How I became a Bahá’í – the story so far
I always thought my spiritual journey began when I was eleven years old and had met my friend Fiona Young (née Beint) at school. She initially introduced me to the Baha’i Faith but, as I reflect, I realise it began a lot earlier. I was born in Hastings in 1974, and had two older brothers. My parents were not involved at all in any spiritual or religious practices. There was a dramatic change for us all when I turned nine months old, and family circumstances, and my parents going their separate ways, meant we all had to go into care for a year. My brothers went to a local children’s home and I went to a foster home in Eastbourne. It wasn’t until I was much older that I understood that my foster parents had actually been very spiritual and had prayed a lot together and with me as a baby. They were wonderful people, and they even came to my wedding in 2001 and we keep in touch via good old snail mail. In the meantime, our Dad got everything ready for us to move to Northampton, and we were all reunited again. My birth mother continued to live in Hastings and we visited her once or twice a year – but our main lives were now in the Midlands, as far away from the sea as one can get.
Then, one day, we were introduced to our step-mother, who then became ‘Mum’ (and cooked a mean lasagne and roast dinner) and the life that ensued for me was the normal family life of school, homework, playing outside, yearly holidays and being teased by older brothers.
The next encounter, that I am aware of, in connection with a spiritual upbringing, was again, not what I thought to be in the home, although there we had a really great foundation of morals and virtues. My Dad was a social worker, and after he met my step-mother we were raised with love and laughter, knowing the difference between right and wrong. We also fostered a lot as a family, which enabled me to witness first-hand how virtuous people can be, without necessarily subscribing to a faith or spiritual practice. My step-mother was raised in the Catholic faith but we didn’t go to church – she was simply a good person, as was my father, and they both did many acts of great service in the community, whether they realised it or not, for their friends, strangers and even animals. Again, with hindsight, these were spiritual principles being practised daily – they just weren’t given a name in our home. It was simply what my parents did, and as a result, that is how I was raised – to think about others first, to serve others and to think about people who really need help. We visited my birth mother once a year or so and again, she gave us the chance to make our own mistakes, taught us about healthy eating and about respecting the environment and people, all of which helped mould me, although I never appreciated it at the time.
Going to school was interesting. I wasn’t sure if Arbours Lower was officially a religious school, yet we said grace at every meal – “For what we are about to receive, may the Lord make us truly thankful – Amen!” I remember feeling anything but grateful for the school food – it was terrible! What I loved instead were our Assemblies, which were full of Christian hymns and praising God. I really thrived on hearing anything to do with Jesus’ name and I felt very protected and loved by God from a very early age. I never discussed my love of God with my parents; when I was older I did have discussions with my Dad about what happens when we die. He always said that when he died he would wait in a tree for me until it was my time, then we’d be together – I liked that! I knew my birth mother was an atheist, whilst Dad always maintained he was agnostic, which I identified with for quite a long time. I do think today that it is because of my Dad’s very relaxed attitude towards religion and life in general that I became so interested in the Baha’i Faith at a later stage.
I was very involved in school with music and clubs and just loved singing about Jesus. I would get quite emotional when we used to sing the hymn “Jesus gives us the water of life” although I wasn’t sure if that was because of the context or the chord changes; even now I am very affected emotionally by music. To think that we would sing hymns and I would be quietly weeping, unknown to others, fascinates me now. When I went to middle school in Northampton, we had a visit from the Gideons. They presented us all, as they do, with a Gideons’ International Red Bible which I loved and put by my bedside, reading a bit each night, unbeknownst to my family. I loved the feeling I got from those reading sessions, and felt so much protection and love from God. I considered I was doing the ‘right thing’ but it was more than that. It felt holy and spiritual, and ‘right’ in my heart too.
In the meantime, we made frequent trips to Bedford to visit my step-mother’s family, who were all involved in the Catholic Church. If we happened to be there on a Sunday, we would accompany Nanny (my step-mother’s mum) to a service, which I liked mainly because afterwards she would treat us to sweeties from the local shop. I didn’t ever feel particularly connected when we went into the church itself – it was always cold and austere, and the voice of the priest booming out with the various commands, having to stand up, sit down, kneel down, talk in unison, not talk in unison, didn’t really feel spiritual to me. I would always long for the end, and giggle throughout the service with my cousin and one of my brothers, but always loved the part where we’d say the Lord’s Prayer, as I knew that bit. My Nanny, however, was very loving and caring and once we were out of the church and back in her house, being fed and entertained, in a warm environment, pictures of the renaissance image of Jesus on the walls, I would feel much better. It was all part of the experience really, and what I linked most with a spiritual feeling was how I saw my Nanny and Grandad were with others and all of us, treating us as their own grandchildren; they accepted people from all walks of life into their home, throughout their entire lives, offering shelter and food to friends and strangers. Perhaps it was then that I realised that “deeds and not words should be our adorning”.
