Shirley Fryer

Shirley Fryer

I was born in Sheffield on 3rd September 1941. My only sibling, Ann, is three years older. My father worked as an export manager at General Refractories; this entailed travelling overseas from time to time, and my mother always groaned whenever he announced that he would be going away again. She had been a primary school teacher. When, at the age of 33, she hadn’t met her soulmate, she decided that, as it seemed unlikely that she would marry, she would try to improve herself, and began a course at the Berlitz School of Languages. Once inside the doors, you were not allowed to speak English; this was considered the best way to learn! It was here that she met my father; they had both signed up for the French and German classes.

Religious influence in our family undoubtedly came from my mother’s side. My father’s parents would attend the Anglican Church for christenings, marriages and funerals only. Being so close to his mother, he felt the way her funeral service was conducted left a lot to be desired; aloof, cold and impersonal was how he described it, and he vowed never to cross the threshold of a church again. He believed in God, but prayer, he always maintained, was for emergencies only.

My mother, on the other hand, came from a staunchly Christian background. She and her two younger sisters attended a Congregational Church where their father was Church Secretary. My sister and I were told that our mother’s family originally emigrated from Norway and settled on the north east coast of Scotland. One went to China as a missionary; others emigrated to Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). My mother used to correspond regularly with her cousin Gracie in Southern Rhodesia, and received letters in return, along with photos of Gracie’s nieces (Gracie’s sister, Nell, having married out there and had four girls). My sister and I used to pore over photos of our “second cousins”. In the aftermath of World War Two, when things were hard to come by, we received parcels of clothing when our cousins had finished with them. Though second hand, we were fascinated by the idea of wearing the clothes of our second cousins who lived in a very hot country. It was then suggested that my sister, Ann, and I correspond with two of the children who were nearest in age to ourselves. Ann corresponded with Dorothy and I with Sandra.

Meanwhile, our family attended a Congregational church every Sunday. By this time my father was happy to come along. He liked the simplicity of the service and found real warmth and love there. He felt accepted for who he was, and was never pressurised to become a member. He even helped to take the collection, but to take Holy Communion was non-negotiable; on those days he would stay at home.

As a small child, I used to gaze at the minister while he was praying. A devout man, he would pray long and earnestly, his face shining in the sun as he turned his head upwards to the left. I was totally absorbed by his wrapt expression and intensely fervent voice. By the time I was in my teens, one of the ways I felt the awesomeness of God most powerfully was in music, particularly choral music, and, as a member of a large chorus, I would be transported to another level entirely by the huge surge of sound a choir and orchestra can create, especially in religious works by inspired composers. As ‘Abdu’l-Bahá has said: In the world of existence physical things have a connection with spiritual realities.   One of these things is the voice, which connects itself with the spirit and the spirit can be uplifted by this means … for though it is a physical thing, it is one of the material, natural organisations … therefore, it is effective.

Around this time I worked in a hospital and came to know the Home Sister very well. A lovely person, she positively glowed, and I realised that her powerful way of living, through “the practice of the presence of God” throughout each day, rather than being just a “Sunday Christian”, appealed to me. I discovered she had been a Medical Missionary in India; her background was Methodist. She spoke of the time she travelled to London for an interview for the post of Medical Missionary. She knew she was supposed to talk about her faith in God and was at a loss as to how to go about this. She prayed for assistance on the way down and immediately the idea came to her to talk about God’s faith in her.

After corresponding with my cousin Sandra for many years, I was finally going to meet her. Already there had been visits from two of my mother’s cousins, Gracie and, later, her brother Jamie. One of Sandra’s sisters came over on holiday around 1961, but as I was on holiday in Ireland, I missed out on that. Sandra and her husband had visited this country maybe a couple of times before the “significant visit” that was to lead me to the Bahá’í Faith. By this time they had left Africa for good and settled over here. I remember it was at my parents’ home that Sandra mentioned her family were going to move to Guernsey as pioneers for the Bahá’í Faith. Sandra Morrison was by now Sandra Jenkins, wife of Peter. I remember feeling slightly shocked: the fact that a cousin of mine from the religious side of the family should actually leave the Christian faith! Even to move from one Christian denomination to another was frowned upon, never mind another faith, and a completely unheard-of faith to boot. Maybe Sandra guessed what I was thinking as she said, reassuringly, “You can be a Christian and a Bahá’í as well, you know”, followed by “it’s the only Faith that makes any sense” and “it’s like being in one big happy family”. For the time being, that was that. Nothing more was said on the subject. I later asked Sandra if she had deliberately made a point of mentioning the Faith (she had).  She also wisely decided not to push things any further – another precept of the Faith. Thereafter we (the family in Sheffield) would occasionally remark “I wonder if Sandra and Peter are still in that funny-sounding religion”.

