Robert and Anna Kinghorn’s Pioneer Story
I was born in Edinburgh in 1952, but I only have vague memories because we moved to Peterborough in England when I was a small child. My mother was English and my father Scottish. I remember we lived in a tenement in Portobello quite near to the sea, and I spent many an hour playing on the beach.
About one year after starting school, my parents told us we were all moving to England, to a town called Peterborough, where my father had found work with British Rail. I was six years old at the time and I remember my mother explaining that England was another country, so I’d understood we were going to live in a foreign country! We travelled by rail overnight on the Flying Scotsman and we lived with my uncle (my father’s brother) until my parents had found a house for us to live in.
Nothing particularly significant happened during my school years; I was just a typical kid going through the system whose only desire was to get out of school at the earliest possible opportunity. But there were two very distinct thoughts going through my head that developed during my early teens. The first was the idea that the system was wrong. Everything was wrong. Of course there was the typical teenage rebellion, but my feelings went deeper into politics, the social structure, education, work and ethics – you name it, and I found fault with it and I knew it had to change.
The second thought concerned God. I simply could not understand how everything came into existence by accident. For me, there had to be a creator – or nothing made any sense; there would be no purpose to it all. As children, we were ‘dragged off’ to the Scottish Presbyterian Church every Sunday, where I had to attend Sunday school. However, something nagged me during my childhood, but I was too young and immature to define it. I never quite understood why I should just blindly accept all I was told, and few of the church’s explanations made any sense. As I grew up, Sunday school became regular church service attendance which gradually faded away to be replaced with occasional attendance at Cathedral services on Sundays. Slowly, occasional attendance became regular and in my attempt to understand, I went every week for private confirmation lessons with the Cathedral Precentor. I found his lessons very useful, but they lacked depth and he was often unable to answer my questions, which went much deeper than the surface explanations typical of religious understanding at the time. I kept my visits secret from my school friends; religious belief was not very fashionable at school and I didn’t want to stand out as being different from anyone else; I’d been there as a young child and it wasn’t a nice experience. When I was sixteen years old, I was confirmed into the Church of England during a private ceremony in the Bishop of Peterborough’s private residence. The ceremony was very spiritual and when the Bishop laid his hands upon my head, I felt something flow through my very being. It was uplifting; something like a spiritual awakening that would lead me on a journey of discovery.
I entered working life but I was never content, no matter what the job. I saw work only as a means to get money to explore, to discover something of value, something more than what we had – a new way of life, a new society. I was rebellious; I hated the system and when everyone acted in one way, I would do the opposite just to be different. I rarely ever cared whether I was right or wrong, I just wanted to show I was different. Religions fascinated me and I explored them all; I even went to the Radha Krishna temple in London and joined in jumping around and throwing my hands in the air! But nothing particularly satisfied my hunger for spiritual belief. I rapidly lost interest in the Church as each service became increasingly hollow, and I started to wonder why someone should give me a sermon.
I joined the local United Nations Association youth group in Peterborough around the age of seventeen, and one of its members told me he was a Bahá’í and he gave me a pamphlet about the Faith. I didn’t particularly think much more about it, but I kept the pamphlet, nevertheless, and every now and then I’d glance at it out of curiosity. I gave my all to the Association and eventually became local secretary. I went to meetings at the head office in London, had dinner with a Lord (that in itself was a terrifying experience, but he was very kind and totally unlike what I had ever imagined – but I did need a lot of prep on how to behave!), and met many interesting people. In certain circles, I gained a reputation for getting things done.
One day Geoff Bridle offered us the local Bahá’í Centre as a place for our UN youth group to meet. We accepted, and met there regularly, but I never particularly thought more about the Faith other than a healthy curiosity – we simply met as the local UNA youth group in the local Bahá’í Centre talking about the world and how we could change it. One evening, we were just sitting around when we were invaded by a group of Bahá’í youth. They had come to see the local Bahá’í Centre; apparently there was a national youth conference in Peterborough and they invited us to attend. I was curious so I went in the evenings because I was working during the day. I can’t remember the exact date of the youth conference, but I was eighteen years old by then and the date in my prayer book (which I bought shortly after I became a Bahá’í) is 21 March 1971. Anyway, each evening my curiosity grew and changed into serious investigation. I was thirsty for more. The conference itself was of little interest to me, but the Faith was something else! I found the spirit amongst these young people magnetic and they actively taught all they met. Increasing numbers of young people from Peterborough came to the evenings, and some even attended during the daytime.
