Bahá’í family like mine and I, in my turn, wanted to get that feeling of independent discovery that they had been through and wanted to have the incredible spiritual energy with which they were charged. There were times when I felt decidedly inadequate beside them,

So now to my Bahá’í journey, that is the early part of my journey.  I will be reminiscing over my twenty years a-growing (1943-1963), the part of my life in which I found my faith and began the challenging, but rewarding, life as an adult Bahá’í. But I am writing from a tricky perspective, as I have no diaries of that period and my memory for details is frankly terrible.

Maybe a very quick “snap-shot” of my family’s background might be an appropriate starting point: My parents were totally involved in music and drama before they were Bahá’ís.  Dad (born Morley John Cottrell) was brought up in Tunbridge Wells, the son of a tailor. He was a very young talented organist and pianist and, in fact, held a professional position as organist of a church in Kent at the age of fourteen. He reluctantly entered the army, due to parental pressure, and joined the Scots Guards as a musician, playing the piano in the regimental orchestra, which performed on special occasions from seaside concerts to royal balls. Unfortunately for his solo career, he broke his right wrist, calling a halt to the punishing round of concert playing. He then went into the theatre, drama being his first love. He was in great demand playing young piano-playing juvenile roles in the fashionable plays of the 1920s and 30s using the stage name of John Morley, a name which remained with him for life.

Mum (Val Morley née Larg) was brought up in the cosy tight-knit world of a Royal Naval family. Her father was stationed overseas in Malta and Bermuda where Mum became an accomplished amateur musician and gained a place to study music in London. However, her main love was the theatre and she longed to join the professional Shakespearean company (Florence Glossop-Harris Co.) which occasionally visited Bermuda. Her father didn’t approve of his daughter becoming an actress but, on arrival in London to study music, she turned her back on a music career and joined the Glossop-Harris Company. The next her family saw of her was when she was back in Bermuda on tour performing as Celia in Shakespeare’s “As you Like It”.  It was in this company that she met and married Dad in 1935 and in the years that followed they were together in various repertory companies and working for the BBC. The second world-war forced the closure of many theatre companies and the BBC was relocated, including my parents, away from the London bombs to Bristol (ironically into the Bristol blitz!).

Before the war my parents had become interested in Quakerism and were very much influenced by its pacifist principles.  Dad, although beyond call-up age by then, declared himself a conscientious objector.  Prejudice against COs caused him to leave the BBC and he offered his services to help the Quakers on the home front, working at a residential home for displaced children outside Bristol.  It was there that my brother, Christopher, and I were growing up during the war.  My father at first volunteered as the cook but later he and my mother used their music and drama skills with the children.  Educational drama subsequently dominated several decades of our family life.

Chris and I were lifted to safety in 1945, out of the chaos of post-war Bristol and taken by a dear friend of the family’s to Buckinghamshire where she had secured a job as a housemother in a school. Therefore, at the age of two, I stayed with her in a Montessori boarding school in Great Missenden called Elmtrees, and Chris, who was eight, went to a nearby prep. school.  My parents, meanwhile, tried hard to re-establish a livelihood in the theatre. Finally, after three unsuccessful years, they joined us in Buckinghamshire. Mum became a housemother and Dad an odd-job man at the school. By then I was five and Chris eleven. We were all together again at last, living in an old disused stone dairy in the school grounds that my father converted into a cottage with the help of a German ex-prisoner-of-war. These were happy days. There we stayed until I was seven when Dad got the job as Drama Adviser for Berkshire and we moved to Henley to be nearer his work.

So you see, my brother and I were brought up in a rather unorthodox theatrical, musical and educational family. Christopher was to follow very successfully in our parents’ theatrical footsteps, and I in the musical and educational ones.

And religious footsteps?  Well at that time we were very loosely attached to the Quaker community until, in the mid 1950s, Bahá’u’lláh entered and revolutionised our unconventional family environment.

Personally, my first memory of religion was of Church of England services in a parish church in rural Berkshire. This was in 1950 when I was seven and was, by then, a boarder again, this time at a very small private school in the village of Binfield, where I was to stay until I was eleven.  I hated being a boarder and was very lonely. We attended church on Sundays, where I felt quite at home, and the elderly vicar, who was a frequent visitor to the school, became a friendly father figure and I found security in the formality of the services.  Later, at the age of eight, being the only person in the school who could play the piano (albeit not much!), I was asked to play for the daily school prayers.  I don’t suppose I played very well but at least it developed my sight-reading skills!  Even now, sixty years later, I can remember the words of many of the hymns and still have great affection for small English parish churches, their organs and music.

