My story begins with my parents who had both abandoned their belief in God and brought my sisters and myself up as atheists. My father’s parents were from Austro-Hungary and met as teenagers on the boat to America and he was brought up as an Orthodox Jew. They lived in Pennsylvania and kept a Kosher household until they died. My mother’s family was Lutheran. Her mother was from Germany and her father came from Norway. They lived on a pig farm in rural Minnesota where she was the only girl in a one-room schoolhouse. My parents met in Chicago where my mother had received a university scholarship and my father was in medical school.
I was born in Chicago in 1957 and have two younger sisters. We moved to Denmark for two years in 1959 when my sister Cheryl was just a baby. My youngest sister, Pam, was born in 1964 after we moved back to the United States and were living in Denver, Colorado where I spent my formative years. As children we celebrated the Jewish as well as the Christian holidays by giving and receiving gifts at Christmas and Hannukah, searching for hidden eggs at Easter as well as setting a place for Elijah at our Passover table. These holidays were just that – not Holy Days. Pam and I used to watch our grandmother saying prayers on Shabbat with a towel on her head when we stayed with her and we became curious about what the prayers were. We actually asked a friend at school for the Hannukah prayer, and said it when we lit the candles on the menorah even though my father showed no interest.
Some of my neighbourhood friends went to church on Sundays and when I asked my parents about Jesus, I was told he was a great man, but that there was absolutely no such thing as God. I accepted what they said and didn’t really think too much about it until my family moved to England when I was 13 years old. My father was a pathologist and was offered a year’s exchange at Mill Hill Hospital in north London. He enjoyed life in England so much that he decided not to return to the United States. My mother, my sister and I joined him and after several months of “experiencing life” and commune-hopping, my mother found a flat in London and got a job teaching at The American School in London. My father spent more and more time investigating Zen Buddhism and going off to Buddhist retreats in an attempt to find himself, and before the end of the year decided to give up the responsibilities of being a doctor, husband and father and returned to the United States.
In England, the law was exactly opposite of that in America, where religion and God were not discussed in school. In the UK, the only required subject in school was religion. In those days, the early 1970s, religion usually meant Church of England (Christian). My first Religious Education teacher was an ex-priest who treated every class period as a sermon. Some of the things he said made me start to question whether or not there was a God.
My school had an active Christian Youth group and I noticed they had something bonding them together, which I found attractive. I went along to several meetings, but was perplexed at their attitude that Jesus was the only correct way to God and that everyone else would be punished. I simply couldn’t believe that IF there was a God, how could he punish all those Muslims, Hindus, Jews, etc. in the world who thought they were worshipping Him? This just didn’t make any sense to me and I pondered over it throughout my teenage years. I remember being given a green pamphlet with the heading ‘Journey Through Life’. On the back page was a prayer to let Jesus into your heart. I said this prayer earnestly many, many times, but nothing happened. I even signed up for an online course to study the Bible and learn the true meanings of the Christian scriptures.
When I left school I decided to go to Teacher Training College, but first had a gap year in Israel (1975-6). My Jewish grandmother always dreamed that we would visit the Holy Land and somehow I had a desire to go. I registered with a Kibbutz agency in London and arrived in Tel Aviv not knowing a soul. I made my way to the Kibbutz office and they asked how long I intended to stay before allocating my Kibbutz. I wasn’t sure, but said probably six months or so. As I planned to stay for a longer period of time than many short-term volunteers, they suggested I become part of an Ulpan program (commitment to learn Hebrew by attending classes in the afternoons while still working with the volunteers in the mornings), which I agreed to, and ended up at Kibbutz Parod between Akka and Tsfat (Safed).
