Jean Powis | UK Baha’i Histories

My family hated religious pomposity and hypocrisy, so there was never any church going, and it was my paternal grandfather, Sam, who encouraged me to think of the world in a spiritual sense. His face was gnarled like an old tree, nails caked with black tobacco, arms flecked with blue mining scars, but his eyes were lit with humour. ‘Mighty fine,’ he would cheerfully growl like a cowboy when asked how he was, and his foggy chest would rattle with laughter. From childhood he had been a medium, but World War One shell shock and economic depression had deepened his reliance on God. ‘Never ask God for money. If you need shoes, ask God for shoes, but never ask for money.’

He married my grandmother, Sarah, when she was widowed with four children. I’m told she was from a rich Jewish family that owned businesses in Littleborough, Lancashire, but her marriages, first to one and then another Christian, meant familial and religious ostracization. Hence, after being wealthy, she suffered abject poverty. So tiny she needed a step to reach the kitchen sink, yet able to make a meal out of the scantiest ingredients, she was known in the local community as an abundant source of warmth, humour, helpfulness and generosity. Her example and my affection for her remain ever-present.

The severity of the depression and cruelty of working environments rendered my father a hard-knock socialist, though it was he who fostered in me a love of the peoples of the world as well as the crazy new music of jazz. His love of sport took him out of the monotony of welding mini cars on a production line to travelling the world for the sport of weightlifting and brought black and white muscle-bound males in and out of our house like brothers of the Mafiosi.

From my mother I learned the working-class art of hospitality. Every visitor was greeted with lavish slices of mince pie, strong sweet builder’s tea and abundant affection. She was full of tales of her brothers and sisters; the Bible was a close companion of Eileen who died young; Jim struggled against heart disease; Sam suffered after being a prisoner of war; Doris and she dodged Hitler’s rampage on Birmingham to go dancing, and the youngest, Joan, survived a shelter hit which catapulted her upside down.

She would also tell me of her father’s renown as a pub-singer, and his dark, terrifying outbursts towards my maternal grandmother, Clara, whom my mother adored for her love and humour. Perhaps it was this childhood which led her to be so anxious and dramatic and me to being the strange combination of a shy child who despite nervousness was praised for acting! I never learned to play an instrument, never went to dance or drama classes and only rarely went to the theatre, but it is from my mum that I learned a love of these arts, and it was the radio, a constant background feature, which was my musical education.

However, the cloud of my mother’s unexpressed grief from a lost child haunted childhood for my brother and myself, leaving us both prone to anxiety and lack of confidence. Perhaps this was why I was delighted not to have to cope with the pressure of grammar school, but being the worst of typists, I never settled into the secretarial career to which my father hoped I might be destined after he forbade acting.

My mother released me from misery when she found an advertisement for Matthew Boulton College, Birmingham, where I took ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels. Here I met Annily Campbell, the sparkly-eyed intellectual who set my ‘O’ level Religious Education class alight with Bahá’u’lláh’s message. It was my grandmother’s story, and my old English teacher who had opened my mind to the possibility of other religions which meant that I was immediately attracted.

Now, through the kind hospitality of Annily and her friend, Malcolm Lake, I was introduced along with my dear friend Chris Payne to the Bahá’í Faith. The love of the Birmingham Bahá’í community answered my need for affection and acceptance, which as an awkward, and emotionally sensitive child I had never experienced before. 

There was Pat and Patricia Green who hosted many events, and I have fond memories of other youth: Paddy and Steve Vickers and Rocky Grove; a Polish neighbour of Annily’s; and two elderly ladies – one Jackie, who was a poet, and the other, Prue – mother of Patricia – who told wonderful stories – in one of which she showered a thief with love after he had stolen her purse!

At West Midlands College of Education, I met fellow lodger and talented drama student, Midge (Carolyn, nee Mitchell). Despite my concerns – after another friend, Theresa, had only briefly stayed – Midge has nonetheless fulfilled my grandfather’s prophecy of remaining ‘straight and true’. After the visit of warm hearted and gentle Hand of the Cause John Robarts to Birmingham, and the saying of the prayer, the Remover of Difficulties 500 times, there was no stopping Midge, formerly a Sunday School teacher who has become exemplary in Bahá’í education. I was so inspired at meeting Hand of the Cause Bill Sears that I abandoned a student theatre trip to see Godspell with my fellow drama students, to remain at a National Convention which occurred during the same weekend in London. 

Some of my happiest times were spent in the ‘Dawnbreakers’. In the early days, armed with only a phone number and date, Chris Payne and I hitch-hiked to each venue. Arriving on a Friday evening, we made a phone call, were collected and generously hosted by the local community for our rehearsal, street-teaching and what was originally a drama and music show, before hiking home on Sunday afternoon, and thanks I am sure to the Concourse on High, we survived with some hilarious stories.  Whilst she still had young children, Sima Cockshut worked very hard to host us during our many visits to Oakham.


