I was sitting in my parents-in-law’s sitting room sometime in the summer of 1975 when I first heard the name ‘Bahá’í’ but it took me until 1989 to declare. I remember the date because it was the year our first daughter was born. My parents-in-law had been to the Holy Land and had brought some water from the River Jordan back with them for us to use at our daughter’s christening. My mother-in-law was showing me photographs of their trip and I distinctly remember her showing me one of the Shrine of the Báb and telling me that it was the Bahá’í Temple (sic), and that one of my husband’s cousins in New Zealand was a Bahá’í. For some reason the name stuck in my mind.
I was one of that lucky generation born just after the war with all the material advantages that seemed to bring. I was also born on the 25th anniversary of the Ascension of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá although it was a long time before I was to know that. I was born three weeks prematurely by emergency caesarean section. Later, my father was fond of telling me I was ‘plucked untimely from the womb’. I was kept in hospital for several weeks until I was deemed of sufficient weight and discharged to live with my parents in a flat over my grandmother’s sweetshop and tobacconists in Penarth, South Wales. The winter of 1947 was exceptionally cold and as a child I was prone to catching anything that was going round, including whooping cough when I was 18 months old and also getting high temperatures for no apparent reason. With hindsight I must have been a worry to my parents.
Both my parents had degrees and had met at Leicester University where my dad was in his final year as an honours student and my mum was doing a certificate in education. By the time they graduated it was obvious that war was on the horizon so my dad applied to become a weather forecaster as he felt he was less likely to be called up and put in a position of killing other people. Once the war started, weather forecasters became part of the RAF and he was stationed at various bases around the UK. My mother had found that the only job available to a woman with a biology degree at that time was teaching, which she hated. She always told me never to go into teaching unless I really wanted to. My parents got married in 1942 but for most of the time mum lived over the shop with Gran while dad lived on air bases. Once he was demobbed he decided with my mum’s encouragement, to do a PhD at Cardiff University. Living over the shop with Gran must have helped keep expenses down.
When my dad finished his PhD he was granted a special scholarship to spend a year at Cambridge. My brother was born in September 1949 and dad must have gone to Cambridge soon afterwards. We continued to live over the shop so it must have been a difficult time for my mother and me although, if it was, I don’t remember.
In 1950 Dad got his first job in the Fisheries Research Lab at Conwy. By then I was four and my brother was one. I clearly remember getting off the train at Llandudno Junction station and travelling in a taxi over the old suspension bridge and then right round the edge of the Castle which towered up high above the road. I was very lucky to grow up in such a beautiful part of the world.
My parents were both scientists and agnostics, they felt that since science couldn’t possibly determine whether there was a God or not this was the only logical position. My mother had gone to church when she was younger but had stopped during the war, when the vicar prayed for ‘the enemy to be ground into dust’. She didn’t think this was very Christian. My parents were both quite anti religion but used the Church of England for christenings, weddings and funerals, as that was the ‘right’ thing to do.
When I was eight years old I was sent, as a day pupil, to a Church of England school in Llanfairfechan. It had a beautiful chapel designed by a local arts and crafts architect and every morning started with a service in the chapel. The other religious influence on my early life was the weekly comic ‘Girl’ (and my brother’s ‘Eagle’). Although ‘Girl’ was not overtly religious, the editor was a vicar and the back page always carried a biography of a famous woman. A high proportion of these were saints or missionaries. I rather shocked my parents when I went through a phase of wanting to be a missionary but with hindsight, I think I really wanted to be an explorer!
For much of my teenage years I would oscillate between belief and disbelief until at some point, I think towards the end of my time at university I felt it was time to decide one way or the other and decided I was an atheist. I still retained a passive interest in religion though. I know I bought copies of the Baghavad Gita and the Koran and read them both. I was interested in what might be called spiritual practices and yoga and was introduced to Transcendental Meditation by my brother.
I had followed in my parents’ footsteps and studied sciences at the local grammar school in Llandudno for A level and then gone to Bristol University to study Physics and Maths in 1964. There I met John Doughty, who was also studying Physics. We started dating in our second year. By the time we graduated in 1967 we knew we wanted to stay together so looked for jobs either in Bristol or the London area. I ended up working at the Road Research Laboratory in Crowthorne and John got a job with Bristol Siddeley (soon after to become Rolls Royce) in Leavesden, near Watford. We got married in 1969 and initially lived in a new town commission flat in Bracknell which was close to my job but a long commute for John. We had to decide whether to look for somewhere to live in the middle or for one of us to change jobs. ‘The middle’ was the Windsor area which was a little out of our price range. In the end we bought a house in Hemel Hempstead and I left the Road Research Laboratory and got a job working for Shell-Mex and BP as a computer programmer.
