Sandra’s story includes that of her husband, Peter. The Bahá’í Histories Project was taken forward by Sandra for several years, and the current project team is most grateful to her for her dedicated service in collecting, transcribing and collating many stories. – Ed.
I was born in 1942 and raised in a Christian family in what was then Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).
This was a country where racial discrimination was practised without apology, and culminated in Prime Minister Ian Smith, in 1965, declaring the country to be independent of Britain so as to prolong the white supremacist regime. When I was around 15 or 16 I started working things out for myself as the adult me began to emerge. This prejudiced system was something I saw as clearly wrong, and I became very left-wing in my political views.
Also at this time, my thinking on religious matters developed, and I began to take responsibility for my own belief. Religious instruction in our schools took two forms: once a week the school was divided up denominationally, and lessons were taken by people from outside the school, usually church ministers or priests, or other representatives from the churches. Then there were weekly ‘scripture’ lessons, taken by one of the regular schoolteachers. Two teachers in particular stand out in my memory. There was the teacher who taught us ‘comparative religion’ in our scripture lessons. Every week we would look at a different religion, and take down notes covering the main points of belief and laws of each one. I couldn’t help noticing how repetitive these notes were, and how similar the religions were when reduced to the basics in this way. I remember also liking the story of Muhammad – his dream when the angel Gabriel bade this illiterate camel driver to read – and, lo and behold! he did; and the episode when a spider spun a web across the mouth of the cave in which he was hiding from his enemies, and so dissuaded them from entering. Something in me resisted dismissing these as mere stories. Nevertheless, I remained at this time a staunch and devoted Christian. Which brings me to the second figure I remember: a small but fiery Welshman, who was the minister at the Presbyterian Church we attended. It was this man’s weekly lessons that awoke the religious conscience in me more than anything.
There has never been a time in my life when I did not believe in God. Faith was instilled in me by my parents and reinforced by school and society. Even at junior school (aged eight to twelve) I would faithfully try to read a chapter of the Bible each night before sleep. Ploughing through the Old Testament was not particularly meaningful, I have to say, but I performed it as an act of faith. I gave up the practice before reaching the New Testament, and it was some years later that I discovered what I had been missing by starting at the beginning of the book, instead of concentrating on the Revelation of Jesus Christ. A true understanding of progressive revelation would have sorted that one out for me, but that didn’t come till much later! I also remember reading the terrifying prophecies of the doom and woe that would come upon the world at the ‘time of the end’ and used to think, “I’m glad I’m not living in those times”. Later on, of course, I discovered that I was indeed alive at the ‘time of the end’. Now I find it a comfort to be able to see that the doom and woe (which is indisputable) fits into God’s overall plan for the world, and it is not so frightening after all.
The Presbyterian ‘confirmation’ in the church was expected of one around age 15 or 16. My sisters had been through this process (a series of classes, followed by a declaration of belief in church), and had looked on it as a required formality, which didn’t have much impact on their lives afterwards. I was different. I had already been a bit controversial in choosing to accompany one of my friends to Sunday school at a local Baptist church for a year or two when I was 12 or 13. Now I took my confirmation seriously. If I was to be a Christian then I had to go to church. They could hardly argue with that one! So my mother was obliged to turn out every Sunday evening to take me to church. This, to her credit, she did without quibble, and I am happy to say that she continued the practice after I had left home, and that the church became an important part of her life in her later years.
My ‘religious experience’ also occurred around this time. One evening, I found myself opening the front door, for no discernible reason, and walking out into the garden, looking up at the sky. (The African night sky is quite spectacular in its brilliant array of millions of stars.) Looking up at the stars in inevitable wonderment, I suddenly felt that God was calling me, personally and individually, to His service. There was no ‘voice’, just a very strong feeling. At that age of teenage romanticism I was steeped in the likes of Mary Slessor and Florence Nightingale, and saw myself becoming a heroine of that ilk. For a time I thought it would be impossible for me to be married, because the work I would have to do would claim all my time and energy. With hindsight, of course, I have spent a life in service to the Cause of God, and marriage and motherhood have been part of that service. No great heroism has been required of me, but I have tried to keep the idea of service and devotion at the centre of my life and made other things conditional upon it.
