Leslie and Carolyn at home in 2018

Bahá’í friends in South Wales have died recently. I am grateful that they have written stories of their lives. So now I will write about mine before I have forgotten too many details. It has been difficult to start writing this story because I do not feel I have used my life sufficiently well yet. I pray that I may be able to walk humbly through life being more conscious of the face of God in those I meet and able to respond to the opportunities to serve that I am provided with.

I have been very fortunate in life. My parents and my life prepared me to look positively and curiously towards those different from myself. We were an American family living in Evanston, Illinois, and when I became a Bahá’í my parents told me that they knew about the Faith. They had been to the Bahá’í temple in Wilmette before it had been completed, when I was a small baby. They had also had a Bahá’í friend in Japan but I never heard any more about the Faith until I was a student in Scotland.

As a small child, I was a difficult challenge for my parents as I was their first child and very determined. When I was 3 my father was in the Korean War and my mother took me and my brother to Japan to live, in order to be nearer my father who was in the US Army working in Intelligence. The year in Japan was one of the most exciting times of my life, a period which provided memories which outlasted many years of less stimulating times. These experiences resulted in a desire to see the world and to appreciate other cultures. As usual I provided my parents with difficulties, such as the time when a friend of the family offered to take me to the park with my brother. I didn’t want to go but then changed my mind and decided to go on my own. My parents had to find me in the Japanese city – Shakujii Koen – and fortunately did. This was the Japan just after the end of WWII and the Japanese were very kind to us, although whenever the electricity failed, one of the maids would say it was because we Americans had bombed the electricity plants. Then there was the time in Japan when I was sent for testing because there were concerns that I might have brain damage, as my behaviour was sometimes unusually difficult! The Japanese maids may have encouraged my parents to check me out because Japanese children normally did not behave as I did, but no tumour has yet been found – over 60 years later.

My parents asked me if I thought we should go back to the USA. I was now 4 years old. I said yes, and later regretted it. Perhaps we would have stayed longer in Japan, I thought, if I hadn’t agreed to go back.

Back in the USA, my mother gave birth soon after to brother number two. My mother jokingly said my second brother had been made in Japan – and the Americans had actually shipped the family back early to avoid having to deal with his birth. Just over a year later a sister arrived. On each birth, I was not pleased to have yet another sibling to share my parents with – although I am very glad to have them now.

As I grew up in the USA, my parents often worked with others to organise events to help those from other countries to feel at home in America. During holidays we often hosted individuals and families from other countries who were temporarily in the USA as students. They shared our dinners and stayed with us overnight. My parents helped a German family move to our area, and befriended a Chinese family. One of our local ministers had a Chinese wife and our families became friends.

At 10 I became more interested in philosophical questions. I enjoyed walking in the woods and sitting in a tree reading books. I became a relatively well-behaved child and enjoyed helping my mother.

On my 14thbirthday I was baptised and joined the Methodist church. This was the church my parents and I and my two brothers and a sister attended every Sunday, and in which my parents played an active role. On that same day I became a fervent believer in Christ. For several years after that I could feel the divine presence and sometimes sat in the fields feeling surrounded by nature and at one with it. It was a time of ecstasy – not continuous, but during quiet moments alone.

But then came the age of reason. As I reached the end of the high school years, I could no longer accept what I could not understand. I was interested in science and maths, and became an agnostic. Daydreaming became one of my obsessions. I would dream about going somewhere and somehow fixing the place and then moving on to somewhere else to fix another. Eventually I would fix the whole world but then there would be nothing left to do, so that would get boring. Those dreams went on for years until I managed to stop.

I went to Wells College in New York State to study and make new friends. In US colleges students normally study a wide range of courses rather than immediately specializing. I took Philosophy, Religion, English, French, Biology and Chemistry, Maths and Physical Education, etc. The 4 year BA degree allowed for a year abroad. One of the previous ministers of the family church was living in St Andrews in Scotland with his family. He encouraged me to apply to study for a year in St Andrews, so I applied and went. In the autumn of 1969 I arrived in Scotland.

