Suzanne Gerstner

Suzanne Gerstner

I was born into a fairly non-religious family in April, 1953 in Boston, Massachusetts, and grew up in Needham, a suburb.  We attended a Congregational Church regularly when I was growing up, but I always felt it was more of a convention than a conviction.  I objected to this as a child, and so was the only one in the family who was never confirmed in the church.  I was put off by what I felt was hypocrisy in my church even when I was too small to even know the word.

My first introduction to the name Bahá’u’lláh was through the singers Seals and Crofts in 1969, when I was about sixteen.  I listened to lyrics from them like:  ‘Be lions roaring in the forests of knowledge; whales swimming in the oceans of life’.  ‘Prepare to meet Bahá’u’lláh in the garden of cloves’.   I loved the poetry of it and also the mystery.  Who was Bahá’u’lláh?, I wondered.

Then in 1970, when I was seventeen, I was invited, by a girl in Needham named Annie Moore, to a few Bahá’í firesides and a Bahá’í picnic.  I was moved by the sincerity and love of the Bahá’ís I met, but was not interested in religion.  I went off to college and that was the last I thought about the Bahá’í Faith until a decade later, in 1978, when I was living in the Netherlands because of my husband’s work and, coincidentally, my two best friends there – Ruth Borah and Roberta Law – both happened to be American Bahá’í pioneers.  Again I went to firesides and again I was touched by the love and sincerity of the Bahá’ís.  This really surprised me because I noticed the same radiance of spirit in some of the Dutch Bahá’ís as the Bahá’ís I had met in America, although Dutch people, in general, didn’t have this quality that I’d ever noticed.  I envied my American Bahá’í friends their international community, and the ease with which they were accepted by the Dutch.  I wanted to become a Bahá’í, but I still wasn’t interested in religion, so I knew that would be hypocrisy and I put the thought out of my mind.

When I left Holland to move to Florida, one of my Bahá’í friends gave me the book Bahá’u’lláh and the New Era as a parting gift.  I felt uncomfortable because I thought I’d made it clear that I wasn’t interested in religion.  My friend said, “Suzanne, keep the book.  You never need to read it.  Put it on a bookshelf and forget all about it.  It’s my gift to you.  Do with it as you will.”  So I took the book out of respect for her and our friendship, but not because I wanted it.  However, within a year I had read the book five times and declared as a Bahá’í on 27 September 1982 at the Nineteen Day Feast in Clearwater, Florida.

How this religion-averse soul became an ardent believer was through a sort of spiritual awakening.  In that year I had a baby, and in the many night-time feeds I had the opportunity to reflect on the miracle of life; on a single cell developing into a perfectly formed human being.  That made me think about all the perfections of the universe, and all the incredible inter-working of things.  I wondered if this could possibly be a coincidence.  I also felt a loving presence which is something I couldn’t place and didn’t understand at that point.

Then I found a book in the library called Life After Life  by Dr Raymond Moody which was about near-death experiences.  As I read this book I knew that the people telling their stories were telling the truth.  They said that their experiences were more real to them than life in this world, and they spoke about a life review with a Being of Light.  They knew at this review that the purpose of life was about love, and they could see where they had failed in their life.  But the Being of Light was never displeased with them.  He was a loving encouraging Presence who had always been with them, they now knew, and who intimated that they were learning from every experience.  I felt that this Being of Light might be the loving presence I had been feeling of late.  It made sense to me that if there was a God, He was not a vengeful, wrathful One who said that only church-going Christians of a particular denomination were saved and the rest of humanity condemned to eternal hell, but a loving, encouraging God who wanted everyone to succeed in life and to draw close to Him.

Dr Moody said in this book that, in different ways, all religions teach about an afterlife.  I became thirsty to know what they all taught, and I started reading the Bible.  I couldn’t find anything on an afterlife in it.  I got out Holy Books from other religions too, and it was very hard to find anything about an afterlife.  But then I took down the book my Bahá’í friend in Holland had given me, Bahá’u’lláh and the New Era, and there was a chapter on life after death.  I read it, and, astonishingly, I found that same loving spirit as the Being of Light in what was said there.  A little explosion had taken place in my heart, and now I realise that I had recognised Bahá’u’lláh in that moment; although I couldn’t have said that at the time.

I looked in the Yellow Pages and found the Bahá’ís of the area, but it took me a month after that before I had the courage to call them up.  I had a split between my head and my heart.  My heart really wanted me to become a Bahá’í, but my head was doubtful.  The Faith was so small.  What were the chances, I thought, out of all the people on earth that I would be one of the handful of people who recognised God’s new Messenger?  I was surely deluding myself.  But I did finally go to meet a Bahá’í, and, in that same evening, I declared my faith in Bahá’u’lláh in an upwelling of spiritual excitement.

After that I was bewildered and confused and wondered what in the world I had done.  That was my head kicking in.  I was given the local Bahá’í library to keep in my house and, for a year after that, I would open books at random, always looking for the fatal flaw.  I was sure that I would eventually find it.  But I never did.  If there was a difference in what I had formerly believed and what ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and Bahá’u’lláh taught, the problem was always with my own limited understanding.  I knew that even then.  At some point my head knew what my heart had known for a long time.  Bahá’u’lláh truly was the Promised One of all ages, and a miracle had happened that I would never understand; a cynical non-believer like me was led to believe in Him wholeheartedly.

So what am I doing writing about how I became a Bahá’í on a British Bahá’í website?  Well, six years after becoming a Bahá’í I finally got my wish and pioneered to the Netherlands where I lived for a further 14 years.  During that time I took part in one of the first sessions of Ruhi Book 1 in the Netherlands, and became a tutor, helping the friends there to go through Book 1.  After that, my husband’s company went bankrupt and he started working for Foster Wheeler in Reading, and we ended up living in  Wokingham for the past decade.

