Donegall Square, Belfast: late June 1957. The youth waited on the number 76 bus for Gilnahirk. He was accompanied by his friend, Philip, the son of a Baptist pastor. He glanced idly in the window of the Erskine Maynes bookshop beside the bus stop. In the window he spied a book with a strange title Christ and Bahá’u’lláh. Who or what was Bahá’u’lláh? Was it something to do with ancient Canaan – Baal and such like? What had this Bahá’u’lláh to do with Christ? There was still ten minutes before bus time; he decided to investigate further.
I was that young man, Colin King, on my last few days in the sixth form at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution, locally known as “Inst”. As I opened the book I had seen in the window, I was quite unprepared for the startling claims contained in the first few pages. I was amazed and excited by what I was reading – fulfilment of ancient Biblical prophecies about the coming of the Kingdom of God on earth; what could it mean? Could it really possibly be true? I called Philip, who looked at it briefly.
“Just some nonsense,” he declared dismissively before dashing off for his bus. Mine had arrived too so I hurriedly bought the book. Some days later, having read it at least twice, I still couldn’t quite understand what this new religion was really all about. It had been written by George Townshend, apparently an erstwhile member of the Church of Ireland, Archdeacon of Clonfert no less.
I had been brought up as a Presbyterian, dutifully attending Sunday school as a child at Shore Street Church in Donaghadee and later at Gilnahirk Church near Belfast. However, as a teenager I had become interested in Biblical prophecies but had subsequently rejected the teachings of the many Christian sects, each claiming to be the sole guardian of the truth and salvation. Of other world religions I knew practically nothing.
Eager for more information on this astonishing new world faith, on 12th August I ordered the two books mentioned on the dust jacket of Christ and Baha’u’llah. In those pre-internet days one had to place orders at a bookshop and collect them when they arrived. So it was that on 20th August I duly collected The Renewal of Civilisation and The Promise of All Ages from the same bookshop. These books explained much more about the Faith. It was so refreshing for me to learn about the logical and forward-looking teachings such as the equal status of men and women, universal education, a universal system of weights and measures, and a world language, and to me, most stunning of all was the idea of progressive revelation and the teaching that all the great world religions were from God. So began my investigation of the Bahá’í Faith.
Having read the books and with curiosity aroused I wanted to know more and possibly meet some members of this intriguing new world religion. Of course I doubted very much that any Bahá’ís would be found in Northern Ireland. To take my search further, on 25th September I wrote to the publisher of the books, George Ronald, asking if there might be any Bahá’ís resident in Belfast or nearby. A month later I was pleasantly surprised to receive a letter from Charles Macdonald, a Bahá’í living in Belfast, inviting me to call at his home, meet some Bahá’ís and ask any questions I might have about the Faith.
I did not follow up on Charles’s invitation until 23rd November 1957. I had just started my studies at Queen’s University, Belfast. On Saturday evenings I was in the habit of going to the student ‘hop’ (dance) held at the old students’ union building in Botanic Avenue, Belfast. On this particular Saturday there was a bus strike so I cycled all the way from Gilnahirk in the Castlereagh Hills to the university.
However, because of the strike, there were very few at the hop. I knew there was a Bahá’í gentleman living in Ireton Street, just 200 yards down the road, so leaving my bicycle at the university I walked to the address and slightly timorously rang the bell.
The door was opened by a lady who looked at me quizzically.
“Is this where the Bahá’ís live?” I asked, mispronouncing the name Bahá’í.
“Yes,” she said with a smile, “Come on in!” and she led me to an upstairs flat.
By the fire sat Charles Macdonald, the man who had sent me the letter.
He had a painful back, a condition from which he suffered from time to time. I learnt that this was the result of having been a Lancaster bomber pilot in World War 2.
In the room there was also a tall young man, Tony McCarthy, a younger boy – Charles’ son Iain, Tony’s mother Sheila and the lady who had shown me in, Charles’ wife Yvonne. Another young man arrived, Rustam Jamshidi from Persia – I had never met a Persian before, in fact I had never met anyone of Eastern origin. They were all most welcoming and I was soon put at ease.
“Have you any particular questions, Colin?” asked Charles.
“Well,” I replied. “What do you think about the Kingdom Of God On Earth?”
“There it is,” said a smiling Charles, pointing to a chart on the wall.
I was quite taken aback by this. Looking at the chart I saw a map of the world covered in coloured circles with connecting lines. I learnt later it was an outline of the Guardian’s Ten Year Crusade.