After initially feeling homesick, I gradually felt happier and made friends.  Although the Scottish students were friendly enough, I largely connected with other foreigners rather than with local Scottish people.  Rather than return to the USA, I decided to continue my studies in St Andrews. In my second year in St Andrews, I met my first husband, Chris. He was a first year student and three years younger than me. We decided to get married and under duress from the university we called our parents to tell them of the impending marriage. My mother cried at the news and my brother Ken played ‘Where has my little girl gone?’ on the record player, which did not succeed in cheering her up. My fiancé’s mother came up to Scotland to try to stop the marriage. We delayed it by an extra week or so.

As my husband, Chris, was of Polish origin, his parents having been war refugees from WWII, we decided to go to Poland for the summer with a friend. We decided that I should become a British citizen, so that in the case of any difficulties we could use the same embassy. That was easy to do in those days. I went to a Justice of the Peace and swore to be loyal to the Queen. I was registered as a British citizen. Shortly after that I received a letter from the US consulate requesting that I send them my American passport because I was, as a result of becoming British, no longer an American citizen.

One afternoon, we had a knock on the door and we opened it to a man and a woman who were Jehovah’s witnesses. The lady was Polish, and as most Polish people are Catholic, my husband was fascinated and we invited them in. After hours of discussion, they said they had to leave as some Bahá’ís had invited them around for a fireside. Earlier, I had heard about the Bahá’ís being in town and some of our friends had gone to a public meeting by the Bahá’ís but my reaction had been that there were too many religions around already so we didn’t need another one.

But since the Jehovah’s Witnesses were going to a fireside, we asked them where it was so we could go too. At the fireside we met Bahá’ís for the first time and were quite impressed by the logic of the answers and the contrast between the literal interpretation of the Bible and the more metaphorical reasoning of the Bahá’ís. Zoe Backwell (Turner) was one of the teachers and organisers of the regular firesides at the home of a couple called Tingle, where the firesides were held. Harry and Lily Tingle were the parents of Pam Sabet, wife of Nuri Sabet. We regularly attended firesides over the next few months. We used to stay up late, talking and listening to music such as ‘Peace Train’ by Cat Stevens. I thought the Bahá’ís were a pleasantly crazy lot. Then St Andrews had an intensive teaching programme with travel teachers, one of whom was Shomais Afnan. Every night for about 9 nights there was an activity. We were invited, attended and were fascinated by each one but were a bit miffed when they didn’t invite us to the Nineteen Day Feast. One day there was a travel-teaching trip to another town. We were invited to go and went. We helped to hand out leaflets inviting people to a fireside. We all had lunch together in a café. Shomais asked my husband when he was going to become a Bahá’í. He replied “When I have read all the Bahá’í books”.

In the evening at the fireside (to which no one came, apart from the hosts, the travel teachers, and ourselves), Shomais offered a declaration card to Chris and he signed. I decided that since I was going to become a Bahá’í some day as well, I couldn’t have him becoming a Bahá’í before me so I signed a card as well. It was 1972. Ruth Smith, who was a fairly new Bahá’í herself, said: “I can remember you becoming Bahá’ís. Someone was in the lounge with you two and the rest of us were in the kitchen praying hard! You didn’t have a chance of escaping!”

On the way back to St Andrews in the car we all sang Alláh-u-Abhá most of the way back. I heard it sung again in Summer school in Wales in 2015 and it brought back the memory of that special time.

The goal had been to form a Spiritual Assembly in St Andrews. They almost made it with a few pioneers moving in as well but my husband was too young to make up the required nine. We initially formed a group, but eventually were able to serve on the St Andrews assembly for a short time when there were enough adult Bahá’ís.

The first St Andrews assembly was formed on 17 April 1973. The following were members of the first LSA: Christopher Eaton-Mordas, Carolyn Eaton-Mordas (now Bridgewater), William O’Brien, Massoud Tahzib, Harry and Lily Tingle, Mahin Songhorabadi, Tahereh Vatanparast and Ruth Smith. Mahin and her son Sate lived with us for a short while and we became like family. Eventually Mahin’s husband Hasan, in Iran at the time, was able to leave there and join Mahin and Sate in St Andrews.

