Part 1 Spiritual beginnings
I think I always knew I had a soul. When I was six years old my father died, and I remember wondering at the time if I would ever ‘meet’ him again. I was born during the war and my father was away at sea for most of that time serving King and Country in the Royal Navy in the hazardous occupation of mine-sweeping. When he died I didn’t feel his loss as much as perhaps I should have done as I had seen very little of him during my first six years of growing up. Being without a father was hard for me at school. Despite the earlier war years, I wasn’t aware that any other of my school friends had lost their fathers and at the mention of him, I would find that I was always fighting back tears.
My mother, at the age of nine, had given up any faith in God and so my sister and I had no religion at home. My aunt was ardent C of E and would on occasion take me to church with her in Esher when I went to visit her and my grandmother. I have happy memories of those visits to church since they made me feel good and I actually remember trying to be good when I got home (though that feeling never lasted very long)!
At my first school we had scripture lessons so I was brought up with all the Bible stories, which I enjoyed. When I was 13 I was sent to a convent school and so became acquainted with Catholicism, but it was never pushed down my throat. However, on my first day at the convent and on being introduced to chapel after lunch, I was caught smiling (or perhaps grinning) by a nun who promptly yelled at me saying “Thelma Halbert, how dare you laugh in the house of God. Get out”! Such was my introduction to Catholicism. My mother had little time for Catholics (or any other religion for that matter) and so I never felt influenced one way or another when it came to belief. Although we ‘did’ scripture at school, we didn’t know anything about any religion other than Christianity and the presumed fact that Jesus Christ was God.
As a child I used to read a lot and I would think a lot too. Sometimes I would think about the subject of death and on occasion would wonder – if Christ were to return, would I recognise him? That, no doubt, was a good spiritual springboard for the future.
After I left school, studied at secretarial college in London and started work, I learnt to appreciate and love classical music and opera. At one time I was secretary to both the Professor of Imperial History at King’s College, London University and also the Chaplain. Being in an office on my own I would switch on my portable radio and listen to classical music for hours when the professor was out of the country on his travels. I would also lie on my bed at home and listen to music and as I listened I would feel my “soul soar” and I knew that there was something outside of me which I hadn’t yet discovered. I also knew that I wanted my life to make a difference in the world in some way quite unknown to me at the time.
For some years I had wanted to visit Canada and so on 22nd May 1963, I sailed with a girlfriend from Southampton to Montreal, arriving there on 29th May. (I wasn’t to know at the time the significance of those dates on the calendar). The Sunday before I left England, in anticipation of the journey I was about to make, I went to church in Claygate and prayed: ‘Please God, if there is a God, show me the right way to worship You.’ Just a few weeks later, in June, when I was living and working in Montreal, I met Terry Smith, who was to have the biggest impact on my life from that moment. Over lunch in the staff canteen of the Bank of Montreal, he told me about the Bahá’í Faith.
Terry informed me he was a Bahá’í (he could have said he was a gnu!) and asked me whether I had heard of it. Although the Bahá’í World Congress had been held in London only a month before I left England, and I had been working in London, news about such an international gathering at the Royal Albert Hall had not filtered through to me. At this stage in my life I was very “British”, having been raised in an upper middle class environment, saluting Queen and Country and all the values of the ‘Establishment’. However, I found that what Terry was telling me about the coming of the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh made immediate sense. He also had the gift of being able to talk about the Bahá’í Faith in an extremely interesting and engaging way.
For a long time I had been searching for the meaning of life but it never occurred to me that I might find the answer in religion. At work the next day Terry brought me the book Thief in the Night to read since I had obviously shown great interest in what he had been telling me the previous day. I really didn’t want to get involved in religion but I also didn’t want to hurt his feelings by not reading the book. So that evening I opened the book at page 1 and read on. I found it so interesting and exciting that I couldn’t put it down until I reached the end of the book a few days later! In reading those pages I had recognised in Bahá’u’lláh the spiritual return of Christ. Excitedly I hurried to return the book to Terry and the next book he gave me to read was Wine of Astonishment, which was also by William Sears. Without intending to, I had seriously started my investigation into the Bahá’í Faith.
The few Bahá’ís I met at this early stage of my investigation all appeared to be actually interested in me as a person and I appreciated this. There were a couple of other Bahá’ís who worked at the Bank and there seemed to be something especially nice about them. It wasn’t long before Terry took me to a fireside at the Maxwell home in Montreal and it wasn’t until many years later and long after I had left Canada that I began to understand the special history and significance of this particular home. The Bahá’í friends I met at that first meeting all appeared to me to be a little strange! I hadn’t encountered such a variety of people before from my WASP upbringing (White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant). I recall there being various readings, all similar, but each attributed to a different Messenger of God and we were asked to identify Who wrote what. I found this all quite confusing.
I was young and I was going to parties and mixing with lots of other young people and I enjoyed drinking Rye and Ginger Ale. I don’t remember Terry ever explaining to me the reason why Bahá’ís didn’t drink alcohol and so I rather thought, in my ignorance, that the faith must be some narrow minded sect. For this reason I decided to take my time in pursuing the faith too earnestly. After spending just four months in Montreal, and everyone telling us how cold the Canadian winters were, my friend and I decided to leave Montreal for the warmer climate of California and San Francisco.
