Maureen Sier

I was born in 1958 in a small city in the North East of Scotland called Elgin. I suspect my upbringing was pretty typical of a working class family in that era. I lived in a small 2-bedroom council flat with my brother and sister. Dad worked abroad as an overhead linesman in Africa and mum’s main job was looking after us and doing a bit of part-time work when available.   My family were not ‘religious’ but we did go to Sunday School (as did almost all my friends) and some of my happiest childhood memories are of the Church Sunday school picnic and Christmas party.   Religion was not part of any conversation at home as far as I can remember.

As a young teenager I began to wonder what religion was all about, was there a God, what was the point in life etc. I often took myself to church services and remember vividly cycling out to a beautiful abbey called Pluscarden Abbey – a Roman Catholic Benedictine monastery located in the glen of the Black Burn about 10 kilometres south-west of Elgin. The Abbey is nestled in a beautiful valley flanked by trees and has an incredible air of tranquillity about it. It must have made an impression on me as I remember feeling very strongly, while listening to the monks chant and wandering in the gardens, that there was a God and that I would try to make sense of religion. I must have been around 14 at this time. It was an experiential religious awakening rather than an intellectual one. When I wasn’t thinking about religion I was getting drunk and thinking about boys – this might seem a little extreme but was the reality of teenage life in Scotland in the 1970s.

I left school at 15 and went to work in an office. It seems odd to me now looking back that there were no books in our home except at Christmas time when we would get a Jackie and Beano annual – so I didn’t read much up until that point and then I started to read books about religion! Perhaps I was a strange child!!   Home life was tense at this point as my dad had returned permanently from his years of working abroad in Africa and I guess was trying to do the traditional thing of being the ‘man’ of the house and so there was much rebellion. I remember fighting with him about the then culturally acceptable views of racism and gender inequality. I knew something wasn’t right but I didn’t have the educational skills to articulate what was in my head and heart. I wanted to leave home as soon as I possibly could.

Then in 1976 when I was 17 years old the Inverness Bahá’í Community put up an exhibition in a local hall and on a Sunday afternoon in spring my friend and I wandered in to take a look; boredom was probably the key motivation as we had no idea what the Bahá’í Faith was. I was greeted by an enthusiastic Marjory Giorgi (a Canadian Bahá’í who had moved to Scotland) who invited us to wander round and read the exhibition material. I immediately loved what I was reading; one God; one human race; equality of men and women; and all major religions having spiritual truths at their core. I just felt I was reading truth. Marjory was so straightforward and direct she immediately invited myself and my friend to a discussion evening and gave us a book to read. The book was Gloria Faizi’s The Bahá’í Faith, and I read it, attended the discussion evening and at Marjory’s invitation became a Bahá’í two weeks later. I can’t really explain what had happened but only to say that my soul had responded to Bahá’u’lláh and I felt at peace.

I remember vividly meeting Marjory in Elgin in the weeks to follow and feeling embarrassed when she hugged me or linked arms with me while we walked – it was just so alien to me but there was such a warmth from Marjory that I was prepared to put up with the embarrassment and also I was thirsty for more information about my new-found religion. My family were shocked and not too happy – I think they felt I had joined a weird cult of some sort. My mum didn’t really want to talk about it and my dad read Bahá’u’lláh and the New Era and said it was a bit ‘communist’.

Marjory recognised the immediate need to connect me into a wider network of Bahá’ís and so that summer, the summer of 1976, she invited me to attend a Bahá’í summer school in Inverness. By the time summer arrived I had left home and was working in Aberdeen but I made sure I went to the summer school and was completely inspired by the experience. I returned to Aberdeen a committed and confirmed Bahá’í. I had also made friends with Bahá’ís from Inverness, and I am still in contact with many of them to this day.

