I was born on the first of March, 1931 in West London as my parents were living at the time with my father’s parents in Ealing, so I lived in West London for the first three years of my life. My birth name was registered as Janet Valerie Coppen. Our family name was researched by a relative of my grandfather and it seems Coppen is an old Kentish name dating from the time of the Viking invasions. It is linked with Copenhagen, the Capital of Denmark. Although I was called Janet, everyone generally called me Jan, or Janie. When I was about three and a half, my father and his younger brother started a garage business in Surrey, so we moved out of London to a village on the outskirts of Aldershot. When I was four and a half, I was sent to school because although I didn’t realise it at the time, my mother was expecting her second child, my brother Alan. My uncle had also married, and he and his wife had a son called Michael, so we grew up as an extended family with three children. Besides exploring the nearby farmland and village, I used to like to spend my time drawing and painting.
The Future Beckons
My brother, five and a half years younger than me, was born in September 1936. The following May it was suggested that my mother have a holiday. She took me with her to one of the Channel Islands, Sark, which she had visited with my father before I was born. It was the month following the coronation of King George VI in May, 1937. We caught the night ferry from Weymouth for Guernsey, but because of the coronation, no cabins were available and we had to sit up all night in the saloon. Shortly before the ferry sailed, an elderly woman came to sit opposite us, dressed entirely in black, but glittering with jewels on her hands and her ears. As the boat sailed, she looked at my mother and said, “Your daughter was born in March”. She nodded to herself, as if to confirm something, and said “during the first three days of March, but I should think St. David’s day.” My mother was very surprised, and said, “yes she was born on the first of March, which is St. David’s day.” The old lady looked at me again and said, “And as she’s leaving her homeland to go to the land of her birth, so she’ll be frequently separated from her homeland by water, she will travel widely, and meet people of many races. She will live by the sea, and die by the sea.” She then looked at my mother, and said “You were born in November. Do you have any other children?” And my mother said that she had a son, born the previous September. The old woman asked, “And your husband, when was he born?” And my mother replied, “In January.” And the woman nodded and said, “Oh yes, goat like, with bushy eyebrows.” And that described my father. I remember this encounter, but we didn’t talk about it again until I was in my late teens and was preparing to travel to Belgium, when my mother reminded me of it, and I was old enough to clearly remember this strange encounter with the elderly lady. My mother also told me that I was probably conceived on Sark, the island we were travelling to at that time. It was a beautiful holiday and I remember that Sark was covered in bluebells.
As this account is being written, I am now over eighty years old, and have travelled widely, and met people of many races and religions, and have often lived close to the sea, in different continents, and been separated from my homeland by water. The predictions of the lady on the boat regarding my travels and meetings all came true as a result of my becoming a Bahá’í.
My mother and father met when my mother was only fourteen. My father had gone to work as an apprentice in the same engineering company as my mother’s father; they met at the outbreak of the First World War and my father was called up into the Royal Navy. At the end of the war, my father came back to the company where he had been an apprentice, and met my mother again. By this time, she was old enough to go out with him, and eventually they married.
The War Years
At the beginning of September 1939, with the start of the Second World War, my father and his brother Eric closed down the garage business and joined the army as officers. From then on, whenever my father was moved by the army, we followed him, including a move to Norfolk where I had my eleventh birthday in a village called Weeting, near Brandon. When the summer came, my father was moved to London so we went to live with my grandparents, who had a big house in Tunbridge Wells in Kent, so I started my secondary education at age eleven at the high school for girls. I was there for two years but then my father was posted to Cornwall. My grandparents sold the big house for a smaller apartment, so we went to live in my mother’s old home with my aunt Alida in Dartford, Kent, where I attended my mother’s old school. In the summer my father came for a visit and decided to take me back to Cornwall for a holiday. He found a place for me on a farm, and I was happy to be in the countryside with the farm animals. Young people were encouraged to help bring in the harvest because by this time adults all over the country were either working for the war effort or already serving overseas, so once again I found myself stacking sheaves of corn and picking up potatoes and collecting the cows for milking.
