Marlene Morris

Marlene Morris

 

Guernsey

I became a Bahá’í in 1988. It was a strange time in my life but I guess I was receptive. In some ways it was an optimistic time for me because I needed to forge a new life.

I was born in Guernsey to Guernsey parents. I grew up in the Parish of St Pierre du Bois, more commonly known as St Peters, opposite the church and churchyard.   I began my education at the small parish school. My family were not religious but nominally Church of England. I was confirmed into the Church at 16 but lapsed a couple of years later. I went on to Les Beaucamps Secondary School, sixth form at the Guernsey Girls’ Grammar School and then at Weymouth Teacher Training College. I met my first husband when I was working as a waitress in a Weymouth hotel. I had ‘gone-down’, passing my teachers’ course, and it was at a time when new teachers were plentiful and teaching jobs scarce.

Two years into my teaching career, we moved back to Guernsey, until I remarried and moved to Jersey thirteen years later. I had occasionally noticed articles in the Guernsey Evening Press which included Peter Jenkins, a Primary Headmaster in Guernsey but also a Bahá’í. I don’t remember anything about them much except Peter, who seemed so much like the quintessential English schoolmaster which seemed at odds with this strange sounding religion which made it seem credible. I was intrigued but did nothing about it.

It was Easter 1988 when I finally met Bahá’ís for the first time. There was an advertisement in the Guernsey Evening Press, for a public meeting at Beau Sejour Leisure Centre, Easter Monday, which listed the main principles of the Faith as a question: ‘Do you believe in…’ I knew I could answer yes to all of them but I was home that evening thoroughly enjoying a re-run of ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ on television. I’d watched it previously when I was in my early twenties but this time, now in my early thirties, I felt really impressed by the very first Christians, wondering, how they knew Jesus was who he said he was. Would I have known?

I didn’t want to miss the rest of the programme but I decided to record it (remember those old VHS tapes in a machine you had to get up to operate?) and go up to Beau Sejour for the Bahá’í public meeting. As I walked in, Helen Smith welcomed me and explained they were just finishing a ‘Juice d’honeur’, the Bahá’í version of the traditional ‘Vin d’honeur’ given by States and Parish politicians to invited dignitaries. A Vin d’honeur would normally involve wine. Given my recent experiences with my ex-husband, learning Bahá’í’s do not use alcohol was meaningful to me. This meeting was part of a Border Weekend which Guernsey Bahá’ís had organised for the first time and there were British and French Bahá’ís on the island.

A talk was given by an Iranian Bahá’í and he used references to all the major figures of the Faith, which was far too difficult to follow but I didn’t feel put off. At the end I was eavesdropping on a conversation between Barney Leith and the only other non-Bahá’í who attended, and I joined in. Ironically, I asked Barney, not knowing that Erica worked for the George Ronald Bahá’í publishing company, if there were any books. He gave me a copy of The Hidden Words and an invitation to a talk scheduled in the week. I found The Hidden Words rather lovely, yet somehow practical; they seem to resonate with me.

I went to the next meeting, even though I was signed up to an Evening Class on that night. It was in the lounge of a local hotel. I was impressed by the relaxed and friendly nature of the meeting. Pauline Senior was making lace and I believe at least one other person was knitting during the talk! I can’t remember if there were any other non-Bahá’ís there as some of the visitors had remained. This time Barney gave the talk and at the end I was asked for my thoughts. I just said I didn’t think so many other people thought like me, a rather arrogant and naïve answer but it was how I felt! I was particularly struck by two young lads of secondary school age and their utter enthusiasm. One of them, whose father had given the talk on Sunday and whose father was talking to me again, was virtually bouncing up and down and saying, ‘Ignore him he’s being too complicated, it is all about LOVE!’ I couldn’t imagine any of the young lads I taught being so open and enthusiastic about love and religion.

There was a meeting the following week and I was really looking forward to it. I took my dog Wes out for a walk beforehand. We strolled along the seafront at Les Banques on the east coast near my home, right to the far end. All the way I was thinking, ‘I am a Bahá’í’, repeating it over to test how strange it sounded. I stopped at the far end and I looked up at the sky, which was totally blue except for one small cloud, and I thought, ‘That is like mylittle cloud of doubt’. I looked around to call Wes and put him on his lead but when I looked again the cloud had gone! I found myself running down a grassy slope and almost skipping, not actions I normally do. I was really happy until I got home. I was locked out of both house and car, having dropped my keys! I really panicked, not because I was stuck, but because I would miss the meeting. I carefully retraced my steps, to my dog’s delight, and was relieved to find them at the bottom of the grassy bunker I had uncharacteristically skipped down.

The meeting was in Jock and Edna Sweet’s home and it was just the Guernsey Bahá’ís and me. It was the occasion of the Declaration of the Báb. I felt very at home and easy. At the end of the prayers, readings and talk, Helen Smith asked me what I thought. I said it was very good. Her next questions were “Good, but not for me, good but I need to wait and see, or good, I think I am a Bahá’í”. I simply said, “Good, I am a Bahá’í”. Understandably, this caused a bit of a stir and even reluctance to sign me up straight away; maybe I should go away and think about it?

