Sittin’ on a Mountain Top….
In the Beginning
Over the years I’ve noticed that my life choices, along with many people I know, are often the result of what seems like a coincidence or an unexpected contact with someone or something. So you won’t be surprised that my journey to the Bahá’í Faith and beyond has been sprinkled with such occurrences. A grand plan? Coincidence? Luck? Read on and see what you think…
My life started with a bit of luck. My Mum was told that she should not have a second child (I have a wonderful older brother named Gordon who is four years my senior) as there was a risk that either she or the baby (me) might not survive owing to complications encountered during mum’s first pregnancy. Needless to say, my parents ignored this advice and here I am! I was born in Manchester and raised in a loving family atmosphere. My parents, Connie and Gordon, had lived in Glasgow prior to moving to Manchester. We lived in the Audenshaw district of Manchester and then moved to Chorlton, south west Manchester, when I was about three. My parents heard about the Bahá’í Faith almost by accident. My Mum had been invited to a party by close family friends as they were soon to emigrate to Australia. At the party was a teacher from our primary school – her name was Betty Shepherd. I was too young to remember much about this but I recall being told that mum came home in the early hours of the morning, not later in the evening as planned. Why? Another chance encounter, or was it? During the evening, Betty mentioned that she was going to a Bahá’í meeting. Mum was always in trouble at school for asking too many questions so when she replied “What on earth is one of those?”, our whole life as a family changed. Betty and her husband Harold later pioneered to Inverness and I have fond memories of visiting them in their lovely big house with the River Ness running by at the bottom of the garden. Betty became an Auxiliary Board member whilst living in Scotland.
My dad was a lay preacher in the Church of Scotland whilst living in Glasgow so the idea of considering another denomination, let alone changing a religion, was a challenge, to put it mildly. Over time, the Bahá’í principle of progressive revelation and a requirement for Bahá’ís to independently investigate the truth won them over and they became Bahá’ís a few months before the First World Congress in London in 1963, which they attended. To say they were bowled over by this momentous event is a massive understatement. They regaled us with stories of the Congress and had pages of national newspaper clippings. I was 12 at the time and just starting to wonder what all the fuss was about.
Comings and goings
You could get lost in our family home in Chorlton, Manchester. Although it was semi-detached property, it had five bedrooms and was spread across four floors with 13 rooms in all. My parents provided lodgings for students at Manchester University for many years and there were always Bahá’ís coming and going too. Mum was a fantastic host and we were blessed to host several National Assembly meetings at our home. I watched in awe as some wonderful Bahá’ís visited us – Betty Reed, Philip Hainsworth and Adib Taherzadeh to name but three. There were endless cups of tea and coffee and food appearing at regular intervals – quite how my parents managed I don’t know, but they did. My parents were by then an integral part of the Manchester Bahá’í community. Dad was elected Chairman of the Local Spiritual Assembly for many years and mum also was a serving member of the Local Spiritual Assembly (LSA). Dad was a quiet, patient person with a cheeky, dry sense of humour but a wonderful sense of fair play. He took naturally to the Bahá’í model of consultation and, to no-one’s surprise, served as Chairman of the LSA for several years.
During my teens I made friends with the many local Bahá’í families. I especially remember the Habibi family and have fond memories of playing with Ramin Habibi. His mum, Pouri, was a wonderful cook and we were introduced to Persian cooking, a habit I am pleased to say which continues to this day! Later we were to meet the Haqjoo family and to fall under the influence of Shahla Haqjoo’s wonderful cooking too!
Of all the Bahá’í visitors to our home in Manchester over the years, the visit of Hand of the Cause Mr Samandari was very special. He was the last living person to have met Bahá’u’lláh. What I hadn’t expected was such a tiny man! I doubt if he was more than 5 feet tall but he exuded an aura around him that was spellbinding. Accompanied by his grandson as his translator, he held meetings and gave presentations at the Manchester Bahá’í Centre. I have vivid memories of him sitting in a small wooden chair which my brother had used when he was about five years old – it fitted him perfectly! His calm, organised demeanour was a sight to behold. My brother was more inquisitive (neither of us were Bahá’ís at that stage) and Mr Samandari asked if there was anything he wanted to ask. Gordon eventually summoned the courage to ask“Could you please tell me what it was like to be in the company of Bahá’u’lláh, and what did He look like?” The reply was profound. He said it was impossible to convey a sense of Bahá’u’lláh’s looks because the spiritually penetrating power of His eyes made it impossible to look upon Him in the conventional way, but His demeanour and love for those around Him evoked a natural desire amongst those in His company to serve Him. Wow! Before leaving he graciously wrote a letter to our family to thank us for our hospitality. It is something we treasure. By the way, the small chair (known as the ‘Samandari’ chair in the family since that time) is over 60 years old, still with us and in the safe keeping of my brother.
