Joan and David Birch in 2011

Joan and David Birch in 2011

Discovering the Bahá’í Faith in Canada in the mid sixties was the major turning point in my life. I had been born in Nottingham 25 years earlier, the only child of middle class parents, living on a pleasant small estate of similar families living on the outskirts of the city, backing on to farmland. It was the early days of the war, but I was not consciously aware of that at all, even when my father was called up to serve in the RAF. I seemed to be totally cocooned against any outside awareness, playing with the children next door, starting school. At that time I had no religious connection at all, except that at bedtime I was taught to say a prayer to someone called God asking for blessings for all my family. Mum was Church of England, dad a reluctant Methodist in his youth. After his war service he returned to civilian life and his teaching job in what for me was a seamless transition. However the status quo was turned upside down when I was about seven. An aunt bought a house at auction, in a working class neighbourhood near the city centre, and for reasons beyond my comprehension my parents and I had to leave our comfortable existence and move there.

I then attended a Methodist Sunday school close by, and I made friends there, but as to religious instruction I have no memories at all. Also I have no memories of the Anglican services I sometimes attended with my mother, except one where I imagined I could hear someone knitting energetically in the pew behind, including during the usual boring sermon. When I dared to look round, there sat a very pleasant large West Indian lady adorned with a wonderful collection of bangles round her wrists—no knitting needles in sight.

Religion entered into my life with a vengeance when aged eleven I was sent to a convent school, through the influence of my Catholic aunt, the one who had had us move home. Not all her influence was negative, as through her and my uncle I was aware of spirituality which lifted their working class lives, and I sensed they had ‘something’, which was certainly missing from my life at that time. Unfortunately, school did not have the same effect, with the presence of nuns who were not always charitable, and catechism which filled me with a real terror of the fires of hell. In spite of that experience, I tried to become Catholic intermittently for a whole decade, but there was dogma I found illogical and could not accept. Meanwhile, following my mother’s expectations, I was confirmed in the Church of England. However, I felt that this church gave no direction, and following confirmation I dropped away. At college, friends and I went church and synagogue tasting but did not really fit in anywhere, and most definitely not in a parish church in a posh part of London where we had the audacity to sit in someone else’s pew. During a year in France, I made almost daily visits to Chartres Cathedral which I found quite beautiful, an ancient building with a great feeling of calmness but no real spirituality for me.

By the time I emigrated to Ottawa in 1964 I had come to the conclusion that as far as religion was concerned I was on my own with God. I began a completely new life, at first living with a cousin, started a new job, and looked for new activities and new friends. At that time I had great travel plans to go right round the world. Through the YMCA I heard about an International Group which I thought sounded cosmopolitan and interesting. They were certainly a friendly group, and after one or two meetings, a couple invited me to their home one evening. Al, the husband, drove right across Ottawa to fetch me, to what turned out to be a fireside. The topic was the principles of the Bahá’í Faith, which I accepted anyway (though I did not tell them that). The only snag was Bahá’u’lláh, whom as a Christian I could not accept (the only Way was through Christ wasn’t it?). Apparently I seemed a pretty cold fish, and I wasn’t invited again, though they were as friendly as ever at the International Group meetings. Human nature being what it is, I was quite put out at the March or April meeting when I discovered that Al and Eileen and their three young children had all moved to the Arctic without so much as a goodbye. At the time this was quite incomprehensible to me. However, it turned out that an older Bahá’í couple in the group lived just round the corner from my cousin, quite amazing in a sprawling city like Ottawa, and through them my contact with the Faith continued. For the best part of a year, I attended wonderful firesides, asked lots of questions, and attended magical winter and summer schools.  All my questions were answered, and the Faith was like a magnet, which I was drawn to in spite of reluctance to get caught up with another religion. What really clinched it for me was reading George Townshend’s book The Promise of All Ages, and the concept of progressive revelation. This answered a question I had asked at school aged about 12, concerning the gross injustice of anyone born before Christ not having access to Heaven. At that time, my teacher’s response had been that it was wrong to ask questions like that.

What attracted me to the Faith too were the Bahá’ís and their lives. I found life in middle class Ottawa very materialistic, my workplace very prejudiced, in spite of its business, which was diplomacy. In society I saw a great reliance on alcohol, which resulted in people behaving totally out of character. The Bahá’ís, regardless of their personal means, did not attach importance to material possessions. They seemed non-judgemental and were well able to enjoy themselves without drink. I fitted in.