While we lived in Dartford, the bombing of London began with the buzz bombs, which were sent from Germany to London right over our house. I remember the first night of the buzz bombs. Three girls in my school were bombed out. By then, whenever the sirens went, we made sure we were in the air-raid shelters. The buzz-bombs flew overhead towards London. Soon afterwards, a new danger threatened with the coming of the V2 rockets. The rockets came to our area, about one every four hours, until late evening. Sometimes they landed very close to our house, but we never knew when and where they would land, so we could not take shelter as we had before. One evening, my mother had been waiting for the last rocket of the day, while I did my homework. Suddenly there was a very loud explosion. The whole house shook. My aunt Leade, who was very deaf, was out of the room at the time, and when she came back, my mother spoke so that she could lip-read, and said, “Did you hear the rocket?”. Leade looked surprised, and replied, “Oh, was it a rocket? I thought I’d dropped a book.”
My father came on a weekend leave to visit us, and on the Monday morning as he returned to the West Country, his train passed a school which had been hit by a buzz-bomb a few minutes earlier. He was horrified to see bodies of the children, who had just gone to school, being brought out of the building that had been destroyed. That was enough. Immediately he looked for a house in Cornwall, so that we could move away from the London area. We moved down to Polzeath, near Wadebridge in north Cornwall, for the remainder of the war.
When the war ended, my parents heard of a hotel for sale and managed to buy it with help from friends and family. It had been a children’s home during the war and there was a lot of work to be done to make it suitable as a hotel again. The hotel reopened in 1946. I continued at school in Truro until I was sixteen, but my education had been so disrupted through the years of changes that it was decided I would leave school then and learn hotel management from my parents. I feel so lucky to have lived in such a beautiful place. Polzeath beach is famous for its surf and beautiful scenery. To the north was the rocky coastline leading up to Port Isaac and Tintagel. To the south we were at the river estuary opposite Padstow. The grounds of the hotel covered several acres and included a hard court for tennis, an orchard, and a fruit garden. Life in the hotel business was so interesting because we were able to meet many people and families who would return year after year as the children grew up.
When I was nineteen, I was invited by my Aunt Katie to Brussels to join her students who were learning English in Belgium. Thereafter, every spring I went for several weeks to Brussels on an exchange visit and her students would then come to stay with us in the hotel. By the time I was twenty-three I had a job in a hotel in the French-speaking part of Switzerland to acquire a Swiss hotelier’s certificate. A year later I moved to Paris, a city I had longed to visit for many years. I was interested in art, and so when I had any free time, I used to explore all the places I’d read about, from the book sellers by the Seine and Notre Dame, to Monet and the Sacré Coeur. At a Leonard Bernstein concert there, I had an aisle seat next to an elderly American lady, a Mrs Cherry, who asked if I spoke English. I said I was English, and she asked if she could change places with me as she needed to stretch her legs because she had arthritis in her hip. We chatted, and at the end of the concert I offered to walk with her to find a taxi to take her back to her hotel. She invited me to have dinner with her one evening that week. We exchanged addresses and three or four months later I had to return to the hotel in Polzeath as my aunt Marie who was receptionist there, had been taken ill and my family wanted me back to take her place for the summer season. The following autumn I decided that I would go to stay with friends in London, and so went to stay with a family in Chelsea I knew from Polzeath. I enrolled in the Central London School of Art for evening classes and received proper tuition for painting and also for pottery and modelling. The accommodation where I was living was very cramped and so my art master and his wife invited me to live with them, in a bed-sit in their house on the outskirts of Hampstead, for the next couple of years.
About a year and a half later I was surprised to receive a letter from Mrs Cherry, who was living in Notting Hill, and waiting for one of her sons to take her back home to California. She was frightened of flying, and so insisted on returning home by ship and train. Two or three months went by, and none of Mrs Cherry’s family had been able to come and take her home. One evening I found her in bed, holding a letter from her son, John. She was in tears, and said, “Oh Jan, no one can come and take me home. If you don’t take me, how will I ever see my home again?” In the end it was agreed that I should take her back to California, on condition that she sponsor my residence visa, and after my stay, pay for my return journey – or having a green card, I could stay longer and get a job, which is what I eventually did.
