The year was 1971, the place was Henley-on-Thames, and I was aged 15.
It was a warm August afternoon. I wandered into the garden of the large Victorian house, 69 St. Mark’s Road. “Well, hello, it’s lovely to see you – come out and join everybody”, my hostess, Mary Hardy, urged in a warm yet refined American accent after I’d arrived at the house.
It had been suggested to my brother, Trevor Finch, by Sandra, one of Mary’s daughters, that he bring his elder sister to this gathering, but she was otherwise engaged, so as I was at a loose end I decided to go instead. It was certainly a lovely day for a garden party, I thought, surveying the long garden with groups dotted here and there.
A girl with a loaded tray smilingly offered me a drink. A nearby group introduced themselves and I joined in their conversation. Later on, food was carried out from the humming kitchen to be cooked over a home-constructed barbeque – sausages, hamburgers and the speciality of the house, their barbeque sauce, lovingly and carefully concocted. One or two people strummed on guitars and groups laughed together as they tried to remember the words of a song.
The afternoon wore on, the garden gradually emptied and people drifted indoors, sitting or standing around chatting in the various rooms of the house. I was normally a shy girl but found it easy to talk to the people here – they were very friendly. Often I remained on the sidelines at parties, finding it difficult to think of ways of breaking the ice without seeming awkward or intruding.
As early evening approached, my brother and I decided we ought to return home and after thanking our hostess and calling goodbye in various directions, we left. While walking home I thought about the afternoon and how much I’d enjoyed it – the company had certainly matched the weather. Various other opportunities to visit the house and family presented themselves. I carried on visiting after my brother returned to his college in the North. Gradually I learned more about what helped to create the wonderful atmosphere of warmth in the place. The house seemed to be like a friendly magnet – I always wanted to be there when I wasn’t.
I had been going to Friday evening confirmation classes at my church regularly for several weeks, and while I sat on the hard benches of the choir stalls in the church with the rest of the class listening to the vicar talk, I looked around thinking, “Well where is it then – where’s my blinding flash of spiritual inspiration? I should be feeling something if I’m supposed to be a Christian – but I’m not. Why?”
There seemed to be much more inspiration and food for thought to be found at the Friday evening meetings that were held at Mary Hardy’s house, and I’d go there when the confirmation classes were over to listen to the animated discussions and the interesting people who came to give talks at the ‘firesides’, as they were called.
I found out over a period of time that they were known as Bahá’ís, followers of a Messenger of God called Bahá’u’lláh, meaning ‘The Glory of God’. I also realised that many of the things they talked about agreed with what I felt deep down – that there should be no prejudice of any kind between people, and that men and women were of equal station. They were described in the Bahá’í Writings as being like two wings of a bird – a bird can’t fly with only one wing – a lovely way of explaining it, I thought. The idea was that all the major religions had come from one source – from God – but that each had appeared at a different time in history, renewing spiritual teachings, such as prayer, and bringing new social teachings to suit the age man was living in at the time. Some of Bahá’u’lláh’s social teachings, it appeared, were to do with a system of world government and economics to provide a basis for a united world. “Hmm,” I thought, “Saves all the bother of fighting over who has what and it would make it much easier to feed everyone.”
More and more I began to realise that there was nothing that I disagreed with and when someone said during a fireside that if you believe in Bahá’u’lláh and His teachings, you should become a Bahá’í, I thought, “Well I do; perhaps I ought to.”
There was a problem, however – my father. Trevor had become a Bahá’í a few months earlier, just before returning to college, and our father had been very displeased – presumably thinking that these Bahá’ís were some kind of religious nuts who were going to turn his eldest son into a mindless zombie with no control over his own future. I decided I would have to wait until I was eighteen and had left home before saying I wanted to become a Bahá’í. However, things didn’t turn out quite as I planned because I got what I had been waiting for a few months earlier. It wasn’t a blinding flash of spiritual inspiration but a very strong urgent feeling that I should become a Bahá’í there and then. After a couple of days I decided to pluck up courage and ask my father if I could become a Bahá’í, and to my surprise and delight he said, “Yes, as long as it doesn’t affect your school work.”
