Liz in 2009

Liz in 2009

It all started with my questioning Dad. He would play devil’s advocate about so much, including questioning if Hitler was as bad as the media told us. Married to this was Dad saying that according to his dad, God did not exist in the churches. As Dad had contemplated being a vicar, and was devout enough to go to church three times on Sundays, he set me on the path of spiritually questioning.

Despite this questioning, I did go to ‘confirmation’ classes. However, I could not bring myself to follow through with them, as I was unsure Christ was ‘the only way’, explaining to my parents that I thought it would be wrong to make a promise to God that I may not keep. That was ‘taking his name in vain’. This they readily accepted. At the same time all my school year got a Gideon’s Bible. This had daily readings in it. I religiously read these, writing a long list of ‘do’s and don’ts’. What seemed most important was to ‘be as little children’ (which to me meant be open-eyed so you can see things in unexpected places, to be accepting), and ‘do not judge’. A little later a student teacher at my secondary modern school, introduced me to the Quakers. Their simple worship resonated, as did reaching into that ‘inner light’. Didn‘t George Fox, its founder, say that God was in the fields too, which had echoes of what Dad’s Dad had said? I also heard that some Quakers did not see Christ as ‘the only way’. I liked this. They made ‘a stand’ in life, put their faith into action, and loved the unlovable. e.g. Elizabeth Fry with her prison reforms. So I set myself on that path.

At 18 years old I started work as a supernumerary clerk for Hampshire County Council in Winchester. This post allowed me to experience many different departments in Local Government. Whilst there, a colleague named Roger introduced me to his church. I attended Bible studies, and duly questioned the meanings of passages read. Roger introduced me to an architect, David Lewis, saying he thought I would find him interesting. David seemed to immediately tell me about the Bahá’í faith, said he would bring in some information on it, which I duly sought on my next visit to his office. Sadly I was not ready for the translation of Bahá’u’lláh’s writings, finding them too flowery and pretentious.

Life moved on. A careers test I paid for confirmed anything highly administrative was not for me. I needed something more idealistic, with people, pragmatic and artistic. I went to teachers training college … a Catholic one in Southampton, where I ‘mained’ in art and first school. I was now 21 years old. Surrounded by a lot of Irish people, nuns and one trainee priest, I very regularly attended folk mass in the afternoon with some of my new friends in the choir or orchestra. We sung songs like ‘No man is an island’, ’O Jesus I have promised’. A trainee priest on our course practised doing the ‘host’, which I did not go up for as I felt this was too much of a commitment to Christ being ‘the only way’. It was all very spiritually cosy. I even went to Lourdes. I saw a nun who was also a fellow student teacher leap off the top board in our ‘how to teach kids to swim’ lesson, which for someone who could not swim at all when we started the lessons amazed me, she saying it was her ‘faith in God’ that let her; I saw some of my new friends becoming Catholic, but again I could not make a promise to God that I might not be able to keep, that was ‘taking his name in vain’. I would sit in a pew communing with ‘my inner light’, Quaker style. I asked my inner light, ‘what would God want for the world now?’ The reply was ‘it is better there is no religion if man goes to war in the name of it’. I remembered this was something that David Lewis had said to me, my inner light quickly telling me that I had possibly shown prejudice towards him, something else God wanted less of in our world.

So I phoned up the Bahá’ís in Winchester, and found myself being invited around to visit both David and his wife Barbara. As a couple they were just right for me, maybe like ‘two wings of a bird’. I remember avidly reading Thief in the Night in my parents’ conservatory. The Lewises introduced me to the firesides in Southampton where I went armed with copious questions, and I met Sholeh Shirazi. At the time she was training as a midwife. I ended up sharing a two-bedroomed rented flat with her and two other trainee midwives. Visiting Bahá’ís would regularly phone Sholeh on our coin operated phone (great change for the electric meter) and we would be putting them up in our navy blue and orange painted lounge. I remember a party we had (we played a lot of Dennis Rousseau then), I downing enough Bulmer’s sweet cider to help me to be sociable with this interesting looking Egyptian Bahá’í that was there. I was far too ‘tiddled’. “What’s the point of drinking”, I thought, “if you can’t relate to the people you want to relate to? Best stay sober and then if the atmosphere is good enough, you can get drunk on that instead.” I gave up drink. I could see why the Bahá’ís talked of it as being a ‘veil’ between you and God.

Sholeh took me to the Henley-on-Thames Bahá’í Easter School. There I met Simon Mortimore who impressed me with how analytical he was about the faith. I remember him telling me he put a lot of proofs about the ‘second coming’ into his computer and somehow this just reinforced his resolve to be a Bahá’í; Vafa Ram was avidly filming everything in site with his video camera; Paul Booth was so calmly wise about the faith and invited me to write to him in Broadstairs with my questions (which I duly did; I remember he had a great font on his typewriter!); Sam Hardy whose buoyant and slightly quirky ways I really liked; Neil Cameron with his wavy red hair and freckles; Richard Boyle with his light heartedness, and cartoons. I remember a discussion group on back-biting he conducted, and it seeming that a good Bahá’í does not even say good things behind someone’s back. Charlie Boyle, Richard’s brother, captivated me with his forthrightness and passion for the faith. I remember him saying “If you want to learn about the faith, don’t look at the Bahá’ís Lizzie, look at the Writings”. These were wise words that have stood me in good stead. I remember going home on the train and feeling ‘all afloat’, but unlike the last time I felt like this, it was a new, more strongly-rooted feeling.

