I was born Jane Sadler in 1954 in Hammersmith, London into a Church of England churchgoing family. My parents were both from London backgrounds, my mother brought up with no particular religious education and my father with contact to the Baptist church, but no great personal commitment. My mother found faith through a friend at teacher training college in Kent in her mid twenties and seems to have had a deep religious experience at the time. She was baptised and then confirmed. My father found faith through my mother and they brought us, my younger sister and brother and myself, up in the church. When I look back I am grateful for the strong Christian values we were given. As a teenager, though, I rebelled against the established church after my confirmation at the age of 12 because I had so many questions to which I didn’t receive satisfactory answers. I was told to accept and not think so much!
My father was an engineer and worked abroad when we were small. We lived in Ankara, Turkey, for three years. I started school there aged 5 at the British Embassy school that operated in English, but I spoke Turkish with the children in our street. I was used to hearing the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer and am sure that the foundation for my willingness to accept others as they are, however different from myself, was laid at that time. We also lived in Vevey, Switzerland when I was aged 7 or 8 and I attended a French-speaking school. When I was about 9 we settled back in the UK. Dad was one of the engineers for a new factory in Dalston, Cumbria, and we lived in Carlisle until I was 11. We continued to be churchgoers and my belief was very sincere. One thing I remember quite vividly was that I was sure that “if I had lived in the time of Jesus I would have followed Him” and I believe that this childhood conviction remained hidden deep within me through many wilderness years of skepticism and unbelief and finally became “reactivated” when I met the Faith in my late twenties.
To avoid interrupting my schooling again, after I had passed the 11+ exam against all expectations, dad gave up his job that would eventually have sent us abroad again and was out of work for two winters before he found new employment. We moved into a rather primitive little cottage on the edge of the Lake District that my parents had bought as a holiday place some years before. We had always lived in company houses and mum wished to have a place that was “ours”. It was a hard time for the family and it wasn’t until many years later that I could appreciate that these hard times, which we children didn’t understand the reason for, represented great sacrifice on the part of my parents which was largely for my benefit. I started at the grammar school in Wigton where we received “religious instruction”, of which I have very little memory apart from a discussion with the headmaster in the lower 6th form on miracles. I argued that if God was truly all-powerful, He could, of course, perform whatever miracles He wished and we should not explain them away with scientific explanations! I was torn between the majesty of the concept of God and the limitations of organised religion, and couldn’t see how to reconcile them.
At this point I was still a churchgoer and was even a server during the communion service for a while, and later, when we moved to Wigton, sang in the church choir. I went through preparation classes for confirmation and it was here that my faith began to wobble and my scepticism to grow. The Book of Common Prayer has many pages of instructions as to how one should prepare oneself for taking communion so that one approaches the altar in a state of grace. These instructions seemed to be impossible to fulfil and so I asked how anyone ever felt worthy to take communion. I was told not to take it so literally and this led to the question, “If it’s not that important, why write it at all?” Then I was told not to think so much! For a rather literally-minded child like myself this was just not acceptable, and I began to lose faith in the “wise” people around me and, unfortunately, threw the baby out with the bath water. If these people were unreliable, so must their institutions be, and that meant religion was not worth bothering with. In any case, any fool could see that many of the world’s problems were directly due to religion! I was confirmed and felt thoroughly disappointed afterwards; I don’t know what I expected to happen, but it certainly didn’t. I continued to go to church with my family and sing in the choir, and there were times, e.g. after sung matins or evensong, when I still felt a tremendous peace deep inside myself, but these occasions became fewer and fewer, until I left home in 1972, aged 18, to go to teacher training college in Kent (the same one my mother had attended all those years before!) and stopped going to church.
At college I struggled to find my adult self. I was persuaded to change my main subject of English Literature to English and Drama (because it would be easier to get a job afterwards) and spent three years more attached to the Music department (my subsidiary subject) than the Drama department, which was full of prima donnas with whom I had little in common. However, I think the drama training loosened me up a bit and I was good at the backstage work! At this time I half envied, half pitied the “God squad” – those students who were so sure of their faith. My logical side didn’t think it believed in God, and my heart wished it did.