I suspect an important part of my spiritual journey was the death of our first baby. We had a little boy named David in early January 1974 and he died a few weeks later of Cot Death on March 1st (St. David’s Day). We were visiting John’s parents in Orpington at the time and I can remember going for a walk with John and sitting outside the local church that his parents attended and feeling some comfort while at the same time feeling this proved there couldn’t be a God. At the same time I imagined David up in heaven with John’s Nana who had died a few months previously, or alternatively that he had been especially chosen by St. David. I decided I would never name a child after a saint again! I suspect that this experience led me to question what life was about – all his material possessions, his clothes etc were still there but something very important was missing. I know I eventually came to believe in some sort of life force, whatever that is. Although this felt like a tragedy at the time, it was not long before I was pregnant with our first daughter, Elizabeth, who was born in May 1975 and she was followed by Anna in August 1977.
We had not been going to have David christened but changed our minds for the girls. This is how I can date the first time I knowingly heard of the Bahá’í Faith. John’s parents had brought back a small vial of water from the River Jordan to use for Elizabeth’s christening, so it must have been some time between May and September 1975. For some reason the name Bahá’í stuck in my mind even though I didn’t think much more about it or follow it up in any way. At some point over the next few years I came across the Bahá’í Faith twice more. There was a short piece in a women’s magazine, possibly Women’s Weekly, and someone spoke about the Faith on BBC Woman’s Hour and I remember agreeing with all the principles. I already believed that if there was a God, all the religions believed in the same one. The equality of men and women and harmony of science and religion also appealed. At the time I still didn’t believe in God but thought that the founders of all the religions were great men with good ideas. I thought, for instance, that if all the people who called themselves Christians actually followed the teachings of Christ the world would be a much better place. I saw Bahá’u’lláh as being in the same category.
I know that by the time we moved to North Wales I had come to believe that there was something more, such as a life force or great spirit. I would say that by then I was actively seeking. The school my two daughters went to was exceptionally small and the only other girl in the same year as my younger daughter was the daughter of the local vicar. I started to develop a friendship with her mother and when the vicar decided to hold a family service, we all went. I think our two girls and the vicar’s two children were the only children there! I can’t remember the exact sequence of events but various things kept happening that brought me steadily closer to the
Bahá’í Faith. I started going to Welsh classes in Llanrwst and in our second year we were joined by some extra people, one of whom was Joan Birch who happened to let it drop occasionally that she was a Bahá’í. We were to be in the same class for two years.
I kept coming across the name ‘Bahá’í’. I spent quite a bit of time in the local library, mainly browsing non-fiction books, including the religion and philosophy sections. I noticed there were Bahá’í books there but didn’t quite get round to taking one out at that stage. I saw an article in the local newspaper featuring a local Bahá’í whose relatives were being persecuted in Iran and there was an advert for a talk on World Peace organised by the Bahá’ís that I nearly went to but didn’t! It appears no other members of the public went to the talk either but maybe these proclamation events aren’t entirely wasted as I think of all these times I heard, or saw, things were like water dripping on a stone.
Anyway, one day in late winter/early spring 1989 I was sitting in the library staring at the religious section and on an impulse I pulled out a small book entitled The Bahá’í Faith by Gloria Faizi. I went home and sat on a small stool in front of the stove in the kitchen and started reading. I am a quick reader and I soon got to the part describing the Declaration of the Báb. Although that memory is etched in my brain, I can’t remember what I thought but somehow I just knew it was true. It was wonderful and I felt flooded by light. In my heart that was when I became a Bahá’í.
At my very next Welsh class I sidled up to Joan and asked if I could borrow a Bahá’í book. Looking back, I sometimes wonder what she thought! At the following class she brought John Huddleston’s book The Earth is but One Country which was exactly the right book for me at that time. Then followed several weeks of regular visits to Joan where I would borrow more books and return the ones from the previous week. I must have practically devoured them because I would take three or four each time and read them during the week. I must have read about the Fast because by the time March came along, I had a bit of a dilemma. I thought if I told my family I was thinking of joining a religion they’d never heard of and that I was going to fast for 19 days, they would think I had gone mad so I compromised by not eating after breakfast until the time the family came home from school. My parents came to stay one weekend during the Fast and I cooked a roast dinner and served a good red wine with it, thinking it would be my last chance to do this. I didn’t really enjoy the wine at all and haven’t missed it since.
