Carole Fothergill first mentioned the word ‘Bahá’í’ as we were walking home from work in Nelson, Lancashire. It was January 1963 and I was 19 years of age. Carole told me she had just become a Bahá’í and handed me a wedding invitation to her traditional Church ceremony and reception in the February. She added that since Peter, her fiancé, was also a Bahá’í this meant that they would also have a Bahá’í wedding after the Church ceremony at a home in Burnley. She mentioned in a couple of sentences – the concept of progressive revelation and the Bahá’í belief in unity – God, religion and mankind. I remember saying that I believed all that and had always done so, but the idea of Jesus being just another Prophet and not the literal Son of God had me thinking!! I also agreed to be a witness at her Bahá’í wedding ceremony. My name then was Marion Whiteley.
The Bahá’í wedding ceremony took place at the home of Abbas and Shomais Afnan. I had never heard such wonderful prayers and readings, which were shared by the people present. There was no priest or leader. Even the Afnans’ two children, Masoud and Taraneh, participated. There was so much love, happiness and sincerity in that room. All the guests were Bahá’ís, I later realised. The unity and joy, and Abbas and Shomais – I stood no chance at all.
The ceremony changed into a ‘fireside’ and I eventually arrived home at 1 am. Mother was waiting and had been concerned as to how I would manage to get back to Barnoldswick where we lived (12 miles from Burnley) at such a late hour since buses stopped running at 9.30 pm. I told her that Abbas, the Deputy Medical Office of Health for Burnley, and who was a Persian, had brought me home after the ‘fireside.’ I added that I was now a Bahá’í and wouldn’t be going to Communion any more but instead would be going to a Bahá’í meeting on the following Saturday night in Bradford, with Abbas and Shomais. Stunned, she mumbled something about being ‘careful, the white slave trade!!!!’, and we would ‘talk more tomorrow evening.’ When I was able to share the Bahá’í principles in more detail I knew she could not disagree with anything since this was how I had been brought up. My sister, Christine, then aged 14, looked on and listened.
I decided to go to Communion, as usual, the following Sunday morning, so that I could explain to the vicar why I would not be attending in the future. His reply made me even more convinced that my decision was correct. He turned to my mother and said “Never mind Mrs Whitely. This is just like joining ‘ban the bomb’ gatherings. We will soon see her back in church. The Church of England is the only way to Heaven and Marion knows this.” I did not go back to church, neither did I join ‘ban the bomb’, but I did declare my Faith formally the following Saturday evening in Bradford – the best thing I ever did. Fantastic that my sister declared as soon as she was 15 and mother became a Bahá’í a few years later. How lucky for me!
When I think back, I believe I was fortunate to have been brought up by a mother who was a staunch Christian and a father who was a strong socialist – even Communist – who both believed in equality, had strong moral values, valued education, and whom I never heard make a racist remark. Even my grandmother would say that Jesus loved all children whatever their colour or wherever they lived, and she was born in 1880! So, perhaps it was quite easy to accept all the 12 principles in the little handbook I was given. Accepting all the Messengers of God was just as logical a step towards the unity and oneness of all people I had always believed was meant to be.
Exhilarated and excited by my new found belief, I told anyone and everyone about the Baha’i Faith, thinking they too would accept the message of Bahá’u’lláh and see for themselves how His Teachings were the answer to the world’s problems. I am sure countless Bahá’ís felt the same and were similarly disappointed. However, their lack of response did not dampen my own enthusiasm and I attended meetings in Burnley and Nelson and met all the local Bahá’ís, knowing this religion was true and was from God.
What I observed in the many meetings was the way Abbas and Shomais Afnan taught the Faith, how it was central to their lives and what it meant to be part of a Bahá’í community. They had pioneered to Burnley, they served the Faith tirelessly, nothing was too much trouble and everyone was welcome. This example surely helped the Burnley Community to grow and flourish even after they left for Attleborough in Norfolk. They were certainly role models for me, and I regard them as my spiritual parents. Luckily we were able to harness the spirit of the 1960s after they had gone and attract enquirers, many of whom were youth.