In 1973 after the birth of our daughter Melanie, Chris decided to change his degree course to one at Bangor University in North Wales. We moved to Rhiwlas, an isolated village close by. Eventually a couple of young Bahá’ís joined us there but I had my difficulties being a young mother and not knowing anyone at first. It had been hard to leave behind the community of St Andrews. I also had lots of questions about the Faith and wasn’t sure whether I should remain a Bahá’í with the questions that I had. One night I had a dream that both Bahá’u’lláh and the Báb came to me and gave me a hug – I did not see any features – they only appeared as golden figures in my dream. I was told that I was loved but that they needed people who made up their minds.

During our time in Rhiwlas, we were on the Spiritual Assembly of Arfon for a short period. At the start of one meeting of the LSA a member mentioned that she was paranoid about birds. When we said prayers at the start of the meeting, each one of us found that something in the prayer related to birds and we had to stop part way through the prayer, unable to keep a straight face!

In 1978 we moved to St John’s, Newfoundland, so that my husband could pursue a post-doctorate. Again I was lonely and isolated – this time with two children, Melanie and Alexander. Now I missed my friends from North Wales. Our marriage had become troubled which didn’t help. Looking in the phone directory, I found a telephone number for the Bahá’í Faith, which turned out to be that of a family who lived within walking distance, the Rochesters. Elizabeth Rochester became like a Bahá’í mother to me. She was the one to whom I took all my questions. The Spiritual Assembly of St Johns consulted about each community member to find out what each needed and decided to give me tasks which allowed me to serve, such as helping with children’s classes. When we left Newfoundland less than a year later I was heartbroken to leave such a loving community and the friends that I had made.

Back in the UK in 1979, we moved to Groeslon, near Caernarfon in North Wales. However, in 1980, after our marriage fell apart, I moved to Menai Bridge in order to do a PGCE at Bangor University. I was a single parent and my two children and I were then part of the Anglesey community. In December a good friend, Brian Almond, came from Germany and introduced me to Leslie, a Bahá’i friend of his. Leslie parked his van outside where I was living and it broke down, by the time it was fixed, Leslie and I had decided to marry.

We married in May 1981 but we had waited for my parents to come and meet Leslie so they could decide whether to give permission for our wedding. This time they were able to attend the wedding as well, because although they were only in the UK for a short time, we decided to marry immediately if they gave permission, which they did on the Wednesday and we married on the Saturday, having provisionally booked things in advance in case they gave permission. We moved to Llanfairfechan in Deganwy, North Wales where we became part of the assembly and community of Aberconwy. We were in temporary accommodation owned by a lecturer at Bangor University while he was away.

Our community included Ada Williams and Bill, Mary and Gwen Prince, Mitra Sabet-Parry and Robert Parry. However, we were in temporary accommodation owned by a lecturer at Bangor University, which we could use while he was away. Later, when he wanted his home back we had to move. We loaded all our possessions, and the two children, into our yellow ex-post office van and headed to Herefordshire to be near Leslie’s parents. Fortunately, at a Bahá’í fireside in Leominster at the home of Geoff and Midge Ault, a couple who were leaving the area offered us the use of their house in Malvern until it was sold. Then we were offered a house to rent in another part of Malvern. My third child, Nicholas, was born while we were living in Malvern where we were isolated believers.

The next home was Coalville, Leicestershire, where we were able to be part of the first Spiritual Assembly of North West Leicestershire. We moved there in 1987 after I found a job at British Shoe Corporation as a Programmer. We were able to participate in the Thomas Breakwell School in Shepshed which we enjoyed.

First Spiritual Assembly of North West Leicestershire
Left to right (seated): Carol Wierzbicki, Hilda Sykes, Carolyn Bridgewater
Top row: Steve Wierzbicki, Shiva Ziaie, Saeed Ziaie, Nader Khozoui
Missing from photo: Leslie Bridgewater and the 9th member of LSA who was a young Persian man

Before our next move in 1989, Leslie and I went on pilgrimage. We had the opportunity to meet the Hand of the Cause Mr Furútan who came up behind us in the gardens and put his hand on Leslie’s shoulder.