I left college in 1975 and started my first job at the Church of England Junior School in Wheathampsted, Hertfordshire. I taught there for four years, still envying those with a faith, but unable to hang my hat on any religious hook. I even had difficulty teaching Religious Education to my class of 7 to 8 year olds, approaching this subject as “cultural heritage/moral training through Bible stories” in order not to feel too hypocritical.
In 1979 I moved back to Cumbria to a one-year job at a residential special school on the west coast. This really challenged my inhibitions, as the 12 to 14 year olds I taught had none! From there I moved to Carlisle to another one-year job on the child assessment unit at the Infirmary, where in the autumn of 1980, I went to a ceilidh, talked to the band, was invited to come to the next band practice and to bring my recorder – and so met Lorna and Dave Silverstein. Lorna has since told me that when she first met me she thought, “this girl’s a Bahá’í” and almost immediately realised that I would run a mile if she mentioned religion! So we became great friends and I played in the band and danced in the demonstration dance team and gradually noticed that she had a strong faith. At first I assumed it was some form of Christianity, but what struck me was that, unlike other occasions when religious people mentioned God, Jesus or prayer, I didn’t get goosebumps when she did! It seemed very natural and unselfconscious.
I went through a disastrous love affair at this time and Lorna supported without judging, which made a big impression on me. I eventually left full-time teaching and “dropped out”. I earned just enough through a little supply work, private music lessons, taking in lodgers and any practical job that came my way, and began to look for meaning in life. I was taken to firesides at Jenny and Laurence Jay’s in Carlisle, at Rosie and Garry Villiers-Stuart’s and John and Angie Jamieson’s at Burnlaw, and many other places where I just soaked up the healing atmosphere of these meetings, not understanding much of the things they talked about, but knowing it all felt good and true. I really had little need to know “facts” so I didn’t read much. I just knew in my heart that it was true and that I belonged. However, like many others, I sat on the fence for a long time. I had never belonged to a group with a label (Brownies, Guides etc.) and didn’t see the need to do so now (and I enjoyed my draught Guinness and lunchtime bitter without overindulging)! Lorna was a very wise teacher – she waited while I took the path I needed to tread.
In 1984 Lorna took me to the Dublin summer school via the length of Northern Ireland. She had decided that my love for Irish folk dance and music and the warm spirituality of the Irish friends might be the catalyst for my declaration. We took a week to drive down through Ulster, staying with a new family every night and where, quite “coincidentally”, there was a fireside every evening! That was a magic week in which I allowed reason to fade into the background and faith and wonder to grow. We arrived the night before the summer school started and pitched our tent. At midnight, with the sound of helicopters overhead searching for an escaped prisoner from the Maze prison, and having drunk my first and last “real Irish” draught Guinness in County Longford, I decided it was now or never, and signed the card I’d been carrying around with me in a brown paper bag for three months!
This was the start of a whole new life in which there was meaning and purpose. My parents were glad that I seemed happy at last, a little worried that I was mixed up in some strange eastern movement, but sure that it would just run its course and I would come back to the church eventually. My brother was glad too, but didn’t want to know anything about what I believed, and that has continued. My sister was interested because she had known Andrew Goodwin at university, but otherwise not very curious (until later!). It was after I showed no sign of coming to my senses, rather became more and more active as a Bahá’í, that my dad became more defensive. My mum however recognised something from her own early religious experience. She was suffering from a degenerative illness that gave her many problems but she said to me “You’re happy aren’t you? You’ve found what I once had, but I lost it and don’t think I will ever get it back.” I am convinced now that she will have recognised the truth of the Faith once in the Abha Kingdom and freed from her earthly limitations. I feel her to be very close sometimes.
My dear sister Rachel has her own story that she should tell herself, so suffice it to say she declared in 1992 and has brought up three wonderful young, spiritual people, in very difficult circumstances, who in their different ways are busy making the world a better place. The influence of the Faith on these three of dad’s grandchildren has totally changed his opinion of it. He now thinks all children and youth should have the chance to attend Bahá’í courses and schools!
