Background and upbringing
I was born in Halifax, Yorkshire, on 7th May 1946. My father was a dental technician and he met my mother in unusual circumstances. She was visiting the dentist to have all her teeth out and was having gas. The dentist called in my father to assist. He saw her lying unconscious in the dentist’s chair and fell in love with her. He wrote asking her out, and for her it was a blind date. They later married and I was the result!
I was an only child and probably rather spoilt. I had a very happy childhood living in a village near Halifax, called Stainland. My parents attended the local Congregational Church and I followed suit, attending Sunday schools and going to Chapel. When I was 10, we moved nearer to my dad’s work in Halifax. We then joined the nearby Methodist Church and I went to the local Grammar school. Singing hymns in the daily assemblies had an influence on me.
When I was 16 I started doing the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, Bronze medal. To complete this you had to have a hobby. I chose to learn the organ, playing it at the Methodist Church for a couple of years, but I was not interested in religion. If I was in a hurry to get home during the services, I just played the organ faster! I moved to Sheffield in 1963 to study to become a Chartered Surveyor at the then Sheffield College of Technology (now Sheffield Hallam University). Among my friends was a local lad – Malcolm Lake.
Early Bahá’í influences
In 1967, while still a student I travelled with a friend round the USA, Canada and Mexico. At the same time, but independently, my friend Malcolm went to the USA and it was there that by chance he met some Bahá’ís. On his return, and after a shortish period of investigation, he declared. I was surprised at this as Malcolm had not been a particularly religious person. He then spent some time trying to tell me and my other student friends about the Bahá’í Faith. At this time I also met another Bahá’i, Taraz Manavi, an Iranian engineering student at Sheffield University. Whenever I saw him he would introduce new aspects of the Faith.
My initial reaction to all this was fairly negative. I had little interest in knowing about a new religion.
Over a period of three years, I gradually became more interested.
There were several reasons for this
- I enjoyed reading Bahá’í books.
- I attended some firesides and found the people warm and friendly.
- A Bahá’í singing group, The Dawnbreakers, visited Sheffield for an evening’s performance. The group was full of young enthusiastic people. I felt I should be up on the stage with them singing the same words and trying to change the world.
- My girlfriend Rita Hallet was also interested in the faith and we investigated together.
- I travelled abroad overland on a three-month journey by bus from England to Southern India on the Commonwealth Expedition. Its aim was to improve Commonwealth relations by meeting locals on the way and producing some typically English entertainment. I was in a novice team trying to do Newcastle rapper dancing.
This was my first time outside of a predominantly Christian country and I wondered how all the Buddhists, Muslims and Hindus fitted in. The Bahá’í Faith seemed to provide all the answers. We travelled through Iran along the Asian Highway and went to Tehran, Tabriz and even Macu, where the Báb had been imprisoned, but I did not realise the importance of these places till I returned home.
Becoming a Bahá’í
Rita and I began to find that gradually our lives were becoming dominated by Bahá’í events and people. We visited Ireland, met Bahá’ís, went to winter schools like York, attended firesides, and found that eventually most of our friends were indeed Bahá’ís and they were all so friendly and helpful. Finally I decided that this way of life was for me and that I believed in Bahá’u’lláh.
I declared in the home of Iraj and Pajou Zamiri in Sheffield in November 1971 and was surprised and delighted at the wonderful response.
Impact on my life
In the early 1970s, not many people had heard of the Bahá’í faith. My mother had met Bahá’ís and found them warm and sincere and so had no objection to my embracing the Faith, although I always felt she thought I would have made a good Methodist!
Work colleagues were less accommodating. They had all kinds of preconceived notions and prejudices. The hardest aspect socially for a guy in his 20s was abstaining from alcohol. Friends could not understand this, and in the days before drink-driving was an issue, they would always try and entice you to have something alcoholic. My old college friends were probably quite bemused, since out of a cohort of 30 students, Malcolm Lake, Colin Hindmarsh and I had all declared within a short period of time. I expected others to follow suit, and was surprised when my friends didn’t jump at the opportunity of finding out more about the Bahá’i faith but I had to reflect that it took me three years before I saw the light!