The first few days were very challenging for me, as most of my classmates did not speak English (they were from all over the world including Brazil, Columbia, Russia and a few European countries). The teacher also spoke no English and I did not understand a word she was saying. Finally, on about the third day she got out some chalk and was about to write on the board. I remember thinking, ‘Thank Goodness – at least I’ll be able to see what the words are supposed to sound like’, but then of course she started to write in Hebrew script and I was none the wiser. I thought I would never be able to learn even the alphabet, but after a few days of hard studying and trying to communicate with my classmates, it started to make some sense. The Kibbutz members knew which volunteers were part of the Ulpan, and were under strict instructions not to speak to us in English. It was the most amazing feeling for me to be able to communicate in another language and after a few months I even started to dream in Hebrew.
To get anywhere from Parod, I had to go through Haifa, which I did many times on my days off, but amazingly I never ‘saw’ the Shrine of The Báb. When I returned to England after almost eight months in Israel, I met up with some other English volunteers I had known there and we were looking through photos. I remember seeing the Shrine of The Báb in some photos and thinking – Why didn’t I see that? It obviously was not the right time for me.
In September 1976 I started at Teacher Training College in Liverpool and decided to focus on Middle School as I didn’t really have a specialty subject that I thought I could teach. I chose to study Psychology and Education. As I mentioned earlier, UK schools are required by law to teach Religious Education, so I had to study Religion and how to teach it to the Middle School level. I had an amazing teacher who was very sincere and with each religion she taught us about, I was convinced she must be a member of it. As Liverpool was very multi-cultural, we had visits to Jewish synagogues, Muslim mosques, Sikh temples etc. and met members of these various religions. With each one we learned about, I went to its Holy texts, and read parts of the Bible, Koran, Baghavad-Gita, Torah etc. I became fascinated by the different religions, but there was always something that niggled at me that didn’t seem quite right. I became good friends with my next door neighbour in the dorm who was very involved with the Christian Union at college.
Unbeknown to me, one of my classmates was a Bahá’í and as well as asking very interesting questions in class, he paid a number of visits to my friend next door. Sometimes the discussions got quite heated and I made an excuse to pop round as my curiosity got the better of me. He was Davey Wright (now Vincent). I found his questions and arguments fascinating and started asking him questions. Instead of giving me straight answers, he invited me to go with him to Quaker meetings. I found I enjoyed the Quaker meetings and during the devotional times when people could offer up their thoughts, Davey used to say Bahá’í prayers (although I still didn’t know what they were at the time). When I finally found out he was Bahá’í, I asked if I could borrow a book to learn more, but instead he just gave me the title of a book I could find in the library. It was Baha’u’llah and the New Era. When I was reading it I was a bit skeptical and was looking for something that didn’t feel quite right, but to my surprise, I found it extremely logical, and it answered many questions about religion for me.
My big hurdle was a belief in God. I thought to myself that IF there were a God, this Bahá’í Faith made the most sense. I continued going to the Quaker meetings and Davey finally introduced me to a lovely Persian family who held firesides each week in St Helens; the Haghjoo family: Roha and Iraj with children Shahram (16), Shahrzad (11) and dear little Mona (5 years old). I began attending regular firesides, but still didn’t find out too much about what the Bahá’í Faith really was. We had lots of tea and cake and they would answer my questions, but it was quite hard to get information. I realised later that at the time, the Bahá’ís were so worried about appearing pushy they went a little too far the other way.
It was coming up to a 19-Day Feast and I asked whether I could go along, but was told emphatically “No”, these occasions were for Bahá’ís only. Normally, this would have upset me, but I knew in my heart that one day in the not too distant future, I would be able to attend a Feast. Something happened one day when I was on my way from a Quaker meeting in the morning to the Bahá’í celebration of World Religion Day that afternoon. I was on a bus sitting next to a woman who had also been attending the Quaker meetings for some time. She assumed I was a Quaker and started asking me many questions about the existence of God – questions that I had been asking myself for many years. I found myself answering her easily and eloquently without any deep thought. When I got to my stop and got off the bus, I wondered to myself what I had been saying? I realised the answers to her questions had not come from me. I had a spiritual experience and saw the perfection and love in every human being, flower, and insect around me. I realised that of course there must be a God – there was too much to be a coincidence! I was filled with a warmth (in the middle of January) and a sense of peace.
