The Heroes of My Time
I was the son of a hero. My father, Harry George Lester, was killed on active service with the Royal Air Force on 16 October 1942, almost seven months before I was born. Two months earlier my mother had travelled to Elgin in Scotland, near where he was stationed at the time (Lossiemouth), and they had enjoyed a brief leave together. Here I was conceived on almost the last, or maybe the very last occasion it was possible. This knowledge made me think that there must be something important for me to do in my life. I saw him in a dream during my first Bahá’í pilgrimage in 1973 when I was exactly the age he was when he was killed – possibly to the minute; certainly within a few days. He was smiling, which seemed to indicate, at the very least, approval. When my mother went to register me, the clerk, clearly poor at Maths, proclaimed that he couldn’t be the father. An uncle wrote and complained to my mother’s MP and the clerk was, I understand, duly admonished. I was born in Roding Valley in the constituency of Woodford. My mother’s MP was Winston Churchill. The family like to think it was Churchill himself who took a hand – I was unaware of these matters at the time. My paternal grandmother cried when she saw me – the first tears she had shed for seven months – because as a baby I so resembled her son Harry (my father) as a baby. My family was Anglican. My Aunt Nellie and Uncle Comrade were Christian missionaries in Africa but it was a nominal business on the whole. Certainly my mother felt her faith had gone during the war and took me away from Sunday school when I was five because the teacher spoke of death – not a subject she felt appropriate for a little boy. So – as she wrote to me later – she did not want me to be indoctrinated as she felt she had been; she wanted me to find my own belief – which I did. I began work in the Civil Service, initially in the Stationery Office, then in the Exchequer and Audit Department. Having no sisters and being educated at a single-sex grammar school made me awkward with girls and my younger cousin tried to help things along by introducing me to her best friend, Andrea. After a year of occasional dates, she mentioned going to meetings of a religious group called Bahá’ís. They were very kind people, she said. This was in 1964. Two years and a few dates later she announced, over dinner, that she had become a Bahá’í. I was less than impressed but duly asked her what it was all about. Now I had never been a churchgoer in these years but always retained a belief in Christ and said the Lord’s Prayer every night before going to bed. What I couldn’t come to terms with was that one religion was right and the others wrong and by sheer chance I had been born into a country that had the right one. Thus I had a passport to heaven, denied to those misguided enough to dwell in a different culture with a different religious tradition. So when Andrea explained the Bahá’í Faith to me that night I stopped inwardly scoffing and started to pay attention. Soon afterwards I went to a meeting with her, close to my home in Romford and (Andrea apart) met my first Bahá’í, a very normal looking Englishman called Pat Green. I’m not quite sure what I had been expecting so I said in some astonishment ‘Are you a Bahá’í?’ Romford at that time had had an Assembly for four or five years and later that year (1967) would become the Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of Havering. The Greens had weekly firesides that I attended, though this was influenced strongly by the fact that Andrea would be there. It was clear, though, that any romantic feelings I held for Andrea were destined to remain unfulfilled but I was also becoming enamoured of the Faith. Patrick and Patricia Green were stalwarts of the faith in Romford and later in Birmingham. Patrick was a chubby cheerful man with ginger hair who would later have a spell on the National Spiritual Assembly. Patricia, also gingery, was the daughter of a devoted Bahá’í, Prudence George, whose obituary appeared in Bahá’í World Vol. XVI. ‘They teach good Bahá’ís there,’ Jeannette Battrick told me later and I became well-grounded in the Faith as a result of attending their firesides. One of these had a guest speaker, David Lewis, a member of the Auxiliary Board, though I got that mixed up with Hand of the Cause at the time. When he passed on in 2009 I wrote:
David Lewis was one of the first Bahá’ís I met when I was investigating the Faith in 1967. He was a Board member then and had travelled to Romford to give a fireside. I always recall his quietly spoken assurance and knowledge and the aura of detachment and certitude that accompanied it. The evening was certainly another step towards my eventual declaration of faith. I met him very infrequently since that time but that simple fireside has always stayed in the memory as significant. I was very sad to find that his services are now required elsewhere and on another plane. The qualities cited by the National Spiritual Assembly were all manifest during that early meeting. A stalwart of the Cause has left us.
