Becoming a Bahá’í is not just about the moment you say; “I am a Bahá’í”. In my case it stemmed from childhood and so that’s where I’ll start my story.
I grew up in England, and none of my family were religious. My dad was brought up in a protestant family and his mum loved the Quakers, often attending their meetings. She was a seeker and I think that though I didn’t really know her that well, she somehow passed that thirst for spirituality on to me. Mum went to a convent school, believing the Bible literally. On going to work in London at the age of 16 she was confronted by people asking how she could believe in Adam and Eve or the immaculate conception. She then rejected Catholicism. Having said that, both of my parents still have a spiritual side. My dad, a sculptor, has a strong belief in a muse and that you have to be true to in your art. He believes that you must follow that muse with a pure heart, rather than say doing art for money, or she will leave you and no longer give you inspiration. He also jokes that he believes in many gods, one of the furnace, one of the plaster and so on. I’m not sure how serious he is about this however, as it first became a concept when some Mormons came knocking on the door. Needless to say they didn’t hang around to find out more. My mum still has a deep feeling of mysticism and is a very spiritual person. She often has mysterious dreams and is very interested in the idea of an afterlife. My sister always says that if she were to choose a religion it would be Bahá’í, she’s just not that keen on religion! I am very grateful indeed that the Faith tells us that by becoming a Bahá’í we also bless our family, as I love them deeply and know that they are good people.
During my childhood my family occasionally went to church, as my parents liked the atmosphere, especially that of Latin mass that my dad felt especially moving. He told me once that he found religion more soul-stirring when you didn’t know what was being said! Most importantly for me, we lived next door to an old Norman church. The door would often be left open and I would go in there and sit in the sacred stillness and quietness and look up at the figure of Jesus on the cross, feeling great love and sadness for all His pain. I much preferred the church when I was alone as there was such a strong feeling of peace there.
At school we had prayers and hymns during assembly and we learnt Bible stories, all of which I loved. We had wonderful teachers and a headmaster who was an extremely kind and a faithful Christian. My mum once asked me if I ever saw my headmaster and I replied; “Oh yes, he dances in and out of assembly from time to time!” I remember joyfully singing ‘Morning Has Broken’ and other spiritually-centred songs.
My sister and I reacted so differently to a very similar environment. For her it was meaningless and pointless and something to rebel against. For me, it was attractive and empowering.
At the end of most evenings I would sit in bed and talk to God, tell Him all my problems and share my day. I was very happy in my primary school, but secondary school was a different story. Entering secondary as a naive, optimistic 11 year old who really had never thought about fashion before and still wore long knee-socks, it was a huge shock. At first I used the same tools I had used successfully at primary, but it soon became clear that being friendly to everyone and working hard wasn’t the thing in my new school. Girls started to call me a teacher’s pet and tease me about my clothes. Kids kicked me from behind in the lunch queue and spat on my head on the school bus. I shrank in and closed off. Perhaps if I tried to make myself invisible they would stop. This of course was the worst thing I could have done because the kids found I was quiet and an easy picking. Because they were sure I would stay silent and not tell anyone, it just got worse. I closed in on myself, retreating further and further inwards. My nightly conversation with God became a lifeline. For some reason, I didn’t talk to my family. I think I was scared of hurting them somehow, or that if I ‘told’, it would get worse. HE was the only One I could really open my heart to without fear.
Things shifted and changed, but the bullying shifted and changed too. At 14 I had my hair cut short, and started wearing make-up and nicer clothes. I tried to fit into the environment and didn’t work so hard. Boys started to pay attention and this caused the worst wave of bullying of all when a boy liked by the ‘popular’ group flirted with me. I was seen as entering their territory. Some of our teachers unintentionally made it worse, for example when the sports teacher invited those good at sports to choose their teams. There were always a few of us left that no-one wanted.
At the same time, I had some very good friends and we all survived. I wasn’t the worst-off one. Others girls in my year had babies or abortions at 14, or were raped, or tried to commit suicide. Many bad things that happened were only revealed much later when we were adults. Small-village life in Oxfordshire may seem idyllic to some, and materially we had everything we needed, but growing up, a lot of us were quite depressed facing the mental rather than physical tests talked of by Shoghi Effendi. At the time I often wondered whether I was being punished by God for somehow being ‘bad’. It took years to undo this negative type of thinking and to realise through the Faith that perhaps some of these tests were actually a blessing and a path to Him as well as making me more aware of the suffering of others.
