The year 1968 was marked by widespread unrest, riots in major cities across Europe and America, and a generalised dissatisfaction with the way things were done and yearning for something better. My own revolutionary act that disturbed summer was to enrol formally in the Bahá’í Faith, a step I had been working towards for some time. I had a vague understanding this would change my life. I did not know I was (it seems) entering history, albeit in a very minor role: the first person in the county of Midlothian outside Edinburgh to become a Bahá’í.
But to begin at the beginning. I was born in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1949 and attended school and university there. Although my family moved out into the countryside of the surrounding county of Midlothian while I was young, and it would be years before I moved back in to live, I have always regarded myself as a son of that ancient, grey, cold, magnificent, and cultured city.
My parents were not particularly religious (my father lost any faith in organised religion as a result of his experiences in the Second World War) but convention demanded I be brought up in “the Kirk”, the Church of Scotland, the church (Presbyterian in doctrine and organisation) of the majority of Scots. Religion was never a challenge to me. I attended Sunday School and church and went through a somewhat evangelical phase, but there was always a question at the back of my mind: what about everyone else? Were all non-Christians, even all non-Presbyterians, wrong or worse? That didn’t seem right.
This question became more acute when I started to attend medical school. Here for the first time I was encountering people from truly diverse religious backgrounds who were trying to live up to the standards I had been taught. The answer came from an unexpected source. I had become involved with the Esperanto Movement and was reading a biography of Dr Zamenhof, who developed the ‘internacia lingvo’, which devoted a short section at the end to his daughter Lidja (Lidia). It spoke of how she had taken her father’s commitment to bringing people together to a whole new level by becoming a Bahá’í, and what the Faith taught.
It was clear to me that the Bahá’í Faith answered a basic issue for me: each religion was limited in its outlook but changing one’s faith did not overcome that, not least because it meant denying the truth of one’s previous beliefs. Here, though, was a faith that taught that you could move on without denying what you had been brought up with, rather that you would be building on it and taking it to its natural next stage. That was the spur for me to study the Faith more and to decide in my heart that I wanted to do this long before I met any other Bahá’ís. Eventually I did make contact with the Edinburgh community and enrol in the Faith in that fateful year of 1968. I was then fortunate in that Lameh Fananapazir came to study medicine in Edinburgh and through close contact and shared accommodation I became deepened in the Faith and fired with zeal for it in a way that reading books cannot accomplish. While in Edinburgh, first as a medical student and then as a junior hospital doctor I served on the Spiritual Assembly (and as its secretary) though even before turning 21 I had a suitable job for a book-lover, as the community’s librarian and book sales person.
In 1973 two important things happened: I qualified as a doctor, and my longtime girlfriend Elizabeth and I were married. As befits two people who love books, we met in the Edinburgh University Library when I had a summer job there and Elizabeth was a member of staff. Now in 2019 we are still married, forty-six years, four children, and five grandchildren later.
We moved to Inverness in 1975 when I took up a new hospital post, and a high spot of our stay was when Elizabeth declared as a Bahá’í. We both served on the Spiritual Assembly there, I was Chairman and Elizabeth became Treasurer. At this time I was also serving on (and Chairman of) the National Teaching Committee. In 1977 we moved again to Northern Ireland where, after a short time in a hospital post, I became a rather busy doctor in Derry (Londonderry) – family doctor, medical officer to a children’s home, part-time medical officer to a geriatric hospital, and part-time forensic medical officer. All at the same time. Work was demanding in terms of time and emotional energy, but it was fulfilling. This was the height of the “Troubles”, so it was also sometimes risky and especially challenging. I was close to several bomb explosions or other terrorist acts. In one case my life was spared by the narrowest of margins when a murder I had been called to turned out to be a setup for a worse outrage and a bomb exploded at the scene minutes after I had left, killing the police officers I had been speaking to.
In January 1980 I was elected to the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United Kingdom, to fill a vacancy created by the appointment of Keith Munro as Auxiliary Board member. Keith and I are friends from the same community and worked in the same medical practice, which caused some amused comment. I served for a quarter-century, finally in 2005 asking the Assembly to relieve me of membership as the time and travel involved in attending meetings and in other work were causing increasing issues for both my health and my work. I was Vice-Chairman of the NSA for eleven of those years. In my time on the National Spiritual Assembly I had the bounty of serving with a number of devoted souls including some whom I regard as giants of the Faith, most notably Philip Hainsworth, and of working and consulting with others.
Membership also brought the privilege of travelling and meeting Bahá’í friends from other countries, and of working for the Faith in a unique manner. I also came to appreciate the role of the spouses of NSA members in making such service possible. I know that without Elizabeth’s sustained support, and her acceptance of my frequent absences that left her with a growing family to cope with, it would have been very difficult. That is why when, as happened sometimes at National Convention, Assembly members were asked to share their hopes for the year ahead, I asked the Friends to particularly remember the spouses and families of the National Assembly members in their prayers.
Members of National Spiritual Assemblies have the unique bounty of attending International Convention, which is held in Haifa every five years and brings together members of National Assemblies from all over the world to elect the Universal House of Justice and to review the progress of the Faith. There is no other Bahá’í experience like this, visiting the Shrines and celebrating holy days in such company and gaining a truly unique vision of our Faith and its worldwide community.
Looking back on my life as a Bahá’í I am struck by the number and range of wonderful people I have interacted with and the range of experiences I have had, from visiting the World Centre of our Faith for pilgrimages and International Conventions, to travel-teaching in poor villages in Jamaica, watching the sun rise over the Mother Temple of Europe, speaking at a winter school deep in the birch forests of Finland, celebrating the Bicentenary of the Birth of Bahá’u’lláh in a sizeable Bahá’í Centre in the mountains of northern Thailand, and speaking of the Faith to two Israeli tourists in a small town deep in Ukraine. Such experiences drive home that we are indeed one world and one community.
The historic city of Derry, with its history of Christianity and of conflicts going back almost a millennium and a half, has blossomed since the official end of the “Troubles”. We love it, its area, and its people and even though I am now retired we remain happily settled here, serving on its Spiritual Assembly, confident that one day it will fulfil its new spiritual destiny worthy of its past.
Iain S. Palin
Londonderry, July 2019 CE