After starting as a larger group of indefinite membership led by Naysan Faizi, Derek Cockshut managed the group and talked to the audience about Bahá’í teachings at the end of the show. We shared the stage with Jim Elliot, Fariborz Goharrez and many others.  May Hofman – an opera student at the time, often humbly stood aside and let us novices take centre stage.  She and Hooshang Jahanpour were part of the crew when we performed at Drury Lane Theatre.  Knowing that the House of Justice was praying on our behalf, this was one performance I made without any nerves. Due I’m sure to the prayers and to Hooshang’s and May’s talent, we got a mention in a major newspaper.  Over time, the group focused more on music until eventually dwindling to four: Midge and Geoff Ault, my husband Dave Powis and myself.

Fortunately, the Oxford-educated Geoff appreciated our anarchic humour. To say I had no idea about harmony and no confidence as a singer is an understatement, but thanks to the use of cassettes and Geoff’s patience we were transformed from a rabble into a four-part harmony group. Until each of us had two children, and Dave and I moved to Suffolk, we toured the Midlands, the North and Scotland – once even accompanying Adrian Byron Burns, Rita Green and baby Heather on a trip to the Isle of Mull.  We also joined the group ‘Daystar’ one summer on a tour of the West and Wales. These were such blessed days to be performing for a beloved Cause in the company of dear friends!

Dave had originally only joined the Dawnbreakers to help Geoff Hockley with the sound, but eventually he was needed as a guitarist. Hence it was music and the warming party for ‘Myrtle’ – a dilapidated house next to a Walsall canal – second-year accommodation for Midge, myself and friends – which drew us together, and Dave and I were married before my third year. I was puzzled when as a child I had been told by my grandfather that there was music in my family, but thanks to Dave, I feel grateful that all our four sons not only have his technical wizardry but are musical, and of course most significantly share our love for the peoples of the world.

From Walsall, Dave and I moved to Derby which was blessed by the spirit, the culinary genius and generous hospitality of Mrs Djavid who had pioneered from Iran with her family. Then we shared the Stoke-on-Trent community with the sweet and lovely Dr. Munireh Mali, her sister Nadireh, and Kami and Sharzhad Farhadi, where we had great fun with community projects and inviting friends and neighbours. John Flackett became another soul to accept the Faith and cling to its teachings.

Pilgrimage in 1978 made a lasting impression on me.  Being able to glimpse the Shrine of the Báb from a distance, walk through gardens scented with orange blossom and steal glances at this remarkable building was like being in heaven.  To visit the archives building brought the history to life.  With as many repairs as original material, I will never forget Shoghi Effendi’s shirt, which stood for me as a testament to his detachment. I was so struck by the dark dank citadel of Akka, I wanted to sing a song in protest at Bahá’u’lláh’s imprisonment.  Bahá’u’lláh’s house at Bahjí and the house of ‘Abdu’l Bahá were a bright contrast to the ugliness of the prison.  To pray at the shrines and meet other Hands of the Cause – Mr. Furútan, and Mr. Faizi – as well as members of the Universal House of Justice and people from all over the world was such a spiritual bounty.  Everything was conducted with such dignity and perfect organisation. I was left with a sense of profound gratitude for the visit. 

Without planning it, the last 38 years have answered my grandfather’s promise that my childhood desire to live either near the sea or in the countryside would be answered, since Dave brought me to enjoy the quiet life of a Suffolk village just half an hour from the East Anglian Coast. Via my son Daniel, who rode the same High School bus, John Pilgrim became another strong believer.

John was an extraordinary linguist, who became a staunch Bahá’í and a fantastic teacher of the Faith. Such was the beauty of his personality that he had a room named after him at the International Court of Justice, The Hague, after he very sadly died of cancer in 2015. His three beautiful daughters now live with their devoted mother, Natascha, in Paris.

Rural community life has been supported in Suffolk by many collaborations from Suffolk and Norfolk. Rose and Graham Norgate, Tom Fox, Karen Shrimpton, Marie and Norm Collins, June and Lionel Glennie supported the Thomas Breakwell school and even its production of ‘The Spotlessly Leopard’.

Tim and Becky Maude and their beautiful children did not stay long but helped form the old Assembly of Suffolk Coastal.  Hugh and Deborah McKinley ran the East Anglian spring school successfully for a number of years. The stalwart Shiva Naraghi ran firesides, hosted feasts and major events with the support of Khatereh Vahdat and family, Celia Stephenson Bird, Richard Togher, Mojgan, Berhrad and Bahareh Taleshi, Richard Matty and Mike Cooper.  With my ears primed for languages after returning from three years in Germany, Shiva delighted in trying to teach me bits of Farsi, when she realised I could decipher short phrases.

Recently, Omid and Annabel Djalili and family arrived, and Ismael Velasco returned with his wife Ali.  We are learning how to use the arts and conversations for teaching.  Especially since the loss of David in 2017, the arrival of these gifted souls and cross county arts projects burgeoning with artists Richard and Rosemary Morgan and the Nigels Colebrook and Moody means I remain thankful for this creative backwater.


Jean Powis

Suffolk, February 2022

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