I grew up as one of nine children from an Irish-Catholic background in Bilston, a town in the west midlands. Our family took up a whole pew each Sunday in the local church. We were five girls and four boys. Our parents had moved from an exquisitely beautiful part of Ireland to the industrialised midlands of England where we grew up Dad from Kerry and Mom from the Burren on the West coast. Dad, a quiet, intelligent, sensitive man, had to leave school at 14 and, following the Irish tradition, their small farm was given to his eldest brother, thus forcing Dad, along with many young Irish men, to seek work outside Ireland. Mom, like many Irish girls, travelled to Britain to do her nurse’s training, in her case at Hallam Hospital, West Bromwich. She now features in a local history book of the area. One of Mom’s famous stories is of hiding in the wardrobe during air raid warnings. I don’t think it would have helped her much had a real bomb dropped on the hospital!

We grew up as a fairly isolated Irish Catholic family with no extended family of aunts, uncles or cousins living nearby. We did not meet any of our grandparents who were all back in Ireland and passed away before we had the chance to see them. We were fairly poor, in fact very poor by today’s western standards, and holidays did not feature in our lives. Later on, mom and dad might take one or two of us back to Ireland with them on their rare visits. One of my earliest memories is of riding with my uncle on the back of a horse and cart, carrying the pails of milk to the dairy. This was a world away from the iron foundries and industrialisation of the Midlands. It made me realise later how my dad, in particular, suffered by being so far away – physically and spiritually – from his home country.

Our relatively isolated status meant that the local Catholic Church with its social club was a focal point for our family life. The Catholic Church was cultural and unquestioning in our family. We also thankfully grew up relatively free from prejudice as our own parents were first-generation immigrants. All the difficulties and pitfalls they went through gave them much empathy towards the influx of both Asian and Caribbean immigrants throughout the 1950s and 60s. My mother, who was by this time a district nurse, would always remark on the care and kindness of Indian families – especially towards their elderly relatives. We have a lovely photograph of my dad’s retirement ceremony, with him standing next to a Sikh man with a turban and the longest of beards, who was retiring on the same day. This juxtaposition of cultures has always been a feature of my life and I have always been struck by the similarities between people from a variety of backgrounds in spite of cultural differences.

So perhaps my ‘Bahá’í journey’ unconsciously began when the sphere of influence changed a little at 11 years old as I passed the ‘Eleven-Plus’ exam and won a place at the local and Protestant Girls’ Grammar School. I can’t honestly say this was a questioning time for me but I was delighted to ‘get out of’ morning assembly and Religious Education lessons, alongside all the other Catholic girls at the school. We were like a little ‘outsiders’ club and the rebellious streak in me felt great enjoyment in ‘missing something!’ I also recall feeling important, as the Catholic girls were served fish rather than meat for Friday school dinners.

I started university studies in 1973 at Newman Catholic College, which came under Birmingham University. I chose French, not my best subject but because I was desperate to travel and see something of the world beyond the industrialised West Midlands. I was aware that this course would allow me some opportunities for travel – at least to France.

During my third and final year, one of my best friends announced that she had not only been going to Bahá’í meetings but she had become a Bahá’í. Within the confines of a Catholic Teacher Training College we had simply never heard of this Faith and in those days there was little exploration of contemporary faiths. I was both shocked and anxious for her and I immediately asked if I could come to one of these Bahá’í meetings to check it out.

In this way, I attended my first Bahá’í meeting. I remember a man there, Pat Green, together with his wife who was called Patricia (the two Pats). There were John and Sandy from New Zealand and a larger-than-life character, Hamid Farabi, who later went on to pioneer in Trinidad with Kathy to whom he was engaged at the time. I also became close friends with Pari Yeganeh, who was a Baha’i then living in Birmingham.

I finished University in the summer of 1976 and my overriding memory is of having fun with this big multinational group of Bahá’í friends – so stimulating and enlightening for a girl from Wolverhampton who had hardly travelled. It was such a happy time, meeting and interacting with a diverse group from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. There was so much love and laughter interspersed with stimulating and deep conversations on the nature of religion, specifically on the unitary nature of one God and the belief that all the major faiths have progressively, over historical time, originated from the same God. This seemed to make perfect sense to me as I often found it hard to reconcile the belief taught at the weekly ‘Catholicism class’ (a session with our local Parish Priest for all the Catholics attending Non-Catholic Schools) that it was only Christians – Catholics in particular – who would be ‘saved’. I remember wondering what would happen to my Protestant friends at School…

I opted to spend a year in France as an English Assistant in a school. Unfortunately, I didn’t quite get away from the industrial landscape as I had imagined. I was hoping for the Alps or Provence, but was instead sent to Lille which is the French equivalent of the coal mining English midlands. Meanwhile, my university friend who had become a Bahá’í, became an Assistant in Paris.

