I was born in Colchester, Essex and was the only child of my parents, who were loosely associated with the Congregational Chapel there.
There are 4 phases to my Bahá’í life: my declaration, enabling an LSA to be formed, Sunday School, and South Africa.
At school I was in the astronomical society, and we rejected all attempts by teachers to interest us in Christianity; we looked through telescopes at the stars and found no place for God. My parents did not go to church. Then at university I heard talk of a 4th dimension and wondered if God could be found there. In 1966, having been an atheist/agnostic for some time, I became engaged to a Christian girl called Ann and we gave considerable thought to the implications of our differing beliefs on our marriage. One outcome of this was that we went round to various churches to hear their viewpoints and experience their forms of worship. Eventually we reached the conclusion that none of them had anything to offer us, so Ann went back to her non-conformist church and I remained an atheist. Following this, we discussed our future children, and I agreed that they would be brought up as Christians. Attendance at many traditional weddings was part of our socialising as professional people (nurse and teacher) but one wedding stood out very clearly in my mind. A Catholic was married to an atheist, and she was unprepared for the very short ceremony which was the result of her not marrying a Catholic. She later refused to have their children baptised, and many problems ensued.
During the first five years of our own marriage, things went more or less to plan, but every so often we would hear of the difficulties of the couple in that other marriage. Since we no longer lived near them, we would normally catch up with them while we were on holiday. Some other friends of ours, Patsy and Graham Jenkins, lived in Epsom at that time and as their house was quite near our normal holiday route, we would call in to break our journey. On one occasion, Ann was helping Patsy in the kitchen, which was a euphemism for having a ‘catch up’ chat, when Patsy said she and Graham had become Bahá’ís. On enquiring further, a small yellow pamphlet was produced which Ann discreetly put into her handbag. She thought it was just the sort of thing I would be interested in, and gave it to me long after we got home.
It certainly made a lot more sense to me than anything I had heard at the various churches we had visited. The only address on the pamphlet was of the Bahá’í Publishing Trust. Accordingly I asked for details of books available. At that time the catalogue included brief summaries of the books, so I bought some that sounded interesting, and asked to be put in touch with the local Bahá’ís. The books arrived, and were read over the next few months, but no Bahá’ís made contact with us. I read Thief in the night carefully. It seemed sensible to me and I wanted to know more. Easter 1971 was our next holiday near Patsy and Graham. They were horrified when they learnt that we had not been contacted, and obtained details of the nearest Bahá’í secretaries at once. By that time we were living in Preston, Lancashire. Unfortunately we were not very near any Bahá’í community but our enthusiasm overcame the distance. There were about six active communities between 20 and 30 miles away and we visited them all several times during the next few months. Whereas before I had thought “religions are saying different things, they can’t all be true, so why should any of them be true?”, now the idea of progressive revelation, whereby all religions could be true, appealed to me. Eventually my wife said to me “you had better `declare’, no good waiting for me”. So a special meeting was arranged at Eccles Bahá’í centre, to which Sandra and Abdul Noah took me; we had been visiting them in Blackpool. Gita Chaplin asked me quite a few questions about my understanding of what it meant to be a Bahá’í, and then my declaration was accepted.
Helping to Form a Local Spiritual Assembly
Our children started attending Bahá’í classes, which were then held on Saturday afternoons at the home of Marion and Michael Cleasby in Burnley. Soon I became involved with the provision of these classes, which took place every other week, and also children’s classes at one-day schools. I was a delegate to National Convention, served on the Lancashire area Teaching Committee, and helped to form the first Spiritual Assembly of Preston in 1978, when Joe Foster represented the NSA at our declaration meeting (there being 9 adult Bahá’ís in Preston at the time). At first Ann was very pleased that I now had a Faith in God, and she accepted that it was only the absence of such which had led us to agree on the Christian upbringing of our children. So it came to pass that every other Sunday our children would go to Bahá’í classes and on the Sundays in between I would go to church. They seemed to be coping very well with this arrangement until some friends of ours invited Ann to a dedication ceremony for a new church. She took our youngest, Douglas aged 4, with her. It was a `high’ church and in place of the simple background to the altar was a very ornate arrangement with velvet curtains. As the organ music faded, the congregation hushed. With a dramatic sweep of the curtain, an imposing tall figure in a purple robe and gold embellishments entered. In the silence, Douglas’s loud voice asked “Is that Bahá’u’lláh?” Ann wished she could have disappeared through a hole in the floor! Since that day, much to my regret, my children have not been involved in any Bahá’í activities. One day someone asked Ann “Has your life changed since Alan became a Bahá’í?”, to which she replied “Yes, he doesn’t argue with me any more!”
