We Need a Bahá’í in Tiverton by Friday
My search started at confirmation classes. My family lived next door to St Peter’s Church in Tiverton and my parents had sent me to Sunday School when I was very young. I remained there listening to Bible stories about Jesus and His disciples, and Noah, Moses and Abraham until I was old enough to be confirmed. I was the oldest child in the Sunday School; so old that my voice had started to break and I was banned from singing in the Sunday School choir.
The Reverend Gardiner was now preparing us for our confirmation – the time when the Bishop of Crediton would bless us and send us out from under the wings of our parents and godparents into the wide world with the faith of Jesus Christ embedded deep in our hearts. I do not remember anything of what Revd Gardiner told us apart from one thing. He told us to “investigate other religions”. I now think he meant “other denominations of Christianity”, but he said “religions”. I took him up on his word.
Immediately after confirmation, I left the Sunday School and started attending church services on my own. The children in the Sunday School had always left the church half way through the service, but now I was free to listen to the whole service and think for myself. I soon realized how rigid and boring the traditional service was. I left the Church of England and started looking elsewhere.
As teenagers in the 1960s both my brother and I turned, as was the fashion, to the ‘occult’, and one experience I had when conducting a ‘séance’ with him and our friends convinced me that the spirit world did indeed exist, and I was drawn inexorably towards mysticism, Christian or otherwise. I decided to join the local Christian Spiritualist Church, where I was told by one medium that I had great spiritual gifts and by another that my “spirit guide” was an “Oriental gentleman”. At the time I was also studying Tibetan Buddhism so I naturally assumed that he was Tibetan. I later found out how wrong I was.
I was also a very keen athlete, specializing in long distance running. The many hours I spent alone with my thoughts while jogging along the quiet country roads of Devon gave me plenty of opportunities to contemplate the spiritual side of life. As a result of this meditation and my study of other religions, I recognized that the religions of the ‘East’ (Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, etc.) had so much to offer the religion of the ‘West’ (Christianity) and there grew a determination to do something about it. I toyed with the idea of forming a new organization or society that could bring the various religions together and pool the best parts of all of them. I even contemplated writing a letter to the national press in order to launch this new organization. Luckily, there was no need to do so.
I was a member of the local athletic club, which was based at the Tiverton Youth and Community Centre where it met two evenings a week. On a Tuesday evening, just before Easter 1979, I was leaving the Community Centre after attending one of these training sessions when I saw a poster on the notice-board advertising a meeting of a group founded by a Persian nobleman who had said: “Let all religions be one.” I was intrigued! The meeting was going to be held at the Community Centre on the following Thursday at 8 p.m. whereas my athletic club would also be meeting at the Community Centre on the same day, but at 6 p.m. I could attend this ‘One Religion’ meeting immediately after finishing my training run with the athletic club. The times fitted perfectly.
The moment I walked into the room that Thursday evening I was attracted to a young woman sitting in the front row and I sat next to her. She was Rita Bartlett. The room was quite full and noisy, but I listened intently to her Welsh lilt as all my questions were answered positively. I was surprised to learn that she and her husband, Viv, had driven down from South Wales especially for this meeting. I was even more surprised to learn that the others in the room had come from Cornwall, Worthing, and even Canada! There were also more ‘local’ Bahá’ís from Torquay, Newton Abbot and Plymouth at the meeting. After a while, Rita and Viv showed some slides and sang for us, but were not appreciated by any of the other ‘non-Bahá’ís’ in the audience, who were mainly youngsters and were far more interested in the disco that was being set up next door. As the meeting finished I was invited to a more informal gathering at the Community Centre that the Bahá’ís were holding on the following Saturday afternoon.
I arrived late for that meeting and as I walked into the Community Centre I noticed the visible sighs of relief from the Bahá’ís who were waiting for me. We sat in a circle and, without interruptions, had a very informal chat about what the Bahá’í Faith was about and what I believed in. Ruhiyyih Mostafanjad and a male companion also sang a few songs. Eventually, one of the Bahá’ís from Newton Abbot I had met earlier, Carole Huxtable, gave me a book to read – Bahá’u’lláh and the New Era – and we all went off to the local Wimpy Bar for a coffee. When the time came for us to part, I was casually handed a printed card and told that if I wanted to join the Bahá’ís I should fill it in and send it off.
I went home and, during that Easter weekend, I started to read the book I had been given. On Monday afternoon I received a phone call. It was Carole Huxtable!
