This interview was conducted for another blog project of mine that I have since dropped for the time being. However, it was an extremely interesting interview, so here it is. Bear in mind that I did not finish conducting the interview, it might have been twice this length by the end.
Alison Marshal is an unenrolled Bahá’í. What this means is that like me she has a deep love for Bahá’u’lláh, but unlike me she is not a registered member of the community led by the elected body known as the “Universal House of Justice”. Many Bahá’ís consider membership in that community to be synonymous with belief in Bahá’u’lláh. Alison was removed, in the year 2000, from the membership of the Bahá’í community. While I respect and stand by the decision to remove her, as I view the “Universal House of Justice” as infallible, that does not stop me from respecting her greatly. Despite our differences in belief, I greatly enjoyed interviewing her, and I hope it is an interesting read.
As with all those I intended to interview, Alison is a blogger, you can read her thoughts on life as a follower of Bahá’u’lláh on her blog Meditations on Baha’u’llah.
For any Bahá’ís reading this, bear in mind that Alison is not a Covenant Breaker, the Universal House of Justice did not label her as such, merely as a person whose personal beliefs did not coincide with those of the Bahá’í Community.
Most Bahá’ís convert into the Bahá’í Faith, and you are no exception – what sort of religious background were you raised in?
Yes, that’s right. I am a convert. I declared in 1980, around the time of my 21st birthday.
I was born in 1959. I wasn’t raised in any religious background as such. I made my own way through. My father was a staunch atheist and my mother was nominally Anglican. My father’s strong feelings against religion, I think, influenced her not to attend church or maintain any other religious practice. I remember when I was very young, a local minister would periodically brave an audience with my father in order to discuss religious matters. My father quite literally hated, in particular, Roman Catholics. He saw only hypocrisy in the church and, above all, he hated hypocrisy. It’s easy to see his influence on me there! He believed in science as the salvation of humanity. This became a crisis of faith for him when he was dying of cancer and he realised that science couldn’t cure him.
Sometime between the ages of 5 and 10, I asked Mum if I could attend the local Anglican church. I think I was influenced to do so by my friends, who went and sang in the choir. I clearly remember her response: ‘Ask your father’. And so I did. He was under the car or something. He looked at me a little bewildered that I should ask such a thing. Then he said he didn’t mind what I did; it was all a load of nonsense as far as he was concerned. And so I enjoyed several years of attending church and singing in the choir. Mum then began attending church to hear me sing and we’d sing hymns at home together while doing the housework. Her favourite hymn was “What a friend we have in Jesus”. The vision of her singing it while flinging sheets over the beds is one of my most cherished memories of her.
In my mid-teens, I meet up with some visiting devotees from the Hare Krishna Movement and converted and became a vegetarian. By this time, my father had long since left my mother and I was free to do as I pleased. When I look back on it, I find it hard to believe. The girls at school gave me a very hard time for belonging to such a strange religion. I remember debating at length the issues with them in the locker rooms. I wore some wooden beads tight around my neck, as followers of that faith are wont to do. These were never removed. The school had a rule that girls were not to wear jewellery and I was asked to remove my beads. I refused, arguing that they were not jewellery but an important expression of my faith. Eventually, I was hauled before the head matron and told in no uncertain terms that I was to remove the beads. She also gave me a lecture about Christianity and told me to learn the Lord’s Prayer off by heart. I removed the beads and learned the prayer.
After I left school, I lapsed into a hippie lifestyle and was in the middle of that when I meet up with the Baha’is who were eventually to convert me. At that time, I was a follower of Carlos Castaneda and the religion of Don Juan. Wiki describes it as “traditional Mesoamerican shamanism”.
Can you describe your experience with Bahá’ís leading up to your acceptance of Bahá’u’lláh?
As I said, I was living a hippie lifestyle. It was unusual to say the least. My partner of the time, Barry, and I lived in a paddock about a mile’s walk from a road. The farmer allowed us to live in an old shed in a valley by a stream and we lived in that idyllic setting and grew lettuces. We hadn’t lived there for long; only a few months, for it was clearly a summer-only lifestyle. Occasionally, we’d hitch hike into a local town to take a look at civilisation. On 1 January 1980, we decided to celebrate the beginning of the new year and decade by treating ourselves to a meal at the local restaurant. I remember we ate crayfish. Afterwards, we decided to go hitch hiking and debated which side of the road to stand on. As it turned out, we headed south and were quickly picked up by Ashley and Kahu Davidson, who were to teach us the faith. I remember sitting in the back of their vehicle and them saying they were Baha’is and had we heard of Baha’u’llah. Barry, who was about 20 years older than me, replied that he had. I was bewildered and asked Barry who Baha’u’llah was. He said that Baha’u’llah was the return of Christ.
