I have been a Bahá’í for over 40 years. I was twenty-one when I met the Faith, and expecting our first child, and the family who introduced us to the Faith were expecting their third. Margaret Hellicar and I shared the same pregnancy almost to the day, and exchanged symptoms with mutual understanding.
I have a very bad memory for dates and statistics and even places, so I am using what landmarks I can, like a pregnancy. Anyway my registration number was about two thousand and something and I remember thinking at the time that there were about the same number of Bahá’ís in Britain as there were guide dogs. As I was a guide dog owner myself the idea that there were about as many guide dogs as Bahá’ís took my fancy.
I was not searching for a new faith. My interest in religion was more on a cultural-sociological basis.
I lived in Durham at the time and enjoyed attending Islamic lectures with the same curiosity as visiting a Pentecostal service. In my childhood my mother was anti-church. She believed in God as long as you didn’t have to do anything about it. When I was a teenager and we had a smaller house and less garden, my Father could spare his Sunday mornings to go to church and be a sidesman. My mother never went because she thought the sermons were really boring. I used to go with him sometimes, and she was right – they really were boring, but I used to pass the time looking at the people around me and dreaming about being a bride there as my sister had been. As it was, I was married on my twentieth birthday, by special Archbishop’s licence, in the Lee Abbey Students’ Hostel in London. We were not Bahá’ís at the time, but the way we arranged our own wedding bore a resemblance to what we were to discover in the Faith.
I was confirmed in that church when I was thirteen, and I felt guilty about it almost at once. I didn’t really believe in it.
I often wonder if I would have become a Bahá’í if I hadn’t met the Hellicars. If I had just attended a public meeting would it have meant the same? Oliver, my husband, learnt of the Faith first when he was at Cambridge as a student. At the time he thought it was too idealistic. So perhaps if I’d gone to a public meeting I might have just put it in cold storage for a while, as he did, till I’d met someone like the Hellicars and felt the genuineness of their Faith.
At the time I was having piano lessons from someone as a favour. I’d go along and wait on his doorstep, and often find he wasn’t there. They were old terraced houses on the street, their front doors in pairs a step up from the pavement. It was quite a walk to get there and I’d hang around hopeful. It was on such a day that the next door opened and Eric Hellicar stood there. I liked him. I liked his enthusiasm. It was only a chat but I didn’t feel the walk over there had been wasted. A short time later, Oliver and I were walking down that street again. It was Miners’ Gala day and you could hear all the bands going up and down the main streets. We were looking for suitable green eating matter for a rabbit I had. We found the Hellicars again, on their front doorstep enjoying the bands.
They asked us in.
In the months that followed, I remember cozy firesides, Margaret’s cheese scones and a nice group of people. We all became friends and shared each other’s lives.
One day I went to an open lecture at Bede College. Eric was giving the talk. It was a daytime lecture and I went on my own. In the audience there were quite a lot of Christian ministers and lecturers, and they really tried to trip him up, but he was so nice to them and I was very impressed at his cheerful demeanour and the way he handled their barbed comments. I knew then that the Faith felt right and became a Bahá’í, and about a week later Oliver did too.
I have often heard personal accounts suggesting that when people have become Bahá’ís they experience a change. They are on fire. They are galvanised into action. Their lives are transformed and they are in love with the Báb, Bahá’u’lláh and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. But I was experiencing something different, not unlike when I got married: What have I done? How do I know I can live with a particular person for the whole of my life? For some of us, acquiring a faith is like marriage, you’ve got to adjust. I suppose it is because you notice the effervescent ones that you think you must be the odd one out. It was quite a while before I felt that the Báb, Bahá’u’lláh and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá weren’t just very nice people in history, and I remember feeling guilty at the display of emotions by other new Bahá’ís when they talked about them. And then one day they had a day-school and Gina Mazindarani spoke on Baha’u’llah and ‘Abdu’l Baha, and genuine tears of emotion poured down her face all the time. Now I felt I was beginning to understand.
Soon after our second child was born, Margaret, Eric, and their children left for Cyprus and their pioneer post. We were very sad, now we had to do our own growing up.
Oliver and I had a very big house in which we had ten students. We ran it as a hostel. In the summer, when the students were gone, we had the chance to make use of the empty bedrooms, and one summer we had a whole week’s Bahá’í school. We sat in the students’ study room and deepened together with the help of certain notable house guests. We had Marion Hofman, Shomais Afnan, Betty Reed and Lois Hainsworth. I don’t think we realized how lucky we were. I remember being in a flap over the cooking. I was determined to do it all. There were sixteen of us at the meal table and I remember one meal getting it a bit wrong and cooking for thirty-two, it was a tuna and spaghetti bake and it wasn’t even very nice. I had to wrap up a great solid lump of it and throw it in the dustbin. I got quite worked up over my cooking challenge, and I remember when Shomais came to our upstairs kitchen on a little request for something particular at the meal table, I got very cross, and then we ended up the best of friends.
I remember Lois Hainsworth had her three children with her, and Michael was just a baby, and Zarin, who must have been very young, would efficiently ram him into his high chair and take over the role of mother.
There were other events that we made use of the house for, some more successful than others. Another Bahá’í week, in which we rented an empty shop and ran it as a Bahá’í shop with exhibition material in, had patchy success. We advertised for helpers in the Bahá’í Journal, imagining adults. What we got was two young brothers under twelve. Their mother must have had great confidence in them sending them into the unknown. I do remember they were very good at catching wasps. It was a very waspy summer and the open upstairs kitchen window with the sun pouring through seemed to be a constant thoroughfare for them, but the two brothers were past masters at squashing them with their sleeves on the kitchen window or drowning them in jars of jam and water. I don’t think I could have done without those two boys.
