Chris and Fariba Oak

Chris and Fariba Oak

I spent fifteen years looking in and wondering what it would be like to fully participate. You see, people were always coming out from this ‘house of Bahá’í’ and inviting me to come and join them. Or going away on various journeys to other places. There was much that I could become involved in, and much that I did do even with those outside limitations. But ultimately I was still left outside. I wanted to join in the activities more completely, to become involved in a way my original faith thus far had never really allowed me to do.

And then, in 2004, about April time, I finally dug my hand deep into the pocket in my jacket and produced a ‘key’, and with this key I opened the door to the ‘Bahá’í house’ and all the wonders it held.

The rest, as they say is history!

But back to the beginning …

I was born into a staunch Anglo/Irish Catholic family. My father had always been involved in the local church, helping in the various committees, printing whatever needed printing, reading at mass, taking the collection. All of us participated as well: my two brothers, my two sisters and I. My two brothers were altar boys, and I was a reader along with my elder sister. I was also a regular member of the church youth group from about the age of thirteen, going on retreats, putting on small dramatic presentations and taking part in any sports activities I could – always loved sports passionately.

At the age of nineteen, both my father and myself were ‘ordained’ Minister of the Word by our local bishop. This was one of the two lay positions which had recently been created in the church. This was a slightly elevated position by which we became appointed readers at church, rather than just people who just did it. Nothing really changed in terms of our relationship to Christ or God or the clergy, but we were both regular readers at church and participants in other aspects of the Catholic year.

At this point I had never heard of the Bahá’í Faith, which was still a few years in the future.

On completing my studies in 1984, aged 24, I went off to work. My mother died soon after.

Some three years later, in 1987, after a stint as a college Physical Education lecturer, I decided to take a six-month trip around India. I had an old friend living there and I thought it’d be nice to take some time to see that amazing country. Before I went I was advised by my pharmacist that there was this wonderful temple in New Delhi, which she said I must go and see. I heard her but didn’t really take any notice. I still hadn’t heard of the Bahá’í faith at that time.

Soon, but not yet …

So I went to India, went to Delhi, but missed out on the chance to see the Lotus Temple. I don’t do regrets, but I do wish…

I didn’t manage six months; India gave me a couple of ‘presents’ which required my somewhat speedy return home, and which took about seven months of medication to remove from my system.

During that period I finally encountered the Bahá’í Faith. I blame it all on Fariba. Fariba, my wife of 24 years, mother of Elycia our daughter and provider of the ‘key’.

I wouldn’t say that I ever had the Bahá’í Faith thrust at me, but as Fariba was a Bahá’í from a Persian Bahá’í family, I became more and more aware of the Faith, how it worked, what it represented and indeed what it presented to the world.  However, I was a Catholic and not interested in changing.

I used to say that I imagined all the various faiths were like the spokes of a wheel, where the hub represented God. All led to the same source so it didn’t really matter which spoke you slid down on your path to God. I still more or less think this, only I came to realise that some spokes had become rather rusty, leaving all kinds of marks on your trousers as you slid along towards the centre. They’d become more or less tarnished with the dross of their rituals, interpretations and struggles and battles both internally and externally.

During the period of our courtship, I became more aware of the Bahá’í Faith, often being invited to Bahá’í events and activities. I also began to ask Fariba questions; what do Bahá’í s think about this, why do they do that, what are their beliefs on the other? Fariba would rarely give me an outright answer, but used to say “If you want to know, you’ll have to do the looking yourself. It’s not my job to give you the answers”.

At this stage of my evolution I was not fully aware of the concept of the independent investigation of truth.

On our wedding day in 1989 Fariba and I were blessed with good fortune in finding a priest who was happy to allow us to hold two ceremonies; Catholic first and then Bahá’í, all in the Catholic church building itself, one of the oldest in England, built in the mid-19th century.

Over the course of the next fifteen years (it took that long before I finally declared myself a Bahá’í in a formal sense) I became more and more involved in the Bahá’í Faith. For many years it was a side-by-side thing. I continued to attend mass at my local church, but whether I noticed or not, as the years rolled on, I was more and more involved in Bahá’í activities – though never in the formal sense, as I still had not used my ‘key’ and there were limits to the levels of my involvement. Nevertheless we almost always went to such events as feasts and Holy Days together. I willingly read at any event I attended – in the blood so to speak, having been a reader for so many years.