“Jeremy,” she said. “Have you thought about signing that card you were given?”
“Why?” I asked.
“Well, you see, we need a Bahá’í in Tiverton by Friday!” she explained.
“Why Friday?” I said, sounding somewhat puzzled.
“Well,” she said, “The Five Year Plan ends on Friday and we need a Bahá’í in Tiverton by then in order to fulfil our goals.”
I was taken aback by the sheer determination of the Bahá’ís and Carole’s outspoken honesty. I said that I probably would sign the card and send it on to her. After I had put the phone down I thought about what I had said. Did I really want to join the Bahá’í Faith? Was it really too good to be true? Where was the catch? I reasoned that I would be the only Bahá’í in the whole of Mid Devon because the nearest other Bahá’ís were in Exeter and Newton Abbot, so I could practise my new faith in my own particular way without any interference from anybody else. If I found my membership of this new religion too burdensome I could always resign. It should not be more difficult than resigning from the local Dramatic Society, which I had recently done despite the fact that the rest of the family were all staunch members of that organisation.
My parents were worried lest the Bahá’í Faith turned out to be one of those religious “cults” that would require me either to turn against my family or, alternatively, give all my money to the Faith as an act of detachment and sacrifice. However, I decided to take the plunge and ‘declare’. I gave my card to Carole a few days later when I attended a Bahá’í meeting in Exeter.
I was soon able to put my parents’ fears to rest although my giving up alcohol presented a few problems for a while. Once they had met Carole and realized that I was happy with my choice of belief they were happy too. What attracted us to the Bahá’ís was the fact that they were such ‘normal’ people, in no way fanatical or self-righteous. In fact, my father, on several occasions, made a special point of proudly telling his friends that I was now a member of the Bahá’í Faith and getting me to explain to them what its doctrines were.
The local Bahá’ís constantly made a fuss of me and embarrassed me with such remarks as: “So you’re the wonderful Bahá’í from Tiverton!” I didn’t feel particularly wonderful. Then it was explained to me that most Bahá’ís had spent several months or years investigating the Faith before declaring their belief in Bahá’u’lláh, whereas I had declared within a few days. However, my faith was soon to be tested.
Within a few months of my ‘declaration’, it became clear that I would have to find a new job. Because I worked for the local authority, any similar job would probably have to be found outside the district of Mid Devon. I applied for numerous positions with a variety of organizations, but one particular application form asked me to specify my religion. My mother told me to put down ‘Church of England’ to be on the safe side because she felt that I would not be considered for the post if I wrote down ‘Bahá’í’. I faced a dilemma. I knew that I could not lie about my faith but, on the other hand, I didn’t want to go against my mother’s advice. I prayed about it and, in my meditation, I was directed to what the Bahá’í writings said about the value of sacrifice. I had already submitted applications for plenty of other jobs so I decided to give this particular opportunity a miss. My problem was solved!
In the end, of the five organizations that I applied to, only one offered me an interview – Greenwich Borough Council! The story of that interview and its aftermath is so incredible that I am sure that Bahá’u’lláh had provided me with divine assistance. It was one of the easiest interviews that I have ever encountered. I appeared to be the only applicant. The interview panel seemed to be far more concerned with making me feel happy to work in Greenwich than in my ability to do the job! Eventually, they offered me a better position, on a higher salary, than the post that I had applied for. If this was the power of Bahá’u’lláh working this miracle, I was all for it! But why?
I soon found out! Carole Huxtable was quite upset when she learnt that I was leaving Tiverton for pastures new. But she did give me the name, address and telephone number of a woman she knew in Greenwich. After I had moved into the borough, I got in touch with this woman, who was called Linda Murrell, and found out, to my astonishment, that she was the chairman of a ‘Local Spiritual Assembly’ of a community of eight Bahá’ís. I was the ninth! Consequently, I was automatically a member of that Assembly. If I had not been given that job by Greenwich Borough Council in October, the Greenwich Spiritual Assembly would have lapsed the following April.
Living alone in a bed-sit in a city far from home can be a very desolate experience. The Bahá’í community in Greenwich took me under their wing and made sure that I was never lonely. Linda Murrell became my closest friend and a loving mentor who taught me, in the best possible way, how a Bahá’í should act and how a Local Spiritual Assembly should function properly. My life became totally transformed. I learnt voraciously about the Faith, attending every Bahá’í meeting I could get to. I had more real friends than I had ever had since my earliest childhood. I was happy and it showed! I loved my job and I had friends who loved me. I felt totally fulfilled! When tests came my way and I felt tempted to leave the Faith, I thought of the life that I had left behind when I “declared” and the future I faced if I cut myself off from Bahá’u’lláh and knew that there was no contest! I knew that every problem could be solved and every disappointment faced with the help of prayer and meditation. I knew that I could always depend on Bahá’u’lláh in times of trouble.