I became a Bahá’í in May 1989 and I think I became the 10th member of the community of Aberconwy in North Wales. One of the members was in a local hospital suffering from severe dementia so it wasn’t long before I became a member of our Spiritual Assembly.
I was soon tested. When things reached a crunch point with my mental health, I decided maybe I needed to get help. I was trying to decide whether to pick up the phone or not, so I said the Tablet of Ahmad and immediately felt a lot worse! This led me to take the next step, however – which proved to be the right thing.
I was already in touch with a therapist, Ian. The community Mental Health team had just been formed and Ian was in charge of the nursing side. As well as being a community psychiatric nurse he was a qualified psychotherapist. As I already knew Ian I asked to speak to him and then he became my therapist too. He diagnosed depression and we started therapy sessions loosely based on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. I also started going to a women’s group at our local Mind centre. Over time I got steadily worse rather than better. I was referred to a young forward-thinking psychiatrist who prescribed anti-depressants. These weren’t at all effective and eventually in the summer I was admitted to the psychiatric ward in Ysbyty Gwynedd where I was an inpatient for 10 weeks. Once I was discharged, I started going to more groups at the local Mind centre. It had been totally run by volunteers until funding was obtained from the then Welsh Office for a full-time coordinator. She encouraged me to become a volunteer. Once a week there was a volunteer group for mutual support and ongoing training. She also started a user group, where service users would come together to talk about their experience of using mental health services. From being a volunteer I became a user representative on the local multi agency mental health planning group and later on the county planning group. I was also a founder member of the Gwynedd Mental Health Forum. During this time I gained a lot of confidence and went from someone who would sit quietly through women’s institute committee meetings to being able to be quite vocal.
One reason I’ve gone into this in some detail is because I had so much ‘luck’ in the care I received, I wondered if it was a coincidence or not. Ian, the therapist I saw, was new in post and after a couple of years was promoted to a management role where he wasn’t allowed to practise any more. When I was admitted to hospital the first time rather than going to the local ‘loony bin’ – the dreaded Denbigh hospital – I was admitted to a ward in the local general hospital so there was a lot less stigma involved. The wards also had beautiful views of the mountains. Not long after that, the beds were moved to Denbigh. Eventually I did go into Denbigh hospital for two weeks just when I was thinking maybe I couldn’t be a genuine ‘user rep’ if I hadn’t been a patient in there! I noticed that my depression got better over the summer and would worsen over the winter and be at its worst by January / February time. I diagnosed myself with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Again by ‘coincidence’ a psychiatrist who suffered from SAD himself set up an SAD clinic in the local hospital and I had an appointment with him. He lent me a light box and after using it for about four days I started to feel like my ‘summer self’. Again this psychiatrist moved away not long afterwards and nobody else was willing to take the clinic on. Just about every service I used seemed to be available only around the time I needed it. The end result was that I developed confidence, a better sense of self-worth, and skills such as training, public speaking and administration that I have been able to use to serve the faith since.
Once I had declared as a Bahá’í I was, of course, invited to Nineteen Day Feasts. My first experiences of feasts must have been quite unusual. These were normally held at the home of Ada Williams in Deganwy. Ada had two sisters, her older sister Alice, who was a Bahá’í, and a younger Hilda, who wasn’t. They were both invalids, Alice was blind and Hilda had a health condition of some sort. Although Ada herself was in her late 80s when I first knew her, she looked after both sisters, kept the house and garden immaculate and also baked small cakes for our feasts! The feasts were usually held in the evening around the time when Hilda was watching ‘Coronation Street’ in the living room so the devotional and administrative parts were held in Ada’s tiny bedroom where there was just one wooden chair and the bed to sit on. Luckily the feasts were small – just myself, Joan Birch, Ruhi Behi and Ada! For the social element we then joined Hilda in the living room to enjoy tea, cake and biscuits. Alice wasn’t able to join us as she was in bed. Other stalwart members of the community were Bill, Gwen and Mary Prince. They were all invalids though and not able to come to the feasts.
After local government reorganisation in 1996, the districts of Aberconwy and Colwyn were abolished and the area became the County of Conwy. Our Bahá’í localities followed suit, so now instead of being two smallish communities of around nine each, we doubled in size overnight. By this time Bill Prince had died and Gwen and Mary had moved to a bungalow in Penrhyn Bay and our feasts were held there. In our small Aberconwy community there had been very little LSA business and everyone at the feast had been on the LSA anyway, so we had held meetings straight after the feasts. With the new larger community, we now had separate LSA meetings and the LSA had a community to administer.