With my acceptance of Bahá’u’lláh as the Messenger for today, my life really began, but I was amazed at the interest it caused in the quite large local community.  No declarations had occurred since 1958, and this was January 1966. The next six months were a whirlwind of activity. There was lots of teaching, and through a Government scheme we made contact with new immigrants in our area, to help them socialise in their new country, and also give them an opportunity to hear about the Faith. From that Ridván I had the opportunity to serve on the very well established Ottawa Spiritual Assembly, as did my friend Daphne, who had been a Bahá’í for a mere eleven days at the time. She had recently come to Canada from South Africa, to get married. She came across Bahá’u’lláh instead. At dinner at her home the day after I declared, she offered peaches in brandy.  This was the prompt for me to explain to her about the Faith.

Bahá’í life in Ottawa seemed quite inward-looking at that time, with the LSA feeling responsible for a community of sixty souls and all the personal problems they presented. While our teaching was very active, I certainly had no concept of sharing this New Message for the betterment of the world. We shared the wonderful news of Bahá’u’lláh with our friends, but really with no idea at that time of His being the Divine Physician.

One of the most frustrating days of my life was a lunch stop Hand of the Cause William Sears and his wife Marguerite made in Ottawa. We used my downtown apartment.  It was wonderful to have them there, but I wasn’t able to be present and someone else was hosting. Office rules in Canada at the time could be totally inflexible, and I couldn’t get the time off work. I did manage just a few minutes, and had a view from the draining board in the kitchen – the only inch of space available!

Collis Featherstone and his wife Madge addressed a large gathering of Bahá’ís in Ottawa. Really they were our guests, far from their home base in Australia. But it was they who welcomed us all at the door, they acted as our hosts. One Hand of the Cause whom I missed on the west coast was Mr Samandari. He came to the west coast in late 1967, and I did not go to meet him because I’d recently been in a car accident and looked a mess. I hoped for another opportunity, but it never came, because he passed on the next summer.

The Canadian community gathered in the Chateau Laurier Hotel for National Convention that April 1966, my first experience of a national Bahá’í meeting. For me one of the most memorable aspects of it was the joyful homecoming of many pioneers who 13 years previously had scattered to many parts of the world implementing the Guardian’s Ten Year Crusade, several of them Knights of Bahá’u’lláh, who had opened up new territories for the Faith, some suffering great hardships and severe conditions. What joy as they met up with their old friends. The atmosphere was electric.

This experience added to my feeling that Ottawa life was just too comfortable, with its round of firesides, declarations and easy day-to-day living. On the night I signed my card I met a family who had recently left the Gulf Island community off the west coast of British Columbia to pioneer to St Helena. The Gulf Islands still needed one person to make up the community, and that is where I went in July 1966. It was quite an isolated community at that time, total population 2,000, with limited ferry service between the islands, the mainland and Vancouver Island. We were blessed with having the Bennett family in the community, including Fletcher who flew a small Cessna seaplane, which made it possible to visit neighbouring islands easily and enabled the scattered community to function.

It was a closely knit community, and we did not realise how much we missed other Bahá’í company until the occasional visitor arrived from elsewhere.  It was like a breath of fresh air, as were trips off island to meetings in Vancouver or further afield. Teaching was not the easiest there. Settlers on the islands were individualistic, free spirits, not necessarily interested in anything spiritual, especially when fuelled by spirits of the bottled variety as they often were. Copying an Ottawa success, we tried running a coffee house for the youth, but learned the hard way that what works brilliantly in one location does not necessarily work elsewhere.  All the same, some receptive souls were found. The Bahá’ís made contact with local Native Americans such as Tom Anaqod, whose forebears as recently as the turn of the twentieth century had been in conflict with the white settlers. The islands had the most wonderful cosmopolitan population, the west coast of Canada being a jumping off point for Japan and Hawaii. I was able to stay on the island for two years, after which time work dried up and I returned to live in the Ottawa area.

There I walked straight into a new job, and shortly afterwards moved to open up a new area twenty miles outside the city. At the time, it did not seem the most useful of moves, living very much a commuter lifestyle, working in the city.  My limited integration into the local community concerned mainly my landlord and his family; but maybe one’s efforts and prayers are never totally wasted. On returning to the area several years later, I discovered they had a Local Spiritual Assembly.

