I was born in London but at the age of eleven I moved to High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire. This was where I had my one and only experience of religion, apart from the Bahá’í Faith, when I joined ‘The Assembly of God’ a local ‘black’ church run by a fire-breathing, frothing-at-the-mouth, pastor who told me not to mix with my parents because ‘they were not saved’. They apparently were going to suffer eternal torment. I had only joined the church because I was rather attracted to one of the young female members but somehow I ended up with a full baptism in a very cold pool.
My early adult life had been, in many ways, a disaster. I had been through two broken marriages and in many ways life had not been smooth. But things had changed. I had met, and married, Lynda who seemed to have a way of taming my most difficult eccentricities and who finally gave me what I had been searching for all my life. I was happy. Life had been good in many ways; not only did I have a partner whom I loved and who loved me but I had started a business and it too had been successful.
Then disaster struck … in the space of a couple of weeks an employee, who managed one of my businesses (a pub), had robbed the place and attempted to hide his crime by burning it to the ground. This subsequently led to a claim from the brewery’s insurers for £3-4million pounds. But more importantly than this was that we discovered that my wife had cancer that had spread, and would be terminal.
Within quite a short time, my businesses were gone and my cars had been taken, my house repossessed and I was left with just the basics of life. Fortunately, because of Lynda’s condition we were given a nice house by the local housing association. So there I was unemployed, and with a wife who was getting more and more sick and who had been given a probable five years to live.
I became my wife’s carer and to be fair, the state looked after us well. We had enough money to live simply and I had time for Lynda. However, I knew that my mind would atrophy with no work and nothing to challenge me mentally, so for one day a week I went to university to study for a Master’s Degree in E-Commerce. This, funnily enough, proved very important for me in finding the Bahá’í Faith.
I passed all the examinations after year one and the time came when we were asked to carry out a project and look at how a business used the Internet. Just to be different I chose to look into how the Internet was used by religion. Maybe because of the forthcoming death of my wife I was drawn to the subject but I must say I was not consciously aware of this. Well, I started my project and came across en entry online from the Encyclopaedia Britannica which mentioned the Bahá’í Faith and described it as the second most widespread religion in the world. How could this be? I had never even heard of it.
This was a challenge I could not refuse and I had to find out more about this mystery faith. I was not, and am still not, a truly spiritual person, but the nine principles of the faith all resonated with me and I decided that this was what I was looking for. I read as much as I could find online and had pretty well decided that I was a Bahá’í even before I had met one. After some difficulty I found a phone number for the Llanelli Bahá’í community.
With some trepidation I rang this number and explained that I wanted to be a Bahá’í. I had expected, after previous brushes with religion, that before I put the phone down I would have a hoard of Bahá’ís pounding on my door ready to sign me up. You can imagine my surprise when I was told by Jan Fussell that I had rung at a bad time because Bryn (her husband) was away and I would have to wait until he returned in a couple of weeks or so, before we could meet. I was totally deflated but determined so I found a contact, Martin Beckett, in the neighbouring Carmarthen community and arranged to see him the following day. I went across to that town every week for a month where I was greeted and where time was given to answer all my questions. By this time the people in my own community had got their act together and were holding an event in town. I attended this event and declared. This was the start of my life as a Bahá’í. I declared in 1999 in the crypt of a church in Llanelli at a Tranquillity Zone run by Jan Fussell and Tracey Roberts-Jones.
Over time my skills as a web designer were put to good use by the Welsh Bahá’í Community and I created a website for the Bahá’í Council for Wales and several Welsh communities. I also created sites for communities elsewhere in the world during this time as well, something I found quite satisfying.
In February 2004 the moment I had been dreading happened. Mid morning Lynda said to me that she felt the end was near and she wanted to go to the hospice. I rang the hospice and they said they would ring an ambulance and that we would have to direct the ambulance to the hospital or the hospice. If the ambulance went to the hospital they would do their best to prolong Lynda’s life and if we chose the hospice they would simply make her comfortable until the end. We consulted on this and Lynda said ‘the Hospice’. I think at this stage I still thought that she would get through it and be coming home to me, but it was not the case. After sitting with her at her bedside all day and all night she passed away just after dawn with me, her children and her best friend gathered round her.