Ash and Kahu quickly established that Barry and I were of no fixed abode and adopted us. They were Maori and lived in a house on ancestral land. I am Pakeha (a New Zealander of European descent) and had never lived among the Maori people before. I discovered that Barry and I were just two of many that Ash and Kahu considered as their extended family. Ash and Kahu ran a business putting on a disco at weekends in the local towns around the region. Barry and I helped out. During my time living with Ash and Kahu, I learned much about the faith. They talked about it constantly. But for all the talk, the things that stuck in my mind and moved my heart were their actions. I was struck by how Ash prayed outside in the car park before attending to a difficult issue. Kahu was a fabulous singer (she is known throughout the New Zealand Baha’i community for this) and I would listen to her singing in the evening. She had put some of Abdu’l-Baha’s words to music and, one evening, the words stood up and shook me to attention:
“The mystic Nightingale is warbling for them all; will they not listen? The Bird of Paradise is singing; will they not heed? The Angel of Abha is calling to them; will they not hearken? The Herald of the Covenant is pleading; will they not obey?” Quoted in the pamphlet “The Passing of Abdu’-Baha” p 28
After about four months, Ash and Kahu put pressure on us to declare. Again, I remember Barry’s fateful words: ‘Let’s sign the card for them; we don’t have to change’. I agreed. We wanted to make Ash and Kahu happy because they’d been very good to us. However, upon signing the card, I was immediately changed. It was instantaneous. I suddenly knew that I’d joined a vast community and I had this sense that I had come home and now ‘belonged’.
Ash and Kahu taught to faith to many people. After declaring, I witnessed them teaching many others. They were full of the spirit and very effective. However, they had a problematic relationship with the administration. (I’ll omit the details.) But, as is often the case, despite this, they were the best example of Baha’i in the region.
How did your life change as a Bahá’í? Can you describe the feeling your declaration gave you, was it merely a feeling of acceptance, or something more?
Now that you come to mention it, it was more than a feeling of acceptance. Your question has reminded me that I experienced a state of euphoria for about 6 to 9 months.
But the reality of my new life ate into that and, inevitably, I came down hard. I had been leading an irresponsible life as a hippie and the consequences of that now came home to roost. My life changed completely after I declared. The first indication of this was when Ash told Barry and me that, now we were Baha’is, we would have to marry! Baha’is weren’t allowed to simply live together, he explained. That threw the cat amongst the pigeons. I had to begin to think about why I was with Barry at all. It was one thing to cruise through life and it was another to marry!
The next 2 to 3 years, while the situation was ironed out, were the most difficult years of my life (apart from those associated with my disenrollment). I was young, only 21, and Barry was so much older. I had never made a conscious decision to choose him as a partner. He had manipulated his way into my life and I had allowed it because I had a ‘father’ issue. My father had victimised my mother all of their married life and I had learned this behaviour from them. And so, I was victimised by Barry. Initially, it wasn’t like that – as I said we enjoyed living in the paddock together. But then Barry sensed that he might lose me due to the pressure to marry and the requirement to obtain permission from parents, and he began to abuse and control me. Added to the complexity of the situation was that, in those turbulent years, I gave birth to our daughter.
Interviewer’s Note: Bahá’ís who intend to marry are enjoined by the Prophet Founder of that Faith to obtain permission from the biological parents of both spouses. This applies whether or not both partners are Bahá’ís.
My mother refused her permission for us to marry. In fact, I asked her too. I wasn’t strong enough to stand up to him and I ended up putting that burden on her. Now that I look back, I can see that she would never have consented anyway. Mum was furious at my father, who had given consent with a wave of his hand, writing me off to my ill-chosen fate. Barry and I continued to live together, which I heard was a worry for the local assembly because it didn’t know whether to intervene. But the relationship eventually descended into such a nightmare that I fled one day with my daughter and went home. It took about 9 months, after which time my life settled down and I began a new life as a mother and university student. However, the disputes over custody and access continued for some years.
You mention on your website that you served on a Local Spiritual Assembly (The lowest, but foundational body of the Bahá’í administrative order.)?