Living in the London area and having a secure and reasonably paid full-time job gave me plenty of opportunities not only to deepen in the Faith but also to serve it. Between 1979 and 1998 I served on three different Local Spiritual Assemblies, where I learnt valuable ‘people skills’ such as Bahá’í consultation and how not to be judgmental but to look for the best in everyone. Becoming a Bahá’í just as the start of the revolution in Iran led to the persecution of the Bahá’í community in that country gave me the opportunity to pursue a particular passion of mine. Before I became a Bahá’í I had hankered after a career as a freelance journalist and had submitted news items about my local athletic club to the local newspaper in Tiverton. The situation in Iran led to the British National Spiritual Assembly teaching Bahá’ís in this country public-relations skills and I can remember attending a public-relations training day in Watford in 1980 that was conducted by Philip Hainsworth. I thoroughly enjoyed it and was soon putting into practice the skills that I had learnt, writing press releases and letters to the editors of local newspapers as well as regularly visiting my local Member of Parliament to raise the issue of the persecution of the Iranian Bahá’ís, with a view to getting him to take up the matter with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office or to get him to sign an Early Day Motion.
Over the years the Bahá’í writings (and the teachings they contain) have been my constant companion and taking part in deepening activities have been a major part of my life. I’ve attended Bahá’í summer schools at Kelston Park, Llandrindod Wells and Ackworth; and the Bahá’í Academy for the Arts at Sidcot. The spiritual atmosphere at one of these summer schools (Kelston Park, I think) was so palpable that my return to work in the non-Bahá’í world with all its negative vibes was a very unpleasant experience. I also attended the Liverpool Training Institute during the early 1990s and participated in a particularly enlightening course on how to teach (or “have a dialogue with”) Christians that was led by Michael Sours, which really opened my eyes to the possibilities of interacting with people of all faiths. And finally I have particularly fond memories of participating in Dr Ghadimi’s seminars that were held regularly at the Methodist Central Hall in Westminster and which were very well attended not just by the Persian friends, but also by many who were not Persian. Dr Ghadimi always conducted his seminar in Persian but with a simultaneous translation into English. I took copious notes at these seminars (which I still possess) and learnt a great deal about the Faith.
Each of the Local Spiritual Assemblies I served on recognized the importance of interacting and working with local non-Bahá’í organizations and taking part in local interfaith activities, and giving non-Bahá’ís we associated with a good impression of the Faith.
In Greenwich, the Local Spiritual Assembly decided to use the Charlton House Community Centre for regular Bahá’í meetings (including Unit Conventions) and I was asked to serve on the house committee, which ran the Community Centre. This act of service gave me ample opportunities to proclaim and teach the Faith to my fellow house committee members as well as to the manager of the Community Centre. Meanwhile, the Bahá’ís living in the neighbouring borough of Lewisham made good use of the Friends Meeting House in Blackheath for regular inter-community and holy day celebrations so that we were able to make some fruitful contacts with the local Quakers. The Greenwich Spiritual Assembly also participated in the interfaith activities organized by the local borough council.
Membership of the United Nations Association (UNA) also proved to be a very fruitful way of proclaiming the Faith. In Greenwich, the local Bahá’ís were associated with the Lewisham branch of UNA, whereas in Bexley the Local Spiritual Assembly became a corporate member of the Dartford branch. In both cases I acted as the Bahá’í representative on the respective branch executive committee, probably because I was very keen on promoting the work of the United Nations. So keen in fact that in February 1993 I was elected as the chairman of the UNA Dartford branch and served in that role until I moved to Chatham in 1997. My first decision in this role was to invite Philip Hainsworth to give a talk about the Bahá’í Faith’s relationship with the United Nations at a meeting of the members of the branch executive committee. At about the same time I started serving on UNA’s London Region executive committee and had the bounty of being closely involved in organizing the celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations in 1995, which included a major event held in Hyde Park in central London. Being a member of UNA also gave the Bexley Spiritual Assembly an added incentive to get involved in local Agenda 21 activities in the borough.
