I was born in South Africa and brought up in a Conservative Jewish household. Conservative Judaism is traditional but not as extreme as ultra-orthodox. As a teenager I became very interested in Comparative Religion and found that I could accept the Founders of Religion (Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, Zoroaster and Buddha) as equals. Two things puzzled me: if each religion claimed it was the only true way, which one was right or could they possibly all be right? And why had the State of Israel been established after the literal return of the Jewish people, without the appearance of the Messiah?
I studied Architecture at the University in Johannesburg and in 1956 I had to choose a project for my final thesis. The only subject that interested me was to design a house of worship for all the peoples of all religions. As there seemed no way I could do this, and as I was not interested in doing anything else, I accepted a friend’s humorous suggestion that I do a crematorium! I thought that this way at least I could design a chapel for all the faiths which would be willing to use the building. My final design was a large complex, spread out over a hillside, which included three inter-denominational chapels. Two were rectangular and one was octagonal!
Having qualified in 1957, I started work in an architect’s office, which I hated, but had to remain in, as I needed the job. In 1958 my boss had to travel to Kampala on business. On his return he mentioned that he had met two acquaintances of his (Dr and Mrs Bismillah) on the outward plane journey. When he had asked them why they were travelling to Uganda, they had informed him that they were Bahá’ís and were going to attend an Inter-continental Conference. Bahá’í, he said, was a religious movement that recognised all the Founders of religions as equal and its aims were world peace and unity through the reconciliation of religions. Just these few words excited me tremendously, as this was exactly what I had been looking for, but unfortunately there was no way I could follow it up.
By 1959 I was completely dissatisfied with my career and conditions in South Africa, so I decided to go to London, where I managed to find temporary work. Still being a seeker, I went one Saturday to Caxton Hall to attend a day seminar on Yoga. I later found out that Caxton Hall is associated with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s visit to London. During the lunch hour I had to share a table with a lady, Phyl Lyon, who mentioned that she was a Bahá’í. Imagine her surprise when I told her that I had been looking for a Bahá’í! She was a Canadian, who was in London just for the weekend en route to Haifa. When she had seen the Yoga meetings advertised, she had told the friends she was staying with that she would go, as that was the place to find a true seeker. She also prayed very hard that someone would be led to her. That afternoon she introduced me to a London Bahá’í (Bobbie Leedham McClaren), at whose home I started to attend regular firesides.
The year 1960 marked a turning point in my life. I changed my nationality and my profession in becoming a British school-teacher and accepting the Bahá’í Faith. At my second visit and first talk at the London Bahá’í Centre, I met Marion, the young lady I was to marry three years later.
In 1961 I pioneered to Canterbury to help form the first Spiritual Assembly of that important cathedral city, which was a Bahá’í goal.
In 1963, having attended the opening sessions of the Bahá’í World Congress at the Royal Albert Hall, Bobbie, the London friend who had taught me the Faith, invited Marion and me back to her home to meet friends from various countries overseas. Imagine my joy when I was introduced to Dr. and Mrs Bismillah and I was able to explain to them that I was there only because of a few “seeds” they had scattered on a plane five years earlier.
An even greater surprise awaited me later that same year when Marion and I returned to South Africa on holiday so that she could meet my family. We contacted the Johannesburg Bahá’ís, who took us to see their Temple Land. Once again I stood on the same hillside I had chosen seven years before to be the site of my Chapel for all Religions!
In 1955 I was a member of a social club in London. On becoming Social Secretary of that club, I started writing to an ex-member who had emigrated to Canada and subsequently crossed the border into the United States. During the course of his letters he mentioned “taking lessons on the Bahá’í Faith” but did not go into it very deeply.
The following July I made a visit to the USA, and during that time stayed with his sister and brother-in-law. At the previous Ridván – only two months before – my pen-pal Jack, his sister and brother-in-law with whom I was staying, and another sister and her husband, had all become Bahá’ís and were absolutely full of their new-found Faith. During the seven weeks I was there I went to numerous Bahá’í gatherings. The thing that really appealed to me was the different groups of people I met, white, black, Christians, Jews, and all the numerous ethnic groups that one finds in the United States, all within the Faith.