I started to question and to have very deep thoughts around religion from the age of eleven to thirteen. I would think a lot about how it was that the priest could interpret the Bible for us… how did he know? Why were there so many sects of Christianity that in many ways seemed to agree, but then disagree with each other and sometimes so violently? When I first heard about the Bahá’í Faith it was like a light switched on in my brain, because everything I heard in the first instance was exactly what I already felt. Surely all faiths were connected? Surely we can read the Bible for ourselves? Surely some of the stories in the Bible were not meant to be taken literally… all my thoughts were focused around Christianity and how I loved Jesus and God so much, but so much also didn’t make sense.
I started to go to firesides at Mina and Kevin Beint’s home and with Rob Weinberg, where we would all just talk and discuss till late in the evening. The Bahá’í community at the time was quite small, but as soon as I showed an interest I was invited to everything going – and loved it. My parents, although not particularly interested, were supportive and would soon get used to Ken Howlett picking me up to go to a Feast or a fireside. They trusted the Bahá’ís even though they didn’t really want to know more themselves – although my father knew a little bit about the Faith and had all the Holy Days noted in his social worker’s diary!
I asked questions… many questions. I would have sleepovers at the Beints’ home and Fiona and I would share a bed in the spare room. From age thirteen to fifteen we literally spent hours talking about spiritual subjects. Mina showed me the video of Mona and the Children. The first time we watched it, I felt uncomfortable. I wasn’t sure why I was watching it and I didn’t really understand. We watched it again a year or so later and I wept and wept… pieces were starting to fit together like a big puzzle. In the meantime, some of my friends at school were getting a bit concerned about my involvement with the Bahá’ís and insisted the only way to God was through Christ. I simply didn’t agree. I kept on questioning, reading and falling in love with what I considered to be a most beautiful and yet practical spiritual message for our time. I used to ignore people’s assertions that I was being swayed by the Devil – it didn’t make logical sense to me. I used to think how I would never say such things to others… I found it a little disconcerting that friends were comfortable telling me how wrong I was. How could the Baha’i Faith be wrong when it felt so right?
At about age thirteen I had a really interesting experience with the power of prayer when I lost my hamster. He had climbed out of his cage and was nowhere to be found. I said the Tablet of Ahmad as I had been told it had a very special power. When I uttered the last word a thought came into my mind (not a voice) that I needed to ‘look in a black bin bag in my dad’s dark-room’. I immediately went downstairs to look, and lo and behold, there was my hamster! It was a very small but significant turning point for me. Here I was, not committed to any particular faith, but God had answered my prayer all the same. It has stayed with me, and to this day I believe so wholeheartedly in the power of prayer and that God hears and answers all our prayers, regardless. More of that later.
During those teenage years, up to age sixteen, I would tell people about the Bahá’í Faith but would always add “Oh, I am not a Bahá’í but….” and then tell them all about it. I remember once sitting in my room late at night with my Gideons’ bible in my hands, asking God fervently to send me a sign. I felt with all my heart that what Bahá’u’lláh said was the truth, but would it be a disservice to my belief in Christ if I called myself a Bahá’í and followed this path instead? Another feeling overcame me…. just open the Bible and read. It fell open at several pages containing writings I felt were direct references to The Return and to Bahá’u’lláh. I didn’t need any convincing after that. The power and majesty in Bahá’u’lláh’s words were a testament to the fact He was indeed speaking the word of God, and it didn’t matter from that point on how many people told me I was ‘going to Hell’ or that I was on the wrong path… I knew deep in my heart that I had found the absolute truth; all religions from time immemorial were, and are, and will be inextricably linked by the same Source. From that moment, I wanted to follow the Bahá’í teachings; they all made sense to me – love your fellow man, the equality of men and women, God is one. I was so happy!
I received a copy of Bahá’u’lláh’s Hidden Words when I was about fifteen or sixteen and I just fell in love even more… these precious Words! They lifted my soul every time I read or sang them.
When I was sixteen I had the bounty of having another brother, and again when I was nineteen. I was asked to be godmother to one of them, and I took this quite seriously by whispering prayers to him when he was a baby and answering any questions he might have when he was older. Two of my brothers were very interested in the Faith at different points in their lives, but I didn’t feel it was my place to encourage it, especially for one of my younger brothers. These days, all my family are in my daily prayers and they are amazing people who follow their different paths and serve in differing capacities. I sometimes remind one of my brothers jokingly that I am his godmother and that he must listen to me. Again, I feel that the best way to be an example to someone is to literally just live the life… people will ask questions and want to know more when they are ready.
