I was a wartime baby, born in Brighton on March 19th 1942. My father was serving in the R.A.F, flying in Wellington bombers as a wireless operator/air gunner. When the garden of our home in Hove, where I was sleeping in my pram, was strafed by an enemy fighter plane, my distraught mother took me and my sister to Westcliffe-on-Sea, to my father’s parents. My paternal grandfather’s family were Jews who came to Britain from Poland in the mid 1800s to escape persecution.
After the war, with Britain in ruins, my father left with a colleague to seek greener pastures for his young family and settled in Cape Town, South Africa, where he resumed his trade as a bespoke tailor. Six months later my mother followed, with me, and my sister Anne, arriving In January 1947 on the SS Caernarvon Castle, which had not yet been re-fitted after service as a troop ship during the war.
Ceres, in the Western Cape region, around the year 1950. Our family is on a farm holiday, a few hours’ drive from the city of Cape Town. I am eight years old and really excited to be walking through the bush with the farm’s manager, a bronzed ‘white’ man, whom I admire, the way children do. We stroll into a clearing, towards some ‘rondavels’, the thatched mud huts where the African farm workers live. He calls out to a small black child, about my own age. “Did you give your mommy the message I asked you to give her?” I see the fear in the boy’s eyes as he lowers his head and mutters, “No sorry baas, I forgot.” I expect the little boy to receive a tongue lashing, but find myself instead standing shocked and terrified as this big strong man sets about beating the child savagely with his fists. As if it were yesterday, I can still see the tears and blood intermingled on the child’s face. As we walk away from the scene my ‘hero’ looks down at me with a casual knowing smile and says: “It’s the only thing they understand, hey!” I turn away, ashamed now of my white skin, feeling somehow complicit in the pain of my African brother. I never spoke to the man again.
By the age of eight I was already aware of ‘apartheid’, South Africa’s odious system of racial separation, which blighted our day-to-day life.
Park benches had signs attached, ‘whites only’ or in Afrikaans, ‘slegs vir blankes’. I understood where I was allowed to sit on buses and observed the separate lines in banks and post offices. We lived with it.
But now that I had witnessed its cruelty and injustice up close, even in my childish innocence, or perhaps because of it, I knew how wrong and unfair were these rules, enforced by a brutal police state, which classified and divided people on the basis of skin colour, and it set up in me a deep yearning to find a better way.
A search for meaning
My search had begun. I have no recollection of my parents ever having anything to do with churches or religion, yet, for some reason, my mother insisted I become ‘confirmed’ in the Anglican Church. It was not a comfortable experience. Young as I was, I grasped the hypocrisy of separate churches for blacks and whites, and to my questioning of belief, I was told: “Don’t ask difficult questions, you just have to believe.” Priests and churches held no answers and God was not the way for me. In truth, I was rather a lost soul. Our family life and my school days were far from tranquil, so that in my teenage years I began consciously to seek for some kind of truth – to search for meaning.
A part of this was the yearning to find social justice which burned in me until, at the age of 17, I was drifting aimlessly through life, a drop-out from school, wondering what this world could possibly hold in store. Where were the answers to life’s questions? Where could I find some peace, some sense of purpose? At the point of despair, on a high cliff top road looking down at the ocean one night, I uttered aloud perhaps my first prayer from the heart: “Help me!”
A few weeks later, a call came for me to take part in a radio programme. Some years earlier, when I was fourteen, I had been cast by a producer in Cape Town in a radio play – no TV in those days, people listened to plays and serials on radio. Occasional roles in radio drama had continued for me. It was fun, and a bit of pocket money, with no indication then that it would lead to a lifetime career as an actor.
In the broadcast studio that day was an American man called Lowell Johnson. In that year, 1960, my life was about to turn around in a way I had never dreamed possible. At the outset of what would become a life-long friendship, Lowell and I worked for a while in the same production studio, Radio Tafelberg, and there I began to share with him my deepest thoughts and feelings. Here was someone I could talk to about ‘real’ things, hopes and fears. When I became stressed or frustrated in our work place, Lowell would slip little hand-written notes to me, which read like this:
Help me to refrain from every irregular inclination, to subdue every rebellious passion, to purify the motives of my conduct, to conform myself to that meekness which no provocation can ruffle, to that patience which no affliction can overwhelm, to that integrity which no self-interest can shake…. Persian Mystic.
Persian Mystic? Finally I confronted my mentor. “What is this ‘thing’ that you know? You always seem to have answers, the right answers to my questions? There is something you are not telling me. Who is this Persian Mystic?”
My teacher made it clear that he was not keen to tell me until he was convinced I most sincerely wanted to know. “Of course I want to know – you must tell me!” And so, that day, sitting in Cape Town’s Botanical Gardens, eating lunch together, I heard the name Bahá’u’lláh for the first time. I soon had books to read and slowly, dimly, a picture was emerging. Much of it was confusing, but some passages in the writings and prayers brought me to tears, without my knowing why.
I was confronted by this and in some turmoil, until, in an outburst of frustration, I took Lowell’s pile of books and hurled them at my bedroom wall.
