I was one of the first in my class at school to declare themselves an Atheist. This was unusual for a thirteen year old in Belfast in the mid-seventies when even the Atheists were Protestant or Catholic. Just a few years earlier I was bewildered at the shock on the faces of my teacher and class mates when I hobbled into class one Monday morning and told them that I had hurt my ankle playing football in the street the previous day. What? Playing football on a Sunday! Disgraceful.
Many of my classmates followed a very narrow-minded group of “Saved” Christians. I thought it odd that someone who claimed to love God and Christ should define themselves as one who is saved from Hell. There seemed to be more fear than love.
“What about the people in other parts of the world, who were born into other Faiths – are they all doomed to eternal damnation?” I asked. I enjoyed arguing with them to point out the foolishness of their views but I became bored quickly as they just repeated the same fixed mantras.
I had worked it all out. So-called religion just brought conflict – an easy conclusion to come to in Belfast. Religion was just a comfort for the frightened and unthinking. What they claimed to be the action of their god was just happenchance. As science progressed, so God had been pushed back into nothingness. “God is the law of probability”, I declared. I was very proud of that one – I remember actually writing it down.
My teenage years were difficult – my father had died when I was nine. We used to live in a quiet, reasonably well-to-do cul-de-sac in the suburbs of Belfast. As the money ran out, my mother, brother and I lived in a series of places. In 1978 we eventually moved into a council house in a fairly rough estate in Greenisland and ended up next door to a Bahá’í (the wonderful Mary Pakra). I kept my head down, continued going to the grammar school across town, even though it meant trying to catch (and usually missing) the 7:15am bus. I didn’t have much to do with our neighbours – they were generally a rough lot. Some were obviously members of paramilitary organisations.
My mother, despite telling us, as children, never to talk to strangers, always spoke to strangers. She became friendly with Mary (definitely not one of the “rough lot”), frequently popping in for coffee. She started telling me that Mary was a Bahá’í. I had never heard of Bahá’ís before, I just assumed that it was another strange eastern cult that hippies and the brainwashed followed. (There wasn’t much religious or cultural diversity about in Northern Ireland at that time). Mary didn’t seem to be brainwashed or a hippy, perhaps she was just a little naive, I thought.
Then, within a few months, my mother told me that she had become a Bahá’í. I couldn’t believe it. We had a big argument, how could she be so daft as to be taken in by this nonsense.
Over the next few months I got to know more Bahá’ís. I didn’t know it at the time but I was in Carrickfergus community and it had more than its fair share of very special Bahá’ís, most of whom lived within a few minutes’ walk. We had the extraordinary Jane Villiers-Stuart – her face still shines through her children and grandchildren; we had Ernest Riddell who was in his nineties, a proper local country man who died peacefully in his kitchen, having returned from gardening and saying to his daughter that he just needed to sit down for a bit of a rest; we had two of the remarkable Bailey sisters whose flat was the warmest, most welcoming, most spiritual place that I know of outside of the Shrines – and which had played host to crowds of knife-wielding gang members from the local estates; we also had the very gentile Jean Ham who lived furthest away, in Whitehead, and always served us tea in her best china. My wee brother Darrin was not such a cynic and before I knew it, he too declared as a Bahá’í on his 15th birthday in 1980. I enjoyed offering him food throughout the daylight hours of his first Fast.
I kept being invited to a fireside in Belfast. There would be a talk and then some food and dancing?! I really had no interest but eventually I was persuaded that it would be better than sitting at home on Friday evening watching TV. I was given a lift in the back of Jane’s old rusty Ford Transit van. It had no seats in the back but did have some old blankets covering the wheel arches. I lifted the blanket and could see the road and spinning wheel beneath – this was clearly going to be an adventure.
When we arrived there were already twenty or thirty people there, none of whom looked particularly hippyish, brainwashed or even Bible-Thumperish. The table in the back room was laden with food, as if for a party. The talk was about to begin (or perhaps had already started – Jane was not well-known for her punctuality). I had no interest in what anyone had to say – I was only there because it was easier than refusing – but I thought that it would seem impolite to eat the food without paying the price of listening to the talk. Anyway, I would enjoy arguing with them and showing them the error of their ways, as I did with the other religious nuts I knew. The only problem was that everything that I heard made sense. I couldn’t find anything to argue about. I asked some questions and received sensible, thoughtful answers in response rather than the oft-repeated, meaningless dogma that I had been used to. Surprised, but not overly moved, I went on to the generous and tasty mountain of food; enjoyed the atmosphere but tried to keep a low-profile in case anyone suggested that I join in with the disco dancing that went on into the early hours. This was a fireside like no other; this was Nari Sherwani’s house and often the last of the guests only left on the Monday morning.