Meanwhile, I attended church regularly, met and married my husband, and our first child, Pamela, was the last baby to be christened at that church. Due to falling numbers in the congregation, two other Congregational churches in the vicinity, also blighted by falling numbers, amalgamated, and a new church was built. By the time Julia was born, I had started attending our local Methodist church, not too dissimilar in thinking to the Congregational church, along with our children. However, I’ve always been a bit of a ‘doubting Thomas’. I would question whether Jesus had even existed: was it all a myth? Ridiculous questions would arise in my mind. If God had raised Jesus from the dead, what exact time of day would He choose to do it? Why not two minutes earlier or two minutes later? After His resurrection from the dead and His subsequent appearances to the believers, His ascension into heaven is described in very graphic terms. I remember standing in my kitchen and verbalising, “I just don’t believe it”, followed by an arrow prayer, “If the second coming of Jesus happens in my lifetime, please may I know it?”. Even then, I wasn’t convinced there was a God to answer this prayer.

Nine years passed. Then, one morning, I heard something on the radio. My husband, Tony, used to turn it on as soon as he awoke and we were both listening to the news. The main item described how, in Iran, Bahá’ís were being sent to their deaths with joy on their faces. It reminded me of the early Christian martyrs who went to their deaths in exactly the same way.  A question arose in my mind: what was there about this faith that could evoke the same response, joy and certitude as had the Christian faith in the early believers? My dear husband immediately offered to look in the central library to see if there was anything about the Bahá’í Faith. He found two books: an introductory book on the Faith and Esslemont’s Bahá’u’lláh and the New Era. What I read appealed to both mind and heart.

More time passed, until my eye caught sight of an advert: a chance to speak to someone about the Bahá’í Faith. I phoned the number given and explained to the lady at the other end of the phone that I had read a couple of books about the Faith, that I was a Christian, and would be interested to learn more about it. The lady introduced herself as Tarab Samandari. I visited her on several occasions, during which she endeavoured to answer all my questions. For two years I investigated, turning up at the weekly Firesides in Tarab’s home. She ran a Guest House that she had named “Peace Guest House”, and she later explained that the building offered the best opportunity to spread the Faith. There were large billboards advertising the Faith in the hallway. Tarab offered to lend me some of the Writings; I thanked her but told her I needed to read “around” the subject first. She was so hospitable and loving. Nothing was too much trouble. Her love, radiance and evident happiness had a big impact on me and drew me inexorably along this new spiritual path, independently of any reading I would do in the scriptures and books about the Faith.

There were some stumbling blocks. A particular hurdle for me was Jesus’ saying ”I am the Way, the Truth and the Life, and no man cometh to the Father but by Me”. Tarab sent for Keith and Audrey Mellard, Bahá’ís from the Selby area, who were from a Christian background and who, she thought, would be better able to answer my Christianity-based questions. Here, again, I was bowled over by her generosity. She cooked a huge, delicious meal for us all, including my agnostic husband, Tony. What generosity of spirit, I thought! Keith explained that Tarab’s grandfather, Hand of the Cause Tarazullah Samandari, who had had audiences with Bahá’u’lláh, was the nearest equivalent to an apostle in the early days of Christianity. Tarab told me there was a period of time during which her grandfather had not seen Bahá’u’lláh and had requested to visit Him again. When, eventually, he did so, Bahá’u’lláh asked him whether in that time period he had seen ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. When Tarazullah replied in the affirmative, Bahá’u’lláh told him that seeing ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was the same as seeing Bahá’u’lláh Himself.  I later came across Bahá’u’lláh’s words: “Whoso turneth towards Him [‘Abdu’l-Bahá] hath turned towards God, and whoso turneth away from Him hath turned away from My Beauty…” (The Dispensation of Bahá’u’lláh). Tarab also told me that she longed to go to help her grandfather. Because, at that time, she lived in a rather ‘swish’ flat, her grandfather needed to test her first to see whether she was free of attachment to her luxury! Her grandfather’s abode was far less luxurious, but Tarab passed the test and, I believe, went out to be with him for some time.