Slightly battered copies of Bahá’u’lláh and the New Era and Portals to Freedom were returned to my teacher the next day. I think I expected his displeasure or disappointment, but his response left me with nowhere to go. “That’s fine – it says in the Writings that if two people argue about religion they are both wrong. We won’t talk about it anymore unless you want to.” Lowell was a wise and patient friend, and a few days later I asked for the books again.
Now I was able to meet some of the local Bahá’í friends, the Heuvel family and Michael Jacobs, and some months later Lowell invited me to come with him to a gathering where I met a whole new group of believers from Islamic background who had suddenly accepted the Faith and were now part of the new Cape Town Bahá’í community.
I can never adequately describe what these dear people did for me. To be at last in a completely multi racial group in an atmosphere of such joy and harmony, and to feel their spontaneous, loving acceptance of me, filled my heart to overflowing. The love that shone in those brown faces was the food for a hungry soul. In the midst of ‘apartheid’ I had stumbled upon a living example of loving racial harmony. Ideas and theories may be disputed, but love in action cannot be denied. I felt as if I had come home after a long, lonely journey. Now, although there were still questions in my mind, there was no remnant of doubt in my heart that this was where I belonged and where I would remain.
One day, soon after, knowing that there was to be a meeting on the coming Saturday, I asked Lowell if I could accompany him.
“No, not this time.”
“It is the 19 day Feast. It is just for Bahá’ís.”
“Well what do I have to do to get to this feast?”
“You would have to write a letter to the Local Spiritual Assembly of Cape Town telling them you want to be a Bahá’í. Then you will be asked to meet with them. They are holding a meeting on Saturday morning. Shall I ask if they will see you?”
“Alright, but before then you must read this – The Will and Testament of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. They may ask you questions about it”.
My only memory of that LSA meeting is the rib-cracking hug of welcome I received from the Chairman, Toyar Gallow.
Now I was a ‘declared’ Bahá’í. My adventure had begun. And now the puzzle of why Lowell Johnson was so slow, reluctant it seemed, to tell me the name of this new Faith, was explained to me. When the pioneers came to South Africa at the beginning of Shoghi Effendi’s Ten Year Crusade, in 1953 and after, the beloved Guardian had instructed those valiant souls that they should concentrate their teaching efforts on the indigenous African and ‘mixed race’ people, and not to teach the white population, except in “rare circumstances”. The protective wisdom of the Guardian’s guidance would be proven over and over again, but it must have taken some courage and resolve at that time for Lowell to make a judgment that I was a ‘rare circumstance’.
Perhaps in the next world I will be able adequately to express my thanks to him for the gift of my life as a Bahá’í.
The very next day after that first 19-day Feast, when I had submitted my letter accepting Bahá’u’lláh, Lowell called:
“Come on, we are going teaching.”
“But I don’t know enough to be able to teach anyone!”
“You believe in Bahá’u’lláh don’t you?”
“Well yes, but…”
“Just explain why you believe. Speak from your heart. If you don’t know something, just say you don’t know the answer. Now you are a Bahá’í you must share this with others.”
Another profound lesson from my teacher, one I never forgot. And so we visited the home of a man called John Agulhas. In South Africa’s racial terminology John was a ‘coloured’ (mixed race) man. As a child he had been profoundly disabled by polio and made his living as a shoemaker. John was a keen amateur clarinet player, so he and I formed a strong connection over our mutual love of jazz. Soon after our visit, John declared his faith and then dedicated much of his life to teaching it to others. Though he had little use of his legs, he would be transported each week-end (with his wheelchair) by the Bahá’i friends to the goal areas outside Cape Town where he taught the Faith with great fervour.
A new direction
I was now a brand new Bahá’í, but still with no direction as to some sort of career.
A few weeks later, quite ‘out of the blue’, I received a telegram. An old school-friend of my sister was acting in a theatre company in Johannesburg and they needed a young actor to play a role in a comedy, about to start rehearsals. Was I available?
There was no such thing as a drama school in South Africa in 1961, but I had a little experience in school plays and amateur productions, so without hesitation I accepted. A door had opened for me and there I was, before an audience, on stage in a professional production. Acting beckoned and the ‘drug’ bit deeply. That role led immediately to others – and, somehow my professional life was set in motion.
In Johannesburg I was able to meet some of the outstanding African believers. Men like William Masehla, Andrew Mofokeng, Ephens Senne, Cornelius Khunou, Robert Mazibuko and many others showered me with their love and encouragement. During that time we somehow managed to manoeuvre our way through the thicket of apartheid. I have a vivid memory of travelling with Lowell Johnson in his car to a black ‘township’ near Rustenburg to meet a local believer. Because, as ‘whites’, we did not have a permit to enter the township, Lowell parked alongside a long, high mesh fence and called out to the nearest house. An African woman appeared. She knew the routine and I watched her walk briskly along to her neighbour’s house some way from the fence. A few minutes later our Bahá’í friend was with us, and together, under the hot sun, we said prayers through that fence that somehow was unable to divide us.
