I was brought up in a background of my parents being rather sceptical towards religion. My father having rebelled from a strict Methodist background and my mother tending towards atheism, left them content just to be agnostic and closed in thinking. In addition, they were both very prejudiced against colour, race and nearly everything else; rather typical of the middle class background from whence they came. This prejudice unfortunately affected me later when they attempted to separate me from the Bahá’í teachings.

My religious background was a short temporary attendance at a Sunday school. However, from an early age I argued against their prejudiced views on life. Was this a natural rebellion on my part or the result of something I had read, heard or an influence from elsewhere? I don`t know.

Shamefully, my first introduction to the Bahá’í Faith was for all the wrong motives.

Back in September 1967 I had just settled into a lodging house in Brighton, along with 24 other females who were all attending Brighton College of Education, training to be teachers.

One Saturday night Val Jones, who was a Bahá’í, came into our common room and asked “Anyone want to come to a Bahá’í meeting at the Pavilion?”

I had never heard of Bahá’í, but even though I was a Yorkshire lass with no knowledge of anything south of London, I had heard of the Pavilion. “Yes, I`ll come”, thinking I would see some exotic architecture on the cheap (Yorkshire again), so off to the meeting I went. It turned out to be in a little back room of the pavilion without any gilded, ornate architraves in sight.

The speaker was Marion Hofman; I`m ashamed to say I didn`t really understand what she was talking about. After the meeting she kindly asked Val if she would like to accompany her to Canterbury the next day for another meeting, “and bring your friend if she likes”.

Again, for all the wrong motives (I had heard of Canterbury Cathedral and hoped to see it), I said yes. The journey there over the South Downs was glorious, even though our driver Marion, being American, tended to drift over to the wrong side of the road sometimes. Again my worldly motivations were put in their place, for I never even saw the Cathedral!

What did impress me, though, was the sheer love for life, the world and humanity that Marion showed as we journeyed there and back. It seemed to exude from every pore.

Here was something of real value that needed to be investigated, so when told of the local Brighton firesides at the Kouchekzadehs’ house at 19 Stanford Avenue, that’s where I went for many Wednesdays over the next three years.

Going back to my 6th form days at school, I remember distinctly coming to the conclusion that it’s only because I was brought up in England that I was supposed to be a Christian. In India I would be expected to be a Hindu or Moslem. I was very aware of all the other world faiths and I couldn`t understand how there was no faith that involved them all.

So when I finally understood what the Bahá’í faith stood for, it immediately made a lot of sense; it was just what I had figured out and was looking for. However, coming from a staid and solid family background, who never really expressed their emotions much or “got involved with religion”, I wasn`t going to immediately leap into any religion; my parents would have been deeply against any such commitment. The Brighton Bahá’ís were really supportive, encouraging me to not just look at the Bahá’í faith, but to look into and find out about other faiths. This I did, Brighton being like a second London with numerous religions and sects. After nearly three years of attending Bahá’í firesides, reading many Bahá’í books and investigating other faiths, I realised I was simply putting off declaring my faith as a Bahá’í, so I signed the card.

In 1967, I came to the end of my studies and returned to East Yorkshire, to start my teaching career and live with my parents. Unfortunately I knew of no Bahá’ís in the area; the nearest being Muriel Evans in York, an hour’s drive away; I drove there a few times for a feast. I also attended the York winter school; also Harlech summer school. I remember my Persian Bahá’í friend from Hove, Amiron Amiri and myself listening in wonderment to Hand of the Cause John Ferraby. We timidly went up to him and asked for his autograph! He very kindly explained to us how he never gave autographs as he would be afraid of signing something quickly that would be against the faith. I shudder at the temerity of us even asking him.

The National Spiritual Assembly asked for volunteers to visit Northampton for a weekend. I volunteered along with Guitty Momen (Bonner). We arrived there with nowhere to stay; answering an advertisement, we actually finished up staying at the local vicarage. We visited local shops, mentioning the Bahá’í faith when the opportunity arose, we visited local Bahá’ís, attempting to inspire them and finally I dragged Guitty along (she was suffering from an awful cold) to a local gathering of the Theosophical Society. I had no idea what they believed in, but as luck or rather God would have it, the speaker they were expecting did not arrive, so having introduced ourselves as Bahá’ís, they asked us to tell them all about the faith. They were curious, asked questions, but were non-commital.

