The following story has been adapted from a recording of a conversation between John and his daughter, Margaret Appa, in 1996, two years before John passed away. The notes in italics are inserted by Margaret where she feels they are appropriate and add to the richness of the text.
Early family history
I was born in Hadley Road, New Barnet. In those days Barnet was in the country, and was still the home of an annual livestock fair established in 1588. I had many aunts and uncles, some of them of German extraction, and there was Scottish blood in our veins. From the point of view of our intellectual life my father was a true Victorian, very straight, very quick, very sensitive, black hair and a black goatee beard, but very fond of conversation, and he used to help his children converse on different subjects, including spiritual matters, so that having a conversation with him about religion was something quite normal.
My father was married twice. My mother Mabel came from the de Gaulle family who were dancers in France in the early court days, and her father was a Reverend Tansley who belonged to the Swedenborgian Church, the new church. I remember having breakfast with grandfather Tansley in his study and he was a very strict fellow. In fact it was apple and toast and no conversation! My father then married again and his second wife, my stepmother, was really an angel. She was a Somerset woman who had been a nurse/matron and therefore again there was some strict discipline brought into life because of her training, but conversation was part of our everyday life, and we were encouraged to think about things as well as converse.
I was given a bible when I was sixteen. I still have it. We used to go to church occasionally, but I wouldn’t say that religion was a subject of great discussion though it was there in the background. I didn’t really think about religion but the strange thing is that I always had a very deep feeling that Christ was what He claimed to be. As a young man I used to take a Sunday School class in a Presbyterian Church and I remember asking the Minister why we didn’t have a prayer for the Muslims and his answer was that they were infidels. This shook me and from that time on I was very doubtful as to whether what the Minister believed had any real sense because he would not pray for the Muslims and I just could not accept that as being a sound thought.
On the other hand, Rose, my dear future wife, had very strong beliefs. My understanding was that she used to stand on street corners and ‘save souls’. I believe it was around about the Clapham Common area, and in a very poor part of London. She was very strongly motivated by religion, and I think when she was young she belonged to the Baptist Church because she and her mother used to sing in the choir there.
However as time went by, we were married, and Christine, Colin and you, Margaret, arrived. I had doubts in my mind about religion as practised by churches, and while it wasn’t too important an aspect in my life, nevertheless at the back of my mind I had these doubts. I started rather demolishing your mother’s ideas about Christianity and what it really stood for and questioned its truth. One thing we did have in common was that we both believed that Christ was what He claimed to be. There was never any doubt about that.
When we married we wanted to be as far away from our parents as we possibly could. They lived in South London so we chose Barnet, in the north of the city, unaware at the time that I had been born in Barnet – I only found out when I saw my birth certificate!
In the area where we lived there were around twelve Christian churches but it was very apparent that they did not communicate. We both decided that this was ridiculous, for if Christ had come back tomorrow, He would have found that somewhat objectionable, as we did, so we were open-minded as to the true meaning of religion.
Hearing about the Bahá’í Faith
We first heard about the Bahá’í Faith through our daughter Christine, when she was about sixteen or seventeen. At school her religious education teacher had told her he did not believe in religion, though he taught it, and Christine was somewhat shocked by that.
Note: Although my father has not mentioned this, the trigger for her discomfort was the following experience as related by my sister Christine:
Father had a visit from a brother and sister (the brother Catholic and the sister Baptist). They came to remonstrate with him because of the books he was reading at the time, apparently forbidden books on science, and so make him see the error of his ways! However, the conversation, which I overheard, led to a heated discussion between the Catholic and Baptist as to which of their beliefs was the genuine one, which was just shocking for me; both believed in Christ and they were arguing as to who was right.
Christine used to go to church with a lot of other young people. At that time it was the Presbyterian Church and on occasion she used to disagree with the Minister, Mr Hindsley. She asked on one occasion if he would meet with them after the church service to discuss what he said. He was a bit taken aback but he said yes he would, so a meeting was arranged and Christine came back to her mother and said that she ought to come with her (because her mother understood the Bible very well), so they both went along, but I did not go.
Apparently in his sermon prior to this meeting Mr Hindsley had said something derogatory about the Jews. My wife put up her hand and said: “Mr Hindsley, I’m sorry but I don’t agree with what you have said about the Jews. I believe that all religions are facets of one divine truth. What we have to do is to find that divine truth.” A deep voice from the back of the hall, a gentleman called Mr Robert Semple said: “There is a religion exactly like that, Mrs Wade, because my son belongs to it, and he’s in Oxford.” So your mother put her hand up again and said, “Why haven’t I heard of this before?” She instantly said that if that religion believes that all religions are facets of one divine truth, then that was hers, so it was an immediate belief for her. Of course I felt that a little probing was appropriate!
Your mother told me about this religion that believed all religions were really divine and we decided that we would investigate, so we did. Ian Semple (the son of Mr Robert Semple) came round with some pamphlets and a book. Ian of course is my ‘spiritual’ father and now a member of the Universal House of Justice. I think the first thing I read was a pamphlet prepared by the Guardian for the Palestine Convention and I remember thinking when I read it that this was absolute sound sense, so we went to London to the Thursday evening meetings at 27 Rutland Gate, the headquarters of the Bahá’í Faith in this country.
The first Bahá’ís I met other than Ian Semple were Mr and Mrs Richard and Vida Backwell who were hosts for the evening at 27 Rutland Gate. He was a colonial civil servant and they had this lovely charming courteous atmosphere about them, which was very pleasing to me. I remember her being at the top of the stairs and she welcomed me with this old world charm, which certainly warmed my heart. We listened to talks from, amongst others, Hands of the Cause Hasan Balyuzi and John Ferraby, Ian Semple and Zein Zein who was, I believe, the great grandson of the Zein who knew Bahá’u’lláh. There were always around ten or fifteen people at these meetings and I enjoyed asking questions because I really sincerely wanted to know if this was true or not.