The conference only lasted a few days, but I believe I had already made up my mind the first time I met a Bahá’í at the United Nations Association youth group meeting years earlier. It was just a question of time. The night before I declared my belief, I turned to God when falling asleep. I asked only one question: “Is it true?” I must have seen a photograph of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, certainly one at the Bahá’í Centre in Peterborough, but I had no memory of it at the time. But I do remember that during my sleep, I felt calmness, an all-embracing love never before experienced, and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá appeared to me saying just one word: “Yes”. The next morning when I woke up, I knew I was going to become a Bahá’í that day. The last night of the conference was electrifying. I do not know how it happened, what triggered the response to the Message of Bahá’u’lláh, but I remember around forty young people joined the Faith that night, among them many of my closest friends. There were no declaration cards around, so Robert Parry found a large sheet of paper where we all wrote our names and addresses. I cannot honestly say I knew anything about the Faith because there had only ever been one question paramount in my mind: I wanted to know whether Jesus had returned as promised; it was that question I’d addressed to God the night before. Nothing else had really mattered. I have no real idea how the local Bahá’ís, few in number, reacted to the astonishing response, to the huge number joining the Faith. But that evening was certainly one of unbounded joy amongst everyone there.
I was still living at home, and the next morning I told my mother I had become a Bahá’í (I did not dare tell my father). All she said was, “I know.” When I asked her later how she had known she told me there was something different about me that morning.
The process of sorting things out in Peterborough began a few days after the conference. Many of those who had joined the Faith were simply attracted by the sprit of the evening, some were from strong Catholic backgrounds and never became active after having received the ‘condemnation of God’ from their local priest, and some the local Bahá’ís were never able to contact again. However, there were a good number that remained, that joined in activities and slowly deepened in the Cause. All I know about those first few weeks following the youth conference is that the National Spiritual Assembly sent as many pioneers as possible to the community to build its Local Assembly.
I remember standing at a bus stop one day when Geoff Bridle pulled up in his car and asked me if I was going to the Feast, to which I replied: “What’s a Feast?” Such was my knowledge about the Faith! Slowly we came together and organized local activities. We youth would regularly gather to make things of leather that we could sell to raise money for the Fund. We’d have devotionals and meet in our homes and the Bahá’í Centre every week for firesides. We’d try to invite our friends to them, and some later joined the Faith! Travel teachers visited our community regularly. Betty Reed, one of the first Counsellors, was a regular visitor to our community. The Local Spiritual Assembly remained something of a mystery to us all; it was a thing for everyone over twenty one! We used to joke how they would interrupt an Assembly meeting in order to watch Star Trek!
It was during our youth get-togethers that some of us came up with the idea of pioneering to Africa. We knew that Bahá’ís went pioneering, and two adults in our community had been overseas pioneers, but we really had no idea what it was in reality. We just thought we could go somewhere in Africa to do some good, so we asked the Local Assembly where we should go. But the Assembly did not think it would be a good idea, so it discouraged us from pioneering. Apparently, Betty Reed was furious with the Assembly, and told them that they should have encouraged us! In our own youth meetings with Betty, she encouraged us to pioneer and to serve the Cause to the best of our ability. Thus, the seed was planted in my mind and it simply would not go away.
One evening, I fondly remember was when a man called Stuart visited us. He’d been a gardener at the Bahá’í World Centre, and we absorbed all he had to share with us. We spent the next evening with him saying the “Remover of Difficulties” five hundred times, and I think it is the first time I came to get a glimpse of the power of prayer. At some point, I’m not too sure when, Stuart stopped and his face radiated with joy. The rest of us continued to recite the prayer in turn, but Stuart always remained silent, his body aglow. It took quite a long time for him to come out of his ‘trance’ and when we pointed out that he had been asleep, he was adamant he had been praying. Somehow, he’d been transported to another world!
We never had any real, proper deepening in Peterborough that I can remember, but I travelled at every opportunity to the National Bahá’í Centre in London to attend a youth deepening. I would spend the time on the train reading the Writings, but I understood very little. The first book I read was The Hidden Words, and I remember thinking they were beautiful, but so what? I honestly did not understand them. Slowly I worked my way through Gleanings and became familiar with its content, but understanding even a small portion was more than a challenge – even today I confess very little comprehension of their true meaning. But I loved ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Paris Talks and Some Answered Questions; I found His explanations simple to understand.
One memorable event during my Bahá’í youth in Peterborough was a trip to London to see Seals and Crofts perform. It felt like the majority of the audience consisted of Bahá’ís, which certainly seemed to gain confirmation because the theatre emptied out after their performance (there was still another band after them) when they invited everyone to meet later at the National Bahá’í Centre! Geoff Bridle had taken us all to London in his car, which was grossly overloaded with Bahá’í youth. And the midnight return to Peterborough along the A1 was adventurous: At some point on the journey, Geoff proudly announced that we had run out of petrol, but we didn’t really care! We were all so absorbed in the spirit of hearing the words “Ya Bahá’u’l-Abhá” (from Seals and Crofts ‘Year of Sunday’) circulating round the walls of the Roundhouse that we all felt we’d just keep going on the remaining petrol fumes, which is exactly what happened until we arrived at an all-night petrol station not far from Peterborough.
The earliest organised teaching project I remember took place during the summer in 1972, I think, in St Austell, Cornwall. I can’t quite remember exactly how I ended up on the project, other than Geoff Bridle telling me about it. The teaching team spent the summer living in a caravan. We’d gather together each morning for prayers before we set out, but otherwise we were rather poorly organised by today’s standards. As youth, we were rather carefree; everything from our perspective was haphazard and highly random. Of course, we can never really know the true value of what we do. Perhaps it was more like a holiday for us, but I’m sure we must have contributed something to the progress of the Cause. Anyway, the entire event ended in a huge, highly successful public meeting – one of the best I remember in my life as a Bahá’í.