In the police state that was then South Africa, the apartheid laws were strictly enforced, and naturally the Bahá’í community assiduously observed the tenet of our Faith which enjoins obedience to the laws of the land. The Group Areas Act of 1950 segregated the different races to specific areas within the urban locale. Thus the Local Assemblies throughout South Africa during that period could not be multi racial. Within the general Bahá’í community of course, there was continual, though discreet, social mixing and interaction, but for some unknown reason the white dominated government of that era never introduced a law restricting inter-racial national religious councils, so the National Assembly always had a representation of all the nation’s races, elected at a multi racial national convention. All this mixing of the races, however, attracted the attention of South Africa’s secret police, the dreaded ‘Special Branch’. Lowell told me of the day when the National Bahá’í Headquarters was ‘raided’. He was National Secretary at that time and when these hardened Afrikaners arrived and demanded to have the keys to all the filing cabinets, they must have been quite disarmed by Lowell’s cordial welcome. I believe they spent several hours sifting through what must have been quite baffling documents, trying to find anything of a subversive political nature, but of course there was nothing to find. Out of this, Lowell formed an ongoing relationship with a senior Special Branch officer to whom he would submit a list of the delegates and other attendees to National Convention or Teaching Conference. So the progress of the Cause was not severely impeded by these regulations, even in 1985 when the government declared the first State of Emergency to counter the mounting tide of violent agitation for reform. One of the emergency measures was a ban on meetings over a set number of individuals. The maximum number chosen was nine – so Bahá’í institutions continued to function! But we always had to be on our guard. For a black person to be found by police in a white area after the nightly curfew could have dire consequences. So, after meetings, we would ferry our African friends back to the townships by car. You would drive in the dark through dusty unpaved roads, always on edge at the possibility of being stopped by the police. For safety, an African woman would always sit in the back seat, so that if you were stopped, it would appear that you were taking your domestic servant back home. As in all police states you never know when the knock at the door will come. My friend Maureen Page told me that when she was on the South African NSA, the white and non-white members never ate together but in separate rooms which faced each other.
They would tell stories and jokes across the dividing hallway. It seems incredible now to think we all endured such humiliating circumstances – but we did, knowing that, in time, tyranny would have to make way to change, as indeed it did.
In Johannesburg I was also privileged to form a friendship with Reginald Turvey, renowned as one of South Africa’s foremost artists.
This gentle, modest man had been a stalwart Bahá’í, for a time the only believer, in South Africa since 1935. The Guardian called him ‘The Spiritual Father of South Africa’. We are privileged to own one of his lovely paintings.
Two disciples of the Master
At this time – over 50 years ago, one could still encounter believers who had had direct contact with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. I was blessed to know and converse with two of them. Bahiyyíh Ford Winckler was one of the first Bahá’í pioneers I met in Johannesburg shortly after I declared as a Bahá’í. To be frank, some of the believers there were a little uneasy about a new ‘white’ declarant in their midst, and were rather cool towards me. But not Bahiyyíh. She protected me from this test by showering me with her love and attention. I adored her. She was the daughter of William Henry (Harry) Randall, a prosperous American businessman who accepted the Faith in 1912, when he met the Master in America. In November 1919 the Randall family made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to meet Abdu’l-Bahá. Bahiyyíh told me this story.
At the age of twelve she felt rather uncomfortable with her birth name, Margaret. She told me that one day at the dinner table, she had closed her eyes and was thinking, “Maybe I could find the courage to ask the Master about my name.” When she opened her eyes He was looking at her and said with a smile. “Your name is now Bahiyyíh.”
In Johannesburg she showed us a photograph she had taken of Abdu’l-Bahá. The view of Him was from behind, as He was walking across a courtyard. “You were not supposed to take photographs of the Master without His permission”, she said. “But I couldn’t resist the temptation.” The next day the Master walked by her and with a sidelong glance and a wry smile, wagged an admonishing finger at her. He knew!
Another disciple of the Master was Harlan Ober whom I met in Johannesburg shortly before he passed away. Mr Ober came to South Africa as a pioneer in 1956 and settled in Pretoria, a bastion for ‘Afrikaners’, the architects of apartheid. He was an early Western disciple of the Master, having accepted the Faith in America in 1906.
Harlan had been a classmate of Harry Randall at Harvard, and it was he who had introduced Harry and his wife Ruth to the Faith in 1912, by taking a reluctant Harry to a meeting at which the Master was to speak. Harlan told me about his pilgrimage to the Holy Land. In those days there was no highway between Haifa and Akka, so in the heat of summer, the pilgrims had to journey at night along the beach. They rode on donkeys and pitched their tents on the sand, near to Akka. In the early morning before dawn, they were awakened by one of their guides. “Quickly, get dressed, the Master is coming.”
“But how do you know, it is still dark”, replied Harlan. “Listen”, said the guide, “can’t you hear the laughter?” And through the dark, came the sound of the Master’s laughter, teasing and joking with the welcoming party. I was so touched by that simple personal memoir from the lips of an early pilgrim. The Master always spread joy and good humour to those around Him.
These anecdotes impressed on me how close we are chronologically to the central figures of the Faith. Hand of the Cause Taraz’ullah Samandari, well into his nineties, made several visits to England and always spoke to the friends about his memory of being in the presence of Bahá’u’lláh’ as a 15 year old boy. On one occasion, after a meeting at 27 Rutland Gate, he held our baby Sean in his arms and kissed his forehead. I used to think to myself, “This is what it must have been like to meet someone who had known Christ.”