The Bahá’í life
Shortly after becoming a Bahá’í, I was elected to the Spiritual Assembly of Sheffield and became treasurer. I was also asked to serve on an Area Teaching Committee. We generally met near Harrogate at the home of Veronica and Victor Priem. Included in the committee were Veronica Priem, Peter Smith and Roger Wilkinson. Three weeks after I declared, Rita also became a Bahá’í. We both became members of the LSA in 1972 and have remained so ever since. Two years later we were married in what we presumed to be the first Bahá’í wedding in Sheffield. Radio Sheffield was in attendance and we were featured in the local Saturday morning papers.
Travel teaching to Africa
A short while after being married, we decided to do some travel teaching. A Sheffield Bahá’í, Silan Nadarajah, had contacts in Kenya, and helped arrange a programme for us. Tarab Manavi/Samandari, another local Bahá’í, also had relatives there. We went to Kenya for six weeks. It was wonderful to meet and stay with people who believed the same things as we did.
One event sticks out in my mind. Catching the early morning bus from Nairobi to Mombasa, Rita and I decided to sit separately so we could talk to the locals. The only other white man on the bus came to sit next to me and we got chatting. It turned that out he too was a Chartered Surveyor, and from England. He knew one of my old flatmates in Sheffield. The more we talked the more we found we had in common. It eventually turned out that when I had been away visiting my wife-to-be, he had not only visited my flatmate, but had been sleeping in my bed! We were so overwhelmed by this remarkable coincidence that he joined us and stayed with Bahá’ís for the next three or four days! This taught me something important – that if you don’t make the effort to talk to people, you miss out on all sorts of opportunities.
Anne and Fred Halliday were Sheffield Bahá’ís who held firesides. Their warmth and welcome and Anne’s baking were a wonderful example to us. Anne in particular always saw the good in everything. Shortly before we declared they moved to Limerick in Ireland where they continued their efforts and became legendary in that part of the world. Firesides at the Zamiri’s house were always a lot of fun as well as intellectually stimulating. Tarab Samandari came to Sheffield in the 1970s and set up a guesthouse. Later she moved into a larger accommodation and called it The Peace Guesthouse, which became the equivalent of a Bahá’í Centre in Sheffield for many years. Several Bahá’ís from Sheffield pioneered overseas: Silan and Tahereh Nadarajah to Papua New Guinea, Denis and Doreen Anderson to Trinidad, Ruth Bradley to Australia and Ireland. Rita and I never have left Sheffield. To date (2016) we have been there for 45 years, and still on the Local Spiritual Assembly.
Richard St. Barbe Baker, Man of the Trees
We heard Richard St. Barbe Baker was coming to our area and I had just started working at Sheffield Polytechnic (1974). I decided to organise a public meeting about trees and aspects of St. Barbe Baker’s Bahá’í life, with him as the keynote speaker. I knew he was an important person, but didn’t realise just how influential he was. He had founded the society Men of the Trees, now the International Tree Foundation. By then he was an old man in his eighties. I remember he impressed me because he was so thoughtful and helpful. He had even brought his inner sleeping bag, so that we wouldn’t have to change the bed linen. He was full of plans. Shortly after he arrived, he became ill, and was rushed off to hospital. When asked what religion he was he said “I am trying to be a Bahá’í”. At one point he thought he was dying. He’d seen a vision of bright lights and a nine-pointed star. Consequently, he gave me his wristwatch. He thought that was it, but next time I visited him he asked for it back. He’d had a recovery. I was very happy to return it and he lived on for many years. One of his problems was that being a vegetarian, in those days, the hospital didn’t really have any appropriate food. We had to smuggle baked potatoes in for him as there was no ‘proper’ food. The nurses were absolutely enthralled with his skin, however, as he’d been a vegetarian since early childhood and his skin was soft like a baby’s. He also used almond oil on it. I remember him sitting up in bed, shortly after his operation, writing letters to people all over the world when he should have been resting. The staff were staggered by all the mail arriving for him from Australia, Israel and Africa, He was in hospital for about three or four weeks, and then when he went for convalescence in Buxton, we went to see him there. Once when he came for a check-up he bought lots and lots of flowers for the staff at the hospital. They all gathered round him as he had obviously become very special to them. It was interesting comparing the way they treated him the day he was taken into hospital, and the way they felt about him by the time he had finished his stay.
The European youth conference was held at Sheffield University in August 1989. This was a wonderful event for the Sheffield Community, as hundreds of Bahá’is descended on the city from all over the world. Mr Furútan, Hand of the Cause, was present and the whole event was one of celebration and the potential for youth to “move the world.”