Ted Cardell’s farm in St. Neots became a weekend focal point for many of us youth. It all started with a garden party, and after that we couldn’t stay away. Ted and Alicia spent many hours with us explaining the Writings, deepening and guiding us. Once, we so much wanted to visit the farm, but we had no money, so three of us walked overnight the thirty-odd miles alongside the A1 just to get there! I think a major turning point occurred when a deepening for more than one hundred guests was organised at the farm. Gloria Faizi was visiting and she was going to give a presentation on consultation.
What a deepening! Mrs Faizi started by explaining the exact nature of consultation and then set out to prove how it works. With over a hundred people there, I remember being rather cynical, thinking this will never work. But it did. Gradually, the consultation turned to consulting about what to do with this huge resource of young people who had joined the Faith. And before we knew it, we were going to create a youth troupe that would present the Faith through music and dance. Naysan Faizi offered his talent in training us, and he would work as our ‘manager’, arranging for local communities to ‘book’ our show. We spent many weekends in Ted’s barn learning how to act, and slowly we put the show together. We were very inventive, calling ourselves ‘The Dawnbreakers’! Then it all started…
I think one of the first shows we ever did was in Bedford, where there was also some community event that was being visited by Hand of the Cause of God Mr Faizi. While we were preparing for the evening’s show, Naysan Faizi invited me to meet his father. At the time I simply thought, “Why on earth should I want to meet Naysan’s father?” I had a terrible ‘I couldn’t care less’ attitude and I had no idea what a Hand of the Cause was, although I had heard of them. As far as I was concerned, Mr Faizi was only the speaker at the community event. Later, after I had learnt a bit more about the Hands of the Cause, I remembered that first meeting and my attitude with abject horror!
The Dawnbreakers travelled to as many communities as possible and as often as possible. It was not unusual for us to have no money and we’d have to hitchhike. Typically, two or three of us from Peterborough (which was quite a small and insignificant town at that time) would walk the few miles to the edge of the A1 that that passed the town to wait for a van to come up from London. There was only one seat available in the front so the others would lie on top of all the guitars, amplifiers and microphones in the back of the van! One highlight was in Epsom (again, my memory is poor but I think that was the place), where we performed alongside the American duo England Dan and John Ford Coley, whose performance was broadcast on local radio. We had fun when we went to Newcastle; none of us travelling up there overnight had remembered to ask someone to put us up so after we arrived there in the early hours of the morning, we spent about an hour on a public phone calling all the Persian names we could find in the telephone directory until we found a Bahá’í who would let us camp out on his floor! We also performed in Oakham, the home of the Bahá’í Publishing Trust where, like Peterborough, many youth had been attracted to the Faith. We spent many a free weekend there at Derek and Sima Cockshut’s home; often, their home was full of youth camping out on their living room floor! Slowly, the members of our group went off to study or simply left, but I think those months of travel and show were highly rewarding, although I’m not too sure how long it took for local communities to recover from our visit!
The days in Peterborough were wonderful and I learnt a lot but as I approached twenty one I was itching to get up and pioneer. Northampton was just a short hop away, and it needed pioneers to save the Assembly, so that was where I decided to go. Nothing was going to stop me, and I moved to Northampton before Ridván. Two other friends pioneered there, and Northampton was able to once more form its Local Assembly. Somehow, I ended up being the Assembly secretary.
There were three major highlights during the year and a half I served in Northampton. The Assembly arranged the first ever education conference in the British Bahá’í Community. One of the local Bahá’ís, Kevin Beint, was a teacher and he suggested the community do more to promote Bahá’í education. Consequently our Assembly organised a Bahá’í education conference, since there had never been one before. As secretary, I ended up handling all the correspondence and Kevin handled the practical matters. We decided to invite Erik Blumenthal, who was a psychologist and also serving as a Counsellor. We also decided to host a national conference, but at that time, we did not understand that we should go though the National Spiritual Assembly to invite a Counsellor. We wrote direct to Erik Blumenthal, but the National Spiritual Assembly immediately put our conference under the auspices of a national committee, which also handled all the practical matters with Counsellor Blumenthal, which was virtually nothing since the Northampton Community had already arranged everything. We also decided to charge for attendance, which at that time was unheard of within the national community. The conference was a tremendous success.
Somehow following the conference the National Spiritual Assembly decided I should serve on the National Child Education Committee, although I knew nothing about child education. I was in shock and had to go to visit Alicia Cardell, who had previously served on the committee, to get some advice and a quick immersion into child education. The first committee meeting at the National Bahá’í Centre went completely over my head. I had absolutely no idea what the other members were talking about and to make matters worse, I was elected secretary. It wasn’t even an election, it was more like everyone looked at me, nodded to themselves and said I was the new secretary! It was quite strange really, because by the time we had arranged the first committee meeting I’d already decided to pioneer in order to contribute my small share towards fulfilling the UK’s overseas pioneer goals!