Yes, that’s right. Within a couple of years of returning home, I received a visit from a couple of local Baha’is, as part of an initiative of the local assembly. They encouraged me to attend Baha’i events. You see, it never occurred to me that the local community would want me. The community had been dragged into the unpleasantness between Barry and me. I felt my reputation was in ruins and that I had been nothing but a burden to them. Also, I had a young child and she was noisy in meetings. I had once been asked to remove her from a meeting (ironically, by Mark Choveaux!). I was so fragile that I was traumatised by this. With my baby in my arms, I flew out of the conference door and down the stairs and out into the street, chased by one of the matronly figures of the community, who was calling out for me to stop. I determined never to return. But this friendly visit from the two assembly members caused me to take heart and I began attending events. I’d say it was another year later – much to my surprise – I was voted onto the assembly! Gee, I’ll never forget my first meeting. I was terrified to speak. I ended up serving on the assembly for about seven years. By the end of the 1980s, I was the secretary and at the centre of community life.
What was it that attracted you to the Bahá’í Faith in the first place, and did whatever attractive element you found live up to your expectations as a member of the Community?
The thing that attracted me to the faith wasn’t intellectual. Back then, when I was 21, my intellectual faculties were dormant. I operated entirely on my heart. My reaction to the faith was therefore quite different to most people’s. For example, I didn’t think to myself: ‘Gee, the oneness of God – yeah, I believe in that.’ I didn’t think in terms of ideas and whether I believed in them. A few years before I declared, I was out hitch hiking by myself and was picked up by a Baha’i. He told me he was a Baha’i and I, of course, asked him what that meant. He produced a pamphlet with the principles. He asked me if I disagreed with any of them. I read them through and said that I didn’t. But what this guy didn’t realise was that this approach to teaching was never going to work for me.
As I said earlier, what attracted me to the faith were the actions of Ash and Kahu – watching Ash pray, hearing Kahu sing and seeing how the faith was at the centre of their lives and how they looked after other people. That taught me how one can *be* a Baha’i. Another important thing was reading Balyuzi’s biography of Abdu’l-Baha and, in particular, the bit where Abdu’l-Baha sends a doctor to the Christian guy who’d been shunning him for decades. I remember crying when I read that. Here was someone who’d overcome hatred and who had shown such tremendous love – even to someone who hated him. That meant Abdu’l-Baha could, and maybe even did, love me too. This was home, from what I could make out.
Subsequently, I met individual Baha’is who fell well short of the standard. But that didn’t shake my faith because I knew they weren’t the Faith itself. Those people had their shortcomings, as I knew I did. As time went on, what began to upset me and challenge my faith was when the actions of Baha’is got in the way of the Faith growing.
Baha’u’llah talks about freeing ourselves of self and ego; were these actions that interfered with the growth of the faith motivated by self and ego? Can you explain?
Of course, it would always be self and ego that motivated such actions. But I guess you’re asking about the nature of those actions. My feelings of real despair about the ways things were going in the community came when I was involved in community activities and on the local assembly. I was trying to bring about change and, to my mind, others resisted change. For example, the community, for the most part, voted for men as delegates and assembly members – married men with children. Year after year this happened. After a while, it becomes monotonous and you begin to lose interest in the voting process. But that’s just one example of a general thing. I was secretary of the assembly for many years and wanted to put in place a system for streamlining the work of the assembly. I was particularly motivated to do this because the assembly left everything to the secretary. Other members (not all) did not volunteer for things or were not reliable. There was no unified action. (To be fair, this happened in the late 1980s; the early 1980s were really good.) But there was no way that any systems could be put in place. I suffered from burnout and eventually resigned as secretary and as a member of the assembly. I got to a point where I just hated it. I was suffering badly from stress and was resentful that I had given all that time to the assembly at the expense of my daughter. I now regret not making my daughter my priority and leaving the assembly/community to look after itself.
Around that time, I attended a summer school and was at a discussion about how our communities could move forward. The talk went on and on, all around me. All these ideas were being voiced – good ones too, I had no problems with them. The problem was that they were just ideas. They started to beat down on my mind like a drum. I had a sort of inner explosion and I burst into tears and said something like: ‘I’ve tried and tried. I tried my absolute hardest but it’s just impossible. Nothing changes. No one really wants to change. We’re not going anywhere. I’m totally confused and lost. Here we are with Baha’u’llah and, yet, we are hamstrung by our own weaknesses. It’s all hopeless. No amount of effort will make any difference.’ It was a turning point for me. I stopped being at the centre of community life and began life on the periphery. That happened around 1989.