At a public meeting to commemorate World Religion Day the Bahá’í speaker was Philip Hainsworth, a bluff no-nonsense Yorkshireman who made an immediate impact. He was such a major figure in the annals of the British Bahá’ís that his obituary appeared in The Daily Telegraph, as well as Bahá’í publications. There was also Earl Cameron, a film and TV actor from Bermuda whom I would later meet selling ice cream in the Solomon Islands. But of that anon. Once in summer a van load of us travelled to St Neots where Ted Cardell opened up his farm to Bahá’ís and friends on certain Sundays in the season. It was a good day with the weather staying fine and a varied assortment of people from different areas meeting together for activities such as picnicking and having a game of football. For those simply investigating the Faith it showed that Bahá’ís could have fun in a recognisable way and helped to move me along just a little. Meantime certain areas of the Air Department were moving to Worcester and the relevant sections of Exchequer and Audit went with them. Coincidentally Pat and Pat Green moved to Birmingham so my contact with them was not lost. But Worcester was devoid of Bahá’ís. Any further investigations I would have to do myself. I came back to Romford every other weekend and thus missed out on the visit of Hand of the Cause William Sears who came one weekend when I didn’t come. I’ve kicked myself for that ever since. After nine months of firesides and meetings and being around Bahá’ís I was greatly attracted but still needed to be convinced that Bahá’u’lláh really was the Return of Christ. I had read William Sears’ book Release the Sun when I was in Romford – mainly during the commute to and from Liverpool Street – so by this stage I knew more about the Báb than Bahá’u’lláh. When I moved to Worcester and found a little flat over a laundry in Sidbury, I took my Bible with me. The building dated back to Tudor times I assessed and still had its original roof, it seemed, if the leaks in it were any guide. Actually it was older than this, according to the 1476 date that now adorns it. I began at Genesis and gradually worked my way through to the Book of Revelation – it constituted my bedroom reading, following the James Bond and Rider Haggard novels that I would read earlier. Worcester Public Library had a system whereby if one was willing to expend the sum of sixpence then the library would buy the book if one was not otherwise available. Thus the shelves of the library became embellished with All Things Made New, Bahá’u’lláh, Christ and Bahá’u’lláh, God Passes By, Some Answered Questions and Gleanings over the next year. The key text, though, was a paperback I borrowed from the Greens – Thief in the Night. I studied that with the Bible beside me, checking every single quote. It was when I started to notice verses myself that pointed to Bahá’u’lláh that the moment of belief suddenly came and I felt I wanted to run through the streets crying out ‘HE HAS COME!’ I didn’t, of course. On 20 December 1968, two years after that crucial dinner date with Andrea, I travelled the thirty miles to Birmingham and declared my faith at the Greens’ house in Stratford Road. My first Feast was the Feast of Sultan (a Saturday evening) in Romford but I received an unexpected bonus on my way back to Worcester. I contacted the National Secretary, Betty Reed, at Rutland Gate to find that their local Feast was on the Monday night because they had been on a teaching weekend and I was invited to drop in prior to catching my train from Euston. I had previously asked the National Office for the Bahá’í contact number in New Zealand, whither Andrea was headed, only to be asked why I wanted to know this (this was before my declaration). I knew the Faith was persecuted in some areas of the world but surely not New Zealand! Having laughed over this Betty invited me to meet their special visitor, a Hand of the Cause, Dr Mühlschlegel. Not till much later did I realise what a bounty this had been. Andrea duly flew to New Zealand and two months later, after my first fast, which I carried on one day later because I wasn’t sure about the dates, I followed suit. Quite how I made this huge upheaval in my life I’m now not at all sure. It shows the power of romantic illusion, but illusion it was, and in the little settlement of Paihia, in the Bay of Islands in the north part of the North Island, I finally accepted the inevitable. Meantime I had duly sent off my credentials to the New Zealand National Assembly and suddenly the National Secretary, Jeannette Battrick, was on the phone. An hour later she was on the doorstep with her son, Richard, and daughter, Sarah, and before I knew it I was in a Volkswagen being whisked off to visit other isolated Bahá’ís in Kaikohe. I was immediately treated as one of the family and welcomed to the home of Manoo and Margaret Ala’i and their four children, Suzanne, Parry, Julian and Reza. Soon after I stayed in Whangarei with a lovely lady, Nancy