I kept going to Bahá’í events for the next eighteen months with no notion at all of ever becoming a Bahá’í. All this spiritual stuff was not for me. It all made sense, it could be true but the idea of being someone who believed in and prayed to an unseen God and who had a spiritual-side, never really seemed like me. I said to a friend who was not a Bahá’í that I would like to be someone that had the comfort of a belief in God but I was too sensible for that. However, if I was to believe in God then it would be the God described by the Bahá’ís rather than the old man with the white beard sitting in Heaven and meddling in people’s lives.
In August 1980, I attended a mini-Summer School at Nari’s. It didn’t strike me as the slightest bit odd that I would do this as a non-Bahá’í. Towards the end of the school, Nari asked me very directly whether I was actually a Bahá’í. The question surprised me but got me thinking. I did believe in Baha’u’llah. I just was driven by logic rather than anything that I recognised as spiritual and I saw Bahá’ís as spiritual. Of course I was a Bahá’í – just not as good as the wonderful people that I saw around me. I declared before the end of the school, on the 8th August 1980.
What seemed like moments later I was off to the proper Summer School in Waterford. Pat and Gene McArdle had travelled up from Dundalk – they gave me a lift back down to their flat. The plan was that I hitch-hike (something that I had never done before) on down to Waterford and camp with John McGann, whom I had never met. It turned out that John had a very small tent and no flysheet. It rained heavily that first night and we awoke to a couple of inches of rainwater inside the tent. We spent the remainder of the night sleeping on the wooden floor of the hall – we had nothing as sophisticated as camping mats. Despite the difficult start, I had never before and rarely since enjoyed anything as much in my life. This was an extraordinary new world, immediately having friends from all over the planet. Coming home was quite a come-down and I vowed never to attend another Summer School because leaving was just too painful. I, of course, attended many more Summer Schools and am always inspired to do my little bit to bring this world to the rest of humanity.
Northern Ireland had a wonderful Bahá’í community at that time. It seemed that everyone knew everyone and there was a very strong feeling of unity. There was lots of good teaching and proclamation work going on and I seemed to spend every weekend and holiday travelling about the (very small) country, meeting and working with Friends. I think that I was a founder member of the first Northern Irish Youth Committee but I cannot remember the details. As a result, I was appointed the Youth Representative on the Northern Ireland Teaching Committee, which was a fantastic experience.
I left Northern Ireland in 1986 for a job in Redditch, Worcestershire. It was a bit of a culture-shock for me. England was too big and Redditch was too small for me to find that same sense of community. I still remained active and soon found great Friends in Redditch, Warwick, Stratford-upon-Avon and Southam. I met my first wife at a Naw-Rúz party six months after I arrived in England and we were married eighteen months later. She was not a Bahá’í but had had two otherwise unconnected Bahá’í friends at different times in her life. Unfortunately she suffers from OCD and it became increasingly difficult for me to partake in the life of the community. I still considered myself a Bahá’í (although not a very good one) but totally withdrew from any contact with other Bahá’ís (other than my family, of course, but even that became difficult) for the next fifteen years. We had moved some fifty miles from my work; I had taken digs during the week in various towns in Hampshire. I was spending less and less time at home as our marriage deteriorated.
In 2005 I moved into Alresford, near Winchester. I thought that I could no longer call myself a Bahá’í and use my wife as an excuse for my inactivity. However, I looked up “Bahá’í” in the telephone book and found a number for the Winchester community. I called and spoke to David Lewis – one of the kindest, most modest and spiritual people that I have ever met. I started to attend Winchester events and became part of the Group. I felt a little uncomfortable and did not throw myself fully into community activities. I was still going “home” to Christchurch some weekends, had a fairly responsible job, was running most days and was living in a flat with a non-Bahá’í colleague. I often did not know on a Friday where I would spend the weekend, my wife was still not happy for me to be involved with the community (because other people’s houses were seen as “dirty” rather than from any ill-feeling towards the Faith. She is actually re-investigating the Faith now on her own terms). I was passive and reactive rather than proactive.
I knew very little about any Plans or the Ruhi books. Elizabeth Jenkerson, as only she could, persuaded me to start a Book 1. I eventually ran out of excuses and went along to a very energetic Book 1 course run by Lua Parsa in Portsmouth. It was a great group of mostly non-Bahá’ís, including Stefanie who would become a Bahá’í a year later and my wife four years later. This was the starting point of me re-engaging fully with the Community.
A short time after she became a Bahá’í, Stefanie joined the local inter faith group in Southampton, where she lived. She could not attend what I think was her second monthly meeting and asked me (just a friend at this stage) to attend in her stead. I went along and loved it. Here were a group of people who were very positive about their own faiths and very willing to engage with people of other faiths. This seemed to me to be very much faith-in-action. This was the second step for me to become much more active and pro-active.