But my earliest memory of religious life within our family was very different. We occasionally attended the Friends’ Meeting House.  My brother, six years my senior, went to a Quaker boarding school.  During the Quaker meetings, if my childhood memory is correct, there is total silence for about an hour during which, if someone feels moved, they can stand up and speak about something spiritual.  I found these meetings strangely unnerving compared to the more formal experience in Binfield Parish Church.  I remember a feeling of anxiety, a sense of not knowing what to do in the silences and wondering, even as a child, if I should stand up and say something. This awkwardness around religion would last well into my teens.

I was a thinking child and my religious confusion increased as my parents grew closer to Quakerism, and I to the Church of England.  I can recall one example of this ‘spiritual muddle’ when I was eight: Dad, as Drama Adviser for Berkshire, was involved with many community drama productions and this included delightful Christmas Nativity plays in churches throughout the county.  I was included in some of these as an angel (or whatever was needed)!  As a consequence we got to know a few clergymen and their families and the vicar of one of these churches (Bucklebury I think) invited me to stay overnight with his family.  I was happy to be with them but at bedtime, I became very embarrassed when the children all knelt by their beds to say their prayers.  (What was I supposed to do? This was not what we did at home). When their father came to say goodnight to us he asked me if I had knelt down to say my prayers before I got into bed.  I, who hated being put on the spot, said “No. It’s alright thank you, I say mine while I’m going along”.  I had not been challenged like this before and my reaction was probably the first sign, at the age of eight, of the independent spirit that has dogged me all my life. Actually that story was related to me years later by the vicar.

Later in the early 1950s my parents met up with the Bahá’ís in Reading.  I’m not sure exactly the order of who, where or when.  In 1954 I left the boarding school and started at a day school, Malvern House, in Reading.  Mum and Dad became Bahá’ís in 1956 and 1957 respectively.  As it happens, my good friend Pixie MacCallum was also at this small all-age school, although we didn’t meet at that time. She was a primary pupil but I, as an eleven year old, was a senior and only really knew her by name. We met years later after she had become a Bahá’í and I heard her name again (after all how many people are called Pixie MacCallum?)!   I had attended a Bahá’í youth weekend at her family home in Oxfordshire.

My recollections of being with Bahá’ís in the 1950s was of travelling about, meeting people and listening, always listening!  Listening to talks and discussions and it was a great way to learn about the Faith.  We had met up with the dynamic Battricks, Owen and Jeanette, who ran a vegetarian restaurant in Reading.  We were vegetarians, so I suppose that’s how we met.  We spent a lot of time with them and their family: Ilona, who I saw when she was around in the school holidays, as she was away at Elmhurst Ballet School.  Our friendship continues to this day even though she is in New Zealand. Royce and I had a wonderful, but all too brief, stay with her and her husband David in Aukland in 2011.  I also remember young Richard Battrick and later the birth of their sister Sarah. (What a relief to hear from Richard that, despite losing their home, he and his family have survived the two devastating earthquakes in Christchurch in 2010 and 2011).

Recalling these times in Reading in the 1950s, I remember that many local Bahá’í activities took place at the Battricks’ large home in nearby Twyford, a home which I will always associate with large gatherings including my first experience of a Bahá’í wedding (Michael and Lydia Blakey’s, I think).  There were also other close friends in Reading who would influence my thinking at the time and probably to the present day: there was Beryl de Gruchy, a pioneer from the Channel Islands who had sat in an upstairs room above the fish shop in Broad Street, week after week, in case anyone came to hear about the Bahá’í Faith; Frances Bateman, a Bahá’í who ran the Battricks’ Tea Bar in Friar Street; Jim and Dori Talbot; Mr and Mrs Rustum Sabet.  Incidentally, when I heard of the role Reading now has in the Faith in this decade I immediately thought of the dedication of those early Reading Bahá’ís and particularly Beryl sitting in that room!

