I was raised in the beautiful little kingdom of Swaziland, and went to Sifundzani primary school, and Waterford Kamhlaba high school. Both firmly teach their students that we, the people of the world, should live together in peace, love and harmony, and that above all else, we must be accepting and welcoming to all cultures, faiths, and ideas that serve the betterment of our earth.
The reason behind my very privileged upbringing in this fantastic part of the world needs to be traced back to my parents’ outlook. My mother, Kathleen, came from a very poor little pit town in Yorkshire called Wath-upon-Dearne, where between the iron-rod rule of the local Roman Catholic nuns, a difficult family situation, and very little money, she was contemplating a life which would have been less than rosy. So at 16 she packed her bags and headed for London where she eventually ended up working at the building firm my grandfather, Ted Perring, ran. My grandmother Grace Perring was a typist at the firm and thought it would be a good idea to set her up on a blind date with my dad Jeffrey. One dance later and the rest was history. My dad hated life in London though and like many men of his generation, inspired by tales of explorers conquering Everest and discovering the world, wanted to get out and explore the world. As he was a qualified quantity surveyor, and worked for the multinational firm Lonhro in its construction division, he jumped at the chance when the company decided it wanted to set up a construction company in Zambia. It was here that my two elder brothers Nicholas and Matthew, began their lives, pre-dating my birth by some 15 and 17 years respectively.
Their time in Zambia was to be short-lived however, as after a few years the construction company was passed over to a team to keep it running, and after a brief spell back in the UK, my family headed out to Swaziland to set up another construction firm. This time they stayed and about ten years later I was born.
My mother was a Roman Catholic and I was raised as one, going to Sunday school and regularly attending church and confession until I was 14. Over many years I had a growing feeling and sense that the faith I was being told to accept was at odds with my liberal education and what I felt to be true in my heart. Along with the many beautiful and strong core beliefs at the heart of the Catholic faith are the ideas of guilt, sin, and punishment. These are central to the experience of being a Catholic and do a lot of harm. I turned away from it and, with that, lost my faith in God, or the only perception of God I had been given. My father is from a Protestant background but has never practised. He is probably best described as agnostic and does have a healthy interest in learning about cultures from around the world.
My first contact with the Bahá’í Faith was when I was 8 or 9, through my 4th grade teacher, Mrs Mirri. She was a Bahá’í, and although she never directly taught the Faith to us, I remember finding out the basic concepts as they would come up in class discussions from time to time. I also grew up with Bahá’ís and knew many until I left Swaziland at 18. This was because there was a large Iranian community of Bahá’ís that had settled in Swaziland during the 1970s onwards, establishing a centre and large thriving community of native Swazi Bahá’ís.
Between the ages of 14 and 22 I travelled widely, came into contact with and read about a lot of faiths and belief systems, keeping my heart open to the idea of a greater power, but with no emotional or intellectual tools to translate it into any tangible concept. During this time I visited the UK, Mozambique, Botswana, Namibia, and extensively explored South Africa with my parents and my brothers. On the one hand it really was a special time in my life, as I was exposed to such a wide range of cultures, incredible geographic sites, and amazing flora and fauna— all made possible by my parents’ considerable wealth.
Rewinding a little, ‘on the other hand’ played an important role in shaping my journey towards accepting the Faith. My mother lost my brother Christian at birth, before I was born, and developed a drinking problem that started to get out of hand from when I was about 7. This meant she was gone for two very extended periods for the next two years while she tried to get help, meaning I was looked after by my father at weekends (although he was always home for dinner and a bedtime story), my nannies Nonhlanhla and Esther, and our groundsman Thulani. Although shielded from much of what went on, it came to a head when I was 9, and after an extended relapse my mother had a severe stroke and was left paralysed.
In and out of hospital and physical/verbal rehabilitation clinics for the next year, she came home as I was turning 11. Paralysed down one side of her body, and with minimal speech capabilities, I, my father, Thulani, and Nonhlanhla looked after her until, when I was 15, she started to make some significant recovery progress. The next two years were a great time as we travelled most intensively and just had a good family life. But a complication from the stroke caused my mother’s sudden passing when I was just 17. From this point my lifestyle changed significantly and my grief, and how I tried to deal with it, took me very far away from my own spiritual self and any kind of inner peace and cohesiveness.
With good grades however, I made it to Edinburgh University and so moved to Scotland, where for the next four years of my MA degree course I remained far removed from any form of faith or ability to achieve inner peace and real happiness.
At 22, just as I was graduating, I came back into contact with the Bahá’í Faith through my wife-to-be, Reissa Hainsworth, who was also attending Edinburgh University. Meeting through a mutual friend, on our first date, Reissa was surprised I was so open to faith but so far away from any cohesive idea of my own. After a year or so of courtship I met her family, gained permission – after a thorough grilling from her dad Richard – and we had a Bahá’í wedding. I then started to sit in on the periphery of devotionals. I felt a real sense of peace and inner cohesiveness on these occasions.