I remember that John Ferraby, who was a true scholar and a mathematician, asked me to attend a study course, to which I was delighted to go. It was at No. 27 Rutland Gate in a small room, that I remember well, and just a small group of us. He said something about the words that Christ said on the cross when He was crucified, and he made some comment about the interpretation of these words. And I took it, maybe wrongly, that this interpretation didn’t quite suit the teachings of the Bahá’í Faith, so I said to him that if he was saying that that interpretation was different, then I was sorry but I wasn’t interested and I got up and walked out. He followed me and said I wasn’t to be worried and that I should get the station of Bahá’u’lláh right and if I was to get that right, then I would have nothing to worry about. So I went home and thought that was a wise comment and that I would do exactly that.
Your mother had decided that this was for her on the day she heard about it, and I remember that on December 12th 1955 I took her a cup of tea and as I wandered into the bedroom, I said: what is this business about the Bahá’í Faith, what were we waiting for, and she in her calm way said she was just waiting for me, so I said: OK, let’s go. I still have the letter of acceptance from the Local Spiritual Assembly of London.
This decision reinforced for my family that I was truly the black sheep … well for certain members anyway, but they weren’t really family in the way that I needed them in these matters, but you children all became Bahá’ís on your own. I don’t think your mother and I pushed it. We just told you what we believed and gave you the facts and left it to you. There were books that you could read.
Our Local community
The community to which we belonged was the London Bahá’í community. At this time it was one assembly, because a twenty-five mile circle drawn from the centre defined greater London, and the Guardian had used this as his definition too.
I don’t remember exactly when I was elected to the Assembly but I remember that I was on the Local Spiritual Assembly when the Guardian passed away in November 1957.
Note: I do know that my father was still on the Local Spiritual Assembly of London in March 1961, as his signature is in the prayer book that was given to me by the Local Spiritual Assembly when I became a Bahá’í aged fifteen, so it was probably Ridván 1957 that he was elected.
I was impressed with how the Local Spiritual Assembly functioned; the seriousness of it all. We seemed to be discussing matters that were of some moment in the community, like finance, problem children, which of course we had in those days, same as we have now, programmes and speakers, and all the things that assemblies have to deal with and because Hasan Balyuzi and John Ferraby were present it was fairly top-level consultation.
When we joined the community there were about 30-40 members, and the feasts were always held at 27 Rutland Gate, to which also many visitors would come from around the world, so often there were many more attending.
Our first summer school was held somewhere in Wales, Christine and Colin and yourself came with us. It was at this school that we first met Bill Sears and Bob Quigley who had just come back from Africa and I remember the extraordinary excitement of the people there, all sitting in a circle with Bill and Bob standing up at a little table telling us of the exciting and delightful experiences they had had in teaching in Africa – the black shining faces and the happiness and the joy and they were so excited. Your mother was absolutely over the top as this was expressing exactly what she felt.
I think the next summer school was in Harlech, and all the following summer schools were there until it ceased to be a venue. I must have spent five or six summer schools in Harlech. In those days when we were all gathered at a summer school, really all the family was gathered there. In the whole of England there were only between 100 and 150 Bahá’ís so most of them were at summer school. Everybody knew everybody else and Harlech was a particularly beautiful venue. It was an old fashioned building, almost a castle, Roman hall, wooden panelling, and a gorgeous view of the sea. You just stepped straight out of Harlech over the sand dunes to the sea. You came down a long steep hill to come into the entrance and the gardens were on the steep slopes. The whole situation was very beautiful and this affected people. I loved it very much indeed.
The Guardian – Shoghi Effendi – his passing
We never met Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian. Your mother and I had discussed going on Pilgrimage to meet Shoghi Effendi and I must admit that at that time I hadn’t understood the importance of the station of the Guardian, but I didn’t seem to have any tremendous desire to go and see him. I was completely wrapped up with the Faith through what I had learned in the teachings, and I thought that the meeting with him would come later, but of course he died in November 1957. No one had been aware that he was in London; he never let it be known when he and Rúhíyyih Khánum came to London. They never met anybody. I suppose one reason was that too many people would have wanted to meet him and worship the place where he had stayed. The Guardian never wanted any of that.
The first memory I had of this event was that Hasan Balyuzi, as Chairman of the Local Spiritual Assembly, phoned me to give me the news that the Guardian had passed away. He of course was devastated but I took it in my stride as it were because I realised of course that death comes to everyone; but Hasan was his cousin and what was now going to happen? We didn’t know then whether the Guardian had left a Will and Testament so therefore nothing could be said about what was to happen at that stage.
The funeral arrangements were made entirely by Rúhíyyih Khánum and the Hands of the Cause who came to support her. The only involvement the London Assembly had was a certain amount of work at the cemetery and at the Haziratu’l-Quds, arranging for such things as meetings to be held there.
One of the first decisions made by Rúhíyyih Khánum was about where the body of Shoghi Effendi was to be interred. She did not want a place that was just rows and rows of headstones but a site that had trees and a country air about it. She chose the New Southgate Cemetery because not only was it full of trees but also it had burial grounds for all the different religions, which made it different.