The first practical matter for the Committee was the rapidly approaching Summer School. Somehow, the whole thing was dumped in my lap. Rapidly running out of time, the only choice open to me was to jump into the car (at that time I was still only a learner) with my dear friend Mike Cooper, who had pioneered to Northampton early in 1975, if I remember correctly, and to drive several hundred miles around the country to get those with experience to plan the programme and recruit teachers on the spot, since I had other plans and would not be attending the school. I think we averted disaster, but I’ve never been sure!
A major turning point in my life was an extension teaching goal adopted by the Northampton community. Northampton community was actively involved in helping the Friends in the neighbouring town of Rugby with their teaching efforts, so once a week I’d jump on a local train to join in a fireside or some other event at the home of Brenda and Soroosh Zahedi. Their endeavours eventually bore fruit in the form of a rather large public meeting and, as usual, I jumped on the train for the short hop to Rugby. I first went to the Zahedis’ home before we all went off together to the meeting. The minute I walked through their door, I saw the most beautiful woman in the world and in less than a heartbeat, I knew she was my future wife; not for one moment did I doubt we would be married. I suppose many would call it love at first sight, but to me it was more than that: I just knew she was the one even before we had exchanged names.
Her name was Anna Lisowski; she was a student nurse and Brenda’s friend from Bath. She already knew a bit about the Faith and had met some Bahá’ís in Bath. That evening she attended the public meeting and declared her belief in Bahá’u’lláh after the presentation. And so it all began! Anna then moved overseas for several months on a prearranged trip, but we wrote regularly to each other. We were unable to meet very often after she returned to England, but I think we got to know each other fairly well during the months we sent letters flowing back and forth. Anna eventually moved to Southampton and I made a decision that would change the course of our life forever: to pioneer to Finland. Little did Anna know what she had let herself in for.
Anna was born in Liverpool. Her father was a Professor of Anatomy and her mother, Pat, was a nurse. Her grandparents originated from Germany and they had moved to Ireland to escape the Nazi pogroms before the outbreak of World War II. She grew up in Shakespeare country and spent her first school years attending a village school; Anna still remembers her teacher and how much she enjoyed attending the school. As a child, she often spoke German with her father and English with her mother. Unfortunately, her childhood was marred by divorce that left an indelible impression on her life. She and her brother were split up, her brother was raised by her mother and Anna remained with her father. As she grew up, her father remarried and in her early youth, her father took up a new position in Ethiopia, where he played a key role in establishing the Faculty of Medicine at the University in Addis Ababa. There, she attended a French school and ended up speaking fluent French.
After a brief time back in England, Anna’s parents moved to Hong Kong, where her father had taken up a post as Professor of Anatomy at the University of Hong Kong. Her teenage years there were rich and full of a multitude of experiences but eventually her father and stepmother divorced, and Anna returned to England with her stepmother and two sisters. She wanted to study social work but it did not work out so she studied to become a nurse. She heard of the Faith while she was studying in Bath and wrote to the National Spiritual Assembly for more information. The National Office put her in contact with the Bath Community and she attended several firesides, but it wasn’t until she visited Bahá’í friends in Rugby that she became a Bahá’í. Not long after she became a Bahá’í, she went to live overseas for many months and it was on her return to England that her life was to take a completely new turn as our friendship grew into marriage and pioneering.
At Ridván 1975, the Universal House of Justice gave overseas pioneer goals to the British Bahá’í Community. I remember opening the post that month from the National Spiritual Assembly, reading the covering letter and message from the Universal House of Justice and my browsing eye sticking on the word Finland. Suddenly, Finland appeared everywhere before my eyes: in advertising, on television, in the newspaper. You name it, I saw Finland! It hadn’t invaded my dreams yet but even that was to change, although I would not find out the details until Anna and I got to Finland.
I think I must have been slow, but eventually I got the message that perhaps God wanted me to pioneer to Finland. It was a strange feeling; I knew absolutely nothing about Finland. I only had a vague idea of its location on the map, I spoke no foreign languages, had no savings or particularly useful qualifications, especially those that could be used overseas, and yet Finland haunted my every move! But I also figured that if God wanted me to pioneer then absolutely nothing was going to stop me. After finally comprehending I should give up the fight, I wrote to the National Spiritual Assembly saying that I’d like to pioneer to Finland. I had the impression that the pioneer committee didn’t think I’d be able to make it but, of course, the National Spiritual Assembly fully endorsed my wish to pioneer and did everything it could to support my intention to serve the Cause. In my mind, I was going to pioneer no matter what. I think the pioneer committee must have given up trying to change my mind when they sent me to Finland to find work! I had a very vivid dream while we were preparing to pioneer: There was an oldish-looking building alongside a narrow road in a built up area. There was fighting around the building, the soldiers all dressed in World War II uniforms. Later, I discovered this building, a school, just down the road from the National Bahá’í Centre in Helsinki. I missed it on my first trip to find work, but discovered it when we arrived in Helsinki as a married couple. As for the fighting, I can’t be sure, but I think it represented the tests and trials we would go through over the coming years.