When Terry and his wife Barbara knew that I was planning to leave Montreal, they invited me to their home in Beloeil, Quebec. Terry and Barbara had been Bahá’ís for two years at that time and had three small boys – Robert, Michael and David. I enjoyed my evening with them and I so much wanted to talk about the Faith but they didn’t introduce it and I didn’t quite know how to make a suitable start! Finally the subject of ghosts came up and in this way we at last started to discuss the Faith … so much so that we continued until the small hours of the morning and I ended up having to stay the night! I wanted to know if there were any Bahá’í prayers and Barbara gave me a tiny pamphlet consisting of the three obligatory prayers and so during my six weeks of travelling from coast to coast I used to say these prayers (though without observing any of the actions).
I left Montreal with my friend in October, travelling by Greyhound bus for six weeks which in those days cost $99 for 99 days. On the six week journey west we visited Chicago where I made a point of visiting Wilmette in order to check out the Bahá’í House of Worship. It was closed and I was very disappointed. However, I met the secretary, Charlotte Linfoot, who specially opened it up for me and I was very grateful. I told her I believed in the Bahá’í teachings and hoped to be a Bahá’í someday. I remember her telling me that I should take my time as it was too important a decision to make lightly.
After lots of adventures and travelling mainly around the northern states of North America, we arrived in San Francisco in the middle of November. I soon found accommodation and work (this time in the United California Bank) and began to settle down in this beautiful city. I wanted to find out more about the Bahá’í Faith so I tried contacting the secretary, Connie Kent, whose name had been forwarded to me by Barbara Smith. Meanwhile a notice of a Bahá’í public meeting was brought to my attention in the local paper, but the date had passed. I tried phoning Connie several times but she was never at home. Then one day she answered her phone because she happened to be ill at home with ‘flu. I told her I wanted to know more about the Faith and so she invited me round to meet her. Connie was a very lovely person. She taught me a lot and we got to be very good friends and to her I owe a great deal and have always thought of her as my ‘spiritual mother’.
I had been going along to the San Francisco Bahá’í Centre a few times when one day I received letter from a lady, Anna Stevenson, who invited me to a talk to be given by a well known Bahá’í (he turned out to be Leroy loas, Hand of the Cause of God). I decided to go to the talk though I don’t actually remember a single word of what he said. However, I was extremely impressed that whilst those who were not Bahá’ís were asked to stay in the room with the speaker, all the Bahá’ís were spread around in adjoining rooms when obviously they would much prefer to have been in the room with Mr loas themselves.
On April 13, 1964, a Persian friend phoned and asked me to go to a fireside that evening. It was a wet day, I remember, and I didn’t actually feel like leaving the comfort of my apartment to go out. I asked him if he had a car and could he give me a ride but he said that I would have to make my own way there! I made the effort and the speaker was Mark Towers, a Bahá’í from Hawaii, who had just returned from Pilgrimage. There were a number of Bahá’ís present that evening and Mark Towers spoke about the Báb and he seemed to be speaking personally to me. (He probably was)! I loved the story of the Báb. Afterwards a Bahá’í thanked him and said that we should all keep quiet as something wonderful was going to happen that evening. I wondered what on earth it could be and so I kept quiet, as requested. All of a sudden the Bahá’í on one side of me passed me a declaration card and the Bahá’í on the other side passed me a pen and next thing I found myself signing it! I remember my hand feeling very shaky but I was elated. I had never intended becoming a Bahá’í so soon! Three others also became Bahá’ís that evening. When I returned to my apartment in the early hours of the morning I decided to cable Terry Smith in Montreal to say I had become a Bahá’í. I had to spell out the word B a h á’ í to the telephone operator at the end of the line. Afterwards I was told that when Terry received the cable, he was dancing for joy!
Later, as a new Bahá’í, I was invited to meet with the Local Spiritual Assembly of San Francisco and I remember feeling quite indignant when asked if I believed in Bahá’u’lláh? Of course I did!
For some while afterwards I used to worry and wonder whether I had done the right thing in becoming a Bahá’í. I wasn’t used to mixing with people of other nationalities, races and colours and I found it very hard. But during my lunch break at work I would go up to the roof of the building and read from the Bahá’í Writings. I gained assurance this way and gradually my understanding of the Faith deepened and in time everything grew a lot easier and I was satisfied.
Just four days after I became a Bahá’í, a friend of mine from London arrived in Las Vegas and phoned to ask if I could meet up with her in the Stardust Hotel on The Strip. A day or two later I clambered aboard a greyhound bus to Vegas and was astonished when I found that at one of the posh dinners to which I had been invited (my friend was a model for Norman Hartnell, the Queen’s couturier at the time) the alcohol was flowing as never before! Here was I, a new Bahá’í and well aware that Bahá’ís didn’t drink the stuff. What was I to do? I had enjoyed drinking alcohol and now I was being sorely tested in my new-found faith. I took a deep breath and refused. My friend was surprised. I mumbled something about having become a Bahá’í – a new religion for this day and age – and turned bright red! But I have to say that having resisted the temptation that day, I never again felt the need to drink alcohol and have never again been tested in the same way.
A week or two later I met my second Hand of the Cause, William Sears. He gave an inspirational talk in Daly City, located south of San Francisco. Being a new Bahá’í, I found myself seated at the front of the hall on a long hard bench. I remember thinking how uncomfortable it was and how long could I possibly sit there … but when Bill Sears began to speak it was as though the place became charged with electricity which pulsated through the hall and I felt I was being lifted into the air. He laughed and the audience laughed and I quite forgot about the hardness of the seat as I was transported into a spiritual atmosphere of which I had known nothing until that evening.
