On the surface you could say that I have had a privileged Bahá’í upbringing. I was born to Bahá’í parents, Jean and Andrew Gash, in York at the end of 1962. I attended the first Bahá’í World Congress at the Royal Albert Hall in 1963 (even though I was only a few months old and obviously don’t remember anything about it!). My parents were very active in the Bahá’í community, and I was always surrounded by many incredible people from all backgrounds and races, including future members of the Universal House of Justice and Hand of the Cause of God Collis Featherstone who used to stay with us on occasion when I was a child. I still have the necklace he gave me from one of the Pacific islands he visited. This was all something that I took for granted and only really appreciate now looking back.
We lived in various places around the UK – Porthcawl, South Wales, and Warton and Blackpool in Lancashire, and in 1970, when I was seven, we moved to Melbourne, Australia. It was a culture shock to me and I really missed England and my friends. One of my very first experiences was at school when my teacher started ranting at me about all the foreigners coming to Australia and why didn’t we all go back where we came from. At seven years old I was very confused and upset by this attitude and the memory has always stuck with me. Maybe that’s one of the reasons why I am so passionate about the principle of the oneness of mankind and freedom from prejudice. Who knows.
I grew up in a loving Bahá’í environment, learning the principles and the history of the Bábi and Bahá’í Faith. I loved the principles (what’s not to love!) and accepted the Bahá’í Faith as a normal way of life.
In 1973, when I was 10, my parents, brother and I visited New Caledonia and New Hebrides (now Vanuatu) for a travel teaching trip and I have lots of great memories of that time – climbing a volcano and staying in a hut on the beach in Tanna looking out on palm trees and the bluest sea. Tanna had one pioneer Bahá’í back then, Tony Deamer, but no local Bahá’ís, but now how that has changed! When we first arrived in Vanuatu we stayed in the grounds of the Nur School built in the 1950s by one of the early Australian Bahá’ís, Bertha Dobbins (awarded the accolade of Knight of Bahá’u’lláh). We also stayed in New Caledonia with two devoted Bahá’ís, originally from the UK, Jeannette and Owen Battrick. Jeannette Battrick was the one who brought my dad into the Bahá’í Faith so I was named after her.
I also remember attending the Oceanic Conference in Auckland, New Zealand, in 1977, and the International Conference in Canberra in 1982. I have a vague memory of meeting Dizzy Gillespie at a conference in Melbourne too when I was really young.
In 1976, when I was 13 and about to start my second year of high school, dad became the full time secretary of the National Teaching Committee, as well as being on the NSA, and Temple Activities Co-ordinator. We therefore had to move to Sydney to be closer to the National Office. As a stroppy teenager I was not impressed by any of this, especially as I seemed to have been renamed “Andrew Gash’s daughter” which annoyed me no end! It’s only looking back now that I realise the sacrifices and the dedication my parents have always shown towards the Bahá’í Faith. At that time of moving I remember flying to Brisbane to attend the national youth conference. It was the first time I had flown on my own and I felt very grown up! I sat next to a couple of nuns who were determined to look after me even though I was far too old to need help! I guess God was always looking out for me!
After living in Sydney for a few years, and my dad had returned to work in the insurance industry, we moved to a town called Gosford, north of Sydney and I finished my schooling there. I did a secretarial course and then moved back down to Sydney to work as an office junior at the Bahá’í National Office in the Temple grounds. Another privilege that I took for granted.
I was always homesick for England and wanted to move back there as soon as I was old enough (and allowed to by my mum and dad!). I travelled to England with my mum and brother Jamie in 1980 when I was 17 to see my grandad in Kent. I decided to stay and ended up in the Canterbury community. I met some wonderful Bahá’ís there, including Arthur and Marion Weinberg and Peter and Ann Kyne. I shared a flat in a lovely little village called Boughton, just outside Canterbury, with another wonderful Bahá’í, Azita Vahdat (now Mottahedeh) who was studying at the university. She is now married with children and living in Spain. I’m sure I was a real pain sometimes, being so young and clueless, but she never complained!
I only stayed in England a year as I lost my job and had no luck getting more work. I moved back to Australia which I instantly regretted and within a couple of months had moved to Hobart in Tasmania, as someone told me it was more like England! Yet again, I met some wonderful Bahá’ís and the Hobart Bahá’í community was a safe haven for me, especially moving somewhere where I didn’t know anybody. I think this is one of the great blessings of being a Bahá’í. Wherever you go you can make instant friends!
There were quite a few Bahá’í youth and we had a youth committee, though my memories have faded as to what we actually got up to. When I was 21 I was elected to the Hobart Spiritual Assembly and also spent some time on the Regional Teaching Committee. I lived there until 1985 when the wanderlust took hold of me again and I travelled for five months to various places, including Los Angeles, Hawaii, places around the UK, and a whirlwind trip around Europe. I also went on my first Pilgrimage in June of that year. It was very exciting and I met my long time friend Jane Cameron (now Sanders), and her daughter Louisa, who was only about two at the time.
