This story is being written on a very significant day (4 September 2011). Not only is this the centennial of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s first setting foot on British soil, it is also the birthday of my late brother, David, who was responsible for me meeting the Bahá’í who introduced me to the Faith, way back in 1975.
I was born in Preston, Lancashire, on 19th February, 1954, the third of four children. My parents were not regular church goers, but they did come from Christian backgrounds, a mixture of Church of England, Methodist and Baptist, I believe. My parents saw to it that I went to children’s classes at a local church, and when we moved to a small village in 1962, I became a choir boy at Goosnargh’s Church of England Episcopal Church, requiring attendance twice on Sunday, Thursday’s choir practice and weddings on Saturdays in the summer. I enjoyed singing and only found out when I moved to Hamilton, Scotland some years later, and was asked to audition for the Grammar school choir, that I was tone deaf! I probably marred many a wedding and church service by substituting volume for tonal quality!
I moved to Scotland when I was 11 years old, and stayed there for all my secondary schooling. I used to work in a garage, selling petrol on a Thursday evening after school, when I was 17 years old, and vaguely remember my brother and sister telling me they were going to a Bahá’í public meeting one Thursday. Unable to go with them, I asked them what they thought of it and just remember them saying it was OK. That was the last I heard of the name Bahá’í for four years. Pioneers had arrived in Hamilton, among whom were Paul Adams and Bahiyyih Nakhjavani. I expect they were among the Bahá’ís my brother and sister had met at the public meeting. A couple of years after becoming a Bahá’í, I stayed in the flat that Paul and Bahiyyih had rented in Hamilton, and got a big hug from Universal House of Justice member, Mr Ali Nakhjavani, when I told him, on my first pilgrimage in 1977, that I was then living in the flat his daughter had used as a pioneer home!
Four years later I was working as a trainee accountant at Gleneagles Hotel, Perthshire, Scotland, and used to travel to my parents’ home in Hamilton, for weekends. Having been studying in England for the previous three years, I had lost touch with my school friends and had to rely on my older brother, David, to help me build a social circle in Hamilton. One evening, David introduced me to Linda Clark, who turned out to be a Bahá’í, having come across the Faith through pioneers from Canada (Buzz and Judy Gibson), who had spent some time in Hamilton. Linda kindly gave me two books: God Loves Laughter (Bill Sears) and The Kitáb-i-Iqán. I quickly read God Loves Laughter and was charmed with the light-hearted writing style and with Bill’s wife’s search for truth. I read The Kitab-i-Iqán and felt very comfortable with its content. I don’t remember having any dramatic conversion experience, just a quiet confidence and acceptance of everything I had read. A few years later, I was able to visit the House of Worship in Wilmette, Chicago, and was delighted to meet the Hand of the Cause William Sears, who was signing his latest book. I was happy to tell him about my journey to becoming a Bahá’í and the part his book had played.
As I was working away from home Monday to Thursday, there was no easy opportunity to make contact with Bahá’ís in Hamilton, but I am sure that I considered myself a Bahá’í.
Shortly after my introduction to the Faith, David moved to Wales to work for a friend of mine who was running a hotel in Gwbert on Sea. After some weeks, David met with a tragic fire accident which cost him his life at the age of 22. My father and I journeyed to where David had been working to arrange for his body to be transferred to Hamilton, and to collect his personal effects. My father was exhausted physically by the long drive, as well as being emotionally drained by his eldest son’s tragic death, and felt unable to help me collect David’s belongings from his room. At the bottom of the very last drawer of his clothes I found a small prayer book, inscribed by Hari Docherty (a Scottish Bahá’í): “Prayer is the food of the soul”. I remember thinking at that moment that I should register as a Bahá’í as soon as I got home.
Shortly after we returned home I asked Linda to take me to see Rustam and Banoo Sabet, two elderly pioneers in Hamilton, who were delighted to hear of my wish to register as a Bahá’í. Rustam had been secretary of the Indian National Spiritual Assembly and had served the Guardian in Haifa.
I spent another year working at Gleneagles and then got a job near to Hamilton, where I served on the Local Spiritual Assembly of Hamilton for five years. During this time I also served as an assistant to Auxiliary Board member Betty Shepherd, and had the bounty of my first nine-day pilgrimage.