50 year celebrations in 2000
The first Spiritual Assembly of Sheffield was formed in 1950, so in the year 2000 we had a large event to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary. Hassan Sabri was our guest speaker.
In 2011 the Sheffield community had a sudden influx of Bahá’ís from the Congo. It felt like our community had doubled overnight! The Congolese had been in a camp in Tanzania for over seven years. Some of the children had been there all their lives. Only one of the adults spoke a little English. None of them had jobs and were not used to our English way of life, which proved to be a tremendous challenge but had its rewards. Their wonderful singing, natural warmth, and sincerity and dedication to the Faith in spite of all of their problems was a lesson for us all. Today they still enrich the community with their diversity and inspiration.
In 1977 our daughter Andisha came along, an unusual name which we Anglicised from the Persian ‘Andisheh’ to make it easier to say and spell. That was as a result of going to Africa on our travel-teaching trip, where we met Tarab’s niece Andisheh. We think our invention ‘Andisha’ may be unique in the world! Our second daughter Vanessa was born in 1980 and the two sisters were the only Bahá’í children in Sheffield for a while. We did have children’s classes with Sandra (now Agahi) as she had just become a Bahá’í. Then Helen Agahi (now Hellaby) ran some classes. The first summer school we attended was in Ireland while we were still on our honeymoon. The next one was when Andisha was only a few months old. For the following twenty years we almost always went to a summer school, so the children had Bahá’í friends throughout the country.
In those days, there were hardly any children at summer schools. There may have been Bahá’í babies, but they didn’t usually go to summer schools. They were not geared up for them then, although there were classes, but with only a tiny handful of children. Andisha and Vanessa became Bahá’is in their teens. We were careful not to put any pressure on them but allowed them to make their own decisions. Andisha is now very much involved in all manner of Bahá’í activities.
Pilgrimages and Bahá’í places abroad
We first went to Haifa in February 1992, as a family. We never thought of going when we first became Bahá’ís, and when the children came along we didn’t want to go without them, so when we thought they were old enough, we applied for pilgrimage. Our pilgrim guide was Lesley Taherzadeh, whom we had met years ago on a visit to Ireland. We met Hand of the Cause Mr Furútan and, as was customary in those days, had an audience with Rúhíyyih Khánum. The weather in Haifa that February was uncharacteristically wet. It even snowed and the heavy snow prevented people travelling from Haifa to Jerusalem. Mr Furútan jokingly said it should not worry us, as rain and snow meant shekels to the Bahá’ís in Israel – meaning the Bahá’i gardens would need less watering, which was costly! We eventually visited Jerusalem and I remember contrasting the clamour and noise of the holy places there with the tranquillity and dignity of the Bahá’í shrines.
Our next pilgrimage, as a family, was in 2005. The terraces had been completed and we really felt the strength and growth of the Faith. Andisha did two years of service in Haifa between 2008 and 2010. We had the opportunity to visit her twice and, on our second visit took Vanessa and her husband Adam with us. In 1997 Andisha spent seven months’ service at the Bahá’í Conference Centre at Greenacre in America. We visited her in the summer amidst prolific mosquitoes.
In 1999 Vanessa did youth service in Swaziland at the Bahá’í School in Mbabane. Her fellow helper was Tara Shahbahrami. We also visited Vanessa and were given wonderful hospitality by Clare and Simon Mortimore who had pioneered to Swaziland. We were so lucky being able to visit our children abroad in a Bahá’í environment.
In 2014 Rita and I spent two weeks in Chicago. We of course went to see the House of Worship in Wilmette and found we couldn’t keep away. We kept returning there day after day. It was a marvellous experience.
In 1995, as part of my work I visited a student on placement in Vancouver Island. At a bus stop in a quiet urban area, I got talking to the only other lady waiting. It turned out she had been to Israel and I thought what a wonderful opportunity to tell her about the Faith. To my surprise she said she knew all about it as – she was a Bahá’i! We were so affected by this coincidence that we got really involved in a very deep conversation on the short bus journey. Then a young man sitting behind us on the bus must have heard us talking. He said “Excuse me, are you two Bahá’ís?” We said “Yes” and he said “Well – so am I!” We had a hardly got over this additional surprise when we reached their bus stops and had to part. I was left wondering if it had really happened. This again reminded me of my coincidence in Africa and the belief that if you don’t talk to people you miss opportunities!
