As a Geordie I was brought up to believe that Newcastle upon Tyne was the centre of the universe and for some people it still is. Strange as it sounds, that is where I met my first Bahá’í who also happened to be a Geordie.
Growing up as a bit of a rebellious adolescent and an atheist to boot, religion played an insignificant role in my early life; except for a few short periods in my childhood when I was obliged to go to church and Sunday school, only because my mother thought that I must experience it for myself.
Due to these strong maternal influences I was taught to respect religion, as my mother’s philosophy was that there was more to religion than attending church services. She professed to being Christian but was open to people of other religions and had no fear of foreigners. So despite having a strong regional identity I was certainly not a racist by any means. In fact due to my personal experience as a school child I developed a healthy interest in social justice and came to terms with the restrictions placed upon me in relation to social class. I therefore quickly developed leanings towards radical socialism and was always ready to examine any new ideas. This was often expressed through my reading habits and through my English school-work in the form of essays and stories. My avid interest in the great classic science fiction writers also kept me focussed on alternative futures. What little I had learnt about history remained firmly rooted in my mind, especially stories pertaining to the Peasants Revolt (1381) and the French Revolution in particular.
It was at the age of 17, however, after I had ventured to London, following in my sister’s footsteps, that I really began to explore a rich diversity of social, cultural and political influences. In order to save as much money as possible, I was sharing a house occupied by a curious mix of people whom I had never encountered before, comprising two Pink Floyd crazy Scots from Aberdeen aspiring to be Buddhists, a young practising Jewess from South London, a genuine Cockney and (aspiring) owner of a Jaguar car, plus a young Catholic Marxist and her Iranian boyfriend, a devoted Maoist. This urban island of oddball individuals became the warp and woof of my London life and perhaps the nascent seed of my future ‘spiritual’ development. That, and a few other incursions into less socially-acceptable forms of experimentation. Many people at this time were seriously searching for mind-altering experiences.
I had always enjoyed reading a lot and now that I was immersed in such a mixed social and cultural environment, I seemed to have no taboos about what I should read, so managed to absorb a broad range of literature, including fiction, non-fiction and everything else in between. My 18-month sojourn away from Newcastle had definitely become the nascent seed of something very new in my life.
Two years later and feeling much wiser while walking around the streets of Newcastle, I was beginning to feel more of a stranger due to my London experiences, so I literally began to see things in a new light. My sister and I had discussed returning to Newcastle a number of times but I had not realised that I would be so changed when I actually did return. She had also returned and found a job working at the local Beer Festival. She invited me to visit her there while she was on duty, which allowed me free entry. While meeting up with her at this event I came across three very over enthusiastic and talkative psychiatric nurses. They were to lead me onto a new career path which would also act as an interesting counterpoint to what would become my newly adopted faith. Blind faith is no faith at all and if I were to follow through my experiences in London, it all had to make sense and appeal to my intellect as well as to the beliefs that I was beginning to develop.
Having enrolled as a student psychiatric nurse, I soon became introduced to the frailties of the human condition and also became more informed about the down-and-outs. I very willingly followed up the invitation to become a volunteer worker for Shelter and the Cyrenians and as a result of my involvement I met my first Bahá’í. What set him apart from everyone else was his apparent selfless attitude towards those with whom he came into contact, and his seemingly genuine interest in helping people. We had met through an enquiry I had made from a public phone box sited in the corner shop at the end of my street. He invited me to a series of meetings he called ‘firesides’.
I went to a number of these home-based meetings and got involved in very lively and sometimes heated discussions that never got too inflamed. They were wide-ranging and covered topics which I at first thought had nothing to do with religion and sounded more of a political nature. Despite my initially sceptical outlook I gradually started to see things quite positively and found it quite easy to accept much of what the Bahá’ís were introducing me to, due to what I had previously studied and been exposed to in London. I was still however not ready to make any serious commitments. I promised to study the Bahá’í faith in more depth, which I began to do with more and more intensity.
I nevertheless got the travelling bug again and launched myself into a planned world trip and took some Bahá’í literature with me to study along the way. The journey sadly only lasted as long as my savings, around four weeks, and got me as far as Austria. On the way however I had many meaningful meetings and discussions with a very wide range of people from many different nationalities. I discovered after sharing what knowledge I had absorbed about the Bahá’í teachings that the majority of those whom I met found the Bahai teachings attractive.
Today…. (2017) Austria and England
That was over 40 years ago. I subsequently married Zsuzsanna who is Hungarian and who has her own story to tell about becoming a Bahai.
We have two daughters, Dawn and Joanna, who are now grown up and living and working in Vienna where I currently reside and work as an English teacher in one of the state middle schools.
We have served the Bahai community in the UK over a number of years and I personally have served on a number of spiritual assemblies in Newcastle, Carlisle, the Isle of Man, Bradford, Calderdale and Dronfield. We are currently members of the Austrian Bahai Community and live on the outskirts of Vienna.
I am an active member of the Austrian Bahá’í community which is presently growing in stature and attracting a number of new Bahá’ís from Turkish, Persian and Austrian backgrounds. There is an all-year-round programme of activities mainly held in the beautifully-restored Bahá’í Centre.
Vienna, Austria – April 2017