Allan and family at the Kyles of Bute in January 2016 L to R: Sean (son), Sholeh (wife), Saba (daughter), Allan and Tala

Allan and family at the Kyles of Bute in January 2016
L to R: Sean (son), Sholeh (wife), Saba (daughter), Allan and Tala

I was born in 1960 in a little village called Kennoway in Fife, Scotland. I had an older sister and three years later we were joined by my younger brother. We had a happy family life. My father was an engineer and my mum a full-time mum. In terms of spiritual upbringing, my mum attended church regularly but my dad was more of an agnostic. I’m really glad about mum’s faith because she ensured I got spiritual food and used to say a prayer with us each night as she put us to bed. My dad neither encouraged nor discouraged us in this. However he was a very open-minded and thoughtful man and encouraged us to explore issues. My mum taught us to love everyone and my dad taught us to think for ourselves – I can’t really think of a better inheritance.

My older sister, younger brother and I all attended Sunday school. I loved the bible stories, especially from the Old Testament, and singing hymns but I never really felt part of the church as a community. I was a bit of a loner. I remember once in church, when the minister was talking about the return of Christ, feeling very strongly that if He did return the people in the church would almost certainly treat Him the same way as we treated Him the first time. I knew that Jesus was special but I didn’t feel any desire to be part of the church and as a teenager I drifted away.

I was still interested in spiritual and religious matters though. My mum and sister both attended yoga classes and when I was 23, I decided to give it a go. It was partly for the physical benefits but I was also interested in the spiritual dimension. I was struck by the fact that in the West the focus on yoga seemed to be purely on your physical well-being but when you look at the original teachings on yoga the most important initial stages are moral and ethical. I always believed in God but like many people thought that organised religions brought nothing but trouble. I felt that everyone should have their own personal religion and not force it on others.

By this time, I had finished my studies at university in Glasgow, left home and was working for a computer company in Wiltshire, England. I was fortunate enough to be good at Maths and Science. I enjoyed Computer Science and was one of the last generation where anyone who graduated could walk straight into a good job. I was given a great opportunity to go and work in America on a project for a couple of years. I didn’t realise the true significance of this move at the time but I was delighted to hear that I would be in Chicago – it sounded glamorous and exciting. Being a singer in a rhythm and blues band, I was also really interested to visit the home of R’n’B (Rhythm and Blues).

After moving to Chicago, the first time I remember hearing the name Bahá’í was when it was mentioned by a colleague who had been to visit the House of Worship in Wilmette. It’s quite well known in Chicago as a place to visit and one day a friend of mine suggested that we go and see it. I thought the temple was very beautiful but found it difficult to put it in any kind of context. Very few people were there that day and it seemed as if some aliens had come from outer space, built a beautiful building and then gone away again.

I didn’t get to talk to any Bahá’ís there but fortunately I did buy a book – “The Imperishable Dominion” by Udo Schaefer – which was to sit unread on my bookshelf for two years. That evening, my friend, who was Jewish but not religious, said that if Judaism was not for her then no other religion could be. That struck me as being a bit limiting. However, I am very grateful that she brought this limitless opportunity to me.

Two years later, my job took me to the Netherlands and I was living in Amsterdam and still exploring spiritual things. I had always been interested in India and Indian religions and decided to go there for a holiday. I flew to Mumbai and then travelled by train, boat and bus around the south of India visiting Hindu, Jain, Jewish and Christian places of worship. Towards the end of my trip, I was staying in a lovely hotel on an island in the bay of the city of Cochin in Kerala. Sitting on the veranda in the evening, I struck up a conversation with another visiting Scot, who was a Church of Scotland minister. The talk turned to religion and I told him that I was exploring different religions. He told me how he had looked for a while at different religions when younger but had decided that Christianity was the true way and had stopped exploring. Again I found myself thinking that his approach was a bit limiting.

The next morning, I boarded a flight from Cochin back to Mumbai. I didn’t realise it then but looking back it was almost certainly the most important day of my life. On the flight I read the Inflight magazine. It was December 1986 and that just happened to be the month when the new Bahá’í House of Worship in New Delhi, the magnificent Lotus temple, was opened. The magazine had an extensive article about the new building and I was immediately struck by the transcendent beauty of it. I had very recently read the novel The Fountainhead by Russian-born American author Ayn Rand. Her individualist and atheistic philosophy was a real challenge to me. The book is about an architect and one of the main ideas of the story is that only individuals acting on their own inspiration can create anything original. The stunning Bahá’í temple was an immediate and, for me, conclusive response. Here was something creative and beautiful built by a community for the love of God. It felt like I had encountered perfection for the first time. I resolved to read my Bahá’í book when I got home. Unfortunately the next day I had to fly home from Mumbai so I have still not had the opportunity to visit the Bahá’í House of Worship in New Delhi. I do hope that I can say some prayers of gratitude there one day.

Back in Amsterdam, two things of note happened. I was living a comfortable life, in a lovely flat in the centre of a great city, but was feeling dissatisfied deep down. I didn’t think I was doing anything particularly bad in my life but I had a yearning to do something positive. I saw an opportunity advertised by the organisation Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) to apply my skills in computing in a developing country and I decided to follow it up. I may be wrong but I have always felt that that act of striving to serve was what brought all the confirmations that were to follow.

The Imperishable Dominion was still sitting on the bookshelf and I started reading it and was captivated. The idea that humanity was going through a fundamental transformation that was spiritual at heart was really exciting and I felt again that I was encountering perfection. I had to explore more deeply so I dialled the Yellow Pages (there was no internet in those days), and found the telephone number of the Amsterdam Bahá’í Community. A lady speaking Dutch with what I found out was a Persian accent said that they had an Information evening every Tuesday and I was very welcome to come. I couldn’t wait for Tuesday to come round.