I spent a further eight months in San Francisco but then returned to England early in 1965. I had enjoyed a wonderful year and a half working and travelling in Canada and the U.S. and I now had to try and settle down though I did have thoughts of returning at some stage to San Francisco. I was lucky to have become a Bahá’í in that great city as there were plenty of youth in the community and this helped me to make many new friends in an international setting and to find my place as a Bahá’í.
Return to England
I didn’t find it easy coming home to England. I missed San Francisco a lot and my friends and family were fairly askance at my having become a Bahá’í. My mother couldn’t understand why I had joined a ‘foreign’ religion. What was wrong with the Church of England? Also, I had all these new ‘foreign’ friends and she was bewildered by it all. After all, we were British (very) and ‘white’ and here was I introducing her to the idea of a more international way of life and she didn’t like it. I was living at home in Claygate and doing temporary secretarial work in London. Jobs were two a penny then. My life had now got a direction and a purpose. I used to attend feasts and firesides at 27 Rutland Gate in London and gradually I got to know a number of the Bahá’ís who were regular attendees at the Haziratu’l-Quds. After just a couple of months I was approached by John Wade who served on the home-front pioneering committee. He asked me if I would be willing to do some short-term pioneering in order to save an assembly somewhere. In those days every effort was made to save assemblies from lapsing and as several of them were under number, other Bahá’ís were encouraged to move in for three months to maintain assembly status. For a while I didn’t know where I was going but close to Ridván I was asked to move to Sutton Coldfield and so that is where I spent the next three months. Together with Jagdish Saminaden and Ruhi Yeganeh (later Huddleston) who were also last-moment pioneers, the Local Spiritual Assembly of Sutton Coldfield was saved.
It was during this time that I first met some Bahá’í youth from Burnley and, in particular, Derek Cockshut who was organizing a group of youth from the UK to attend an international Bahá’í youth summer school in Berlin. I thought it was a good idea so signed up for the trip taking place in August.
Life is of course punctuated with highs and lows but a significant highlight when I was least expecting it took place as a result of that youth school in Berlin. In fact I’ve found that my Bahá’í life has been well punctuated with happy memories of summer schools over the decades. I remember little of the actual summer school itself other than that the Hand of the Cause Dr. Mühlschlegel was present at the school but the UK friends who travelled to that event still maintain a certain closeness that prevails some 48 years later. Because at the time I thought that I might be returning to San Francisco, I decided, along with a few others, not to return directly with the friends travelling back on the train to England but to visit the Bahá’í House of Worship in Frankfurt. Amongst the small breakaway group was a certain structural engineer, Ron Batchelor (not a Bahá’í at the time) who, because of his professional interest, had decided to go and have a look at the Temple. He didn’t have a prayer book so I lent him mine so that he could say some prayers inside. This simple act changed both his life and mine. It just so happened that afterwards we found ourselves travelling back home together and – surprise, surprise – we discovered that we lived less than five miles away from each other in Surrey! And so it was that we became friends, remained friends, and eventually married a few years later. [See Ron’s story on UK Bahá’í Histories]. A point of interest worth mentioning here is that our social ‘class’ backgrounds were very different and this for me was a dilemma a lot more difficult than when, as a very new Bahá’í a year earlier, I had agonized over mixing with people of a different race and colour in San Francisco. Had I not been a Bahá’í, I can quite honestly say that in 1965 our paths would never have crossed!
In 1966 I was approached by John Wade again who managed to persuade me to do another short-term pioneering stint, this time in Salisbury for six months. The Cathedral cities were considered to be very important and had to be maintained at all costs and not fall below number. So I did what I could to assist the Faith in Salisbury and would meet up with Ron at the weekends. In October of that year I returned to live at home in Surrey and for the next four years I was living in Epsom and working in London for professors at the Institute of Archaeology, London University. I loved my job and I was happy being part of the Epsom Bahá’í community. We especially enjoyed the company of Ronald and Geertrui Bates and their children in Epsom and also that of Sydney and Gladys Barrett in Weybridge.
In February 1967 I went on my first nine day pilgrimage. There were just two groups of pilgrims, 10 from Iran and 10 from the West. In my group were eight Americans, one Australian, and myself from England. Quite a coincidence was that one of the American pilgrims was a Bahá’í friend whom I had known well in San Francisco and who had sat on one side of me the night I signed my declaration card. We stayed as guests of the Universal House of Justice and those of us from the West were housed in the eastern pilgrim house close to the Shrine of the Báb and there we ate our meals as well, always accompanied at the dining table by a Hand of the Cause or a member of the Universal House of Justice. I had previously met Hand of the Cause Mr Faizi in England and on my first day of pilgrimage (sharing a room with a 91 year old lady from Carmel, California, who was a new Bahá’í) I arrived a bit late for breakfast and because I was unable at first to open the door to the pilgrim house, the door was opened for me from the inside by none other than Mr Faizi himself who, on seeing me, gave me a huge big bear hug of a greeting! Later that morning we were taken to the Shrine of the Báb on our very first visit there by Hands of the Cause Paul Haney and Mr Furútan. At the time I was suffering feelings of inadequacy that I shouldn’t be there at all. When Mr Furútan motioned to me in the Shrine of the Báb to say a prayer, I found myself shaking my head and saying ‘no’. On moving next to the Shrine of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá everything was suddenly different. All of a sudden I felt as though my heart cracked and I started to cry. My tears flowed for a very long time and on exiting the Shrine I was surrounded by the Persian friends who implied that I must be “so spiritual”! They weren’t to know that my heart had felt like lead and then cracked in a flood of emotions.
