DH photo snow

Darren and Ladan Howell with their son Ethan in the snow, 2013

I grew up in a non-religious family in Cheltenham, but attended a local church Sunday School with my maternal grandmother, Madge Davis, who played an important role in introducing me to religion.  My grandmother had a difficult life and I understand that towards the latter part of her life, she turned to God.  I also attended two other Sunday Schools whilst still in primary school; one was with a good friend and his family, and the other was during the week where they played lots of games and competitions to win things like stationery.  When I was 11, I followed in the footsteps of my uncles and aunt, and attended a local Catholic school.  Sadly, my grandmother passed away in the same year and this experience set the scene for me to ask many questions about life and death for years to come, leading me to study Buddhism, martial arts and magic!

Another loss came when my uncle, Adrian Davis, who had a huge positive influence over me spiritually and intellectually, moved to London because he wanted to teach in a multicultural environment in his first year as a primary school teacher.  He was also interested in going into the Anglican Church, but that soon faded as he got to know more Bahá’ís and read more, especially about the logical and eminently sensible principle of progressive revelation.  I remember visiting him in London and was struck by his attitude to learning about all of the different religions, which he needed to do if he was to become a priest.  Adrian, in his own quest, became a Bahá’í during this time, gave me the book Bahá’u’lláh and the New Era, and soon afterwards pioneered to teach at the New Era Bahá’í School in India.

I remember starting to read this book and then putting it away somewhere, but at some point re-reading small parts of it just before bed and concluding that I believed in the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh.

I attended college in Gloucester at the time and went to the local library to see if any other Bahá’ís lived in the area.  Thankfully, I made contact with Christine and Rod Johnson in Gloucester.  I think they are still surprised that I declared on the spot, aged 17, at Naw Ruz in 1991 (but I had already declared in my heart some time before).  I attended deepening sessions at their home and they very kindly gave me many lifts to meetings.

After some time, I was introduced to the secretary of the Bahá’ís in Cheltenham, Lina Vincent, so that my declaration could be registered.  I will never forget coming home to be greeted with my mum asking me “why the hell is Lina Vincent calling for you?”  I later found out that my grandmother used to work for Lina many years before as a cleaner.  My grandmother was widowed but remarried when my mum was a teenager.  Her new husband turned out to be violent to my grandmother and eventually left her with five children, no money, no food and no presents, just before Christmas.  My mum told me that Lina had come around to the family home on Christmas Eve with a food hamper and presents for all the children.  Perhaps an act similar to what ‘Abdu’l-Bahá might have done?

The Faith fulfilled a need for me over the next five years, in that I had a religion that answered my questions and was something to identify with, but nothing really more.  I remember visiting Houshang Eshraghi-Yazdi at his home in Cheltenham regularly for more deepening sessions.  The next step happened when a particular path that I had taken in life failed and left me with a small debt that I couldn’t pay at the time, because I was unemployed.  I had been brought up to avoid having any debts at all costs and even though this was very small, it stressed me considerably.  In an act of desperation to get away, I booked to attend my first Bahá’í youth event called Camp Banana in South Wales, that I had noticed in the Bahá’í Journal. I offered to take a local youth, Ben Lockwood, with me.  Ben played a crucial role because I wanted to pull out days before but I couldn’t, as Ben was relying on me for the lift.

Camp Banana, headed up by Tim Melville and Richard Swann, became a turning point for me for two main reasons.  For the first time, I felt that I had seen the Faith in action – I lived with a group of  Bahá’ís and could feel the connection and cooperation between everyone.  I also discovered an area of service – working with Bahá’í youth.  I already had experience as a play and youth worker to draw upon.

The transformation within me was incredible.  I remember sitting at home by myself with no money and no job, looking at a photo of  ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and daring him to ‘take it all away’ as I was so happy and I was sincere!  Interestingly, I got a new job and started a new career within a very short period of time – so I assume I passed the test!