When I became a Bahá’í I truly felt that I saw the world through new eyes. The Christian teachings I had been brought up with suddenly made sense, the future of mankind looked bright and I had a clear purpose in life. I threw myself 110% into my new life: Carlisle Spiritual Assembly (secretary from 1984 – 86), teaching campaigns, firesides, children’s classes etc etc. Fortunately, Lorna (Silverstein) was a wise teacher and, when I showed signs of burnout after about six months in the small Carlisle community, lovingly told me I didn’t have to take part in absolutely everything all the time!
After a while I realised that I needed to find my own identity as a Bahá’í and also needed to find a new way of earning a living. I had been to the Northern Ireland summer school, in Enniskillen in 1985 and heard that the Craigavon community had a lapsed Spiritual Assembly. I decided to sell my house in Carlisle and pioneer there, which I did in January 1986. Soon after, another Bahá’í, Mahnaz (Mahvash Graham’s sister), also arrived and Derek Thompson declared in Lurgan. This was wonderful confirmation for me of the truth that when one arises to serve, support comes from the Concourse on High! The Local Spiritual Assembly was reformed and I lived in Craigavon from January to August 1986. I remember Wendy and Eddie Byrne, Susan and Tony Hunter in Craigavon and Patricia Jamshidi and Marion Khosravi in Belfast and all the wonderful Irish friends, north and south. I remember visiting Betty Reed for lunch (exquisite pancakes with a delicate chicken, vegetable and ginger filling!) together with Vida Backwell. I still knew very little and can’t imagine that I contributed very much to that community, but it was there that I came in touch with my spiritual self through the warm, loving Irish way of approaching life and faith, and I am eternally grateful to that whole community. I also came in contact with the Corrymeela (Hill of Harmony) community based in Co. Antrim. This started in 1965 as an initiative by two clerics, one protestant and the other catholic, who worked together to counteract the hatred between the two Christian communities – especially targeting the children and youth. Tony Hunter and I sang in the choir and through this I developed a very close friendship with Jacynth and Jacintha, two friends – one catholic and the other protestant – who shared a house in Belfast that was always open to guests, whatever their religious affiliation.
I still needed to earn a living and had decided that I wanted to train as a musical instrument repairer, but this meant going back to Britain, as the person I approached to take me on as an apprentice said it was too big a responsibility and I should “do it properly”. I applied to a few specialist colleges and was accepted at Newark-on-Trent Technical College Nottinghamshire, to study woodwind and brass instrument-repairing for three years. I was also quite unexpectedly awarded a full study-grant from the Cumbria authorities, which meant I didn’t need to use up all my savings. I took this as a sign that I had Bahá’u’lláh’s blessing to take this path! I started in October 1986, fully intending to return to Ireland after my studies.
To start with, I rented a room with one of the Bahá’ís in Grantham, Pat Kumar (1986/7), driving up the motorway to Newark each day to college, until my nearly 30-year-old Morris Minor ground to a halt and died! I then found accommodation in Newark in a friend’s basement before buying a little terraced house, and so became a member of a small group that included, amongst others, Brigitte Beales and Dorothy Ferraby from mid 1987 to July 1989, when my course ended. We held our Feasts and Holy Days as I remember, but didn’t manage much else. However, the many hours spent talking to Dorothy and listening to her reminiscences were very precious. There was also an occasion when Brigitte and I were driving somewhere together and she told me her childhood memory of being present at the Guardian’s funeral. Even after all those years, she wept as she described the devastation the Bahá’ís felt at that time.
I was persuaded by Lorna to apply for pilgrimage and a cancellation came up in December 1986, but we had already decided to attend the dedication of the Indian House of Worship so I had to decline. Actually, I had only applied for pilgrimage under pressure, because it wasn’t something I had a burning desire to do. I had been very critical of the materialism of the Church and hadn’t yet understood that the buildings on Mount Carmel were something quite different. I saw them as a waste of precious money that should be used for the good of the peoples of the world! Lorna, as always, was very patient and just said, “Apply, and when the time comes you’ll be ready.” So I did and I was! The following December I got the chance again.