But that didn’t stop me being concerned about where the community was going. The key thing for me was communication. As secretary, I believed my most important job was to keep the community informed about everything that was happening. I had a policy that, if it wasn’t confidential, then the community should be told about it and was free to discuss it at feast. (We had over 100 people in the community.) I made detailed reports about what was being discussed in assembly meetings, and anything else that was happening, and put these out in regular newsletters. After I moved to the periphery, the assembly culture began to change. It dictated its decisions and, if community members dared to express disagreement, this was interpreted as disobedience. Inevitably, I came to be seen as a troublemaker. This got worse and worse throughout the 1990s. I married Steve in late 1991, and so there wasn’t just one troublemaker, but two!
I mentioned earlier that you are an unenrolled Bahá’í, what does that mean? From the perspective of a non-Baha’i what is the difference between the average Bahá’í and you?
An unenrolled Baha’i is a person who believes in Baha’u’llah and considers themselves Baha’i by religion but who is not a member of the Baha’i community. I think the House of Justice unintentionally created the category of ‘unenrolled Baha’i’ by following a policy of forcing believers it disagreed with out of the community. When I was forcibly disenrolled in March 2000, then I had no choice but to be an ‘unenrolled’ Baha’i. I couldn’t stop being a Baha’i – you can’t turn belief in Baha’u’llah off like a tap just because an institution has made an arbitrary decision about your community membership. Before the House of Justice instituted this new policy, the Baha’i community had no concept of an unenrolled Baha’i – and most would still say that such a thing is not possible because you have to be a member of the community to be a Baha’i. But events have moved on and people are freely choosing to be unenrolled Baha’is now because they believe in Baha’u’llah but do not want to be enrolled in the community. It’s a new thing and it’s spreading, irrespective of whether the Baha’i community thinks it’s a legitimate category or not.
You ask about the difference between the “average Baha’i” and me. Do you mean the difference between an enrolled Baha’i and me? I don’t think that non-Baha’is would see a difference. They would have to be clued up on the categories that Baha’is use and would have to be close enough to me to know about my disenrollment and what it meant. To them, I’m obviously a believer – they know that I pray and fast and that I work part time so that I can write my websites and study Arabic and the writings. A key difference between me and an enrolled believer is that I don’t feel obliged to take the party line. I don’t have to defend the institutions and their policies, if I disagree with them. I have found that people are much more open with me about my religion now that I’m not an official member. They know I’m going to speak the truth and not try to sell them something. Teaching the faith has become a much more relaxed and enjoyable experience. I just do my thing as I see fit and have a ball.
Can you briefly explain what led to your removal from the community lead by the Universal House of Justice in Haifa, Israel?
I should have no trouble being brief about that! On 28 March 2000, the New Zealand National Spiritual Assembly sent an email to Steve (my husband) for me. (The National Assembly didn’t know my email address.) In the email, the National Spiritual Assembly informed me that: “The Universal House of Justice has advised us of its conclusion that, on the basis of an established pattern of statements by you and behaviour and attitude on your part over the past two or three years, you cannot properly be considered as meeting the requirements of membership in the Baha’i community. Accordingly, we have removed your name from our membership rolls and have informed the Baha’i institutions concerned.” I wasn’t given any further information from the Baha’i institutions. I asked the National Assembly for more information, but they said they couldn’t provide it because they hadn’t made the decision. I had no communication about the matter from the Baha’i institutions before receiving the email. It came entirely out of the blue.
So, in answer to your question about what led to my removal from community membership, the answer is that it was an established pattern of statements by me and my behaviour and attitudes over the past two or three years, which would have been between 1997-8 and 2000. In response to this, I put up on my website all the email messages I wrote over that time (http://www.whoisbahaullah.com/Alison/talisman.html). I’ve also put up a chronology of events that occurred prior to my disenrollment (http://www.whoisbahaullah.com/Alison/chron.html). But those events do not shed any light on what my offensive statements, behaviour and attitudes were. The only reason I was able to put the chronology of events together was because, under New Zealand privacy law, I was able to obtain the National Assembly minutes about me. From those, I was able to find out what happened behind closed doors at National Assembly meetings. But the decision to disenroll me was made by the House, without the National Assembly’s knowledge, and so those minutes don’t help with finding the reason for the decision.