There was some discussion about the world spread of the Faith, then we had coffee and cake and I left with an armful of Bahá’í books for further reading. They just about fitted into the saddle bag of my bicycle as I pedalled homeward, my mind whirling with surprising and weighty facts about this new religion and the Bahá’í world. I later found out that the Bahá’í friends I had met on that first evening had all been feeling rather “low” following the first anniversary a few days before of the passing of the Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith, Shoghi Effendi.
I returned to the Macdonald household on 11 December and there met another Bahá’í, a most pleasant elderly lady called Mrs Kirkwood, mother of Yvonne and Sheila. She had apparently been interested in spiritualism before encountering Bahá’ís, so when I asked about Bahá’í beliefs on life after death, it was she who gave the answer, one which struck a chord with something in my inner consciousness; it agreed with my own thinking on the subject.
It was after New Year’s Day 1958 when I again visited the Bahá’ís. I found that it was open house every Wednesday evening for anyone who wanted to drop in and discuss the Faith. I began to attend on a regular basis what the Bahá’ís called ‘firesides’, which I thought was most appropriate in those days before everyone had central heating. On these evenings I met many more interesting Bahá’ís – Lady (Kathleen) Hornell, Lisbeth Greeves, Jane Villiers-Stuart and sometimes Bahá’ís from Britain or farther afield. For me it was all quite a new and exciting experience.
It was interesting to attend the opening of the first Bahá’í Centre in Belfast on Saturday, 1st February. The location was within a building in Donegall Pass near the Shaftesbury Square end. The Centre was a room at the top of five flights of stairs, I seem to remember. There were about thirty people in attendance, and the first talk was I believe by Ted Cardell, recently returned from living in Africa. Soon I was to meet the Bahá’ís of Bangor, County Down, when I accompanied the Macdonald family to hear an excellent talk by Adib Taherzadeh who had travelled up from Dublin. For the next few months I attended the regular firesides at the Macdonald home. Reading Marcus Bach’s interview with Shoghi Effendi impressed me a lot at that time.
I was finding myself more and more in the company of Bahá’ís, even going in July to stay at the Villiers-Stuart residence, ‘Loughside’, in Greenisland, for a very pleasant week. The family were away at that time and the Macdonalds had been invited to stay at the rambling, beautifully situated house on the shores of Belfast Lough. As far as I can recall it was there that I was privileged to meet Hand of the Cause Tarázu’lláh Samandarí, a wonderful man who impressed me greatly. Here was someone who as a boy had actually met Bahá’u’lláh. It was to me like meeting St Mark or St John, a disciple of Jesus. He told us some charming little stories of Bahá’u’lláh. For some time I put arguments to myself for and against my joining the Faith. There was no doubt it had become part of me in a sense but there were also a few nagging doubts, especially following my brief investigation of Buddhism.
On 15 November the Macdonald family and Sheila and Tony McCarthy moved to Upper Newtownards Road by the crossroads with Knock Road. This was still convenient for me to visit for firesides as I was quite accustomed to attending the 23rd East Belfast Scout Troop who met just across the way. So it was on the evening of 31st December 1958 that I visited them for more discussion. During our conversations Charles asked me if I had any more questions about the Faith. I answered “No”, which then led on to my agreeing to become a Bahá’í. It was 11.30pm. I cycled home up the hills to Ballyhanwood Road feeling quite emotional. I announced to my surprised parents that I had become a Bahá’í. They were rather shocked, especially my mother Jean. I overheard my father Harry later telling her not to worry, that “it was probably only a passing phase since he is after all a university student.”
I was amused that on the following Sunday my mother suggested that my father and I ought to attend church and fetch our donation envelopes. The church was Gilnahirk Presbyterian and envelopes bearing the names of members were given out on the first Sunday of the New Year. These were then used to place the family’s donations to church funds. My father was definitely not a churchgoer, but he rather reluctantly agreed. At the church door Harry asked for the envelopes, but was told that there were none bearing our name; perhaps we had not been attending for some time. This did not please Harry, nor did the clergyman’s sermon, so he was quite dismissive when Jean asked about the envelopes and the service! That evening I went to the Macdonald household where I met Rustam’s brothers Hushang and Qudrat for the first time. Also present was Beman Khoshravi. At a public meeting at the Centre on the following Wednesday I was congratulated, and received Bahá’í books and a prayer book as presents.
My first attendance at a Nineteen Day Feast was on 19th January, 1959. Perhaps with my name being King it was aptly the feast of Sovereignty. The host was Beman Khoshravi.