I flew to Finland in the summer of 1975, and was met by Kami Namdar, who was going to become one of our closest friends and guide to living in Finland during our early years. Together, we went to the eastern Finnish town of Savonlinna where somehow (I think Kami has the power of persuasion!) I managed to get a job as a laboratory assistant at the Savonlinna District Hospital. Feeling the warmth of success I returned to England and immediately applied for a work permit, and honestly could not believe it when I was granted a three-month work and residence visa, especially since I had no qualifications for the job and had even less idea how to take a blood sample!
I proposed to Anna on the return journey to Southampton while on a teaching trip to the Isle of Wight. She kept me waiting for an agonising hour but it was worth it; over the 38 years we have been married she has shown such love, such incredible patience and loyalty with a darned difficult Scot!
Anna, I believe, had always envisaged serving in a much warmer country than Finland but I had already made up my mind. She has often said that the decision to pioneer to Finland was a fait accompli. Before our wedding, we visited Shoghi Effendi’s resting place in London (we’d next return years later with our children). I clearly remember why we went there; we were getting married and we were immediately setting out to pioneer overseas as newly-weds. One does not need a reason to visit the Guardian’s resting place but I do remember thinking how Shoghi Effiendi’s heart would be broken when he heard news that a pioneer had left his post; I had no desire to join their ranks so somehow, in my inner being, I knew we would not be coming back. We’d be leaving everything familiar and setting out into the unknown, so we definitely needed some spiritual support! Yet, I never once felt doubt, concern or apprehension about our pioneer move. As far as I was concerned, we were going and nothing, absolutely nothing, would stop us.
We married on the Isle of Wight (25th October 1975 at Minghella’s Café, Ryde). I’d had really long hair before we married and of course had it cut – kind of – before our wedding; I waited for Anna outside the registry office for the civil part of our wedding and I guess my hair was now relatively so short that she didn’t even recognise me! She walked right past! Well, it was only the seventh time we had met… We married just three weeks before we were to pioneer to Finland and we needed every penny we could get so after our very brief honeymoon, we went back to Northampton where I worked my last couple of weeks and Anna went about 30 miles away to do some agency nursing. We didn’t even live together for the first few of weeks of married life!
During all our preparations to set out for Finland, we received a letter from Kami with the most unfortunate news that the employer had given the job to someone else. So here we were, newly-weds who hadn’t even lived together, no work or income, very little money, a work permit for a job I didn’t have, and tickets to Finland. But we were going anyway! God had a nice way of making us trust entirely in Him! There was also a National Teaching Conference in the UK just before we left England. Naturally, we attended but near the end they announced they were going to call all pioneers onto the stage. Anna and I were in shock; we both felt highly uncomfortable standing in front of people just because we were serving the Faith, so we quietly ‘disappeared’ from the conference. When they called out our names, we were nowhere to be found!
Our arrival in Finland was unceremonious. It was November, the Day of the Covenant, and Helsinki was dark and miserable; nothing even remotely resembling the beauty I’d seen that summer. The people were burdened with a look of melancholy and the atmosphere was more like one of communist Eastern Europe. Anna was ready to turn round and return to England immediately! I’d written to Kami to give him the date we’d arrive, but he never received my letter; it was sitting in his home in Espoo, just outside Helsinki, but Kami was studying in Savonlinna in eastern Finland and his mother Rosa never forwarded the letter to him. Consequently, no one knew we were arriving. We made our way independently to the Bahá’í Centre, but it was deserted, which only reinforced the welcoming test! After much wondering about why no one was there to meet us, we eventually managed to find a public telephone and called Kami’s home. His mother Rosa rushed from Espoo to rescue us. We spent the first few weeks living at the Bahá’í Centre in Helsinki while we tried to find work, first in Helsinki and then in Savonlinna, where we stayed with Hartmut and Ursula Grossmann.
We finally ended up in Kangasala Bahá’í Community, just outside the industrial city of Tampere. Anna had found a job at a mental health hospital (which compared with British standards at the time was more reminiscent of a concentration camp!) in the small town of Nokia (the original home of the mobile phone company) on the opposite side of Kangasala, and I found teaching work at a private language school in Tampere. We met virtually the entire Finnish Bahá’í Community at our first Winter School in 1975. It was in Mariehamn on the Åland Islands between Finland and Sweden. Almost the entire Finnish Community had boarded the train by the time it arrived at the harbour in Turku, and then there was the trip on the ferry to Mariehamn! There were only a few Finns in the Kangasala Bahá’í Community and the rest were pioneers; it was the pioneers who helped us settle down and become familiar with the people, their culture and country. Later, John and Leena Jason would become our shepherds.
Anna managed to find a job in the Kangasala municipal care home, learned Finnish relatively quickly, and today few can tell she is not Finnish. It did not take the National Spiritual Assembly too long before they appointed Anna and me to the National Child Education Committee, with the primary task of preparing the children’s programme for the 1976 International Bahá’í Conference in Helsinki. All I remember is sitting for hours and hours in our small walk-in clothes cupboard bent over a typewriter churning out materials and allowing for countless variables. To add to the nightmare, we had to plan a children’s performance for the closing session. In the end we were not able to take part; we had to spend almost all our time running around arranging practical matters for the children, but with the help of God (because it certainly wasn’t us), it succeeded.