After singing my solo in the Good Friday evensong service – what I felt to be my last obligation to the church and the choir – I walked to the Hardys’ house to declare. I was a very happy girl when I announced to my friends there that March evening in 1972 that I wished to be a Bahá’í, and they were equally happy to welcome another member of the growing Faith.
After becoming a Bahá’í I completed my education at Henley Grammar School, finishing my A levels in 1974. I remember being asked by my English teacher to write a reply to an article by one of the pupils written for the school magazine “The Periam”. He said, as he asked me, that it was because he knew I believed in God.
The vicar of Holy Trinity Church, where I had been in the choir, wrote a review of the two articles in the parish magazine and quoted an extract from my article in which I had quoted one of the Hidden Words. As I remember, his comment was that at least I believed in God. I was very touched by that, as he was a very forthright character with very firm views. It was also wonderful to see the words of Bahá’u’lláh in the parish magazine. It was very heartening, as shortly after I declared, Trevor and I had made a trip to the vicarage to tell the vicar about the Bahá’í Faith and why we had become Bahá’ís. Unfortunately he was not there and we didn’t have another opportunity to speak to him directly. God moves in mysterious ways!
While still living in Henley, I went on a travel-teaching trip to Bangor, North Wales, with a group of other Bahá’ís from Henley. The Hardys had bought an old ambulance called Matilda, which went on many trips, including to the Irish Summer School in Waterford. On this occasion we headed to North Wales on a cold Friday evening with Martin Lockwood at the wheel. I believe it was 1973. I know at one point Martin was driving with his head out of the window in the pouring rain as the windscreen wipers had stopped working!
We made it to Bangor eventually and the next day we went street teaching armed with plenty of leaflets. I remember speaking to one young man and having an interesting discussion about the Holy Trinity. It went on for quite a few minutes and during that time his girlfriend arrived. She was made to wait while our discussion carried on.
After leaving school in 1974 I went to Newton Park College, Bath, to train as a teacher. I took Religious Studies as my main subject and so had the opportunity to talk about the Faith from time to time. Our group was a mixed bunch faith-wise – a Buddhist, an atheist, an Ismaili Muslim, a Christian, a Bahá’í, and a member of the Worker’s Revolutionary Party amongst our number. It made for some lively discussions. I remember writing one of my assignments about the Bahá’í Faith and the tutor who marked it giving it a C grade as “There is something about it I don’t like.” I never did find out what, but the Head of the Department re-marked it and I was given a B grade.
During my time in Bath I met Tim, who was to become my husband. He was studying Maths at Bath University. The first time we met was on the Lower Bristol Road in Bath, waiting for a lift from Peter Stratton, who was taking us to Bristol to hear a talk by Hand of the Cause Mr Faizi. I remember Mr Faizi saying that Bahá’í communities should look after each other.
During our time in Bath we went to many Bahá’í events together with Barbara and Terry Smith, Pat Keeley and Doreen Mackay, in the Smiths’ Volkswagen camper van, always happy trips with plenty of laughter.
When we were in our second year at Bath there was a call from the National Assembly for travel teachers. Tim and I decided we would like to go travel teaching and invited Trevor to go with us. One of the places where travel teachers were wanted was Northern Ireland. During the Easter break of 1976 we set off from Aberystwyth where Tim’s parents lived. When I look back, I am amazed that Derwent and Nora (Maude) loaned us their only car for the trip, bearing in mind that this was still during “the Troubles”. Bombs were regularly going off in many places in Northern Ireland, particularly Belfast.
The trip was very busy and we stayed with many wonderful Bahá’ís, Jane Villiers-Stuart, Marion and Behman Khosravi and Keith and Ann Munro, to name a few.
On one occasion, we went on a trip to a small village not far from Belfast to advertise a public meeting that evening. We had a big black board with the wording “Bahá’í Faith means World Unity” on it in large coloured capital letters. We asked the policemen on duty for permission to stand on the street with the board and hand out leaflets. One of the officers radioed the station with a Bahá’í leaflet in his hand to check that we weren’t likely to be a problem. The reply was positive so we were given permission as long as we didn’t block the pavement.
We set up our board and gave out a few leaflets. There were four of us standing by the board, Jackson Ingram (who was the chairman of the Belfast Assembly at the time), Trevor, Tim and myself.
