I was born Wendy Cunningham Wirtshafter in Hollywood, California, one of the few people who can actually claim that. My parents, Buddy Worth and Carol Morris were nightclub entertainers and jazz musicians and until I went to school I did not know my real last name, only the professional one my parents used (Worth). I am of mixed heritage. My father’s family are Ashkenazi Jews who migrated from Hungary to the United States in the mid-1880s. My grandfather, Morris Wirtshafter, was a doctor and my grandmother, Harriet Klein Wirtshafter, a vaudeville entertainer. My mother’s mother, Ann Gunderson, was Norwegian who came with her family to the United States in 1902 to seek a better life; while my mother’s father, Hugh Cunningham Morris, was born in Gillingham, Kent and came by a circuitous route to the United States via South Africa, Australia and Canada, his father having been born in India during the Raj and being honoured in 1907 as Knight Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George in recognition of his services as Superintendent of the Trigonometrical Survey of the Transvaal and Orange River Colonies.
My mother’s family are mostly members of the Bahá’í Faith, my maternal grandmother having first read about the visit to the United States of `Abdu’l-Bahá, son of the Bahá’u’lláh, the founder of the Bahá’í Faith, in a newspaper in 1912 when she was 16. She was struck by his teachings about the oneness and unity of humanity, the need for social justice, the establishment of world peace and the equality of women and men. Many years later, in the 1940s, she met a Bahá’í and almost immediately became a Bahá’í herself, as did most of the women in her family, including my mother.
These ideas framed my childhood and from a young child I had a strong sense of social justice. Growing up in the McCarthy era, I was shocked to be turned away from my friend’s house when I was nine because my family were considered `communists’ because they were Bahá’ís. I witnessed anti-Semitism from neighbours against my father and racism against my cousin, who was part African-American and part Norwegian. When I was 14, I together with my African-American Bahá’í friends were asked to leave a popular restaurant in Los Angeles. `You can stay,’ the waitress told her, `but they will have to eat in the car park.’ I never ate in that chain again. When the civil rights movement took hold, I became an advocate.
I went to the Tulsa University when I was 16 and studied pre-law but spent most of my time with the drama department, acting in a number of plays.
1968 was a significant turning point in my life. That year there was intensive teaching of the Faith locally and in two months we had 80 new Bahá’ís, including my roommate and best friend, Jennifer. In the summer of 1968 I was asked to be one of the youth volunteers in Haifa to assist at the commemoration in Haifa and `Akká of the centenary of Bahá’u’lláh’s arrival there in August 1868. There was a conference in Palermo, Italy, before this but the youth volunteers missed that to be trained for our roles in Haifa. It was my first time to visit the Holy Land. There I met my husband, Moojan, who had been travel teaching in Africa for several months and was also asked to be a youth volunteer in Haifa.
My childhood dreams were to live in England, to become a writer and to do something with the United Nations. The first was realised in 1969, when, after meeting Moojan, I left TU, worked briefly at the National Office in Wilmette, and then enrolled in an American university with a campus near Maidenhead, England, to be near him. We married in 1971 and settled in London, where he studied medicine and I attended the London School of Economics. During the time I was at LSE I had two children, Sedrhat (1973) and Carmel (1976). The family moved to Bedfordshire in 1980 when Moojan became a partner in a GP practice in Sandy.
I became a writer when my first book, Call Me Ridvan, a novel for children about overcoming prejudice, was published in 1982. Since then I have published 12 other books. And I began to work for George Ronald, Publisher, Oxford in 1979, so I get to read and edit books for a living.
1982 was another sort of turning point year for me. I was appointed a magistrate in the criminal courts. magistrates are lay, unpaid people who have powers of imprisonment of criminals up to a year. All criminal cases begin in the magistrates’s court, including murder, and over 98 per cent of all criminal cases are completed there. As we say, magistrates put people in jail for a hobby. Two years later I was appointed to the domestic panel, which became the family panel, which then became part of the single family court, at which I am a lay judge. I’ve held quite a few elected positions in the court, including vice-chair of the bench and chair and vice chair of the family panel. I was also a youth criminal magistrate for a number of years. I sit about a hundred times a year.
It was also in 1982 that I was first elected to the National Spiritual Assembly of the UK. I was treasurer for nine years, chair for ten and assistant secretary for one. I stepped down after 23 years in 2005 but was re-elected in 2014 and have been serving again since then.
When we moved into Sandy, its population was increasing rapidly with the development of new estates under the GLC overspill scheme. Living on a new council estate, I became aware that there were some 400 families, many of them were single-parent, female head of household, that had moved to Sandy from London. They were without family and friendship networks and the promises of work did not always materialise. Friends and I established the Sandy Neighbourhood Centre in 1984, a drop-in centre for mothers and children where they could build friendships, develop skills, learn about their rights and train as volunteers to help others. That same year I began to work for Save the Children as an area organiser for the Home Counties.
In this same period, I became an advocate for a cluster of social issues: the women’s movement, becoming a Soroptimist in 1986; business ethics, co-founding the European Bahá’í Business Forum (now Ethical Business Building the Future) in 1990; health, becoming a non-executive director of Bedfordshire Family Health Services Authority in 1990; and the environment, becoming part of Agenda 21 locally after the 1992 Rio Conference; poverty eradication and housing. All these interests I continue to pursue.
My third dream was fulfilled when I attended my first UN conference as an accredited delegate in 1994 and can’t quite believe that every year since then I have attended at least one UN summit or conference, such as the Beijing 4th Conference on Women in 1995, Habitat II in Istanbul in 1996, and the World Summits on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002 and in Rio in 2012, as well as the Commission on the Status of Women in New York every year since 1997. As a child I had avidly read Bahá’í News, and followed the work of Mildred Mottahedeh, who was the Bahá’í representative at the UN for many years. I wanted to do something like that at the UN — and I have now been doing it for 25 years.
With the establishment of the Bahá’í inspired Ruhi Training Institute, I became a tutor and was appointed area coordinator, then cluster coordinator, which I still undertake. Moojan and I have been hosting devotional meetings since 2000 and accompanying our Methodist friend to host hers for the past four years. We have lots of activities at our home: picnics in the summer for over a hundred people, soirees based on the arts, where Bahá’í artists talk about their work and the inspiration for it; and open houses for holy days, being the only Bahá’ís in our village community.
I began working with the Wilmette Institute in 2013, with one course on marriage. Since then, under the leadership of Susanne Alexander, the team has developed a whole host of courses on marriage and family life, and a second strand on parenting; and Barney Leith, Dan Wheatley and I have worked together on courses on Social Change and various aspects of Bahá’í community life.
2014 was another one of those turning point years. Our son was married in Turin; I found out on the day of the wedding that I had been re-elected to the National Spiritual Assembly and days later was quite amazed to learn that I had been awarded a Member of the British Empire (MBE) `gong’ by the Queen for services to the UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women and to the community in Bedfordshire. The family went to Buckingham Palace in January 2015 (in the middle of a blizzard…) to meet Prince Charles, who gave me the medal in a moving ceremony. The two things I thought about while there was how much my mother would have loved to be there (she passed away in 2010) and how the British government was honours people for offering service while the Iranian government was imprisoning Bahá’ís for doing the same thing.
My passions continue to be the Bahá’í Faith, social justice in many forms, spiritual development, the advancement of women, eradicating violence against women, human rights, health, housing, sustainable development, the environment and business ethics. My un-passions are social injustice, violence and trafficking. And beetroot.
When will the next turning point be?