Chambers, who had spent twenty years in Kenya. Stalwart pioneer Jeannette Battrick immersed me without delay in the activities of the New Zealand community; acting on her advice I set off for Hastings soon after, to join and be joined by more heroes of the Faith. With the urgent need for pioneers evident, off I went to Hastings in the province of Hawke’s Bay. An American couple, John and Val Giffin had settled there and were pivotal to our efforts. John had been elected to the NSA at that convention and arrived back from one meeting on a Sunday in September 1969 in a state of high excitement. Though he had come by car along the tortuous and, then, metalled road that joined Highway One at Taupo and Napier, he said he felt he had been flying. The deepening in Napier (at the house of Ian and Val Wilson) stopped abruptly as he revealed that during the NSA meeting six youth had arrived and declared their faith. Two more soon followed, the fruits of teaching in Auckland by two devoted ladies, Shirley Charters and Gwen Venus. It constituted a vital stage in the winning of the Nine-Year Plan in New Zealand. Other pioneers to Hastings were Peter Suschnigg and his wife Kini; both were on the first LSA with Peter as its chairman. As we strove to achieve the goal there was a great feeling of unity within the community. Six of us had come to the area as pioneers, solely to serve the needs of the Faith and being united in this great and common cause was a wonderful feeling. Albert Damsell’s arrival made seven pioneers, plus Emily Low and a couple called Elsmore who declared at Peter Suschnigg’s luncheon date with Ken when he laid out the importance of the plan and the significance of Ridván; thus the goal was achieved. The entry of the Elsmores was followed by others. The effervescent Shirley Gowdy became a vibrant figure in the Bahá’í community, alongside Ian Shutz, Jim Edge, Jenny and David Jenkins and Ada Rees. By 1971 it was obvious that one or two of us would be able to pioneer elsewhere. In November 1969 Hand of the Cause Mr Faizi visited Auckland and we made the long overnight journey to see him. As well as youth from Australia, New Zealand and Western Samoa, there were those from Tonga, Fiji and a host of other island groups including two from New Caledonia. I realised though that colonial habits die hard when I took part in a consultation group with youth from these different islands. I disagreed with what one person had said and suddenly everyone was agreeing with me. Of course they might genuinely have been agreeing with me but there was a feeling of ‘white man has spoken’ about it and I didn’t say anything after that. There was a great sense of community present, of being part of a huge family. When the Bahá’ís from the islands left at the conference end, there was weeping on the quay as they waved from the ship that was taking them home. From nowhere came the rain, as if the heavens were sharing our emotion. Some of us went on to Savaii, the other and larger island. For the New Zealand contingent a short flight to Pago Pago in American Samoa was necessary to connect with the Air New Zealand flight home. A Polynesian Airways Dakota (DC3) fulfilled this function but there were ominous signs about its performance. When the pilot turned on the engine it spluttered ineffectually. Someone yelled for a screwdriver and the pilot came muttering down the aisle that it had just been one of those days. Finally we took off and were relieved when the short hop was over. Four days later that same plane crashed after take-off, leaving no survivors, a sombre sequel to a memorable experience! Another significant event at the end of 1970 was the Gisborne Summer School organised by the Hastings LSA. Forty were expected, eighty came, and it was attended by Auxiliary Board member and Knight of Bahá’u’lláh for the Solomon Islands, Gertrude Blum. Though handicapped by thyroid problems at the time and seeming – to our young eyes at least – a frail elderly lady – she found inner reserves of vitality when they were most needed in the service of the Cause. The next two paragraphs comprise an extract from my diary, giving some of the flavour of the School. The last full day and, after beginning to drag for a while, the School suddenly comes to life as John Giffin reads the reply to our telegram from the Universal House of Justice, weeping with emotion as he does so. OVERJOYED NEWS SUCCESSFUL SUMMER SCHOOL GREAT SPIRIT UNITY FRIENDS STOP PRAYING SHRINES ENTHUSIASM GENERATED THERE WILL INFUSE ENTIRE NEW ZEALAND COMMUNITY LEAD TO ACHIEVEMENT ALL GOALS NINE YEAR PLAN – UNIVERSAL HOUSE OF JUSTICE. Ron Pratt says that he felt the Meeting House lit with a strange light early in the morning and Ken Elsmore comments that he had the same experience (i.e. at the same time as the Universal House of Justice would have been praying for us at the Shrines). While we are still elated, the Tablet of Ahmad is read. Results are instantaneous. The father and son who came last night declare – wonderful, wonderful! The School is ending with a bang; there is so much joy and enthusiasm. The tempo never flags and this day, in fact, begins with the declaration of one Liz Braithwaite. Evening. More contacts return. The Firestones have a long session with Gertrude and are as good as declared (newly arrived in New Zealand, they had come across Dick Hale on his way to Gisborne and had accepted his invitation to come along with him without having any real idea of what they were coming to). Eleven contacts come in the evening, not including the sea surfers who all ask questions as well, and stay almost until midnight. I was soon meeting more Hands of the Cause. At the international conference in Fiji Collis Featherstone and Dr Muhajir were the special visitors. Collis Featherstone was an Australian and thus more frequently seen in New Zealand. In Fiji I walked with him from Nandi airport back to the hotel at four in the morning after we had seen off a group of Islanders on their early flight. Unlike most airports Nandi was most alive at night so that the flights passing through could arrive at their destinations after daybreak. He said that when reading a message from the Universal House of Justice for the first time, he would always look out for the ‘shoulds’ because they indicated the areas where we must obey. When he arrived in Christchurch a few years later and was asked what he wished to do his reply was ‘Whatever the Spiritual Assembly wishes me to do.’ I noted at Suva: ‘The Hand of the Cause speaks: “What is going to be our contribution of service?” The fans buzz accompaniment but otherwise the room is hushed with attention and expectation. Collis Featherstone’s voice is vibrant. “We are builders of a world civilisation . . . nobody can decide where the duty of the individual lies.” Eighteen months later I was paying my first visit back to England before going on pilgrimage when Hand of the Cause Dr Muhajir came to the National Teaching Conference in Birmingham. I wondered if he would remember me and was amazed when he smiled, hugged me and said “I told you not to come back.” As a result of Dr Muhajir’s visit I did indeed find myself on a ship bound for the Chatham Islands. I was there for just over three weeks and didn’t feel that I had achieved very much. Over the next few years, however, first Dan Doyland and then Linda Hight actually pioneered there and had a greater impact. When I visited again with my wife, Barbara, twelve years later, we stayed with the De Malmanche family, who were the pioneers then and I was pleased to find one or two people who recognised me from my first visit. At the end of 1975 there was a call for travelling teachers to go to the islands of the Pacific during the 1976 holiday. The briefing we received in Tonga – where we stayed with a legend of the Faith in the Pacific, Mosese Hokafuno – urged us to exercise caution. Mosese was a great teacher of the Faith and on his visit five years earlier had enrolled something like twenty believers. Unfortunately this attracted the wrath of local church leaders and Mosese was sent back to Tonga. Our task was simply to find out what had happened to these believers, who had had no contact with the Bahá’í administration since. Soon we had found a Tongan Bahá’í nearby and located some of the others Mosese had enrolled in the next village. Samuela still had pictures of the Shrines on his wall and greeted us with ‘Allah-u-Abha’, as did some of the children in the village. Makafolifoli in the next village was similarly enthusiastic. Clearly Mosese had been working his way around the island and had taught the Faith in two villages before being stopped. Our visit saw the first Nineteen Day Feast for five years and was well attended. The Feast book was produced, recording the decisions made at the previous one five years before. In 1977 I spent a year in Gore, teaching at the High School there and acting as one of the housemasters at the hostel. I was also made an assistant to Auxiliary Board member Anthony Voykovic and travelled regularly to Invercargill on the weekends to help support the Faith there. Mark Blair was there and Mark and Jan Tilley, Winsome Kinraid and Bert Seton, trying to hold down an LSA in the southernmost city in New Zealand, perhaps in the world. That was the year of the victory campaign and each of us chose goal areas to try to open. As well as Gore itself I had Mataura and Tapanui (23 miles away). After one unsuccessful meeting in Mataura I missed the only bus back and had to walk the eight miles back to the hostel. In Tapanui I would stay the night at the hotel after the meeting and hitch-hike back the next day (no buses on a Saturday). On my final visit I presented the proclamation book to the Mayor of Tapanui, who kept the office open half-an-hour later for me to arrive (he knew the bus times from Gore) and accepted it very graciously. That was successful, therefore, and, as if to balance things, next day there were only two short lifts