In 1968 I attended the Palermo conference in Sicily along with over 2,000 Bahá’ís; after this we were all allowed to visit the Holy Land for three days; a lovely experience. We circumambulated the perimeter of Bahji, with volunteers telling us all the time to slow down. We finally collected behind the Mansion of Bahá’u’lláh in the olive grove on many rows of wooden benches. The members of the Universal House of Justice and many Hands of the Cause came out at 4.00pm precisely to address those gathered there.

We weren’t allowed to enter the Shrine of Bahá’u’lláh on this occasion, but we did enter the Shrine of the Báb on Mount Carmel. I remember the outside of the Shrine as being spectacular and in my ignorance and limited experience, I assumed the inside would be equally resplendent but the internal simplicity was surprisingly simple, and I think I felt almost disappointed. Most likely this reflected my rather shallow, naive faith at the time, not realising the presence and importance of such a sacred place. I also remember leaving my purse outside, somehow having the faith it would still be there on my return; it was.

Many years then went by when I regret to say my faith dwindled. I later found out that during this period the Bahá’í Journal was regularly posted to my home address, but I never received it; I found out that my parents had been returning it to its source with “address unknown” written on the wrapper. This is only an excuse for my weakness and lack of faith. In retrospect I could and should have made more effort to keep in touch with the Bahá’ís.

Later I married Allan, whom I had known since school days. We had two girls, Angela born in 1974, and Carolyn two years later. We moved to Derbyshire but I had no idea whether there were any Bahá’ís in Derby. I wanted to bring my daughters up with some sort of spiritual education, so we researched the local churches and chose a local Methodist Church which had a functioning Sunday school. I didn’t want to push my faith on my daughters but, in hindsight, I should probably have done much more in educating them about the Bahá’í faith. Every week I attended the church and felt it so frustrating; the sermons were so restricted, so limited in their outlook. Increasingly frustrated, one night in desperation I asked God to “help me”.

The next morning after breakfast, I picked up the previous night’s local paper, a thing I never normally do and to my amazement, I spotted a very small advert about a local Derby Bahá’í group meeting the following week. To say I was shocked was an understatement. It was as if God had given me a great shove, and a second chance.

I attended the meeting and invited my husband along. In the past, I had been very aware of how a faith by one partner can cause a rift within a marriage, so I wanted us to approach the Bahá’í Faith together as if it were the first time. We did just that, attending meetings, reading books, and attending a summer school at Ackworth. I hadn’t actually left the Baháí faith but I didn`t want to become active again for the wrong reasons.

Finally I did rejoin the Faith; indeed I have two registration numbers. My husband and I continued to help the Derby Bahá’ís and Allan was very helpful constructing display boards and talking to people about the Bahá’í faith. However, he never declared himself as a Bahá’í. Being an engineer, he prefers things to be absolute, with ‘i’s dotted and ‘t’s crossed. He does say that if he were anything, he would be a Bahá’í.

Derby had some wonderful public meetings. Professional classical pianist Julian Hellaby gave a concert, along with other local artists, and large numbers of non-Bahá’ís attended. Farshin Taleb enabled us to become close to Sir Peter and Lady Hilton, the Lord Lieutenant of Derbyshire and his wife. They were very favourably inclined towards the Bahá’í Faith, inviting us for a number of years to have a stall at their annual garden party, we being the only faith to be invited. One year I arranged for the National Bahá’í Choir to come and sing there; we were very grateful for the effort they made in travelling such a long distance for this event.