The cortege was made up of forty or fifty cars and the little chapel was absolutely packed. The whole of the yard and forecourt outside was full of people, and I remember being inside the chapel that had been decorated with flowers and most people were weeping. But the most impressive aspect of the funeral for me was when Salah Jarrah chanted the Tablet of Visitation in Arabic – it was beautiful. The Arabic language chanted by someone who loves it, is wonderful. When everyone came out of the chapel once the service was finished the coffin was lowered into the grave and Rúhíyyih Khánum knelt there. It was raining hard but a very precious sight afterwards was the number of people who stayed around for a long time; they just couldn’t go away. For the next two or three days there were people there all the time. No one had expected this sudden death, and people were concerned about what was going to happen to the Faith.
Immediately after the funeral there were meetings at No. 27 Rutland Gate, and I remember it was very very crowded. There were people all the way down the stairs and outside. Your mother made shorthand notes of the talk Rúhíyyih Khánum gave at that meeting, and was grabbing pieces of paper from different people. What I remember very clearly was that Rúhíyyih Khánum never referred to the Guardian as her husband. It was always the Guardian; she was sorrowing for the loss of the Guardian and for the friends’ loss of the Guardian. Her own personal loss was something she kept within herself. Now that I have seen her book of poems ‘The Passing’, I can understand exactly what she was suffering. I think there were several meetings that took place over the course of the next few days.
A couple of days after the funeral, because we lived fairly close to the cemetery, your mother and I went to the grave because we thought that maybe the flowers had died and were beginning to look a bit untidy so we went up to see what it looked like. At that time there were planks across the actual grave and there were lots of flowers placed around and on the planks and they were a bit bedraggled so we cleaned them up and tidied it. I remember that we bought some more and then we thought about what were we going to do. We felt it couldn’t just be left so we started going up there fairly frequently, often two or three times a week, and at times we would buy flowers. Then without permission from anyone and because the friends wanted to get to the grave to pray but it was difficult for them because it was wet and muddy, we made a little path all the way around it, and then we made paths to it so that people could get there and kneel and pray. We put the flowers around to make it look nice, so actually we undertook to be caretakers of the grave, and ultimately Rúhíyyih Khánum became aware of this and later we were appointed official custodians of the Guardian’s grave until we went to Haifa; then you and Ranjit took over.
At this time, after the death of the Guardian and until the monument was erected, particularly in the early days, many of the Hands came to visit and I would come up to meet them at the grave because I felt it was my duty to be there with them. Then I used to bring them home so in that time many of the Hands came visiting and had coffee with us, and chatted. The times were very exciting.
It was of course some time before the memorial was erected. Rúhíyyih Khánum made the design herself. I can remember that she asked me to be present when she visited the site and ‘walked’ her design. I well remember her walking with her quick stride. The balustrade and column were delivered and placed in position and that was all ready for the Congress in 1963. The reason why Rúhíyyih Khánum chose to have an eagle placed at the top of the column was because the Guardian had a small model of an eagle on his desk in Haifa and for him the eagle was a sign of victory.
When we officially became custodians we used to go up and look after the memorial once it was installed. This was before any of the extra land was purchased, and we would wash the marble ourselves and take flowers along. One of the challenges in caring for the memorial was that the dear Persian friends would come along and light candles on the marble and they would also want to put attar of roses on it, and this stained the marble and so we had quite a problem trying to persuade them that, while a loving act, it wasn’t good for the marble.
After the funeral of Shoghi Effendi we actually became very disheartened. Your mother and I arranged a meeting by hiring a room in Southgate and we went to this room for a fireside week after week but nobody ever came. There was no interest at all. But of course one has to remember that a large number of the public had been very impressed with the Guardian’s resting place and the Bahá’ís that had been there and had felt the influence very strongly. No one can say what effect this has had on their lives.
I used to take firesides in various parts of the country such as Nottingham and Northampton; in fact, I remember once I got off the train at Nottingham when I had intended to go to Northampton. I used to enjoy these activities very much. I liked speaking about the Faith and helping others to understand what we were talking about and what we were doing. These were still early days with a very small Bahá’í community. We used to know each other very well. We had started with twelve Local Spiritual Assemblies at the beginning of the Ten Year Crusade and we finished with fifty-four.
We finally decided that we ought to go on Pilgrimage and the important thing to remember was that the Guardian was not there but the Hands were there, acting for the Guardian, at the World Centre. We went in December 1959 and we stayed at that time in No. 10 Harpasim, which afterwards, became the Seat of the Universal House of Justice. We stayed in one of the little rooms and I well remember the Muslim call to prayer early in the mornings. It was very beautiful. When we arrived, sisters Jessie and Ethel Revell, two very devoted elderly believers who had served the Guardian for years, met us and then cared for us, often coming to us and saying: “John, have you been to so and so place? No? Then we must arrange it.”
The only people resident in the Bahá’í World Centre at that time were the Hands of the Cause and their families and a few helpers such as the Revell sisters, and the members of the International Council. I remember Paul Haney and Bill Sears being there and Horace Holley and his wife, and John and Dorothy Ferraby and others. The Hands at that time each had one room in No. 10 and they all went downstairs to wash and brush up etc., and the cooker was in the funny little kitchen downstairs and the washing was hanging down from the ceiling.
At this time pilgrimage was not organised. It was a very informal visit, but Jessie Revell made sure that we went to the right places and so this is what we did. We were taken to Bahji and other places connected with Bahá’u’lláh. Because we had cared for the Guardian’s Resting Place we were met by Rúhíyyih Khánum and she took us to several places herself. She had arranged a dinner for us so we and the caretakers had dinner in the Pilgrim House. I also remember something special that took place. Rose had taken some roses from London for Rúhíyyih Khánum and gave them to her. On that pilgrimage we slept in the Mansion of Baha’u’llah in Bahji for two nights. During the night I got up and went into Bahá’u’lláh’s bedroom and said prayers. When I went into the bedroom I noticed that Rúhíyyih Khánum had placed one of your mothers roses in a vase on the table in the room. It was such a lovely gesture.