We moved to Wales so that I could take a Postgraduate Diploma in Journalism course at Cardiff University, while Reissa did a primary PGCE (Postgraduate Certificate in Education). We were married in Wales at Court Colman Manor, Bridgend, surrounded by 90 friends and extended family on 27th March 2010.
Reissa has a very interesting ‘Bahá’í History’ as she was brought up in Moscow, her parents Richard and Corinne having pioneered there in 1982. She also is quite rare in that her grandparents on both sides were all British Bahá’ís, (Philip and Lois Hainsworth, parents of Richard, and Beatrice and Eric Kent, parents of Corinne). Her paternal great-grandmother also became a Bahá’í.
Back to my own journey, and a pivotal moment when I went to court to contest having been given, in my view unfairly, a parking offence ticket in Cardiff. Asked whether I would like to swear on a holy book, I said yes, and when asked what my faith was, I involuntarily responded, “’I’m a Bahá’í”. To say I was surprised was an understatement!
I told Reissa, but no one else, feeling that I could still not accept the faith which, in retrospect, I had long before taken into my heart, though I was trying to deal with a myriad of obstacles and walls. I then began to become more involved with devotionals and in supporting Reissa with Bahá’í activities in the Welsh community.
Another pivotal moment came when I was at the funeral of Reissa’s grandmother Beatrice Kent in Thornhill, Wales, near her home of Caerphilly. I had had a conversation with Reissa’s father Richard the night before, when he asked me in his typically direct but gentle fashion about my thoughts on the Bahá’í Faith. This started hours of introspection, and the next morning I heard a number of beautiful and moving stories about how Beatrice and her husband Eric had become Bahá’ís under very difficult circumstances, and taught the faith to others. Sitting next to Reissa’s maternal grandmother, Lois Hainsworth, I talked to her about my anxieties, and that my mother would disapprove of my becoming a Bahá’í if she were alive. She laughed gently and told me not to be silly, explaining that the Bahá’í Faith was a fulfilment of Catholic belief, and that all that mothers really want is for their children to be happy. I understood then that a true essence of the Bahá’í Faith is its acceptance, love, and inclusiveness.
A little later I got up and went to say goodbye to the visitors who had formed a queue to pay their respects. A local Bahá’í then announced to everyone in the room that I had not been a Bahá’í long, and so not to ask me too many questions. I tried to stammer out that I was not a Bahá’í, but I was greeted with such warmth and love from all, that I simply said ‘thank you’ and felt a huge sense of fulfilment and relief.
That was it. I declared a few minutes later to Reissa’s family and I have never looked back. A few years later—and a move to Bristol to work as an editor for a national trade magazine publishing house—I am more at peace and stronger emotionally and spiritually than at any time in my life. There have been tests, as I lost the valued friendship of one who could not accept that I was a Bahá’í, and while accusing me of being exclusionist to those who had no faith, was being exclusionist himself. He could not grasp that, rather than trying to strangle faith and confine its limits through strict definitions, as many religions have sought to do, it truly embraces diversity of belief, thought, opinion, and perception of spirituality and God.
A door I didn’t even remember had been there was opened to me again, and I rediscovered a source of joy and cohesiveness I had not had since I was five years old. God is love, the laughter of a child, the feeling of being at one with nature, unknowable, infinite, and yet all around us. This has become even more of a heightened sense for me as I now have two beautiful children. Emrhys Richard was born on 9th February 2013, and Auryn Jeffrey was born on 8th June 2015.
Since becoming a Bahá’í, one moment stands out for me. When visiting Haifa on a week’s family holiday in November, 2013 to visit Reissa’s sister Melissa — who was serving at the Bahá’í World Centre in the Department of Holy Places — I went to the Shrine of Bahá’u’lláh. There was a huge tourist group outside, with children shouting, parents arguing, and a feeling of general irritation. The guide just asked them to be respectful and then took them into the Shrine. When they emerged, each and every one was calm, smiling, and exhibiting a sense of peace and gentleness that was a complete transformation. This is what I aspire to every day, and read a prayer that gives me strength and purpose:
O God! Refresh and gladden my spirit. Purify my heart. Illumine my powers. I lay all my affairs in Thy hand. Thou art my Guide and my Refuge. I will no longer be sorrowful and grieved; I will be a happy and joyful being. O God! I will no longer be full of anxiety, nor will I let trouble harass me. I will not dwell on the unpleasant things of life. O God! Thou art more friend to me than I am to myself. I dedicate myself to Thee, O Lord.
Bristol, August 2015