Jo Higson at Bahji with daughter Nina and son Allan Higson-Sweeney (2011)

Jo Higson at Bahji with daughter Nina and son Allan Higson-Sweeney (2011)

My Journey to the Bahá’í Faith

I was brought up in the Methodist Church as my father’s family were both Methodist and Unitarian. As a child I attended Sunday School regularly until we moved to the deepest Cheshire countryside where there was only a Church of England church, where I remember a very elderly vicar singing loudly and out-of-tune and attendance by the whole family came to an end.

I feel like I’ve been searching for a long time for what felt like the truth to me.  At University I had a bruising experience with the Christian Union which left me feeling very negative about faith in general. However, I did meet students from all over the world and was introduced to Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam.  I was most attracted to Islam, and were it not for the cultural treatment of women in many countries where Islam is the dominant faith, I might have thought of converting.  However, equality has always been a fundamental value to me and so my search continued.

In 1991 I met a man who was later to be my husband and father to my children who had also been brought up in the Methodist Church.  At Christmas we decided to attend a carol service at Methodist Central Hall in Westminster and we were greeted by such a warm welcome that we became members of the church and attended regularly.  It felt like coming home and in 1994 we were married there surrounded by 10,000 daffodils.

We were both keen travellers and decided to travel to Israel for our honeymoon as neither of us had been there and it would be an opportunity to visit some of the Christian Holy places which would be thanks for our marriage. Despite almost not making it through security once my passport full of Iraqi visas came to light, we flew to Tel Aviv where we stayed the night.

The next day we started out on our tour of the sights with a visit to Haifa.  Standing on the top of Mount Carmel we looked down on a beautiful building with a golden dome. The guide explained that this was the centre of the Bahá’í Faith.  What’s that?  Never heard of it!

My curiosity stayed with me and on my return I popped out in my lunch-hour to Books Etc in Trafalgar Square and bought a book by Joseph Shepherd entitled An Introduction to The Bahá’í Faith.  The book was a quick and easy read and I found the principles fascinating.  But this was not the right time.

In 1996 my daughter Nina was born and it was important to me that she was brought up with some moral guidance that was reinforced by others outside our family.  I wanted her to attend a Sunday school but she was the only child in our small Methodist Church so we decided to look for a new church.  Our discussions started with thinking about whether we wanted to look for a bigger Methodist Church or a different church; moving to – actually what do we believe and what are the values that are important to us?  Those values were about truth, justice, equality, the importance of education … sound familiar?

I dug out the book I’d bought after our trip to Israel and re-read it.  Here were all the values we’d been discussing and – oh – the idea of progressive revelation made so much sense.  In my usual style I headed to the library and requested a list of books on the Faith which I read and we shared knowledge and discussions about.

In the back of one of the books there was an address and phone number for the National Spiritual Assembly of the UK so I rang and asked if there was someone local we could talk to.  Within days I’d had a call from a woman who offered a meeting in her home.  I remember putting it off a couple of times.  All of a sudden the reality of what a big step changing my faith would be – especially to one few people had heard of – hit me and I was scared.  It seemed such an immense step.

But I did go, with my daughter, to meet a group of local Bahá’ís.  Wow, they were from all over the world and they were lovely people with values we shared.

We had a second meeting where I grilled one of the group (Earl Cameron) who so calmly and patiently answered all my questions.  Then there came a bit of a sticking point – what next?  He laughed, he wasn’t supposed to ask me directly whether I wanted to declare as a Bahá’í but I think he sensed that I was waiting to be asked!

I took away the card and decided I would sign it a few days later on 26th May 1999 – the anniversary of my christening as an infant 36 years previously.  At my first Feast afterwards, early in June, I was given a beautiful copy of  The Hidden Words by the Ealing Bahá’í community, which I use to this day.

Once I’d taken the decision and become a Bahá’í I did wonder why I’d been so worried about it?   It seemed the most natural and “right” decision I’d ever made and the fact that so few people had heard about it gave me an opportunity to tell people.  I still value that opportunity today (it usually follows the question about why I don’t drink alcohol!).

There were a few family members who thought we’d joined a weird cult and that we might radically alter our lives, dress weirdly and give away all our worldly goods but over time they have come to see what a positive influence it is in our lives.

My Mum, for one, rang me one day to say that while with my Dad who was in hospital she had come across a Bahá’í prayer on a notice board outside the ward and this seemed to have legitimised the Faith for her!

In Ealing I met friends who gave me unquestioning love and friendship.  Earl and Barbara Cameron were really influential when I was enquiring about the Faith and starting out as a new Bahá’í.  Mr Mohtadi and Mr Youssefian (now both in the Abha Kingdom) were amazing to listen to when we had consultations in the community and I will never forget their voices and their wise words.  Jelena Watkins was, and still is, a close friend.  While in Ealing I met Barney Leith and Pete Hulme while the community were being supported by the National Spiritual Assembly through deepenings.  Again when I was hoping to work as a Bahá’í chaplain I found both Barney Leith and Pete Hulme to be inspiring and amazing but so down-to-earth too.

Moving to Plymouth in July 2007 was a key event in our Bahá’í lives in that it just reminded me of how lucky we are to be able to go virtually anywhere and meet people who share the same values and views of the world.  We have been so welcomed and embraced by the community here.

Arezoo Farahzad in Plymouth has been an enormous influence as a role model of how to live a Bahá’í life in the world as it is.  She is a truly wonderful friend, always available to discuss issues around life and the Faith, and a fantastic Godmother to my children (they asked her to be their Godmother).  Hannah McCann they call their Fairy Godmother and she is also a really important part of our lives.  All the community in Plymouth have been supportive, inspiring and fabulous company!

I was really grateful to receive a bursary for the Arts Academy in 2009.  This was absolutely fantastic.  I think it was really important for the children to have a sense of their Bahá’í identity when we live in an area with very few other children.  We met so many wonderful warm and loving people, as we did on Pilgrimage, and were able to reconnect with some friends from the Thomas Breakwell School we had attended in Putney when we lived in Ealing.

I have done Book 1 (twice – once in Ealing and once in Plymouth) and the children took part in children’s classes while we were in London.  We used to live quite centrally in Plymouth very close to three other Bahá’í families and we used our home as a base to meet as a community and to carry out activities with non-Bahá’ís in the neighbourhood.  We now live right on the edges of the city in an area not so convenient for others to travel to and this has limited the use of our home for the time being.  My daughter Nina has taken part in a project making a multi-faith DVD which was distributed to schools in the county and has enjoyed some organised weekends away with other Bahá’í youth across the South West.

After all these years looking for moral and spiritual guidance for my daughter, she has just turned 15.  At the moment she is not sure what she wants to do, but being a child and junior youth in the Faith has offered her the opportunity to learn about different faiths; take part in some amazing activities; meet some wonderful people and reflect on the values that are of importance.  All that I wanted for her when I first started on my quest.

This year also marked my return first to Israel – this time on Bahá’í Pilgrimage with both my children.  What an indescribable experience! Back to The Shrine of The Báb, where my journey started!

I don’t think I know a Bahá’í I have met who hasn’t inspired me in some way.  I think of the many people we met at the Arts Academy and on Pilgrimage.  Both times my kids have said it was brilliant to go somewhere where everyone was so nice.  Just true!

I don’t think a day goes by without me being so grateful that I did find the Faith.  Being a Bahá’í is now deeply woven into my being and who I am.


Jo Higson

Plymouth, September 2011