Our community was blessed by having five Hands of the Cause visit. In April 1963 shortly after the London World Congress, Hand of the Cause Mr. Abu’l-Qásim Faizí visited. I had just become a Bahá’í in the February. We were in the small cottage belonging to Phoebe Brown, in Happy Valley Gardens, Burnley, and we were, indeed, happy. The room was full and Mr. Faizí talked and shared stories. The atmosphere was magical. I didn’t realise then the station of any Hand of the Cause but it didn’t matter. Anyone could see this gentleman was special.
Next to visit us was Hand of the Cause Bill Sears, probably 1967. We all met in the Lin Hong Restaurant, upstairs, with no one else in the room. Mr. Sears shared stories and chatted to us throughout the meal and for the evening. There was laughter and learning. The next morning we met again for breakfast at his hotel in Nelson. I had booked half a day’s leave so was able to attend. No one wanted to leave but sadly for us, Mr. Sears was due to meet the friends in Leeds for an evening meeting and his transport arrived. I remember he referred often to Shoghi Effendi and the importance of regular firesides. He later made a tape ‘Every Friday Night’, which we played at different firesides. Hand of the Cause Mr. Adelbert Muhschlegel was the next to visit us in 1968. We met at Peter and Carole Fothergill’s home in Burnley, another lovely meeting, and we were again transported by his stories and what he had to tell us. I remember he was very encouraging, loving and dignified. Then in 1970 Hand of the Cause Mr. Ugo Giachery and his gentle wife, Angeline, visited and we met at the home of Alan and Carol Pollitt, again in Burnley. The room was full to bursting, when even more Bahá’ís arrived from Manchester! Standing room only as we lined the walls, all eager to listen to our special visitors. Again it was a magical night. As they left they thanked us for coming to see them, though we were the lucky ones!!!
Another Hand of the Cause I was fortunate to meet was John Ferraby. In 1965 he attended a Summer School at Dalston Hall, near Carlisle, with his wife, Dorothy and daughter, Brigitte, and again encouraged us all to teach. This was my first full summer school and I remember Betty Reed was present. She also visited Burnley and greatly encouraged what was then in both age and experience a very young community. Although all the Hands were different in one way, they all radiated a dignified love and acceptance of all of us, from all our very different backgrounds. They spoke with certainty and knowledge. How lucky I have been to have met such dignified souls.
I had been elected to the Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of Burnley when I was 21, and was married to Michael Cleasby at 22, in 1966. Michael and I immediately started our own Friday night firesides. The first youth attending and declaring his belief in Bahá’u’lláh was Alan Pollitt in November 1966. It was a Friday night and we were also celebrating the Birth of Bahá’u’lláh. I had made a cake and we all sang Happy Birthday to Bahá’u’lláh. Regular Saturday parties to which we could invite lots of youth saw a growth in the community and soon we had 15 enthusiastic youth who were able to assist nearby communities, as requested by our National Spiritual Assembly. Off we went to the coast, to John and Lou Turner in Southport, or to Blackpool to the Shaw family who had home-front pioneered to assist that community, or to Carlisle, Newcastle and Kendal. On one occasion three cars set off for Dumfries, Scotland, to visit Jackie and Daryoush Mehrabi. On the way we stopped briefly in Kendal to visit Madeline and Bill Hellaby, then continued our journey. On the outskirts of the town the first car stopped and hailed us all to stop. One person asked for the address. No one had thought of that! Madeline, we were certain, would have the information. We telephoned and all was put to rights. Another occasion we set off at about midnight in an old Rover car for Aberdeen after the Friday night fireside had ended. We were visiting just for the weekend and went to visit Farhang Afnan and a Canadian Baha’i who was staying with him. The Rover was old and swallowed oil continually, but we arrived safely with our sleeping bags late Saturday afternoon. We had a great day on the Sunday, lots of fun and laughter. However, work on Monday meant a Sunday afternoon return. What a memory!