When I arrived at the World Religion Day celebration, I knew I wanted to be a Bahá’í. When I told Roha, she sat me down and explained that becoming a Bahá’í was like enrolling in a university, but that I would never graduate. Her words are very true. I was 20 years old at the time. My birthday was in May and I was persuaded to move into St Helens to help form the very first Spiritual Assembly of St Helens – a truly historic event, the significance of which I did not fully appreciate at the time.
The first summer after I declared (1978) I went travel teaching to Nigeria for three months with Ken Finn and Tom Fox. Ken had been a good friend of mine since I was 14. I had met him through the English Folk Camps Society. After meeting with the NSA of Nigeria, we were instructed to travel along the Calabar-Mamfe Road to find out how many local communities still existed and to focus on deepening them. This was the route traveled by Oscar Nyang from Cameroon to Nigeria, 21 years earlier, and was extremely remote. We were told that the pioneers living there could not risk spending time in “the bush” due to limited medical facilities. We had some amazing adventures, met wonderful people, slept on floors of mud huts (and got eaten by sandflies), helped build a water pump in a village that was several miles from the nearest river, and were able to teach as well as deepen the villagers as we went. We were often asked to meet with the elders of a village before addressing children or talking with others. We were always made welcome, and shared music and songs wherever we went. I realized that music truly is a universal language. I contracted malaria along the way, but fortunately we were not far from a missionary hospital who took me in for treatment. I stayed there several days while Tom and Ken continued the teaching work.
Soon after we returned to England, Tom and I decided to be married. Tom had previously been part of a musical group called ‘The Dawnbreakers’ and in 1980 we formed a new musical theatre group called ‘Fire & Snow’. The original members were Richard and Corinne Hainsworth, Tim and Becky Maude, Sunil Abrol, Tom and myself. Tom was a photographer/musician and was innovative in using three projectors to put together amazing slide shows. He also composed music and played guitar and mandolin. Tim and Richard also played guitar. Corinne played viola and sang, Becky sang and I played flute and sang (not at the same time). Sunil was our sound engineer who was also in charge of lights. Fire &Snow developed two main shows and changed membership over the years as people left to pioneer or have children. Other members were John and Glynis Dunthorne, Raju Karia and Ken and Sue Finn, but Tom and I remained as original group members. It was a wonderful time and we travelled throughout England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, performing at village halls and community centres, proclaiming and travel teaching as we went.
We had two children, Esme, born in 1984, and Robert in 1987. We went on our first Pilgrimage in 1982 and had the privilege of being served tea by Rúhíyyih Khánum in the Master’s house. We also had the enormous bounty of attending the dedication of the House of Worship in New Delhi (the Lotus Temple) in December 1986, where I was able to sing in the choir. We had intensive rehearsals with Tom Price and also had to learn songs in Hindi, which had been arranged by Ravi Shankar’s musical director. It was an amazing experience being part of this world choir, experiencing the colours and chaos of Delhi and seeing the House of Worship transform before our eyes. Twelve days before the dedication, there was still scaffolding up and the grounds were nothing but dirt. There were hundreds of people working day and night and sure enough by the day of the dedication ceremony, everything was finished perfectly and the gardens were exquisite. The temple was able to hold 3,000 people so we had three ceremonies to accommodate 9,000 people inside as well as hundreds more who listened from outside.
Tom and I were together for 11 years before our marriage ended. We were living in Norfolk and I worked part time with delinquent teenagers while my children were young. We were isolated believers, but joined in with the Waveney and also Norwich Baha’is for Feasts and Holy days. During summers, the Waveney Baha’is had some incredibly talented people who built amazing floats and I was able to participate in a number of parades mainly in Norfolk, including the Lord Mayor’s parade in Norwich and even London’s Notting Hill Carnival one year (where our theme song was “Hot, Hot, Hot”). Those were incredible opportunities for proclamation in the days before the Bahá’í Faith had come out of obscurity. Also during that time we had regular children’s classes for families within about a 25 mile radius and I became director of our local Thomas Breakwell School, which we were able to hold every Sunday in an elementary school in Roydon, where I had done some supply teaching. We had several classes of differing age groups and also started a class for the parents; those were the days before the Ruhi courses.