People often see inter faith activity as somehow watering down one’s own faith. Most of us who are involved in such work, no matter what our Faith, find the opposite. It forces one to really consider the basis of our faith and the actions that we take.
The third major step(s) came in 2010. I had been a Bahá’í for thirty years, had often considered but never had applied to go on Pilgrimage. Stefanie had had her name down for a relatively few months before she was offered a place. We had just married so I was able to go with her. We were originally due to go while National Convention was on – I had never been to that either. I was then elected delegate and decided, after much consideration, to try to move the Pilgrimage date. Without realising it, there were two Holy Days while we were there – in the Holy Land, the Births of Bahá’u’lláh and the Báb are celebrated with respect to the lunar calendar and are on consecutive days. The Pilgrimage was therefore extended by two days. We were so confused that we booked the return flight a day early and so were due to miss the second celebration. While there, we realised our mistake and changed the return flight. The next day Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland erupted and flights across Europe were thrown into chaos. We would not have been able to change the flight if we had waited 24 hours. Those on three-day pilgrimages spent a great deal of money and effort finding alternative ways home. We did not know how it would affect us or whether we could fly home, where we would stay if not. Flights returned to normal the day after our original booking. Our revised booking was one of the first resumed flights.
One Holy Day at the Shrines is amazing. Two was beyond anything we could imagine. Two thousand people gathered at the Shrine of the Báb and then the Shrine of Bahá’u’lláh, in the presence of the members of the Universal House of Justice and the International Teaching Centre. Very, very special. And to top it all, it was also an Israeli national holiday and so we were treated to the sights and sounds of firework display by the Haifa City Council at the conclusion of our Birthday of the Báb celebrations.
Not only were we lucky enough to be at the World Centre for these celebrations, we were there as news came through that the Bahá’í World looked like it would achieve – and then that we actually had achieved – the numerical goals of the Five Year Plan, a year early; and when the world-changing Ridván 2010 message was published. Stefanie and I read the whole message on the tiny screens of our iPhones with increasing excitement.
This is all on top of the experience of Pilgrimage itself, which I am sure others have done a better job of describing. I will limit myself to a very brief description. Before we travelled to Haifa, we had asked many pilgrims what the experience was like. We had been tourists in many beautiful places around the world but had never been pilgrims before. How could we make sure that we didn’t treat it like just another tourist destination? What did pilgrims do? How did they behave? What did they think? What did they feel?
The best advice came from Elizabeth Jenkerson:
- Do not take too many photographs in the first few days
- Everyone’s pilgrimage is different
I almost followed her first recommendation – I only took 1,200 photographs over the eleven days!
For Elizabeth, her “pilgrimage moment” came, unexpectedly, when the ninth member of the Universal House of Justice joined the others on the stage. For Stefanie, it was entering the Shrine of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. She came out in floods of tears. I had enjoyed the experience of being in the Shrines but had remained unmoved. I was amazed, inspired, humbled by hearing and being greeted by the members of the Universal House of Justice but remained unmoved. Perhaps my view thirty years previously that I wasn’t spiritual enough to be a Bahá’í was correct. A few days later we went to Bahji. We walked along the path to the Shrine of Bahá’u’lláh. I thought, “Clearly my heart is hard and I won’t have a ‘Pilgrimage moment’”. I remember feeling a little disappointed but wholly rational. Then the gates opened. I physically could not take another step forward. I was overwhelmed with a shockwave of joy and grief and who knows what else. I slowly recovered and stumbled towards the Shrine itself with the support of the Bahá’í youth who had opened the gate for us. On leaving the Shrine, I was filled to overflowing with a love, like I have never felt before, for my fellow pilgrims and humanity. The other pilgrims must have thought I was insane as I beamed at each of them as they came out into the sunshine. In some ways they were right. I certainly was no longer my normal rational self.
Just a few days after returning from Pilgrimage, I was on my way to my first National Convention – remember I had been a Bahá’í for thirty years without applying for Pilgrimage or attending National Convention, not even as a non-delegate – and here I was, through no fault of my own, doing both in quick succession. And what a Convention – almost all the consultation was on that Ridván message. My understanding of the messages of the Universal House of Justice and of the workings of the National Spiritual Assembly increased considerably. Inspiring does not begin to describe it.
I now live in a tiny hamlet in the north-western corner of the New Forest and am again in a Bahá’í family and part of a fantastic, warm, united, supportive, active
Baha’i Community. Things seem to have gone full circle and I feel most at home.
New Forest, October 2012