Hand of the Cause of God Ugo Giachery visited the children during their programme and of course, he told them stories about the beloved Guardian, but we were so busy running around handling an unending stream of practical matters that we never heard them! All I remember was welcoming Mr. Giachery to the classes and introducing him to the children. When it came time for the children to go on stage they were so nervous that they would not walk out unless I led them. That was my first and only public performance – leading a number of children from several countries of the world onto the stage at Finlandia Hall!
I then served on the National Pioneer Committee. Anna and I had several Bahá’í pioneers spend their first few nights in Finland in our home. Zarin Hainsworth stayed with us on and off while she was in Finland on a three-month teaching project, and she often referred to our home as her base of operations.
Anna and I had the bounty of going on pilgrimage in 1979, at the time the Seat of the Universal House of Justice was under construction. Neither of us was particularly well paid and we had been unable to save money before pilgrimage. We wondered how we would be able to put the money together as our pilgrimage date was getting closer. Then something of a miracle happened: Anna’s employer discovered that she had been underpaid since starting work and was due several thousand Finnish markka in back pay! Overnight we had more than enough money to cover the cost of pilgrimage and support ourselves until our salaries started to flow in once more.
Our pilgrimage was one of the most memorable and moving times of our life. Hand of the Cause of God Mr Furútan regularly visited to talk with our group, to share his experiences and call upon us to teach. We also had the bounty of meeting the Hands of the Cause Dr Muhajir and Rúhíyyih Khánum. The banter that flowed between Mr Furútan and Dr Muhajir left in our hearts an indelible imprint of laughter, lightness of spirit and love between father- and son-in-law. And Dr Muhajir’s humility and unwavering love for everyone gathered in the pilgrim house gave us an inner glimpse of how we could reflect the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh in our lives. Hand of the Cause of God Rúhíyyih Khánum was direct, authoritative and commanding. I remember the feeling that we Bahá’ís had to be different from the rest of society, that we had to reflect the Teachings in our lives. Her dynamic character gave us a renewed and more determined attitude towards our service in a fairly tough country for foreigners.
After seven years of marriage we had none of the longed-for children and had even started international adoption procedures. We were waiting to hear that a child had been allocated to us and one joyous day when we were living in Tampere, Anna said she was pregnant. Around the same time, we received a phone call from the international adoption agency telling us that a child from Bangladesh had been allocated to us and all we would have to do was to travel to Bangladesh to fetch him once the paperwork was completed. One morning Anna went off to have an ultrasound check-up and her words still ring in my ears to this very day: “What would you say if it’s twins?” Laughing, I went off to work. When I got home that afternoon, my laughter turned to happy shock when Anna said that it was, indeed, twins! Sadly, an upheaval in Bangladesh put a stop to international adoptions. We often wonder whatever happened to our potential son, and in some ways still regard him as such, even though we have never met.
Living back in Kangasala with our twin daughters Asta and Erin, and our third child, James Tristan, we served as Assistants to the community of Vaasa on the west coast of Finland. We often visited Vaasa to give the Community our support. There was a Persian family there who had pioneered to Vaasa to build the first Local Assembly. Sadly, the daughter and son-in-law decided it was time to move on and join the rest of their family in Canada, but ‘Papa’ Samandari, as we called him, refused to leave his pioneer post. There was no way he could manage on his own in Vaasa as he was already quite aged and spoke no other languages than Persian. I’m not sure how it happened, but we took Papa Samandari into our home. We spoke no Persian and he spoke no English, so communication was fun and we often had to call other Persian friends, especially Kami Namdar, to find out what Mr Samandari needed and how we could help him! He became a member of our family until the heartbreaking day came when he really needed his own family and left to join them in Canada.
In 1985 we moved to the town of Varkaus but in early spring 1986, one morning I woke up with “We have to move to Joensuu” as the first words on my lips. Our best friends John Jason, his wife Leena and their children decided to pioneer there, too. It proved exceedingly difficult to find a rented home in Joensuu as there was nothing big enough for our family of five, but something strange happened. Time was running out when suddenly, virtually overnight, a man in Joensuu was transferred by his employers to another town at very short notice and the city gave us his home (it was a municipality-owned rented accommodation). John and Leena moved at the same time, as did several other friends from other parts of Finland, and we joyfully celebrated the formation of the first Spiritual Assembly of Joensuu. Although four adults had moved out of Varkaus, it, too, was able to reform its Local Assembly that Ridván. And so life began in the eastern-most Bahá’í Community of what was then Western Europe.
One of the greatest honours we had in Joensuu was to host a visit from Hand of the Cause of God Collis Featherstone and his wife, Madge. They had dinner with us and his visit greatly enriched the community; we are sure his constant encouragement to teach contributed to making Joensuu one of the strongest Bahá’í Communities in the country. Two of the original pioneers – John and Leena Jason – still live there; they have become the ‘oldies’ in the community.