The day dawned and I cycled (as you do in Holland!) the mile or two to the home of Barazandeh and Manuchihr for the Information evening. They were so welcoming and hospitable that I think I felt I was a Bahá’í from that night on. They always served me strawberry tea and whenever I taste it again it takes me straight back to those happy evenings.

The first evening, they had invited a speaker, also a Persian, who gave a wonderful talk. He started off by saying that the Bahá’í Faith is like a huge mountain and at this point we are all standing right up against it. As we move away from the face of the mountain we are gradually realising how immense it is. It was the perfect thing to say to me because I immediately realised that I wasn’t going to learn this in an evening and it confirmed that this was something incredibly important. I knew that the most important decision I would ever make would be whether or not to become a Bahá’í and I resolved to ensure that I was 100% sure before doing so. Although I wasn’t conscious of it, deep inside I had really already made the decision.

Over the next six months I devoured everything Bahá’í – books, meetings, talks. I became more and more in love and more and more sure – but still not 100%. People at meetings sometimes assumed I was a Bahá’í and got embarrassed and apologised when I corrected them. At first I thought that all Bahá’ís would be like very wise philosophers but then noticed that although some were, most were regular people from all kinds of varied backgrounds. On reflection, I thought it made sense that a true world religion would attract all sorts of people. I can’t really pinpoint any particular teaching or passage or person that made a pivotal difference to me at this time – I just had an overwhelming sense that I had come home; that everything now made sense; that I had encountered something so different, so good, so perfect that it must be the truth.

I realised that with my doubting mind, I would likely never reach 100% certainty. I really wanted to be part of the Bahá’í community and serve as only a Bahá’í could and I decided that I had to take a leap of faith. In July 1987, I cycled to the weekly information evening and told everyone that I wanted to declare, and I suppose that is both the end and beginning of my story of how I became a Bahá’í.

My physical birth was on the 27th day of January and I was spiritually born again in my 27th year so you can guess what my favourite number is.

By the time I had declared my belief in Bahá’u’lláh, my application to serve overseas with VSO had come through and I was arranging to go to Malawi in Africa for two years. In many ways, I had now found my purpose in life and perhaps did not need to go. I was also concerned that there wouldn’t be any Bahá’ís in Malawi. The friends assured me that there were Bahá’ís everywhere and as it turned out a lot more Malawian Bahá’ís than Dutch. I spent two and a half wonderful years there and am very grateful that my formative years as a Bahá’í were spent in the company of some incredibly dedicated pioneers from Iran, the UK and USA who set the standard for me for how to be a Bahá’í. I was able to serve in a variety of roles in Malawi, on the national youth committee, on the local assembly of Blantyre and helping the National Office with their IT (Information Technology). My VSO posting was coming to an end and I wasn’t sure whether I should stay in Africa or go home. I decided to follow Abdu’l-Bahá’s advice to consult with others when you have an important decision and took my issue to the Spiritual Assembly. The members said they couldn’t possibly make that judgement for me and put the decision firmly back in my hands which I must admit I found disappointing. With hindsight I probably should have asked to consult with the National Assembly and was probably a little naive about the level of maturity that local institutions had at that time.

Before I left Malawi, I was able to go on pilgrimage in March 1990. It was the experience of a lifetime. I remember approaching Haifa in a bus, scanning Mount Carmel and my heart leaping when I caught the first glimpse of the Shrine of the Báb. It was a very exciting time to be in Haifa. The Berlin Wall had come down and Bahá’ís were starting to visit the countries previously behind the Iron Curtain. Hand of the Cause Mr. Furútan had just returned from visiting Russia, thus fulfilling a promise of the beloved Guardian that he would one day return to the country that had banished him.

In 1990 I returned to Scotland. I had decided that I wanted to develop my professional skills further and move into management so I undertook a Masters at Strathclyde University in Glasgow, where I met a lovely Persian Bahá’í called Sholeh. We got along well and I was impressed with her love of the Faith and the way she had a warm affinity with Scottish people, which was quite impressive for an Iranian. I am naturally rather shy and especially with the opposite sex so it required quite a lot of courage for me to ask her out for a date. Fortunately she said yes. In the space of a year we were married and within three years we had a daughter Saba and a son Sean.

At the time, Sholeh had not acquired UK citizenship and we were advised that rather than pioneer, it would be better if we served in Scotland until that was settled. Life then developed its own momentum – children, school, house, jobs, but we always felt that one day we would want to pioneer. We set up a home in the village of Bridge of Weir, in Renfrewshire just outside Glasgow. We tried many different activities over the years – firesides, Tranquillity Zones, public talks, children’s classes and junior youth groups. God-willing, these will have had some positive impact but unfortunately we were never able to establish a self-sustaining process.

A highlight for me came in the year 2000 when I helped produce an exhibition on the Bahá’í Faith which ran for three months at Glasgow’s St Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art. It was very well received and visited by some 10,000 people. We anticipated that the Glasgow community would receive many more enquiries from seekers at the time but that never materialised. I was overjoyed nevertheless many years later when a newly declared Bahá’í at a Holy Day event told me that it was the exhibition that caused him to investigate the Faith. It made all the work worthwhile.

In 2014, with our children having grown up and left home, Sholeh and I finally had the opportunity to pioneer on the home front. The West Highland cluster was in need of a pioneer family and we decided that if we moved to the lovely town of Helensburgh, we would meet the goal and I would still be able to commute to my job in Lanarkshire. Learning how to teach the faith is a lifelong process. We still have a lot to learn but since moving to Helensburgh we are more focussed than ever and are building long-term friendships based around service. I feel that Baha’u’llah has given me everything and I pray that in the years to come I am enabled to be of service to Him.

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Allan Forsyth

Helensburgh, Scotland

December 2016

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