The privileges and bounties of that first pilgrimage were immense. I can remember the feelings of absolute awe when meeting the nine members of that first Universal House of Justice in the building on Harpasim Street. As they entered the room in which we were waiting for them on that Tuesday afternoon, I felt such power from them as a body (also marvelling how tall all the members appeared to be – all except for Dr Hakim who was very short). Mr Semple joined us for supper that evening. The next morning we pilgrims joined the members of the House of Justice for prayers together in the Shrine of the Báb. Then for the next two days and nights we stayed in the Mansion at Bahji. Paul Haney informed me that I was to stay in the room at the top of the flight of steps which he referred to as the ‘chamber of horrors’ because on its walls hung the portraits of the kings and rulers of the world whom Bahá’u’lláh had addressed and who had rejected His call. It felt eerie to me and I felt scared all night and hardly slept so the next night a fellow pilgrim offered to sleep in that room whilst I slept in another room with his wife, this time ensuring I had a good night’s sleep. The days of my pilgrimage sped by and there was no way I could ever envisage a time when many hundreds of Bahá’ís would come on pilgrimage at one and the same time.
The middle to late 1960s was a period of time when several Hands of the Cause would visit London and speak at the Haziratu’l-Quds. Betty Reed, NSA secretary, would often phone to inform me as LSA secretary that ‘another Hand was passing through London and would be speaking at the Bahá’í Centre’ and would I tell the friends. Those I recall were Collis Featherstone, William Sears, John Robarts, Mr Faizi, Paul Haney, Ugo Giachery, John Ferraby, Mr Samandari and Rúhíyyih Khánum. Ron and I were not yet married but we attended some of the Harlech summer schools during the late 60s and many weekend schools and we generally became involved in numerous Bahá’í events taking place around the country. In this way we got to know a very great number of Bahá’ís of all ages and nationalities, most of whom we have maintained contact with over the years. In 1968 I attended with Christine Nicholas the first Bahá’í Summer School in the Republic of Ireland held in Dun Laoghaire with Hand of the Cause Mr Kházeh present throughout. Either the same year or maybe a year earlier I remember attending a talk in London given by Hand of the Cause Mr Samandari who must at that time have been approaching 100. I arrived shortly after his talk had begun and had to enter the hall by a side door. As I entered I felt the intense spirituality of the atmosphere inside the hall and I recall thinking that it would almost require a knife to cut through the thickness of the atmosphere.
On 14th February 1970 Ron and I were married in Leatherhead, Surrey. A month earlier in January 1970 at Teaching Conference in Manchester there was a call for overseas pioneers. I desperately wanted to pioneer but at the time was not in a position to do so since I was about to get married and it just wasn’t convenient! Our friend Ronald Bates said to me that I shouldn’t worry about not volunteering at the time because if the urge was there, I would be given the chance to go pioneering at a later date. How right he was! Just a month or two later Ron was given a list of countries at work for which he could apply for a posting with the British Government in his profession as structural engineer. Amongst these countries was the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific, a British Protectorate and a country then requiring pioneers. Ron was still not a Bahá’í but he was happy to apply for the post and was successful. During my teenage years I had read several books about the South Pacific but never in my wildest dreams had I ever imagined I would actually live there! In October, on the way out to our pioneering post, we stopped in Haifa for a three day visit and there in the Shrine of the Báb, Ron declared his faith! A day later, whilst walking around the area close to the Shrine, he had a feeling that he would be ‘known by his camera’. On our next port of call, in Hong Kong en route to the Solomons, he bought a good camera with the last of his savings.
As the plane approached Henderson Airfield, the scene of turquoise lagoons and waving palm trees amidst a forget-me-not blue sea and burning sunshine, was our first introduction to the paradisiacal glimpse of the South Pacific as we descended towards Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands and our home for the next two and a half years. The islands were beautiful. There we enjoyed a natural healthy life where the local market was stacked high with pineapples, mangoes, bananas and other tropical fruit, and we also had plenty of fruit trees growing in our garden. We grew to love eating fresh coconuts and drinking the sweet coconut milk. Islanders would come to our house daily bringing with them fresh fish caught from the sea. On several occasions we flew in a tiny aircraft over to the island of Malaita where we would then be paddled by canoe to visit local Bahá’ís on man-made islands off the coast at Langa Langa Lagoon. There we enjoyed participating in ceremonial meals of roast pig wrapped in palm leaves and cooked over an open fire, all the while enjoying the company of local Bahá’ís. At night time we would sleep in leaf huts under the stars. I recall one rather uncomfortable night when I was seven months’ pregnant being given a make-shift bed which consisted of a heavy sheet of corrugated iron to sleep on. The Islanders were most concerned about my opting to sleep on the ground, but trying to manoeuvre the ‘bump’ into the narrow ridges of iron sheeting was an impossibility! Memories of night-time canoe rides along dusky starlit lagoons with phosphorescent fish leaping out of the water in front of the prow of the boat come to mind as I write this, and fill me with inevitable nostalgia.
We experienced many challenges in the Solomon Islands. However, the happiest event of our lives took place there when our son Simon was born in Honiara in June 1972. I will never forget looking out to sea from the window of my hospital room (the maternity unit consisted of two beds only) and seeing canoes laden with huge piles of pineapples and copra being paddled by!