The dedication of the House of Worship of the Indian subcontinent took place whilst I was a student and had very little money. I approached my bank for a loan. The bank manager said that it wasn’t usual to lend money for a holiday. I replied that this wasn’t a holiday and explained about the dedication, the Faith and how important it was to me. He looked at me rather quizzically and approved the loan of £600 that covered flight, accommodation and food with little to spare! This trip was a milestone in my understanding of what the Bahá’í Faith was and why I had become a Bahá’í. I remember sitting in the Indira Ghandi stadium in the conference days following the actual dedication, looking around the semi-circular space at all the diversity of the 9000 participants and thinking, “This is the unity of mankind and this is why I declared as a Bahá’í!” I remember Hand of the Cause Rúhíyyih Khánum was present, as was Collis Featherstone, and we saw Bill and Marguerite Sears telling stories to the children.
When I look back on my first pilgrimage in December 1987, I realise how limited my understanding of the Faith I had embraced was at the time. The experience is rather a blur in my memory with some things that stand out. For instance: standing by the obelisk with a group of other pilgrims listening to the Tablet of Carmel being read aloud with hailstones stinging the backs of our legs (I can feel them to this day when I read that Tablet), the coolness against my forehead of the white cloth laid at the Threshold and the smell of roses, being shown round the secretariat in the Seat of the House of Justice and thinking “now I know why computers have been invented”, contemplating not going into the Archives building because I wasn’t interested in seeing “relics” or looking at the picture of Bahá’u’lláh, because I didn’t want to see His human “shell”. Of course, I did both things as I realised I might never have the chance again. I remember vividly the meeting with the House members in the Seat of the Universal House of Justice. They filed onto the raised area in the great hall and one member stepped forward and read a statement from the House to the pilgrims. Then they came down the steps and mingled with us – talking, smiling and shaking hands. The contrast between the institution and the individual members was striking and means that I have never been in any doubt as to the distinction. Another thing was that I only had an eight day pilgrimage! When I booked the ticket I would have to stay longer than nine days or shorter and, as I didn’t want to be alone in Israel after the pilgrimage, I chose shorter – what was I thinking of?! But I do remember being close to tears as the train pulled out of Haifa station taking me to Tel Aviv and feeling that I was leaving my only true home.
In the summer of 1989 I finished my college course and settled in the village of Hesket Newmarket in Cumbria (next door village to my parents’ village of Caldbeck) where I opened my woodwind and brass repair workshop and was part of the Allerdale community, in Cumbria, serving on its Spiritual Assembly from 1990 to 1992 with Lorna and Dave Silverstein and Anne and John Jowsey. I had intended to return to Northern Ireland after my studies but my mother’s illness had worsened and I felt I should be nearer home. I was helped in this decision by Keith Munro who showed me a quote on the importance of family that made it clear to me that this was more important than returning to my pioneer post. My dad owned a little former coachhouse in the middle of Hesket Newmarket, where he had once kept an old Rover car. We renovated the coachhouse to give me a workshop downstairs and a tiny flat upstairs, which I rented from him.
So began a wonderful period in this small but very active community. We ran children’s classes with Bahá’í children and their friends, and what would now be called junior youth activities. We organised teaching activities and held regular firesides. I was invited by the vicar to attend an ecumenical study group in the nearby village of Caldbeck. My Quaker friends said it was a relief to have someone else in the group who caused the fundamental Christian participants to clutch their bibles in fear whenever we opened our mouths – so that it wasn’t only Quakers giving the devil a chance! There were declarations in different places in the district and a feeling of excitement and purpose. We held what could almost be described as reflection meetings together with the friends in Dumfries and Galloway. I especially remember Jackie, Daryoush, Nicki and Vahid Mehrabi. There was a lot of cooperation across the border at that time, such as children’s activities at Nicki and Vahid’s.
These were exciting times. In 1989 the Berlin Wall came down and people were travelling to Eastern Europe. I really wanted to go and had Albania in mind, but the opportunity didn’t present itself and I wasn’t ready to go there alone. Then I heard that some Bahá’ís were planning to run two English courses in Poland in the summer of 1991 and needed assistants to support the professional teachers, one of whom was Jeremy Fox. I signed up and was in the group that went to Wrocław with Jeremy (the other group went to Nowy Sącz). The course lasted two weeks and we stayed with the families of those taking the course. I stayed with a girl who lived in a two-roomed flat in a high block with her 3-year-old son and her parents. She vacated her room for me and the whole family slept in the sitting room – my first experience of the selfless Polish hospitality that I was to become very familiar with in the years to come. After these two weeks I stayed on for a week’s travel teaching with Lorna who came out to join me. We spent a few days at the summer school in Hajdany, outside Wrocław, where Farhad and Anna Monadjem lived and kept geese. There I met Patrick Crowley for the first time. He had recently pioneered to Krakow from Ireland and was singing “When the victory arriveth …” as we arrived and I thought I’d never heard anything so beautiful. I also remember Sylvia McGill, Marcel Marien, Anne Parsons, Genek Swięch, and Beata Zając. Then we went to Warsaw and up to Gdańsk to meet some of the Bahá’ís. We ran a folk dance evening at the psychology institute in Gdańsk, organized by the local pioneers Gitte (USA) and Gerda Schöner (Germany).