Lynda was not a Bahá’í but she had attended feasts and devotionals and since she had no other religious affiliations her funeral featured Bahá’í writings and was conducted by me, with help from the local Bahá’í community. This funeral turned into a teaching event and many people who previously had no exposure to the faith remarked how beautiful and personal the service was.
Shortly after the dust had settled I just had to get away as I could not bear to be in the house alone with all the memories. A friend offered me the use of a derelict farm in Bally James Duff in County Cavan, just inside the Irish Republic. As the only Bahá’í in town I had a period of contemplation and reflection whilst my dog and I lived in this remote farm. I painted the walls of the outbuildings, kept the paddock cut using an old scythe and I roamed the hillsides with my dog. Occasionally I would venture into Cavan to visit the nearest Bahá’ís and with them I travelled to other parts of Ireland to do Ruhí Books and attend meetings.
After Ireland I decided to travel to the USA as Lynda’s brother lived in Arizona and I had friends that lived in Chicago. So I spent several months travelling back and forth between these two destinations by different routes sometimes sleeping in the car, other times checking into a motel where I would log on to the Internet and do web design work to support myself. There were many places I remember from this time but I will not mention them in detail. However, one such memory was driving over the mountains in New Mexico in the January and getting caught in a whiteout. The road was raised above the surrounding land and with the heavy snow it was impossible to recognise what was road, sky, or the steep drop at the sides of the road. I could not stop because the heavy trucks that were still heading along the road would never see me. But for a brief moment I saw lights down to my right and I saw an exit from the road and I was able to pull off the highway into an Indian reservation. It had a 24 hour convenience store and I was able to sleep in my car outside with regular visits into the store for hot coffee and food. Such kind people were so concerned for me and the store keeper checked on my welfare regularly (I did have lots of blankets as I was used to sleeping in the car).
While in the USA I was fortunate enough to visit the Bahá’í House of Worship in Wilmette several times. I was greatly affected by the sense of spirituality and the holiness of the atmosphere (I cannot find the right words to express such a strong sense of wonder but these words will have to do).
My time in the USA was coming to an end as I knew it was time to move on with my life but I made one last trip down to St Petersburg in Florida to a very special place that Lynda and I had visited years before. At the hospice when Lynda went in as a day patient for chemotherapy and relaxation classes they had asked her to picture the most special place and she had always used this location. It was a very emotional experience and there is a whole other story connected with a spiritual event that took place there. That story was published in an Irish book on the afterlife.
Whilst I had been on my lonely journey around the USA it was wonderful, but never staying in one place made it very solitary. I had been writing to several pen-pals in China, different sexes, ages, and backgrounds and I decided that after the USA I would go to China and travel from south to north and visit all my friends (on the basis that I could use the Internet there, as in the USA, to make money to support myself).
I arrived in China at Christmas 2006. I was based in Nanning, near the border to Vietnam, and hard as I tried, I just could not find any Bahá’ís, but I got to tell a lot of people about the Faith. The fact that Bahá’ís did not drink alcohol or gamble was of profound interest to women, as many men in the city spent their free time sitting outside in the street playing cards and drinking beer, instead of caring for their families.
Again, there are many stories I can tell from China but perhaps not appropriate to mention them here. I met some wonderful people and experienced a very different culture. Many friends have travelled to China, I know, but Nanning, with its links to the Vietnam conflict, and being off the beaten track, does not have the same number of visitors as more popular cities.
During this time in Nanning something unexpected happened and I got married to Ying. I guess I was lonely. I had always been happy being married and I knew Lynda would want me to get on with my life (she had said). This put an end to my travels in China and after a while we returned to the UK to live. I found work and we brought Ying’s ten-year-old son over to live with us. The marriage didn’t last and I once again found myself alone. After the year of patience I had to decide what to do. I had been working as a teacher but I had been sick for a year with arthritis and other problems with my legs, which resulted in me being retired early.
Still I had the urge to travel and in early 2012 I headed east once again, this time to the island of Mindanao in the Philippines. Mindanao is the poorest of the major islands in the chain and has had a long period of civil conflict. There were two different wars going on there when I arrived; one involving communist guerrillas and the other with Islamic separatists. The Home Office advice was that people should not travel there but to me it is a place where Bahá’ís should be and a place where maybe we can bring people together. I arrived in Tagum City and moved in with a poor family in Visayana village. The compound in which I was living has modern cottages and is surrounded by a wall with an armed guard at the gate. I was the only westerner living there, as virtually all the expats live nearer the city. It is surprising how soon you get used to the sight of armed roadblocks, armed guards at entrances to the shopping mall and schools. In the end it seems normal when visitors say they have to get home quick because there is military action going on in the area where they live and they want to get home and inside.