During our two and a half years in the Solomon Islands we were privileged to meet four Hands of the Cause – Enoch Olinga, Collis Feathersone, Dr Muhájir and John Robarts. Collis Featherstone came to see me one day in my office when I was working for a Japanese company, and he taught me how to recite the prayer ‘The Remover of Difficulties’ by counting up to 19 or 95 on my fingers, the method of which I have never forgotten. John Robarts’ visit to Honiara was very special for me. At the time I was six months pregnant and that particular day I was feeling quite upset about something. When we arrived at the hotel where John was staying, he got out of the car and gave me a great big hug and told me he was saying a prayer for my unborn child.
Meanwhile, Ron was becoming a very successful photographer (in his spare time) and he did in fact become ‘known by his camera’. We visited other islands in the Solomon Islands archipelago and he took many hundreds of photographs of local islanders. Together we would process these black and white postcards in the bathroom of our home on Lengakiki Ridge (a bungalow on stilts). It was a stiflingly hot task, the Solomon Islands being just 8 degrees south of the Equator, but during a period of two years we sold some 7,000 postcards at the local Mendana Hotel, mostly to tourists who would disembark in the capital Honiara from a Pacific Islands cruise and purchase the photographs as souvenirs of their travels.
It was December 1972 and the day after Christmas. We were resting on our beds after lunch when I ‘heard a voice in my ear’ telling me that Ron should write to the Universal House of Justice offering his services as a photographer during the coming International Convention which was to take place at Ridván 1973. We duly wrote off to the Bahá’í World Centre and, sure enough, some weeks later Ron received an invitation to spend a period of service there as a photographer working under the direction of Lacey Crawford in the Audio-Visual Department.
After two and a half years in the Solomon Islands we were due for home leave so on 19th March we left Honiara with Simon aged nine months and spent the next four months travelling half way around the world, pushing him in the baby buggy we purchased in Sydney. Our first stop was New Caledonia, where we spent two days with Jeanette Battrick in Noumea. From Noumea we flew to Sydney where we spent 10 delightful days with friends Ho-San and Mariette Leong and where of course we were able to visit the Bahá’í House of Worship on the North Shore. Our next stops were Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Penang where we visited Bahá’ís in each place, and from there we flew on to Tehran.
We had made a previous arrangement with the Bahá’ís in Iran for me to stay with a family for a month or so while Ron was in Haifa – so it was that Simon and I were invited into the home of the Bagha family who looked after us and provided us with great love and hospitality. Shidrukh and Manouchehr and their three growing children Manousheed, Mojan and Merat spoiled us, particularly Simon, with their undivided attention! Nine years later in 1982 when we were living in Kathmandu, Nepal, we heard the tragic news that Shidrukh had been martyred. Just recently (a full 40 years later) Ron and I spent a most enjoyable evening in London meeting up with Merat, his wife Parry and their twins Mia and Kia presently living in Bologna.
After a month in Tehran I was invited to join Ron in Haifa for nine days while he finished his photography assignment for the Universal House of Justice. He took photographs of the delegates at the International Convention and also of each of the Hands of the Cause present. There was one particular day when I was taken to Mazraih by my friend Geertrui Bates. She offered to look after Simon while I went on my own to pray in the room of Bahá’u’lláh. I recalled the time, when on my first pilgrimage in 1967, I found myself kneeling on the floor with my fellow pilgrims, in awe of where I was. At that time I remember, both in the Mansion at Bahji and at Mazraih, watching other pilgrims reaching out and touching the slippers of Bahá’u’lláh placed on the floor close to His divan. Whilst I had looked on, I had never had the courage to do this myself. As mentioned, there had been many challenges for us in the Solomon Islands and now here I was at Mazraih, climbing the stone stairway to Bahá’u’lláh’s room all by myself, looking for some sort of a sign of the nearness of God. I entered His room and kneeled down. On the carpet in front of me on the floor were the slippers that had belonged to Bahá’u’lláh. There was no one else in the room! I leant forward and as my fingers very lightly touched His slippers, I felt a sort of electrical impulse charge right through me, causing me to sit back in shock. I said my prayers and rather shakily descended those stairs again to where Geertrui was waiting for me with Simon. I had had my sign from God!
After this very special time in Haifa and very often being in close proximity to members of the House of Justice and the few friends at that time who were serving at the Bahá’í World Centre in 1973, we left the Holy Land and continued our travels. Our next stop was Famagusta in Cyprus where we spent six very happy weeks in May and June with friends May and Peter Moore, Roger Prentice, Mehmet Niazi (at the time a new Turkish Cypriot Bahá’í) and Eric and Margaret Hellicar who had pioneered three years earlier from Durham, UK to Nicosia. The glorious beach at Famagusta and the enticingly warm sea and sunshine captivated us and we found it hard to pull ourselves away. After celebrating Simon’s 1st birthday there, we flew on to Italy where we spent a few days visiting Rome and Naples before coming to our final stop on our homeward journey, Malta, where we stayed 10 days. Quite by chance one day, whilst walking along the promenade in Sliema, we ‘bumped into’ Bahá’í friends from Winchester – the three Welsh Newman sisters, Beatrice, Mary and Flo. Such a surprise as we had no idea they were also staying on the island.
Back in England once again
We arrived back in England towards the end of July only to discover that Ron’s father was in hospital in London. Nothing serious we were told. However, on our way to visit him the next day it was to learn from family that he had just passed away. It was a big shock for Ron and very sad that his father never got to see his first grandchild. Such is life.