I am stretching my brain now to recall some of the Bahá’ís who came into our lives at this precious time: the busy Hofmans in Oxford (David, Marion, May and Mark) whom we saw very often, Kitty Glover (Jeanette Battrick’s aunt), Joy Card and her parents (from Cardiff), the Wades, the Ferrabysthe Jenkersons, Dan Jordan at Oxford University (a bit of a teenage crush actually and for whom I made pineapple upside-down cake), Ian Semple, Eric Hellicar, the Longs, the Munsiffs, the Nazars, Geoff Bridle (who married Marina Nazar), Andrew Gash, the Hellabys, the Hainsworths, Betty Reed, the Cardells, the Goodes, Mary Koucheckzadeh, Hartmut and Ursula Grossmann (who invited me to their lovely home near Heidelberg when I was seventeen), the Benatars, Soheil Bushrui (who took my Greatest Name ring stone, a gift from the Grossmanns, and had it set in a ring for me in Africa), the Lees, the Lewises.  So many wonderful personal friends and there were so many more I know……………

These first Bahá’í memories are of happy days but they were bewildering at the same time.  After all my parents had, not so long ago, got themselves ‘properly’ into Quakerism.

So were we Quakers or Bahá’ís?

I suppose I was about twelve when I understood the meaning of Bahá’u’lláh’s principle of ‘Independent investigation of truth’ and set about trying to fathom things out for myself.  It was quite usual for the very busy British Bahá’í parents in those days to let their children soak up the teachings, investigate the Faith for themselves and hope and pray that at the age of fifteen they would miraculously wish to become Bahá’ís.  Soak up the teachings we certainly did.  However we lacked a formal Bahá’í education system, which in my case might have helped.  I had friends from all branches of Christianity and I occasionally went with them to their churches to investigate their beliefs and I was struck by the similarities between them. On one such occasion a friend was being baptised at a local Baptist Church and I was invited to attend and very nearly followed her (so emotionally charged was the occasion)!  As far as I can recall I hadn’t, before I met up with the Bahá’ís, met anyone who wasn’t a Christian, an Atheist or an Agnostic.  I learnt about other world faiths through Bahá’í talks which was a great way to learn the basic verities of them all.  I gradually began to see not only the similarities between the Christian churches but also the links with the other faiths.  Belief in the unity of religion under one God was a natural progression for me.

I think, in my heart, I became a Bahá’í when my mother did.  Her non-dogmatic approach, her thoughts and actions, always influenced mine and still do even to this day well after her passing.

The sequence of events is hazy now and I must apologise to all those wonderful people who have better memories than I have.

Of course the one event we will all remember in that decade was the passing of Shoghi Effendi in London, November 1957.  We will not be able to forget the devastation felt at the time. I can still recall the gloom that settled over everyone and the wonderful Hands of the Cause of God and members of the National Spiritual Assembly who held us all together.  I can also remember the awful situation of covenant breakers after his passing…. I recall one unforgettable day when, after we had been warned to avoid those who sought to break-up and divide the community, my mother, who thought our telephone was being tapped (a mere click on the phone-line we realised later), grabbed me and we raced to Reading station, took a train to London and arrived breathless at 27 Rutland Gate.  She had warned me not to talk to anyone en route and I could sense how anxious she was.  We were immediately put at ease at the Bahá’í Centre (by gentle John Ferraby I think) and eventually went home. This was just a false alarm but so heightened were emotions and concerns for the safety and unity of the Faith in the wake of the Guardian’s passing, that even my usually calm, patient mother was severely perturbed.

At this time, in the Ten Year Crusade, and later in the Nine Year Plan it was very important to be moving to open goal areas to the Faith or to form Local Spiritual Assemblies by considering very carefully where we could study, get work and where we could live.  Many individuals and families made huge sacrifices to move, sometimes only a few hundred yards over a boundary.  This started for us in the Ten Year Crusade.  The map of the British Isles as one large jig-saw with every piece (every town and rural district) gradually fitting in to become Points of Light and the word ‘goal’ took on a very special meaning. Some had the honour of being guided by the Guardian as to where to settle and later we would turn to the National Assembly with the question, “Where do you want me to go?”  It is what in those times drove the community movement and certainly influenced my parents’ moves, my own moves and later the Emerson family’s. There was a consciousness of the need to form LSAs and as soon as there were more than nine in a location, someone tried to move somewhere else. That’s why we were spread around quite thinly and how the LSAs were won.  In fact, to win one goal of the Crusade my mother was living in Winchester for three months over Ridván, my father elsewhere and we stayed back in Reading with an aunt.  This was affectionately called ‘last ditching’ and was necessary at that time and was successful in most instances.

A significant step in our family’s Bahá’í life occurred when I was 15:  We bought a house!  This may not seem significant in this day and age but believe me, for us and at that time it was huge!  We had been living in a very small, cramped Berkshire County Council staff-house in Calcot, near Reading, in fact only a few hundred yards outside the town boundary.  From an LSA point of view it was desirable for us to move across that boundary into Reading.  But how could we? We couldn’t afford to buy or rent a house in Reading.