A first pilgrimage
In December 1962 I left South Africa to pursue my career in England and to attend the first Bahá’í World Congress at the Albert Hall in London in 1963, where we witnessed the presentation to the Bahá’í world of the first Universal House of Justice. 1963 would be momentous in another way for me. In August of that year, I was acting in a musical comedy, House of Cards, in London’s West End. In the chorus was a young dancer, Ann Constant. She immediately caught my eye, and we have been together now as husband and wife and the closest companions for over 50 years.
Before our wedding in April 1965 at 27 Rutland Gate, Ann and I had spent a few months in Cape Town, performing in a season of Shakespeare. En route home to England we made our first Bahá’í Pilgrimage together. For those precious days in the Holy Land we were guests of the House of Justice in a group of just seven Western pilgrims. We slept in the old Pilgrim House beside the Shrine of the Báb and our table, at mealtimes, was graced by the presence of several Hands of the Cause, including Rúhíyyih Khánum, and by members of the House of Justice.
In Haifa our guide was Hand of the Cause Paul Haney and when we went to Bahji, where we slept for three nights in the Mansion of Bahá’u’lláh, Hand of the Cause Abu’l-Qásim Faizi accompanied our little band of seven. With both of these dear souls we formed close and enduring friendships. Rúhíyyih Khánum came to Bahji to be with us in the Shrine of Bahá’u’lláh’, where, due to the size of our group, we were able to say a round of prayers aloud. Due to flight schedules from South Africa to Israel, we had had to stopover in Athens for a night, which meant we had missed the first day of our pilgrimage. The House of Justice generously granted us an extra day, which meant we were able to observe the Holy Day. At that time the Secretariat at the World Centre consisted of about eight to ten individuals.
I remember meeting the amazing Revell sisters, a Spanish couple (the Cabans) and a British Bahá’í, Marion Mihaillof. So it was a small gathering, the House of Justice members and Hands of the Cause, Mr Faizi, Mr Furútan, Mr Haney and Rúhíyyih Khánum. Chatting with Hand of the Cause Mr Haney, we discovered we were both keen golfers. Mr Haney was a founder member of the first golf course in Israel, at Caesarea.
A smile came over his face. “Phillip, you and I know there are two great religions in the world – the Bahá’í Faith and golf! Why don’t you stay over for a few more days and play some golf with me?” To my eternal regret I had to refuse. Our travel was on a very tight budget. To change our flight plans and book into a hotel made it impossible.
Also on that magical visit, we met Fujita. Sachiro Fujita was the second person of Japanese ancestry to embrace the Faith. He first met Abdu’l-Bahá in Chicago in 1912. He had climbed a lamp post to get a better view of the Master as He passed by, and Abdu’l-Bahá called out him: “Come down Zachias, for I would sup with thee.”
The Master advised him to finish his engineering studies and come to Haifa, where He served Abdu’l-Bahá as valet and chauffeur, and then, with the exception of a few years during the second World War, Shoghi Effendi.
The other five pilgrims in our group were quite elderly, so it was Ann and I that Fujita invited one day to accompany him on a walk to his garden, at the top of Mount Carmel. We set off from the Pilgrim House, just the three of us and Fujita’s beloved cocker spaniel, and climbed up winding rough paths, with the diminutive Fujita regaling us with stories of the Master. At the spot where the very top gate of the terraces is now located, Fujita had planted and tended a lovely garden.
I always remember him, and that walk, when I stand near this spot. Perhaps we were too young and inexperienced in our faith to appreciate in any small measure the priceless privilege of that first pilgrimage, but there is no doubt it has sustained us for the whole of our life together.
Another memory is of a moment, in the House of the Master, where Rúhíyyih Khánum was residing. After an evening visit, Ann and I found ourselves in Khánum’s kitchen, helping her with the washing-up, and we took the opportunity to confide to her a problem we were facing. With our wedding due in about a month’s time, Ann’s father, a senior officer in the Royal Engineers, was now insisting on a full church wedding for us in the army chapel at Woolwich with a military chaplain presiding! Khánum’s advice was, as always, candid and forthright. “No, my dears, if one of you was a Christian, that would be alright, but since you are both Bahá’is, it is impossible”.
She assured us of her prayers, (as did the House of Justice) and when we arrived in England, still anxious about the wedding plans, our dilemma had somehow dissolved as if it had never existed. The idea was simply never mentioned then or ever again.
Our married life began with ten full, wonderful years in the British Bahá’í community. So many adored and inspiring friends adorn this time, like Charles and Yvonne McDonald, George Bowers, Joe Jamieson, Adib Taherzadeh, Marion Hofman, Hugh McKinley, Owen and Jeanette Battrick and dear Alma Gregory who gave us a priceless gift – an original newspaper from 1910, which featured ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s photograph on the front page.
In 1968, serving on the National Public Information Committee, I received a brief to arrange publicity for the legendary jazz musician, Dizzy Gillespie, who had become a Bahá’í in the US the year before. I was already a dyed-in-the-wool jazz fan, so this was no chore for me. Dizzy became a close family friend until his untimely death in 1992. I learned a lot from him, his generosity of spirit, his boyish enthusiasm for life and his deep devotion to Bahá’u’lláh’.