I went on to organise many youth events and residentials which could not have been possible without the support of many friends.  Despite the many deepening sessions that I had attended, I didn’t really remember or know that much about the Faith, but organising youth activities helped me deepen as I needed to know the content of the sessions.  A friendship developed with Gawayne Mahboubian-Jones, an Auxiliary Board member at the time, and together we organised a series of youth residentials called Bushfire Projects that were some of the most amazing Bahá’í events that I have attended.

While undertaking my training to become a social worker, I popped home to see family and to collect some post and briefly scanned what I thought was a standard mail-out from the National Spiritual Assembly.    When I got in my car I noticed that my name and address were handwritten and I thought, “Gosh, the National Spiritual Assembly works the National Office staff hard, as they have to write out envelopes by hand for the whole community!”  It was only when I read the letter a little more carefully that I realised that I had been invited to be one of 19 people from the UK to travel to Haifa for the Opening of the Bahá’í Terraces in 2001.

Newspaper clip as Darren prepares to set off for Haifa in May 2001

Newspaper clip as Darren prepares to set off for Haifa in May 2001

The Opening of the Terraces was my first visit to the Holy Land.  It’s hard to describe the experience as there are so many little experiences that tend to come together, making it difficult to give one holistic account.  The event was huge.  I remember watching from a balcony some of the members of the Universal House of Justice interacting with the friends at the conference centre and thinking they were a little like Ninjas – appearing and quickly disappearing when they wanted to avoid personal attention!  One man was obviously very excited to meet a member of the House of Justice, and turned around to his wife to ask for their camera in what appeared to be a frustrated exchange, only to turn back to discover that the member of the House of Justice had disappeared!  My main memory of the Opening of the Terraces was after the evening event when we had left the large, specially constructed seating area at the bottom of the Terraces to walk the length of Ben Gurion Avenue to our waiting coaches, as the road had been closed for security purposes.  The people of Haifa were on the pavements behind railings and were waving to the Bahá’ís who were walking on the road.  As I looked back to the Terraces, the diversity of those present made it look as if they were applauding humanity as they came off God’s Holy Mountain.

L to R: Darren, his aunt-in-law Sandy and uncle Adrian, at the opening of the Terraces in Haifa, May 2001

L to R: Darren, his aunt Sandy and uncle Adrian, at the opening of the Terraces in Haifa, May 2001

When the youth activities in Gloucestershire ended, I decided to move to the North East of England and started a new youth project.    It was a natural choice to make, as at the time I was travelling up to the North East regularly to help with youth events at Burnlaw.  The Infuse Youth Empowerment Project was also started around this time and evolved to take on a different role by focusing on a neighbourhood rather than on Bahá’í youth.  We ran a variety of courses for local young people.  This happened before the junior youth spiritual empowerment programme initiated by the Universal House of Justice took off.

As I entered my thirties, I was realising that the energy needed to continue working with young people at the pace I was setting myself (on top of working full time) was starting to wear me down, and so I decided to step back from this work.  I also decided that I was ready to get married.  I met my future wife, Ladan Vazirzadeh, at an event in Cambridge entitled ‘Building a World Civilisation’ (I heard a comment from one of the facilitators that the material was actually about marriage!).

Since getting married, I have been appointed to serve on one of the National Spiritual Assembly’s pastoral care committees and try to support individuals and families going through difficult times.  I naturally draw upon my social work experience, but I have concluded that there are three main areas that at times have a far greater impact on this work.  The first is the power of prayer and the Writings to calm and inspire people; secondly, the art of consultation within family life to express views and solve problems; and finally, reflecting on the example of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and asking oneself, “what would ‘Abdu’l-Bahá do?” before responding to situations or making a decision.

I concluded many years ago that part of the nature of the Covenant is always to test the believers in ways both obvious and subtle.  Although I’ve been a Bahá’í for over 20 years, family life is a new experience and demands both time and attention.  At the same time, we are expected to serve and to make sacrifices for the Faith.  The crucial thing is placing the Faith at the centre of our lives and trying to avoid the relentless waves of distractions that can move us away from the purpose of our lives and our spiritual mission.

Darren Howell

Darren Howell