and I walked about sixteen miles between them. Kept me fit! Back in Waimairi to do my PhD. I found a strengthened community. Gary and Carol Corson were there and their Saturday evening deepenings and pot-luck meals were a great attraction. The Greatest Name was prominent in their living room and had unexpected results. An Avon lady came to see Carol and was shown into the room by Gary. The lady saw the Greatest Name on the wall and greeted Carol with ‘Allah-u-Abha’. Her name was June Enoka and she had joined the Faith nine years earlier but lost contact with it. Now she was eager to become involved again and remained so up to her death. After my return from Niue in early 1979, Rúhíyyih Khánum came to Dunedin and Christchurch. Large numbers of Bahá’ís came to see her, some of whom had not attended a Bahá’í function for a year or two. ‘How do you feel?’ I asked her when she arrived at Christchurch airport? ‘I’m tired and I want to go home,’ she replied with typical honesty. New Zealand’s advance in these years can be gauged by the number of delegates to national convention. When I was delegate for Hastings in 1971, I was one of nine; in 1972 that rose to 19 and in 1974 to 38. When I became delegate for Waimairi County in 1979 I was one of 57 so being a delegate in the UK (95) gives me quite a range of experiences. Besides my visit prior to pilgrimage, I also came back to England on three other occasions. Early in 1975 I went on a travel teaching trip to Scotland and flew to Stornoway to support Enayat and Pixie Rawhani, the pioneers. Enayat would later become National Secretary of the NSA. Back in mainland Scotland I was asked to support a travel team in Elgin, the place where I was conceived. A rare privilege! En route I had stopped off in Canada and gone from London Ontario to Chicago by Greyhound bus and caught a local train from there to Wilmette, arriving in time to watch the sun come up behind the House of Worship. A rush around Europe included a stay at Langenhain by the Frankfurt House of Worship, which is more impressive in reality than it appears on postcards. Peter Manins, on his way from New Zealand to Lesotho, arrived while I was there to our mutual surprise. For several years I had known Barbara Hunt, the girl who was to become my wife. She is in fact Barbara Stanley-Hunt, thanks to an arbitrary decision by a Hampshire squire in the nineteenth century who decided that one family should become Stanley-Hunt to save him from confusing it with various other Hunts in the area. Barbara’s father emigrated to New Zealand and she was born in Auckland. Barbara came back to New Zealand to help look after her mother during her final days and, after her mother passed on, returned to the Solomons for a few more months before pioneering into marriage. We married in January 1983 and went straight to Reefton on the West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island, where I had a one-year teaching post. A house went with the job (Reefton has a population of only 1300 or so, so housing wasn’t abundant) and we held a weekly discussion group here every Monday. Gary Lewis, the other Bahá’í in the area, would come round and we would report the result of the discussion and advertise the next one in the free Reefton newspaper. That way it must have seemed that these were lively well-attended evenings that the rest of the population were missing out on. We also published a teaching every week. Reefton was a gold rush town, originally called Quartzopolis, and there were many tracks into the bush to the sites of the various mining settlements there had been. When the gold ran out, so did the people. From Reefton we moved to Owaka in the south-east corner of the South Island, marginally closer to the South Pole than Invercargill. This was smaller still (about 500) and more remote (20 miles from Balclutha and the nearest public transport). Reefton’s heritage could be gauged by the number of pubs it boasted, which outnumbered the churches; Owaka by its churches (5) compared to just one pub. Barbara went along to a Christian Bible study group but her ideas were obviously too controversial because the meetings began to be held when she couldn’t attend them. Our stay in Owaka lasted just over six months and we spent almost that amount of time in England before returning to New Zealand, but it was the Solomon Islands that first claimed our attention, my only visit there and Barbara’s last. Gertrude Blum, the Buckland-Pinnocks, the Camerons and the Khadems were all still there but we were headed to the west, a twenty-four hour voyage on the Yuminao (pronounced you-me-now), a ferry that plied the chain of islands from east to west. We dozed among baskets of fruit and leaves and tried to avoid the cockroaches that bustled about us. In Gizo, our destination, we were driven on a trailer behind a tractor to Mile Six, and stayed for a month with Sibere and Diane Karotu. After our time with Diane, sleeping beneath a huge praying mantis the size of a