Another great joy at this time was a visit from the pop duo Seals and Crofts who were becoming major music stars. Jimmy Seals and Dash Crofts and their wives brought more joy into our lives. Their arrival in 1971 coincided with a Youth Conference to be held in Peterborough. So, in spite of their packed schedule, a hasty plan was conceived to get them to the conference where they gave a brief, spontaneous concert for the Bahá’i youth. To record the occasion, we invited a young Bahá’i friend who was studying film at the Royal College of Art, Rodney Charters. Rodney, (now a successful cinematographer in the US) filmed the occasion as the basis for a short documentary which caught the spirit of spiritual search that was so evident among young people at that time. His little movie, Down Home, was used in teaching the Faith for many years.
It was a truly exciting time to be a Bahá’í. One seemed to know almost every Bahá’í in Britain. Our lives then were totally centred around teaching and developing our Bahá’í communities, achieving the goals of the 9 Year Plan – we lived for this aim.
As Bahá’í youth we felt as if we were building a new world. On reflection, in our youthful naiveté we probably expected more tangible, substantial results for all our efforts. Whenever I felt the slightest shadow of disappointment or a sense of impatience in this regard, I remembered a story that Hand of the Cause Mr Furútan told us in Haifa. It went something like this:
When the Bolshevik revolution overran Ishqábád, in Turkestan, the communist revolutionaries confiscated the Bahá’í House of Worship there, and, in their contempt for religion, publicly humiliated the Bahá’ís. “Where is your God now? He is a fiction – no match for the power of our glorious revolution!”
One of the Bahá’í elders stepped forward. “Here is my answer”, he said. “Two seeds fell into the earth at the same moment. In a matter of days one of them put its head above the ground, and soon stood tall, green and proud. The other was nowhere to be seen. But soon a violent storm came, and the proud seed was swept away by the floods into oblivion. Many months later, on that plot, a tiny insignificant green presence appeared. It was so small that no one took much notice of it.
But, over many years, below the ground, its roots had grown firm and deep, until no storms could destroy it. Over time it grew into a mighty oak, spreading its sheltering shade for generations of birds, animals and men”.
What our labours were all about, of course, was first and foremost to form Local Spiritual Assemblies, the foundations, the roots of the Bahá’í World Commonwealth of some future age. With the victories achieved in the 10 Year Crusade as a spur to our efforts, we sought every opportunity to find ‘waiting souls’.
Holidays were planned around teaching campaigns or Summer School, it never occurred to us to use that time purely for leisure, though the satisfaction we derived from all of this activity within our Bahá’í family no doubt energised and revived us more than any holiday could have done.
In the summer of 1968 Ann and I set off in our little Austin Mini Van with our two-year-old baby Sean (and nothing resembling a seat belt or a child restraint, in those days!) to motor the length of Britain. Our destination was the Orkney Islands.
At Thurso our tiny vehicle was lifted onto the deck of the ferry in a sort of net and we were on our way past The Old Man of Hoy to Stromness. In Kirkwall we met the pioneers, Jackie and Daryoush Mehrabi. Suffice it to say the example of sacrifice and devotion of these souls, was another inspiration to keep our own Bahá’í lives on a path of service. Daryoush’s story of triumph over tragedy is the stuff of legend.
1970 saw the beginning of four magical years as home-front pioneers to Epsom, guided there by a determined Betty Reed.
The closeness of our little group of young Bahá’í families, Pat and Christine Beer, Ray and Mahin Humphrey, Iran Jolly and her children, generated such harmony amidst a constant round of firesides and personal teaching, that before long Epsom became a ‘magnet’ and our numbers increased rapidly. Patsy and Graham Jenkins accepted the Faith and instantly became active participants. Helen Babb, Lindsay Moffat, Margot Priest, Simon Mortimore, Keith McDonald and Hugh Blyth (with his beautiful songs) were just some of the fruits which that vibrant unity generated. In truth, no community we have been a part of since, has surpassed the joy of those four years in Epsom.
There was also the privilege of visits from Hands of the Cause. Mr Featherstone and his wife Madge were guests at our home, 12 Temple Road, as were Dr and Mrs Giachery.
Travels with Hands
By 1972, Mr Faizi often visited England. It was at this time that he began a prolonged series of visits to Bahá’í communities far and wide to talk on a subject dear to his heart, the spiritual education of our children. I was asked if I would undertake to be his driver. There followed regular trips over about 6 weeks during which I spent many hours with him, driving him to communities within range of London. It was a quite undeserved bounty to be again with this sweetest of men, to hear stories from him of his school summer holidays spent in Haifa, with Shoghi Effendi.
On one occasion, speaking of some of the early believers, he told me: “You must tell the stories of these great souls on the stage, through drama.” That idea stayed with me and found its fulfilment, in some small way, years later.
I learned that, as a young man, Faizi had been a stage actor in Teheran, and he had a great love of the theatre. So I asked him, “When did you last go to the theatre to see a play?” It was a rather impertinent question, because I knew the answer.
From the moment, in 1957 when he had been appointed a Hand of the Cause, there was no other thought but to serve the Cause by ministering to the needs of the Bahá’í friends, day and night.
But Faizi’s modesty would never permit such a reply. “I don’t remember, dear”, was his response. I thought for a moment, and asked him: “What is your favourite play?” “Othello”. A little light went on in my mind. A Royal Shakespeare Company production of Shakespeare’s masterpiece was currently playing at the Aldwych Theatre in London. “Would you like to see Othello?” “I am not sure – perhaps.”