On returning to London, I started going to meetings at the London Bahá’í Centre (27 Rutland Gate) where I made many friends, and went to such events as weekend schools. I did not become a Bahá’í until 1963, just prior to getting married to Arthur. I ‘declared’ in April 1963 and at that time, because of the Bahá’í World Congress, nobody was allowed into the Bahá’í Centre at Rutland Gate. However, I had to go to get my credentials so that I could attend the Congress in the Royal Albert Hall. On the evening I went there the atmosphere in Rutland Gate was incredible and, on commenting on this to the person who had opened the door to me, I was told that the Universal House of Justice had just had their meeting there to send their first message to the Bahá’í world. Just at that moment all the members of the House of Justice came down the stairs and I was greeted by each one in turn – quite a beginning to becoming a Bahá’í!
(Arthur continues their story)
Marion was born in a hospital in the East End of London in 1931, making her a true Cockney. She grew up in Tottenham, north London. Her grandparents were Jewish immigrants from Lithuania, who had left to escape persecution. Her maternal grandfather also had some Polish connection as his name Lissack is Polish. In all her life she only ever lived in two houses – in London for 32 years from her birth to her leaving to move to Canterbury after we were married and then in the same house in Canterbury for the next 50 years until she had to go into a nursing home for the last few years of her life.
All four of my grandparents were also Jewish immigrants from Lithuania, but they settled in Johannesburg, South Africa round about the turn of the Century (1900). I grew up in Johannesburg and at quite an early age was appalled by the injustice of Apartheid, which was one of the reasons I eventually left South Africa for England in 1959.
Marion and I had very much in common, besides our backgrounds. Neither of our families were particularly religious. They kept the Jewish dietary laws at home, but very seldom attended services at the synagogue. We both grew up happily mixing with people from other religious backgrounds and traditions and the Bahá’í principle of “the Oneness of Mankind” was something that attracted both of us to the Faith. Another thing we had in common was that we were both midsummer babies, Marion having been born on the 22nd June in the northern hemisphere and I on the 21st December in the Southern Hemisphere. We both loved warm sunny days and our holidays were always planned to make the most of these. Our favourite country was probably Italy which we visited at least three times.
We were married in July 1963, exactly three months after the first Bahá’í World Congress in London, which we were both able to attend. Ours was the first Bahá’í marriage in Kent and this was reported in the Kentish Gazette, the local weekly newspaper. Over the next few years, further Bahá’í weddings took place in Kent, but always with a representative from Canterbury officiating, as that city had the only Spiritual Assembly in the area, the nearest other Assemblies being London, 60 miles away and Brighton, 90 miles away.
In July 1964 our first son Tim was born, and our second son Rob in October 1965. Over the years they have brought us great joy and I shall always be grateful for the sacrifices they made to be with me and give their support throughout the last years of Marion’s life.
The Spiritual Assembly of Canterbury, first formed in 1961, operated until 2001, when boundary changes removed Whitstable and Herne Bay from the area of jurisdiction and members of the community living there were no longer eligible for election to the Assembly. I was secretary of the Assembly for all 40 years of its existence and Marion was treasurer for 37 years following her being elected to the Assembly in 1964. Being the only Bahá’í community in South East Kent meant that any seeker interested in the Faith had to investigate it through Canterbury and declare his or her faith there. They included the first Bahá’ís of Margate, Folkestone, Maidstone, Whitstable, Faversham and Sandwich.
In the late 1970s long before the Institute Process was adopted, there was little provision for the Bahá’í education of children, so the National Spiritual Assembly set up an Education Committee, which led to the founding of the regional Thomas Breakwell Schools, holding classes every Sunday. I was appointed to create the “In home Study Programme”, a correspondence course sent out every three months to all Bahá’í families with children throughout the UK and also used in the Breakwell Schools. At first many people contributed stories and lessons to the programme, notably Marion Prentice, who wrote a series of charming animal stories with a moral lesson, and Mary Nakhjavani, who provided beautiful illustrations for some of the lessons, showing a very mature talent for a young girl. The Study Programme continued for five years and in the latter period I was joined by Erica Leith who became co-editor, and together we wrote most of the material. It was during this time that I wrote my first children’s novel, The Refuge and the Cave, which was later turned into a ballet by a Danish choreographer and performed for members of the United Nations Second World Conference on the Environment in Copenhagen in 1995. A few years later, I wrote the sequel The City and the Heart.
I also served as an assistant to the Auxiliary Board members, first to Mary Kouchekzadeh, then Pari Firouzmand and finally Mike Gammage. My wife Marion also became an assistant to Mike Gammage after she had served for several years on the Regional Teaching Committee.
