The Crisis and Victory Rollercoaster
I was born in 1959 and raised in rural Northumberland in the North East of England in a fairly typical upper middle class family. My dad was a solicitor and my mum a full time housewife and mother. I am the middle one of five daughters. Being a middle child I sometimes struggled to find my place in the family – the thing that made me special – but music turned out to be my talent. I began playing the violin when I was 7 years old and music has played a central part in my life ever since. Looking back, our family life was quite sheltered and rural Northumberland is not renowned for its diverse population so I had almost no experience of meeting anyone from a different cultural background to my own until I was 18 and went to college in Leeds. This lack of exposure and experience made me quite wary of people from other countries and backgrounds.
My first religious influence was really my dad’s dad, Rev Herbert Barnes, although I never met him in person as he died several years before I was born. He was a Unitarian minister at the Church of the Divine Unity in Ellison Place, Newcastle upon Tyne from 1919 until 1951 and the Art Deco church there is dedicated to his memory. This is the church I attended as a child, and I always felt close to Grandpa when I was there. We continued to attend Sunday school at the Unitarian Church until I was about 11 or 12 years old.
Grandpa Barnes was an inspired preacher (the 500 seater church was regularly full at his services) and he wrote regular articles under the pseudonym ‘Unitas’. His articles were published twice weekly in the Newcastle Journal and Evening Chronicle papers and I have two large books of his newspaper clippings. He was a very enlightened man and I believe he was in tune with the spirit of the age, holding a public meeting in the mid 1930s to decry the treatment of the Jews during the early days of Hitler’s regime and raising money to support Jewish families in Newcastle. I often wonder if he had heard of the Bahá’í Faith as many of his newspaper articles have a strong flavour of it in them, particularly one I came across entitled ‘Science and Religion as Co-discoverers’ written in 1939.
The crisis and victory rollercoaster began to impact on me when my dad died of cancer aged only 51 and I was 14. Mum continued to do an amazing job of bringing me and my sisters up on her own and she has been a wonderful role model ever since, especially in terms of service to others.
I first came across the Bahá’í Faith in 1982 and it was at a time in my life when once again I was struggling with my identity. I had been through a particularly difficult time over the two previous years, with a very short-lived marriage to a teenage sweetheart and a miscarriage, and I was probably unknowingly searching for something more. Ken Finn joined the staff of the special needs school in Thurrock, Essex that I was teaching in and it was initially a shared love of music that brought us together.
Ken’s musical background was in folk music, playing the guitar and singing and he persuaded me to pick up my violin that had been lying in its case untouched for two or three years and to play some music together. I think within three or four weeks of meeting him I knew life was going to change!
In October 1982, the Bahá’í community of Thurrock was hosting a ‘dignitaries dinner’ and Ken invited several colleagues from school to attend. I went along during the day to help with preparations for the event and met Angela and Robert Tidswell amongst others and I was welcomed with open arms. Very early on in our relationship I had told Ken that I did not want him to tell me anything about the Bahá’í Faith and that if and when I found out about it, it would be under my own steam and in my own time. So, he took me to meet as many Bahá’í friends as he could so that I would be exposed to it as much as possible!
He invited me to join a group of friends who were going to play some music at an old folks home in London. That was where I met a very young and talented pianist, Natasha Wilkinson (née Saminaden), and guitarist Raju Karia. My eyes were beginning to be opened to the beauty of the cultural diversity in the world and it was such an exciting journey for me.
In January 1983 Ken took me to meet up with his oldest Bahá’í friend, Karen Fox and her husband Tom, who were part of a Bahá’í musical theatre group called ‘Fire & Snow’. Raju Karia and Sunil Abrol were the other two members of the group and we were invited to join the group, as previous members Becky and Tim Maude had just left to have a baby. I joined ‘Fire & Snow’ as their first non-Bahá’í member but after only one night’s rehearsal I finally acknowledged to myself that this is what I had been looking for and I declared my belief in Bahá’u’lláh the next morning.
The following two years saw Ken and me travelling with the other members of ‘Fire & Snow’ in my VW Caravanette performing our multi media show ‘The Seasons of Man’ in Bahá’í communities all over the UK. It was a fantastic way for me to learn more about the Faith as we met so many wonderfully inspiring people wherever we went and I witnessed the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh touching so many hearts.
Ken and I married in 1984 and we had decided fairly early on in our marriage that we wanted to pioneer somewhere in the world. A mini crisis hit me (literally) when I was knocked down by a car seven months after our marriage and I had an operation for a third degree burn and three months off work. We went on Pilgrimage in the summer of 1985 and had a wonderful consultation with Universal House of Justice member, Mr Fatheazam about Sri Lanka which was where we hoped to go. The victory that came out of my car crash crisis was in the form of compensation from the insurance company that enabled us not only to supplement our very small living allowance in Sri Lanka but also paid for us to go back to Haifa for a 3 day visit just one week before we left for our first pioneering post. During that 3 day visit in January 1986 we had the inestimable bounty of a personal meeting with Amatu’l Bahá, Rúhíyyih Khánum and Violette Nahkjavani who talked to us about their travels in India and Sri Lanka and the challenges of teaching members of your own family the Faith.
Pioneering is such a privilege. It teaches you about tolerance, patience, respect for others and reliance on God. I have never quite mastered the discipline of praying and reading but living the life becomes more sharply focussed in that situation especially if there are language barriers to be overcome. Luckily for us we discovered that music really is a universal language and we sang and played fiddle and guitar wherever we could. One of the prayers I still recite is one I learned in Sinhala although I am sure that no Sri Lankan would probably recognise my pronunciation!