The next day I got to work. A great friend from my three years with the RSC, Estelle Kohler, was playing Desdemona in this production, and when I called her she assured me of two tickets to a Wednesday matinee the following week.
Perhaps this would not interfere with Faizi’s busy evening schedule, and, sure enough, Faizi agreed to come. I shall never forget sitting with him in the ‘house seats’, the best seats in the front row of the dress circle. He sat transfixed, with tears streaming down his face as Othello’s tragedy unfolded. “It is about the effects of backbiting”, he told me. And indeed it is. After the performance we went backstage to meet the cast. I knew what to expect in a theatre dressing room after the final curtain – actors, possibly in a state of semi-dress, tossing their ribald banter around.
But when I entered the room with Faizi and introduced him as a distinguished writer from Iran (which he was) a sort of hushed reverence descended as if they instinctively knew there was a prince in their midst. It was an unforgettable moment.
At the meetings I would often observe how the friends would relate to dear Faizi with deference, almost reverence. This of course was usually out of respect for the Institution of The Hands that he represented. But occasionally it would go further and there would be effusive words of praise from well-meaning Bahá’ís that were clearly a great burden to him. In the car, after one meeting, he told me. “I wish the friends would not say these things to me. I ask them sometimes – please don’t give me these tests. You know, I say the prayer for firmness in the Covenant every day of my life.”
It was our beloved Faizi who travelled by bus from Birmingham to Stratford–on-Avon in August 1966, to be at Ann’s bedside when she was in the middle of a long and difficult labour with our firstborn, Sean. He gently held her hand and said prayers for the not quite born baby. I have often reflected on that unexpected visit from our dear Faizi, his deep spiritual bond with Shoghi Effendi and the destiny of baby Sean, who would come to be named as the Knight of Bahá’u’lláh for Mongolia.
It must have been Charles McDonald who called one day to ask if I were free to drive Hand of the Cause William Sears to the airport. It was always such a joy when this most charismatic man visited our Teaching Conferences. Never have I heard a more eloquent, engaging or amusing speaker. He would educate and amuse the friends with his funny stories, and anecdotes of his time with Shoghi Effendi. To demonstrate the power of unity he used a little powered device, a row of nine light globes. When you removed any one of the globes, the others all went out as well!
So, on the appointed day, I picked up Mr Sears in my little VW Beetle and we headed first to the Guardian’s grave to say some prayers. At one point I decided I would say, from memory, my favourite prayer from The Tablets of the Divine Plan – “O Thou Incomparable God, O Thou Lord of the Kingdom”….
After just a few lines, to my great embarrassment, my actor’s memory totally failed me. After I had fumbled for the prayer book and completed the prayer, Mr Sears looked across at me: “You’ll just have to commit that fully to your memory, won’t you.” I did, and it has remained there until this day. On that occasion Mr Sears also encouraged me to tell stories of the Faith through my profession as an actor.
Leaving the North London Cemetery we headed west towards the airport along London’s appalling North Circular Road, straight into a line of traffic that crawled for miles into the distance. The next hour or so was agony as I rehearsed over and over in my mind an explanation to our NSA Secretary as to how I had failed to deliver the Hand on time for his flight. We made it with minutes to spare.
A week in Malta
In April 1973 the 9 Year Global Plan was drawing to a close. One of the United Kingdom’s overseas goals was to achieve the first Local Spiritual Assembly of Malta. With just a few weeks left to the plan, I received a call from Charles McDonald. “The National Assembly would like someone to go to Malta to witness the election of the assembly. None of the NSA members is available, so I am asking – could you go on our behalf?”
It was a fairly safe bet – out of work actors usually have plenty of time on their hands. So I set off for Malta, totally unaware of what was in store. The island of Malta was, perhaps still is, the most rigidly Catholic place on earth, more so than Rome where there is at least a smattering of other faiths. It had been difficult to teach the local population, the first fully Maltese believer was not yet enrolled. After only a day or two it became clear that all was not going smoothly when I discovered that there were two firesides planned at different locations on the same night. Apparently there was a fundamental clash underway between two individuals. How to form an LSA now?
Each party soon made it clear that they would be quite happy to be on the local assembly as long as the other party was not! With Ridván fast approaching, I sent an urgent message to Ian Semple in Haifa asking for prayers from the House of Justice.
After only ten or so years as a Bahá’í I had never encountered anything like this – a seemingly immovable personality clash. This goal simply had to be achieved and I was way out of my depth.
With time running out, all I could think of was to suggest that everyone attend a meeting a few days before the election to just sit together and say prayers, nothing more. Perhaps this might be a start – but where to meet? The homes of the two conflicting individuals were out of the question, but to my surprise everyone agreed to gather at the private hotel where the Knight of Bahá’u’lláh, Olga Mills was residing.