The Bahá’í community in Manchester was full of characters. One such person was Albert Joseph, who was Iranian and of Jewish origin. He ran a textile business in Manchester and was one of the early believers in the UK. He had three different dates of birth so none of us knew how old he was – I don’t think he did either! I fondly remember Albert telling us about meetings with the Guardian, Shoghi Effendi, in the basement of his Manchester warehouse, sitting on old boxes and clothes skips. Over the years many of the friends tried to persuade Albert to write down his life story but he never did – such a shame. He loved to be in the company of the youth – he was so young at heart.
Now, back to that mountain top…
When I was about 17 I started to investigate the Bahá’í Faith in more detail, unbeknown to my parents. I had no problem understanding and accepting the main social principles of the Faith such as the oneness of mankind and the equality of men and women, but was struggling with the concept of a God. I’ve always had an interest in geography, geology and meteorology, which stood me in good stead during my teens as a Cub and Scout when I would often go on camping trips and other expeditions, often in mountains and remote areas. I was in awe of the power and influence of nature. Now, here comes the cheesy bit. In the summer of 1969, I remember in the Lake District climbing Scafell Pike, the highest mountain in England. It was a beautiful sunny day and you could see for many miles in all directions. Sitting on the summit of the mountain I thought to myself ‘surely this can’t be all man made – it’s too perfect, everything is in harmony’. This was my ‘lightbulb’ moment – the existence of a God to influence, shape and oversee everything around me! At that point I realised that I was a Bahá’í.
Shortly afterwards I told my parents that I wanted to be a Bahá’í – I was 18 years old. They had no idea that I had been learning about the Faith and mum was stunned into silence by my declaration – one of only two occasions in my life when she was lost for words – read on to hear about the other one. What was also amazing was that my brother Gordon declared a short while afterwards – probably the only thing I’ve done before him given that he is four years older than me!
In at the deep end
In Manchester we were blessed to have our own Bahá’í Centre, which was in Fallowfield. It had two small flats on the top floor, a large meeting room on the ground floor and a basement in which parties were often held. It was great to meet so many Bahá’ís and guests. Manchester was a popular city for Bahá’í students, with a resultant ebb and flow of Friends moving in and out of the community.
Another institution in the Manchester area was the weekly Friday night firesides hosted by Ruth and Jimmy Habibi (Jimmy was Ramin’s older brother) in Didsbury. People travelled from miles around to attend. There was always a crowd there and I learnt so much, not just about the Faith but the impact it can have on other Faiths. I remember a Jewish guest visiting one night. At the end of the evening he said he didn’t want to be a Bahá’í but what he had learnt on that night would make him a better Jew – job done!
My nascent interest in music started to develop. I played guitar and had written a few songs. Some other friends also were interested and we formed a group called the Valley of Love. We would put on shows in the Manchester area and sometimes further afield. It was an exciting and nerve-racking experience! As a young Bahá’í I became involved in organising parties at the Manchester Centre. I had a pretty good hi-fi system but I recall the amplifier burning out on more than one occasion as the music was too loud. We were fearless in those days. I recall attending a Bahá’í summer school in Attleborough and being involved in a show for the local community and guests. As I recall, we had over 20 declarations that night!
I served as a member of the National Youth Committee for several years and was also elected to the Manchester Local Spiritual Assembly, serving as Secretary and Treasurer at different times. Whilst at Salford University I had the opportunity to work and travel in the USA during the summer of 1973. I travelled with my good friend and fellow Bahá’í Nigel Freeman who also played guitar and sang and was a Valley of Love member. What a summer! We worked in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and spent time travelling round the south of the USA, often staying with Bahá’í families and playing at firesides and other meetings. We also spent several weeks serving at the Bahá’í House of Worship in Wilmette, Illinois. We worked in the records department and provided a live-in care service for an elderly gentleman who lived nearby. It was amazing to see the House of Worship up close and obtain a better understanding of the impact of such an institution. I remember on one Saturday, a large number of Asian Indians arrived at the House of Worship – there must have been at least 200-300 of them. It transpired that there was no Hindu Temple in the area so they used the House of Worship instead. Wonderful!