A few days later, World Religion Day was advertised in the Belfast Telegraph and I was quite astonished to hear my father express an interest in attending. I suspect one of his motives was to meet these Bahá’ís with whom his son was associating, so on Sunday 25 January, 1959, my father and mother, Harry and Jean King, went to World Religion Day held in a venue on the Dublin Road, Belfast. Meeting the Bahá’ís there had a big impact on my father and he bubbled with enthusiasm about all the characters he had talked to at the event. There were speakers representing the Jewish, Zoroastrian, Christian (Quaker), Moslem and Bahá’í faiths. A few days later Harry and Jean received a letter from Charles Macdonald inviting them to a fireside on 29th January. They agreed to go and so began their investigation of the Faith. The story of how my father and later my mother accepted the Faith is recounted elsewhere.
For a short time my father and I were a Bahá’í Group in the Castlereagh area before we moved into Belfast to make up numbers for their Spiritual Assembly. I served on the Belfast Assembly and the Irish Youth Committee until I left Ireland in October 1965 to work in Edinburgh as a research chemist. Shortly after my arrival there I contacted the local Bahá’ís and became a regular visitor with Jock and Hilda Cunningham who were very good to me. I was soon a member of the Edinburgh Spiritual Assembly which was grappling with the challenges of deepening a number of new believers, all ladies, from the Gilmerton area on the outskirts of the city.
I married in September 1966. My wife Pat (usually called ‘Paddy’) came from Newtownbreda, Belfast. We spent the first year and a half of married life in a basement flat in Cornwall Street in the middle of Edinburgh, where we entertained many Bahá’ís such as Joe Watson and Knight of Bahá’u’lláh Paul Adams, both of whom were studying at Edinburgh University. Several Edinburgh Assembly meetings were held at our home. Pat was not a Bahá’í at that time so she would retire to the kitchen until the meeting ended.
In December 1967 we left Edinburgh to go to Jamaica where I worked as a lecturer at the University of the West Indies. I was soon to be a member of the Kingston Spiritual Assembly and the National Spiritual Assembly of Jamaica. There followed many teaching trips into the country areas and numerous NSA meetings where I served as chair. We entertained many visiting Bahá’ís from North and Central America. During our six years in Jamaica we met the counsellors for Central America, Alfred Osborne, Artemus Lamb and Carmen Burafato, and also Hands of the Cause Mr Giachiery and Dr Muhajir. In 1969 we went on holiday to Mexico and spent some time with the dear Mayan Bahá’ís at the Martha Root Teaching Institute in Muna, Yucatan. It was there that my wife Paddy accepted the Faith, much to the delight of the Mayan Bahá’ís and the Bahá’í pioneers there. Paddy said that being with the Mayas had demonstrated to her in practice the oneness of mankind and the power of the Faith to bring unity to mankind.
Sometime after we settled in Jamaica the pioneer family of Elias and Shahin Zohoori and their three children arrived from Teheran. They were soon joined by the Tucker family from the USA, Bill, Bunny and their two daughters. Bill was appointed Auxiliary Board member and we all became close friends.
In 1971 Jamaica hosted an Oceanic Conference with about six hundred Bahá’ís attending from North, Central and South America and the Caribbean. Those from North America arrived in Kingston aboard a ship especially chartered for the event and were met by the Mayor of Kingston. The Conference was held at the Sheraton Kingston Hotel. I chaired the opening of the conference by the Governor General of Jamaica, Sir Clifford Campbell, who gave a very Bahá’í-like speech involving the motto of Jamaica “Out of Many, One People”. Just prior to the Conference the Bahá’ís of Jamaica had obtained a lovely new Haziratu’l- Quds with the help of the Universal House of Justice. The Faith received a great impetus from the Conference, especially with high-profile performances for the populace by famous performers such as Seals and Crofts and Dizzy Gillespie. Many new believers came to the Faith in the following weeks.
In June 1973 Paddy and I and our baby daughter Aileen left Jamaica to return to the UK where we eventually settled in the Nuneaton and Bedworth area of Warwickshire. I had obtained a post as a science teacher at Exhall Grange Special School for visually impaired children. We lived in a bungalow on the school’s extensive site, as it was a boarding school at that time, and I had to carry out duties on the residential halls in the evenings. We were, I believe, the only Bahá’ís in that area for a short time. We had frequent visits from Bahá’í friends in neighbouring areas such as Coventry, Warwick and Solihull. Eventually an Assembly was formed in Nuneaton and Bedworth. Paddy and I served on the Local Spiritual Assembly for a number of years until we moved out of the area in 2000 to become the Sheepy & Witherley group in Leicestershire. We have continued to attend Bahá’í meetings and events in Nuneaton, only three miles away, and to assist that community in any way we can.
Northern Ireland, November 2014