I found this visit very inspiring – the newly opened ex-Communist country, the fledgling Bahá’í community and the stalwart pioneers, mostly from Germany and Ireland at that time. I planned to return in the winter that same year to travel-teach and attend the winter school, which was to be held in Lublin on the eastern side of the country. A large group of UK Bahá’ís travelled by coach to Warsaw in late December. I remember Derek Dacey was in the group, and the Azordegan family, whose grandmother Mehri Lamakan was a pioneer in Lublin. We were delayed on the border-crossing in freezing weather, arriving in Warsaw many hours later than planned, but being met anyway by Sławik Marciniak who had been coming to the bus station every hour to see if we had arrived – were we pleased to see him! We slept packed in like sardines on the floor in Marcel’s flat that night and then the next day were split into two groups – one went to Szczecin in the northwest and had, as I remember, around 20 declarations. Unfortunately, there weren’t the resources to consolidate them and these new Bahá’ís faded away, leaving a small handful that is still visible in the community – and the other group went to Katowice in the south. I was in the latter group with the McNamara family, who I think must already have been living in Poznań as pioneers by that time. We stood on the streets of Katowice in the freezing cold singing and playing and talking to people about the Faith, aided by the Bahá’ís from Krakow who translated for us. After a week we all travelled to Lublin to the winter school, which was held in a rather primitive youth hostel. I went for a shower on the first morning to find that the lights didn’t work and there were no windows. The floor was awash, but I couldn’t see with what! I had a choice – to not take a shower or wade in fearlessly and hope it was only water I was standing in. I took a shower. What the eye doesn’t see …..!
It was at this school that I decided to offer four months (May to August) as a short-term pioneer in Poland in the coming Holy Year, 1992. I arrived just after the National Convention when the first Polish National Spiritual Assembly had been elected in the presence of Amatu’l-Bahá Rúhíyyih Khánum. I regret now that I wasn’t at that Convention, but it seemed impossible at the time to leave my fledgling business any earlier. However, I did arrive in time to take part in a wonderful celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Ascension of Bahá’u’lláh that was held in Krakow.
I consulted with the new National Spiritual Assembly and it asked me to settle in Katowice and gather the newly declared Bahá’ís into a community with the help of the Krakow community – Ela Mączka and her daughter Patricia, Duda Pietrzykowska (aged 16 ), Miguel Watler (Canada), Patrick Crowley and others whose names escape me. There had been declarations in Katowice, after concerts with the Turning Point group from Ireland and El Viento Canto from Peru and the new Bahá’ís didn’t know each other: Aureliusz Drabik, Agata Wielogórska, Kazik Więckowski. Klaus Kreiger pioneered from Germany and we set about building a community and working towards establishing a Local Spiritual Assembly, which was formed in October, after I had returned to the UK to prepare to go back in January 1993 as a long-term pioneer.
During this preparation period I attended the World Congress in New York in November 1992 with Lorna. Again, a wonderful confirmation of why I was a Bahá’í. I remember standing in a vast sea of people in the foyer of the Jacob Javits Center waiting to enter the conference hall. I have always experienced a feeling of claustrophobia and fear in large crowds but I felt so safe amongst these thousands of people, because I knew that whatever happened, no-one would let me fall or get crushed and I got a glimpse of a world where that feeling of trust would be normal.