The cottage where I was staying was dreadfully overcrowded and privacy was a luxury that no longer existed for me. I slept on a mattress on the floor and lived as part of the family. They were so kind to me.
Even the elements add their share of troubles to the population with regular earthquakes and the recent typhoon that made 45,000 people homeless. I will never forget the first earthquake. I was sitting on the porch working when I felt myself swaying. It was a really weird sensation when the whole earth beneath you is moving.
There had once been a Bahá’í centre in Tagum City and I tried contacting the National Spiritual Assembly to get details of how I could contact Bahá’ís. For months there was no reply so I just started doing what I thought was needed. I spent time getting to know and befriending people while letting them know I was a Bahá’í. People in the Philippines nearly always ask you your religion so it was quite easy to do.
Eventually I did locate Bahá’ís but they were in the mountains just outside the city (an active community actually) but unfortunately it was not a safe area for me to visit as it would involve travel through the jungle by jeep in an area frequented by rebels, who just love to kidnap westerners. So I set myself a target of reopening the Tagum City Bahá’í Centre.
A combination of the fact that I lived amongst them and not in the wealthier areas normally frequented by the American expats, and the fact that I was always meticulously polite and respectful meant I was starting to build interest. Unfortunately, I developed a health problem and it looked like I was heading into hospital (no insurance – too expensive) so I headed home just as another typhoon hit. It was a race to get to the airport before the storm really hit.
I will never forget the people standing on the high ground with water up to their knees, with their livestock tied to the barrier at the side of the road as the rain poured down. Looking behind them at the lower ground adjacent to the road I could just see house roofs visible. These people had lost everything but they were not crying or angry. They just stood there waiting for the rains to end so they could rebuild. I felt such a sense of betrayal leaving at this moment when help was needed. However, I knew that I was getting sicker every day and I had to get back to the UK and to hospital.
I reached the UK to discover that I had an infection in my leg and a blood clot. It took a while to settle down and I am now taking warfarin every day to ensure that I do not have more blood clots (I have had three in the past). My health has now returned and I am currently saving money to return to Visayana Village and my new home in the east. I have work there in an educational project and everyone is waiting for me to return. I hope that by the autumn of 2013 I will be back there for good and will be staying there for what remaining time I have left (with some visits back to the UK to see my children).
Whilst here in the UK I am continuing to be involved with events in Tagum and making plans for when I return. There is so much to do – the educational project, the Tagum City Foodbank where undernourished children are fed and of course re-opening the Tagum City Bahá’í Centre. If anyone is looking for an exciting place to serve you could not do better than to choose the island of Mindanao. You would find a warm welcome from truly hospitable people who overcome so much and still have a broad smile for everyone.
I have continued my connections with Tagum City online and the family I lived with just announced that they want to be Bahá’ís. My health issues have taken longer to resolve but are now under control and the urge to travel has returned. I have been busy saving up for the trip so in September I will be heading back out to Mindanao to follow up what I started. I just hope the diabetes and arthritis remain manageable. It will be so good to see my Filipino family again.
Update (January 2015)
Because doctors didn’t think my health would stand up to the heat of the Philippines, I have been living in Bulgaria since last summer. I’m now in the small village of Hotnitsa living in a small cabin in Derek Greenbury’s garden. I have a friend, Wheng, a lady I got to know when I was living in the Philippines. We had intended to marry there but because of my health issues it wasn’t possible. However this summer Wheng and her daughter Kristelle are planning to come and join me in Bulgaria, and hopefully we can finally marry. They both want to become Bahá’ís. Meanwhile, as my knowledge of the Bulgarian language is not up to much yet I have been spending my time talking to expats in the British community in Bulgaria and the response has been good. I’m happy to have this new opportunity to serve. I am the only Bahá’í in the area but when Wheng and Kristelle join me we will be the first Bahá’í family.
Swansea, May 2013