Eventually I secured a full-time teaching position at a High School in Harleston and in 1994 I married Tim Shrimpton who was a fellow teacher (and not a Bahá’í) at the high school. Almost a year later he declared. We both had dreams of travelling and working overseas so in 1996 we resigned from our permanent positions in Norfolk and moved to the Philippines where I was elected to serve on the Spiritual Assembly of Makati. The NSA members were dynamic and very involved in the grassroots of community life. There were many firesides and large gatherings every few months, to which dignitaries were invited. One of the excellent speakers in our community was John Grayzel who worked for USAID. On another occasion I had the privilege of being invited as a Bahá’í representative to a Women’s Forum where Hillary Clinton was the main speaker.
After two years we decided to leave. The pollution level was very high and our health was suffering. We were offered teaching positions in a school in Kampala, Uganda. My background was in working with children who had learning differences and I was invited to establish an Optimal Learning Centre there for children 3 to18 years old. We were told right from the beginning that we could only be issued work visas for four years as expats. During our time in the Philippines, we had decided that we would like to adopt a child, but due to very strict legislation, it was impossible for us there so we looked into it early on in Uganda. Sylvia Miley put us in touch with an orphanage and things happened very quickly. Within eight weeks of our arriving in the country, we had two more children at home: Jasmine and Kenny, who were between 2 and 3 years old at the time. Our lives were turned upside down overnight and I immediately bonded with both children. From being small and malnourished they have both grown into strong, beautiful young adults.
It was such a bounty to live and work so close to the mother temple of Africa. I joined the choir and every Sunday was able to sing there. Sunday services and Holy Days at the House of Worship were always celebrated in true African style with lots of music and ending with a hearty meal lovingly cooked and prepared, to share with the community and friends. Most 19-Day Feasts at that time took place at the home of the Banani family. Uganda were right ‘on the ball’ with the Institute process, and the friends were kept on track and lovingly encouraged by Institute coordinators Mojdeh and Brian Burriston among others. The year 2001 saw the 50th anniversary of the Faith in Uganda and we had an amazing celebration with many distinguished visitors including Ali and Violette Nakhjavani, Hassan and Betty Sabri, and Philip and Lois Hainsworth who had pioneered to Uganda during the Ten Year Crusade. Zarin and Soroush Hainsworth-Fadaei and their four children came to stay with us for a few weeks and we had a wonderful time visiting some of the parks as well as participating in the celebrations. We were also privileged to have living in our midst, George Olinga (son of Hand of the Cause Enoch Olinga) and his wife Forough as well as Patrick Robarts, son of Hand of the Cause John Robarts. Tim helped organize Junior Youth activities including camping trips and service projects, which helped to form very close bonds. We have remained in contact with many of them and recently re-connected with Dawn Belcher who still travels back and forth between Kampala and Florida.
Our eldest daughter, Esme, graduated from high school in Kampala in 2002 and went on to au pair in Spain before returning to England for university. The rest of the family headed off to Bangladesh where Tim had been asked to develop the International Baccalaureate (IB) Middle Years programme in a newly-established school in Dhaka. I worked part time in the library and took the opportunity to begin my Masters in Counselling/Psychology and retrain as a school guidance counsellor. The local Bahá’í community were amazing at organising Feasts and the Institute process. They really didn’t need much support from the pioneers. Staying healthy in Bangladesh was challenging as there was a lot of disease, especially during the rainy season. During the two years we were there, I experienced many forms of dysentery, respiratory infections and pneumonia. After Tim contracted typhoid fever and was medevaced to Bangkok for 19 days, we decided it was time to leave.