Whilst on teaching practice, I realised I was not cut out for classroom management, and can remember raising my voice often in an unspiritual fashion in my vain attempt to gain control. I left teachers training college and started training as a careers adviser. I was now 24 years old. Feeling I had asked enough, and sensing the time had come, I declared my faith to the Swanley Bahá’ís in the autumn of 1977, telling myself I could always leave as I continued to question inside the faith rather than outside of it!

I did not stay a careers advisor, and in 1982 I headed for London to work with ‘maladjusted’ kids in a residential setting, first settling in Haringey and then the Hackney community.
A few days into my move to Hackney, Bonnie Fields announced she was going to see Dizzy Gillespie on the day of my 19 day feast. I suggested she invite him back and then realised I did not have anything to sit on… I promptly acquired my first studio couch… Bonnie arrived to sit on it but sadly no Dizzy. I also remember our Local Spiritual Assembly in Hackney deciding that as we wanted to be a good example of that ‘new world order’ that Bahá’ís talk of, we would work on ourselves first. We socialized a lot instead. For a while every member of our Local Assembly was single, of all ages, and from many different lands. I remember Peyman Deravi from Iran; Matthew Edwards from England; Shanta Chelapoo and her Mum from Mauritius; Carmel Staunton from Ireland; Joseph Mydell, a tall black American actor who had experience of the Klu Klux Klan back home; a Malaysian called Daniel; a Caribbean called Cedric Osborne. It was fun. I had a unity feast in my flat every month. While I did not provide alcohol, I did not stop non-Bahá’ís bringing it. Some chose not to out of respect for me.

I was on the ‘fireside’ committee at Rutland Gate with a refined Canadian hippy called Bunny Evans and others. We arranged a weekly programme of interesting talks e.g. ‘Music and the Bahá’í Faith’, ‘Guilt and the Bahá’í faith’. Peter Hulme was a baby Bahá’í then. I remember him giving a few talks too, which I think included ‘Reincarnation and the Bahá’í faith’. Mandy Lloyd (Paul Booth’s sister) gave talks on ‘Nutrition and the Bahá’í faith’.

While in London I went on my first nine day pilgrimage in the Spring of 1989. Mum was worried I was going to such a war torn country, so I wrote the first version of my will before leaving. I arrived at Tel-Aviv airport where a friendly taxi driver offered to take me home to his family. I said no, a bit worried about his intentions, but I was also bound for a Scottish hospice in Tiberius where I was rendezvousing with two Haringey Bahá’í friends Breda and Pauline Parsons who had been on the pilgrimage before mine.

Surprisingly, I found the start of my pilgrimage unsettling. Eventually at Bahji I sat in the Shrine of Bahá’u’lláh and felt a fraud as I did so. I tried to be spiritually open, but was full of doubt . . and then I felt something . . . something that felt like Bahá’u’lláh whispering from my being and saying, ‘I understand . . . I am glad you question.’ I sat there bathed in this sense that He saw me and it was alright. I sat there saying prayers for people back home. Somewhere, unconsciously, I may have been moderated by Charlie Boyle’s voice saying “don’t look at the Bahá’ís Lizzie, look at the Writings”, as I tried to be measured.

Near the end of pilgrimage we met the members of the Universal House of Justice. Assembled in the Bahá’í World Centre, we awaited their descent from the balconied upper floor. When they came down the stairs, I was taken aback when I got this strong sense that together, they were the spirit of Christ.

Life is full of blessings in disguise. I love The Seven Valleys, especially that bit that says ‘Yet those who journey in the garden land of knowledge, because they see the end in the beginning, see peace in war and friendliness in anger.’ In some ways my unsettling experience, my doubts about my beloved faith, served to put my belated positive experiences in sharp relief. I wanted so much to return, when I could experience my pilgrimage with less of a questioning heart. This I eventually did in 2009, travelling with Marian Rallings (a friend I made while attending Margaret Appa and Cecilia Smith’s excellent Bahá’í Academy of the Arts), both of us staying with the nuns at St Charles.

I am now settled in Hastings, having moved here in 1990. I live in a three-storey terrace plus an attic conversion where I roost in my bedroom. Every floor has a lounge or two, and three of those floors have a bedroom or two. I have always taken in lodgers, and tried to run the house more like a community centre. Lodgers have friends that come and go, and share their music and thoughts. We are told to have conversations of ‘distinction’ – I have lots of them, and lots ‘less distinct’ too! More recently I have taken people in under a kind of ‘adult fostering’ scheme, specializing in mental health. Along the way I have become a qualified mental health social worker, so I am easy around mental health issues. For me mental health is very influenced by someone’s valued sense of place in the world. My Christian influences taught me that we are only tested as far as we can cope….and I have witnessed people that have coped with more than I think I could bear and stayed kind. Maybe they are scoring more gold stars in heaven! I have the attitude that I am the house’s ‘spiritual custodian’, trying to share what I have and let people shine.