We sailed on a small Cunard liner from Liverpool via Cork in Southern Ireland, to Nova Scotia in Canada, and then New York. We then travelled by train from New York to Chicago where she was meeting an old school friend for the day. With strict instructions not to leave the luggage (because Chicago was “full of criminals”), I sat by the huge pile of luggage all day until she came back in the evening. I thus arrived at Mrs Cherry’s home in Rustic Canyon, Santa Monica, where many film stars lived, and other celebrities. I was with her until April, during which time I found a job with an estate agency and property management company in Beverly Hills. I continued to keep in touch with Mrs Cherry but began to enjoy life with people more my own age that I met at work, and others living in Santa Monica and Beverly Hills. I had always played tennis on a daily basis at home in Polzeath, and soon found I was welcomed as a partner for games of tennis, barbecues and other events in that area, all the way up the coast to Malibu.
Becoming a Bahá’í
I became a Bahá’í in the Beverly Hills community, California, in July 1957. That being said, on looking back, I feel strongly that I was destined to become a Bahá’í from an early age, and that even before finding the Faith, I was already being trained for some of the services which I would be privileged to undertake during my Bahá’í life, particularly when pioneering in Portugal and Africa.
At the age of six I dreamed I would go to California; at the age of 16 I prayed sincerely that if Christ returned I would know about it, because all the signs of His Coming were evident, and the Jews had returned to Israel. In my early twenties I reached the stage of being unable to accept the many divisions in the Christian Church. I was born into a family half-Protestant and (nominally) half-Catholic or outright atheist, and grew up in a non-conformist (Methodist) part of north Cornwall. The year before I travelled to California in 1956, I had become interested in Buddhism and had realised then that all the world’s religions were somehow part of God’s Plan for mankind as all seemed to teach the same basic truths. What I was missing was how they connected.
When I first met a Bahá’í, an elderly seamstress called Ida, I was curious but not particularly interested. Yet another religion, and in southern California this was the rule rather than the exception. Very soon, however, a Bahá’í more my own age, Mary Ellen Reece, moved into the same apartment building and we became friendly. She tried to introduce the Faith to me over the course of a few months, without any success. However, she did invite me to a fireside in the home of Augusta Wrexham, an English Bahá’í living nearby, and the evening I went, a Tuesday at the end of April, a talk was given by a beautiful young woman, Lisa Janti, on the theme of progressive revelation. The light switched on, the connection was made and I was ready to become a Bahá’í the next day. At that time, however, one had to read certain books first: Baha’u’llah and the New Era, The Dispensation of Baha’u’llah, even portions of the Kitab-i-Iqan. One wrote a letter expressing one’s recognition and acceptance of Baha’u’llah, and then one was interviewed by the Local Spiritual Assembly after a Bahá’í had been appointed to study the Will and Testament of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá with you. It was an excellent foundation course, and I remain impressed to this day by the devotion, dedication and reverence of the lovely believers of that small community. Thus it was some weeks before the time came for me to write my letter, and the acceptance of my declaration on 24th July 1957. Meanwhile, while the Spiritual Assembly was consulting about my desire to become a Bahá’í, I sat outside on the stairs in the hallway awaiting their decision! Then, to my surprise, I discovered that a wonderful party was being prepared for me by the whole Bahá’í community of Beverly Hills – all 15 of them – in honour of my acceptance of the Faith.
My life as a Bahá’í
Shortly after I became a Bahá’í, a returning pilgrim spoke urgently of the Guardian’s call for pioneers to go to Europe, especially to the French-speaking countries, and within a few weeks the Guardian himself sent two Hands of the Cause, Mrs. Amelia Collins and Mr. Khadem, to visit a number of large groupings of Bahá’ís in the United States, including the Los Angeles area, urging the friends to scatter and leave the big cities and to pioneer. I could speak French and some Spanish. This insistence moved me to think about returning to Europe, and so the decision was made. The letter was written to the National Spiritual Assembly, and my notice given in at the end of October, 1957 – on the eve of the beloved Guardian’s passing. I felt considerable remorse that I had not responded sooner.