Another thing I remember was when we had Charles Macdonald staying. He’d come to give a talk and I’d put him in one of the upstairs bedrooms and given instructions to the cleaning lady to make the bed up. The next day, when I’d thanked him and said goodbye, I went up to the room and found the bed was just a bare mattress with one blanket spread over to cover it. I felt terrible.
We were a young community then, with several students. One of them was Sammi Anwar (soon to be Sammi Anwar-Smith, wife of Peter Smith the Bahá’í academic) at St Mary’s College, and Judith Oppenhiemer (who worked at the Bahá’í World Centre for many years), was another, also at St Mary’s. And there was Trevor Finch, who became a member of the National Spiritual Assembly, but who at one time, when he was a student, lodged in our house.
After five years of the hostel, and taking back some of the rooms for ourselves as a family with two children, we decided to do our own pioneer move, and we came to Stevenage. There were no Bahá’ís here then, though there had been one some years before. The house was tiny and seemed such a novelty after our tall Victorian one, and it was even smaller after our third child was born. Bahá’ís came and went, and it was some time before other families joined us. One event that happened in the small house was that we were asked to host a wedding. It was lan Sliney and his bride Fahimeh. They themselves didn’t live in Stevenage but lan’s parents did. There were no guests to the wedding apart from lan’s parents, which was probably just as well. The sitting room was so small that if the dog lay down in it there wasn’t much room left. I’d offered to make the cake and I over-baked it and it was all dry and knobbly inside, but they were very nice about it and they brought the coffee, and that was that! Now whenever I chance to see the parents in the town, which is very seldom, we stop and chat to each other like long lost friends. Though we only shared about two hours of our lives together they were an important two hours.
Then we moved to a bigger house, well a bit bigger. In 1976 or 1977 the group ‘Daystar’ came to give a concert. We’d booked the St Nicholas Community Centre but something went wrong on the evening and we had the concert in our sitting room instead. ‘Daystar’ had a lot of performers and by the time we’d packed them all into the room, and the audience, you could definitely say you had a full-house, we were practically squashed into the wallpaper.
Another very memorable occasion was in 1991 when ‘Youthquake’ visited and we took them to perform at the Nobel School. They were given a slot in the lunch hour performing in the hall. Members of staff were so moved that some of them were in tears. They rushed round trying to gather as many pupils and staff as they could find, they had never seen children perform with quite so much enjoyment before.
Over the years we have been to many summer schools all of which have blurred together in my memory, the Irish ones, the Scottish ones, the Welsh ones, the English ones but all this Bahá’í experience has been an important diet to our children.
For fifteen years, from 1988 to 2003, we had the Thomas Breakwell School in Stevenage; first in the College, then in the Rectory at Barnwell School and finally in the main buildings of the school. I was its director the last five years and Oliver for the three before me. The school was held in an old rectory in the grounds of another school. The fellowship we got there from the parents who stayed there during the morning and the friendships between the children were invaluable.
During the time the Thomas Breakwell School ran, though it was hard work it was also a time of friendships. It was an opportunity, on a regular basis, to know the parents and the children; indeed some adults used to come without the excuse of children. Towards the end life became a bit more complicated as one of our children, Pippa, who was a teacher at the school, became wheelchair bound and couldn’t ride in an ordinary car. Our long walks over to Barnwell School became memorable in a different way, especially when we hit a snowy winter and took advantage of the empty roads to push her along the middle rather than the pavement.
Like all the other community schools, ours closed in favour of local children’s classes and junior youth activities.
Since then our lives have become more home based. The community has become smaller, with families moving out to greener pastures. At the moment we are two families and two other members, not counting Bahá’ís we don’t know or who feel more comfortable out of sight. Though small, we are a close community and benefit from each other’s ideas. And though we as a family are not active in the wider Bahá’í world, life revolving round a very disabled member of the family has brought other blessings. People in general, whether carers or friends, have the opportunity to show their best side.
From the teaching point of view I feel singularly inept, and it is best not to measure one’s value in terms of being able to tick boxes. However, the other day, when standing at the crossing waiting for the light to change, a young woman came alongside us and said how she always remembered the Bahá’í talk I gave at her school. A quick bit of thinking and I realized it must have been about twenty years ago. She said, as we crossed the road, how it had changed her life. I felt a rush of hope. She felt so inspired that she went home, opened her Bible and became a born again Christian! I must have sold the idea of all religions having the same spiritual values a bit too well. For the rest of the day I found myself laughing out loud at the thought of that talk. I decided that God would be perfectly okay about this outcome.
The progress of the Faith in Stevenage has been slow, but I’d like to think that the people of Stevenage who’ve come across Bahá’ís would say, in true Cockney style, “Yer I know the Bahá’ís. They’re all right really, they’re okay.”
Sorry this is all anecdotal – I could have told you about our pilgrimages, our summer schools, our other children (Robin and Stephanie), our resident grandson (Jake), the guide dogs I’ve had, and many other things, but I haven’t.
Hertfordshire, December 2012
Oliver adds: We met at the Lee Abbey International Student Club in Earls Court, London, where we were both living in the winter of 1966-7. We were married on 8th March 1967.
We all have a visual impairment, the details of which I will not go into. Pippa also has MS.
None of my family or Kari-Anna’s are Bahá’ís.
[Sadly, Oliver passed away in May 2013. Ed.]