I would not be deterred. I was so certain of the truth of this Faith. From that day I have never understood why others cannot easily see it. Even on days of doubt in these troubled times, I know there is no other way, this has to be right. I have the signed prayer book from that night of the 22nd May 1988. I was in the company of some amazing people: Edna and Jock Sweet, Sandra Jenkins, Bill Jenkins and Helen Smith. The rest of the Guernsey Bahá’ís were not able to be there: Pauline Senior, Peter Jenkins, Trudie Roffey (as she was then) and Adele Stevens-Cox (now Malpas) but it was a dynamic, loving and very active community. The next Ridván I found myself on the Local Spiritual Assembly.

We put on all kinds of events to which we invited the public: Regular Firesides, Unity Feasts, Special Event and/or Speaker Talks, Prayer evenings, ‘Lent’ Lunches, Naw-Ruz Events, meeting dignitaries, distributing the peace message, even a music event for teenagers; anything where there was a need or a teaching opportunity and we felt we could contribute.

We always seemed to have lots of Bahá’í visitors and I have a great memory of completing the Easter Monday 20-mile World Aid Walk and walking for a time alongside a lovely young British Iranian woman, through St Saviours and past my late mother’s childhood home. It really felt like the old world was evolving into a new. The community members also supported each other. Another favourite memory is driving to each other’s homes before dawn to share breakfast and prayers during the Fast.

Jersey 

The Border Weekends continued and when I re-married in 1991 and moved to my husband’s native Jersey, the local Bahá’ís also had a couple of goes at hosting. The community I joined there consisted of myself, Mary Connell, who had pioneered back to her childhood home a few months earlier, and the very staunch Beryl de Gruchy. My daughter Catherine also participated in everything as she grew.

We had regular prayer meetings each Friday at 4.00pm and continued to put on lots of events, which involved the public, friends, family and contacts. Our biggest ventures were for World Religion Day in January, One World Week in October, The Holy Days and our huge annual party for Naw-Rúz, which was always really stressful beforehand but amazing on the night. For a few years it was a little easier when we also had Jill and John Butterfield and Diana Mayaveram with us.

For many years, beginning in 2000, we took part in the annual Mind, Body and Spirit Exhibitions. To begin with we simply had an information stall but eventually we were able to arrange a Tranquillity Zone. It was really hard work to spend the whole weekend from Friday to Sunday on this and Mary usually had to set up with help from my husband Mick.   Luckily, we also had Sandra Jenkins over to visit us that weekend and help. When Jill Butterfield joined us, it certainly helped spread the load.

We seemed to get lots of fascinating visitors for this period too such as the survivor of persecution in Iran, Olya Roohizadegan, world traveller Andre Brugiroux, members of the UK National Spiritual Assembly and sometimes people visiting on holiday or temporarily working, such as our good friend Peter Lee. Every guest who came to see us had an opportunity to be a guest speaker or join in a Unity Feast or Fireside. When possible I also took Catherine to a Bahá’í summer school at Sidcot and later in Wales and then Bath. Being in a Bahá’í world for at least one week of the year meant so much to me.

Marlene with Mary Connell

Marlene with Mary Connell

A few times I have had the pleasure of being Unit Delegate to National Convention, once in Ipswich and several times in Llandudno. Again this connection to the wider Bahá’í community was so important to me even though I never felt I had anything to say. It’s great to be with friends and I especially valued John and Margaret Neal, who would give me a lift to and from Birmingham airport and put me up for the night on the way there or back as it would have been a very tricky journey for me.

I was able to go on pilgrimage in 1994 but I am not sure I fully understood what I was experiencing. However, Mary and I, along with every Bahá’í residing on islands surrounding the British Isles, were invited to the opening of the Bahá’í Terraces in 2001. Luckily, we were able to attend this fantastic, historic occasion. Bahá’u’lláh must really have wanted me there as this was a whole week out of the school where I taught, and the week after half-term, yet my headmaster agreed to let me go! It reflected well on a Catholic school. The whole experience was incredible; so many Bahá’ís together from every part of the world. Naturally we particularly enjoyed speaking to others who came from islands. For a week it really felt we were enjoying living in the future Bahá’í world

At this point I must add my story would not be complete if I did not mention my brilliant husband, Mick Morris. Though not a Bahá’í he has been a true friend of the Faith and has played a huge part in enabling all of the above Jersey experiences to happen, helping in all kinds of ways, giving lifts, entertaining strangers in our home including putting them up to stay, setting up events, being a willing audience, often an active participant and allowing our daughter Catherine to attend Bahá’í lessons and events.

For a while the Jersey Community benefitted from the presence of a larger community which included Jill and John Butterfield, Diana Mayaveram, Peter Ramon-Whorral and Helen Bergin. We also had quite a small but committed community of interest. Jill was able to lead a couple of Ruhi Books 1 and 2 and some Sunday meditations. Mary and I have also completed the course up to Book 6. At the moment we are back down to the two of us and so are more limited in what we can do, so it really is Prayers and Proclamation.

We are regularly able to do a week of Morning Thoughts on Radio Jersey and recently recorded a conversation for the BBC Faith in the World Week, which has the theme of beauty. A twenty-minute edit was broadcast on Radio Jersey and a different two-minute piece is currently on the BBC Radio 2 website. We try to go out once a month to hold prayers in different parts of the island and when we meet we always dedicate ‘O thou incomparable God’ to our friends in Guernsey.

As the Faith continues to grow around the world I look forward to a time when we will experience that growth in the islands too.

__________________

Marlene Morris 

Jersey, Channel Islands, November 2016

Marlene and Mary share a happy moment

Marlene and Mary share a happy moment

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