From Coalville it was to the USA for 10 years, 1989 to 1999, to be near my parents. By then my daughter was on her 12thschool. We became isolated believers again, first in Macedon and then in Palmyra, New York State. We participated in the Wayne County and Rochester Bahá’í activities, again making many wonderful friends. We had the opportunity to attend three different Bahá’í Sunday schools – one in Rochester, one in Sodus and another in Victor.

While living in our house in Palmyra which was surrounded by fields and a large garden bordered by woods, we had an unusual visit from a hot air balloon. We were in the middle of a feast and had just said “O Lord, Open Thou the door, Provide the means, Prepare the way, Make safe the path, that we may be guided to those souls whose hearts are prepared for Thy cause and that they may be guided to us. Verily Thou art the Merciful, the most Bountiful, the all Powerful.” I don’t think this is an authenticated prayer but we had just said it when we looked out of the window and saw a hot air balloon descending over the woods and coming towards the house. We rushed outside and the occupants asked if they could land in our yard. We agreed and when they had descended, many cars came driving up our driveway – even an antique car with a mayor from the neighbouring town. We mixed with many people but not once mentioned the Faith – even though the house had been cleaned and we had biscuits to spare. That was a lesson about learning to respond to the opportunities that God gives us!

Balloon coming down over the house

We decided that we would like to pioneer, so we went to the pioneer training weekend in Green Acre. We were able to walk and pray where Abdu’l-Bahá had been and get some ideas of where to go.

Before I finished working, Leslie went to Lisbon to do a CELTA (Certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) course so that he could work teaching English abroad.

We sold the house and returned to the UK in 1999 where I too took a CELTA course. We had a grandchild on the way so decided to stay in the UK for a while near Leslie’s mother who was now near Oxford. We found a camp site in Adderbury near Banbury. We started looking for a place to rent and found one that sounded nice. When we called up the number in the newspaper we were told that the cottage was on the campsite so we were able to move straight from the tent to the cottage. We were soon elected to the Spiritual Assembly of Cherwell which covered Kidlington to Adderbury and over to Bicester. Again we made lovely friends and were very happy there. Some of the friends on the LSA there were Peter Baldwin, Cathy Walker and Mr Varaei.

In March 2001 we made our pioneer move to Greece. I went as a self-employed person and came back to the UK a couple of times to do contract programming in the UK. I then taught English privately and in a couple of language schools. Before going to Greece, and while we were there, we spent a lot of time learning Greek.

We became part of the Patras community on the Peloponese Peninsula, Greece. The community again became our family. Our son Nicholas was able to be with the children of the other Bahá’ís. Holy days were often held high up in the mountains overlooking the city. Local Assembly meetings were often conducted in Greek, English and Persian – with some Italian thrown in. I did my first Ruhi Book 1 and a tutor training course. At that time the Bahá’ís were not sure what was meant by ‘acts of service’. It was a great pleasure to participate in a second Book 1 in Greek with a friend who was Albanian and could not speak English. As I was about to leave Greece, she was elected to the LSA and meetings then had to be primarily in Greek. It was hard to leave Greece but Leslie’s mother was not well and Nicholas needed to study in the UK.

In 2003 we returned to the UK.

Nicholas had studied for his ‘A’ levels with the help of a friend in Patras, so before we all returned to the UK, Leslie took Nicholas to the UK to take his exams. After the exams, Leslie bought a 2-berth camping caravan for the three of us to live in. It was in a campsite near Leslie’s mother, so, when I came back to the UK we lived there looking for a place to live and visiting Leslie’s mother.

We decided to move to Wales as we thought we could be useful to the Bahá’í community there and we could also be closer to Leslie’s children who lived in Hereford and Moreton-on-Lugg. Because Nicholas needed to go to college to do more ‘A’ levels we wanted to be settled there by September. Leslie and Nicholas had made several trips to Wales to find a place but when I arrived they still had not found anywhere. It was almost September and we were getting desperate, so we decided to see several houses and pick the best one out of them. We went to see a cottage in Blaenavon on a farm and the landlord said we could move in immediately if we wished. We moved there on 1 September and Nicholas enrolled in Coleg Gwent.