In the eighteen months or so leading up to my declaration in April 2004, I found myself thinking more and more of when I thought would be the right moment. All moments were perfect moments, but I never quite saw things like that. It had to feel right to me. I thought maybe I could go to one final midnight mass at Christmas, or one last Easter (always my favourite time as a Catholic), or after my birthday, or, or, or…

When the local community had been losing members for some time, due, for example, to moving away, and there was the very real chance that the community might become too small to support a Local Spiritual Assembly, I remember thinking “I can’t allow that to happen”.

The easiest solution to this problem was to do what I should perhaps have done some time before. No fuss, no bother – I was never one for making much fuss, preferring to be left to get on with what I’m doing – so I got hold of the form to make it official, and that was that.

No lightbulb moment, no light spearing down on me on my road to Damascus. Just a simple decision to become part of something in a complete sense, in a way I had seen as the only sensible path years before, but never quite been ready for.

In many ways, because I was really behaving pretty much as a Bahá’í for years before I declared, I never really felt that much changed afterwards. Others may see this differently, but in my mind, I was still me, same eyes looking out from the same vantage point. My family, as far as I am aware don’t treat me any differently than previously, no ostracism, no ‘never invited to things again’. We go on pretty much as we always did. A few years back my nephew asked his parents if I could sponsor him at his confirmation. They agreed, and in their absence I saw no difficulty in happily providing him with the necessary spiritual support.

Perhaps the only real change as far as friends and family are concerned, coming from an Irish Catholic family, concerned alcohol, which had formed a central part of life, not only of the church ceremony – water into wine – and the transubstantiation. I had no particular difficulty leaving alcohol behind; friends and family did struggle a bit with that part of the new me though, but, if that’s the worst of it, then things are pretty good.

Once I had declared my faith, it was as if my shackles fell away. I was released to begin participating in things, to do things I had always wanted to do, but circumstances had never allowed me to do. As a Catholic, there is only so much in which you can become involved. As a Bahá’í a huge vista of opportunity opened up in front of me and continues to expand before me.

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One of the first things I did on becoming a Bahá’í was to organise and complete, with the assistance of one other participant and two supporters, a sponsored cycle ride from London to Edinburgh to raise funds for the Edinburgh Bahá’í Centre. The following year I was back on my bike, this time with a larger team: two participants purely on logistics, two part-time cyclists and two full-time (including myself). We were raising funds for the new Bahá’í temple under construction in Chile. A second journey saw us cycling from London again but this time finishing at the Frankfurt Temple on the day of its summer gathering. We had the honour of being interviewed on the main stage and asked about our journey and its reasons.

Overall we raised nearly £10,000 for the two projects – contributed solely by Bahá’ís, as only they are permitted to contribute to Bahá’í funds.

In the meantime I became more involved in the Local Spiritual Assembly, initially being elected vice-chairman and more recently its chairman.

I have been attending Summer Schools both before I declared and since, mostly in the United Kingdom (although we did visit Bulgaria one summer as well), covering Swansea and Cardiff as well as Sidcot, Ampleforth, Bath and Wellington over the years. More recently I was blessed with a further opportunity for service, initially in helping organise the sports activities at the Wellington Summer School, then as a member of the committee with a wider responsibility that encompassed co-ordinating the morning devotional, sports programme, afternoon talks and evening activities, both for adults and youth, and including such oddities as a children’s ghost walk around the grounds. The following year I was asked to serve as a member of the Residential Schools Committee for England, having the honour to be asked to chair the committee, something I was delighted to have the opportunity to do, until my burgeoning work commitments compelled me to stand down. I returned to Summer School responsibilities in 2013, serving as sports co-ordinator again as well as organising more afternoon talks for adults and co-tutoring one of the summer courses along with my wife, Fariba.

Friends, my blessings are many, to have so many opportunities to serve!