It was at this time that I began to start searching. Passing an advert in Oxford city centre, a friend and I were attracted to a Hari Krishna vegetarian buffet, but for some reason it didn’t really click with me as it seemed so outside the real world, with many of the male believers dressed in yellow robes. I also attended a Baptist youth camp with a friend but the speaker hammered nails into a cross, saying how Christ had suffered, which seemed frightening and it angered me as there were a lot of younger kids there who looked scared. I went to a Methodist meeting, but somehow felt an outsider, not really ‘one of them’. I just carried on talking to God.
When I left home and went to Art College it was at first liberating and exciting, but quickly became lonely and confusing. I developed mild eating disorders and was often depressed even though I had some great friends and really enjoyed the course I was on. I did not do well in sit-down exams as I panicked, but art was something I could excel at and I began to feel it was my vocation. I went on to move to Scotland and study Fine Art Printmaking at Glasgow School of Art (GSA).
In my first year at GSA I met a student who was going to completely change my life. I lived in a girls’ hostel and there I made a special friend, Rachel Robarts. There was something different about Rachel. When everyone around me was saying how awful the state of the world was and getting drunk, taking drugs, partying and generally trying to forget about life by having a good time, Rachel was incredibly positive. I remember very clearly that we were walking in the park together one day when she said; “This is such an amazing time to be alive!” It was such an unusual thing to say that I was shocked and asked her why. She then told me that she was a Bahá’í and a little about the Bahá’í Faith. I remember being particularly attracted to the idea of the oneness of religion, as I’d never seen how with so many different Faiths in the world, each one could claim to be right and all others wrong. One night, Rachel said “I’m going to a fireside, would you like to come?” My response must have been something like; “Hmm, naa, I don’t think so, but thanks anyway.” She must have seen that I’d been interested before because she was very bold,
“No, you are coming.”
“That’s kind of you, but no, I don’t think so”,
“Yes you are!!!”
So I went.
It was amazing…or rather, it was profound, because the people we met didn’t do anything superhuman or spectacular, like put on a banquet or have a complete programme all planned out. They just welcomed us into their home and showed us great love. This ordinary and yet extraordinary family opened their door once a week to whoever wanted to come. We had tea and biscuits and Rachel brought along some of her friends including myself and Lou Armitt. Ricky Pooran would sit and chat to us while his wife Janet put the boys to bed, after which she would join us in our discussion. Members of the Glasgow Bahá’í community would randomly drop in, and the warmth of spirit was something I had never come across before. We talked and talked and I asked question after question which the community answered patiently, lovingly and wisely. I remember one time after I had been going for many weeks, we were talking about Holy Books and were told that the most Holy Book in the Bahá’í Faith was the Kitáb-i-Aqdas. “Can I read it?” I remember asking
“Um, maybe not just yet.” Was the reply, “Try this one first.”
From the first night, I was hooked! Although some of the other friends Rachel brought to the fireside didn’t return, both Lou and I continued week after week. I remember just loving the atmosphere of inclusion, search and family. There was an immediate feeling of belonging as well as the probing of deep questions that I’d always wanted to explore and that were normally met with comments such as, “You think too much.”
This was 1991 and during that year we attended Bahá’í meetings and Rachel gave me a copy of the Hidden Words. I began reading it every night before I went to bed. In the following March (1992) Rachel said she was going to fast and I said I’d like to fast with her. It was exhilarating in its need for self control and discipline and the feeling that we were doing something so different and meaningful. I remember the first morning of that first fast;
“We have to eat lots or we’ll be hungry!” Rachel told me seriously.
So we ate LOTS. I remember cereal, orange juice, toast, cheese, eggs, fruit and tea and then we waddled upstairs to her room at sunrise and lay groaning on her bed. By eleven we were starving again because we’d stretched our stomachs so much! After that we became a little wiser.
The whole world seemed different at that time. I remember looking around at people eating at lunchtime and thinking; ‘ If everyone was a Bahá’í then none of these people would be eating!’ It was thrilling. At last I could do something to show my love for God.