I subsequently moved in to a small township called Vanier, to help form their LSA. Vanier was unique in Canada, where cities and townships commonly spread for miles. It was just one mile square, and we were all within walking distance of each other. It was a young, active Bahá’í community, in an area largely populated by exchange students training at the National Research Council. I shared an apartment with an older Bahá’í lady, across the street from the boys’ apartment. Any cold callers such as Mormons were probably amazed at what seemed to be the considerable number of Bahá’ís in the area (actually nine of us). Will our communities of the future be similarly compact?

While living there I had the opportunity to go on pilgrimage at very short notice because of a cancellation. I arrived in Haifa on 1st January 1971. Was I really ready for pilgrimage at that time? I’m not sure. I injured my ankle on the first evening there, and after that, all movement required extra effort, which really made me focus. With the help of our little pilgrim group, I managed to get everywhere except the Memorial Gardens on the last morning. At that time, pilgrims met with the Universal House of Justice in the foyer of 10 Haparsim Street, across the road from ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s house. We were able to visit Bahjí and Mazra’ih, and the Archives Building, and that was it. How the World Centre has blossomed since then.

A year or so later, I was able to go to Panama and visit the Temple, for the commemoration of the Martyrdom of the Báb, and meet the local friends including Ruth and Alan Pringle. The Temple is perched high on a hilltop outside Panama City. Its interior light shines through the walls, giving the appearance of an eggshell – a most amazing location, and well known to local pilots as a marker point.

I moved back to central Ottawa briefly, prior to my long planned world tour and return to the UK. The tour plans fizzled out but were replaced by an invitation to work at the Bahá’í World Centre. This turned out to be a special opportunity at that time, 1975, when the World Centre was a very small community. My post was secretary to the Resident Engineer in charge of the construction of the Seat of the House of Justice. He was Mr Khabirpour, who had moved from Luxembourg with his family to supervise this great project. Our offices were in a small building in the Memorial Gardens – the only location I had missed four years earlier on pilgrimage. Part of the job was acting as liaison between Mr Khabirpour and the architect, Mr Husayn Amanat, who was involved in other projects round the world – quite a challenge with the limited means of communication available at that time.

These frustrations were more than compensated for by what we did have. For example, spread out on a long table in our office we had the blueprints for the Seat – a building that will last for centuries. Within the design, space had to be allowed for the updating of heating/cooling systems and other technological innovations as yet not dreamed of. Into our office came samples of building materials, including the Carrara marble which was eventually chosen as the external facing. One day we had a visit from Richard St Barbe Baker, the Man of the Trees, who prepared the landscape design and the accompanying specification. He took into account not only the physical landscape, but also the history of the area over thousands of years.

What a privilege to be witness to such developments and to be part of this small cosmopolitan community, and in such close proximity to the Shrines. Leaving Haifa towards the end of the year was a wrench, and I think for me the most difficult aspect was to move away from the focal point of the world, where all that mattered happened. Taking up a post in the Civil Service seemed rather petty and inconsequential, but it was a chance to serve at grassroots level again, be involved in teaching work, and for the first time experience serving on a British Local Spiritual Assembly, in Nottingham. I also had a chance to serve as assistant to Auxiliary Board member Madeleine Hellaby. This was the most wonderful training, and an opportunity to be in touch with friends in the local area.

I got to know Dorothy Ferraby, who was serving as one of the very first Counsellors in Europe, and a great worker for the Faith. On one occasion I visited her when she was a patient in the Queen’s Medical Centre, where she was on a ward with five other elderly ladies. Her companions were sleeping or dozing over magazines. Brigitte, her daughter, had arrived shortly before me to deliver the Bahá’í post. There were piles of papers all over the bed, with Dorothy very much alive supervising the incoming and the outgoing. Serve and stay young!

While in Nottingham and living at Alexandra Court, a hostel for single professional people, I met a planning officer, David Birch, and we were married in September 1978 in Aspley Methodist Church, where the accommodating minister allowed us to have a Bahá’í wedding after he had conducted the Methodist one. Loughborough Spiritual Assembly and dear Peter Trundle looked after the Bahá’í service. We stayed in the Midlands until 1986 when David acquired a new post in North Wales.