muppet hovering above us (there had been a snake there before, apparently, but – happily – that had gone), it was back on the ferry to Honiara for a few days before catching the Compass Rose ferry to Malaita. The boat arrived early in the morning with a market in full swing and a gnarled, grey-haired American (Bob Darlow) greeting us from his pick-up truck. Barbara has already written about Bob and Jo, pioneers to Auki. Their home was my base for the next month while I went off to villages in the south and north to prepare the Bahá’ís for the Ridván elections and ensure they were clear as to the procedures. With Samuel, one of the local Bahá’ís, I set off for the north on the Malaita public transport (a lorry). We sat on the back of this with many others. When we reached our stop we climbed a narrow path on the land side of the road. Little streams eager for the sea bundled across it in places and it needed long steps from me to keep my feet dry. Finally we came to a village at the top. The dwellings here were rudimentary: small and wooden, looking as if the first good breeze would whisk them away. The hut I slept in had a very low entrance – I had to go down on my hands and knees to enter and exit – but it was a peaceful spot and our hosts were hospitable. Morning I emerged to find the breakfast fires already lit in the small cooking hut, really a roof on legs since it had no walls. Sweet potato was the standard fare and some cabin bread (hard biscuits). There was hot tea in a tin cup and I used that to down my daily malaria tablet and garlic pills. These must have worked because, though I was frequently bitten, I avoided the dread disease. Next morning we returned to the road to wait in a little hut for the lorry. The rain came soon after we reached it, lashing the road furiously as if the heavens were in a sudden fury with the earth. It was the tip of a cyclone and the lorry arrived while it was at its height. We clambered over the side and under the friendly tarpaulin, which at least made a pretence of keeping things dry. It was March and the Fast, which I was attempting to keep, but as my back grew wetter and wetter I was actually feeling chilly and decided that a travel teacher getting sick would be no use to anyone. At the wild ride’s end we dropped on to the sodden road and followed a thin path between dripping bushes. Soon we entered a clearing that masqueraded as a lake with stilted huts in its middle. We ascended to one of them and were out of the rain at last. The young man who greeted us produced a huge thermos flask and two tin cups. The flask contained hot sweet tea – one of the most welcome cups of tea I’ve ever tasted. Amazingly the Bahá’í we had come to see had gone to Auki for the day and even more amazingly, although the rain kept on all day, returned in the afternoon. His name was Erli Di Nau (pronounced Early Die Now!) and he dripped cheerfully in, greeting us warmly and showing us to the guest hut. Later I dropped off at his tiny village again on my way back from a village in the north and received the same friendly welcome. Lack of communications meant one could never arrange visits in advance – one just turned up. Often the host would ask if you wanted a shower – natural enough in an average 32ºC temperature – but, wet and bedraggled on that first occasion, such was not the invitation. Our clothes were dried in the warm copra hut where the coconuts were drying. Naw-Rúz was held at a village (called Ridván) a little further south. It attracted villagers from the interior who performed traditional dances and songs. It was clear that these people particularly had little contact with Europeans and the green-clad mountains behind the village looked almost inaccessible. Jo Darlow came down from Auki to join in the celebrations and her camera was busy when the dances took place. One of the Bahá’ís in Ridván was a man with one arm called Patrick who struck me as being particularly dedicated. Back in New Zealand we headed south for Timaru at the request of the NSA. We arrived just before Ridván to find that problems in the community meant the LSA hadn’t met since the previous July. Things stabilised, though, and we settled down in our little flat near the city centre for an almost three-year stay. Timaru was where I had my closest sight of disaster. Heavy rain caused the rivers to become swollen and when the stop banks burst the water came pouring across the land on its way to the sea. One of the Bahá’ís, Jim Turner, saw it coming towards him and raced towards his house, grabbing his dog in his arms as he did so. His macrocarpa hedge held back the tide for a crucial second or two and enabled him to get to his house and ring for help before taking to his roof. He was taken off by helicopter. Only one person was killed (the surge came in the daytime) and I remember working at the Aigantighe Art Gallery with the local Radio Caroline as background holding a ‘radiothon’, with people ringing to pledge money for a good