In 1999, while visiting Vanessa in Swaziland – we decided to go on a short tour of part of South Africa. We stopped just outside a small town for bed-and-breakfast. In the morning I decided to try to contact any local Bahá’is who might live in the area and so began perusing the telephone directory. The owner of the house asked if she could help. I explained what I was doing. “Oh I have friends who are Bahá’ís. If you like I will arrange for you to meet them this evening”. Her two friends – mother and daughter came round that evening and we couldn’t believe our ears. The mother was 91 and told us the staggering news that she had met ‘Abdu’l-Bahá several times when she was a little girl! For her age, she was extremely articulate and had a wonderful sense of humour. She recounted her meetings with Him in her home near Greenacre, in the United States, when she was aged 5 and again in Haifa, aged 12. Her name was Bahiyyih Randall Winckler and I found out later that she had written a book on her experiences: My pilgrimage to Haifa, November 1919. She spoke with such clarity and conviction that it was as though she were telling the events for the first time and as though they had happened only yesterday. She explained that age hadn’t dimmed her memory but in fact had made the images and sights clearer. It was such a privilege to meet her and her daughter Beth in such unusual circumstances. For over an hour and a half we sat enthralled by her stories and experiences.
A few years ago we went on a short cruise. The boat had 900 passengers and 300 staff. At around this time we had been encouraged to have more spiritual conversations with other people and introduce them to the Faith. I determined to have such a conversation with one of the 1200 people on board. I made friends with a man on the boat who was about my age and seemed suitable. He said he had been to India. I asked if he had visited Delhi. He had and so I told him there was a beautiful temple there and if he wished I could tell him about it and the Bahá’í Faith. To my surprise he simply looked me in the eye and said “No need. I am a Bahá’i!” We immediately embraced in an act of unity. I couldn’t help thinking why I had chosen to talk to him out of 1200 other people!
Music and the Bahá’í Faith
Music has always been a large part of my life and synonymous with discovering the Bahá’í Faith. The Bahá’í songs of the 60s and 70s seemed to have a special potency for a new or enquiring Bahá’í. It was quite acceptable to turn up with a guitar and however poor the standard of play, the friends were always encouraging. However my first love was the accordion and, whenever attending summer schools, I would take along my trusty squeezebox. If there was a chance to raise money for the funds, I would pal up with people like John Neal on guitar to cajole a captive audience of Bahá’ís as they stood in line waiting in the dinner queue. In later years the accordion was useful for barn dances held at Ampleforth and then spring schools at Mount St Mary’s College, South Yorkshire. What more could encapsulate the unity in diversity of the Faith than a mixture of cultures and races and all ages enjoying themselves together through dance and music?
Significant musical recollections:
Teaming up with the Lambert family – Lois, David and even an adolescent Conrad. We briefly formed a barn dance band in the 70s called The Moonrakers. It was a pleasure playing with such a creative family.
Visiting nursing homes to provide entertainment in the Warminster area with children from the summer school, co-ordinated by Clive Tully.
Playing the organ of St Marys College for a Bahá’í service in the College Chapel.
Playing the accordion in Swaziland for local African people to dance to who had never seen such a musical instrument before.
Playing with the Sheffield band – Strings and Reeds – in London’s Millennium Dome, specially hired by Bahá’ís to commemorate the Holy Day of the Birth of the Báb in October 2000.
Playing meditative music, mainly on piano, for devotionals and firesides.
I often wonder what my life would have been like if I hadn’t found the Bahá’í Faith.
I might have had no guidance and gone off the straight and narrow. I may not have had the opportunity of marrying a like-minded person and raising two lovely children in a united family atmosphere. I would have missed all the beautiful friendships of warm and sincere people who form part of the Bahá’í community. Looking back at what I have written, I realise I would not have encountered all the “coincidences” that seemed to come my way.
The Bahá’í Faith presents many challenges and, as we are told, gives us tests, but on balance gives us a way of life, a direction, a goal, and is the springboard for progress to the next world. I once read that to keep happy you need to have goals in life, and the bigger the goals the better. With its pivotal ambition of the unity of the human race and its aim to carry forward an ever advancing civilisation, there can be no greater goals than those offered by the Bahá’í Faith.
Sheffield, February 2016