We settled back in Leatherhead for the next three and a half years, during which time the first Local Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the Mole Valley was formed at Ridván 1974 (the 9 members were Helen Babb, Gillian Charters [née Adamson], Rodney Charters, Miranda Keen, Bahiyyih Mercer, Barry Millar, Lindsay Moffat and ourselves). Our daughter Suzanne was born in June 1975 and Ron with his own hands built a large extension to our house so that we could hold larger Bahá’í gatherings. We had made the decision not to return to the Solomon Islands as a member of the Universal House of Justice had advised us during our visit to Haifa that it would be preferable to seek another pioneering post. Opportunities presented themselves in Indonesia, Chile and Germany – but in the end it was Kathmandu, Nepal, that claimed us. Had anyone told us before we left for Nepal that we might suffer ill health from the unsanitary conditions prevalent in the country at the time, we might have been persuaded not to go. But thankfully we knew nothing of the times ahead, and in retrospect we are eternally grateful, for we would not have wished to miss those most precious nine years in Nepal for anything in the world.
Ron was working for the British Government as a structural engineer offering aid to Nepal in the form of constructing grain stores around the country in which to store rice. In the end these all turned out to be in Kathmandu and we remained there from 1976 until 1985. Nepal was quite different from the Solomon Islands. It was land-locked for a start and instead of being surrounded by the Pacific Ocean we were surrounded by the highest mountains in the world – the Himalayas. We were very happy in Nepal and privileged to be one of a small handful of pioneers to that lovely country. As Bahá’ís we would meet together regularly in the small Bahá’í Centre located down an insignificant back street in Kathmandu. In those days Ron was the only Bahá’í with a vehicle large enough to take our Nepalese friends home after feasts and firesides at the Bahá’í Centre and he would always happily oblige.
Our children went to international schools and grew up amongst children of all nations, races and religions. They also had ready-made Bahá’í friends their age, Samir and Shabnam Koirala. Often a major test for us were the multiple health challenges we were faced with in a land where 50 per cent of children died before the age of five due to diarrhea, malaria and many water-borne diseases because of the unsanitary conditions prevailing. As a family we did all suffer ill health at various stages during our time in Kathmandu but we survived! In 1976 Nepal had no television and was very little influenced by the West. After nine years, although there was still no TV, things were beginning to change.
Rúhíyyih Khánum and Violette Nakhjavani visited Nepal for two weeks prior to attending the Asian Bahá’í Women’s Conference in New Delhi in the summer of 1977. We had the bounty of their visiting our home in Thapathali one day for a Bahá’í gathering. On another day Rúhíyyih Khánum asked if she could dictate a report to me about a recent visit of hers to Kashmir, which I took down in shorthand and later typed out for her. I remember also that she asked me for a homeopathic remedy, which fortunately I was able to give her. Ron had the bounty of being asked to drive her around in his Land Rover, and at the Conference in New Delhi following her visit to Kathmandu, he was one of the professional photographers asked to take photographs on the very special occasion of her laying the Foundation Stone for the Bahá’í House of Worship, the Lotus Temple at Bahapur.
Our home was always open for Bahá’ís and their friends and the usual tasty pot-luck meals. Many Nepalese friends would come to our house to watch videos (we were amongst the first to bring a video recorder into the country). They loved to watch simple British comedy such as Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, though the Benny Hill ‘clips’ we showed would often be rated as ‘blue’! Most popular was the video film of Prince Charles’ and Princess Diana’s wedding televised from St. Paul’s Cathedral in 1981, and there was also the early showing of the film “Gandhi”. The Bahá’í community in Kathmandu consisted of a few Nepalese and a small number of expatriates. We learnt a lot from all our Bahá’í friends during our pioneering days. Most pioneers would be severely tested when they arrived, especially if they had no jobs, but if they persisted in looking for work so that they could stay and serve the Faith, invariably they would be rewarded in finding suitable jobs and able to stay for many years.
A very special highlight for us took place in May 1983 when Hand of the Cause Collis Featherstone and his wife Madge spent a week in Kathmandu and were our guests in Baluwatar. When they left we were all very upset and Simon, aged 11, opened his prayer book and read out loud the short prayer for the departed. It was ironic, thinking back after a few years, that this Hand of the Cause did in fact depart his life in Kathmandu a few years later in 1990 but by then we had left Nepal.
Bahá’í life in Kathmandu was wonderful. We were a close-knit group of friends who supported each other through good days and bad. Ill health was often a problem but living in an international community in an area no bigger than Kingston-upon-Thames (a medium-sized town) meant that we got to know many of the expatriate families from a number of countries whose children attended the international schools along with our own. We also had the opportunity of exploring a bit more of Asia during the nine years we lived there for, apart from several visits to Delhi when we would often watch the construction taking place of the Indian House of Worship, we were able also to spend time in a houseboat on beautiful Dal Lake in Srinagar, Kashmir; Darjeeling, the land of rolling mountains, of muscatel flavoured tea and the Darjeeling Himalayan Railways where the century old miniature steam engine chugged slowly up the hills; Kalimpong, a beautiful mountainous hill station in the Lesser Himalayas of Northern India; and Sri Lanka and Thailand where we could relax on the beautiful beaches besides learning to appreciate something of the local culture.
It was a heartbreaking time when in July 1985 our pioneering days in Nepal came to an end. For us it had been a very special period of service to the Faith and when the time came to say goodbye to our Nepalese friends and also to our pioneer friends it was very difficult. However, we now share the eternal bonds of friendship with all those special friends from Nepal and we are eternally grateful for the privilege given to us of being pioneers in such a wonderful country. Nowadays there are several thousand Baha’is living in Nepal, and in Kathmandu there is a large welcoming purpose-built Baha’i Centre with beautifully laid out gardens, situated quite close to Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan International Airport.
