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Penny Kemp

I was brought up, along with my brother and sister, without any religious influence in my early years until my father, a keen philosopher with strong Labour party affiliations, became a Quaker, as did my mother a little later. As a youngster I do remember thinking about the nature of the universe, and at about nine years old my main idea was that the world was made of magnetism! In my teenage years I attended The Friends School, Saffron Walden, a Quaker establishment, and remember thinking and writing a lot about happiness, and questioning my dad on religious matters, but the answers left me no wiser about the existence or not of God. I wanted certainty and philosophy was not enough.

My first teaching post, in a Quaker school in Cumbria, took me to Carlisle where I joined the Centres for Human Communication, a community studying Yoga, a practice that developed my intuition and opened my receptivity to spiritual energies – or should I say the Holy Spirit? My search continued as I took long night-time walks in Northern Cumbria. I connected with Jesus but not Christianity and Eastern philosophy, so I wandered round the countryside with the thought ‘Jesus is my Guru’ ringing in my ears.

One Sunday in my mid 20s I was walking alone in the northern mountains when I had a profound, life-changing experience. I felt that a chisel was put to my heart, given a little tap, and suddenly I was filled with the most complete, loving, comforting, light-filled, life-giving, warmth that took me right out into a connection with everything, as well as within to a deep connection to myself; my thought then was that I knew it was God. The question my dad had hesitated over had been answered for me.

My first brush with the Bahá’í faith was a few years earlier, when, in the summer of 1974, I met Sue Parsons on holiday in Ireland, having gone over with friends to celebrate having graduated from Bangor University. We stayed in a little cottage outside Tralee where, unbeknown to me at the time, Sue was investigating the Faith. Both that part of Ireland and indeed Bangor University in the early 1970s have birthed quite a few Bahá’ís. I seemed to be slower than many in bringing the invisible spiritual influence to its Bahá’í conclusion.

A few years later, after the Yoga and my Mountain Revelation, I bumped into Sue again quite by chance, on the streets of Carlisle while looking for a place to rent. She offered me a spare room in her house, which was called Ridván. At the time I simply thought it a rather odd name while sharing the house with people who didn’t eat between sunset and sunrise for 19 days in March, a house with a most wonderful conservatory with a stunning carpet. I later learned that the property had been built by Irish Bahá’ís, furnished with a beautiful Persian carpet, and that it included an artefact once belonging to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Thus my exposure to the Bahá’í faith started in earnest, although at that stage I was scarcely conscious of it. Sue and Brian were married and we lost touch – for a while.

In 1980 I found myself renting another room, this time in a basement flat in Llandrindod Wells. It was lovely, with a peaceful ambiance, where I remember feeling safe and content. Later I learned it had also been lived in by a Bahá’í and many prayers had been said there. Looking back I see how the promptings of my soul have put me in places where the walls held the power of Bahá’í prayers. It gradually worked its magic on me and by the time I moved to the Porthmadog area of North Wales in 1987 with my two children, Gemma and Jono and partner Frank, in order to send them to the Rudolf Steiner School there, I felt prepared. When I saw the word Baha’í on a poster that Tish Oakwood had put up for Naw-Rúz, I was instantly attracted, and ready and eager to learn. Much to her surprise I marched straight up to her and asked what “this Bahá’í thing” was all about?

I found myself turning up at Tish’s house on evenings when she had prayer meetings. One evening, saying prayers in her ‘cow shed’, I felt the little white Bahá’í prayer book ‘pulsating’ and the roof of the room seemed to be glowing with energy that showed itself as flickering lights. I could not but pick up that book and read the words. I don’t even know which prayer it was now but I do remember asking Tish what on earth was going on. During this time I became pregnant with my third child. Even so, I was still reluctant to declare my faith. A part of me felt it was such a huge step. However it seemed as if having two souls in one body gave me the extra ‘oomph’ to step across, which I interpreted as ‘I wanted to become a Bahá’í so that my son Michael would be born into a better world’.

The first feeling when I’d declared myself a Bahá’í was that instead of thinking the world was going downhill the angle changed; I felt things were improving and there was hope. I also felt like the rotating tub of my washing machine; that I was being cleaned out and connected to myself. My family, however, had no idea how profound this was for me and either had no interest – they certainly did not take it seriously – or thought it was just another fad which wouldn’t last

Our Bahá’í community in Dwyfor at that time included about twelve children, so I ran children’s classes and was a member of the Spiritual Assembly. In 1992, three years after becoming a Bahá’í and wanting to do something completely different for the Holy Year, as we were asked to do, I joined with two other Bahá’ís and ran a home education project for the year. I also became an assistant to Viv Bartlett and served on the Bahá’í Council for Wales for several years. During that time I felt the need to go on pilgrimage. I got the money together by going on a sponsored walk with Michael. We called it the five peak Fire Tablet walk, saying the Fire tablet on each of the five peaks. All the time I was in Haifa I felt my heart was being stretched open again, which I related back to my mountain revelation experience. I feel that most of my Bahá’í life has been to do with reopening my heart in one way or another.

A new experience for me was going to the Liverpool Bahá’í Centre for the first Teaching Institute ‘Book One’ training. The spirit there was really exciting but as the training developed, my frustration rose. Coming from a Steiner education background, I knew the importance of learning through experience and was well versed in the concept of Head, Heart and Hand; learning through information (Word of God), doing (service element) and emotional engagement (heart aspect); ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s knowledge, volition and action. It was a step forward when we changed the name from Teaching Institute to Training Institute, emphasising the doing element. Seeing the way we rushed through the content of the Training Institute programmes with little understanding of the spiritual potential or application of the community-building aspects caused me to have a crisis of faith through the early years of the new century.

Returning to Wales and the wonderfully down-to-earth and emotionally literate Welsh Bahá’í community was a saving grace for me but my most heart-warming moment was reading the 12-page Ridván message of 2010; we obviously needed that level of instruction to do things differently and the message was such a turning point about ‘getting real’.

Being asked to run a seminar on “One Common Faith” for the 2012 Welsh summer school was a wonderful opportunity for me to do some concentrated study on the Word of God, which gave me the context for reading other letters and messages that then seemed to fit together and build one-on-another.

A further ‘first experience’ was to be elected delegate to the 2014 National Convention where the messages from our wonderful Continental Counsellor, “there are no short cuts”, “every step needs to be taken”, along with the year’s catch phrase, “read your reality” added detail to the same message. Attending the Keele Intensive Seminar that summer on the Training Institute with special study of Ruhi Book One, ‘Reflection on the Life of the Spirit’, was another step in helping us to get our heads round the changes the Universal House of Justice has been asking us to implement. Luckily these changes, since they were not happening over the decade from the year 2000 (and thus testing my faith), now seem to be transforming the relationship of “Bahá’í ” with the wider community and thus giving us that real and applied help we can offer to people who currently see what is going on in the world as frightening and desperate.

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Penny Kemp 

North Wales, February 2015

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