Here was a new experience which brought me into contact with very small isolated communities.  I had the chance to serve on the Aberconwy Spiritual Assembly until local government areas changed in 1996.  Since then, I and many others here have been isolated believers. The Welsh language is important to this area. It is a key component of the North Wales culture, and I don’t think the Faith is going to really take off here until there is strong involvement from native Welsh speakers. There are one or two Bahá’ís in our area who have Welsh as their mother tongue, and they are priceless treasures. I have found Welsh women to be exuberant, and full of life and laughter.

Other activities I have been involved in since moving here have been tranquillity zones, which after two or three years developed into devotionals, attended by people who were really searching, including one lady, Vera Morgan, who accepted Bahá’u’lláh. I worked through the Ruhi books, and tutored up to Book 7. I was a slow starter, deciding Book 1 really was not for me, but we had been told to do it, and I did it. By the time we were on Book 2, I was relating to the system more positively. Since then I’ve found them such a joy to tutor, especially to people who are just learning about the Bahá’í Faith.

For several years I served as assistant to Auxiliary Board member Viv Bartlett. I have also served on the Literature Review Panel, and have done work connected with Pastoral Care.  On occasion I have served as delegate to National Convention, which took me far out of my comfort zone.

What a blessing it was to attend the 1992 World Congress in New York. I decided on this at the very last minute, and I am so glad I did. It really was the whole world coming together, full of emotion. Many of the musicians and choir members were staying in our hotel, and I learned about a completely new concept for rehearsing such a large and geographically diverse group — practising in small local groups before coming together as a whole really at the eleventh hour.

The lady who represented Wales at this great gathering was Ada Williams from our community. She had become a Bahá’í in the 1920s, had pioneered to several places in the British Isles and had many adventures travel-teaching around the world. She had also sat at the Guardian’s table when on pilgrimage in the 1950s. By the time of the Congress she was 92, and Christine Wagg and I were supposed to be looking after her. It became questionable as to who was looking after whom, but I think Bahá’u’lláh looked after all of us rather well.

Other blessings in my life were a three-day visit to Haifa with Mrs Alaee’s group in 2000, and then in 2003 a second pilgrimage. The latter was a very special experience, as we were present at Mr Furútan’s final session with the pilgrims, following which a beautiful young child sang a prayer, he met with Russian pilgrims, and then passed away. As pilgrims we had the privilege of attending his funeral.

Another blessing was to have met some of those most wonderful servants of the Faith, the Hands of the Cause, a disparate group of people but all selflessly carrying the same love and joy with them.

Another Hand of the Cause I did see, for the first time, probably 1971 in Montreal, was Rúhíyyih Khánum. She was certainly much more dynamic than I had imagined, as she urged the Canadian community into action in no uncertain terms. The next time I met her was in a tiny gathering in Haifa in 1975 when she was having a ‘sale’ raising funds for her Green Light Expedition to the Amazon. She truly was audacious.

I was extremely fortunate to meet Mr Faizi, one of the Hands resident in the Holy Land in the mid 1970s, as he seemed to be forever away on exhausting teaching trips or out of sight, busy preparing for the next one. I attended a small dinner party given by the Khabirpours in Mr Faizi’s honour on his return from one of his trips. To try and express their love and esteem for him, the Khabirpours had laid out gold cutlery. He was a very honoured guest.

We are now at such an exciting time in the development of the Faith, approaching the last Five Year Plan leading up to 2021. How very thankful I am to have heard about Bahá’u’lláh.

__________________________

Joan Birch

North Wales, February 2016

With a Welsh group in September 2005. From L to R: Francesca Bantock, Alicia Bancroft-Lloyd, Sue Frayne, Cynthia Barlow, Louise Doughty, Robina Nicholson, Joan Birch

With a Welsh group in September 2005.
From L to R: Francesca Bantock, Alicia Bancroft-Lloyd, Sue Frayne, Cynthia Barlow, Louise Doughty, Robina Nicholson, Joan Birch

Back row, from L: Joan Birch, Rachel Murray, Anne Maund, Omid Behi Front row, from L: Amy Behi, Tracey Roberts-Jones (April 2013)

Back row, from L: Joan Birch, Rachel Murray, Anne Maund, Omid Behi
Front row, from L: Amy Behi, Tracey Roberts-Jones (April 2013)

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