At some point during my two years of investigation, Tarab told me that her brother, Soheil Samandari, would be coming over to stay, and she wanted me to talk with him too. I remember Keith telling me that Soheil was a very special person; he was a ‘Knight of Bahá’u’lláh’ by virtue of his having opened a new territory in Africa during the Ten Year Crusade. In my eagerness to see him, I got down to the guest house whilst he was still having his breakfast, but he didn’t appear to mind in the least. He willingly answered my questions whilst eating, while Sally, our third daughter – around two years old at that time – helped herself to Tarab’s ornaments. I felt I was walking on air! By now I was ready to read some of the Writings and started with Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh. I sensed the truth of Bahá’u’lláh’s words – also His humility. The prayers, too, I began to read, but for a long time I felt they weren’t my prayers – they were Bahá’u’lláh’s or ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s. I wondered whether Bahá’ís ever spoke to God directly, or whether they always looked for the most appropriate Bahá’í prayer for their need. Most likely both, I came to realise.

I wrote several letters to my cousin, Sandra, about issues central to the Christian Faith, and her replies were always spot on. One of these was the Christian belief that only by accepting Jesus could we be saved from our sins. Sandra thought that the real “saving from our sins” was the acceptance of, and obedience to, the teachings. It was quite a shock, when reading Some Answered Questions, to read that the resurrection of Christ did not mean that the physical body of Christ was raised. It was a step too far for me. After all, St. Paul had said, “And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain” (1 Corinthians 15:14). I speedily wrote to Sandra about it and I well remember the first few words of her reply: “You have my greatest sympathy”.  This was not what I expected at all.  She then went on to say that though, no doubt, God could have raised Jesus physically and possibly did raise Him physically, the word “Resurrection” implied a spiritual event.

Another problem arose: I was puzzled by one of Abdul-Baha’s calculations in chapter 11 of Some Answered Questions. I mentioned this at the next Fireside meeting. Michael Cooper was the Bahá’í who said he would phone his friend, Bill Hellaby, who was an Auxiliary Board member, for me. Bill told me he had been a Bahá’í for a long time and before that he had been a Christian minister, also for many years. He said there were some things in the Bahá’í Faith that he would never understand until he reached the Abhá Kingdom! I thought about this hard after I returned home. If a Christian minister, subsequently appointed a Bahá’í Board member, was unable to fathom a riddle such as this, was I going to be able to solve it, I reasoned. I clearly faced a choice between rejecting this “ocean” of a Faith, sitting on the fence for the rest of my life or – as I decided to do – taking the leap of faith, aided, I hoped, by the guidance of Jesus, for which I had prayed. I rang Tarab to ask if it would be all right to pop down. She guessed why I was coming, and sounded breathlessly excited. I’ve no doubt she had been praying for this day – which was in February, 1985 – for some time. Next I told my close family; Keith and Audrey Mellard; Sandra, of course, who introduced me to the Faith; and all the other Bahá’ís who came to the next Feast.  I felt I had taken a momentous decision: tantamount to a nun entering a convent for the rest of her life!

The Bahá’ís were lovely, congratulating me and hugging me warmly. Nevertheless, a part of me was a bit fearful in case I had done the wrong thing. One Bahá’í sensed my apprehension and said, “If you change your mind, all you have to do is write to the National Spiritual Assembly in London and revoke your membership”. Immediately, I relaxed! Next, I sent letters to several members of my church, asking them to pass these on to others, along with an invitation to hear more about the Faith. Two or three people came up to see me. One was chiefly concerned as to whether or not the Bahá’ís involved themselves, as individuals and as a body, with the welfare of mankind, globally. At that stage I really didn’t have that sort of information. Another person homed in on the question of Jesus as God’s Son. I remember asking, “Well, Jesus wasn’t literally God’s Son, was He?”, to which she replied, “Yes, I think He was!”.

My cousin Sandra’s response to my big decision was: “Whatever your doubts, you cannot deny Bahá’u’lláh”. I have thought about this often. Because belief in Bahá’u’lláh has to include belief in all the other Manifestations of God, there is much scope for doubt of one kind or another. A unique feature of the Bahá’í Faith – that the words of Bahá’u’lláh were recorded and authenticated at the time they were revealed – is a huge advantage. On the other hand, as there is such a wealth of material in the Faith – so many Writings, prayers, articles and accounts of the Báb, Bahá’u’lláh, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and the Guardian, Shoghi Effendi, one is hard put to know just where to look first. It is indeed an ocean. I remember at the beginning asking a Sheffield Bahá’í, Aideen McConkey, why more people hadn’t heard of the Faith, and she replied, “It’s the fault of the Bahá’ís”. The questions I had had as a Christian had been resolved by the Bahá’í Faith, and the Bahá’í interpretation of scripture gave more clarity to my understanding.

