Early Tacoma Bahá’ís – Elizabeth Johnson, Part 2

The telegram granting Elizabeth permission to come on pilgrimage

The privilege of making the pilgrimage to the holy places of one’s Faith was one of the highlights of Elizabeth’s life. This was especially true during the ministry of Shoghi Effendi, as pilgrimage also meant the inestimable bounty of meeting the man who was the direct descendant of Bahá’u’lláh and the family of the Báb, her spiritual leader, and infallible guide. She wrote to the Guardian in January, 1953, asking for permission to come on pilgrimage, and informing him of her intention to attend the Stockholm Conference that summer. The Guardian’s secretary replied to her in a letter dated in March, telling Elizabeth that, because of the long waiting list, it would not be possible for her to come to Haifa before the Conference, but that he would let her know when it would be possible to do so; and also expressing happiness with her intention to attend the Conference.  


            The request to go on pilgrimage went directly to the World Center in Haifa. The approval from Haifa went by cable to the National Spiritual Assembly, who in turn relayed the permission to Elizabeth. Permission to go on pilgrimage was granted in September and was for January, 1954. Late that month, Elizabeth received a letter from the Office of the Secretary of the National Spiritual Assembly, along with the cable from the Guardian. The economical text of the cable read simply, “PILGRIM PERMITTED ELIZABETH JOHNSON” and was signed “SHOGHI”. The letter from the National office was signed by the Secretary, Horace Holley, who was then also a Hand of the Cause of God. Elizabeth made her arrangements directly with Haifa, and she was granted approval, by cable, to leave for Haifa the middle of January.          


            One of the indications of how small the number of pilgrims was in the 1950’s, compared to today, and how few the number of followers of Bahá’u’lláh, is a letter sent to Elizabeth with regard to her travel arrangements. She planned to visit London on her return, and had written directly to the NSA of the British Isles for recommendations as to hotel accommodations. The National Spiritual Assembly sent her a five paragraph reply, nearly a full page, giving her several recommendations. It suggested, for example, trying the Alexa Hotel, noting that is the hotel where the NSA and Committee members often stay, but informing her that it does not have a lift. The friendly letter said that four pilgrims had just returned to their country, the first in many months, and they were anxiously waiting to hear what they had to say. The letter concluded by requesting that she let them know when and how long she would be in London, so that the friends there would be able to meet her and hear the comments of the Guardian. It was signed by the NSA Secretary, John Ferraby, who would be appointed a Hand of the Cause of God in 1957. The friends were always eager to hear the Guardian’s words, especially at this time, the beginning of the Ten Year Crusade.


            Elizabeth arrived in Israel on Monday morning, January 18, after what was surely a tiring journey. Air travel took much longer then because of the need for frequent refueling stops. She left New York the evening of the 16th, and made stops in Shannon, Paris, Zurich, Rome, and Athens (all on the same flight) en route to Tel Aviv.  She was certainly eager to get there, since she did not stay over at any of her stops! Upon settling at her hotel in Haifa, she cabled her husband, John, of her safe arrival.


A letter from the Guardian, page 1


            Pilgrimage is a personal, intimate experience that cannot adequately be conveyed in words. Bahá’ís read the history of their Faith and the associations of their holy places in Akká and Haifa with the lives of Bahá’u’lláh, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, their family, the remains of the Báb, and the many early believers. It becomes a part of every Bahá’í’s history. Pilgrims can walk where they walked and see what they saw. They can see how the holy places have been transformed and beautified under the Guardian’s care. And most of all, they can visit and pray at those most holy places, the resting spots of the Central Figures of their Faith. Elizabeth, like many pilgrims during the lifetime of the Guardian, left Pilgrim Notes of some of her experiences.


A letter from the Guardian, page 2


            She was a people person, and her Pilgrim Notes reflect that. She does not tell about her thoughts or emotions, or comment on her visits to the holy places or her sight-seeing trips. She talks about people she met – conversing with a Jewish man on the plane whose family had perished in the holocaust, and enjoying lunch at the Pilgrim House with Ruhiyyih Khanum, Sylvia Ioas, and Honor Kempton. Mostly, of course, she comments on her meeting Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith. The Guardian regularly invited pilgrims to sit at the dinner table with him and with those who served him in Haifa – the members of the International Bahá’í Council and the Hands of the Cause. They would be privileged to hear the Guardian’s assistants share with him the news of the day’s labors and his advice and instructions to them for the next day. And, Shoghi Effendi would speak to the pilgrims directly, answering their questions, telling them what the Bahá’ís must do to promote the Word of God, and sharing with them his vision. It is these comments directed to the pilgrims that fill the brief pages of Elizabeth’s notes.