It is not really possible to describe the experience of our visits to the Shrines on that pilgrimage; it was out of this world and beyond words to express … an inner feeling.
Now, looking back, I realise that it was very disorganised but the important thing about pilgrimage was the atmosphere in the shrines, which was so very beautiful, and I fell in love with them. When the pilgrimage was finished, we had a taxi to take us to the airport and I remember sitting in the taxi with your mother, and I looked back at No. 10 Harpasim and said: “We’re not going home, we’re leaving home.” It had such a great effect on us.
An important event on pilgrimage was that we wanted to go and see our daughter Christine who was then living in Persia. In fact, because we were organised people we had booked our flight and got everything arranged to go on to Persia after leaving Haifa. During the pilgrimage, several days on, we mentioned to Jessie Revell, “We’re catching a plane for Persia”, and Jessie looked very serious indeed. She said, “Oh John, this will have to be discussed.” Well I can tell you that I was a bit nonplussed; I couldn’t see the reason for discussing my private affairs, such as where I went after pilgrimage. Anyway it was discussed and we were called to meet with, I think, Paul Haney.
He told us, “John, I’m sorry, there’s no way the Hands can allow you to do this.” Of course I asked “Why?” and he said “Well only because the Guardian had stated that no one could go to Persia, other than Persians, that this was not allowed at this time, because of the problems. So he said “You can’t do this, it’s impossible for us to give you permission”. Well, of course, I didn’t know how to take this because it was my cheque book that I had used to pay the fare! Nevertheless we went to the Shrines and prayed and came to the conclusion that we were Bahá’ís and obedience was one of the big things so we would have to be obedient and do this. So we went back and said OK, it’s fine, we will have to cancel, and do you know what the Hands did? They arranged for us to go to Turkey and for Christine to come to Turkey and meet us. So we met her in Turkey with her first baby, her daughter, Roya.
We met in the home of a Persian Bahá’í and travel agent in Istanbul. I remember him driving us through Istanbul and what a harum-scarum performance it was! Trams – and you were one side of a tram and then the other side. But this is what the Hands did for us. They arranged for us to go there which was very good of them and very thoughtful, so we did in fact meet Christine, but not in Persia. Of course we had wanted to meet her in her home, but that was our first lesson in obedience. It wasn’t all that easy for us, being fairly recent Bahá’ís but it was a good lesson.
Election to the National Spiritual Assembly of the British Isles
In April 1958 I was elected to the National Spiritual Assembly of the British Isles. I was at National Convention and when my name was called out I was absolutely dumbfounded – I couldn’t believe it! As far as I was concerned, it hadn’t even entered my mind that such a thing would happen – that I could be elected onto the National Spiritual Assembly. To be honest, I was tickled pink. To me it was the fact that people had voted for me so it felt that there was a job for me to do, and if there was a job to do, then I would get on with it.
After that I was appointed to the National Teaching Committee, of which Ernest Gregory was the Chairman. I was also serving on the National Pioneering Committee, which was a very interesting job because I met all sorts of friends from all over the world and we consulted together as to where they should go and as to how they could help the Cause. I don’t remember the names of the people but when I have met them later they have reminded me of the time that we met and they went on to their pioneer post. I remember one particular pioneer family who had come from Persia. They had landed that day and they came to consult with us the same day. They brought their three children and two of them were toddlers. We consulted and the committee decided where they would go and they got up and that evening they phoned from Portsmouth to say that they were there. I remember at the time that I was deeply impressed by this. Some members of this family are still in this country. Not all pioneers were so quick off the mark.
I was Secretary of the NTC and we used to have the meetings at our home because it took up a lot of time and I got permission to have them at home. I remember that Jackie Mehrabi was Secretary and she lived in our house for a time. It was an exciting period because a great deal was happening then; this was the period of the Ten Year Crusade.
What I remember most about this period was the time just before the Guardian died in 1957 when he appointed the Hands as Custodians of the World Order of Bahá’u’lláh. I was very impressed with this at the time and the implications weren’t seen then but now one realises it was a very wise move.
The first International Convention Haifa 1963
Because I was on the National Spiritual Assembly at this time I had the bounty of going to Haifa and was one of those to have the very great privilege of voting for the first Universal House of Justice.
The whole National Assembly attended and we were one of six or seven National Spiritual Assemblies, of which all nine members were present. This was a quite extraordinary event. It was well organised and I remember that Ian Semple was the star organiser at that time; he was even on the bus to help us at the airport, and had arranged for us all to be housed in hotels at different places and taken on pilgrimage to the Shrines.