Prior to my working holiday in the USA in the summer of 1973, in my role of Local Spiritual Assembly Secretary, I had been corresponding with a young lady called Jackie Brown who had pioneered from California to Trondheim in Norway and had been accepted to train as a Chartered Physiotherapist at Manchester Royal Infirmary. She was to arrive in Manchester in the summer of 1973 to start her training. On my return, I met her and thought ‘Hmm, she’s nice’ so decided to ask her out. On my first attempt I discovered she had two dates on the same evening so I felt rather put out but did not give up! A short while later we got together and had a whirlwind romance. I proposed to Jackie six weeks after we met. You’ll remember I said earlier that I had only managed to make my mum speechless on two occasions. My declaration as a Bahá’í was the first and announcing my engagement was the second, as it happened so quickly. Rendering my mum speechless twice is quite an achievement! Jackie was born in San Francisco and her parents still lived in the Bay Area. Her parents, two sisters and brother all came over for the wedding. I only met my in-laws Jack and Rita for the first time three days before I got married. They were wonderful people and we had a fantastic relationship. Sadly Jack and Rita have now passed away. At the time of writing, Jackie and I have been married for 43 years, have three great kids and three wonderful grandchildren! I think I made a good choice.
My career – another coincidence?
Prior to working and travelling in the USA in 1973 I had my eyes on a career as a meteorologist, vulcanologist or something in that field. On realising that I’d probably end up in the middle of nowhere doing research or teaching, I started to have second thoughts as such roles didn’t inspire me. I’ve always been interested in people and how they behave so my thoughts turned to psychology. I wasn’t smart enough to get the grades required to get into university to do a Psychology degree, so my thoughts then turned to Human Relations. I was rubbish at A Levels and took four years to get some decent grades, not two years as most people did. I managed to get a place at Salford University to do a Social Studies degree, specialising in Psychology and Statistics and loved it, ending up with a good degree. I was set on pursuing a career in Human Relations, wondering how best I could do it after completing my final year at university on returning from the USA.
Nigel Freeman and I worked as counsellors at a summer residential facility for adults with learning disabilities, in Chattanooga in the summer of 1973, then later as live-in carers, as mentioned earlier, for a disabled elderly gentleman in Wilmette, Illinois. These jobs gave me an opportunity to mix with people with special needs and their families, triggering my desire to enter social work as a career. This subsequently led to my qualifying as a social worker in 1977, then some 14 years later setting up and managing my own health and social care consultancy business from which I recently retired. All this from one summer trip…. I undertook my social work training at the University of Wales, Bangor, and lived in Bethesda, which with Bangor had active Bahá’í communities and it was great to be involved in a thriving community. I vividly remember musical and theatrical evenings at the Povey family’s home in Bethesda. It was a tiny house – quite how we got everyone in was a miracle! There are slate quarries in the area and I remember well the regular explosions just across the valley as they mined the slate. Having moved back to Manchester, I worked as a social worker in Bolton for several years, dealing with some challenging cases in very deprived areas. Hard work but rewarding, it also helped me develop as an individual and respect people from many different walks of life and circumstances. The first few years of my social work career taught me so many life skills which I still use to this day when dealing with conflict, problems or heartache. We left Manchester in 1980 to move to Kent to enable me to pursue my career in Social Services as a Team Manager. This was an exciting period for me as I led the discharge programme to run down and close a 1,500-place long-stay hospital for children and adults with learning disabilities and, in the process, established a range of housing and community support services. I then managed a wider range of community, residential and day care services for the west of the county and helped set up an independent Housing Trust. At one point I managed 750 staff in 13 locations – that was fun! I eventually left Kent County Council in 1991 to set up my own consultancy business at the ripe old age of 39!
My consultancy work has taken me to different parts of the country and also abroad (to Romania). I undertook a lot of project management, often involving changing and developing services, hopefully for the better to improve front line services. I have a strong interest in helping health and social care organisations to work together, from the bottom to the top in each case. Bringing people together in this way is both fascinating and challenging. Sparks often fly as there are so many different priorities and agendas. This is where I find the Bahá’í model of consultation so wonderful. It enables me to create an atmosphere where diverse opinions can be respected and put to mutually beneficial use. It’s very powerful and extremely effective.
Jackie and I have three wonderful children – Laura, Ian and Alastair. They are all in their thirties now and we have three wonderful granddaughters too. We are truly blessed. My parents Connie and Gordon followed us to Kent a few years after we moved. Gordon died in 1990 and Connie in 1995 and they would love to have seen the little ones growing up so fast. Jackie worked for a while in the NHS as a Chartered Physiotherapist in Manchester then set up her own private practice in the 1980s after we had moved to Maidstone. Jackie went on to study a Masters Degree in Veterinary Physiotherapy at the Royal Veterinary College so now treats animals as well as humans. Quite how she managed to do all this whilst raising three children is still a miracle to me! She is an incredible woman.