I served as a pioneer in Poland from January 1993 to April 2000, settling first in Katowice and serving on the Local Spiritual Assembly from Ridván 1993-1994. I shared a flat with Agata Wielogorska in Ligota, a relatively leafy suburb, and taught English in a private school. We cooperated closely with the Krakow community, organizing common teaching projects, taking the train back and forth to attend each other’s activities. I remember many trips and picnics and a lot of sunshine – but it was probably the amazing spirit of the time that illuminated everything! There was still a constant flow of travel teachers in the wake of the Holy Year so there were always teaching projects and firesides. I was able to attend the second National Convention and meet Knight of Bahá’u’lláh Ola Pawłoska (83) who was there to say goodbye before she left for Canada to be with her family – such a strong, humble lady with whom I corresponded for some years afterwards. She had met the Faith in Canada, where she eventually ended up after leaving Poland in 1939, declared in 1947, became Knight of Bahá’u’lláh for St Pierre and Miquelon (a French archipelago south of Newfoundland) in 1953 and eventually pioneered to Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) and served there for 30 years, an incredibly inspiring person for the Polish friends. That summer a large group travelled together to the Summer School (near Łódz I think). We came from different communities by bus and train and met up along the way so that the group got bigger and bigger! There was a tremendous spirit. At one point there was no connection to take us the last stretch to the forest camp where the school was to be held, so we hired a coach to take everyone. Then, when we arrived at the edge of the forest, the bus could go no further so we had a kilometre walk with our baggage to the camp and, after a day of glorious sunshine, it had started to rain. Nothing could dampen our spirits though – not even the army tents and camp beds which were to be our home for the week! Viv Bartlett was the main speaker. I remember he used toilet rolls to make a timeline to show where we were in terms of the history of the Faith, and the main sessions were held in an open-air amphitheatre! Mahin Humphrey and Habib Taherzadeh were also there. There was a Teaching Conference that year in October in Puszczykowo where Counsellors Pauline Rafat and Ilhan Sezgin were present and, together with Ewa from Łódz, I organized the children’s class – with my nearly non-existent Polish and Ewa’s minimal English! The following six months felt rather like a roller coaster. The National Spiritual Assembly asked me to assist Joy Behi in organizing the 3rd National Convention, which we did. I remember a very fine venue in the centre of Warsaw and lots of flowers, which we bought in a local market for what seemed to me no money at all. Counsellor Paddy O’Mara represented the Board of Counsellors and, to my great shock, I was elected to the National Spiritual Assembly and then elected Secretary. I served almost full-time, moving to Warsaw that summer, as the secretariat of this two year old National Spiritual Assembly needed to be established. This was a particularly challenging time for me as I had very few secretarial skills, e.g. I had never used a computer or even sent a fax!
That summer I went to the UK to visit my family and had to pass through London, so I asked if I could visit the UK National Secretary, Hugh Adamson, and ask his advice. He very kindly gave me two hours of his precious time. I had feared he would blind me with science and make me even more convinced that I was in over my head, but he was very helpful and talked in a very down-to-earth fashion about the main tasks in the secretariat. He asked me how I worked and I described how I scribbled my thoughts down on paper as they came, then went over them crossing out and editing until I could hardly read the text any more. Then I wrote out a clean copy that was the final draft. He said: “Then you’ll love working with a computer. You can do all that, but you’ll always be able to read what you’ve written and the final draft will automatically appear at the end of the process!”
I ended up serving in this capacity for a little over three years during which time I moved out of Warsaw to Olsztyn (3 hour train or bus journey) where I joined pioneer Ester Bayaton (later Monadjem) from the Philippines in service to that community, where we established the first Local Spiritual Assembly, which included Stanisław Debski, a survivor of the death camps where his parents and siblings had died. He met the Faith in Israel on a Christian pilgrimage with his wife, then met Ester in Olsztyn and declared – an amazing man who passed away in 2007 and is now buried in Olsztyn beside his wife under a magnificent headstone that features the ringstone symbol and the Russion Orthodox cross, all arranged by his daughter Ela who also declared as a Bahá’í.
First I rented a flat and then bought one, as I saw myself living there for a long time, house rents were rising rapidly and I didn’t want to be dependent on earning a large salary. Ester and I worked well together. The LSA functioned, Holy Days attracted many, the visit of a Canadian youth dance workshop (from Nancy Campbell School, Canada) attracted youth who declared, and we started our own dance workshop “Magnet” which was used in teaching activities. It was still quite easy to talk to people about the Faith as western materialism hadn’t then fully taken hold.