I married Peter Jenkins in 1962. He was from England (a breed rather despised by colonials), and we had met at university in Salisbury (now Harare). Peter was an agnostic, but if pushed would have said he believed in ‘something’. When he realised how important religion was to his new wife, he decided he should find out more about it, and began accompanying me to church, and was eventually confirmed in the Presbyterian Church.
We were transferred to Zambia by Peter’s firm in 1965, and I was soon expecting our first child. One day, during the latter months of pregnancy, feeling bloated and bored, I answered the door to a pair of Jehovah’s Witnesses. The words came back to me, at this point, of a humble woodwork teacher in Rhodesia – a Baptist – who had said that he never turned such people away because they came “in the name of the Lord”. (This man will never know that his simple faith and goodness played a part in the development of our faith!) So I let them in, and thus started a six-week dialogue, including Peter, at the end of which time, having listened to their arguments and faithfully read their literature, we couldn’t accept a single one of their conclusions and thought they were barking up the wrong tree entirely. However, they had stirred things up nicely for us. We were now asking questions we would never have thought to ask before, and finding no answers in our Christian Faith. I would have been content to accept that there were questions to which man could not know the answers, but in my usual chattering way I started talking about it all to my friend Joyce Liggitt, wife of one of Peter’s colleagues. Joyce actually taught at the Sunday School of our church (she had two young children and wanted them to have a spiritual education of some sort) but I knew she was not Presbyterian. I was more than surprised, however, to find that she espoused, not Anglicanism, as I had supposed, but this weird Eastern religion that I had never heard of. Little by little she fed us titbits of information, and we found ourselves being drawn in more and more. (Joyce was a new Bahá’í at the time, and as her husband was not much in favour of the Faith, she wasn’t very active. We were the first souls that she guided. She went on to become a member of the National Spiritual Assembly of Malawi, now lives in the Cape in South Africa, and her dear husband eventually became a good friend of the Faith).
The first thing that attracted me was the notion of progressive revelation – that religion has been progressively revealed from age to age, the spiritual essence remaining the same, but social teachings being developed in accordance with man’s own development, drawing him into ever-greater units, from family and tribe, through nationhood to world unity. Thus all the world’s religions were different chapters in one single book, and I no longer had to exclude any person or any religion from my own belief system. It seemed so obvious, I felt stupid for not being able to work it out for myself! The second thing was the clear and unequivocal teaching against all forms of prejudice. Given our political background, this was music to my ears.
We started reading avidly, not just Bahá’í literature, but also books on comparative religion and many of the more modern cults and movements. After all, you can’t just hop from one religion to another without checking out all the alternatives. At an early stage I read the Hidden Words of Bahá’u’lláh, at a sitting, cover to cover, and felt overwhelmed by the feeling that if this were true, how wonderful to think that God had not forgotten us, but was clearly pouring forth so much love. The love of God for man was the one thing which was so clearly expressed for me in the Hidden Words, in a way I hadn’t ever felt before. From that point on I wanted it to be true. The next golden moment was while perusing Bahá’u’lláh and the New Era when, without any conscious struggle beforehand, my heart responded to the words of the Báb, quoted therein, in a way that told me they were true. I could compare it to the moment when you first feel the child move in your womb. Suddenly, it’s there – that first tiny movement – and you know your child is real and alive.
Believing with your heart is not the same as being convinced in your mind, and I’ve always thought that religious belief involves both these processes. It took us a further two years to convince our minds – doubting Thomases that we were – though in fairness we did emigrate to England in that time and were not able to be in contact with Bahá’ís for many months. We continued attending church during our last months in Zambia, leaving Jane in her crib with Joyce while we went to the evening service. After church we would stop for a cup of tea and talk about the Bahá’í Faith. After a while it dawned on us that the second part of the evening was more important to us than church! It was hard for me to be quite sure that in turning to Bahá’u’lláh I was not turning away from Christ. It took the books of George Townshend, himself a Christian minister even after he had espoused the Cause, to help me through that barrier. Eventually, my love and reverence for Christ, as well as my understanding of His station and His mission, only increased.