Whilst investigating the Faith I simply couldn’t stop telling everyone I met about it! It was starting to embarrass my husband. In some way, though, it was easier to bring the subject up whilst I was still ‘outside’ the Faith, as it were. Once on the ‘inside’ there was the fear you might be proselytising. Other Bahá’ís have voiced this, too.

Who could have guessed that very special ‘tools’ would be provided for the use of Bahá’ís, globally, by which the good news of Bahá’u’lláh’s revelation would be communicated and consolidated throughout the world by means of the Ruhi courses of the Training Institute. Because the most wonderful selections from Bahá’í scripture have been chosen, and interspersed throughout each Ruhi Book, Bahá’ís and others worldwide are continually spiritually digesting the material. After all, we have often been reminded of the importance of giving seekers the pure word of God.

In recent years there has been some emphasis on the role of youth to spread the good news by virtue of their vitality and vigour, ability to adapt to local situations, meet new challenges, and impart their enthusiasm and warmth to those they meet. I admire these young Bahá’ís so much. It can’t be easy to try to avoid the excesses of youth, and be true to the Bahá’í way of life.

My favourite Bahá’í meetings are the deepenings. I love digging and delving, and there is so much to be explored. Before Ruth Bradley passed on to the Abhá Kingdom, she and I loved to do just this. She was, perhaps, somewhat unusual, even amongst Bahá’ís, in that she would very quickly bring the subject round to spiritual topics, but I was always happy to go along with it. I used to leave her home feeling I had just enjoyed a wonderful spiritual meal and would resolve to try and maintain a focus on higher things. However, my “wings would quickly be besmirched with mire” despite my best intentions.

In the various ways Bahá’ís contribute to their communities, I hope I have made a contribution – even if only to a small degree. But if you were to ask the friends in my local community (Sheffield) what they most associate with me, I think they would probably say, “Connect”, the little newsletter I have been sending out for 25 or more years, though now only quarterly. My main aim has been to uplift people’s spirits. A Bahá’í, Shireen Uittenbosch, introduced this idea to our community many years ago, passing round sample newsletters from other communities who had done the same thing. There were about four of us to start with, each being responsible for a specific job involved in its production. Once photocopied, all the sheets had to be spread out on a table, amalgamated, stapled and addressed, then mailed out. Now – with the benefit of modern technology – it is all so much easier to produce, with computers, “cut and paste” facilities, colour photos (I leave this to the young ones!) and with almost everybody having an email address, the immediate dispatch of the magazines. I like to think that it really does help to keep the friends connected.

Recently I read somewhere that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá said, “God is not what men suppose Him to be”. At another time, when ‘Abdu’l-Bahá addressed a gathering of atheists, He said, “I don’t believe in the God you don’t believe in” (I think that is a delicious statement!). It is through Bahá’u’lláh that I can believe in God, that Jesus Christ was the expected Messiah, and that the other Manifestations of the major religions have indeed been sent from God.

Like everyone else, I am still learning. I think again of my cousin Sandra’s words: “Whatever your doubts, you cannot deny Bahá’u’lláh”. When questions come thick and fast, as they sometimes do (about other faiths as well as my own), I do believe that the largeness of the Bahá’í Faith is more than equal to the task. However, when put on the spot, I find the answers do not always readily spring to mind. Background knowledge, too, is so important.

As a Baha’i I keep in mind some of the ringing statements Baha’u’llah has sent into the world, such as :

“Announce thou unto the priests: Lo! He Who is the Ruler is come. Step out from behind the veil in the name of thy Lord, He Who layeth low the necks of all men. Proclaim then unto all mankind the glad tidings of this mighty, this glorious Revelation. Verily, He Who is the Spirit of Truth is come to guide you unto all truth. He speaketh not as prompted by His own self, but as bidden by Him Who is the All- Knowing, the All-Wise.

Say, this is the One Who hath glorified the Son and hath exalted His Cause. Cast away, O peoples of the earth, that which ye have and take fast hold of that which ye are bidden by the All-Powerful, He Who is the Bearer of the Trust of God.”  (Tablet to the Christians: Bahá’u’lláh).

 

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Shirley Fryer

Sheffield, May 2014

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