I returned to England in December 1957, to my parent’s home in North Cornwall where I had spent most of my teenage years since the end of the Second World War. My first efforts were to pioneer first to France, or to Belgium, but I was not having much success. I was trained primarily to do hotel management, both in England and Switzerland, but the hours for hotel work are very restricting and so I had moved into normal office working hours some years before; nevertheless I hoped to get a position somewhere in French-speaking Europe. However, Ridván was approaching and no results came of my efforts, so I consulted with the National Teaching Committee of the British Isles about home-front pioneering, and several goal cities were suggested, among them Cambridge, which was needing one or two more Bahá’ís for the establishment of its first Spiritual Assembly. So I first pioneered to Cambridge early in April 1958, quickly found work, and thus the first Assembly came into being. As it turned out, I had made a wise decision to pioneer there because the next 18 months or so gave me the opportunity to serve on an Assembly and also on a National Committee with more experienced Bahá’ís, which was valuable training for my future pioneering efforts abroad.
Following one of the European Teaching Conferences for NSA members in the spring/summer of 1959, it was decided that the British Isles should try to send pioneers to Portugal as an urgent priority. The National Spiritual Assembly approached some individuals, and Irene Bennett and myself responded. However, the Hands of the Cause resident in Haifa felt that Cambridge should not lose its Assembly so I stayed until I could be replaced and eventually pioneered again early in December, 1959. Irene Bennett had pioneered to Portugal some weeks earlier, and through her I was able to get a job teaching English as a foreign language in the same college in Lisbon. This gave me residence and a work permit and I was able to pioneer to nearby goal areas, first to Queluz, in Sintra, where an Assembly was established, and then later to Amadora, in Oeiras, where another Assembly was formed. The first National Spiritual Assembly of Portugal came into being at Ridván 1962. I was able to stay in Portugal until Naw-Rúz, 1963, but at that time the fascist government was making difficulties for the Bahá’ís, most of the pioneers had not been allowed to extend their visas and had to leave; the Hazíratu’l-Quds and several Bahá’í homes, including ours, were raided, and Bahá’í literature and documents were confiscated from Bahá’í communities throughout the country, all on the same day. After some weeks of investigations and interrogations, I was formally expelled persona non grata from Portugal at the end of March, 1963, in spite of all the efforts of the British consulate to appeal against this unjust decision. During the time I was in Portugal, I had been pioneering under the International Goals Committee of the United States, since Portugal was primarily a US goal. Thus all the pioneers unable to remain in Portugal at that time were directed either to Switzerland or to Luxembourg. I was asked to proceed to Luxembourg, and there helped to establish a Spiritual Assembly in Differdange at the close of the Ten Year Crusade. At the National Convention, 1963, I was elected to the National Spiritual Assembly of Luxembourg and served briefly as Assistant National Secretary.
I was also invited to serve for some six weeks in the National Hazíratu’l-Quds in London to help both before and immediately following the First World Congress, which was an inestimable bounty and privilege because not only did the newly-elected Universal House of Justice hold some of its first meetings there, but almost all the Hands of the Cause of God were also in conclave for about three days immediately following the Congress.
It was during the World Congress that a group of French speakers from different countries resolved to try to attend the 1963 Summer School in France. In the event I was the only one to attend the following July, and there I met my future husband, Jawad Mughrabi, a Bahá’í from Morocco. We became engaged, and I left Luxembourg for Morocco almost immediately, marrying a few weeks later in August 1963.