Our decision to move to England was brought about by affairs in Africa. We did not feel we could make our home in Zambia, and Rhodesia was definitely OUT thanks to Ian Smith. With our new daughter, Jane, we wanted to be putting down roots. We settled in Tonbridge, in Kent, and contacted the Bahá’ís in Canterbury (in those days, our nearest Bahá’í Assembly) and made several trips to meet with them. They were Arthur and Marion Weinberg, both of Jewish background, and Arthur being a South African made an extra link with us, and they had two small boys. We would go over on a Sunday, and they would give us lunch, lend us books, talk through various aspects of the teachings, answer our questions, etc. Eventually their kindness and patience paid off, and we signed our ‘declaration cards’ in their lounge, just before our first Nineteen Day Feast. We had made our intentions clear before going over that Sunday, but, even so, they would not bring up the subject of signing the cards until we, again, stated our wish to declare. (The Feast time was approaching, and we still had to read the Will and Testament of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá!) Then they heaved a sigh of relief and we got on with the process. Such was the reticence in those days when it came to inviting people to become Bahá’ís! Twenty-nine years later, when my dear sister Fiona Cox signed her card in the very same room, it was much easier.
Of all the events in our lives, this has to be the most momentous, defining moment. We were the first Bahá’ís in our two families, and for this we acknowledge our debt to our parents and grandparents, who handed down to us the values and ideals that made it possible for us to take this huge step, but mostly of course, we are thankful for the grace of God, without which we would never have attained this paradise. Since that day (6th August 1967), we have never wavered in our Faith (please God we remain steadfast until our deaths!), and our commitment to the Cause has shaped our lives. I believe that the underpinning of our lives by the laws and principles of Bahá’u’lláh has probably kept our marriage secure, and certainly has aided us in bringing our children up to be true and honest citizens – as well as strong Bahá’ís. Words simply cannot express how privileged we feel, and how thankful we are, for the bounty of serving the Cause of God in this Day.
Within a short time we realised that if we were to grow in the Faith then we would need to move, and consequently offered our services to the Home Front Pioneer Committee, who recommended we try for Winchester, as our arrival would bring their numbers up to 9 and they would thus be able to re-form their Assembly. Thus our first pioneering move took place in the summer of 1968.
Winchester was our ‘nursery’ where we grew up as Bahá’ís. Our teachers were David and Barbara Lewis, Beatrice, Mary and Flo Newman, and Wyn Pratley. (There was one inactive believer at this time, which made our numbers up to nine and so we were able to learn how an LSA functioned). These six people were without exception single-minded, devoted Bahá’ís, and it was a wonderful privilege to spend seven years with them. In particular, our three young children (Jim was born in Kent, Bill in Winchester) were loved and fussed over, and made to feel an integral part of the community.
Teaching the Faith in Winchester was a constant in our lives. We held regular firesides, public meetings, prayer meetings, deepening sessions and children’s classes, with occasional forays into street-teaching and taking a stall at the local St. Giles’ Fair. We placed regular advertisements and articles in the local press. We also had extension teaching goals at various times in Stockport, Basingstoke and the Isle of Wight. The latter was the great success story of the 1970s. For a while almost the whole country was focused on the Isle of Wight, and with pioneer moves and dedicated teaching efforts it was raised to Assembly status and was soon sending out travelling teachers and pioneers.
In 1975, because Winchester now had quite a strong community, and because for personal reasons we felt we needed a change, we decided to pioneer to Guernsey. In fact we tried to pioneer overseas, but Peter had no luck in finding a job in any goal area. So we started looking at home-front goals. Guernsey was a difficult goal to fill because of the Island’s protective housing laws, but as a schoolteacher, Peter had a chance. We were awarded a licence to buy a house on the strength of his job. (In fact Peter was offered jobs simultaneously in two goal areas, but the National Assembly specifically requested us to accept the post in Guernsey because it was so difficult.) In Guernsey we joined the stalwart pioneer family of Pauline and Frank Senior, and their daughter Adele, who had married in Guernsey and was now Adele Stevens-Cox. Also there to begin with was Naomi Long, who subsequently moved to Manchester.