Soon it was time for a change of job. Moving house, however, was not so easy, so for about six months I was renting a room near the new job and going home on alternate weekends. During this period, although I rarely saw the Bahá’ís in the area of my new job, came the most significant change to my way of life, which I feel was due to my new faith. For the first time I found myself really enjoying work; everyone was so kind and helpful, and when I did kindnesses in return, the effect `snowballed’ in all my activities. Eventually my family joined me, and a period of adjustment began. Although I was then in a large community, I soon found myself in charge of children’s classes and from April 1981 to 2007 I was chairman of the Spiritual Assembly of Havering. One important lesson to be learnt was that unity of the family comes first, even above the duty of attending Spiritual Assembly meetings; otherwise bad publicity for the Faith can spread very quickly. It is nice to be able to report, many years later, that a satisfactory balance between my Bahá’í work and other duties was established.
In 1982 there was a special meeting at the Guardian’s Resting Place, and Rooh’u’lláh Beheshti was attending with members of his family. He invited me to join them, since there was space in his car. We met many people there from other communities, and when the devotions had been continuing for some time, the adults were clearly distracted by young children whose concentration span had passed. I said to them “Let’s go for a walk”, then we went to look at the graves of members of some other religions. I remember Nava Beheshti and Panida Hemmatti asking about the Jewish graves, which clearly indicated their lack of knowledge. When we returned, and the devotions finished, consultation with their parents resulted in the starting of an inter-community class at the home of Carol Khorsandyon, who later joined me as one of the teachers. The photo shows me with the four comprising the first class.
When the number attending, and the age range, made it difficult to cope in a house, we recruited more teachers and started hiring school premises on a Sunday morning. We then named it the Ferraby Bahá’í School, after eminent Bahá’í John Ferraby. As other communities heard of this, more children came from quite a distance. Eventually the Sunday school had over 40 children attending, with 5 teachers for different age ranges and myself as director, but able to take any class if a teacher were unable to attend. With such a large number, we performed a musical play, with the aid of some parents1.
A sixth room was hired for parents and others to have their own meeting. Shahla and Juan Harrison kindly arranged for refreshments half way through the morning. This photo shows the children, youth and parents attending the class.
At this time the NSA published their national curriculum “Waiting on the Blessed Beauty”, and invited Bahá’ís to write a syllabus based on it. Since I had already written syllabi for our classes in what was now called “The Ferraby Bahá’í School”, I volunteered to do this. During 2000 and 2001 I produced “Light upon Light”, a syllabus based on the UK national curriculum2.
In 2001 I went on a 9-day pilgrimage, followed by a visit to Neda Dehmobedi and her family in India. While I was on pilgrimage the Universal House of Justice decided that pilgrims could walk upon the lower terraces without a guide. I was one of the first to do so, and was absolutely entranced by the beautiful gardens. Most evenings Mr. Furútan gave us a talk and one evening I was privileged to have an opportunity to converse with him afterwards. I gave him a message from Keykhosrow Dehmobedi and he replied “I remember him, a Knight of Bahá’u’lláh” (to Diu Island).
After my uplifting experience of pilgrimage, it was very nice to live with a Bahá’í family for a few days. Neda took me to the House of Worship in New Delhi, where we learnt that one of the youth volunteers was not available, so I volunteered to help for that week. I sang a prayer at one of the short services, and was astounded to see such a large number of visitors.
My wife Ann had been studying for church ministry and in 2003 was required to spend many hours working with two established ministers. She chose South Africa for one of them, so we both spent five weeks there, in East London, a city on the south-east coast. Since Ann was working about 50 hours per week, I was able to attend all the Bahá’í activities, and was amazed to find so many of them. I went each week with Nariman Khayltash to help with a youth class, using my musical abilities to teach them to sing in two parts, and I went with Simin Parastaran to the Bahá’í Centre in Mdantsane each Sunday morning to help with a children’s class. The government area of Buffalo City includes East London, the black township called Mdantsane and several villages. I attended a funeral in one of the villages because the Bahá’ís had been invited to contribute to that all day event; the lady had been a Bahá’í and her family were respecting her wishes for this to happen. The funeral was conducted by a Methodist minister and was all in the Xhosa language. At two appropriate points he looked at me and said “It’s your turn”, because I was the only white person there. I just nodded to the Bahá’í who had been given the responsibility and she read the agreed passages in Xhosa.