Pilgrimage in 1977 was blessed with several meetings with Hands of the Cause Paul Haney and Abu’l-Qasim Faizi. Every evening one of the Hands, a Universal House of Justice member or a Counsellor would come and talk to us. Each evening I wanted to ask if I should apply to work at the Bahá’í World Centre but I felt too shy to ask a question. On the last evening we had Mr Faizi with us and I had resolved to ask him if I should apply to work in Haifa? Again I missed the opportunity through feelings of inadequacy, and when Mr Faizi stood up and headed for the door of the Pilgrim House (where the evening talks were given in those days) I was so annoyed that I had missed my last chance to get his advice. Suddenly, he stopped in the open doorway, turned to face the pilgrims and said: “Service at the World Centre is better than serving anywhere else, but teaching is better than this”. I had my answer, and in such a dramatic way! There was no doubt in my mind that this was a personal message for me, which I took to heart and focussed on teaching as soon as I left Israel.
33 years ago I married Jila Shahzadi, who had been studying in Hatfield, Hertfordshire, where she also served as one of the first members of Hatfield Local Spiritual Assembly. We were married in East Kilbride (not the most attractive sounding town: “East Kill Bride”), at a community centre, on a very rainy day. This was the third Bahá’í marriage to be recognised under Scots’ Law – without having to have a separate civil ceremony. We had over 120 guests, over half of whom were work colleagues from Daks Simpson in Larkhall, Lanarkshire.
The wedding ceremony was managed by Scott Thompson, one of the first authorised marriage officers in Scotland.
The story of how Jila and I met demonstrates the guiding hand of the Almighty, having been beseeched, during my first Pilgrimage, to assist me in finding a wife who would be good for me!
On returning from my first Pilgrimage, I resolved to learn to drive and eventually to get a car. I sent off my application for a driving test date, then booked lessons. This would have been in December 1973. Within days of applying for my test, a friend who had been giving me a lift to work, offered to sell me his car at a very reasonable price because his mother had won a large sum of money on the football pools and wanted to buy him a new car. This was great news as I knew the car well and so was now able to get a lot of practise in between lessons, using my own car. Within a few weeks I felt I was ready for the test but my exam date was not until late April. Fortunately, Andy McCafferty (a local Bahá’í living in Glasgow) had a slightly earlier test date but was going to cancel it because he wasn’t ready. We arranged with the testing centre for me to be given Andy’s date, but somehow they mistakenly gave it away to someone else! I complained and they came up with an even earlier date, which was great because it was a few days before the planned spring youth school in Calendar, Scotland, and I wanted to help out with setting it up and participating in travel teaching projects at weekends (I was unable to get more time off to attend the school during the week).
The test date came and I was worried about failing on two counts: reversing round bends, and driving through unmarked crossroads, of which there are many in Hamilton’s large housing estates. I had studied all of the six test routes and knew them like the back of my hand. I was worried when we started out on the route with the worst corner to reverse around – it had a very low kerb, was on a busy road, started downhill and then finished sharply uphill! Anyway, we covered the first 10 minutes of the route, which I thought went pretty well, when the instructor asked me to take the next turning on the right. I was confused because there was no right turn for about half a mile. After 300 yards, somewhat flustered, he asked me to take the next left, which meant we had missed the turning into the housing estate with all the tricky unmarked crossroads. We spent another 5 minutes driving off the test route until he finally found his way to the dreaded corner to torture me on reversing around a tricky bend. Imagine my delight when we arrived at the Diablo of corners only to find cars parked all around it. Seeing the obstruction, and having already got lost on the route earlier, the flustered examiner just told me to head back to the test centre, where we arrived 10 minutes early! Thankfully, I passed the test and the examiner apologised to me for getting lost, saying that this was his first day in the area and he didn’t know all of the routes. Lucky day!
So, two days later I set off for Calendar, driving my own car, helping to transport Bahá’í youth from the train station to the youth hostel. I vaguely remember giving a lift to two sisters who had similar sounding Persian names.
When I went on a travel teaching trip to Dunoon in the West of Scotland the following weekend, I met these sisters with similar names, Jila and Jaleh, and spent an hour or so with them sharing experiences of travel teaching. A few weeks later Jila and I met at National Convention and in the summer we went with friends to the Irish summer school in Waterford. Five months later we were engaged to be married and we set the date for 7th July, 1979, two weeks after Jila completed her Bsc degree in Computer Science.
