My parents met at a bus stop in Warrington during World War II. My father was in the army and wearing army uniform and my mother was a nurse at Alder Hey Hospital in Liverpool and was in nurse’s uniform. They got talking, which led to a visit to the cinema, and ultimately to marriage in 1945.
I was born in 1953 and was the youngest of three girls; an unplanned addition to the family. My mother was a Christian who taught me to say bedtime prayers and brought me up as a Christian. I attended a church school in Cheshire, was imaginative, and found it natural to believe in God. About the age of fifteen I became intrigued by the ‘Return of Christ’, and pored over the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. I met some born-again Christians and felt a beautiful connection with Jesus but I rejected the other aspects of Christianity, seeing them as divisive.
After exams, when I was 16, I suggested to a friend we visit Chester, a half hour journey on the train. While walking by the river, I noticed a rather lonely looking young man with long hair sitting on a bench. I spoke to him and learnt he had been a road manager for a successful pop group, had taken too many drugs, had had a breakdown, and was living in the Richmond Fellowship in Chester. We started a friendship and one day I went to see where he was staying. As I was only 16, I thought I had better not get too involved so I didn’t see him much more. Education was more important.
I went to Cheltenham Art School in 1971, was quite lonely there, and became aware of a void inside me. I still spent a lot of time searching in libraries looking at philosophy and religion. In 1972, finding myself on Birmingham railway station waiting for a delayed connection, I met a pleasant man who was a Christian. He recommended I read Hermann Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game. I did read it, then moved on to the works of Carl Jung, which really resonated with me. I was on a search for truth and meaning … and this led me from Cheltenham to Ireland.
In 1973 I went on holiday to Ireland, and as soon as I stood on Irish soil I knew I would find what I was looking for. I seemed to fall in love with the place, so in 1975 I went to stay with friends in Co. Kerry and wanting to paint portraits of the old Irish ways of life which were so different from the UK. With unspoilt fields of gorse and cowslips, horses and carts as transport, the staggering beauty of the landscape and the warm friendly people, I was inspired.
The first time I heard the word Bahá’í was in this period. I met the Bahá’ís in Tralee and was impressed with their commitment. When I asked my first questions and received answers, I saw a white light surround the speaker. I investigated Bahá’u’lláh’s teachings as I was painting some portraits so that I could try to earn a living while being a home-help to a teacher. That was October or November 1973 and by January I had decided to join the Faith as I believed in the authenticity of the beautiful Bahá’í Writings.
I declared on my 23rd birthday in the presence of Val and Tony McGinley. I woke up the next morning having a dream of being born again at the amazing joy of being a Bahá’í. I was later told that at the time I was investigating the Faith, the Universal House of Justice was praying for the first Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of Tralee. One teaching weekend, I was told we could pray to Navváb, the wife of Bahá’u’lláh, so I did, asking a question about marriage. I distinctly heard her voice in my ear with the answer. My friend Francis Ratnieks became a Bahá’í as well a little later. Some of my Bahá’í friends in Tralee at the time were Paul Hanrahan and Paddy and Fran Malone. With Val and Tony McGinley, who had become Bahá’ís in Cork through Lou Turner and her family, they all nurtured me. I also met Anne Halliday who, with her husband Fred, was a pioneer in Drogheda from Sheffield, and I loved her too.
As a newly-declared Bahá’í I was invited to meet some Bahá’ís in Limerick. I was quite shy then and was reassured it wouldn’t be too big a gathering. It was held at the Bahá’í centre where Adib Taherzadeh was talking and I was welcomed with lots of hugs from complete strangers – another enlightening experience to fire us all up. I asked a Welsh man, Daffyd, if he knew of any Bahá’ís in Carlisle as I was going back to see my mother and he gave me the address of a Brian Parsons there.
I moved to Carlisle in the autumn of 1976 and was elected onto the Spiritual Assembly. I remember an occasion when there was a discussion with regard to inactive believers and a few names were mentioned. The following day I was walking along a country lane when a car driven by a woman stopped. I accepted a lift and we got talking. The subject of religion came up and she said she used to go to Bahá’í meetings. I asked her name and found out she was one of the people who had been mentioned so I could ask her what I needed to ask.
One month later my father died of cancer in Carlisle. I arrived at my mother’s house to learn my father’s body had just been taken away by the undertaker. My mother naturally was distressed but I could tell her the good news that dad was certainly alive and that I was a Bahá’í and I gave her a booklet about life after death, Death: the Messenger of Joy written by Madeline Hellaby. She then asked if Bahá’u’lláh was the Return of Christ. When I said He was, she seemed to accept this, was comforted, and subsequently came to some meetings.
On the 9th day of Ridván I was again in Carlisle and went to Brian Parsons’ house for the first time. As soon as the door opened and Brian stood in front of me, a veil seemed to be pulled away and I saw a beautiful sensitive radiant soul. After the Ridván prayers were said, we got talking about Chester, where Brian had become a Bahá’í in 1968. I told him I had been to the Richmond Fellowship in 1969, and discovered I had visited the very room where Brian had declared nine months before. We also discovered that our grandparents knew each other, as they all came from Longden, a very small village in Shropshire. We were married in Carlisle in 1977 at Jack and Viv Crook’s home. These were happy days living in a great Bahá’í community, with some steady declarations of new Bahá’ís.
We pioneered to Oban, incidentally introducing a young lady called Rosie to Garry Villiers-Stuart, whom we had invited to perform musical firesides with Martin Newman, to whom Brian had given a pamphlet in Bangor in about 1970. We had travel teachers Joy Behi and Mina Sheppard visit us, and the Bahá’ís of Mull and Glasgow were very supportive. Our first child, Melissa, was born in Oban in 1978.
After some months we moved to Chesterfield for access to college. Our daughter Gemma was born there and Brian got a first-class degree in print-making. One early morning Brian was woken by a moth buzzing in his ear; it got him up in time for dawn prayers. Eventually we moved to Scotland where Brian was a successful artist and wrote many letters about the Faith to the Galloway News. Our son Sam was born in Dumfries in 1988. After many adventures and happy years we moved to Wales. Brian and I were very different people. We split up in 2000 but we remained friends. Brian died there in 2011 and is buried in the Eternal Forest on the LLeyn Peninsula.
Three years ago I married Dave Townshend and we moved to rural Shropshire where, as a child, I always wanted to live. Every time I pass the Unitarian Church in Shrewsbury I think of Lou Turner, as she gave a talk there once. I also think of Madeline and Bill Hellaby, he a former Unitarian minister, who were Bahá’ís and whom I also had the pleasure of meeting. Madeline was instrumental in assisting Lou Turner to become a Bahá’í.
On 21st January 2016 it will be 40 years since I declared on my birthday in Tralee in the Republic of Ireland.
I’d like to finish my story with these words of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: ‘I have a Lamp in my hand searching through the lands and seas to find souls who can become heralds of the Cause. Day and night I am engaged in this work. Any other deliberations in the meetings are futile and fruitless. Convey the message! Attract the hearts! Sow the seeds! Teach the Cause to those who do not know’.
(Quoted in “Star of the West”, vol. 4, no. 15; 12 December 1913, p. 256).
Susan Parsons (Sue Townshend)
Shropshire, November 2015