Our fourth child, Lara Natasha, was born into the world in Joensuu; one person in our village called her the Rose of Karelia.
We started to look at what we wanted for our children. We wanted them to explore the world, to manage with their own resources, to learn how to survive on nothing and to be creative and imaginative. We wanted to ‘accustom them to hardship’ and not suffer from the luxury and excess of city life. Through a series of coincidences (perhaps more like a ‘comedy of coincidences’), in 1989, just a few years after having moved to Joensuu, we ended up moving to the countryside, to the district of Tuupovaara. We never even needed to find a house or the capital to buy it; we were offered one and the bank was quite happy to transfer the house loan into our name. Our experiences of living in the main village of Tuupovaara right on the Finnish-Russian border introduced us to a new world. There were only 3,000 people in the entire municipality, and around 1,000 of them lived in Tuupovaara main village. No one ever mentioned or even thought we weren’t Finns; the people welcomed us with open arms and we were immediately included as part of the community. Such were the Karelians, who were so different from all other Finns. Perhaps I have a romantic memory but, for example, at our first Naw-Rúz party after we had moved, it felt as if the entire village joined in; there were at least 30 people in our home that evening – such things had never happened in the city.
Time moved on. Life changed for us rather dramatically and on top of that, there came the time when our children needed much more than life in the countryside could offer. Ridván was also approaching; Joensuu had many youth but the community did not have enough adults to reform the Local Spiritual Assembly. It seemed logical that it was best to sell up and move back to Joensuu.
Our family had only been living in Joensuu about a year the second time around when we received a visit from a dear Bahá’í friend who lived in the far north of Lapland. In conversation, Todd Nolen, who had pioneered to Finland from Alaska with his family around the same time we had, simply mentioned that we would be ideal for the North, which with its midnight sun in summer and dark winter months was a region that demanded a lot of people and their inner strength. Joensuu had strengthened so much there were plenty of adults now living in the community and, slowly, the seed planted by Todd gradually started to grow. We wondered what we were really doing in Joensuu; there were enough adults there but more adults were needed in Rovaniemi, so why not go north?
After weeks of heart searching we pioneered to Rovaniemi, the provincial capital of Lapland. Perhaps foolishly, I had believed I would be entitled to unemployment benefit there before my job started, but the rules were such that since I owned a company, even though an inactive one, I was not entitled to any benefit. Anna could get unemployment benefit before she started working, but she would have to wait six weeks because she had handed in her notice and not been dismissed. Therefore, we would be moving to Lapland without any income. But that was just the beginning! For the first three weeks of life in Rovaniemi, we slept in sleeping bags on the floor of a bed-sitter one of the local Bahá’ís had given to us to use. On trying to take up the job promised to me, I discovered that the person who promised it had died of a heart attack, and he had never told anyone else and had certainly not completed any paperwork concerning the job! And Anna’s potential employers backtracked on their promises. To top it all, many of our children’s clothes were stolen off the clothesline during our first week in Rovaniemi!
Welcome to tests! Here we were now living on the Arctic Circle with no work, no home, four children, no income and rapidly dwindling savings! I honestly do not know or remember how we survived those first few weeks, but the children started school and we did move into our new apartment after three weeks. I eventually found work and Anna managed to get short, temporary nursing jobs. More through error than design, I ended up working for the University of Lapland and Anna became a translator with her own company. Our move to Rovaniemi ensured the Local Spiritual Assembly could form and slowly the community grew stronger.
Feasts and other events became exciting and invigorating, and we loved seeing the friends and sharing everything with them. The unity in the community felt magnetic. Anna was appointed Auxiliary Board member and she was able to participate in the inauguration of the International Teaching Centre building and Counsellor Conference at the World Centre in 2001.
Being close to one another in age, all our children left home within the same short time-span and it often felt just a bit too quick, but Anna and I were alone and free to do what we wanted – or so we thought! We studied books 1 and 2 of the Ruhi courses with friends from Rovaniemi while we were living in the neighbouring city of Kemijärvi (we had moved out of the city for a few years to a house we bought and renovated); I particularly loved the more relaxed style we embraced to studying the Teachings. My work at the University was such that I could organise my teaching schedule as I wanted and Anna was free to work anywhere, so we thought of serving in Inari, 300 km north of Rovaniemi, to strengthen the community there. We were able to find a place to live in the neighbouring village of Ivalo, which was still part of Inari district. It was only after we had moved that we really started to learn about living in the North. Until then, everything we had learnt in southern Lapland had little to do with life in real Lapland!
People are easier going in their social and cultural life and they are far less formal than people are in the southern regions of Lapland. This attitude penetrates every aspect of life, including that of the Bahá’í Community. For example, we’d be having a Feast and our Sámi Bahá’í in Inari would attend when she was ready and she would leave only to return later. Yet she could never imagine she had been away for a time; she had ‘been there’ the whole time! The Feast happened when it happened; it happened when she was there, and it happened when the others were there and she was not. It simply happened… I can’t explain it any other way.