Myself with a company of Bahá’ís shortly after declaring.
I am standing in front of Allan Mckay (with the red hair) and Ross Donald. Also pictured are Hari Docherty and Audrey Bennet

There was a flourishing Bahá’í community in Aberdeen and I loved being a part of it. There were key Bahá’ís who made sure that I was spiritually nurtured, including Hari and Rita Docherty and Shahram Firoozmand, and I will always be grateful for their loving commitment to me. I was encouraged to go on pilgrimage by my friends in Aberdeen and so applied, and by early 1978 found myself in Haifa. It was the first time I had travelled abroad and the experience of being in Israel was absolutely profound. I was witnessing first-hand the global Bahá’í community and felt so in love with life and the possibility of doing my small bit for world peace. I remember praying in the Shrines for the possibility of travelling to share the message of Bahá’u’lláh and also to meet my future husband. Those prayers were answered much more quickly than I expected!

Before long I was working a couple of jobs to try and save money to travel out to Malawi. I had an overwhelming urge to challenge, face to face, the racism of my childhood. In June 1978, I met Nick, who was to become my husband (still together 40 years later) and by August 1978 I was in Malawi. There were no emails, mobile phones or Facebook in those days so we wrote to each other by surface mail and both of us knew that we wanted to get married. Nick had been a Bahá’í for only a few weeks when we met and his story is really a remarkable one. Nick’s mum left when he was just four years old and he and his brother were brought up in Dewsbury, Yorkshire by his dad. He was a bit wild and at a young age his dad threw him out. The mum, whom he had not seen since he was four, found him and they spent a couple of weekends getting to know each other before she was knocked down by a car and killed. At her funeral he learnt that he was Jewish and that his grandparents had been killed in a concentration camp. Nick moved to London, became father to Ben, and then eventually moved to the North East of Scotland – a back-to-the-land move so popular in the 70s. He met a Bahá’í called Bill Twycross and very quickly recognised Bahá’u’lláh. It was at this stage that we met.

Despite meeting Nick and knowing we wanted to marry, I was still determined to go to Malawi, which turned out to be just the most fantastic experience. During my four months there I travelled often with Suzanne Locke and occasionally on my own. Suzanne is a really remarkable woman. She and her husband Fred (now deceased) and daughter Naticia were my family in Malawi. Suzanne spoke the local language, Chichewa, fluently and was dedicated to both the Bahá’í Faith and to Malawi. I still have a strong spiritual bond with Suzanne and hope we meet again someday.

I also have great memories of staying with the Melendy family and the Taherzadeh family. I enjoyed staying in villages with Bahá’í families and was overwhelmed by the kindness and hospitality of ordinary Malawians. I was given the task of typing the book ‘The New Garden’ into Chichewa. A brush with malaria meant I had to recuperate and so the few weeks of recovery time allowed me to complete the task.

I loved everything about Malawi, the people, the Bahá’í community, the scenery, the sunshine but I had also fallen in love with Nick and when I returned we sought permission to marry, which was eventually granted, and I was 21 when we married in 1980. By the time I was 27 I was mum to 4 children, Ben, Sonya, Zoe and Tom. Nick and I lived near Maud, in the Buchan area of Aberdeenshire, and were part of a rural Bahá’í community known as Banff and Buchan. They were great days of community building, child rearing and house converting! Our home was always full of visitors and lots of children. Bahá’í children’s classes, feasts, holy days, firesides, summer and winter schools – it was an enriching time. The community was very vibrant and nurturing and a great place to bring up our children.

The family (around 1989)

Then all of a sudden, at age 29, with Nick at work every day and three of our children at school, I found myself at home with just young Tom. I was unsure what to do with my life and one day I attended a WEA meeting (Workers’ Educational Association). A guest speaker asked us all to imagine what we would most like to do with our lives in the next 10 years if there were no barriers. It was fun to imagine what I might potentially do – I imagined getting an education, living somewhere exotic and writing! At the end of the exercise she asked us what steps we were taking to make the dream a reality!

