The official date of my embracing the Bahá’í Faith, on my Bahá’í declaration card, is 1 January 1976. The place of this momentous decision was Southport, in the north west of England, and it occurred late at night in the living room of Jim and Sue Grimshaw‘s home. But the story begins before then of course!
Going back to childhood times, it seems very likely that my family’s move from our sleepy village home of Herstomonceux in Sussex, England, to Los Angeles, California back in 1958 (when I was only two years old) may have had a huge impact on my future beliefs. The reasoning is as follows. There is a law in the USA which requires that religion is not taught in state schools in that country, so that each person is free to choose and practise whichever belief he or she wishes. I was never identified with a specific religion from early in my life and was never baptised in a church. I recall, as a child, there being a few family Bibles around our house, and sometimes I would open one and try to understand what I read, but didn’t find it so easy! My mother never took me to church. Although we were a ‘Church of England’ family, my mother had said that our Church wasn’t there in California (the nearest one to it actually being the Episcopalian Church). However, I also know that my father was not much interested in the Church, and never spoke to me about God or faith. My mother had somehow caught his disinterest, though she still seemed to have some religious knowledge, but she certainly did apply her moral principles to the upbringing of my brother and myself. I had always wanted to go to church, have a faith, and would often feel somehow attracted when any of my mother’s friends would share their beliefs and experiences in church with us. Basically, I was curious about faith, God and the meaning of life, yet was without the orthodox views of so many others who grow up in a religious family.
Another thing that affected my future ideas was an experience at Disneyland, near Los Angeles, when we visited it when I was about 10 years old. There was a new fair-ground ride called ‘It’s a Small World’, which was connected with the popular song by that name at the time. The ride consisted of boats going along a canal inside a building, and all around the interior of this building were puppets on strings, dressed in various national costumes, and dancing and singing the chorus: “It’s a Small World AFTER ALL”! I looked out for various nationalities as we passed along in the boat, including our own British ones (Scottish, Welsh, and English). I had been very aware, as an immigrant child, of the different nationalities who came together in that melting-pot society in Southern California. Somehow, there was a special spirit that I felt in the ride, a spirit of UNITY, which was so positive. I loved that ride! I wanted the real world to feel like that!
In 1969, my father passed away. It was a nightmarish time for us all in the family, and I felt very uneasy with the world. I was 12 years old but recall wondering why people always rushed around trying to buy new houses, new cars, new things, if we can die so suddenly and so young. At the same time, the Vietnam War was raging, which only added to the incongruity of a society which seemed unable or unwilling to face this reality. As my brother was by then 18, he was at just the right age to be conscripted into a war we wanted nothing to do with. I also feared I might one day have to serve in that horrendous war. My father had always wanted us to return to England. And it seemed it was his death-bed wish that we did. So, using money gained from an insurance policy on his death, we were finally able to afford the air-fare back to the UK, and at the same time, escape the military draft.
We returned to my mum’s parents who lived in Waterloo, near Liverpool. They had a small terraced house in which there was humour and a family feeling, which I liked. My grandmother had faith too, and she would sometimes quote from the Bible to me. She once said: “In the Bible, it says the meek shall inherit the earth, but I don’t see it happening!” I pondered on that one, and the role of the meek in a future society. Many years later, after embracing the Cause, I came to realise how the Bahá’í Faith fulfills that prophecy! Also in England, I found religion in schools, a huge contrast to what I had experienced before. Every morning we started the school day with prayers and hymns, and there was ‘religious instruction’ as part of the school curriculum too.
A few months after we had moved in with my grandparents, my mum decided to buy a house in Southport, about 10 miles north of my grandparents’ place. I didn’t want to leave my new school, which I had already grown to like, but had we stayed in the Waterloo area, I probably would not have met the Bahá’í Faith so young in life. The religious education lessons at English schools were quite interesting to me, while my classmates seemed bored with the same Bible stories they had heard before. I recall noticing a poster on one R.E. teacher’s wall board. It showed a time-line which traced all the major faiths in the world, such as Buddhism and Islam. I realised I hadn’t even thought about these other faiths before…
It was in 1974, after I had changed from my secondary school to the King George V Grammar School to study for Advanced Level exams, that I came across the Bahá’í Faith at the age of 17. A student at that school, a quiet, likeable and seemingly modest individual, also from a different secondary school, struck me as being a little bit different from the rest. He was sincere, genuine, but at the same time, not too good! I didn’t really get to know him until we had a biology field trip and our two biology classes came together to go to the school hostel in Sedbergh, North Yorkshire. I found him to be polite and interesting, and he shared my interest in animals and nature. His name was Tom Fox. From a British family, he was born in Kenya and later lived in South Africa until he was 14, when his family returned to Britain.