The first couple of weeks in Lille were a bit grim. My school was on the outskirts of the city and to me it was just like the grey place I had come from except everyone spoke French which I couldn’t yet properly understand. I didn’t know a soul and I hadn’t yet received a pay packet which would have enabled me to visit my friend in Paris. I was walking a little glumly around the city one evening when I noticed a poster advertising Bahá’í public meetings held every Friday. I recalled the Bahá’í group in Birmingham and thought this would be a good way to make some new friends. So off I went and then started to attend these meetings regularly. It was here that I really began to gain a deeper understanding of the Bahá’í Faith. In England my interaction had been on more of a ‘social’ level, with no thoughts of getting involved.

Eventually I received my monthly salary and so began my trips to Paris – practically every weekend – where most of my time was spent with a group of young people at the Bahá’í National Centre in Paris. Again, it was a really happy time. It was highly social and we had many evenings trying (in my case) to do the French ‘rock’, as well as having in depth discussions about the Bahá’í Faith and nature of religion. It was in Lille though that in 1976 I eventually became a Bahá’í after attending one of the regular public meetings.

I then returned to Britain and, back in the Midlands, taught French in Pelsall Comprehensive School for one year. I wanted to do something more however, so at 23 years old, I wrote to the National Spiritual Assembly to find out where pioneers were needed. They suggested Mexico. I also wrote to a Bahá’í-inspired school in Lucknow, India. I heard back from Mexico first so I opted to go there. I arrived with £50 in my pocket, and very basic Spanish. I had been asked to work with the Mayan Indians in Yucatan so after a short stay with some Bahá’ís in Mexico City, I took a bus to Merida. Initially I stayed with an elderly American Bahá’í couple, who had lived there for many years. Once established, I spent most of the year travelling to the Mayan villages, conducting children’s classes there with little or no resources, there being no internet then.

I did not know the local language but most of the Mayan Indians could converse in Spanish. I eventually learned the language myself mostly through reading the book God Passes By in Spanish. I had an English copy too so I would read a page of Spanish and then the same page in English. It was quite painstaking but it worked. At the time I remember being unable to ask for a loaf of bread but I could talk about God quite fluently!

It was quite an experience travelling to some of the more remote villages, only accessible by horse and cart. Many of the indigenous people had never seen a person from the west before. My travelling companion was a young local man – a Mayan Indian Bahá’í called Philomeno, so we were Philomena and Philomeno! A good team.

After that year, I decided that I wanted to stay on but my tourist visa in Mexico had expired so I moved to Belize, a neighbouring country, previously known as British Honduras. I managed to get myself a job working with Air Florida, a new airline to Belize which flew between Miami and Central America as well as further afield to London.

In Belize I made friends with a black girl called Talibah Sun who was an American Bahá’í working for an International charity. We became flatmates. Once she insisted that we ‘gatecrash’ a party at the American Embassy as the US marines had arrived in town, and we did! The world was not so security conscious back then. We got to know the American Ambassador and his wife pretty well after that. I remember catching my first ever fish on a boating trip with them. They were very kind people.

Our apartment was a wooden house on stilts, typical of the buildings in the city, as this area was, and is, regularly hit by floods and typhoons. It was also beset by house fires which could erase a road in a few minutes. We had one in our road. It was frightening to watch as the houses made of wood disappeared so fast. The Fire Brigade arrived and ran out of water at one point. Nonetheless, they managed to contain the fire before it reached our house and there was no loss of life.

Doctor Ahmadiyeh, who was a Counsellor for the area, lived in the flat above ours with his family. He was a paediatric doctor and had his surgery at the front of our building. He was very kind and often treated patients free of charge if they could not afford to pay the fee.

