Editor’s Note: When Brent Poirier agreed to be faculty for the Wilmette Institute’s course Charters of the Faith, he promised to supplement the study of the Tablet of Carmel, the Will and Testament of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, and the Tablets of the Divine Plan with a series of guest speakers. We are lucky to be able to share not one but two recordings that Brent made with Sheila Banani about her 1956 pilgrimage to the Bahá’í World Center when Shoghi Effendi was alive—a pilgrimage in which she was the only Western pilgrim and had the privilege of having dinner with the Guardian seven times.
Sheila is a Knight of Bahá’u’lláh, an honor bestowed by Shoghi Effendi on those who opened countries during his Ten Year World Crusade (1953–63). With her husband Amin and their young daughter Susanne, Sheila opened Greece in 1953, staying at their post until 1958, when their visas expired. She is the daughter of Charles Wolcott, who served on the International Bahá’í Council from 1961 until he was elected to the Universal House of Justice in 1963.
Sheila obtained a BA in sociology from UCLA and a Master’s in urban planning, which led to careers in college teaching and coastal and city planning. She is also a published poet; one of this writer’s favorites is “When I Am an Old Woman, I Shall Wear Purple.” Now in her eighties, Sheila is teaching two Zoom courses—one on Shoghi Effendi’s World Order of Bahá’u’lláh letters and one on The Advent of Divine Justice—and is serving in her seventeenth year with her local Human Relations Council Board of Directors and is also involved in local social justice concerns “now that our country seems to be waking up to wanting to do something about systemic racism.”
Sheila opens the first video recording of her memories of her 1956 pilgrimage to the Bahá’í World Center by explaining that, in the 1950s, one had to write to Shoghi Effendi for permission and then to wait for his approval and a schedule. Her permission came for the Ridván period in 1956. Her husband had been on pilgrimage the preceding year while she stayed home with her young daughter, Susanne, making sure she held their pioneering post in Greece. When her pilgrimage came up, Amin’s mother (Samiheh Banani) came from Kampala, Uganda to Athens to help Amin care for Susanne.
The Holy Land being only a three-hour flight from Greece, Sheila arrived mid-morning and was invited to breakfast by Ethel Revell, a secretary to Shoghi Effendi, and talked to Hands of the Cause of God Milly Collins and Leroy Ioas. By evening she had visited the Shrine of the Báb for the first time, walked on Mount Carmel, and had tea with Ruhiyyih Khanum. Dinner that evening was Sheila’s first meeting with Shoghi Effendi, who, because she was a Knight of Bahá’u’lláh, seated her at the head of the table as the honored guest.
Then Sheila follows, sometimes chronologically, sometimes topically, with a variety of remembrances: how Shoghi Effendi greeted her, what he asked her about the Shrine of the Báb and the tiles destined for its roof, what he told her about the challenges of teaching in Greece; how he seemed to her; and many more. The session ends with a number of questions from those enrolled in the course.
When Brent asked Sheila what she most wanted people to know about Shogh Effendi, she said that memories cannot give a broad view of the Guardian. Then she paused to reflect and said:
“You need to study Shoghi Effendi’s words, and they need to penetrate your heart and your soul. Then I think your actions will tell you whether you have understood Shoghi Effendi.”
In her second video Sheila begins by talking about the Tablet of the Divine Plan, dated April 11, 2016, and addressed to the “real Bahá’ís of America,” because it is the one in which ‘Abdu’l-Bahá mentions Greece, the country she and her husband opened during the Ten Year World Crusade. In the tablet the Master talks about World War I then raging in Europe, the yearning for “concord and peace,” and the need for a “thousandfold” increase in exertions. As in the first video, Sheila then follows with a potpourri of remembrances: what she could see on Shoghi Effendi’s face; how he seemed unencumbered with the weight of the world; how he appeared when walking toward the Shrine of the Báb; racism and materialism; chaos and clarity. Those listening to Sheila Banani’s precious memories of her pilgrimage to the Bahá’í World Center during the lifetime of Shoghi Effendi will want to save the links to the two recordings for future sharing and inspiration.
by Betty Fisher