I worked in the secretariat three days a week (staying with Patricia Coles) and then from home the rest of the time while also teaching English and trying to start an instrument repair business. Unfortunately, there always seemed so much to do for the National Spiritual Assembly that my business had to wait a few years before it got off the ground! Those early years following the election of the NSA of Poland were exciting and challenging. There were many pioneers in the early 90s (30 I think at one point!) all with different experiences to draw on and, at times, different ideas about how things should be done! Some names I recall and haven’t mentioned yet were: Anis Samandari, Laleh Samandari, Hoda Jarrah, Sara Crowley and Shohreh Moshrefzadeh.
In Poland, Communism and the Catholic Church had both made it difficult for people to take responsibility, and old traditions and ways of thinking were hard to give up. However, there were many youth declarations, especially in the south where Sylvia Girling and Jane Czerniewski lived in Nowy Sącz. Many of these youth are now the backbone of the Polish community, serving on the NSA or as Auxiliary Board members and/or bringing their children up in the Faith: Lilianna Lutley, Paulina Jaskierska, Gosia Obrimska, Dominika Pietrzykowska (Duda), Asia Repec, Kasia Kokot-Góra, Iwona van der Voort, Agnieszka Chopińska, Aneta Wszołek and many more. We often said that the Faith would grow in Poland when the surrounding society could see the Bahá’ís building healthy families, and this is now beginning to happen.
In June 1997 there was a ‘vacancy’ on the Auxiliary Board and I was asked to serve, by Counsellor Pat Coles, alongside the existing Board member, Mariusz Piotrowicz. I thought long and hard, but in the end felt I could maybe offer better service in this Arm of the Administration than in the more ‘administrative’ Arm. I accepted and was immediately told to book tickets to go to Acuto for a European Auxiliary Board members’ conference on the Covenant, to be given by Adib Taherzadeh. We studied ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Will and Testament in depth, which was a wonderful experience. There I met Kirsten Marie Møller-Sørensen and Ole Helbo from Denmark, never guessing that I would end up marrying Ole and living in Denmark. I had met Kirsten Marie ten years earlier at a winter school in Dunoon, Scotland – memorable for driving snow, folk dancing (with dear Joe Foster, after recent heart surgery, the most energetic of us all). Andy McCafferty (probably Scotland’s first Bábi before he recognised Bahá’u’lláh) gave a talk on the early heroes of the Faith and told how seeing the Báb’s pink-lined coat in the Archives made him feel truly accepted because it showed the Báb was a hippy like him! I served as Auxiliary Board member for two years before leaving for Denmark at Ridván 2000. During that time we travelled to the communities on buses and slow trains (cheapest) and I remember it as a time of deep friendships, pure hearts and communities trying to follow the guidance of the Four-Year Plan. We tried out some homemade institute courses and then began to use the Ruhi materials as soon as some books had been translated into Polish.
In February 2000 I married Ole Helbo and moved to Denmark at Ridván. Ole’s ‘morning gift’ to me was a three-day visit to the Holy Land at Naw-Rúz – which meant I actually had a four day visit. This was such a loving gift and made a wonderful transition from life as a single pioneer in Poland to married woman in Denmark. We had agreed that it would be easier for me to work in Denmark than for Ole to work in Poland. The repairing of musical instruments doesn’t require much language, but psychiatry does, and the Polish language is difficult to learn. So started another chapter in my life. I had a new language to learn, new paths of service to discover and had to adjust to married life.
Even before I arrived in the country I received a letter from the Danish National Spiritual Assembly, asking me to serve on the National Convention Committee. I had to say that I wouldn’t arrive until Ridván so couldn’t accept, but it made me realise I was moving to a community where every available resource was immediately drafted into service – no rest period here! In 2000 we attended the Polish summer school in Cieszyn, on the border with Czech Republic, and met a German youth dance group, “Ray of Hope”, two of whose members were doing a period of service in Cieszyn. These two girls had two months remaining of their year and were willing to come to Denmark and establish a youth dance group with our youth.