I stayed on in Belize for two more years, getting on with Bahá’í work and also as an employee in the Air Florida office in town. I was essentially selling airline tickets but when the flight came in once a day, we would close up the office, all pile into a car, drive at speed up to the airport (approximately 10 miles away), get behind the desk and start checking people in. Once that was done, we would have to deal with the regular occurrence of customers’ lost baggage. Once, when our manager, known as ‘Mr Fred’ was unavailable, he gave me a two minute lesson with table tennis bats and demonstrated how to guide the plane into the terminal. I couldn’t even drive or park a car at the time, let alone a plane! The pilots were amused to see a young English woman trying to look like a professional on the forecourt.

I also had airline food for lunch every working day for two years as the plane would hand over all their spare meals in Belize. I love airline food to this day! Eventually I left Belize in July 1982 when I travelled to Haifa in the Holy Land for my first pilgrimage. I was so inspired at being out there that I asked if I could stay on to do voluntary work. The process was much less formal in those days and I was given the job of grouting between the marble tiles of the Universal House of Justice building, alongside some local builders. I pointed out my handiwork to my daughter, Jamileh, when we went on pilgrimage together in 2009!

After three months spent in the Holy Land and three years in Central America, I finally returned to Britain and found temporary work teaching French in Coventry. There I spent some time assessing my future career, trying out different options such as nursing. I felt very miserable for quite a long time. It is hard adapting to the cold and the concrete of a city which initially seems alien and unfriendly when you have lived away with spiritually-minded people who live communally in permanent sunshine. I was also young and idealistic and hadn’t quite caught up with some of the realities of life.

Finally, after an unsettled period, I gained a place at Birmingham University to do a Postgraduate Course in Deaf Education. I then moved to Cornwall as a Teacher of the Deaf, and have now spent over 30 years teaching profoundly deaf students in the 16-19 age group.

The first Bahá’ís I met in St Austell were some Persian refugees, Mr and Mrs Maani and Mr and Mrs Mirzai. They were so kind and when I look back, I feel very grateful to have had the bounty of knowing them. At the time I did not realise how close they were to the ‘cradle of the Faith’. Mrs Maani and Mrs Mirzai were sisters and they had grown up in Haifa, as their father served Shoghi Effendi. Mrs Maani was born in the House of Abbud in Akka. Her first name was Jamileh (meaning Beauty) and my daughter is named after her. I also became, and still am, very close friends with Barbara Smith, who lives in St Austell. She was a ‘surrogate grandmother’ to my daughter as she was growing up. Jamileh has greatly appreciated living and growing up in Cornwall, next to the sea which she loves. She courageously went on to do a year of service on the South Pacific island of Vanuatu, at the Rouhani Bahá’í School in Santo. She is now on the no-less-arduous journey of becoming a medical doctor.

More recently, I completed my MA in Virtues Education and began training teachers and students in Virtues Education. I wrote in my dissertation that many children and young people in the west may be likened to portraits we have seen of starving children in the east and south of the world, the difference being that here, bodily starvation hardly exists, but ‘spiritual starvation’ does – especially amongst the young, many of whom struggle to find meaning within some of the excesses of western societies. I came to regard (quite late in my career) the infusion of spiritual values or virtues as an important area of my work. Many of the problem areas with my students were greatly eased with a ‘virtues’ approach to life and learning. I wish I had known about it years ago! Other Bahá’ís and their colleagues in Cornwall are working on virtues and character education at the primary school level.

I have regularly attended summer schools and conferences and have particularly enjoyed the annual Persian Arts and Letters Conference in London which covers a wide range of academic and artistic topics from a Bahá’í perspective. The Transformation for Peace (TFP) courses for junior youth held at the Townshend International School in the Czech Republic have been a great influence on my daughter who attended them each summer for three successive years; they helped her to make friends from all over the world amongst the students and facilitators. She later returned there as a tutor. In Cornwall we also had the bounty of ‘Surfing the Spirit’ summer courses run by Geoff and Michaela Smith, which were such a fun time for the kids as well as infusing them with spiritual nourishment, as were the Ruhi courses at Cranmore Tower in Somerset.

Cornwall has a small but active Bahá’í community. My main and current interest is as a member of a dynamic interfaith group, the Cornwall Faith Forum, which is working towards the creation of a new building which can be used by people of all faiths or none – a Building for Peace essentially. This group, in which all the religions in Cornwall, as well as the Humanists, are represented, is providing a platform to deliver sessions on faith and belief to Cornish schools, colleges, hospitals and care homes.

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Philomena Clifford

Cornwall, July 2017

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