Living outside Derby, I was never involved with the local spiritual assembly there. However, I did become involved as the Bahá’í representative with the proposal to build a Multi-Faith Centre at the University of Derby. Over three years we had interminable meetings, read mountains of paper work, ate hundreds of sandwiches and helped with fund-raising activities. Finally it was built and I became the Bahá’í advisor there. To be honest, regrettably I didn`t have too much to do with the students, as there were hardly any Bahá’ís present. I remember one chocolate event arranged with another Bahá’í for the students, in which we supplied copious amounts of chocolate for anyone who turned up. It was a complete flop with only one person attending and he was a university professor I knew, who had so much theological knowledge I felt diminished in his presence.

Time went on, with me continuing, even to this day as the Bahá’í representative at the Multi-Faith Centre. The status and general awareness of the faith was raised. I was invited to innumerable meetings at other religious faith establishments, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, Moslem and local radio, at which I would often be invited to say a few words.

One of my invitations was to a local Open Centre where, on fielding many of the ensuing questions, I came up with the comment “the more I look at different faiths, the more I recognise their similarities”. One of the members of the audience then made a comment that the more he looked into faiths, the more differences he perceived. I later found out he was a professor of Theology at the university.

Chairing the University Religious and Pastoral Services Committee for five years and the Planning committee at the Multi Faith Centre for 10 years has taken up a lot of time. I must say chairing meetings of a bunch of people from different faiths and involving two university professors is not easy.

The Bahá’í Faith has been accepted by the university alongside all the other faiths, so I was involved with many activities there including thanksgiving services in the Cathedral during University awards-day ceremonies. In fact, the day I was awarded my Master’s degree I had to give a Bahá’í reading in the Cathedral, still wearing my gown.

On one occasion, the Bahá’í Faith readings were even projected at night in large letters on the side of the Multi-Faith Centre alongside other excerpts from other faiths.

Being on the Board of Trustees and the Advisory Board of the Multi-Faith Centre again involved many meetings, but it did raise the Bahá’í profile. Since 2007 I have organised a monthly discussion group called “Conversation across faiths” at the Multi-Faith Centre. It’s a group of people from a variety of religions and no religion who simply like discussing faith matters. We always introduce ourselves at the beginning, so many people know I am a Bahá’í, but I am conscious as chair of this group I have to be very careful not to push my faith. However, over the years I have been able to introduce the Bahá’í point of view and invite several different Bahá’í speakers to address the group.

Although Allan and I have been attending a local Bahá’í study group over the last two years, going through Ruhi books 1, 2, 3, The Gleanings and the Kitáb-i-Iqán, I regret I have not contributed more over the years to the life of the local Bahá’í community. My excuse is I didn`t want to upset the equilibrium of family life but, on reflection, I think I was scared to truly commit myself.

However, in October 2016 God once more intervened in my life, or was it just fate?

I was told I had a rather virulent form of breast cancer called triple negative. After a lumpectomy and nodes removed, seven weeks later I was diagnosed with cancer of the liver with a prognosis of months rather than years to live. After six doses of chemotherapy with some of the usual side effects, like hair loss, I am so very fortunate in having some months of feeling really well.

During this time I have been away on Pilgrimage in Israel for 9 days. Besides being very interesting, the whole place and people were most inspiring. Every day was wonderful; I thank God so much for being allowed to experience such an environment. I feel so very, very fortunate I have been given this time of good health to travel, meet people, and most importantly to do what I should have done years ago, start to hold fireside meetings in my own home.

The result is not stunning, I have not exactly been overwhelmed with participants, but at least I feel I have fully “come out” with my contact details plastered over many Bahá’í flyers around nearby villages.

I have many regrets concerning my personal Bahá’í life. However, I`m so very, very grateful to God that I have been given so many opportunities to be a Bahá’í and to attempt to teach the faith. I don`t understand many things; who does? My concept of God is probably different from many people’s, but that’s rather like the old Jewish saying “If there are six Jews in a room being asked a simple question like should the lights be on or off, there will be six different answers”. If I were to describe God in human terms, from my experience He must be very forgiving and patient to still care for humans like me who have shown timidity and faint-heartedness.

I feel so very fortunate to have met the Bahá’í Faith – many, many thanks, God!

_______________

 

Pam Sutton

Derby, September 2017

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