The first intensive teaching project I got involved in took place in Shrewsbury during August 1982. The Local Spiritual Assembly had lapsed at Ridván and the aim of the project was to attract seekers in the town to join the Faith so that the Local Spiritual Assembly could re-form in 1983. The Shrewsbury Bahá’ís, led by Brian Hallam, had rented an empty shop in the main shopping street in the town, which we bedecked with posters, books and pamphlets as well as a Bahá’í banner. The shop attracted a great deal of interest, not just from people living in Shrewsbury but particularly from the many German tourists in the town, several of whom were taught the Faith in their own language by a member of the travel-teaching team, Brian Almond, who spoke German.
Despite all our prayers and the teaching work we carried out that week, there were no declarations in Shrewsbury. However, once the teaching project had finished, I travelled straight down from Shropshire to Devon to spend a week with my parents in Tiverton. While I was there I visited Erica Taylor, a 75-year-old widow from a Christian background, who had been introduced to the Bahá’í Faith by Derek and Noreen Atkinson, and to whom I had been teaching the Faith on a regular basis whenever I returned to Tiverton. At midnight on Saturday 14 August 1982 Erica Taylor declared her belief in Bahá’u’lláh. So all the prayers to God that we had offered in Shrewsbury had not been in vain! Erica spent the rest of her life teaching the Faith to all her Christian friends and her local vicar.
However, the most significant teaching project that I had the bounty of taking part in was the “Easter in Minsk” travel-teaching trip to the Soviet Union in March/April 1991. Led by the indefatigable Lois Hainsworth, our party of twenty Bahá’ís had been invited by the women’s committee of the regional government of what is now Belarus to teach the Faith in their part of the Soviet Union. It was the most amazing trip abroad that I have ever made but there is not enough space here to tell you about everything that happened; however, I kept a comprehensive diary of the trip and took many photographs, which I hope will be shared with the friends in due course. One thing that I will say is that throughout the trip we were treated like VIPs by all the dignitaries we met and I remember telling my mother on my return to the United Kingdom that I now knew how the British royal family must feel like on their many trips in this country and abroad. There were many highlights that I could relate but the one that sticks in my memory is being invited to watch a display by the Soviet Union’s Olympic equestrian team (presumably in training for the Barcelona Olympics) and then being invited to ride their horses. Absolutely unbelievable, but it happened – I’ve got the photographs to prove it!
Although I’ve been to numerous teaching conferences and national conventions in the United Kingdom, I’ve attended just two international Bahá’í conferences. The first one was in Dublin in 1982, and my abiding memory of that conference was listening to a talk by John Robarts who made the audience laugh at his funny anecdotes. The one I particularly remember is when he related how he learnt that he had been appointed as a Hand of the Cause of God by Shoghi Effendi. He was serving the Faith in Southern Africa at the time and the telegram from the Holy Land was addressed simply to the “Robarts”. John thought that the telegram was meant for his wife and he promptly congratulated her on being appointed a Hand of the Cause. I loved John Robarts’s sense of humour and I bought several cassette tapes of his talks to the friends. I listened to those tapes so often that I wore them out!
The second international conference I attended was the Bahá’í World Congress held in New York in November 1992 when I joined 30,000 other Bahá’ís from across the world (including approximately 600–800 from the United Kingdom) who met at the Javits Center in Manhattan. There were 180 different countries represented there, and many of the Bahá’ís wore their national dress on every day of the Congress and were photographed left, right and centre by other Bahá’ís including myself.
There were two sessions held each day: one in the morning and the other in the afternoon, and the friends were allocated to either one or the other. Nobody knew in advance what session they would be given with the result that some families were split up, which led to some swapping arrangements taking place on the first morning. Each session consisted of prayers, choral singing (which was magnificent), audio-visual shows, dramatic presentations, and talks. The first day started off with a specially written oratorio played by a full orchestra and a huge choir.