The central event was the meeting in No. 7 Persian Street where the voting took place (the Master’s House where the Guardian used to live and where Rúhíyyih Khánum lived afterwards). All the inner partitions had been removed. I think there were 254 members of National Spiritual Assemblies in there and I remember very well all of the friends sitting in rows. The excitement of the event was something that you can’t very well describe because this was the first ever event of its kind in the world. It wasn’t just another event, it was the first time ever that such an institution had been elected by people who themselves had been elected and I remember sitting with the British contingent. Ernest Gregory was a teller and he stood up in front of everyone with the box. Rúhíyyih Khánum was sitting there too. One of the most impressive things about the delegates was when the black delegates came by, extraordinarily happy looking. I don’t know what it is about these people that they can express a happiness that you and I can’t. They walk with ‘a happiness’ and have a way of expressing happiness that we have lost. It was a very difficult situation because who did we know? Many of us didn’t know many people and it was very difficult to think of who we should vote for. This reflects the fact that it is up to Bahá’ís to go to as many different meetings and summer schools as they can because it is only in this way that you can get to know people. I had kept myself in touch through the Bahá’í News about various people and I had read about the Hands who of course had excused themselves from being elected, a very fine act in that they had debarred themselves from being elected to the House of Justice. I remember when we were leaving London Airport with the British contingent, we saw the American contingent and I said to one of our members: “That black gentleman over there, what’s his name?” and I was told that he was Mr Amoz Gibson. I made a mental note of this and he became one of the members of the House. The impression I got was so strong that I knew without saying a word to him that there was a man who had qualities of suffering and I felt instinctively that he would be good.
Anyway, the voting took place and then it took a long time to count the votes and then the announcement was made and of course we didn’t see the House of Justice members then and we all had to go home. Particularly myself with one or two others had to get back for the Congress. An interesting thought went through my mind when I was there, very clear, extraordinary, that here are we offering nine names on a ‘silver platter’ and they have already been granted divine guidance without knowing the names. An entirely new system, an entirely new administrative body – very impressive indeed.
It is interesting and surprising that 254 delegates had chosen people who were all from different backgrounds and from different countries and yet when you saw these nine they were all highly intelligent and experienced men; and imagine their sacrifice! Charles Wolcott was at the time the Managing Director of MGM and he had to just close the door and leave that world. Borrah Kavelin was a New York estate agent. Just think of the shock when their names were called out!
The Bahá’í World Congress 1963
In 1961 I was serving on the N.S.A. I had heard about the approaching World Congress and I remember going into No. 27 Rutland Gate and finding an envelope for me on the side table which I opened and was absolutely staggered to find that I had been asked to serve on the World Congress Committee. The other members were David Hofman, Mildred Mottahedeh and Dorothy Ferraby.
This was the start of the World Congress for us in this country. The purpose of the World Congress was of course for us to celebrate the declaration of Bahá’u’lláh in 1863, and to meet the first Universal House of Justice.
The Congress was to take place in London from 28th April to 2nd May 1963. I was Assistant Secretary to the World Congress Committee and it rather fell to me to do a fair amount of the work because Dorothy was Secretary but wasn’t always there, and Mildred, who was Chairman, wasn’t always there either. The World Congress Committee had to arrange amongst a lot of other things the accommodation for the 6,000 people that came, the instant translation system in the Royal Albert Hall so that everyone could get the translation they required and of course everything else involved in getting six thousand people in and out of the Albert Hall in a timely manner.
We had had no previous experience in organisation but I found it quite easy since organising is one of my qualities. I have a great feeling for time, knowing that time is all important in organising anything. It was a lot of hard work but thoroughly enjoyable and I was thrilled to the marrow to be a central part of it. I remember that at the actual Congress itself I had a little place up in the boxes near the top of the main hall from where I had to speak to the assembled friends, using a loudspeaker every now and again. As a matter of amusement I remember that my voice and what I said became quite well known because I used to say, when things were getting a bit out of hand, “Can I have your attention please” twice and “This voice requests” and they used to respond. It was pretty good!
But the whole event of the World Congress was something quite out of this world. I remember asking you to write the name of each person on the ticket booklets that were issued for all the sessions of the congress; I don’t think you could have written all six thousand, but a good number. Many of the participants including, I remember, some Knights of Bahá’u’lláh dressed in their traditional or adopted costumes. They all sat as a sort of backdrop behind the stage of the Albert Hall, it was very colourful. The Hands of the Cause were there and it was a really lovely scene. I could see all this from where I was sitting but it was quite impossible to take it all in.
I remember, when the newly elected members of the Universal House of Justice walked onto the stage, that I was deeply impressed by the fact that they had no badges, nothing to distinguish them but were all dressed in ordinary suits and I thought then “Well, if this is the Faith, then this is really it”. In another world nine members of an institution like that would have had something to distinguish them from the motley throng but not as far as the House was concerned. They were from the motley throng and they didn’t change anything. They were just elected and they came on the stage. This was a very wonderful experience.
In Volume XIV, 1963-1968, p. 431 of The Bahá’í World there is a marvellous description of the Bahá’í World Congress that anyone can read; I found this particularly useful because being so involved with the running arrangements I really didn’t see all that was going on.
An individual whom I can remember very well was Uncle Fred, an Australian Aborigine; I remember him on stage speaking to the Congress. Also when he went to the Guardian’s Resting Place, your mother went with him because she felt he was uncertain of himself and she became very impressed because when she asked him how he felt and if he wanted to say a prayer, he looked at her and then he said, “My beloved Guardian, I have come all this way … to say I love you.” You couldn’t do more, could you? I have got a picture of Rúhíyyih Khánum with her arm around him. One of the highlights of the Congress for me was when Mr Trahan, who had been a prisoner in Morocco, brought his child and sat him on the rostrum and spoke of his suffering in prison; it was very moving and I have his signature in my prayer book.
Immediately after the Congress the Universal House of Justice held a meeting at 27 Rutland Gate, where Marion Mihaeloff was working as secretary. I assume that because the members were introduced to her, she immediately went to work at the World Centre as a secretary, one of the first Bahá’í workers there. The table, around which the Universal House of Justice met, was the National Spiritual Assembly table that we had bought as a gift for the National Assembly. This incidentally was the one and only time that the Universal House of Justice met outside the Holy Land.