Part 2. Re-joining the UK Bahá’í Community after Nepal
The year 1985 was a landmark for our family when it came to our leaving Nepal and returning to Britain. We didn’t find it easy. Some 28 years have now passed since that time, since when our children have grown up and made lives of their own. The years have been full and busy with activity, interjected with pleasant times on the tennis court, a sport of which I am inordinately fond. Simon and Suzanne both served as youth volunteers at the Bahá’í World Centre in Haifa after leaving school and before university and pursuing their respective careers. During their years of service we were able to visit them for 10 days each time, added to which we have had the privilege of more than one full pilgrimage and several three-day visits to the Holy Land. I think that we in Europe often don’t realise quite how lucky we are in being just a few hours’ flight away from the Holy Land and having the opportunity of a quick 3 day visit. Also, equally near at hand when living in Europe, is Edirne (Adrianople) in Turkey – a truly memorable location where it’s possible to visit the holy places associated with Bahá’u’lláh and also where it’s possible to experience the same feelings of awe and wonder as when in the Holy Land. I’ve been there twice.
We attended the Bahá’í World Congress in New York in November 1992, a never-to-be-forgotten occasion with some 30,000 Bahá’ís gathered in the Javits Centre from around the world. And of course it was a special joy meeting up again with some of our friends from Nepal. In 1998 we attended the Conference in Paris celebrating 100 years of the Faith in France and then visiting 4 Avenue de Camoëns, the apartment near the Eiffel Tower where ‘Abdu’l-Bahá stayed for six weeks when visiting Paris in 1911.
Opening of the Terraces
In May 2001 I was honoured to be amongst the 19 representatives from the United Kingdom attending the Opening of the Terraces on Mount Carmel. It was an overwhelming experience to be there with Bahá’ís from all around the world gathered in colourful array for a week of celebration. The hub and highlight of the celebrations took place on 22nd and 23rd May when some 3 -4,000 participants gathered for the occasion. It was a blazing hot day and we were seated in a specially erected amphitheatre around the plaza that forms the first terrace. Traffic access had been closed for two weeks to accommodate all the arrangements being made for this historic event. In the evening as the shadows lengthened and the air began to cool, birds were spotted soaring over the terraces in picturesque harmony. The concert commenced; the musical climax was timed to occur just after the sun had set, and as the music reached its crescendo, the majestic series of 19 garden terraces, extending nearly a kilometre up the north face of Mount Carmel, were lit up one-by-one in a brilliant flourish of light. Afterwards as we left the amphitheatre and walked along Ben Gurion Avenue to the buses waiting to collect us, we felt like kings as the friendly people of Haifa stood and watched with rapt attention as our international group of Bahá’ís walked in their midst. What a night!
We were back in the amphitheatre again the next morning – the Holy Day of the Declaration of the Báb – It was 9.30 am and the sun already hot. Ahead of us was the glorious panoramic scene of the Golden Dome of the Shrine of the Báb and the terraces ahead. This was the day of the Official Opening – to be followed by the ascent of the terraces. An hour-long devotional and a magnificent performance from singers from the Congo, and then came the moment when the members of the Universal House of Justice began the ascent of the Terraces; then slowly and reverently we all followed and made a circumambulation of the Shrine of the Báb. These were impressive and wonderful moments – it was an act of deep spiritual significance to the participants, symbolic of the soul’s ascent to heaven. The procession of so many Bahá’ís, many dressed in their national costume, was a showcase of the human garden of diversity, resplendent in all its races and colours. Surely the Concourse on High was circling in adoration around that hallowed spot and the verse of the Prophet Isaiah came to mind: “And it shall come to pass in the last days that the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it.” It is an understatement to say how exciting it was to be part of the surging sea of humanity that was fulfilling this prophecy – a unified community of people representing 180 countries from every nation, religion, race, ethnic group and culture.
The intervening years since our return from Kathmandu have become a blur of summer schools, spring schools, winter schools, conferences, conventions, gatherings great and small; of close and wonderful friendships made in the UK and around the world with a diversity of friends I could never have imagined having almost half a century ago! The Bahá’í-inspired Arts Academy became a ‘must’ for me each year and, as for many other people, it was a sad moment when it finally closed its doors. The opening up of the countries in Eastern Europe opened new vistas of travel and we have visited several countries in the Eastern Bloc over the years to attend their summer schools and on at least three occasions have flown over to Frankfurt to attend the wonderful international ‘summerfest’ day in June at the House of Worship (for us always a special reminder of where Ron and I first met in the summer of 1965). Of the seven continental Houses of Worship in the world I have managed to visit four – Wilmette, Frankfurt, Sydney and New Delhi. My daughter has managed to visit all but one of them.
Since living back home in Leatherhead, we have been privileged in continuing to serve the Faith in this country blessed by the footsteps of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and where in North London is the resting place of the Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith, Shoghi Effendi. Soon after returning to England I was asked to serve as coordinator of the Bahá’í Reviewing Panel. I was also invited to serve on the International Pioneering Committee. Having spent many years as an overseas pioneer, I developed a strong desire to assist other pioneers in the field and this resulted in the instigation of the newsletter “Pioneer Post UK” The newsletter was published regularly four times a year for 22 years and enabled UK pioneers to share their news with each other – something that was missing when we were pioneers in the Solomon Islands and Nepal and which other pioneers felt was very much needed. When it began in 1988 I was very busy writing and typing letters and posting them out by airmail. As the years passed and as computers took the place of typewriters, it became very much easier to maintain contact via email with UK pioneers around the world. In 2010 it all culminated with George Ronald’s publication of my book Stories from Pioneer Post.
