Australia days, finding the Faith
I was born in London during the bitter winter of 1947 and lived near London for the first few years, then after my father left us in 1955 my mother took the family to live in Liverpool, then Abergele, North Wales. My mother had an invitation by an old school friend to bring the family to the States in 1962 for a summer holiday. The next year she decided to emigrate to New England with all four children; anything was better than trying to bring up four children on £14 a week. We first lived in Great Barrington, Massachusetts and I attended Lenox school – a Christian church school – for two years. I was in a fortunate position as my brothers and sister attended the local High school and I gained a really high quality education and I was very taken by the strong spiritual ethos of the school.
I graduated from Lenox School and went to the University of Massachusetts then a small college in Connecticut. By 1967 my mother was on the staff of Simon’s Rock a unique girl’s school near Great Barrington, Massachusetts. I was unaware that a Bahá’í – Joanny Miller – already taught at the school and she had given two assemblies on the Faith to the girls. My mother then invited her to our apartment to tell us about the Faith. I’m not sure now whether my mother had heard of the Faith beforehand when we still lived in England at the time of the 1963 World Congress. Back in the early 60s we attended the local church which had a marvellous vicar, I was a choirboy for some years and found the experience quite rewarding. We did begin to attend the local church in Great Barrington but it was a ‘high’ Episcopalian church and we quickly grew disenchanted with it and stopped attending. Following my introduction to the Faith I attended the local firesides, I remember one given by Greg Dahl.
I was very interested in the social teachings, they were sensible and enlightening in the crazy confusing world that was the 1960s. At this time the local draft board had decided that I would lose my exempt status and I would be drafted to Vietnam. Though eligible for the draft, I was not an American citizen and I could legally leave the country as I had no intention of “shootin’ and fightin’ and doing all kinds-a horrible nasty things’” for President Johnson. My mother arranged for me to be interviewed at the Australian Consulate in New York and by June 1968 off I went to Australia on an ‘assisted passage.’ The idea was that I would look up the Bahá’ís when I got there.
Having landed in Sydney, I went to the House of Worship at Mona Vale and after a few days I went on to my final destination – Perth in Western Australia. I got a job out in the ‘bush’ after a few days and I worked as a chainman on a small survey team out at Watheroo about 150 miles north of Perth. One of the first things to get used to was the weather as I was in the middle of a rather wet winter with rain most days of the week. I lived in a caravan with two other blokes and I went back to Perth about every three weeks. I soon looked up the Bahá’ís in Victoria community and stayed with them at week-ends. The family I stayed with were John and Margaret Handley. Margaret’s father was Collis Featherstone, the Hand of the Cause in Australia. I bought just about every book I could lay my hands on and read avidly on the lonely weekends when I was in the caravan on my own.
I met some new young immigrants from England, Wendy Scott, Pamela Poulter and Fiona Dunn. They had heard of the Faith from Charlie Pierce on the boat. By August 1968 I was standing at the duplicating machine helping to run off the local youth newsletter, and John said to me: “You know, isn’t it time that you became a Bahá’í – look at all the things you are doing now!” “No thanks, mate” I replied. “I need to read some more books.” “Oh, come on now”, said John, “Just sign this card and it’s done.” And I did and it was done. I was on cloud nine for the rest of the weekend. By now, Fiona had declared but the other two girls were still searching……
Things moved quickly after that. I moved back to Perth by the autumn and washed cars for three weeks; John and Margaret invited me to accompany them on a teaching trip to Melbourne and Sydney for a month. This involved driving over the Nullabor plain for three days where the roads were just dust tracks except for one stretch of 120 miles of dead straight, dead level asphalt. At night I could see the headlights of oncoming cars 20 minutes before they passed me.
I lived in the Bahá’í flat in Melbourne for three weeks and decided that I would move there as there was a photography course at a local college starting up next January. I packed up my bags in Perth and took the train east to Melbourne. The first part of the train journey was from Perth to Kalgoorlie. The line was a 36″ narrow gauge railway which rose and fell over the undulating landscape and it was called the ‘rock and roll’. The next day, where the scenery is absolutely flat over the Nullabor, I didn’t see one single tree for 36 hours, just salt bush and scrub.
I settled in at the Melbourne flat. The person who owned the flat was an NSA member called Grenville Kirton. He was an eccentric but very affable man who had a wry sense of humour. By now Pam, Wendy and Fiona had moved to Melbourne and were living in a flat about a mile down the road. These were the heady days of youth activity where the Faith was a vibrant mix of traditional and new events. The main activity of the next year was the Moomba Festival. The friends decided to make a 3m high model of the Sydney House of Worship using polystyrene and chipboard materials. I designed the model based on my photographs and headed up the team. The model was placed on a carnival float and decorated with thousands of coloured paper flowers. On the day, the Bahá’í float stalled somewhat in front of the commentator so he had to go through the 1st, 2nd and 3rd card of information on the Faith for the viewers. At least 2 million people saw the float and it was on TV as well – proclamation or what! I prepared the poster publicity by using the recent shot of the ‘earthrise’ taken by the astronauts on their moon mission. I went to the American Embassy and asked if they had any material and they gave me a copy of one of the Hassleblad original photographs!
I attended the first year of the photography degree at the local Technical College and I cleaned the Channel 4 TV studios at night. There were a number of declarations in Melbourne that year including Harry Penrith who was an important Aborigine leader who later married a Bahá’í, though sadly it didn’t last……
Ridvan 1969 was a memorable occasion for declarations. Wendy and Pam had gone to the National Convention in Sydney and they attended separate events on the night of Ridvan. They both declared in the same hour in different parts of the city. We were all now Bahá’í and true brothers and sisters!