Note: This table was replaced in 2005 by a round table designed for the National Spiritual Assembly by Philip Koomen, a master carpenter and a Bahá’í.
Arranging for everyone to visit the resting place of the Guardian was the World Congress Committee’s responsibility. Your mother and I felt very strongly about how we were to provide all these visitors to his resting place with a little memory of it, we had the bright idea that as there was time, we could save all the petals that fell from the flowers, particularly the geraniums and the hydrangeas; the Guardian was very fond of hydrangeas. We collected all these petals and we dried them in our Aga cooker. We then bought six thousand little stamp envelopes and we had the family and others fill these envelopes with petals so that Rose could give one to each person arriving at the Guardian’s Resting Place
Note: I can remember sitting in the small hut just inside the then entrance gates to the cemetery, together with my husband to be, filling envelopes as visitors were arriving, so it was an ongoing task for the period of the congress.
The publicity in London was for us amazing, with adverts on the red buses and articles in the newspapers. However, London is the sort of city that doesn’t express surprise or excitement over this kind of event. The Royal Albert Hall is a big place and there are plenty of events that attract a lot of people, the six thousand Bahá’ís was not a lot extra in London.
I would like to say that I think that none of us at the World Congress realised its importance at the time. We just did not have any true conception as to what it really meant. We were all too close. An event of that nature and the election of an institution such as the Universal House of Justice had really no true meaning for us. We knew what we were doing but we didn’t realise the implications of what we were doing for the future, and only now are we beginning to see what is happening by the developments at the Bahá’í World Centre and this brings it home more. The very idea of a world organisation of peoples with a world belief supporting and being organised by an institution, which is divine in origin and divinely guided, has just not happened before and we cannot appreciate really what is happening. We still think of it as the Universal House of Justice with nine men as members. We know their names and we tend to look at them as nine members but not as this institution which is divinely guided. Gradually this realisation is dawning upon us.
London – from one Local Spiritual Assembly to many
About this time (1966) London became 25 or 26 districts, each of which was to have a Local Spiritual Assembly. When London split up, there were already some districts where there were nine Bahá’ís and they could form an Assembly. The London Assembly (the area of 27 Rutland Gate) became the Local Spiritual Assembly of Westminster. We became the Local Spiritual Assembly of Barnet – that was Rose and myself, Ranjit Appa (Margaret’s husband), Asher Nazar, Roxie and Marie Edwards, Wendy Ayoub, Margaret Watkins and Mr Dixon.
Invitation to serve in the Bahá’í World Centre
After the World Congress I had given up my job with Clockhouse Engineering and converted our house into two flats, so I was not engaged with work. I had been speaking with Marion Hofman and had mentioned that I was not working and then I got a call from David Hofman to meet him in Oxford. I met him and I remember sitting in their home and then going for a walk. It was during this walk he asked me all sorts of questions and mentioned the idea of serving in the World Centre and would I be interested? I was more than interested and very excited about the idea; and then I got a letter in which we were invited to go to the World Centre. I had only been a Bahá’í for ten years but I already felt very strongly that if the Institution asked you to do something, you should do it.
So we packed up to move to the Holy Land. I arrived on my own while your mother stayed in England for a short period, as she had just got a job as Registrar of Births and Deaths and had bought a little car and had at last reached a stage of nice, calm independence and she very much wanted to enjoy this. So moving to Haifa was quite a blow to her plans for the future. She had wanted to make out a life for herself and me together and she wanted to continue with her artwork and enjoy this new job that would give her a sense of her own life, so she felt very disappointed. I think your mother eventually joined me in September 1966. The job I had been given was to serve as the first Secretary-General of the Bahá’í International Community, a position which Charles Wolcott, a member of the House of Justice, was filling.
Arriving in Haifa – first consultations with the Universal House of Justice
David Hofman picked me up when I arrived. Interestingly I slept for the first few weeks in the Eastern Pilgrim House where the pilgrims used to sleep. There was a staff of seven when we first got there and we would all sit around the table and discuss any co-ordinating problems together.
When I first got there I was called to consult with the Universal House of Justice and I began to realise what the job would entail. I had been asked to serve as the Secretary General of the Department of Israeli Affairs. It really was to represent the House with the Israeli Government and other agencies anywhere in Israel; at that time they wanted the name John Wade to be the word. The Israelis were very keen on dealing with ‘people’ and I remember the House telling me that we want your name to be known so that people know who to get in touch with. It was an entirely new concept for me and I remember thinking when I came out of the consultation, about how was I going to handle this. It came to my mind then that when Bahá’u’lláh chanted the Tablet of Carmel on the Mountain of God, at that moment the Administrative Order was already complete, now we had to bring it into being. First of all, the Guardian explained what the tablet meant and it occurred to me that what the House had done was to give me a job that was already complete, so I realised that what I had to do was to find ways of bringing it out into the open and therefore I mustn’t fear the doing of the work. I had to be in tune and bring the work into being.
Charles Wolcott was convenor of the Department of Israeli Affairs, and besides him there was David Hofman, two others, and myself. It was a great experience to meet with them and to discuss the affairs of the Cause in relation to the status of the World Centre. I gradually learnt what consultation meant. It was a slow process for me but I did learn little by little. I listened to all that was said and then the House having set the policy, I was given the responsibility to take the final decision on how to operate.
Regarding the arrangements of the House at that time in No 10 Harpasim, there were nine rooms so each member of the House had an office and I had a little desk in the hall with all the files on it and I sat there reading them. The Department of Israeli Affairs was initiated with me but all the House members were a part of it because the House members were working there all the time so there was a sort of personal contact with all of them. I was free to consult with any member of the House of Justice, but I was always very careful about doing this because they were all very busy people.