In 1987, Marion and I went on our first pilgrimage to Haifa, which coincided with our 24th wedding anniversary, and we spent that memorable day at Bahjí with Ray and Mahin Humphrey, who were the custodians there for Abdu’l-Bahá’s Tea House. They arranged a luncheon party for us and the other two invited guests were Paul Booth and Brian O’Toole, who were the first Bahá’ís respectively of Margate and Maidstone, having declared in Canterbury. Both were then Auxiliary Board members. I was fortunate to be able to visit Haifa four times after this, on two full pilgrimages, a three-day visit and the wonderful experience of being at the Opening of the Terraces, as one of the nineteen representatives of the UK.
While on my second pilgrimage, I was invited by some friends who served there to lunch at their flat. One of the other guests was House of Justice member Kiser Barnes. After lunch he especially came over to sit with me and to tell me how much he liked my book The Refuge and the Cave. I was very moved by this kind gesture.
Another highlight Marion and I shared was attending the Second Bahá’í World Congress in New York in 1992. We were both very moved by that wonderful occasion and felt very privileged to have been able to be at both of the World Congresses.
Over many years we have had the privilege of being able to see and hear several Hands of the Cause, such as Rúhíyyih Khánum, William Sears and Mr Samandari when they spoke at the first World Congress held in London. Others we met during the evening meetings on pilgrimages or on visits to London. John Ferraby actually came down to Canterbury to address a public meeting, but I had personal closer encounters on three occasions. The first was when I was a very new Bahá’í in London. As an impoverished teacher I had just arrived home from work. It was early afternoon and I had a telephone call asking me if I could go to the Heathrow terminus to meet and welcome Mr Furútan, who was due to arrive, and to accompany him to 27 Rutland Gate. The National Office had tried various people and I was the only one who was at home and available. At that time all passengers from Heathrow airport were brought into London by coach to the Victoria Coach Station, so I made my way down there and met Mr Furútan’s daughter, Parvin who was already waiting there to meet him. I did not know her, but we recognised each other as Bahá’ís and I explained why I was there. I also said that once Mr Furútan arrived, we could get the bus which stopped very nearby. She told me in very definite terms that they would not be standing around waiting at a bus stop and that I needed to find a taxi. In due course Mr Furútan arrived and we took a taxi back to Rutland Gate. He was very friendly and chatted to me and showed great interest in how I had met and accepted the Faith, but I was very anxious and on edge as I was convinced I would not have enough money on me to pay for the taxi. Luckily, on arrival, I found that I did have enough and the National Office later reimbursed me. My only regret now is that I couldn’t relax and enjoy that special occasion at the time.
Parvin and I later became great friends when we both moved down to Canterbury in 1961 to help form and serve on the first Spiritual Assembly. Shortly after the encounter with Mr Furútan, I discovered that Hands of the Cause did travel on buses. I was living in Golders Green and was taking the bus into the centre of London one afternoon. As I got on, I noticed Mr Balyuzi sitting on his own downstairs. I had met him on a few occasions at the National Centre so I walked over and asked him if he minded me joining him. We had a very pleasant ride into London, he was very easy to chat to and most interesting. I cherish a book he signed for me on one occasion at the Bahá’í Centre.
My third encounter with a Hand of the Cause was at the Landegg Academy in Switzerland. I was there lecturing on a course about children’s literature. The other course running at the same time was on the subject of Huququ’llah, led by Dr Varqa. Everyone was very respectful of him and treated him reverentially. They would stand up whenever he entered a room and not sit down until he had, but no one ever sat with him or talked to him and even at meal times very often the chairs on each side of him were left empty. I thought that wasn’t right so I made a point of going to sit next to him both at the table and in the lounge. I hoped I wasn’t being presumptuous, but I thought he might welcome some company rather than be left on his own and almost ignored. We got on very well and I was very happy to see him again when on my second pilgrimage he was seated in the doorway of his office watching the pilgrims entering the Seat of the House of Justice. I feel very pleased and humbled to have had the opportunity to have known these three great men.
Marion became unwell in 2008 and passed away in 2018 after a slow and prolonged illness. I remain here in Canterbury, my pioneer post for nearly 60 years, and look forward to the day when once again the city will become a dynamic centre of the Faith in this area.
(first written in 1991 / revised January 2020)