cause. This was interrupted by an urgent civil defence message, which asked people not to use their phones except for emergencies. Message over the announcer remarked “Now the phones are still open…” “Did you listen to what you just broadcast?” I wondered. We had unit conventions in New Zealand by then and I was elected delegate for the area to go to National Convention on a Maori Marae in Hamilton. This was a unique experience. It was decided that, since we were in Maori surroundings, we should adopt the Maori way of consultation, whereby if one wants to speak, one simply stands up, one giving way to another if two arise at the same time. Recipe for chaos, the Europeans thought. Instead it worked well and made it one of the most memorable of the forty odd conventions I’ve attended. In 1988 my mother was ailing and ageing, so we moved to England and became members of the Havering community. During the last twenty odd years, I have served as an assistant to three Auxiliary Board members – Shamsi Navidi, Shahriar Razavi and Coorous Mohtadi – and been a delegate to National Convention on a number of occasions. Keeping the home fires burning has been our most consistent service and this has included a long period of representing the Faith on the local SACRE and the local inter faith forum. After my mother’s death in 1997 we travelled more, initially returning to New Zealand, which we had not seen for ten years, as well as visiting old Bahá’í friends and Barbara’s relatives up and down the islands. We were also able to go on a teaching trip to Twizel, in the middle of the South Island close to Mount Cook. There the temperature was 31º C and whilst we basked in the heat we could see the snow still adorning the summit of the mountain. We were acting as the advance guard of a travel teaching team of youth and managed to fix up an interview with the local radio station. The youth arrived and one plucky lady found herself thrust into the studio to explain what the Faith was all about. Three weeks after arriving back in England we departed for Cyprus, staying in a house in Nicosia owned by Auxiliary Board member Thelma Konstantinidou, a tireless worker for the cause in that troubled and divided land. We noted the division and were able to go across it once into the Turkish side. I noted at the time:
We travel that way in a UN car, stopping by the Greek police station to register our names and heed the warnings. Back by five o’clock. No shopping!
We edge past a road block, coated with posters proclaiming Turkish atrocities, through no-man’s land that is the U.N. buffer zone, with one-time dwellings derelict and deserted. The Turkish officials are polite, a pleasant young lady selling us the temporary visas for a few pounds, and we are in the northern (and quieter) part of the divided city, in time for breakfast at the Bahá’í Centre for the north with cheerful Turkish Bahá’ís, who follow their dawn devotions here with a jovial meal. The Bahá’í Centre for the south is less than a mile away but it might as well be on the moon as far as these Bahá’ís are concerned. Only in the buffer zone can Greek and Turk meet. Cypriots cannot cross the one grudging check point and nobody else can if they arrive in the north first.
There are mountains in the north, a long range of them between the city and the sea, and the Turkish flag has been chalked massively upon them – a seal of ownership for Greek Cypriots to stare at. But arid plains are at their feet and it seems a long, dry, dusty drive to Famagusta, although we are there comfortably within the hour.
Famagusta looks east and feels east with the old ex-crusader walled town that could almost be the twin of Akka, the other side of the water that laps beneath the wall. Here minarets outnumber churches, many of which are empty and forlorn with their congregations elsewhere.
We have come partly to visit a grave but the British cemetery is locked up and the café opposite, that keeps the key, let someone else have it this morning and haven’t had it back. Fortunately the top of the wall is missing at one point and the grave is just below, enabling us to say prayers and drop our flowers directly on to the long gravestone. Violet McKinley (with her son Hugh) was a Knight of Bahá’u’lláh to Cyprus and the quotation from Bahá’u’lláh is prominent, even if we do have to read it upside down. There are more Bahá’ís in the north than the south and each visit results in us being plied with more Turkish delicacies. Then there is the long return across the plains with the mountains edging nearer as we hasten to meet the deadline. It’s a simple hand-in of visas at the Turkish checkpoint and a perfunctory tick off of names at the Greek one.
Later, in the Icon Museum beside the Archbishop’s Palace, one of the attendants asks about the north. Have we been there? What is it like? She was born there but her family fled south when the invasion came so she has never seen the village of her birth and never will while the status quo remains.