It was during the Fast, sitting in bed one day that I realised I was a Bahá’í. I was reading Bahá’ulláh’s words and reading them as God’s words. If I believed these were God’s words and yet they were written by Bahá’u’lláh, then He must be who He said He was and I was therefore a Bahá’í. I know this memory is accurate because I wrote these thoughts down that night.
I did not declare then, however, as I had a bit of a problem with that. The Glasgow Bahá’ís never pushed us on declaring, thank goodness. I guess they just felt we would come to it in our own good time for which I am very grateful. My dad had almost joined the communist party when he was younger, which would have caused him many complications in life. He had warned me repeatedly never to ‘join’ anything and so I held back.
Then, during the summer of 1992 I decided to go and work on a kibbutz in Israel. We had time to travel while working there and I went with a group of friends to Haifa. We went there as visitors but while there I ‘admitted’ to my new friends that I was a Bahá’í. I think this was the first time I had told anyone outside the community. At the end of the holiday I went back to Haifa and stayed with a friend of Rachel’s working at the Bahá’í World Centre, Philomen Atago. We read the writings together and talked about the Faith and visited the Holy places together. She was gentle and assured and in the words of Shoghi Effendi, “…all confidence…” I returned to Glasgow changed, and declared in November.
On finally admitting to myself and the world that I was a Bahá’í, I remember thinking
“This is it! All my problems are solved! Everyone will become a Bahá’í as soon as they know about this!”
I told my parents when sitting in the car after travelling back from Glasgow to Oxford during the Christmas holidays.
“Mum, dad, I’ve got something to tell you…I’m a Bahá’í!!!!!”
“WHAT???!!! YOU’RE A BI???!!!”
“No Mum!! A BAHÁ’Í!!!!”
I guess it was a relief that it was just a religion after they had thought I was coming out as a bisexual.
They told me later they had checked the Bahá’í Faith out with a friend who was a journalist for Time Magazine, asking her if it was a cult. She said it wasn’t, and that she had come across the Bahá’ís in her work and that they were very good people. My parents relaxed. They wouldn’t read the books I gave them with personal inscriptions however, and thought that I was being a bit extreme when I wouldn’t eat Christmas pudding as it had brandy in it. They argued back that gossip was natural when I told them about the dangerous nature of backbiting, and my first real attempt at teaching was a complete wash-out before I even knew the concept of Bahá’í teaching.
It was a shock that this incredible message, so obvious to me as the answer to everyone’s problems was received with such coldness. I really couldn’t understand it. This was the reaction over and over again unfortunately and after a while I kind-of closed off a bit again. Luckily I still had the amazing Glasgow community to support me and I remember making Persian rice with Sholeh and Alan Forsyth, going to The Barras with David Leven, playing ping pong with the Glasgow lads, devotionals at the homes of Payam Tahzib and Hillarie Burnett, rapping with Poona and her brother Pejman, and meeting a grinning Grant Morley at Glasgow train station. These wonderful friends and many others I haven’t named (but know who they are) were my spiritual family and saw me through my bumpy start as a Bahá’í with pure love. Lou and I were even voted on to the LSA a year later and even that didn’t put us off! I hope the same can be said for the poor Bahá’ís we were attempting to be of service to!
Strangely enough the road did not become as smooth and problem-free as I had expected on becoming a Bahá’í. I can’t believe this now, but I even wrote to the Universal House of Justice at one point as I was doubting my faith. I received a beautiful letter back assuring me that many people had times of doubt and that they would pray for me. That letter was such a gift. I still have it and even at the time, barely understanding what the Universal House of Justice actually was, I felt a personal connection to my new world family, and gained strength.
In 1993 my head of department said anyone interested could go on a student exchange in our third year. I was doing printmaking and the head suggested I think about the USA as I was interested in book arts such as paper-making and book-binding which were specialisations in a number of universities in the US. Then I attended a Bahá’í summer school in Scotland. I remember the weather was grey and rainy and we ran from workshop to lecture with coats over our heads. On the other hand the atmosphere of the summer school was far from grey, more like neon pink! One evening I attended a talk by Jene Bellows. Jene was dividing her year by living six months in the USA and six months in China and she encouraged us to visit that ‘country of the future’. She showed pictures of Chinese people’s faces, and the purity of their eyes was incredible. I now knew that the place I wanted to go on exchange was China.