After Gwen and Mary moved to a retirement home we started to hire a room for feasts. Following a further reorganisation though, most of us became isolated believers, although the Bay of Colwyn had enough people to continue with a Spiritual Assembly for a couple of years. We still organise ourselves on a county basis and hold unity feasts. Although the size of the community has dwindled with a mixture of people passing to the Abhá Kingdom, moving out or withdrawing, the number of people attending feasts has stayed pretty constant. Before the pandemic, we had started holding feasts in a local retreat centre run by Catholic nuns where we continue to be made very welcome and can hire a very comfortable room for £2.00 a head. The Zoom online video conferencing service was a godsend though and helped keep us together through the Covid pandemic and beyond.
When I became a Bahá’í I was a full time mother. We were quite hard up and I had no money of my own so didn’t give to the fund. Eventually when the fund box was brought out I started looking in my purse and, depending on how much change I had in my purse I would put a few coins in the box. Soon after that I became a volunteer at Mind and discovered that I could claim around 20p a mile for my 20-mile round trip into the centre so I had money of my own and could give more to the fund. Next, I became the leader of a session and was paid £10 a week for that so I gave more money to the fund! This pattern seemed to continue for quite some time until I eventually got a paid job which meant doing many of the things I’d already been doing but now representing the mental health voluntary sector and being paid for it!
I have been on pilgrimage twice, the first time in November 2003 with Joan Birch and the second in 2014 with my husband. Each time the experience was quite different. The first time I had unrealistic expectations and was still hoping for what I call ‘the magic wand effect’ where I would be magically lifted into a spiritual world! I was eagerly looking forward to a glimpse of the Shrine of the Báb on the way to our hotel (Beth Shalom) but I didn’t get one! The next day, which was the day before pilgrimage started, Joan and I walked to the top of the terraces and when I saw the Shrine I thought ‘oh it looks just like it does in the pictures’ but no magical moment at all! We had been waiting seven years to go so I suppose I’d had plenty of time to dream about it, having seen many pictures.
Our first visits to the Shrines were with the whole group so as you can imagine they were quite crowded. When we went into the Shrine of Bahá’u’lláh we were packed in like sardines, there were some people in tears and I felt nothing at all apart from an urge to get out! It was a great test of my faith. I was wondering if I’d be the only person to go on pilgrimage and return without my faith. I found a quiet place to sit and say Allah’u’Abhas and gradually I felt better. I was very aware of how perfunctory my every day spiritual practice could be, particularly when I was rushing to go out to work in the morning. The next day I visited the Shrine of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and I found myself in floods of tears. My mother had died the previous March and I had tended to be ‘brave’ for my dad and hadn’t let myself grieve properly. That evening a talk from one of the Counsellors said how coming on pilgrimage could be a time of calling oneself to account which was a good description of my feelings. The next time I went to the Shrine of Bahá’u’lláh was quite different. Sitting in the antechamber to the Shrine I felt a deep sense of peace and of being at home.
In the evening we went to most of the talks which were just upstairs in the pilgrim centre. Two that stand out are one on the Day of the Covenant, when Kiser Barnes, who was a member of the Universal House of Justice at that time, told us, with some excitement, that the House had just written a special message to the Baha’is of Iran. At the end he said “I will now have to go and study the letter”. That really showed that the individual members of the House and the House itself are two quite separate things.
The second talk was the last one ever given by Hand of the Cause Mr Furútan. I don’t remember much of what he said now, other than that it was inspiring and uplifting. He had said at his previous talk that his doctor had told him not to do it any more but that his love for the pilgrims was such that he ignored that advice. He invited a young child to join him on the stage to say an opening prayer with him, and his love for children was obvious. After the talk he came down and talked to a group of Russian pilgrims quite near to where Joan and I were sitting. Soon after that we decided to dash out to get transport back to our hotel before the rush started. The next morning we heard Mr. Furutan had passed away just as he was leaving the room. Of course it was sad but it must have been a good way to go. The programme for the next couple of days was then a bit uncertain until arrangements for his funeral had been made. It was decided that as he loved the pilgrims so, our group were to be invited to the funeral. The service took place in the House of Abdu’l Baha and Joan and I managed to get seats in a room off the main hall where we could see everyone coming in. Many people had to stand outside. Afterwards we were taken on coaches to the Baha’i Cemetery where the prayer for the departed was recited.
It was quite special to be there for the anniversary of the Ascension of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá too, when we circumambulated His shrine and then went and stood on the steps of the Seat of the Universal House of Justice for prayers.