Although we had planned to stay in Morocco until the end of my husband’s employment contract on a US Naval Base which still had two years to run, his contract was abruptly terminated following the assassination of President Kennedy and a subsequent change in US policy, and so we found ourselves consulting about a pioneer post early in 1964. All guidance indicated that our services would be welcomed specifically in Victoria (now Limbe), West Cameroon (Africa), so we moved there at the end of March, arriving in time to help with the arrangements for the First National Regional Convention of West Central Africa at Ridván 1964. The Convention was attended by Hand of the Cause of God John Robarts, who launched the Nine Year Plan for the seven newly independent countries of the region: Cameroon, Nigeria, Ghana, Niger, Togo, Dahomey (now Benin) and Spanish Equatorial Guinea, (now Malabo and Rio Muni). Both Jawad and I were elected to the Regional Spiritual Assembly, Jawad serving as Assistant National Treasurer, and myself as National Secretary.
Our daughter, Salma, was born at the end of July 1964. Three years later, at Ridván 1967, West Central Africa was divided into two, and our National Assembly became responsible only for Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea, but shortly after was given the responsibility of assisting Central and East Africa with the four countries of Tchad, Gabon, Congo (Brazzaville) and the Central African Republic – all French-speaking territories to the south and east of Cameroon.
At the end of December 1968, my husband’s employment contract came to an end and could not be renewed in Cameroon due to new government restrictions. As pioneers were needed in the Central African Republic, the House of Justice approved our move there, where we arrived in early June 1969. In September the House requested the appointment of a Regional Administrative Committee for the four French-speaking countries mentioned above, with the goal of preparing for the establishment of a new Regional Spiritual Assembly at Ridván 1970, composed of the four countries of Tchad, the Central African Republic, Gabon and Congo (Brazzaville). At this time Jawad was serving as an Auxiliary Board member for the region, and I was appointed Secretary of the Administrative Committee made up of members from all four countries. The following Ridván, 1970, the first Regional Spiritual Assembly of Central Africa came into being, and the main goal of that year was to prepare for the establishment of three new National Spiritual Assemblies the following Ridván, Tchad, the Central African Republic, and Congo (Brazzaville) with Gabon. In spite of difficulties, (See Bahá’í World Vol. XV), these goals were achieved at Ridván 1971. Our family remained as pioneers in the Central African Republic until March 1980, when, for health and family reasons and our daughter’s education, we decided to re-settle in England. Early in 1984 Jawad and I separated, and he returned to the Central African Republic.
I remained with my daughter Salma in England, and in April 1984 was asked by the National Spiritual Assembly of the United Kingdom to serve as a full-time secretary of the National Teaching Committee until the close of the Seven Year Plan in 1986. I moved to London in June 1984 and in 1985 was elected to the National Spiritual Assembly of the United Kingdom which I served on for three years (1985-88) along with such friends as Betty Goode, Philip Hainsworth, Charles Macdonald, Wendi Momen, Redwan Moqbel and Simon Mortimore. I was asked to continue to serve as NTC secretary for the launch of the Six Year Plan, and with the transfer of much of the office work from London to the sub-office in Uckfield early in 1987, I continued to serve in East Sussex until April, 1989.
Almost immediately, a secretarial position became available at the newly established Continental Office of the Board of Counsellors for Europe in the Republic of Ireland, for which I applied successfully. In early June 1989, I took up my position at the Continental Office, at the same time pioneering to fill one of the goals of the United Kingdom’s Six Year Plan for the Republic of Ireland, and was resident for three and a half years in the Co. Wicklow Bahá’í community.
It was a really an inestimable bounty and privilege to serve in the office of the Continental Board of Counsellors for Europe for the period June, 1989 to December, 1992, and briefly from April-July, 1994. This was a period of exceptional and rapid change in Europe. In June 1989, there were 20 National Spiritual Assemblies and the whole of Eastern Europe was scarcely opened to the Cause of God. But Eastern Europe suddenly opened in a few short weeks and the changes took place very rapidly as the new decade began. Teaching efforts resulted in the speedy establishment of several new National or Regional Spiritual Assemblies in Eastern Europe at Ridván 1991, continuing as the Faith has expanded beyond all expectations so that Ridván 1994 witnessed the election of no less than 31 National or Regional Spiritual Assemblies in Europe, from Iceland in the north to the Canary Islands in the south, from Ireland in the west to Russia, with Georgia and Armenia in the east. It has been thrilling indeed to be a small part of these historical events over the last 35 years or so, and to witness so many changes both in Africa and Europe.