When I was nineteen I embarked upon a year of service to Swaziland, with Fiona, again with the full support of my parents. We worked very hard in the Bahá’í primary school in Mbabane for ten months and I found some aspects of the time away challenging. At the same time, I came back armed with a deeper knowledge and many experiences that led me to a deeper understanding again of the power of prayer, fasting and other observances that I had not fully understood previously. I also had more, highly significant, experiences with the power of prayer.
One such story is about the time when Fiona and I had just finished shopping in Mbabane, and had all our heavy bags in our hands, when the heavens opened and torrential rain soaked us in seconds. The wet bags split, tins went rolling everywhere and we said a prayer – Ya Bahá’u’l-Abhá!’ Literally, the next second, one of our Bahá’í friends came shooting round the corner in his truck and pulled up alongside us. Breathless, he exclaimed that he didn’t know why he was there… he just had a strong feeling that he should come this way. It was moments like these, tiny but totally significant, where little prayers would be answered, that cemented my belief in a God that knows all, even before we do, and that sometimes, all we have to do is ask.
After my year of service, I went to Northampton University (then Nene College) and became one of the Bahá’ís who believed in everything – but I took a step back from the community, partly due to some negative experiences during my year of service, and also to feeling quite depressed on coming back – I had loved Africa so much. However, I completed my four-year teaching degree and whilst reluctantly teaching a friend about the Faith, regained my vision and threw myself back into community life. I learned later that the community had been praying for me, for which I will always be grateful.
In 2001 I married my childhood sweetheart Tom Leith, and together we embarked upon a journey to cement our faith even more, being so much a part of community life together, reading prayers daily and striving in our work and personal life to live as Bahá’ís through our deeds. I became very interested in health and diet after curing myself of a myriad of pesky health challenges, and then wrote a book which was published by George Ronald: I’ll Have the Fruit and Grains, Please!
I started to really consider how I could live my life as a service to others in all that I did and still do. From reading the Bahá’í Writings daily and connecting with the words, I consider how my actions will affect other people – is it uplifting? Is it helpful? Is it in accordance with what Bahá’u’lláh wants for us as humans; all those virtues we are all capable of achieving in our life time? I am nearly forty as I write this and am so aware of how quickly time is going for me, for all of us.
We were blessed in 2007 with a beautiful baby girl, Maya – meaning ‘God’s creative power’ and we are currently expecting another baby girl. Last year, we decided that we’d love to pioneer and work overseas, then something seemingly came out of nowhere, (although I know this was another direct answer to a prayer). An opportunity arose, forwarded to me by Wendi Momen, for us to live in China and for me to work as a teacher in the International School in the TEDA district of Tianjin. We agreed to go as a family, and whilst we didn’t stay as long as we thought we would, (and I got pregnant within a month or two of being there!) the China experience was wonderful and life-affirming for all of us. We all felt more energised, more spiritualised and deepened in our faith – and again, all through the simplest of acts. To be a Bahá’í, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá states, simply means to ‘love the world’. We came back full of love for our new friends and so grateful to God for all the bounties and blessings that came with us pioneering; we were ‘blown away’ by the experience – and we still are.
One thing I have learned through my journey so far of discovering this precious Faith is how incredible the power of prayer is. How family means everything. How every word and action plays a part in our life time and how important it is to live according to Bahá’u’lláh’s counsel of possessing a “pure, kindly and radiant heart”. How we can call ourselves a Christian, a Buddhist, a Muslim, Sikh, Bahá’í or anything… but unless we are living the life, or at least striving to, and letting our deeds speak louder than our words; if we are falling short in our commitment, then really I wonder what the point is.
When I remember all those years ago my parents taking in children who were not their own, it didn’t matter what they called themselves. They acted on what they believed in, which is my hope for myself, my children and our family. We can be Bahá’ís in name, but ultimately, we must serve humanity to the best of our capacity and ability, and continue our journey of faith alongside people of all faiths, or of none, working together to bring the world to being a safer, more conscious, fairer and more spiritual place.
I am currently preparing for baby number two, writing a book about the power of prayer and looking forward to life with my beloved family and friends.
Look out for part two in another 40 years!
Vicky Leith, June 2014
P.S. since writing my Baha’i history to date, we have been blessed with the arrival of a little baby girl, Willow Bea Carmela Leith. What has amazed me most is the bond that she shares with our 7 year old Maya… there is so much love between them that is truly tangible and really magical to witness. Willow Bea was only two weeks old when we moved from Northamptonshire to the sunny seaside town of Whitstable in Kent. We miss the Northants folks so much but we are definitely meant to be here! We are surrounded by so many lovely families and children and our daughter Maya attends a school nearby in Herne Bay.