Enter Owen Battrick: I can remember him sitting my father down and introducing him to the world of mortgages. The whole language of house-buying was quite foreign to Dad in those days.  Since leaving Bristol, the blitzed city of my birth, we had lived in various schools: in a Buckinghamshire converted stone dairy, a flat above a hotel in Henley-on Thames, the upstairs of a Berkshire rectory, the upper floors of a huge Victorian mansion in Burghfield Common owned by our friends the Dents near Reading (now HQ for the Guide Dogs charity), before being allocated the staff-house in Calcot.  Owen persuaded Dad to take out a mortgage in order to buy a house in Reading and it was an extreme leap of faith for Mum and Dad.  However, we ended up with quite a small semi-detached house in Earley which, despite its size was to become a Bahá’í hub, a meeting place for people to gather for firesides and even rather cramped weekend schools.

My parents held firesides every Monday evening in Reading, which were usually well attended.  Somehow we ended up with several ‘boys’ from the local RAF base at Shinfield, on their National Service, coming to our firesides. There seemed to be quite a few of them interested: I remember Geoff Bridle and Andrew Gash particularly. Geoff and Marina Bridle were to play a big part in my adult life later in Peterborough.  (Incidentally, I’m pleased to have met up with them again recently since their return from Australia).

Geoff remembers my petulant teenage years: that I went through a phase when I was annoyed because firesides were on the same evening as Perry Mason on television.  We had only just got our first television set and, to be fair, getting one was a red letter day for most families in those days and there was of course no chance to record programmes either.  My patient father put an aerial point in my bedroom and he must have lifted that very large heavy television set upstairs each week just so that I could watch the half-hour programme during the fireside.  Not something I’m proud of, and thank goodness this disgraceful situation didn’t last long.  Bahá’u’lláh must have had great compassion for this rather muddled teenager, who spent most of her time playing the cello and piano, and He caused her to be soaked in the company of a huge wave of influential visitors to the house.  We were blessed with visits of quite a few of the beloved Hands of the Cause of God and other great teachers speaking at our firesides.  I loved listening to them all.  I wish I could go back to that time and listen to them again.

At fifteen, I was heavily into music. I had started, aged eleven, to attend the Berkshire Junior Music School in Winnersh on Saturday mornings and been introduced to my first cello which was to virtually take over my life.  In my religious investigation, I had become argumentative. The change and change-about concerning the family’s religion had confused me, I suppose, and I didn’t have much time for Bahá’í life because of the endless round of cello and piano practice, exams, rehearsals and concerts.  I remember at critical times practising in the garage much to the amusement of our neighbours.  On my fifteenth birthday Jeanette Battrick asked me if I had written to the National Assembly with my declaration but I had become stubborn and said I wasn’t ready to become a Bahá’í.  I eventually declared at the age of seventeen in 1960.

My later teenage years were spent on music and attending local community activities. Unfortunately at that age I didn’t go to Bahá’í summer schools where I would have met more of my generation because I spent most of my teenage holidays on orchestral courses.  But I have no regrets. Our circle of interesting friends increased and I was surrounded by love and examples of inspiring Bahá’í lives.  I have no doubt that Bahá’u’lláh supported me throughout my teenage years both in my music studies and my Bahá’í journey.  My music was, many years later, to give me the best opportunity as a Bahá’í to contribute a long-standing service to the island community of Lewis when we lived in Stornoway.

As a twenty year old in 1963 I had the bounty of attending the first International Bahá’í Congress which was held almost on our doorstep in the Royal Albert Hall in London when, for the first time in history, the world was introduced to the first newly elected Universal House of Justice.  I travelled down from Nottingham, where I was studying to be a music teacher, and joined the unbelievably large throng outside the hall, a throng that was stopping traffic and causing quite a stir. There were newspaper headlines everywhere. “Where the kissing begins” I think was one national newspaper headline, together with photos of Bahá’ís from all over the world, many in national costume.  Inside the hall I sat with my parents in this vast sea of friends.  It seemed that the whole Bahá’í world was here right before our eyes and the dream was becoming a reality. There have been huge congresses and conferences since but I don’t think anything had quite the impact of this one.  Nothing really prepared us for the monumental buzz of going from very small dedicated local communities to being in such a huge international crowd, albeit only 6,000 or so of us. Small by to-day’s standards!  At a stroke my teenage doubts and concerns disappeared and it all made sense.