Things didn’t work out quite as I’d planned. No universities that I contacted had that kind of a scheme for art students, but the urge to go just wouldn’t leave me. Rachel told me that she had been to visit her brother Adam in China, and looking me straight in the eye said very sternly;
“Read my diary about my experience. You might not want to go there afterwards!”
(However, she and her family now live in Shanghai. God has a wicked sense of humour! )
I wrote to local businesses and asked if they would sponsor me to go to China to research papermaking there. Some gave money in dribs and drabs and I visited various factories to chat with people about what I wanted to do; to find out more about the potential benefits to the environment of hemp as a paper fibre. I was about to graduate when one factory wrote back. They offered me £1,000, enough for a plane ticket. Of all the Chinese universities that I’d written to offering to teach English, one wrote back “Come in September.”
I was not confident that I could teach English so took a fast track Certificate in English Language Teaching to Young Learners (CELTYL) course to teach English as a foreign language. My Bahá’í friends told me that the International Women’s Conference was being held in Beijing and so I decided to go as a Bahá’í representative. This was in 1995.
I remember being a typical art student and totally disorganised about my trip to China. The day before my flight I was still running around Oxford buying things to take with me. My family took me to Heathrow, with my heavy walking boots tied to the outside of my rucksack hanging off the back, giving me the feeling that I was literally being kicked out of the country. I was off! Naive? Totally. Brave? I had no idea. Happy? Ecstatic! THIS was it. This was the answer to all my problems. I was off to a country where everyone had pure eyes.
The reality of actually living in China was a little more rough at the edges. I remember arriving at Beijing Language and Culture University after the Women’s Conference and walking rather bewildered through a pair of ENORMOUS gates. All I had was an address on the letter I had been sent, the name of the man inviting me on behalf of the university and when I would begin, in September. Walking into this huge university I had no idea how to begin to find the person who was offering me this job. I went from building to building, place to place. Asking in almost non-existent Chinese, learnt in evening classes in Scotland, where I should go, and ending up talking with them in English as everyone seemed to be fluent. I finally ended up in the Teacher’s block where I was met by an Irishman with a massive beard. “Oh yes! We were told you were coming. This is your flat. Classes begin Monday.” At which point they exited and I was left standing in my flat.
Hmmm. What now? I went to the bedroom and the light didn’t work. Maybe I should ask to move. Somehow I managed to make myself understood with a few words and a lot of gestures to the young girl from the countryside, our cleaner, who nodded enthusiastically and led me to another room. Good job! I was very pleased with myself. I went into the kitchen and opened the oven. The whole oven moved. Little black creatures that had been covering every surface of the oven scuttled away somewhere. *SCREAM!* I hot-footed myself back to the original flat and got out my Oxford English-Chinese dictionary, praying that none of the cockroaches had sneaked into my suitcase. My first new word of Chinese in China was ‘Deng Pao’, ‘Light-bulb’.
I don’t remember at what point I met the Chinese staff, but it turned out that the man who had invited me had actually left the school. I got books somehow and started teaching, went out to lunch with other teachers, and life began. At first it was incredibly exciting and nerve-wracking. I didn’t feel confident as a teacher despite my CELTA course, and spent hours in the library preparing classes. I was told I had to give two lectures a term to over 200 students and almost had a mini-breakdown. For someone who had spent most of her life trying to be invisible, this was a nightmare. How I managed to walk into that lecture hall that first time I have no idea. My legs were going from under me as I walked to the lectern and I thought I was going to pass out. It was a complete hit. They even laughed at my jokes! Unbelievable!
Classes, however, continued to be hard, as I doubted myself and never felt I’d done well enough. I cried every night I went to bed and dragged myself out of bed every morning. I was a terrible teacher. What was I doing here? The only thing I knew was that I was here for a year and I wouldn’t go back to England with my tail between my legs. I was going to stick it out no matter how bad it got! I made weird salads with strong brown vinegar, had cooking disasters with vegetables that I thought were a kind of squash and turned out to be bitter melon, and watched Dynasty and other old American soaps on wobbly television sets every lunchtime. I was addicted to this lunchtime viewing as it was the only native English programme I’d managed to find on TV. I got brushes and paper and painted despairingly. What on earth should I paint? I painted lack of communication as it felt impossible to reach the local people; they simply didn’t understand my Chinese. I painted stomach pains and strange long faces with staring eyes.