Despite the restrictions the annual National Convention still took place in the buffer zone – the only organisation to contain people from both the Greek and Turkish parts. Over this period we spent eight of sixteen months travel teaching overseas whilst other Bahá’ís from Canada (initially) and Poland and Ireland looked after our house. I already had a Polish connection through the Joseph Conrad Society and twice went to Conrad conferences in Poland, combining these visits with a little travel teaching beforehand. In 1991 I stayed with Dominick Browne (later to become Lord Mereworth) who was then a pioneer in Warsaw helping to support the fledgling Polish Bahá’í community in the days immediately after the fall of Communism there. They had need of his firm determination. Together we visited Gdansk and the gallant Bahá’ís there. Later, when the Conrad enthusiasts visited the grave of Conrad’s father in Krakow, I was able to say one of Bahá’u’lláh’s prayers for the departed, which created some interest. In 1999 the Conrad conference was in Krakow and it was the Bahá’í Community there I supported, including a delightful young Polish lady whom I had sponsored to go to the World Congress in New York seven years earlier when I had been unable to go myself. I still had one or two Polish pamphlets with me which came in useful once or twice and it was good to be able to support the local Bahá’ís again, if only for a few days. After Poland it was the Faroe Islands, which have a rugged beauty, a panorama of lofty crags and tumbling waterfalls and seaways with barely a tree in sight. Barbara’s knowledge of Danish was useful there. We were able to rent an apartment in Torshavn, the capital, and visited the grave of Eskil Ljungberg, in a peaceful graveyard overlooking the harbour. Eskil pioneered here at the age of 67 at the start of the 10 Year Crusade in 1953, becoming Knight of Bahá’u’lláh for the islands. After a month back in England it was off to the Azores, stopping briefly in Lisbon en route, where a member of the NTC met us and asked how long we thought we’d be able to stay in the Azores. ‘How long would you like us to stay?’ we said. ‘We’re afraid you’ll get bored,’ she said. ‘We’ll stay for as long as you’d like us to,’ we said – so we were there for two months. We weren’t bored. Bahá’ís met us at the airport on the main island of San Miguel and after staying the first night with the Hyde family who lived nearby, we spent a night or two in base one – a hotel in Ponte Delgado. We returned to this several times during our stay so that soon the friendly receptionist was booking us in as ‘John and Barbara’. The Bahá’ís had a regular lunch date in one of the cafes that we used to enjoy and it was also our only chance to enjoy a feast with them. A Persian Bahá’í, Goly, had a house in a distant village (more than an hour’s journey by bus) called – I thought appropriately – Santa Barbara. Since the buses terminated at a village called Joao Bom (Good John) the signs were propitious! Goly worked at the university, too far to commute, so she was pleased to let us stay in her home. It was a lovely white house on the edge of the village, which one had to reach by means of a steep road. Half-way up this hill one day an old woman in black, the garb of a widow, rushed out of her house, grabbed Barbara and pulled her inside. Barbara gave me a startled look as she disappeared, but emerged wearing a little corn hat the lady had made. Apparently all women visitors to her village received her simple gift. This became our main base – base two. Base three, which was used the least, was in a small hotel in Ribiera Grande, the second largest town on the island where lived an American pioneer family, Mike and Shelley Ross and their daughter Sara. On our final visit we were able to stay with them but that wasn’t possible early on. From there we visited villages on the north-east side of the island as far as Nordeste, but pioneers confirmed that interest in the faith was minimal. The Azores counts as part of Portugal and we followed our two months there with one more on the mainland. We were part of a teaching team in Vila Nova de Gaia across the river Douro from Oporto in the north of the country, sharing the Bahá’í Centre with two other travel teachers, one from Hawaii (Nick) and one from England (Tushari), who had been born in Sri Lanka and adopted by an English family. Each day we would go out seeking seekers. One of the Portuguese believers had had her home raided by the secret police in Salazar’s day so she had something in common with the Persian pioneers. There was a sense of making up for lost time about the way she went about teaching the Faith. When we went with her to the Feast (which began at 9.30 p.m. – many meetings, including firesides, began at this sort of time), she would ensure that the bus driver was given a pamphlet before she took her seat. As in the Faroes and Azores we made a point of visiting small shops on a regular basis to establish friendly relations with the owners. The owner of one shop was a Jehovah’s Witness who having accepted a prayer by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, made a point of replacing the word God with Jehovah! At Ayyám-i-Há we gave gifts to the men who collected the rubbish every night, explaining in our broken Portuguese that it was a Bahá’í Festival; thereafter they gave us a hoot and a cheery wave. The Centre was near the top of a hill where five roads met. The main road led down to the Dom Luis Bridge, a double-decker which loomed 200 feet above the river, a fearful height to us as we walked across it – and back – feeling very brave. The Vila Nova side was the south side, the “Port” side – since all the famous Port wine firms proclaim themselves in bold letters along the shore, all rather wasted on us! ……………………………….. So many different places and so many heroes in all of them. Wherever I have gone I have found stalwart Bahá’í pioneers, steadfastly at their posts and furthering the Cause of God – truly the heroes of our time. John Lester and Barbara Stanley-Hunt Essex, February 2012