Maidstone Bahá’í Community
There was a Local Spiritual Assembly in Maidstone when we arrived but some of the community moved to other areas and we haven’t been able to re-form our Local Spiritual Assembly yet. We have been blessed with some wonderful friends in the community. Stan and Cathy Baker were stalwarts for many years and have sadly passed on. More recently we’ve had an influx of youth, including some students at the local School of Osteopathy. Hannah and Vincent Martino-Kasiri and Laurence Cassina were wonderful and great fun to have in the community. They were and still are very active, although they have moved elsewhere. We have also been blessed in having John and Su Dilling in our community until recently; their dedication to service is unbelievable, having pioneered abroad and having served at the World Centre. Spreading the Faith in Maidstone is difficult. Local people are very nice and welcoming but less inclined to engage in meaningful conversations, so we need to redouble our efforts! We persevere with the limited resources at our disposal. We notice that more people have heard of the Bahá’í Faith these days so we must stay strong and continue our efforts.
Now in my mid 60s, I’m semi-retired but still do occasional jobs as an independent health and social care consultant. I never really believed people who said retirement would be just as busy as when working but it’s true! I’m now an expert childminder. Yes, I do change nappies (regardless of whatever is in them), my DIY skills helping out the kids are improving (and do they need them!) and Jackie and I also volunteer at a local nursing home. That said, I’ve rekindled my love for the guitar by investing in a lovely new instrument, having singing lessons and starting to write songs again. I’ve been able to sing at some deepenings and other Bahá’í events recently and hope this will continue. I even accompanied a residents’ choir at the local nursing home where Jackie and I volunteer – they must have been desperate!
Several years ago Jackie and I learned to dance salsa and persuaded my brother Gordon and his wife Margaret to take it up too. We’ve gone on to learn Argentine Tango – much harder I reckon! Jackie took up ballroom dancing more recently and I’ve started too although she’s much better than me! We both swim and work out at the gym when we can. We’ve had dogs and cats for over 30 years. Our dogs were all Cavalier King Charles Spaniels (five of them over the years in ones, twos and threes) and we now have a big daft Lurcher called Herbie. Sadly our two cats are no longer with us. Going out dog-walking is a great way to meet people and strike up meaningful conversations! I’m a keen golfer and play regularly – it’s great exercise, a continual challenge and great fun. We hope all this activity will stave off some of the inevitable signs of ageing. I don’t find age a barrier – well not yet anyway!
What does the future hold?
We never expected to stay in Kent for so long (37 years at the time of writing), let alone stay in the same house. I guess we’ll be here for a while yet. Our children all live not far away in London but during this year one of them will be relocating to China with her husband and two young children. Another will be moving out of London to try and save some money, so it’s more change. The rhythm of life is constantly changing and we need to adapt. In our Bahá’í community it’s great to see people coming and going but we need some people to stay put too! A combination of the two is good. We don’t want to get set in our ways, as newer arrivals will bring fresh approaches to help us teach and deepen in this wonderful Faith. As we’ve now celebrated the Bicentenary of the Birth of Bahá’u’lláh (in 2017), I wonder if we are still too close to this Faith to really understand its power and influence. To see the world in turmoil is so saddening. Even so-called more stable Western countries seem to be riddled with more strife and division than ever before. The need for the Bahá’í Faith is greater than ever. Its ability to unite and heal the world is incredible and we know it will succeed in its mission. We are involved in establishing the first Inter-Faith Network in Maidstone and trust that this will enable improved understanding, respect, knowledge and cooperation between faith groups in the town. Here’s hoping this and other initiatives will enable us to spread our message of unity.
Being a Bahá’í is a wonderful privilege and witnessing its ever-growing influence in the world gives me hope for the future. The persecution of the Bahá’ís in Iran continues and, whilst I am saddened by this, I cannot imagine the grief and despair being suffered by those believers and their families. Such persecutions have occurred in the early periods of all the world’s major faiths – are we not learning yet? The world seems to be experiencing continual strife and suffering and I believe we all need to do more to promote our wonderful faith. I have met so many incredible people during my years as a Bahá’í, which I am sure will continue. We are a very small community in Maidstone but I hope we will soon grow.
Now, where’s that mountain top…
Kent, April 2018