I remember Rúhíyyih Khánum, on the first of my two pilgrimages, speaking about people’s spiritual journeys. She said: “You have to help people be better whatever they are, and they will naturally become Bahá’ís”. So that is what I try to do. For the last 17 years our community has supported monthly meetings in my house that promote dialogue between many different people on many different subjects. I call them ‘interthought meetings’. These are mind mapped and, God willing, will be published in due course. While no one has as yet become a Bahá’í from them, I try to demonstrate the Bahá’í consultation model. Many seeds have been sown.

Some of these seeds have bloomed. One of my lodgers, Mike Pearce, also a colleague and a close friend, did become a Bahá’í. He realized how important the faith was to me and decided to give himself a year to decide if it was right for him. He declared on his 40th birthday. One of my friends, Ray Laban, who was up for doing my cleaning, was taken by some Warwick leaflets I had lying around my house and eventually declared. A kind of blooming is an agnostic boyfriend, Peter Hodgson whom I knew in my late 20s and who out of respect for me would come to Bahá’í events. I told him I did not require him to be a Bahá’í, but I did require him to appreciate why I was, he eventually telling me that if he did join a religion, it would be the Bahá’ís. Sadly he died in 1984 having sustained brain damage in a car accident. After his death I had a few very strange experiences that left me convinced he was trying to show me there was life after death, and here was some proof that would get him questioning more if he was on this side and experiencing them. So perhaps he is a Bahá’í now. But most amazingly to me, my Mum, Margaret Coleman became a Bahá’í at the tender age of 82, she being very taken by Madeleine Hellaby’s biography O My Brother, as indeed I was which is why I lent it to her. If my father Harry did not have dementia I feel sure he would have become a Bahá’í too. He certainly believed all religions were one. Sadly he passed over in June 2012… me thinks he is a Bahá’í now. We buried him in the Baha’i area of Hastings cemetery, and I’ve booked the next plot!

I sit on the Hastings and District Interfaith Forum. We have a summer event in St Leonard’s Gardens, and a winter event in a local hall, both showcasing the food and talent of our community. Somehow I have got entwined in that administration I so hate, even trying to get grants. But it is great on the day when people are mingling, and we see that unity in diversity that Bahá’ís so love, and Bahá’u’lláh’s “Ye are all fruits of one tree, the leaves of one branch, the flowers of one garden” blossoming in front of us. The local council likes what we do, one councillor commenting on the good humour in our work.

Thanks to an advert in the Bahá’í News I am now a volunteer hospital chaplaincy visitor. There was a rigorous selection procedure, which I am so pleased to have got through. The nuns at my teachers training college talked of ‘feeling called’ and I remember asking them what it felt like? I felt the advert for this role was like a ‘calling’. So, every two weeks I spend two hours roaming the wards at my local hospital, engaging with patients on whatever level they wish, which means we may be talking about estranged families, the new shelters on Bexhill sea front, conversations they have with loved ones that have passed over. So many people talk about all religions being from the same source. I am not allowed to proselytise but, if asked, sometimes I say I am a Bahá’í, sometimes I skirt around it, not wanting to create a barrier. While there are plenty I meet who believe all religions are one, some believe very firmly theirs is ‘the one’. I try to draw out what spiritual perspectives they hold dear that may give them strength, occasionally finding the opposite, a very judgmental unmerciful God unsettling them. It is not easy, but like the Bahá’í Faith, it’s a huge learning curve that I want to travel. Where will it take me?

I have now been a Bahá’í for more than half my life . . . quite a thought! In that time I have seen people come into the Faith, sit in the wings, leave it. The latter saddens me. I so wish they could resolve their difficulties with the Faith, and find myself wondering if our communities sometimes lack the maturity to help them do so. I remember that when Nancy Jordan gave a talk at a Welsh Bahá’í School on her work with AIDS victims, someone asked her how she coped with such people? She said it was her privilege. This has always stayed with me. I feel that as our communities mature we will embrace people with all manner of struggles, and it too will be our privilege, as through their struggles they will have gained strengths to share. And so will we.

I have never been too hot on the history of the Faith, all those foreign sounding names confounding my dyslexic brain. I am better at the concepts. My faith is more like that of those Bahá’ís who feel it in their hearts, but combined with an intellectual appreciation for how much sense it makes. I am keen for our ‘new world order’ to be a wonderful example to others, while we struggle to keep that new world order going in our struggling communities.… Being a Bahá’í is a RICH experience. I am so glad I found it.

Liz Coleman

East Sussex
January 2012

Liz Coleman in 1977

Liz Coleman in 1977