I remember working together with him in the hostel’s laboratory. Unusually, we were the only two people there at the time. Then he mentioned something and I will never forget the words. Out of the blue, he said, “I belong to a religion that believes in the unity of all religions”. The moment I heard the word “religion”, I felt a sense of disappointment and expected a typical and perhaps narrow-minded statement of his beliefs to follow. But this was not so! He had mentioned unity of religion! “Oh,” I recall thinking, “that’s open”. It was as if a bell had sounded in my soul. It was actually the best thing he could have said to me because, by that time, I was tending towards atheism, and the reason for this was that I didn’t believe a God would make all these different religions that clashed with one another. My thinking had been that religion had to be man-made, for how could there be a God that made so many religions, and which regarded all the other religions as false? This simple statement of Tom’s had taken away my main reason for disbelief in God, although I had not even realised it at that point. The fact was, I had always wanted to believe in God, or have some kind of Faith, and so have a reason for being a good person who did things in this life to help the world.
When I referred to his faith as a church, he said it was not a church, and that there are no churches in this Faith, but rather that people meet in each other’s homes. He also mentioned some temples with nine doors and a dome to represent the unity of religions.
It was later that same day when I walked into the hostel’s lounge that I yet again encountered the Faith. I found Tom and two other boys engaged in an ardent discussion about their religious beliefs. The two others were Christians and they couldn’t agree with Tom. Christ was the ONLY way, they insisted. I listened for some time but finally felt moved to speak. I told them that I didn’t believe in any religion, but that I agreed with Tom about the unity of faiths, and that if I did have a faith, it would be his Faith! The Christian boys seemed unmovable in their views and at the end of the conversation, they invited me to go to their church youth club back in our home town. I was polite but suspected they wanted to win me over to their beliefs. Without realising it, they had pushed me rather towards the Bahá’í Faith.
At that stage, I did not anticipate exploring this new Faith, but was mildly curious about it. Events transpired to heighten that curiosity. Sometimes at school I would come across Tom talking to others about his Faith in the corridors and I liked what I heard him saying about the unity of race, world peace, etc. I was actually a bit disappointed that he did not choose to share these ideas with me. Later he did tell me some more things, however. On three different occasions he invited me to Bahá’í events, including a weekend school in our town. I recall passing the area of the weekend school in a car when it was on, and looking around to see if there were any hippy-looking figures in the streets! (I saw none.)
On the third occasion, Tom spoke quite a bit about his Faith in the school library, and mentioned a forthcoming public meeting. I felt so attracted by these beliefs, that I said to him, genuinely, “Yes, I might come!” I felt a desire NOT to disappoint him, but was also really hungry to know more of this seemingly broad-minded Faith. I recall thinking later, “Could this be the belief I have always wanted to have?” I asked my girlfriend at the time, Carol Hawksey (now Carol Hulse) if she would come to the meeting with me. But I didn’t mention to her that it was also because I didn’t feel confident enough to go alone. Although she was dubious about religions, I insisted that this one sounded good and reiterated some of the principles. So she agreed to come along. Later, when we were adults, she told me that she went because she felt I needed ‘protection’ from a cult.
On the evening of the public meeting, we arrived at the venue, the Southport Arts Centre, and saw Tom waiting in the foyer. He happily greeted us and told us that the meeting would be upstairs. Climbing the stairs as Tom escorted us up several flights, I started to feel nervous and jelly-legged… “What is this group really like?”, I thought. Dubious thoughts started flowing into my mind: “What will we be doing up there, some strange meditative rituals, or even smoking some strange drugs?” In the rather small and modest-looking room right at the top of this very large building, we found rows of chairs with a leaflet on each chair. We sat ourselves down and waited, and I perused the leaflet as we sat. I recall reading the prayer for unity on the back of the leaflet, and something resonated with me: UNITY. There was a board displayed near the front of the room where the speaker stood, with a list of principles on it, including World Government, an idea I had always secretly believed to be the solution to end all war. I had never known that there was a group then (other than perhaps the United Nations) that promoted this principle.
I also noticed a black man in the audience, whose name turned out to be ‘Abdu’l Noah. He was from Blackpool. So, it seemed to me the Bahá’ís really did believe in race unity. The speaker that night was a young man from North Wales, Ed Povey, who spoke with a very gentle and engaging manner, and sang and played the guitar very eloquently and with much love. Although I cannot recall what he said, I was quite enamoured by his talk. At this meeting, I also learned the name of this Faith and its Founder. Tom had never told me.
During the break afterwards downstairs in the Art Centre’s bar-room, Carol started arguing with the Bahá’ís strongly. She was quite cynical. “It will never work!” she countered, as Tom and some young friends tried to outline their vision of hope for the world. Now I realise why she was so adamantly against it, given her ideas about cults. But at the time, I felt a little disappointed and embarrassed that she seemed so opposed to it. My more philosophical questions about God tended to be lost because of the strength of feelings caused by Carol’s arguments and the desire of the Bahá’ís to defend their ideas.