Later in that same momentous year I was given a ticket to go on pilgrimage to Haifa.  The ticket was an early gift from my parents for my twenty-first birthday. The World Centre has in recent years been transformed beyond our vision then and it must be an incredible experience for modern day pilgrims.

But in 1963 it was a very different experience.  A short reminiscence of my time on pilgrimage will act as a memory seal for this period of my journey and, although concise, will perhaps be of historical interest.

The friends with whom I shared my time in Haifa hold a very special place in my heart, contributing as they did to my Bahá’í coming of age. Unfortunately I haven’t seen many of them since. The cover of my old green prayer book is now in tatters but some of their names appear inside.  Signatures of fellow pilgrims, Hands of the Cause of God and others who were our hospitable hosts: Betty Shepherd, Bunny and Terry Boland, Peggy Carson, Mr and Mrs Furutan, Rodney Hancock, Fujita, Bahieh Hakim, Paul Haney, May Hofman, Jessie Revell, Violette Nakhjavani, Juana Ortuino, Habibolah and Rouhunyiz Alvandi, Massoud and Gitti Attai and several members of the Mehrnoosh family from Germany.  I mention them perchance one of them is reading this and will understand their value in my journey.  I apologise if I have misread any of the signatures.

Pilgrimage (Dec 1963 – Jan 1964)
Left to right: Terry Boland, Betty Shepherd, Bunny Boland, Liz, May Hofman, Juana Ortuino, Rodney Hancock & Hand of the Cause Mr Furútan

I travelled to Israel with my dear friend May Hofman. During our stay in Haifa, May and I slept in the Martha Root room in what was previously known as the Eastern Pilgrim House (with a direct view of the Shrine of the Báb through our bedroom window. What a view)!  The Universal House of Justice was using the Western Pilgrim House for its ‘Seat’ and therefore the eastern and western pilgrims were together now and it was in the Eastern Pilgrim House that we all slept while in Haifa.  We sat in the evenings, after eating delicious food, listening to the wonderful Hands of the Cause. Mr Furutan challenged me to an orange-eating contest.  But they were colossal Jaffa oranges and I had to give up before my stomach reacted!  I loved his sense of humour.

On one of the days we went for tea with Rúhíyyih Khánum at her little house.  We went in small groups and, I think, our group comprised Betty, Bunny, May and myself.  It was an incredible, dynamic afternoon and very memorable.

To visit the holy places outside Haifa, Hand of the Cause Paul Haney drove us around in the biggest American car I had ever seen.  He was very interesting to listen to as he described the history.  I have always had a keen love of gardens and I particularly fell in love with the Ridván Garden and have very happy memories of spending time talking with the sweet diminutive Fujita who was tending the gardens around the Shrine of the Báb.

At Bahji we slept in the Mansion in a room full of books.  I can recall images of our time there: waking really early in the mornings, May reading books, me walking through the olive trees near to the Mansion, the pilgrims eating together in the little house beside the Mansion, me surprising Mrs Ward who was looking after us, by asking if I could have a shower (apparently I was the first pilgrim to make such a request!), the welcoming cool colours of green and white inside the Shrine of Bahá’u’lláh and, looking across the landing in the middle of the night at the beautiful glow of the light in His room.

It all had a profound effect on me and was a befitting way for me to come of age and a significant milestone on my Bahá’í journey.

But that was only the start.  I cannot begin to mention the myriad experiences I have had since and the people I have worked and spent time with.  It would fill several books: particularly the early happy years working with the youth, marriage to Royce, our children: Richard, Matthew, Ben, Tessa and Alexandra and our grandchildren: Mack, Xander, Isabella, Toby, Charlie and Gabriel and the loving Bahá’í friends that have played such a significant part in my life through the last five decades.  Friends, too numerous to mention here, who have been with me in the communities where, as an adult, I have had the privilege to live and serve the Faith: Liverpool, Northern Ireland, Leicestershire, Peterborough, Birmingham, North Warwickshire, Harrogate, Stornoway and, at present, Inverness.

I am writing this ‘history’ in 2012.  Royce and I have now both retired and embarked on the next part of our life.  To all those friends who have accompanied me so far on my journey, my love and thanks for your company.

—————-

Liz Emerson

Inverness, September 2012

Liz’ parents, Val and John Morley, at Ted and Alicia Cardell’s farm
near St Neots, Huntingdonshire (July 1966)

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