As my Bahá’í life has continued to evolve, other wonderful opportunities have also presented themselves. In March 2008 my family had the opportunity to visit Haifa on a nine-day pilgrimage, a moment (or sequence of moments) of bliss in my life. Back in my days as a Catholic, I had the chance to visit Lourdes and Rome (attending mass at St. Peter’s celebrated by the Pope, a rare moment in the life of a Catholic).

But Haifa was much more than that could ever have been and left me with a deep desire to continue to serve in whatever way I could.

The first chance I got to do this was as part of a major programme in Manchester in August 2008. The baseline was a two-week intensive Ruhi Book 5 course. I had always liked working with young people and have had a number of such jobs over the years so this was a great opportunity to deepen my awareness. The programme was however much more, encompassing three junior youth projects for the area as well as evening activities, including musical firesides (more of which later), talks to local groups and helping children and youth as well as adults to participate in outreach work in the local community.

I am not a willing singer. Talking is fine, but singing – perhaps not. One of the events which formed a part of the programme in Manchester, for all participants, was a musical fireside arranged at the home of a local Bahá’í. As an avowed non-singer, I saw my involvement in such a thing as being purely one of moral support. However, when the six of us who were taking part arrived, the three younger friends ‘dissolved’, leaving just two people who had lovely voices and the confidence that comes of knowing it (one of whom was also an accomplished guitarist) – and me.

Well, in for a penny, there was nobody to hide behind, no chance to just open my mouth and pretend, so I sang along with my friends, both of whom were polite enough to say I sang well and didn’t lose the tune. Bahá’í s are so polite. I know my voice sounds like coal being ground, but I’m proud to be able to say “I did it”.

There were many other little moments that made that wonderful fortnight, but the most exciting was to be able to see how the young friends blossomed during the course of the two weeks. I still think fondly of the marvellous times I had, and of all the people I met during this time. Manchester was special!

The year 2008 was also wonderful in my Bahá’í life as it provided me with the opportunity to become one of the first cohort of Bahá’í chaplains, serving in my case at University College London Hospital. I was able to secure volunteer work there, which holds a special memory for me as it is where I first met Fariba, my wife, so you could say in a very real sense I owe it my Bahá’í existence. I was initially able to serve as a chaplain on a weekly basis but work commitments have somewhat reduced my involvement, but I still have the blessing to be able to serve in this capacity as circumstance allows. My feeling is that this gives such a deep feeling of connection with the faith at its core, to have the opportunity to visit the sick as we are all encouraged to do. I would encourage everyone to accept such an opportunity; I have gained so much more from the people I have visited than they can have gained from me. Truly in this I am blessed.

I have been presented with further avenues of service, opportunities which I cherish and have found deeply rewarding; working as a volunteer assisting the work of the pastoral care team being one area where I have been able to be of service to the Bahá’í community, as well as (in 2013) the blessing of being offered the opportunity to broaden the range of my assistance at Summer School through co-facilitation of a course for adults.

The conflation of some of my activities came to a point in 2013 when Oliver Christopherson, one of the most humble, most wonderful men I have ever known, passed from this world into the Abha Kingdom. As chairman of the community, and as a chaplain, I had the privilege of being able to visit Oliver twice at his home during his final days and share the Long Healing Prayer both with him and his wonderful wife Kari-Anna. Following his passing I also had the additional blessing of assisting his family in his funeral preparations and of leading the mourners on the day of the funeral. Whilst it was a very sad day, it was also a wonderful one; the sun shone when it was needed, and everyone there was able to say goodbye to a beautiful man in a manner that befitted his humility and spirituality. I was doubly blessed to have known him and to have been able to help in making the day special.

As the years have rolled by since I declared my faith in Baha’u’llah, I feel that I have continued to grow, and each new year seems like a widening of that vista as new opportunities to serve and grow are presented to me. Each of the various chances I have been given to serve have allowed me a genuine insight into my own personality and to be able to further my personal development whilst enhancing my existing skills.

I feel immense gratitude for all the Bahá’ís I have met along my travels, for their humility, willingness to share, and allow others into their lives with such genuine love.

_______________

Christopher Oak 

October 2013

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