The Department of Israeli Affairs in the early days became involved in many different aspects, so my work then ranged from dealing with building projects, preparing properties for World Centre volunteers, to negotiating with the government departments, in fact anything that didn’t come under any existing department was given to our department. Later, separate departments were gradually created that took responsibility for these other matters.
One of our responsibilities in the early days was to arrange for newly arrived volunteers to go on a tour of Israel. One or two coaches would be hired and I would go with them. On one of these tours I spoke to the driver and asked him about his ‘tour guide’, and about his itinerary. He took out his Holy Book and said that the Torah was his tour guide. It made me realise just what this land of Israel meant to the Israeli Jews living there, which you and I could never appreciate. Every year the Jews say “Next year in Jerusalem” and we can never understand that.
When we arrived in the World Centre there were some individuals who had been there for many many years, for example Fujita was there in the Guardian’s time. He had a little annex at No. 7 Persian Street at the back of the garden. He was a lovely man who always got on well with the pilgrims, and the pilgrims loved him and loved to see him in his garden. Of course all the custodians of the Holy places had also been in place for many years too.
The practical aspects of living in the Bahá’í World Centre were difficult for me, but as volunteers everybody was in the same position. It was a marriage of those who had time to give and gave it, and those who had money to give and gave it, which enabled the World Centre to function. We used to go shopping once a week in a store where it was tax free. We were given a holiday allowance and were given an allowance back to the home base, but not to anywhere else in the world.
Your mother was asked to serve in the Research Department and she loved that, reading through the letters of the Guardian, she was thrilled. But then later on, when Ron Bates came to help us, the House asked her to be my secretary. It was the right decision, but for your mother it was a difficult decision because she was then placed with me all the time and it wasn’t easy, but she did a very good job indeed. I had moved my office from No. 10 to the bottom of Carmel Avenue looking out to the Shrine. We had a lovely office there and your mother had a beautiful office too.
A major challenge
At another consultation I had with the House they introduced me to the fact that there was a road that ran down the side of Bahji adjacent to the wall of the Mansion of Bahá’u’lláh; it is not there anymore, but at that time it cut the whole of that land in half and that’s why that part was never developed at the time. Army trucks and personnel used it to come up to the army base further up the road. I had to get hold of two attorneys. One of these attorneys had been the Guardian’s attorney so he knew the history and they were asked to study the files and get that road closed.
The point was that to cut a road out altogether was an infinitely difficult job. However, it was my job to make sure that this road was closed. I was given no advice as to how or what I was to do, I was to study the files and get it closed. I didn’t know the language of attorneys and so I had to learn how to associate with them. It took two and a quarter years of negotiating and I well remember the day when I went early in the morning to a kibbutz to sign the final agreement between us. The kibbutz had to give up a piece of land, and if I remember rightly we had to offer them some land elsewhere. All the orange trees from this piece of land were moved bodily by the gardener to Mazra’ih and they’re still there.
The agreement was signed. I went back and asked the House if I could meet with them and I remember going in and sitting at this round table and saying “Gentleman, the road will be closed today.” They jumped off their chairs, they were so happy! It had been a long wait for them. They just waited patiently for the job to be done. I did over a thousand memos during this period and they are used now as information about what happened in those days. I had to learn what information was needed and to convey it correctly.
There was a period when I was feeling very inadequate. It was a tough job. The Israelis are hard negotiators; they are no fools. I was feeling quite downhearted and I happened to pass Borrah Kavelin’s door and I stopped and said “Could you spare me two minutes?” so he said “Yes” and I went in and sat down. I told him that I didn’t feel I had what it needs to get the job done and he looked across the table at me and he said: “You keep feeling that way John!”
While I was there in Haifa, three International Conventions took place – 1968, 1973 and 1978. The Department of Israeli Affairs was responsible for organising these Conventions, which was a delight, and for the first two your mother was a part of the whole event with me. It has always been a challenge organising fellow Bahá’ís, they are never interested in doing what is ‘best to be done’. They are only interested in talking! It was always a very difficult thing to tell the Hands of the Cause and National Spiritual Assembly members that there were procedures that needed to be followed.
Following the 1968 convention was the celebration of the centenary of the arrival of Bahá’u’lláh in the Holy Land, so our department was entirely responsible for that, i.e. booking all the hotels and planning all the events. My experience in the planning of the World Congress in London came in very useful for all this.
One of the exciting things about this particular celebration was that the Persian Bahá’ís came by boat and slept on the boat as well, arriving by sea, as Bahá’u’lláh had done. They were so excited to be arriving at the same port as He did. I remember going down to the harbour to meet them.
The House, realising the amount of work involved in organising for two thousand visitors, called on the youth of the world. Sixty-eight youth came and I have a picture of them sitting there while I addressed them. They were my assistants. Wendi and Moojan Momen were two of the youth there at the time. Now and again I meet these ‘youth’. This was a very exciting time having the youth as guides in various ways to help control the crowd and keep them moving.
One of the events was the celebration arranged for all the participants in Bahji, where the two thousand Bahá’ís were brought to Bahji by bus and then returned afterwards to their respective hotels. We arranged seating in the garden, so the seats had to be placed so that they didn’t damage any plants. The members of the House of Justice came through the blue doors of the pilgrim house to address the assembled audience. It was some organisation, especially during the heat at that time of year in August, it was so hot that drinking water fountains were installed.