The day I arrived in England, Fouzieh Friend of Winnersh picked me up and took me to the 19 Day-Feast in the home of Tahereh Javadi in Woodley.  During the social portion I was speaking with a Bahá’í called Mehrdad Shakabai and he asked, “So your name is Suzanne and you’ve come here from the Netherlands?  Is your husband Barry?”  I was stunned.  Out of 2,000 employees at Foster Wheeler, coincidentally Mehrdad shared an office with my husband.  I had actually spoken with him a couple of times when I phoned the office to speak to my husband.  I had felt very badly leaving behind my pioneering post and my children who were both now university age.  This seemed to me to be a sign that I was in the right place.

I remember soon after I first arrived, going to a National Festival in Scarborough which was absolutely wonderful.  Every year Fouzieh and Richard Friend gave me a lift there, and I was with the Winnersh community there so I was definitely not alone, but besides them, that first year I knew almost nobody else.  This was very strange  for me after having been so long in the Dutch Bahá’í community and knowing almost everyone.  However, every year after that the number of Bahá’í friends I knew in Scarborough grew considerably.  The second year at Scarborough Ged King and I manned a stand for the Baha’I Council of England (I was their aid at that point) and I met a lot of people that way.

I went through a series of intensive and semi-intensive Ruhi books as a participant.  One which stands out in my memory was Book 4 in Sevenoaks.  Saroosh Zahedi, the tutor, was very wise and humorous, and the atmosphere was wonderful.  He asked us to get into groups and put a quote to music, and to my utter amazement all the youth there were able to do this.  Later, in Liverpool, our tutor, Pearl Anderson asked the Book 6 participants to memorise a long passage, and one youth said to another, “This is too long to just memorise.  Let’s do a rap”, and they did.  In no time at all they had set the passage to rap music, and they remembered it the whole week.

I actually followed two intensive Ruhi Books back-to-back in Liverpool, and I got to know Pauline and Isaac DeCruz at the Bahá’í Centre there, and heard Isaac’s wonderful stories about weekend travel teaching in Malaysia, wading through rivers and being covered in leeches.  They knew this would happen but it was their willing sacrifice to spread the Cause of Baha’u’llah. So many stories and games and songs and such fun in Liverpool!

I then had the honour of tutoring Ruhi books in various local communities.  In the Winnersh Community in the home of Fouzieh and Richard I tutored Books 1, 2, 3 and 4.  In Sandhurst, near Bracknell, in the home of Parvin and Brian Stanley, I tutored Books 2, 3, 4 and 6.  I tutored a semi-intensive Book 4 in Camberley in the home of Elham and Foad Rahimi, and an intensive Book 4 in Abingdon which was also quite wonderful.

Three or four intensive courses were going on at the same time, so it was a wonderful, joyful atmosphere, and the weather was warm and summery which made it so relaxing and peaceful.  I also co-tutored an intensive Book 7 in Liverpool with Saroosh Zahedi which was so humorous we laughed until tears ran down our cheeks.  In all these communities I got to know more and more of the friends in a spiritual and creative atmosphere.  I recall a hilarious intensive Book 3 with Zarin and Soroush Fadaei  in Stroud, and Books 1, 2 and 3 studied with Ewa and Ridwan Houari in Reading – always a gastronomic and intellectual delight – and last, but no means least, a Book 1 with three Christian neighbours and friends who really loved the quotes and interacted with them like deepened Bahá’ís.  There was even a short ‘virtues’ children’s class that was a spinoff from this book.  One of the participants was the leader of a Bible study class in her church and instead of studying doctrine with them, she decided to study actual quotes from the Bible after doing Ruhi.  While she didn’t become a Bahá’í she said that our study circle had profoundly changed her.  From this I really saw how the Word of God goes straight into open hearts and transforms them, whether they know and accept the Source or not.

I was also involved with our Cluster’s intensive outreach programmes.  I went door-knocking in Slough, Oxford and Reading.  Sometimes it was to introduce interested souls to the Faith through Anna’s Presentation, and sometimes it was to find people for the Junior Youth programmes in those communities.  Everywhere there were interested souls.

I hated the idea of knocking on people’s doors to begin with, but there was such excellent spiritual preparation ahead of time that I was ready to do it.  We prayed so hard and we deepened on what it is to teach and then we went out to find the prepared souls.  And we were definitely supported by the Supreme Concourse.  Afterwards, we all discussed learnings together.  It really was exhilarating in a way that I had never imagined.

After such an experience in Slough, Richard Friend and I encouraged the Bahá’ís in the Reading area to undertake a community outreach there, and in one weekend over sixty people said that they wanted to hear something about the Baha’i Faith.  Reading was not a very lively place at that point in terms of teaching work, but during that weekend there was such a good response that it became clear that it was a receptive area – especially with the Nepalese.  Talieh Mann and Sarah and Sean Morrisey moved into the area, two junior youth programmes were formed, and there were lots of home visits and a study circle.  I assisted Sarah a bit with a junior youth programme and home visits.  I was well aware that it is best for young people to animate the junior youth programmes, but the parents of the Nepalese youth found it reassuring to talk with someone older as well. All in all, it was a wonderful experience getting to know and working together with the friends in the Thames Valley Cluster.

Sadly, in April 2012 I had to leave England in order to return to the Netherlands, my original pioneer post, and where I’ve put down my roots.  My daughter and grandchildren all live in the Netherlands, and they are all Dutch Bahá’ís.   I am now living in the Hague, and hoping to carry on the same sort of service here that I was doing in the UK.

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Suzanne Gerstner

March 2012 – October 2013, Netherlands

 

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