            Elizabeth’s thoughtfulness to others is revealed in the correspondence that followed her pilgrimage. She stopped in Rome on the way home and visited the Hand of the Cause Ugo Giachery and his wife, Angeline, at their home, where she also enjoyed visiting with Bahá’ís at a fireside and luncheon. Her warm letter to Mr. and Mrs. Giachery, thanking them for their hospitality, expressed her sorrow that they could not use the stockings that she left them, and she also says that she would like to know about the watch, hoping that it could be fixed. Who else would leave stockings and a watch to a Hand of the Cause and his wife?


            Jessie and Ethel Revell each wrote separate letters to her recalling her pilgrimage. Jessie writes, “After you left, there was a big vacancy here – we all miss you very much.” She goes on to say that she wore the scarf that Elizabeth gave her and that it was beautiful and a cheerful reminder of her. And she concludes by saying, “We miss your good cake and rolls, etc.”  Ethel wrote Elizabeth twice (both responses to her letters). One letter, written two years later while on vacation in Malta, comments on activities and people, and also says to Elizabeth, “Don’t worry about your not making an angel pie while you were in Haifa. What we did have of your baking was simply delicious.” How many pilgrims took the time to bake for the Guardian and his busy staff? Elizabeth must have left quite an impression with her baking, to be remembered so well two years later.


            Elizabeth was faithful to the Guardian in her teaching efforts in the Tacoma area. She wrote her (presumably) fourth and final letter to him in January, 1957, keeping him apprised of her efforts. The reply, by the Guardian’s Secretary (Hand of the Cause Leroy Ioas), expresses pleasure with her teaching work and asks her to write to the friends in Korea so that they may contact a master sergeant who became a Bahá’í through Elizabeth’s efforts. Mr. Ioas also tells her that the Guardian wishes her to continue her correspondence with the friends in Sweden, France, and the Faroe Islands. He concludes by reminding her that “Spiritual development comes through teaching the Faith, as it attracts the quickening power of the Holy Spirit.” Enclosed with the letter was a receipt for a contribution to the Fund, which was signed, as usual, “Shoghi”. Such was the burden on the Guardian, that he personally signed the many receipts even for modest contributions – but one can imagine the pleasure and confirming power bestowed on the happy contributor, to have the receipt so signed.


Hand of the Cause Ugo Giachery with his dear wife, Angeline, taken by Elizabeth at a conference in Stockholm in 1953.


Elizabeth received four letters from the Guardian’s secretaries on his behalf, in reply to her letters. The first three had a postscript in the handwriting of  Shoghi Effendi, which was something about which she was always proud. The first one was in reply to her request to go on pilgrimage. The Guardian wrote: “Assuring you of my loving prayers for your success in the service of our beloved Faith. Your true brother, Shoghi”.  The second letter was a follow-up to the first one, coming just one month later, informing Elizabeth that the Guardian knows nothing about a certain Dr. Amir Rouhi from Iran, that he is neither a Bahá’í nor related to Bahá’u’lláh, and that it is better to avoid him. We have no other information about this Dr. Rouhi or why Elizabeth would write to the Guardian about him – one suspects that the real reason was the desire to enjoy again the excitement of receiving a letter from the Guardian. The third letter came to Elizabeth after her pilgrimage and return home. The Guardian’s secretary expresses Shoghi Effendi’s happiness to learn that she was able to visit a number of centers in different countries on the way home and that she was able to obtain publicity for the Faith in Sweden. The letters goes on to say: “The Guardian urges you to use every effort to help in the establishment of the Faith on a solid foundation in Tacoma, and also to do all you can to penetrate nearby towns with these sorely-needed teachings.”


            That Elizabeth would receive personal responses to her letters gives us a very small hint at the great burden of work facing the Guardian and the small staff at the World Center in just reading and answering the correspondence. There were no computers then. Each letter had to be typed by hand. And, Shoghi Effendi would take the time to append a few personal words of encouragement to so many of the letters. This tells us something of the importance that he placed in the teaching efforts of each of the faithful followers of Bahá’u’lláh, that he would take the time to do this so regularly for so many years.

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