The Hands of the cause and the House members were present with Rúhíyyih Khánum. I particularly remember Mr Samandari and there were prayers and speeches. After the celebration I spoke to the person who had organised the buses. He said he couldn’t understand how there could be two thousand people and not a word spoken. To him it was an incredible experience, that vast crowd sitting in total silence.
At the International Convention in 1978 the Seat of the Universal House was erected but it wasn’t yet faced with marble. During this convention Rúhíyyih Khánum placed a silver casket with holy dust from the Shrines in a hole in the wall of the Seat above the balcony where the members of the House met for their consultation. To enable this to happen a platform was built, firstly for the delegates to stand on, and then a ladder that Khánum and Mr Amanat climbed together so that they could place the silver casket.
When Khánum climbed down she addressed the delegates, and the only thing I can remember about the address is: “You must all remember that this Seat is the Seat of the Universal House of Justice, not the house of mercy. In the future you remember this.” They haven’t created any laws yet, but of course it is the House of Justice and not the house of mercy. It was a very potent remark she made and it impressed me greatly at the time.
World Centre art exhibitions
Your mother was an artist and enjoyed painting and I began to enjoy working in wood, particularly the olive wood, of which we had a plentiful supply. We decided that we would put on an art show, so we invited everyone in the World Centre to participate. Anyone who wished to send anything in, whatever it was, we would try to show it. So for about one week of the year we put on the art show for, I think, the last three or four years of our time there. We had to arrange a means of hanging the work, so we installed a curtain rail in every room … except the bathroom and toilet of course. We could then hang pictures from the curtain rail and move them about, but naturally the furniture had to stay in place. We put on the show, lots of people took part, and it really was quite successful. We also had a section for the children. We invited lots of our Israeli friends too so altogether it was a busy week for us both.
Note: This art exhibition is still a regular annual event at the World Centre.
One of the challenges of working in the Bahá’í World Centre was that we were all somewhat turned in on ourselves, because we were all very focused on the tasks we had been given. So a suggestion was made that we gather together to meet visitors, particularly a Hand of the Cause or a Counsellor or someone else from overseas who would be able to give a talk or share news. However there was nowhere to hold these meetings at this time so we offered our little flat in which 50 people could be seated.
The House arranged for chairs to be brought up, and we had a number of meetings there at which Hands of the Cause, Mr. Samandari, Khánum, Khazeh, Mr Faizi and Mr Featherstone gave talks; we had a lot of lovely meetings. We provided tea and coffee, and your mother really enjoyed these gatherings. I also used to hold a study course in our flat where in particular I would talk about creation and scientific subjects and we had some very exciting meetings. David Hofman used to come and some of the other House members too on occasion. So this was a means of conversing one with another about subjects that were of mutual interest. And then finally a place was found where we could meet, and where we could have meetings in a more formal place where it was easier. There were several weddings then held in this place rather than in private homes.
Every week there was also a meeting of everyone working in the Bahá’í World Centre, where we would all have prayers together and then the House chairman of the week would give a sort of informative talk providing us with the latest information so as to put us in the picture of what was happening around the world.
The other great occasion was meeting with the pilgrims, which was a delight. They would gather and listen to what the House members shared with them, which was always of interest. When you met the pilgrims you were seeing the result of the last Plan and this was very rewarding.
Note: My father would also act as guide for the pilgrims and I remember seeing his joy and delight at having conversations with them about their experiences in their home countries. Sharing his enthusiasm with them and being able to connect with Bahá’ís outside the World Centre was his lifeblood.
Decision to return to the UK
There did come a time when I felt I was running out of steam. I was 71, the weather was hot and the atmospheric conditions bad for my asthma, so I went to the House and to my Department and I told them that I thought it was time that they got somebody else so that if something happened to me they would have a replacement. So the House took action and got someone else in. I was a non-professional and untrained for the role but it was becoming increasingly necessary to have someone with professional experience to take over. I did it merely by sheer determination to find the right and best way to handle the situation. At this time all the staff at the World Centre had to become more professional.
By 1981 your mother was very unwell and had been for some time so it was necessary for me to come home. However, if the situation had been different and if I had had more time and energy to take care of her, we wouldn’t have left. I was leaving my ‘home’ and I was leaving work that I loved very much. I was leaving my heart right there, so it was a sad occasion. Life is a performance and after every act the curtain goes down and you move towards the next act. I couldn’t keep on going back, the act was finished. The curtain came down so I moved on. It’s up to each of us to make of the future another act, another opening to something worthwhile and a new adventure, otherwise you spend your time moping for the past and that to me is sheer stupidity.
The thing to remember about the World Centre is that by and large, particularly with the Hands and the Counsellors and the House members and many of the staff, it’s the love that makes them tick, not the qualities they have, though these ease the journey. The real thing is their love and it shines out on everything, the most powerful force we have in the world, and the World Centre expresses it.
So always be aware that if you think you remember what you did fifty years after the event, believe me, you don’t! These are my memories, as I understand them now, of what took place then. I have changed since then so when I look back, I look back with a different view so am I seeing everything quite as it was? I don’t think so.
Bristol, December 1996
Postscript from Margaret Appa:
My father and mother moved back to the UK and lived in Barnet close to where my father had been born and where we had all lived as a family. My mother’s illness progressed to the point where my father was obliged to put her into hospital, where she passed away in January 1987.
My father then met Carolyn on a visit to Haifa, and they were married and lived in Bristol close to where my sister Christine lived on her return from Iran. My father passed away in November 1998 after a long battle with cancer, having been cared for by Carolyn…. this was a true blessing after the many years of his caring devotedly for my mother during the process of her illness.
Margaret Appa (née Wade)
West Sussex, 2014