We returned to Norfolk for two years where we hosted children’s classes and fully participated in community activities. Tim made a good recovery and got a job covering a maternity leave. I did some supply teaching, worked as a volunteer for the Citizens Advice Bureau and also managed to finish my online Master’s degree in Counselling/Psychology, which I had started in Bangladesh. We were fortunate to have the opportunity to go on pilgrimage in March 2005 and were blessed to have the entire family together, Tim and myself and the four children, Esme, Robert, Jasmine and Kenny. On the first day, we were welcomed by two members of the International Teaching Centre at the Pilgrim House and then escorted to the Shrine of the Báb, where Shahriar Razavi chanted the Tablet of Visitation. Every evening we had inspiring talks by members of the Universal House of Justice or the International Teaching Centre, but the most wondrous part of pilgrimage is spending time in the shrines.
In 2012 Tim and I, Jasmine and Kenny had the bounty of pilgrimage once again. This time the children were old enough to go into the Archives building. We were able to enjoy a stopover in Turkey to visit the Holy Spot in Fatih (Istanbul) and Baha’u’llah’s house in Edirne. It was here in Edirne that Baha’u’llah revealed many tablets including the Tablet of Ahmad and the letters to the kings and rulers of the world. We met up with a large group of believers from Iran who were reuniting with family members living in Germany. It was very emotional and I felt honoured to witness this gathering. We arrived in Israel a few days before our pilgrimage and I took Tim and the children to visit my old kibbutz. Parod had changed a lot and kibbutzim are no longer the communities they used to be. Most of them have sold off their agricultural land and are now holiday resorts. I managed to meet up with my “kibbutz mother” from 36 years earlier, which was an amazing experience. I realised that she spoke excellent English and we had a very lovely visit.
On our last day of pilgrimage, Tim and I each had a room entirely to ourselves in the Shrine of Bahá’u’lláh at Bahji. It was an amazing time to pray, reflect and meditate whilst soaking in the fragrance, beauty and calm surrounding me.
In 2006 we moved to Beijing, where Tim and I again were offered jobs in a large international school. This time I was employed as a school counselor, one of eight, working mainly with the younger children and parents. We enjoyed the enthusiasm of the Chinese people and particularly the hive of activity in the parks. On a typical day you could see women dancing with fans, people singing, men playing cards or mah-jong, children and adults exercising on equipment that was everywhere, Tai-Chi, and stools where you could sit and get a very competent back and shoulder massage. Change was rapid both in terms of road and building construction and also in the way people were beginning to think more openly as a result of the internet (even though much was blocked) and people having more opportunities to travel outside China, indeed ‘the country of the future’!
The school was very large, highly academic, and high pressure. It was not a great fit for Jasmine or Kenny as their talents in sport and drama were not recognised as success. After three years, Jasmine and I were fortunate to be able to move to another, much smaller school in Beijing, with a more nurturing environment. I was now the sole counsellor for all students pre-Kindergarten through to Grade 12 and discovered that I loved helping the older students discover their strengths and abilities, leading to appropriate college and career choices.
Kenny meanwhile had been discovered by IMG Sports Academy and invited to join their first under-14 soccer team in Florida! Four years later he was still loving it, so since Jasmine was graduating from High School in June 2014, we decided to leave China that year and spend Kenny’s final high school year in Florida supporting him. During his senior year his fast running was noticed by the track coaches. He kept improving his times, broke the IMG school records for both the 100 metres and 200 metres, and subsequently joined the track team at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in January 2016. He now aspires to perform at the Olympic Games.
After eight years in China, we are currently living in Bradenton, Florida where Tim and I are both members of the Spiritual Assembly. We are both Ruhi tutors and excited about starting Book 9. Since being here we have attended summer school, and this year Tim is the Youth coordinator. I have attended a number of gatherings at the Magdalene Carney Bahá’í Institute in West Palm Beach and I was also able to sing in the 9th Annual Bahá’í Choral festival in Wilmette last year. Jasmine and Kenny are both attending universities in Florida. Esme is living and working as a travel journalist in Barcelona and Robert enjoys life in Hawaii. We plan to split our time between Hawaii and Florida for the next few years and explore new opportunities.
We try to do our best to serve the Faith wherever we are and are constantly challenged and rewarded.