When I returned from my travels, I stayed with my parents who were back in Sydney. My mum managed the book shop at the Sydney House of Worship and I worked there with her part- time, serving in the shop and dealing with orders and whatever else needed doing. I loved it there and it was a joy working with my mum. It was a very happy time.
Still, after a broken engagement and my persistent restlessness, I eventually moved back to England in 1988 when I was 25. I ended up back in Canterbury, reunited with many of the same Bahá’ís from that community. I was very happy to be back, even though most people couldn’t understand my wanting to leave hot and sunny Australia!
It was during this time, though, that I started to question the sincerity of my Bahá’í beliefs and the way I lived my life. I didn’t so much question the validity of the Bahá’í Teachings or the existence of God, but found it hard to basically act like a Bahá’í, and sometimes even rebelled against it. I found myself wishing that I had been brought up in a more “normal” way and saw the Bahá’í teachings as restrictive rather than a protection and guide. I have always been shy and socially awkward and find social situations difficult to the point of being unbearable sometimes. Being a social misfit was bad enough without adding being religious, not to mention a religion that no one had heard of!
I became what was known then as an inactive Bahá’í and spent a lot of time cogitating about which problems in the world I could solve. I joined Amnesty International amongst other things. I was told in a blunt way by a well-meaning Bahá’í that I shouldn’t have anything to do with Amnesty International and because of that and some other well-meant comments I was determined not to have anything to do with Bahá’í activities. (Being shy didn’t stop me from being bolshie and stubborn!)
For some reason though, during the early 1990s, I attended an inspiring and matter-of-fact talk by Douglas Martin (who later became a member of the Universal House of Justice). He talked about the necessity of Bahá’u’lláh’s Message in dealing with the world’s problems and that trying to solve them all individually was a waste of time. It was just what I wanted and needed to hear, as I was permanently confused as to what problem to solve first. (Up to then I hadn’t achieved or solved anything!) I also realised that “normal” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be so I returned to the Canterbury Bahá’í community and eventually applied to serve at the Bahá’í World Centre. After a year, or what seemed like forever, I was accepted and moved to Haifa in October 1994. I was there for four years and four months, and this period gave me my most precious memories. It was a time of even more privileges and experiences, which I will never forget. Douglas Martin was also serving on the Universal House of Justice by then and I often wanted to tell him how important his talk was to me but I never did. Too shy! And everything I thought of saying seemed too trite anyway.
I returned to England in 1999 as I had been so inspired by the Bahá’í gardens and I wanted to study horticulture. My parents had returned to England in 1990, and had recently moved to the Isle of Wight, so I stayed with them until I went to college near Winchester to do my one year course. It wasn’t a happy experience for many reasons, and I had also inadvertently drifted away from Bahá’í activities again. When the course finished I moved back to the Isle of Wight and got a job in the local garden centre in Freshwater. It was not a great place to work and I was not happy with life, especially in contrast to my incredible time at the Bahá’í World Centre, but during that time I met my future husband, Phill, and I eventually moved up to Essex to be with him. We were married in 2006.
Yet again, I was unhappy with the hypocritical way I was living my life as a part- time Bahá’í, and made the conscious decision to make a break from it all. I never felt the desire to resign from the Bahá’í Faith, as deep down I knew it to be true, but I found it easy to call myself a Bahá’í out of habit, and not give it much thought. Taking this giant step back enabled me to start my investigations from scratch, so to speak. Initially it was a relief to have made the decision but the result was 10 years or so of major tests and trials, both at home and at work. I became very bitter and angry about some of the things that happened and I am sure this is what contributed to my getting breast cancer in 2012. As Bahá’ís know and understand though, tests serve a greater purpose and they enabled me to look at the Bahá’í Faith in a new light, and gradually I am becoming a Bahá’í out of choice and not habit. Fortunately my breast cancer was caught early and I made a full recovery.
I have been in touch with the Essex Bahá’ís for a couple of years now and am lucky to have met such beautiful, kind, warm-hearted people. I am the only Bahá’í in my area of South Woodham Ferrers, and I still struggle with social situations but I get to most reflection meetings and have even held a few devotionals. In May of 2015 I went on Pilgrimage with my husband, who is not a Bahá’í, and it was such a great experience to share with him. I also met up with Bahá’ís I had served with in Haifa all those years ago, along with two of the fabulous Bahá’ís I knew in Hobart, Kevin and Ann Stark, who are now serving there. It was beyond joy to meet up with them all again.
Who knows what the future will bring, but I feel at least like I am going in the right direction now. Thanks, Bahá’u’lláh, for looking after me.
Jeanette Lock (née Gash)
Essex, January 2016