The Beijing winter was very cold, -38c at its coldest, but my breakthrough came that January, out buying carrots. I turned to the lady selling vegetables in the biting wind;
“Ni leng bu leng?” (Are you cold?)
I have no idea what she said back. She gave this huge grin and rattled off excitedly in a country dialect. I went back home on a complete high. I had made contact! She had looked into my eyes and then I saw in her the purity I had been looking for.
During the winter vacation for Chinese New Year, a fellow teacher from Birmingham and I decided to see a bit more of China. We flew to Guangzhou and had a wonderful time only to realise we were stuck there as we couldn’t get tickets back again. This was Chinese New Year and the whole of China was on the move. If you have never experienced China during Chinese New Year you will have no idea of the sheer mass of people travelling home to be with family. There were no flights for sure and we could only get train tickets to Kunming. We went there for a few days, soaking in the beauty, then managed to get bus tickets the rest of the way. Woah, was that a journey! Multi-decker buses with your nose almost touching the underside of the bunk above. Toilet stops that turned out to be trenches where everyone was in together and a foreigner’s posterior was of great interest. Rice porridge and salted duck eggs for breakfast and attempts at communication with our fellow passengers in bad Chinese. It was the journey of a lifetime! Great stuff!
Back in Beijing, the Bahá’ís proved to be as beautiful as those I had met in Scotland. I used to visit Karyn and Adam Robarts in their small apartment at the Beijing Architecture University. They were newlyweds and full of affection for me, whom they saw as an extra little sister. They had that amazing balance of being both sympathetic and yet able to see the humour in life. Their little apartment had magically been converted from a concrete box to a home that was warm and welcoming as well as exotic and elegant, with African rugs hanging on the wall and beautiful cups to drink from.
That second term I settled into the routine of teaching. Students whom I’d taught in the first term were very encouraging and told me I was a wonderful teacher. They became my close friends and we cycled all over Beijing to various sites of interest and ate wonderful food that no matter how much I protested, they would never let me pay for. I was their teacher, that was more than enough, they would pay for the meals! Two of them in particular became firm friends and twenty years later we are still close. Once you have a deep friendship in China you become family.
In June I was asked by a Chinese artist to show my paintings as part of an exhibition at the Beijing Art Museum, a huge place in central Beijing. I exhibited the pieces I’d been doing about lack of communication and even sold one to an American traveller passing through the capital. China was suddenly alive with possibilities. I was happy and felt more at home as a ‘foreigner’ in China than I did as an English woman in England.
My love affair with China had begun and after a year I couldn’t leave. I felt I needed to stay just a little bit longer and found a job in a primary school for six months. As that work drew to a close I still wasn’t ready to return to England. I got a job teaching business English for Motorola and became closer and closer to a student I had met at Beijing Language and Culture University. A Bahá’í friend, Hilary Wheadon had introduced Liu Wei and me to each other, knowing we were both at the same university; me as an English teacher, Wei doing a post-graduate course in Spanish. Wei went from being just another face to a being a good friend and finally to becoming my husband. I moved to Shenyang in the North East of China in 1998 and we married in 1999.
We now live in Shenyang with our two daughters, Anya (13) and Rose (12). I teach art and exhibit my work. We have a studio space where we teach, work and have gatherings with friends. The air pollution in Shenyang is officially the worst in world history, and Chinese middle school is intense, with the girls sometimes working until midnight on their homework. Despite this I’ve never been happier. I am of service, I am useful here and China is the country of the future. The girls are growing up in a culture where hard work is more important than hairstyles. The girls also have many good friends. I still go up and down, but I know that even when the black cloud of depression descends, in the centre of me is the bright eye of the Divine.
I guess that one of the things I didn’t understand when I first embraced the Faith was that we never actually become a BAHÁ’Í. By saying “I am a BAHÁ’Í” we just begin the journey of trying to get closer to that ideal.
Sophie Hurst Liu