All of the living Hands of the Cause were present at the World Congress and each of them addressed the friends. Amatu’l-Bahá Rúhíyyih Khánum addressed the Congress on more than one occasion, much to the delight of the audience. I couldn’t fail to be amazed at the energy of Rúhíyyih Khánum – she was so sprightly for her age. When she gave the closing address at the Congress she could have gone on all evening and well into the night, relating numerous anecdotes and providing inspiration for the friends. However, the session, which had been due to finish at 5 p.m., had already over-run by half an hour when she was asked to stop by the master of ceremonies: she did so immediately, almost in mid-sentence! The Congress was running so late that the organizers had to cut out the final musical piece and move straight from Rúhíyyih Khánum’s closing address to a short closing prayer (in French)
During the week of the World Congress, there was one area where I’m sure that Bahá’u’lláh had taken a hand – the weather! I had left London prepared for a cold winter week in late November but when I arrived in New York the temperature was a balmy 65° F!! It was more like a pleasant spring or summer’s day – it rarely went below 50° F even during the night. I even had to turn on the air conditioning in my hotel room. There was just one night that was a bit chilly – in the mid-40°s F. Although the weather forecast promised rain or showers it rarely did rain apart from the last day of the Congress, when it absolutely poured just as the final session ended and the friends went to board the buses that took them back to their hotels. In contrast, on the following day the sun came out with clear blue skies, which made it perfect for sightseeing in New York.
The weather was especially amazing when you consider the major storms that struck New York in the second week of December that year. It was so bad that the city was declared a disaster zone.
I’ve been on pilgrimage to the Holy Land just once – in 1984. At first, I felt like just a tourist when I visited the Bahá’í Holy Places but gradually the spiritual atmosphere took effect and my soul was recharged. While I was in Israel I also visited Jerusalem, Jericho, Massada, the Dead Sea and the Sea of Galilee but they were no match for the beauty of what I experienced in Haifa, Akka and Bahji.
For some Bahá’ís, going on pilgrimage has been a turning point in their life, but for me the turning point came several years later after I volunteered to serve on a sub-committee of the Bahá’í Education Committee that was given the task of reviving the fortunes of what was then known as the Thomas Breakwell Youth College. This sub-committee later became a full-blown committee of the National Spiritual Assembly of the United Kingdom as its members rebranded Thomas Breakwell College as a distance-learning resource that was aimed at all Bahá’ís who wanted to learn more about the Faith and its teachings. In the process I learnt a great deal about open learning and acquired proofreading, editing and writing skills as I was given the task of converting papers submitted to the committee into a consistent open-learning format, as well as writing from scratch some papers myself. During the six years I served on this committee I developed a desire to work full-time for the Faith, and so in 1997 I left Greenwich Borough Council and set up my own business. After a false start trying to earn my living as a freelance copywriter I moved back to Tiverton, obtained formal qualifications as a copy-editor and proofreader, and started my new career working for George Ronald.
As far as teaching opportunities are concerned, I am blessed by the fact that Tiverton is twinned with the German town of Hofheim, on the outskirts of which lies the Bahá’í House of Worship in Europe. By joining the local Twinning Association I have been able to visit the House of Worship on several occasions and teach the Faith to some of my fellow Twinning Association members as well as a few of our German hosts. A photograph of the House of Worship is used as the cover of my Facebook page, which I use to promote the Faith, and the Mayor of Hofheim is one of my Facebook friends.
However, most of the people I meet – including my non-Bahá’í friends and family – have shown little interest in religion so, as I’m from a Christian background with a keen interest in Christianity, I’ve tended to concentrate on building friendly relationships with members of the local Christian community. I’ve even taken part in an Alpha course at the local Baptist Church, which led to one particularly positive outcome – one of the Church elders started meeting and talking (in a friendly way) with his Bahá’í cousin, whom he had ignored for several years, after realizing that Bahá’ís loved and respected Jesus Christ as much as his fellow Christians. Over the years I’ve had long conversations with the various Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons who have knocked on my door – I’ve even invited them into my home and made cups of tea for them while we continued our discussions. (In Bexley, I even attended services at the local Kingdom Hall!) Personally I’ve found that almost all the Jehovah’s Witnesses I’ve met have been very friendly and dedicated to their cause. I only wish I could find the magic key that would open their hearts to the message of Bahá’u’lláh.
Recently, every Saturday morning I’ve started to spend at least half an hour at the local Christian bookshop/coffee bar where my aim is to make friends with the staff and fellow customers while enjoying a cup of coffee or browsing through the books on display. During the Fast I’ve even used their Prayer Room upstairs to silently recite some Bahá’í prayers in lieu of drinking a cup of coffee. Although it is early days in this particular project, there have been several small but positive outcomes.
One evening, after a period of meditation, I started to think back to the time when I had been a Christian Spiritualist and wondered who my “spirit guide” was, that “Oriental gentleman” I had been told about. As I looked up, a thought struck me with such enormous force that I was sent dancing around the room in sheer delight and pure ecstasy. His name was ‘Abdu’l-Bahá!
Devon, 4 July 1991
(Updated May 2013)