The British army had regular patrols in the area at the time and we saw the jeep go along the street. The three occupants of the jeep looked a bit alarmed and a short while later they turned around and passed in the other direction. They then disappeared for a while and later returned and stopped. This time there were four soldiers in the jeep and they all got out. Three of them crossed the road towards us and the fourth crouched down beside the jeep with his gun, scanning the street. One of them was an officer and the other two soldiers knelt down on either side of our group with one gun pointing out into the street and one at us.
By unspoken agreement I did the talking. The officer’s opening words were, “What gives you the dubious privilege of coming to Ballyclare?” I explained that we were advertising a public meeting that was to be held that evening in a room in the building behind us and briefly what the Faith was about. I also said that we had asked for and been given police permission. He heard that I was not local by my accent and when I said I was from Henley-on-Thames, his face lit up and he said, “I’m from Reigate actually.” He then said that he would come to our public meeting, except he would probably scare everyone off. The soldiers then returned to the jeep and drove off.
After our Northern Ireland trip, Tim and I decided to get married, and our wedding took place in Bath in 1976. The headline in the paper (the Bath Chronicle) was, “Bahá’í Students Marry in Bath”.
When Tim and I had completed our degrees in 1978, we decided to follow the call for travel teachers at the time and contacted the International Goals Committee to say that we had £750 and were willing to go somewhere for up to a year. The committee asked us to go to Iceland for three months over the summer to join a teaching project, as it was an expensive place to go.
When we arrived there, the teaching project had been cancelled so we consulted with the National Teaching Committee of Iceland and they asked us to travel around the country to meet the Bahá’ís and talk about the Faith. During the time we were there, there was a weekend school at which Hand of the Cause Mr Faizi was speaking. He would jokingly say to anyone who came to sit next to him, “Come and sit by me and people will take photographs of us.” I remember he had a big book with a blue cover in which he had written notes for his talks – the writing in it was beautifully neat. At the end of the school, we all went outside for a photograph. A chair had been placed in the centre for Mr Faizi. He refused to sit in it, and went to stand at the back next to Tim. The only thing he asked was that somebody hold up a framed rendering of The Greatest Name so that people who saw the photograph would know that it was a group of Bahá’ís.
Tim and I still have hanging on our sitting room wall the Greatest Name that was given to us by the National Teaching Committee of Iceland.
Over the years, we have done various things in service for the Faith, including teaching at the Summer Schools in Sidcot; one year Tim was the School Chairman. We both taught at the Thomas Breakwell Sunday School in Reading. Tim was Chairman and I was the Educational Consultant for a while. We have been on various National Committees from time to time. At present we are in the Hampshire Bahá’í Choir – a small but tuneful group. We also run the children’s devotionals at the Irish Summer School each August – a service for the Faith that we love.
Our three boys have all grown up now and left home. Two live in London and one is in California. One went on a Year of Service to South Africa, one on a Year of Service to Japan, and the third did his school work experience in the National Office.
Writing an update to my story, it is now 2015 and I have been a Bahá’í for 43 years! I am very grateful that I found the Bahá’í Faith all those years ago – it has given me so much in my life – my husband (Tim) and children (Jason, Daryl and Alex), a framework and support through the ups and downs of life. The Faith has also helped hone the skills I have acquired through service, especially in my chosen field of education.
Reading through some of the stories from other people who became Bahá’ís in Henley at around the same time as I did, two things in particular struck me. One is that we were all at a similar age, searching for something that made sense to us spiritually which we hadn’t found anywhere else. The other is how thankful we should be to Mary Hardy and her family – Brant, Sandra, Gayle, Kathleen and Joanne. They set the conservative town of Henley-on-Thames alight with their dynamic teaching of the Faith and their loving generosity to those who passed their house in St Marks Road. I remember an occasion years later staying with Sandra and Kathleen in London when Mary was there. She showed me an exercise book she had kept with all the names of those who had become Bahá’ís in Henley. There were fifty names in that book and it obviously meant a great deal to Mary, and reflected a very special time in the Bahá’í history of the UK in the 1970s.
Hampshire, December 2015