I must make mention of the Counsellor, Betty Reed. At that time she was the UK National Secretary. How loving, helpful and supportive she was, even visiting our very youthful community. She made us feel that the National Spiritual Assembly was there for us and we felt very close to them. We even sent a telegram on one occasion from our Assembly telling our beloved National Assembly that we were praying for them, and sent our love. A response was received immediately.
I must also mention Ernest and Joan Gregory who visited Burnley frequently to give talks at Day Schools, and to Aldi Robarts who also inspired us as a new Bahá’í Community.
Many Bahá’ís from Burnley and Nelson left our area to pioneer, both on the home front and abroad, or to university and college. This took many youth from Burnley and so our community changed as most of those remaining became families with young children, so we were able to run children’s classes with 15 children from toddlers to primary school age. My own two sons, David and Steven, were part of the class. Later they both declared their belief in Bahá’u’lláh, which was wonderful. We also formed a Teaching Committee and had a huge daily calendar to record activities.
For many years all our summer schools in the UK started on the first Saturday in August. Sadly, Burnley schools re-started their Autumn term on the first Monday, so it meant travelling to Aberdeen or St. Andrews if possible, since Scotland’s school holidays fitted in with ours. We enjoyed summer schools in St. Andrews and Aberdeen. Burney community life continued. We held Day Schools, Weekend Schools, we organised meetings and displays at the local Library or Town Hall, and held World Religion Day events, all in an attempt to attract enquirers. However, like so many other communities, children of Bahá’ís moved on to university, as did David and Steven, along with their friends who were declared Bahá’ís.
As a ‘relaxing night off’ (being the mother of two young boys) I joined a life-long friend to attend night school to study Sociology at GCE level in 1972. My friend Anne had just registered for the course and said that as a Bahá’í I would find it very interesting. This led to me taking A levels for a further 3 years and eventually to my teaching certificate and Degree, which proved to be really valuable for the next stage of my Bahá’í life in The Gambia, West Africa.
I had re-married in 1989. This brought me the bounty of two daughters and to my husband Alan Pollitt, two sons. We were fortunate to be able to pioneer to The Gambia in 1996, an experience I would not have missed for anything. Pioneering taught me much about myself, taught me patience and, more important, taught me reliance on Bahá’u’lláh. The degree in English enabled me to teach part-time and so help us stay in our pioneer post for almost 6 years. I met so many families, so many different people from several West African countries, and was able to talk freely about the Faith. Whilst Alan served on the National Assembly of the Bahá’í’s of The Gambia, I was able to travel-teach up and down the country. That was an experience in itself. The heat, the roads, or lack of them, language barriers and misunderstandings and being a woman were tests I could not have imagined……When we applied for residency, we said we were retired. Our cards showed us as “retried aliens, class 3”!!!! On the other hand, I learnt of a very different lifestyle and how people with little or no material wealth have a very strong belief in God and reliance on God.
We were very lucky to have visitors in The Gambia. Our family – David, Laili, Sam and Sarah or Steven, Ramona, Joe and Danny (Jonathan was not yet born) all met the local Bahá’í community at the weekly gathering in the Bahá’í Centre at Latrikunda Sabiji. If it were a joyful Holy Day of celebration, it was the norm to dance at the end of the meeting. Clapping, or drums provided the beat and Alan and I were expected to join in. Rita Green visited us often. Rita arrived one Christmas thinking she would enjoy sun and relaxation. However, a Bahá’í Winter School had been planned and she was asked to give a talk. She replied that she didn’t give talks. The response was: “You can read.” ” Yes,” was her reply. “Then you can give a talk. Most people here cannot read. They never had the privilege of going to school. So you can read before Saturday and give a talk on Prayer.” On another occasion, Rita came for a two week stay over Easter. During the first week she met with Bahá’ís locally to facilitate Book 1, and the second week with another group in Lamin – a nearby village – to facilitate Book 1 again. We had been waiting almost two years for Book 1 to arrive from India – as a gift for our community.