This experience helped me to decide to go to night classes and take my higher English, and then when Tom was 4 years old I took an Access to University course and loved it. By 1990 I was ready to go to university. It was there I first discovered Interfaith Dialogue, as I joined a small interfaith group who met regularly at the university chaplaincy. From the beginning I found face-to-face dialogue with people from other faiths fascinating – little did I know this would become more than just a fascination.

Finding the Bahá’í Faith and recognising Bahá’u’lláh was a profound and spiritually enriching journey (and still is). With my university studies, the experience of being in a solid and nurturing Bahá’í community, and having a loving family, life was full and happy.   In those days we often held youth gatherings in our home, and at a place called Aberfeldy, and I had the privilege of serving on the Scottish Teaching Committee and then as an Auxiliary Board member. There were summer and winter schools and visits to the Islands and communities around Scotland. Studying with four children was always a challenge but by 1994 I had my degree and was on track to do my Masters. My undergraduate dissertation had been on the Bahá’í Faith (A study of the forces motivating the creation of Bahá’í Religious Culture) and the university offered to fund me to any place in the world to do a Master’s research project on an aspect of the Bahá’í Faith. I was unsure where to go, when I had another of those defining moments. Rita Docherty and I had travelled to a youth conference in Manchester with a group of Bahá’í youth from Scotland and Ireland. After the conference we stopped off at the Liverpool Bahá’í Centre, where we were warmly welcomed by Isaac and Pauline Decruz. On our first evening a Counsellor, Owen Battrick from the Asia Pacific area, was passing through and gave a fantastic talk. In the middle of the talk he mentioned how Shoghi Effendi (the great grandson of Bahá’u’lláh) had encouraged Bahá’ís from the UK to settle in Africa and the Pacific. He then said many settled in Africa but the Pacific was still calling. The hair on the back of my neck stood on end and I just knew I would go to the Pacific. On returning from the trip I remember saying to Nick (he was laying paving stones at the time) – “How do you fancy a trip to the Pacific with the kids?” and he immediately said ‘if you can make it happen and it’s good for the Faith, then let’s do it’.

This was just so exciting and I carefully planned where would be an interesting and safe place to venture with the Sier clan that also had enough of interest for a religious/cultural study of the Bahá’í Faith (my degree was in Cultural History). My chosen academic islands in the sun were Samoa and Tonga; both having large Bahá’í communities; Samoa had a Bahá’í Head of State (Malietoa Tanumafili II) and a Bahá’í Temple, and both islands were safe places for children. In 1995 we spent three months on both islands and completely fell in love with the Pacific.   My MLitt dissertation was on ‘The Bahá’ís of Western Samoa and Tonga and their impact upon local culture’. The experience changed our lives. We stayed at the Bahá’í Centre in Samoa and in a rented house in Tonga. We travelled extensively in Samoa as a family and I had the privilege of travelling also to one of the remote Tongan islands, Vavau. Here I met life-long friends Don and Nori Blanks. However it is safe to say that we made many dear friends in Samoa too, who have also become our friends for life.

On returning to Scotland, after completing the research for my Masters, we just couldn’t settle and when I had the opportunity to do my PhD I knew we would return to Samoa. Nick was completely supportive but there were challenges. Ben was in University in Plymouth and Sonya was auditioning for The Royal Academy of Music and Drama, but together as a family we consulted and decisions were made. Sonya and Ben would come out for breaks and holidays whenever they could and we would return to Scotland whenever we could. Relatives and the Bahá’ís were close at hand for Ben and Sonya and both were happy with our move.