I attended the Board of Counsellors’ Deepening Conference held in November 1969 in Melbourne; Mr Faizi and Mr Featherstone were both there. By now there were at least 9 youth in Melbourne. Some names I remember are: Farid Payman, Tom Vudrag, Di and Roger Stevens, Glyniss Burnell, Cody Kelly, Henry Motlop, Cathi Heard, John Wall, Graham Johnson, Derri Trueman, Peter Barratt, Jocie Treloar, Ann and Gail Johnson, Gail and Noel Butson, Verona Major.
In that year I attended the first Youth conference held at Yerrinbool, the Summer School property near Sydney. Fiona and I hitch-hiked back to Melbourne (600 miles). Overnight, we ran out of lifts being miles from anywhere and we were stuck on the dividing range between Melbourne and Sydney and had to sleep on the side of the road – that was the time Fiona taught me the “Remover of Difficulties’”
By the end of the first year of my photography course in December 1969, I had run out of money – grants were not available in those days – and I decided to write to my survey boss and ask for a job. Yes, there was one available but I had to travel 2,000 miles or so to the far NW corner of Western Australia to get it. I travelled by train to Adelaide, then took a bus for a punishing 2-day journey to Darwin. From Adelaide to Darwin the road was not tarmac and the bus travelled over corrugated dirt roads – really rough! I flew the last 250 miles to Kunnunura, an experimental cotton-growing town set in the Kimberley range. Here, I wasn’t a pioneer as such but I was certainly the most isolated Bahá’í in Australia by a long chalk! The nearest community was in Darwin, at least 250 miles away…..
I was again part of a survey team; I was a chainman at the head of the line chopping down trees to make way for the accurate measurements to be made. We were setting out adjacent rectangular blocks in the ‘bush’ for a mining company that believed there was uranium out in ‘them thar hills’. Being in the tropics, it was HOT, I came into the ‘wet’ season which was incredibly humid. Soon, I had to get very sunburnt just to acclimatise my skin to the heat. Again, I read every Bahá’í book I could lay my hands on and started to compile my index of quotations into several volumes. Wendy kept me in touch with activities down south – one really welcome letter was signed by many youth who attended the 2nd youth conference at Yerrinbool. I even managed to make a proclamation to the local Christian minister in Kunnunura. The Fast that year was a really testing time. On the first day I manfully tried to go without water and was seeing double by noon, so my boss insisted that I drink what I needed even if I denied myself food, otherwise I was going to be of no use to him or myself. Only in later years did I discover that those who engage in manual labour are excused the Fast. In these conditions the most satisfying food was cold soup, sounds awful now but then nothing could beat it!!
By the March of 1969 it was the ‘dry’ season. Here the temperatures are very moderate and the humidity extremely low; it is the most exhilarating climate to be in. This work experience was the type that was very punishing at the time but one looks fondly back on it in later years. Some of the more remote areas in the Kimberley range that we worked in I knew white man had never ever come that way and I was a real pioneer there! It was an area well known to the Aborigine people but by now they had been pushed to the margins of Australian society.
By September 1969, I decided to move back to England. Given the draft situation in the US, I was ‘persona non grata’ and returning there was out of the question for a few years. I went back to the Melbourne flat for 3 weeks or so and set off for England. I had arranged an itinerary to visit cities across Asia over the next six weeks: Hong Kong, Delhi, Teheran, Shiraz, Haifa, Athens, Frankfurt and London. Here are some highlights:
- Hong Kong – I visited Len Lewis, (a British pioneer and Quentin Lewis’ father). He took me out to see Shatin, a small Chinese village – now it is a bustling new town of at least a million.
- Delhi – I stayed with the family of Dr. Munji, the Chairman of the Indian NSA. They lived in Kanpur, about 200 miles from Delhi. I made such an impression on the eldest daughter of the family, the LSA made strenuous attempts over the next 3 days to arrange a marriage for me! I also travelled and stayed at a Bahá’í village called Malhousi where the local Maharajah was a Bahá’í!
- Teheran and Shiraz – I spent 5 days in the ‘cradle of the Faith’. I was following in the footsteps of Mr Faizi who had recently toured the country. In one house of the Master’s family I was told that I would speak to ‘some youth’ and as I walked in the room there were at least 150 of them waiting to hear what I was going to say! I was asked to emphasise the need for youth to pioneer to the West. I visited and prayed at the Houses of the Bab (twice) and Bahá’u’lláh – each visit was made at night so as not to attract undue attention. In Shiraz, I was looked after by three youth from the University, in later years, two of us later served as a Counsellor! I visited the Ilkhani mosque where the Báb gave his first public speech from the pulpit, there some people threw stones at us.
- Haifa – I was granted a 3-day pilgrimage. As I got out of the sherut, Mr. Faizi greeted me. He remembered my name from the Youth conference in Australia! I visited all the Shrines and met Fujita outside the House of the Master.
- Athens and Frankfurt – I gave fireside talks here and visited the House of Worship in Frankfurt.
I arrived in England in November 1970 having been away for just over seven years. The rest of my story is a long one, just to add that Wendy travelled back to England soon after me via the Pacific Islands. She arrived to some hostility from her family on account of her being a Bahá’í. She pioneered to the Shetlands in 1971 and would have stayed there had I not taken her ‘off the shelf’ and married her in 1973. Barry, our first-born, now works in Haifa at the Seat of the Universal House of Justice – Ya-Bahá’u’l-Abhá!