A guide to being a Bahá'í'

I was a callow 17-year-old when I first met the Bahá'ís. I'd been brought up and confirmed in the Church of England, but my faith had waned somewhat in my teens and I considered myself an atheist.

I left school in 1965 and went to live in Cambridge with my half-brother Peter. Peter was a Buddhist and was keen I should look into Buddhism. So he sent me to the university freshers' fair – you didn't have to be a student to go into the fair – to find the Buddhist Society stand. I wandered around the various religious and philosophical stalls, found the Buddhists, was accosted by the Christian Union, had a chat with a Humanist, and then came to a bare table adorned with the word 'Bahá'í'.

'What have you got that the humanists haven't got?' I asked the rather severe looking bloke who was standing at the Bahá'í table (I'd just come from the humanist table).

I have no idea what the he said, but he gave me a slip of paper with an invitation to a public meeting a few days hence.

Sheer curiosity got me to the public meeting. It wasn't an exciting or inspiring meeting and I might have left the Bahá'í Faith in my museum of curiosities had I not been approached by one of the younger Bahá'ís and invited to go to a Bahá'í home. Straight away.

And that's where my love affair with the Bahá'í Faith began, in the home of an Iranian Bahá'í family. I'd never knowingly met any Iranians, nor had I experienced the legendary Iranian hospitality. In that home I felt a warmth that I'd not associated with religion before, undemanding but palpable.

I started to attend weekly 'fireside' discussion meetings to learn more about the Bahá'í Faith and got to know more of the Bahá'ís in what was a vibrant and active community. And what a diversity of Bahá'ís I found: the older Scottish lady we all called 'Lady Margaret'; the Southern African couple who came from a Jewish background – he was a photographer, she was a concert pianist; Derek, a Burnleyite who took the responsibility for teaching me about the Faith, and his beautiful Iranian girlfriend, who was the niece of the older Iranian lady the whole community called 'Auntie'. It was in Auntie's house that the fireside meetings took place.

I learned a great deal at those firesides about the history of the Bahá'í Faith and its teachings, about what made the community tick and what held it together. This was a whole new world for me. Religion as I had never experienced it before – informal, non-ritualistic, deeply spiritual.

It took me around five months to come to the conclusion that I wanted to be part of this faith. And it took Derek to push me. I say push, but neither he nor any of the other Bahá'ís ever put any pressure on me – and that's a crucial element of the way the Bahá'í Faith is shared with others. Each of us has the right and the responsibility to explore truth and reality for ourselves, not depending on other people's opinions, and to make up our own minds. But sometimes someone else can see more clearly what one's mind is.

I became a Bahá'í in February 1966. I was 18 years old.

Barney Leith has been an active Bahá’í since the mid 1960s. In 1993 he was elected to the National Spiritual Assembly of the UK Bahá’ís. Barney has been married to Erica since 1970. They have three grown-up offspring and three grandchildren.
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Single parent families are already struggling - universal credit is making things worse

Austerity and financial hardship are not inevitable – politicians have a choice.

“I don’t live, I merely keep existing”. So says one single parent in Gingerbread’s final report from a project tracking single parent finances since 2013. Their experience is typical of single parents across the country. The majority we surveyed are struggling financially and three-quarters have had to borrow from friends, family or lenders to make ends meet.

This is not the story that the government wants to hear. With a focus on a jobs boom and a promise to "make work pay", a relentlessly positive outlook shines from the DWP. The reality is somewhat different. Benefit cuts have taken their toll, and single parents have been among the hardest hit. Estimates suggest over six per cent of their annual income was lost through reforms under the 2010-15 government. The 2015 Summer Budget cuts will add another 7.6 per cent loss on top by 2020, even after wage and tax gains.

What’s more, for all the talk of tackling worklessness, working families have not escaped unscathed. Single parent employment is at a record high – thanks in no small part to their own tenacity in a tough environment. But the squeeze on incomes has hit those in work too. The original one per cent cap on uprating benefits meant a single parent working part-time lost around £900 over three years. Benefits are now frozen, rapidly losing value as inflation rises. On top of stagnant and often low pay and high living costs, it’s perhaps unsurprising that we found working single parents surveyed just as likely to run out of money as those out of work – shockingly, around half didn’t have enough to reach the end of the month.

Single parent families – along with many others on low incomes – are being pushed into precarious financial positions. One in eight single parents had turned to emergency provision, including payday lenders and food banks. Debt in particular casts a long shadow over families. A third of single parents surveyed were behind on payments, and they described how debt often lingers for a long time as they struggle to pay it off from already stretched budgets.

All of this may be depressingly familiar to some – but it comes at something of a crossroads for politicians. With the accelerated roll-out of universal credit around the corner, the government risks putting many more people under significant strain – and potentially into debt. Encouragingly, the increasing noise around the delays to a first payment is raising red flags across political parties. Perhaps most alarming is that delays are not purely administrative, but deliberate – they reflect in-built, intentional, cost-saving measures. These choices serve no constructive purpose: they risk debt and anxiety for families the government intended to help, and costs for the services left to pick up the pieces.

But will the recent warning signs be enough? Despite new data showing around half of new claimants needed "advance payments" (loans to deal with financial hardship while waiting for a first payment), the Department for Work and Pensions stuck doggedly to its lines, lauding the universal credit project that “lies at the heart of welfare reform to help “people to improve their lives”.

And, as valuable as additional scrutiny is, must we wait for committees to gather and report on yet more evidence, and for the National Audit Office to forensically examine and report on progress once again? The reality is glaringly evident. Families have already been pushed to the brink without universal credit. Those entering the new system – and those supporting them, including councils – have made it abundantly clear that moving onto universal credit makes things worse for too many.

This is not to dismiss universal credit in its entirety. It’s hard to argue with the original intention to simplify the benefit system and make sure work pays. It was always going to be an ambitious (possibly over-ambitious) project. But salami slicing the promised support – from the added seven day "waiting period" for a first payment, to the slashed work allowances intended to herald improved work incentives – leaves us with a system that won’t merely overpromise and under-deliver, but endanger many families’ already fragile financial security. The impact should not be underestimated – this is not just about finances, but families’ lives and the emotional stress and turmoil that can follow.

With increasing political and economic uncertainty, with Brexit looming, this is not the time for petty leadership squabbles, but a time to reassure voters and revitalise the government’s promises to the nation. The DWP committed to a "test and learn" approach to rolling out universal credit – to pause and fix these urgent problems is no U-turn. And of course, the Prime Minister promised a transformed social justice agenda, tackling the "burning injustices" of the day. Nearly all of the UK’s 2 million single parent families will be eligible for universal credit once it is fully rolled out; making this flagship support fit for purpose would surely be a good place to start.

Sumi Rabindrakumar is a research officer at single parents charity Gingerbread.