At that time the Danish youth were thinly scattered round the country and there wasn’t much to keep them involved in the community so this seemed a very good way to build Bahá’í identity among them. Maria Bergter and Andrea Blom (married names) lived in our uninsulated attic for two months. We held three youth-training weekends in our home, with visits from the German dance workshop. The Danish youth quickly became a close-knit group of around 15 (including a couple of non-Bahá’í friends) and a four to five week cycle of meetings was established, held in different parts of the country; they continued for six years. The group called themselves “Unless and Until” and there were summer teaching tours – in Copenhagen, on Bornholm and in Rostock – and other weekend teaching activities in local communities. We were supported by various Year-of-Service youth who came to train the group – Kim Bastion from Belgium, Larissa from Canada, Ewa from Iceland etc. The friendships that developed then have held to this day, even though not all those youth have remained in the community. After about six years it became obvious that the time for the workshop was over. The youth were moving on to higher education or work and it was also time for activities to be developed locally and within the framework of the institute process. Unfortunately, it took some years before there was a strong enough process to draw these shining youth into a community that could accept fresh ways of doing things, and in that time some were lost to other interests, but a nucleus is now active, in the community and, following the 2013 Youth Conferences we are at last seeing growth and development in some places in the country.
In 2002 I was elected to the National Spiritual Assembly of Denmark and then elected as recording secretary – rather predictable when one is a native English speaker. This I did until elected in October 2008 to the office of National Secretary, serving in that capacity until 2015. This was an interesting transition time in which the Danish community was really trying to embrace the guidance of the Five-Year Plans, but with very limited human resources and a frequent feeling of not reaching its goals. Very few people under forty were active and the older generations were tired and discouraged. Then came the London Conference in January 2009, in which a large group from Denmark took part. New enthusiasm was generated and we pledged to bring forward the launch of an Intensive Programme of Growth in the greater Copenhagen cluster. This enthusiasm lasted a while, but gradually waned, as we still weren’t raising up new resources and the “old guard” was still tired! Then came the 2010 guidance for the third in the series of Five-Year Plans, and small stirrings began to be visible in more than one area of the country. Then came the Youth Conferences in 2013 and the small handful of youth that attended in Helsinki made, and continues to make, a significant contribution to growth. In the East Jutland cluster that I am so fortunate to be part of, a nucleus of three youth have played a large part in bringing us to our first milestone in this plan and we feel well placed to work towards our second milestone. The joy of living in a cluster where all ages work together in unity is such a blessing, e.g. attending an intensive institute week where the participants range from 17 to 85 is sheer magic.
Over the years I have served on various committees and it is always a joy to work alongside others in the path of service. Serving on the Teaching Committee overlapped some of the years when the dance workshop was active so it was naturally part of teaching activities. Unfortunately, the communities saw the group more as entertainment than a teaching tool so not so much came out of those activities.
In June 2005 Ole and I went on pilgrimage, which was very special as, although a very personal experience for us both, it was also a joint experience where we consulted together on our priorities and future plans. Where better to do this than in the environment of the Shrines?
Over the years, I have had the privilege of participating in three International Conventions: in 2003, when we had to send postal ballots as the situation in Israel was so unstable that the House decided not to host the Convention in Haifa, in 2008 and 2013. In the years from 2008 to 2013 it was obvious what great strides had been made in the Bahá’í World just by looking at the composition of the national assemblies. There were fewer pioneers, more women and more younger members, reflecting the raising up of indigenous believers and the empowerment of women and young people. Another striking thing was that the ‘brown’ faces greatly outnumbered the ‘white’, demonstrating that the true human resources of the world are to be found in those areas many think of as under-developed. The Bahá’ís are starting to demonstrate how wrong this perception is.
At the time of writing, we stand on the threshold of the last Five-Year Plan in this series of plans. Ole and I are both nearing retirement age, but the wonderfully fulfilling life of a Bahá’í knows no retirement. There are always new challenges and areas of service beckoning, and last but by no means least, Ole’s daughter Inger Cecilie has just given birth to her first child, Ole’s first grandchild, which means I, having sprung over the experience of motherhood, get the chance to experience grandmotherhood, which I very much look forward to!
Jane Helbo (née Sadler)
Denmark, March 2016