I must mention the support of local pioneer families to The Gambia, who really enabled us to assimilate in the very different circumstances of a Muslim country and one which is very poor. Often there was no electricity, no water, no petrol, no diesel, no kerosene, no gas bottles, or shortages of foods in shops. We had to remember why we were there and to rely on prayer. Bahá’u’lláh’s suffering was much, much greater.
We moved back to the UK in 2002 and to the Calderdale community in 2006. We lived in Greetland, a village just outside Halifax. Together with Steven and Ramona Cleasby and our local community, we hosted several African evenings/musical firesides when we were able to serve Gambian dishes and bring out the drums. Steven and Daniel proved to be very good drummers. Sam, Joe and Danny were very willing participants in the African Jola and Mandinka dancing. This was another benefit from our brief pioneer period in The Gambia.
About this time the Calderdale Community was lucky to be given a room in the Peace Hall, Halifax, as part of Interfaith Week, since we did not have a place of worship. Alan was there for the whole eight days. On the Sunday, the last day, a lady came in to view the material. She read absolutely everything and was greatly impressed. Amazingly, she was the Head of a Primary School in the centre of Leeds and said she would use as the school motto: “The earth is but one country and mankind its citizens.” She invited us to talk to Class 9 about the Faith as part of their sharing of different religions to several other primary schools. This led to our helping to run a weekly Sunday morning class in the school itself whilst other Bahá’ís from Calderdale ran a junior-youth class. We were also lucky to run a Bahá’í Lunch Club on a Monday with help from our local community. The children in the school were from many different races and religions and the school boasted 80+ languages, but soon all the children spoke English with a true Yorkshire accent.
I am fortunate to have run many children’s classes, study circles and devotional meetings, have served on local Spiritual Assemblies, Summer School Committees, as a Representative for the Board of Huqúqu’lláh, and to have been on pilgrimage twice – a truly wonderful life experience. We have been accepted to go again in February next year, to coincide with my 80th birthday!
Experience in the pioneering field enabled Alan and myself to serve on the International Pioneering Committee and Travel Teaching Committee (OIPTT) during the Universal House of Justice’ Five Year Plan (2006-2011) and has afforded us also countless opportunities to mention the Faith here in the UK.
In line with the message of the Universal House of Justice exhorting Bahá’ís to serve others and build better communities, I serve on the Lancashire Forum of Faiths, Building Bridges Burnley, and I volunteer weekly at New Neighbours Together. This charity is local to Burnley and aids Asylum Seekers and Refugees to settle in Burnley and integrate with the local community, offering advice, practical help, language lessons, etc. Many ask me “Are you Christian or Muslim?” This affords me the opportunity to briefly share Baha’i beliefs. Many local Iranians already know about the Bahá’í’s and how they suffer for their Faith. We are so lucky here in the UK to be free to ‘shout from the rooftops’, or visit our towns and villages to share our vision of unity and peace and show people that we are working in our local communities to realise that vision.
In Greetland we had joined a Caledonian Society which met in Wakefield. This was mainly in order to make new friends and, should the opportunity present itself, mention the Faith to new people, and for our own exercise and enjoyment. Learning Scottish dances usually enjoyed at a Ceilidh, has proved to be a source of outreach in both Halifax and here in Burnley. David and Laili have the sound system which is regularly put to good use and who support our event with Bahá’ís from the Lancashire Cluster. We have also held a Ceilidh at Northern Summer Schools as an opening fun evening, which seems to go down quite well.
Having declared my belief in February 1963, I have now been a Bahá’í for 60 years. Alan and I celebrated this recently as we arrived in Johannesburg to be met by my sister, and her husband, Christine and Billy Lee. They pioneered to Botswana in 1976, having spent two years previously in Zambia, and are still in their pioneer post. They have witnessed a small community in Gaborone grow to hundreds and now have five Bahá’í Centres in the city. Their stories will be an interesting read….