This frail old lady, now over the age of ninety, had come to Malta in 1953 in response to Shoghi Effendi’s call for pioneers in the Ten Year Crusade. She told me that the Guardian had instructed her not to leave Malta until she was ‘blown off the island.’ So, whenever she wished to return briefly to Germany to visit her family, she would first request permission of Shoghi Effendi. Since the Guardian’s passing in 1957 she had remained in Malta, patiently waiting for this goal to be achieved. During the prayers I sat next to Mrs. Mills as she recited the early translation of the short obligatory prayer, and it seemed to me that she had one foot in this world and one foot already in the Abhá Kingdom. When the prayers had all been said, the two who were in conflict stood up, walked across the room, embraced each other and agreed to meet on the night of Saturday April 21st, to form the first Local Spiritual Assembly of Malta.
Dear Mrs Mills turned to me and almost whispered into my ear: “Shoghi Effendi was here to-night – I saw him standing over there in the doorway.” I have no doubt that she did. I returned home to England with a grateful heart, and, it must be said, mightily relieved.
A second pilgrimage
In March 1974, nine years to the day after our first pilgrimage, Ann and I were due to take our second Bahá’í pilgrimage, this time with two little boys in tow, 7-year old Sean, and 5-year old Simon. Although the guidelines from the House of Justice told one that ‘it is not recommended to bring young children’, Ann and I felt that this pilgrimage was more for them than for us, and so our plans were set. In Haifa we sought guidance from two dear friends, Hand of the Cause Paul Haney and David Hofman, about a possible pioneer move to either Australia or New Zealand, which were overseas goals of the UK community. From both we received an emphatic response: “Go to Australia”. So, later that year, we decided to sell our home, 12 Temple Road, Epsom, and leave in late December. But it was not to be all ‘plain sailing’. A few weeks before our departure date, the sale of our house, which was nearing the completion stage, suddenly fell through. For the first time in our married life Ann and I faced a major disagreement, and our move seemed momentarily stalled. One of us felt it would be unwise to leave with the house unsold. The other felt we should leave, as planned, and trust that all would be well. There seemed no way forward, until all that was left to us was to take the problem to our Local Assembly. We agreed that we would abide by their decision. It was perfect. They advised us to leave on the due date, and they would take over our affairs, giving power of attorney to one of the assembly members, who was a solicitor.
On Christmas Day 1974, with some sadness, we left our beloved UK community for our pioneer post, leaving the sub-zero, frosty streets of Epsom to step off a plane twenty four hours later into a forty degree Australian Summer day – quite a shock, but a welcome one! Our life here has not been without its tests, but has been, and still is full and rewarding in the avenues of service it has offered us.
My first theatre assignment in our new country was a stage version of Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice and Men”. After a season at the Sydney Opera House, we were to take the production to Adelaide, where I was able to re-connect with our much loved friends, Collis and Madge Featherstone. I shall never forget taking a tram to the suburb of Woodville and finding my way to his work place.
There was the same Hand of the Cause who had spoken to our Bahá’í community in Epsom with such quiet dignity, now with greasy hands, toiling over a metal-working lathe. Collis Featherstone was a metalworker by trade, trained as a fitter and turner. His factory was making parts for refrigerators and so there he was in his blue overalls, in complete command of his skill. I never lost that image of this unique man. It somehow summed up his straightforward, forthright nature. He was a working man, with a keen intelligence and a delightful sense of humour. You would not describe him as intellectual, he was not given to any kind of artifice or sophistry. He spoke plainly and sincerely to everyone he met and, in his addresses to the Bahá’í friends, he always made it clear that the guidance he shared was not from himself but from the Universal House of Justice, or the words of Bahá’u’lláh, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá or Shoghi Effendi. What can one say about such a pure hearted soul?
You never saw him place himself in the slightest degree above others, so you always felt comfortable, at ease in his presence, while at the same time you were conscious of the demeanour of loving authority that one senses in the presence of those ‘Chosen Ones of God’, the Hands of the Cause.
Until his untimely passing in 1990, I would have countless opportunities to be with Collis Featherstone and to witness at first hand his self-effacing nature, his complete humility, and his fearless confidence in proclaiming the Faith. In 1986, as part of celebrations for the UN International Year of Peace, our Australian Bahá’í community was honoured by a visit, to the Sydney Bahá’í Temple, of Australia’s much loved Governor General, Sir Ninian Stephen. As the official photographer for the occasion, I was tagging along behind the two great men, the Hand of the Cause and the Vice-Regent, as they walked the path to the temple, chatting to each other like old friends.
Almost out of the blue came our Hand’s voice: “You know, the Founder of this Faith, Bahá’u’lláh, is the return of Christ!” I was amazed, almost shocked. No preamble, no clever explanation, just plain and simple. That was his way.
Back to South Africa
After our first year in Australia, we were still not quite sure if we had made the right decision in leaving Britain. It would take a little more time until we began to feel like ‘Aussies’ – and we were still missing our British Bahá’í friends.
So we planned an extended trip to South Africa via a Christmas visit to Ann’s family in Devon. That did it! A few days of an English winter and we knew where our home was to be.
Our visit to South Africa was a chance to connect with my father and my sister, and also, with our two boys, to take part in some Bahá’í teaching in the Cape Province and in Zimbabwe – Rhodesia, as it was then.
They sat with us on the dung floors of mud huts and played their part in spreading Bahá’u’lláh’s message of unity and the wholeness of the human race, that love which transcends all barriers of race, wealth and privilege. Without doubt those experiences played a significant part in setting the course of their own spiritual lives.