The second time I went on pilgrimage, I was accompanied by my husband, who is not a Baha’i. I didn’t experience the same turmoil. It felt like coming home. I made a couple of mistakes on the first morning. I decided rather than catch the bus that went from outside our hotel, it would be fun to walk down to registration using the stepped paths that go down the mountain. It was a few days before my legs forgave me! I also knew exactly where to go to register this time so confidently went to the pilgrim house we had used before. I was puzzled at not being able to get in until I read our instructions properly! We had to walk up the hill to the Eastern pilgrim house and register there. What had been the ‘new’ pilgrim house was now being used for staff. This time the Eastern pilgrim house was used as our group’s base and it was wonderful being so close to the Shrine of the Báb. I didn’t feel able to spend as much time as I would have liked in the Shrines as I worried that John might be getting bored but every evening I rushed back to him and he was fine. He enjoyed being in Israel and he visited Jerusalem on the day I visited the archives building. There had been other changes since my previous visit too. The House of Udi Khammar had been renovated and was open to pilgrims, and quite a bit of work had been done in the Garden of Ridván. It was now an island again and the pump that was used to pump the waters had been restored, but without the donkey that would have been used originally. We were also able to spend some time exploring Akka, which had been off limits on my previous visit.
I would love to go again once the new Shrine of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá is completed but don’t know if my health will allow for it.
Wales is a small country with a relatively small number of believers which means that there are more opportunities for service. I have had the bounty of serving on both the Training Institute for Wales and the Bahá’í Council for Wales. My time on the Training Institute coincided with the initial roll-out of the Ruhi Institute. It’s interesting to look back on our lack of understanding of the depth of the early courses and also the hostility to Ruhi in some parts of the community. Now we can see the transformation of the community as a result and how we have become much more outward-looking. Unfortunately though, our local community is ageing and hasn’t really grown in the way I would have hoped. When I became a Bahá’í in my early 40s a friend jokingly referred to me as the ‘youth’ of the Bahá’í community. There were a number of elderly Bahá’ís who have since passed on and now the rest of us are the elderly Bahá’ís but, I think, are more active in our old age.
The pandemic proved to be an opportunity for us as we embraced the use of Zoom. Our local feasts kept going with higher attendance as people could join from their own home. I have always wanted to host a local devotional and have had several attempts in my house. However we live up a single track road and are fairly isolated, and people who aren’t used to narrow lanes are rather intimidated by the road. Zoom was a good opportunity to try again, initially with two Bahá’ís and one friend and now three Bahá’ís and two friends. Originally I prepared elaborate programmes with slides and music but the devotional has developed now to a point where participants bring their own readings to share. It is still going strong.
Our board member Rachel Murray then got a group of tutors together across the North Wales cluster to study the revised Ruhi Book 1 and later Book 2. We have always been quite a close, loving community in North Wales in spite of being thinly spread over a wide area but these weekly Zoom sessions brought us even closer together. We also have a North Wales WhatsApp group.
In the spring of 2022 I attended the wonderful Building Vibrant Communities conference in Sophia Gardens, Cardiff, over the Easter Weekend. We stayed in a hotel with a lovely view over Bute Park where all the early flowering trees were at their best and we walked through the park to the conference every morning. It all made for a very friendly, inspiring and uplifting conference. Only six people from North Wales, four Bahá’ís and two spouses, had been able to attend, so when we got home we really wanted to take the experience to the rest of the friends in the north. It was a lot of hard work but we did hold our own satellite conference in Llanfairfechan in early June. Just over 40 people came and two thirds of them were friends of the Faith. Everybody who came had a really good time and enjoyed the atmosphere.
As I have got older my health has worsened. Although I didn’t know it, I have had mild fibromyalgia for many years, probably since my children were little. This has helped me make sense of all the events I went to in the past where I rarely managed the evening sessions. When I was about 70 everything got harder and I was diagnosed with polymyalgia rheumatica as well. The two conditions together wiped me out which made travelling to meetings even harder. I don’t travel by myself any more and I now make use of a wheelchair when needed. Luckily my husband is very fit and strong for his age, so he is happy to push me. He enjoys coming to Bahá’í events if the venue is in an area where he can find places to explore. Unlike fibromyalgia, polymyalgia is a time- limited condition which goes away eventually and I am quite a bit stronger now than I was when at my worst. I enjoy spending time on my computer so am able to serve the Faith through taking on various administrative tasks. I hope to continue doing this for as long as I remain compos mentis! Whether I’ll see the end of the Nine Year Plan or not I don’t know. Whatever happens we do live in interesting times and who knows what adventures are just around the corner!