During the next few years we chose to have holidays in East London and eventually learnt that there was an opportunity for Ann to have a full time voluntary position with the Presbyterian Church in the area so we bought a house there, obtained visas and moved early in 2008. The original contract was for three years but we both liked living there so much that this was extended for a further three and a half years. During my time there an Intensive Programme of Growth was established and I became the statistics officer for the Spiritual Assembly of Buffalo City. Having collected all the details, I reported to the 3-monthly reflection meetings and by the time I left there was a total of 217 Bahá’ís, including youth, junior youth and children.
I completed all the Ruhi books up to book 7 and then became a tutor at study circles for books 1 to 5, including the new book 3 for grade 2. My mobile phone stored 24 new songs for grade 2, which was useful to help in the teaching. I worked with Simin on a song book for the community, which was published in flip-files; it had the words of 186 songs, including 40 of the new ones for grade 2. I took my turn at hosting the Sunday morning one-hour devotional meeting, including much singing of prayers and extracts from the Writings, followed by about 15 minutes singing of other songs, then breakfast. When I was hosting, the young people used our swimming pool. Our Spiritual Assembly was asked to make all the arrangements for the funeral of another Bahá’í, none of whose family were Bahá’ís. My part was to lead the bearing of the coffin from their house to the Bahá’í Centre and thereafter to the graveside, chanting prayers in English. Someone else recited the prayer for the dead in Xhosa. The family were so impressed with our efforts that several of them declared soon after.
I helped Simin to animate a junior youth group after school. Each year, those who had attended regularly were presented with certificates at a morning assembly (see photo).
The school was in a poor area and lacked resources; very few books, no computers, no field for sports, over-crowded classes (one teacher had 72 in her class and only 36 desks. We asked how she managed. Her reply: “Half sit on a blanket on the floor, then when the other half have done their writing they change over”!). Students aged 11 to 13 were invited to attend. It was an optional activity but we regularly had between 10 and 20 in the group. We used most of the books available (3 in print and 3 obtained electronically) and tried to follow the published guidelines for animators but it was difficult since their knowledge of English was limited. The only practical service project for them was to entertain during a Holy Day meeting at the Bahá’í Centre, and we would have to take them there in our cars. We managed two service projects while I was there, one singing songs, the other performing a play based on a chapter in one of the junior youth books.
We returned from South Africa in June 2014 to our house in Upminster. Back in the Havering community I found that while I had been away most of the Bahá’ís in Havering had studied Ruhi books 1 to 7 and were trying to find a tutor for book 8. The only bilingual tutors available, being some distance away, would only tutor for a series of weekends, which was not suitable. Eventually it was agreed that I could tutor provided someone was present who could translate as necessary from English to Farsi and vice-versa. Accordingly I went on an intensive course for book 8 in the summer of 2016 and most of Havering community started studying book 8 in September 2016 with me as tutor and Iraj Binazir from Loughton as translator.
While on the intensive course for book 8, we were encouraged to make a future plan. In my plan I proposed to invite more people to my devotional meetings on the first Sunday of each month, and talk to people on buses, where I spend a lot of time since I no longer drive. On Sunday 16th October 2016 I arranged an extra devotional meeting to celebrate the opening ceremony for the dedication of the Bahá’í Temple in Chile, and gave flyers (including a picture of the Temple) to many people, including those in the organisations I belong to and some with whom I sat next to on a bus. We now have one regular contact at my devotional meetings. Having tried to present Bahá’í leaflets to people on buses but found that they decline to accept them, I have tried giving or lending Bahá’í books instead. I now always travel with a Bahá’í book (e.g. The Renewal of Civilization) in my bag; so far, three people on buses have accepted one.
- The use of Music, Drama and Art in Bahá’í Education, p.106 of Distinctive aspects of Bahá’í Education – proceeds of the 3rd Symposium on Bahá’í Education, Edited by Hooshang Nikjoo and Stephen Vickers, 1991.
- The spiritual and material aims in education, p.43 of Trends in Bahá’í Education, Edited by Hooshang Nikjoo, 1989.
Essex, November 2016