We returned to UK in 1987 as the civil war in Sri Lanka was increasing in intensity and we were expecting our first son, Anis. We moved back to my native North East and bought a house in Seaham, County Durham. Louis was born 18 months after Anis and once again I developed itchy feet and wanted to try another pioneer post. This time we went to Cyprus. Louis was one year old and Anis was two and a half. Ken found a job teaching in an International school in Paphos. Our time in Cyprus was not so successful. I found myself very isolated and cut off from the circle of friends and family I had at home and Ken was struggling with his first experience of teaching in a very rigid mainstream school system. The first Gulf war began and Cyprus was on standby to take refugees from Israel following air strikes there. We returned to the UK after nine months in Cyprus and I was pregnant with our third son, Will.
On our return to the North East in April 1991 the crisis and victory rollercoaster began in earnest. I found out I had skin cancer and had an operation to remove it whilst I was about 32 weeks pregnant with Will. I had no further treatment at that time and as I had two small toddlers and another baby on the way I didn’t really have much time to process or indeed worry about it too much. Ken and I moved our growing family into Gateshead community in October 1991 and the first Local Spiritual Assembly of Gateshead was formed at Ridván 1992.
In October 1993, whilst at the national Bahá’í Family Festival in Scarborough, Gawayne Mahboubian Jones and I were discussing ideas about how to move the teaching work along in the North East community. Our Thomas Breakwell Bahá’í School NE had been established earlier that year and we were keen to develop a more consistent and dynamic approach to teaching the Faith to others. We decided to invite a small number of Bahá’ís to join us in forming a teaching team and so with the help of Ken Finn, Ian Holland, Nuha and Tony Woolmington, Lorna Silverstein, Gawayne Mahboubian Jones and myself, the North East Teaching Team was established. We consistently met every Monday evening for the next five years to pray, meditate and consult about our teaching plans.
During the period of time between about 1993 and 1998/9 there were several teaching teams in UK that were having successes, the two other notable ones that I recall being in Liverpool and Hackney. In the North East we focussed our energies on the neighbourhood where Nuha and Tony lived in Birtley and later in Barley Mow, both in Gateshead community. At the height of the successes in those communities we were hiring a bus every Sunday and bringing up to 30 children from the estate to the Thomas Breakwell Sunday School, running a Unity Club for children, a junior youth Dance group, youth empowerment programmes and regular children and junior youth summer projects at Burnlaw. It was an exciting and heady time. We were massively supported by the wider North East Bahá’í community but one vital ingredient that was missing at that time of community development was that we did not have a systematic approach to deepening and consolidation. The framework and safeguards that are provided by the current Institute process of the core activities had not yet been introduced to the UK community. Looking back, I think we were still operating under more of a congregational model than the long awaited one of universal participation.
When you are on a rollercoaster it has highs and lows and the speed you are travelling at also varies. My experience of being in the North East Teaching Team was exhilarating but it was also very scary as the unity we had developed began to crumble and the rollercoaster plummeted downwards. Our Bahá’í community of Gateshead which had grown to around 35 members – adults, youth and children – disintegrated before our eyes and the Spiritual Assembly became all but dormant for several years from about 1999.
I took to the Institute process very slowly – more slowly than Ken who embraced it as soon as he could. I was still reeling from the fallout from the teaching team days and when I did eventually agree to go through the Ruhi materials in 2006 it was really to support Anis, our eldest son, who had decided to do his year of service in Guyana and where he needed to have completed the sequence of training to be eligible to go.
Ken and I were asked by North Tyneside community to help establish a junior youth group which was held in Chris and Zhamac Lee’s house from about 2008. Their son Darius was bringing some of his friends to the class which soon grew too big to hold in the house and was eventually moved into West Moor community centre. Ken helped with the junior youth group for a few years and then in 2011 he had a minor stroke and we felt it was time for him to ease back slightly. He made a remarkable recovery from the stroke and now it’s hard to remember that he ever had it. Another crisis and victory.
In June 2012 I discovered a lump in my breast which turned out to be a return of the skin cancer I had first had in 1991. It was shown to have spread throughout my body. The prognosis given by my consultant was not good at all as we were told the median life expectancy for secondary melanoma was about nine months. I was back on the rollercoaster again and this time it felt like the ride could be coming to the end. I think I mentioned earlier that I have never really mastered the art of regular prayers but I felt if there was any time to put my trust in God, this was it.
I was very reluctant to take the extremely new, and highly targeted, chemotherapy that had been hailed as the most major breakthrough in treatment of secondary melanoma in 40 odd years because I was very frightened of the potential side effects. I overcame my fears by reciting a name or attribute of God with every pill I needed to swallow. The prayers and support that have engulfed me from people of all walks of life and from all corners of the earth over the last 18 months have been overwhelming. The card I received from the National Spiritual Assembly of the UK with the assurance of their prayers for my ‘full and complete recovery’ affected me deeply. We are so blessed to be surrounded by the love of the institutions of Bahá’u’lláh.
Yesterday morning (11th February 2014), after 18 months of treatment, I posted on my Facebook status my latest scan results which concluded that there was ‘no residual disease demonstrated’. Today I have been once again overwhelmed by the comments and ‘likes’ from friends and family from all over the world.
Miracles do happen all the time but mostly they are only relevant and miraculous to the individuals themselves. I feel my own miracle is a testament to the principle of the harmony of science and religion – the science of the medical advances in the treatment of my particular form of cancer and my belief in Baha’u’llah’s mercy and grace. Maybe Grandpa Barnes was guiding me towards this principle all along.
North Tyneside, February 2014