The other friends at the table included Jimmy May, a Bahá’í youth, plus his then girl-friend. Jimmy belonged to a family of Bahá’ís who were from the Kirkby council estate near Liverpool, which was always known as a rough, working-class area. For me it was very significant to see people from that part of Liverpool mixing amiably with the folks from more middle-class Southport, who were so different in their backgrounds. Yet again, the Bahá’ís showed their ability to be in unity and to cross all kinds of social boundaries, including the class ones which were so strong in Britain at that time. By the end of the evening, although there might not have been total agreement about some things, Carol and I decided we liked the Bahá’ís well enough to consider going to other meetings in future.
We did attend more meetings and at one of them, Carol agreed to take some books. When Tom presented me with several books at school, I said I’d pass them on to Carol. “They’re for you too!” he added. I gave them all to Carol except for one duplicate, not too thick, called The Renewal of Civilisation by David Hofman. It proved to be interesting and well-written. I realised from this book that there is a perspective about the history of the world which shows that religions had made huge impacts on the societies in which they developed. Also, it was by reading this book that I discovered that Bahá’u’lláh was not just considered as an enlightened innovator, as I had at first thought, but a Prophet-like figure inspired by God. Despite being a little surprised by this, and with certain doubts, I decided to continue the investigation. Carol and I found and borrowed Bahá’í books in the local public library. One day, Carol said to me she wanted to be a Bahá’í because she was so touched by the beauty of the Bahá’í Sacred Writings. I, however, was still grappling with the intellectual aspects of what the Faith and God meant.
Carol became a Bahá’í before I did and told me about the fascinating and enjoyable firesides held at the Grimshaws’ home. We had been invited on several occasions to these meetings but I had never taken up the offer, thinking of them as a ruse to convert those who attended. Now that Carol was going to them, I felt more assured and joined her. Here we found the true spirit of Bahá’í love and warm hospitality, and so the quest for spiritual truth became much more earnest in my heart.
I had already read books such as The Bahá’í Faith” by Gloria Faizi, and The Báb and Bahá’u’lláh by Hasan Balyuzi. But it was while reading Thief in the Night by Bill Sears one evening, that my heart really felt very moved to know the truth of this remarkable Message, and indeed, if God even existed! “How could all those Bible prophecies tie together like that?”, I asked myself. I put the book down and went to the window of my student room (I was at university by this time), and looked up at the dark night sky and implored whatever was out there to let me know if this was really the truth. “GOD!” I urged, “If you are really there, can you please let me know?”
About three nights later, I had an incredible dream. In the dream, the first one that I remember having in colour, I was in a pub with three friends. I decided to leave the pub and went out into the evening and looked up at the myriad stars in the night sky. Then I saw a shooting star! I ran back inside and called to my friends to come out and see the shooting star. Only one came out with me. I saw there were more shooting stars! They came closer and closer in, spinning around the earth and as they came closer, I saw that they were in fact planets, of different colours – red, blue, orange, yellow, etc. They came in still closer until the earth and all these planets were united into one and my friend and I were lifted up into the sky and, looking downwards at the earth with its beautiful blue seas and green land, I shouted to my friend, “Now I know the answer to the universe!”
Although the dream had quite an impact on me, I still wanted believable proofs of the existence of God. I read Some Answered Questions by `Abdu’l-Bahá, and after hearing more of the Teachings at successive firesides, including topics such as the nature of the soul and life after death, declared my belief in Bahá’u’lláh on that evening in January 1976. I also feel it’s important to mention the indebtedness I have to Sylvia Miley in Southport, for my remaining firm in the Faith. Like many new Bahá’ís, I wavered in the first year or so of being in the Bahá’í fold. But Sylvia would telephone or write to remind me of Feasts and pick me up to go to them. She invited my mother to attend Holy Days etc, and my mother went along. Her reassuring chats and continual geniality towards us both ensured that I remained linked to the local Community, and that my mother was convinced both that the Faith was positive and that Bahá’ís are good people.
Since the momentous event in my life of embracing God’s Cause, life has been an almost daily struggle to orient myself into living in tune with the Bahá’í way of life. Lots of those years were spent as a ‘Home Front’ pioneer in the UK, in diverse locations, such as: Queensferry in North Wales; Broxburn and Dumfries in Scotland; Birkenhead and Grimsby, in north England, and Hertfordshire and East London in the south of England. I spent a period of two years and nine months from 1993 to 1996 serving at the Office of Social and Economic Development at the Bahá’í World Centre. While there, my old boss Hassan Sabri encouraged me to serve as a teacher at a Bahá’í school. As a result, I spent over 10 years teaching geography, history and other subjects at the Bahá’í inspired Townshend International School in the Czech Republic. I left the Townshend School in 2011, and remain a pioneer in the Czech Republic, in the southern city of České Budějovice, where I now teach English to adults at the local university and a language school.
(First version written in Haifa, June 1993; revised and additions made, February, 2013)