In 1986, our family, now with the addition of a third son, Ben, born in 1977, travelled to Delhi to witness the dedication of India’s beautiful new House of Worship.
After the few days of dedication and celebration, Ann and the two older boys went travelling in India and Sri Lanka and Ben and I headed to South Africa to visit my family and to reconnect with my ‘spiritual father’, Lowell Johnson.
South Africa was still a painful struggle away from democracy, but there were some positive signs of change. Gone were the humiliating signs of ‘petty apartheid’. In a squash club in Johannesburg, I shared the changing room with African men – unthinkable a decade earlier. On a hot day, twelve-year old Ben played quite happily in a public pool with two little black boys.
A mere six years later, in January 1993 we were in the ‘new’ South Africa, awaiting its first fully democratic elections. We were headed for the neighbouring country of Botswana, for our son Sean’s wedding to his bride Tebby, from Botswana. It was an unforgettable occasion in the mining town of Jwaneng, with 300 guests and our dear Lowell Johnson as one of the witnesses. After the celebrations, Ann and I, with our youngest, Ben, left for Johannesburg.
I had been honoured by an invitation from the South African National Assembly to give the keynote address for World Religion Day. We were to be part of a historic moment. White and ‘non-white’ guests had been invited to attend a public meeting, the first multi-racial public event ever held by the South African Bahá’ís. It felt like a circle completed. As I looked out on that room packed with black and white faces, into my mind came ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s words uttered during His travels in America:
“O, Bahá’u’lláh’, O, Bahá’u’lláh’, what hast Thou done!”
In New York in 1992, I would find myself reciting those same words aloud to the 15,000 people gathered in each session of the second Bahá’í World Congress, as narrator of the Oratorio written for the occasion by Tom Price. I would also play the role of Howard McNutt in the drama, ‘Heralds of the Covenant’.
Out of that thrilling experience came the inspiration to create a stage adaptation of the book, Portals to Freedom, which tells the story of Howard Colby Ives, a Christian minister who became a disciple of The Master. My little ‘play for one actor’ has travelled the world for over 20 years, and brought me immense satisfaction. To directly serve the Bahá’í Cause through one’s chosen profession is a rare blessing.
Journeys with Howard continue to this day, with recent performances in China, Denmark, Australia and a very special moment in New York. On the 14th of April 2012, before a packed audience, Howard’s story was performed again at the New York Bahá’í Centre, just a stone’s throw from The Church of the Ascension where, exactly a hundred years earlier, on the 14th of April 1912, the Master had spoken, for the first time in public in America.
A proud moment
Finally, one of the proudest moments in my life as a Bahá’í, (if I may be allowed just this little pride) was to receive a letter from The Universal House of Justice addressed to Mr and Mrs Phillip Hinton, dated 25 May, 1989. It read:
Dear Bahá’í friends,
One of the victories of the Cause in the past year, which has brought particular joy to the members of the Universal House of Justice, has been the opening of Mongolia to the Faith by your son, Sean. The various messages which he has been able to convey to various friends at the World Centre have been shared with the Universal House of Justice and it has asked us to request you convey to this valiant Knight of Bahá’u’lláh the assurance of its ardent prayers on his behalf at the sacred threshold.
Although the situation in both the USSR and China has opened up to a degree, the House of Justice does not feel it wise to make any general announcement about Sean’s achievement at this time, but it eagerly awaits the day when his services in Mongolia will have illumined the souls of large numbers of its stalwart peoples, and he will no longer be the lone champion of the Cause of God in that land.
The first mention of our son being named as a Knight of Bahá’u’lláh. The Ridván message from the House of Justice for the next year, 1990, contained these lines. Amatu’l-Bahá Rúhíyyih Khánum, in an extended journey to the Far East…..spent time with the Knight of Bahá’u’lláh in Mongolia where subsequently the first native declared her belief in Bahá’u’lláh.
In October 1994 I would visit Sean and Tebby in Mongolia. In Ulaanbaatar I met some of the growing number of new believers, and also caught up with another pioneer couple who contributed so much to the growth of that vibrant new Bahá’í community, our very dear friends, David and Lois Lambert. Sean’s story deserves to be told in full in the form of a book. Hopefully that will be written before too long.
At this time in my life, I look back with thanks for God-given blessings – the gifts of faith, family and friends, seeing our three boys grow, each in his own way into adulthood, as servants of Bahá’u’lláh, and now the exquisite joy of grandchildren. But most of all for the years spent with my beloved Ann, whose example of devotion and dedication to Bahá’u’lláh’s Cause has sustained and inspired my own faith.
On reflection, Ann and I made some sort of reply to South Africa’s beastly apartheid regime through our sons, Sean, Simon and Benjamin. Nurtured from birth in the Bahá’í teachings, their reality was: ‘The Earth is but one country and mankind its citizens’.
And so Sean is married to Tebby, from Botswana; Simon is married to Shabnam, whose parents are from Parsi (Indian) and Sri Lankan background; and Benjamin is married to Qiong Wu (Ruby), from Ningbo, China.
To date they have presented us with seven lovely grandchildren. All those multi-racial unions would have been illegal under South Africa’s ‘Immorality Act’!
—————-Phillip Hinton Wollongong, New South Wales, Australia, July 2014