We were forced to move back to Rovaniemi when the nature of my work changed; instead of being a free agent, I became tied to daily office hours, with a fixed time when I was to be available to students. We started studying Ruhi Book 6 from Rovaniemi, travelling at weekends to the Bahá’í Centre in Inari. We loved the study circle and the spirit of teaching it generated in us all. I feel I’d never really experienced the fun of teaching, more of a joyous bounty than a duty, until we had our teaching project in Inari – and of course, both of us bumped into old students! But this time, the teaching was different! Anna and I (mostly Anna I think) clocked up a total of 3,000 kilometres for the study circle, travelling to Inari and way north to the Nolens’ home on the Norwegian coast off the Arctic Ocean. I never made it on the long journey to the study circle in Norway during November 2008, but Anna attended the study circle, driving at night in winter with a Bahá’í friend from Rovaniemi on icy roads and through mountain passes and long tunnels under the Norwegian mountains, occasionally avoiding collision with reindeer.
I had my own battles to overcome; I’d just been given a preliminary diagnosis for an ailment that had troubled me for years. Just a few days earlier, my neurologist had told me I suffered from primary progressive multiple sclerosis. When I asked him if he was certain or was it just a theory, he told me he was certain but he still had to ‘prove’ it. The news came as a hard blow to both of us and since my form of MS was progressive, there was no treatment; all the medical profession could do was to treat the symptoms but not the MS itself. I immediately went into a deep depression and had to fight my way out of it. I simply could not face the friends at that time, not then anyway.
We went to Iceland to visit our daughter and her family that December 2008, and from there we flew to attend the London conference in January 2009. All our daughters came (our son was in New Zealand), but Anna and I were unable to attend many sessions. She was busy helping Asta, who had taken her children. As for me, I suffered from terrible fatigue due to the bad flight and often had to return to our hotel to rest, and my increasingly worsening legs meant I was unable to walk up the steps into the main area. I ended up sitting in the balcony, which I could access by lift, but I felt very isolated from the friends, especially those from Finland. However, the little time we could attend the conference was highly rewarding and illuminating, and a great lesson in understanding the purpose of the core activities and the role we played in developing society.
My neurologist confirmed his diagnosis of primary progressive MS a few months later in April 2009, and Anna and I decided to take a long, hard look at life. The prognosis was not good; he told me I would get worse, but the speed at which I would get worse was unpredictable.
We took many things into our consultation: first, the doctor told me my disease was advancing and I would never work again. There were also huge changes going on in the translation business. (Anna had started translating simply because she could not find permanent work as a nurse. Little did she know at the time that she would become one of the most wanted freelance translators for our agents in Helsinki. However, the recession generated consolidation of the industry and the amount of work was rapidly dwindling. Besides working at the University, I also helped her with translating and proof reading and I was already experiencing cognitive difficulties at the University. I would have to retire from translating, too.) Our income was falling due to the recession and it would further decline due to my subsequent invalidity pension. We decided Anna had to return to a guaranteed income in nursing. Unfortunately, there was simply no work in Lapland, so she had to look elsewhere.
The guiding hand of God solved our little problem very easily; Anna ended up accepting a job offer in Turku. We ended the translation business, gave away many of our material possessions and prepared to move to Turku, which was the most heartbreaking experience of our lives. We were leaving Lapland and we had no idea when or if we would ever return. By midsummer we were ready, little remained except to attend our last Bahá’í midsummer camp in the North Calotte. I find it emotionally difficult to write about that last camp; tears filled our eyes as we said goodbye and all the friends gathered there gave us a warm and loving farewell. Words can never capture the emotions we felt. Our hand had been forced to do something we did not want to do – to move south, far from the tangible warmth and love of the friends in the North Calotte. Even today, more than four years later, our hearts yearn for the North and all the wonderful Bahá’í friends there; it is our true home in Finland.
Turku was a huge culture shock! We had lived in the North for 12 years, with only a handful of trips to the South, and everything was strange: the people, culture, city life, the traffic – you would see more cars in an hour than you would in a year living in the North! Even the Turku Bahá’í Community felt strange – which perhaps was the biggest shock of all! The city is in an intensive growth cluster, and there was so much going on that had never happened in Rovaniemi, where we were only a handful of Bahá’ís. On top of all that, in the space of just a few months, I was given early retirement, we ended our translation business, gave away all our excess and unnecessary material possessions, moved south, Anna returned to her old profession, … there was just so much in a very short time that it’s amazing we retained our sanity. But Turku community survived our move here. We would still move back to Lapland tomorrow but that, sadly, remains only a dream. We have settled in Turku, Anna now serves on the Local Spiritual Assembly, we are active members of the Bahá’í Community to the best of our ability, and two of our children and three grandchildren live nearby.
Life has changed dramatically. I am restricted in what I can do physically but I have a personal assistant who is there to help me when Anna is at work. As for that pioneer spirit, it’s still there and the feeling simply won’t go away. Just before Ridván 2011 there was a call for pioneers to the neighbouring town of Naantali, and we were itching to get up and go. Sadly, it was impossible, but…
Finland, October 2011 (edited April 2014)