I was also very happy for several years to assist the Bahá’í World Centre Library by searching in London’s second-hand bookshops for books in which there was mention of the Faith. In all I was able to purchase some 700 books for the Library which previously they did not possess, and there were many pilgrims who were asked to carry out with them to Haifa several second-hand books at any one time!
More recently I have been assisting the coordinator of the UK Histories Project in collecting stories of how UK believers became Bahá’ís and their onward march in the Faith (a project first initiated in 1990 as a result of my reading the book Once to Every Man and Nation, published by George Ronald, about how some American believers became Bahá’ís). I’m happy to say the project is gathering momentum in a big way and it is now possible by means of the UK Bahá’í Histories website to read an increasing number of stories written by both past and present generations of Bahá’ís about how they found the Faith.
We have met and been inspired by many of the Hands of the Cause and, subsequently, many of the Counsellors too. We have seen a huge expansion at the World Centre both in terms of personnel and the development of the buildings around the Arc. In 1963 when we first became aware of the Faith there were less than half a million Bahá’ís in the world. Now there are several million. Although change comes gradually, we realise that in fact there have been huge advances in the nearly five decades we have been Bahá’ís.
Ron and I have been married 43 years and we have shared our Bahá’í lives in a remarkable way. Through being Bahá’ís we have had the bounty and privilege of having some wonderful friends of all races, religions and nationalities. We have shared the joy of accommodating many an assortment of Bahá’í friends in our home. We have hosted some amazing Bahá’ís, young and old, many passing through from various countries since we live close to two of London’s international airports. Always welcome were Adib and Lesley Taherzadeh (our friendship with Lesley began at the International Youth School in Berlin in 1965 and with Adib at the Harlech Summer School in North Wales). I was also happy to assist Adib by typing his chapters for Volume 4 of The Revelation of Bahá’u’lláh.
There are too many names to mention here but those that immediately come to mind and with whom we have shared many years of friendship are Terry and Barbara, Penny and David, Jo-Anne and Bharat, Mahsheed, Ho-San and Mariette, Jagdish and Bella, Pari and Om, Margaret and Ranjit, Pam and Quentin, Adam and Lindsay, Christine, Cecilia, Wendi. Not forgetting David and Manijeh with whom I stayed twice in Zambia and more times than I can count in Penzance! Zambia included a trip to the Victoria Falls; in South Africa with Val Rhind we were taken to the glorious Cape West Coast; and with Anne and Bijan Iqani we explored the Kruger National Safari Park. We have also been very fortunate in having hosted a number of Nepalese youth privileged to serve at the Bahá’í World Centre, and for whom we will always have an abiding affection.
We are isolated believers now in Surrey. I’m not a great one for proclaiming the Faith with a loud shout, nor am I good at finding receptive souls and inviting them to join the core activities. However, we do our best and have always been very happy to support others in their teaching efforts around the country. I believe there are many ways of serving this Faith and I especially love to connect with friends from around the world. Whether this has been by communicating with pioneers or more recently to request Bahá’í friends to write their stories, I have found this form of service most rewarding. It has kept me very busy for many years and brought me into contact with many hundreds of friends old and new.
We have watched the old world order being rolled up and gradually seen the new shoots of the new world order emerging. We feel privileged to have been called to play an infinitesimally small part in the establishment of the World Order of Bahá’u’lláh. Indeed we stand on the “shoulders of giants”, many of whom have been directly responsible for our own spiritual growth in the early years of our being Bahá’ís.
Who influenced us the most when we were fledgling Bahá’ís? For me I will forever be grateful to Terry and Barbara Smith, my spiritual mentors in Montreal, Canada, and also to Constance Kent in San Francisco. Later in England for us both it was Bahá’ís like Ronald Bates, Sydney Barrett, John and Rose Wade, Philip Hainsworth, John Long, Charles Macdonald, George Bowers, Pat Green and Betty Reed who came into our lives, inspired us, and helped to unravel some of its mysteries. Many aspects of the Faith were not always easy to absorb and these friends were there for us in the early years until we had developed and grown our own spiritual wings enough to keep us focused and on track. If we were given the opportunity to live our lives over again, we would not wish for changes. In finding the Faith we have been given a thousand blessings!
I also think we have understood Christianity far better than if we had stayed within its narrow confines, bringing us an active interest in other world religions. It has given us an understanding of what is happening in the world. The picture is so clear. It is of course difficult to understand why it is not so clear and obvious to everyone. Bahá’u’lláh says that “People … regard a single drop of the sea of delusion as preferable to an ocean of certitude.” We constantly ask the question, “Why me?” Why have we been so blessed out of so many, to perceive a new Revelation and to catch a glimpse of the greatness of the day in which we live? We cannot answer this question.
To quote the title of an autobiography of a much loved British Bahá’í, Philip Hainsworth Looking Back in Wonder, we too have looked back in wonder over very nearly 50 years. We feel we have been very privileged to have become Bahá’ís at a young age. Being Bahá’í has given us a positive direction in which to live our lives, a much richer life than we would have had otherwise, and far beyond our wildest expectations. It has given us friends around the world we never thought it possible to have, especially when I recall that when growing up I was hardly aware that any nationality other than British existed! Now I can say that I heard about the Faith in Montreal, I became a Baha’i in San Francisco, I met Ron in Berlin, my son was born in the Solomon Islands, our children grew up in Nepal and served the Faith for a year each in Haifa, our daughter-in-law is Jamaican … and as a family we have travelled the world!
Surrey, July 2013