We spent 19 years in Guernsey, during which time we carried out an endless procession of teaching initiatives – firesides, public meetings of every description, articles and advertisements in the paper, radio interviews, youth activities, children’s classes (and, yes, we had non-Bahá’í children in our classes) stalls in fairs and shows, books to the Bailiff and Lt. Governor, books in the library, speakers in schools, charity fund-raising, deepening programmes, prayer meetings – even tree-planting. We were also supported by an impressive range of travelling teachers (including Hand of the Cause Collis Featherstone). Because of the island’s small population and the fact that the local paper was well read locally, the Faith did become quite well known in the island. Over the years a number of souls accepted Bahá’u’lláh, but not all of them stayed firm. Those whose names stand out are: Helen Smith, who pioneered to her ancestral home of Lithuania, even before Glasnost; Marlene Morris, who married a Jerseyman and was thus able to pioneer to that island; Edna and George (Jock) Sweet; their niece, artist and poet Trudie Roffey (now Shannon); and Ingrid Ritchie.
We established a contact with the Bahá’ís in Brittany, holding an Anglo-French conference at Easter 1988. This developed into a regular event, once or twice a year, switching the venue between Jersey, Guernsey and France. Jersey had had an Assembly when we first arrived in the Channel Islands, but as Guernsey went up, Jersey came down, and the sister island became an important teaching goal for us. I lost count of the number of times I flew across in the little yellow plane, meeting up with Beryl de Gruchy, and going with her to our public meeting. There were two old men who used to come regularly: one was deaf and the other didn’t listen, but they enjoyed the biscuits! Beryl was Jersey-born, and had returned to the island as a pioneer for the Faith years before. Also active at that time was Sheila Stevenson (née Newman, whose mother, Nell Newman became a Bahá’í in Winchester – no relation to the other three Newman sisters), but after Sheila’s death it was only Beryl who was really active, until she was joined by Marlene from Guernsey (see above) and then Mary Connor, another Jersey person who was finally able to return. I also did some teaching in Alderney and Sark, none of which bore fruit as far as I know.
Our pilgrimage came up in 1983, after three or four years on the waiting list. It was a blissful experience. On Pilgrimage, one steps into a rarefied atmosphere; during those nine days the old world is quite forgotten, and one is viewing everything from a different vantage point. At that time, I believe the Pilgrimage groups numbered 80, and we were split into two groups. The old Pilgrim House at the Shrine of the Báb was the centre for the pilgrims – that was where we had our meals, socialised, passed the time between visits, had evening lectures, etc. At Bahji, too, the old Pilgrim House was all that was available. The gorgeous Visitors’ Centre, which we saw for the first time in 2003, was as yet undreamed of. Nine days was not enough for me, and for the next eleven years I yearned to revisit the hallowed spot, until the call eventually came for us to work at the World Centre.
In late 1993, Peter was becoming unhappy with his job in Guernsey and I, somewhat reluctantly, agreed to seeking a pioneer post abroad. There were prospects of a teaching post in Nepal with the British Council, but while we were waiting for a reply from Nepal (and looking into other possibilities into the bargain, including teaching English in China) a letter came, one day, completely out of the blue, from the Bahá’í World Centre in Haifa, inviting us to apply for work at the World Centre.
The impact of this letter is difficult to overstate. There was no guarantee, at this stage, that we would even be given jobs, it was just an invitation to apply, in response to someone mentioning us, among others, as possibilities. But it seemed to us to be a veritable summons from God. There was no way that we would not apply! At the very least, it seemed to us that it was a confirmation that it was right for us to be seeking to leave Guernsey at this time. (Of course, leaving one’s pioneer post is not something that can be lightly undertaken.) After a lengthy process, we were, eventually, formally invited to serve at the World Centre for two and a half years, and we set about selling up and moving with joy in our hearts. We sold the house in Guernsey and bought a two-up, two-down in Tooting, London, simply to preserve our capital in bricks and mortar, and Jim (now working in London) was happy to live there all the years we were in Haifa, providing us with a pied-a-terre for all our trips home.