Following the International Convention at Ridván 1988, the overall functioning of the International Teaching Centre and the role and work of the appointed, or ‘Learned’, arm of the Faith then seemed to suddenly develop at a rapid rate, and the influence was apparent through the Board of Counsellors to the Auxiliary Board members and their assistants during the time I served in the Continental Office. Due to the rapid growth in Eastern Europe and the Balkans the numbers of Auxiliary Board members and assistants in Europe were increased during this period, and a clear vision of the work of the Learned Arm became evident. The influx of spiritual energy during those years was most obvious to me, as a worker, as it were, on the sidelines.
When I left the Continental Office in June 1994, I was ready for retirement. I left the Republic of Ireland and returned to live in Devon, in my bungalow in Paignton. For the next six years, I found myself involved in local Bahá’í activities in Torquay and also on National Committees and deepening projects, so I still did quite a lot of travelling.
I served on the Overseas Development Committee (the name was later changed to BASED) for about three years, and travelled to different parts of England and Wales, first of all, with Paul Profaska, and then with Trish Wilkinson conducting weekend institutes on prayer and meditation. This was before the adoption of the Ruhi Institute. I also served on the Bahá’í Review Panel.
In Paignton, having been a teacher of English to foreign students in Portugal, I registered with a local college of languages and during the summer months I took foreign students to stay with me while they spent two weeks or more learning English. Young women and girls whom I housed came mainly from countries that were formally in Eastern Europe but also one or two from Israel and Turkey. I enjoyed having the students very much, and made one particular close friend, Marika, from Italy, who afterwards became a teacher of English for foreign students. One of my last journeys abroad was to Marika’s wedding.
I also went abroad every year to visit my daughter Salma and her family. In 1993, my first grandchild, Jasmine was born. Jasmine was born in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and this was a special joy. After some years in Wisconsin, the family moved to California and my grandson, Justice was born in 1997. I enjoyed my visits to California very much because I went back to the area between Santa Monica and Santa Barbara, which was familiar to me from the time I lived there myself. In fact, I was able to contact Bahá’í friends whom I had known in 1957. Three of us spent an evening together in Beverly Hills, catching up on what we had all been doing for the last forty years. In 2001, the family moved to Salvador da Bahia, Brazil, so from then on, until I was not able to travel any more, I visited the family there.
In 2007, my third grandchild, Juliette, was born, and in 2008, I was able, with the whole family, to enjoy another Bahá’í pilgrimage. This was perhaps the tenth time I had been able to spend in Haifa, comprising short visits, three international conventions, and three full pilgrimages.
At the time of writing (2017) I am now in my 60th year of being a humble follower of Bahá’u’lláh. Never in my wildest imagination could I have anticipated all the bounties which have come my way, the spiritual and intellectual enrichment, the vivid experiences – and sometimes difficult tests – the wonderful souls that it has been my good fortune to meet and the precious inspiration they have given both for this life and the life to come. I have been greatly privileged to attend three International Conventions, to be present on four occasions as one of those electing the Universal House of Justice, and to attend several wonderful Conferences culminating in the Second World Congress in New York in 1992.
Nor could I have anticipated a life experiencing so much travel and living among varying peoples and cultures, in North America, Africa and the Middle East, and in Europe, both east and west, nor such opportunities to serve the cause of universal peace and the spiritual regeneration of all mankind in these places.
On my first Pilgrimage, from Portugal in December 1961, on the first evening of our arrival, Hand of the Cause of God Leroy loas stopped me as we were leaving the dining table and asked me what I was going to pray for during my pilgrimage. I remember giving a rather naive answer; he looked at me over the top of his glasses and asked: ‘Do you know what you should pray for? Pray that Baha’u’llah will increase your capacity to serve Him.’
Devon, June 1994 – brought up to date, May 2017