In 2006 (Sunday 16 July to Wednesday 26 July), just as the bombing between Israel and Lebanon was taking place, Leslie, Nicholas and I went on pilgrimage. We were not quite sure whether the pilgrimage would take place at all and our family in the UK and USA were quite worried about us going. Even when we arrived in Tel Aviv airport we were not sure whether we would be allowed to proceed to Haifa. The Universal House of Justice didn’t say we couldn’t go so we went. We had arranged to stay in one of the German Templar houses and from the balcony we could see the Shrine of the Báb. On the first day we spent a long time in the pilgrim house, some of the time on the lower floor which acted as a bomb shelter. We were told that if we were near the Shrine of the Báb and the sirens went off, we should go into the Shrine as that would act as a shelter. We still walked, probably rashly, up the many steps to the top of the hill to the pilgrim centre (not up the terraces as we were not allowed to go on the terraces during that pilgrimage). On one occasion the sirens went off so we stood in a gateway in order to shelter. A lady came out of her house opposite us and swept her yard as the sirens shrieked.

Most days the Universal House of Justice arranged for us to have a buffet dinner at the Seat, then transported us back in coaches to where we were staying. Every day was a surprise. We did not have a regular schedule. The House would consult and decide what we would be allowed to do. One of the days, members of the House did ‘home’ visits to groups of pilgrims. Those who were in larger hotels had members of the House of Justice visit them and give talks. Because we were in a small place, we were picked up by taxi (arranged for by the House of Justice) and taken to the pilgrim house along with other pilgrims staying in small places. There we sat and listened to and talked to two different House members, one after the other. When the sirens went off we moved away from the windows. The House members sat closest to the windows. We felt the love of the House of Justice throughout the whole pilgrimage and knew that they were praying for us and consulting about us regularly.

On several occasions when we were outside in the gardens, we had to go underground for shelter. Once we spent quite a long time in a small building near the entrance to the gardens. Another time we had to go back into the Archives building after exiting it, although we were taken into the basement. To travel around the gardens we went through the underground tunnels.

Almost at the end of our stay, we were told that we would be allowed to go to Bahjí. The House members had been praying that we would be allowed to go. Each different hotel or residence was assigned a different time and bus for collection. We were not supposed to tell other people where we would be going. We would be collected in the dark. When we arrived the place was in darkness except for torch lights and candles. We were guided to the Shrine of Bahá’u’lláh and allowed a half hour there, and then half an hour in the room in the Mansion where He passed away. In the shrine, Leslie had the feeling that someone came and touched him on the shoulder from behind. There was no one close enough to him to have done that. We had not even thought we would be able to go to Bahjí. We were then taken back to our residences in Haifa while other groups of pilgrims had their turn. It was a very moving experience.

Since that time, we have had to move to a house in Forgeside in Blaenavon where we were able to hold a children’s class, and finally to Abergavenny. In each case the move has seemed a miracle. Both with our move to Forgeside and to Abergavenny, the people first in line for the houses turned them down and suddenly we were top of the list. In Forgeside I had a little garden in front of the house where I planted flowers. Some children came along to watch and I invited them to a children’s class. At one point most of the young children on the street where we lived attended. Mavis Bodenham used to take two buses each way from Cwmbran to come and help me with the classes. It was a happy time but came to an end when we started getting harassed by some other children who did not attend.

And so here we are now in Abergavenny. I pray that I will find further opportunities to serve here, and that daydream that I had as a youth now seems to be a part of my life. Core activities, community development, service, reliance on the power of God – these are all activities and attitudes that are part of building a new world rather than ‘fixing’ the world we live in. I marvel that my daydream is actually a reality, although my part in transforming the world is only a little one.

_________________

Carolyn Bridgewater

Wales, June 2016 (revised February 2018)

Picture taken during Pilgrimage in 2006. Left to right: Leslie Bridgewater, Nicholas Bridgewater, Kiser Barnes (former member of Universal House of Justice) and Carolyn Bridgewater

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