Words cannot adequately convey the blessing and privilege conferred upon us by our years of service at the World Centre: to be able to enter the Shrines so frequently, to become so intimately acquainted with every feature of the buildings and gardens, to be surrounded day after day, year after year, with that atmosphere of sanctity and reverence; and so much more – to be working closely with the Universal House of Justice and to be able to observe how it went about looking after the Bahá’í world, to become acquainted with all its members, to have a window on developments in all the Bahá’í world through reading the incoming and outgoing correspondence (part of our jobs!); to be part of a community of some six or seven hundred Bahá’ís, representing over 60 nations, all working within a unique system which operated, above all, on trust, and to realise that in this respect we had stepped into the future; and so many wonderful friends! Of course, it wasn’t all wonderful, and when the time came, I was glad to leave – but I wouldn’t have missed a minute of it!
Our time at the Bahá’í World Centre coincided with the construction of the Centre for the Study of the Texts, the Seat of the International Teaching Centre, and the Terraces. The latter two were all but finished when we left, and I was privileged to spend my last year there actually working in the CST. Our initial posting was for two-and-a-half years, Peter in the Master Reference File, myself in the Correspondence Office (processing outgoing letters of the House and Secretariat). After a year we applied to have our term changed to indefinite, and this was granted. Peter was then moved to the Secretariat, where he served as Aide to House member Mr. Hushmand Fatheazam. After three and a half years I applied to move to the Research Department (as secretary), because by that time my health was going down hill, and I felt that a less demanding job would help.
While we were in Haifa, two of my sisters visited together, Fiona, from UK, and Dorothy (Dalton) from South Africa. They had always been sympathetic towards the Faith, but never seemed to think it really concerned them. I took them to the Shrine in Bahji, and said, “Bahá’u’lláh, I’ve brought them this far, You’re going to have to do the rest.” They both declared within the next year. I think that visiting Haifa is a way of enabling people, Bahá’ís and non-Bahá’ís alike, to witness the real power in the Cause and see the Faith as a reality, not just someone’s fanciful ideas.
Eventually my health deteriorated to the point where we had to leave Haifa, and we chose to settle in Nottingham to be near our daughter who, with two small boys, could use our support. This area was designated an ‘A’ cluster, so we found ourselves exactly where we wanted to be in terms of playing our part in carrying forward the Message of Bahá’u’lláh.
Postscript: In 2007, our lovely daughter, Jane, together with her husband, Joe Pearce, and their three children, went to live in China. We then moved to Porthcawl, in South Wales, to be near our youngest son, Bill, and his wife Leila and their three children.
Looking back over my life, it seems to me that the hand of Divine guidance has never been far away. Fate has intervened at crucial points, such as in our transferral to Zambia (not my choice) which led us to our spiritual mother; at other times we have needed to take our own decisions to get ourselves on the right path. At times in my life I have been desperate for someone to give me explicit guidance and tell me what to do, and I have even ventured into the psychic world looking for answers. Over the years, the lesson I have learnt is that our spiritual growth comes about only through making decisions for ourselves. It’s making the right choices that leads us forward. Having someone tell us what to do is like writing an examination with the answer paper at one’s side. Nevertheless, the guidance has been there, through dreams, through inspiration, even, at one point, through an unsolicited message from the spirit world via a trance-medium (“We are trying to help you, we’re doing the best we can!”). I have come to believe that living the life as best we can, faithfully using the Obligatory Prayers, reading the Writings morning and evening, is what plugs us in so that we do receive that unerring guidance, even while unaware of it. It is also my experience that turning for advice to your Local Spiritual Assembly can light up the right path for you in a marvellous way; even though you may know full well that the members of your Assembly do not have the knowledge or expertise to find the answers, the important thing is that the Assembly itself is the channel of divine guidance.
(Updated September 2012)