Jila and I set-up home in Hamilton, where we lived for two years or so before moving to Rochdale, Lancashire in 1981, by which time our first son, Shayan (fka Martin Scott Gordon), was born (at Bellshill Maternity Hospital).
Rochdale was a goal area but only had two other Baha’is: Louis Ross-Enfield and Beatrice Smith. Louis had served on the National Spiritual Assembly in the 1960’s, I believe. We were in Rochdale for four years, during which time Bob and Mavis Turner became Bahá’ís. Our second son, Stephen, and daughter Sarah, were both born in Birch Hospital, Rochdale, which had the dubious honour of having one of the highest mortality rates of all hospitals in the UK! Glad to say we improved their record!
Whilst in Rochdale, Jila and I went on Pilgrimage and spent a great deal of time in the loving presence of Hand of the Cause Mr Furutan, who once took my arm as we walked around the gardens of the Shrine of the Báb, as he talked about his days serving the Guardian. It was a time I shall cherish for the rest of my life in the certain knowledge that such opportunities can never be repeated now that all of the Hands have passed away.
With Rochdale not looking likely to make it to Local Spiritual Assembly status any time soon, the approaching end of the Five Year Plan encouraged us to look for an opportunity to form a new Local Spiritual Assembly nearer to where my company headquarters were based in Bristol. After a short search we found a house in Weston-super-Mare which, with the help of other pioneers (Carolyn and John Wade) and existing resident Bahá’ís, we formed the first Local Spiritual Assembly of Woodspring.
We loved living in the South West, which was such a contrast to our previous locations, and we would have gladly spent many more years there if only my work situation had not changed, forcing a move to the East Midlands.
With the children growing up fast the need was critical for more structured and regular Bahá’í education. There were a lot of under-15 children in the Somerset area and, in line with many other communities, we set up our Thomas Breakwell School in Puriton, Somerset. Thanks largely to Ray and Bahiyeh West, who lived in the local school catchment area, we were able to secure Puriton’s primary school facilities on a regular basis, and gave a great deal of time and loving support to the development of the school, which was a great success.
During our time in the South West I was privileged to serve as an Auxiliary Board member for Propagation, covering the South West, London North of the Thames, East Anglia and the South Midlands/Thames Valley areas. This was a wonderful time, firstly working with Counsellor Adam Thorne, and later with Counsellor Patrick O’Mara. I also served on the Baha’i Publishing Trust committee, which oversaw the work of the Trust as well as helping to develop strategy and publishing priorities.
A thoroughly enjoyable initiative we worked on with local Bahá’ís was a junior youth residential weekend camp, which we ran every three to four months for around 50 children aged 9-14. This was an activity-based event, utilising local professional outward bound services alongside skilled and enthusiastic Bahá’í parents. The idea behind it all was to gather the young and scattered youth in our communities, encourage them to bring their friends, and to provide a wide range of activities as well as a spiritual atmosphere, lots of fun, singing, stories, etc., and help friendships develop that could last years. This was a great success and drew children from over 80 miles away. We set up another project in the Midlands with similar success to the South West project, and both ran for some years.
A change of employer forced us away from our beloved South West, but gave us another opportunity to form a new Local Spiritual Assembly in Daventry District, again at the end of a Five Year Plan. We managed to move into our new home in West Haddon, Northamptonshire, on 10th April 1992 (Holy Year), and stayed there for 18 years, watching our young children grow up, leave for university, return home, leave again, and, yes: return home again!
During our time in West Haddon I was delighted to serve on a number of Baha’i committees, including around eight years on the International Pioneering Committee, which was very enjoyable. Two years before we left West Haddon I served as secretary of the Area Teaching Committee for Two Shires (Northants and Bedfordshire).
Our feet began to itch again and we started thinking about a pioneer move. We were guided to Hampshire (Solent cluster), settling in the beautiful New Forest area where, two months later, I was invited to serve as secretary to the newly established Area Teaching Committee of Solent.
Lymington is a charming coastal town with a sailing heritage and a large retired community. With an average age of almost 70 it is rumoured that Lymington residents are lobbying to have all of the high street shop windows bi-focal! Although retired, we won’t be putting down permanent roots here…we are already planning for our next move in three to four years’ time. More about that later……………
Hampshire, September 2011