So in 1997 Nick, Zoe, Tom and I set off to return to Samoa. We had sold our home and were ready for adventures.   It is hard to really capture just how enriching our five years in Samoa were. I did my research and taught at the university, Nick worked for the Australian High Commission, the children attended Robert Louis Stevenson School, and we were fully immersed in the Samoan Bahá’í community activities. My PhD explored ‘Women and Religion in Samoa’ and of course had a chapter on the Bahá’í community there. I was honoured to be able to interview the Samoan Head of State, His Highness, Malietoa Tanumafili II, who was the world’s first reigning sovereign to accept the message of Bahá’u’lláh. Our Sundays were often spent at the magnificent Bahá’í Temple in Tiapapata Samoa and over the course of our time in Samoa we served in a rural village Bahá’í Assembly (Toamua) and in a Bahá’í Assembly in the town of Apia (Apia Lelata). Nick and I both had the privilege of serving on national Bahá’í institutions while we were in Samoa but both of us agree our happiest times were spent in the rural village, where the Bahá’í friends showed us so much love and hospitality. Some of our dear Samoan friends are now passed away, but forever in our hearts are Faleono, Tauato and Tau, three dedicated Bahá’í women from the village of Faatoia where we first lived.

We also became great friends with Arona and Alefa Mailo. Their daughter Leata became the best friend of our daughter Zoe. Leata and her family recently visited us in Scotland. The Scottish Bahá’í community helped raise money for a pre-school in their village, run by the Bahá’í community, called ‘Nightingale of Wisdom’, and it is so heartwarming to see that eighteen years later it is still in operation and educating hundreds of Samoan pre-schoolers.

In 2001 Nick’s dad, back in the UK, had a stroke, and Nick immediately returned to take care of him. We all followed in 2002. Our time in Samoa had come to an end and we found ourselves back in Scotland. It was January and freezing cold. We were jobless, homeless and more or less penniless. Nick’s dad passed away very soon after our return and we slowly began to re-build a life in Scotland. My heart still longed for Samoa and we have been privileged to return there regularly, staying with dear friends such as Ruta Sinclair and visiting many other friends while there (too many to mention by name).

Life on our return to Scotland also became a great adventure and I feel was also of great spiritual significance to me. In May 2002 the Universal House of Justice sent out the letter to the world’s religious leaders and I remember being deeply moved by it and seeing in it a call to our community to embrace interfaith dialogue;

…. the Bahá’í community has been a vigorous promoter of interfaith activities from the time of their inception. Apart from cherished associations that these activities create, Bahá’ís see in the struggle of diverse religions to draw closer together a response to the Divine Will for a human race that is entering on its collective maturity. The members of our community will continue to assist in every way we can. 

By October 2002 I was working as the Interfaith Development Officer for Scotland. We had moved to Glasgow and a new phase in our lives had begun. It is hard for me to believe that it is already 15 years since I secured my first job promoting interfaith dialogue; this journey has taken me to America, Europe, Israel, Australasia and all over the UK. I love my job now as Director of Interfaith Scotland and feel it is an absolute honour and privilege to be working in this field. It is not often a Bahá’í gets to work in a field that so strongly reflects a profound teaching of our faith and I am grateful to Bahá’u’lláh for the confirmations that have led me here.   Since our return our family has been extended with sons-in-law, a daughter-in-law and three beautiful grandchildren, definitely, along with our children, our greatest blessings.

I have just read back what I have written and it sounds all a bit magical and so it was, but there have been times when things have been a shade or two darker; family challenges, the death of loved ones, and health challenges. Nick has had head tumours and a heart attack, and we have both had cancer. There are also the usual on-going spiritual battles we all face, but the joys are somehow richer because of the struggles. As the 13th century mystical Persian poet Rumi says:

Sorrow prepares you for joy. It violently sweeps everything out of your house, so that new joy can find space to enter. It shakes the yellow leaves from the bough of your heart, so that fresh, green leaves can grow in their place. It pulls up the rotten roots, so that new roots hidden beneath have room to grow. Whatever sorrow shakes from your heart, far better things will take their place. Rumi

Looking back to those early days in Elgin when I first became a Bahá’í I could never in my wildest dreams have imagined the richness the Faith would bring to the life of our family…..and I am excited to see what the future will bring.

__________________

 

Maureen Sier

Glasgow, April 2017

The family (December 2016)

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