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Shoghi Effendi Illuminated through a 1956 Pilgrimage: Sheila Banani’s Memoirs

Mar 30, 2021
The last photograph of Shoghi Effendi, taken a few months before he died

The last photograph of Shoghi Effendi, taken a few months before he died.

by Betty J. Fisher

Editor’s Note: For his Wilmette Institute course Charters of the Faith, Brent Poirier supplemented the study of the Tablet of Carmel and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Will and Testament and Tablets of the Divine Plan with a series of guest speakers. One of them was Sheila Banani, who has now recorded six videos about her 1956 pilgrimage to the Bahá’í World Center. Shoghi Effendi was not the object of the pilgrimage (that would be visiting the Shrines of Bahá’u’lláh and the Báb). But Shoghi Effendi, the Center of Bahá’u’lláh’s Covenant at that time, was alive and very much a presence in Haifa. During her pilgrimage Sheila 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 to the Bahá’í Faith 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.

Book cover: When I Am an Old Woman, I Shall Wear Purple

Sheila obtained a B.A. degree 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 her poems, “Life’s Rainbow,” appears in the classic anthology 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.” At the time of her pilgrimage, Sheila was a twenty-three year old wife, mother, and pioneer. Shoghi Effendi was fifty-nine, in the prime of a life that was destined to be cut short in 1957.

Sheila Banani, in Video 1 (1:23:32) and Video 2 (50:40), described in the February Wilmette Institute newsletter), talked at length about arriving in Haifa for her pilgrimage and how it unfolded. Her interviewer was Brent Poirier, faculty for the Charters of the Faith course; her audience, learners in the course. Video 3 (32:35) continues Sheila’s discussion started in Video 2 in a session with Wilmette Institute learners. Sheila gives us a glimpse into her afternoon teas with Ruhiyyih Khanum. One involves her helping Khanum clean zereshk, called barberries in English, a tiny, tart berry loved by Persians but one filled with twigs and small rocks when picked, and Khanum then asking Sheila (very much not a cook and not an Arabic-speaker) to help the cook (not an English-speaker) prepare them for dinner. Sheila reports that Shoghi Effendi took two helpings of the dish and said that he liked it.

Sheila Banani displays a piece of the silk brocade used to line cabinet drawers for the International Archives building.

On another afternoon several Persian women, also pilgrims, joined Ruhiyyih Khanum for tea, and they spent the afternoon hemming the edges of silk brocade to line cabinet drawers for the International Archives building, then under construction. Brent showed a picture on the video of the incomplete building, and Sheila, a piece of the brocade that Ruhiyyih Khanum had allowed her to keep.

Sheila also showed the learners the prayers beads that Ruhiyyih Khanum had given her, instructing her to lay them on the threshold of the Shrine of Bahá’u’lláh during the two nights she spent in Bahji and then at the threshold of the Shrine of the Báb when she returned to Haifa.

Sheila Banani shows learners the prayer beads given to her by Ruhiyyih Khanum.

In Video 3, Brent poses a number of questions: What did Shoghi Effendi say about politics? Where would opposition to the Faith come from? Sheila talks at some length about what Shoghi Effendi said about Russia (then behind the Iron Curtain) being “approached” from Greece. She also discusses his flexibility. If one avenue in a Plan closed, he would select another. Near the end of Video 3, Brent invited students to ask questions. One was why didn’t Shoghi Effendi come to the United States. After answering that question, Sheila tells the students that Shoghi Effendi said that Americans are “enthusiastic. They are enthusiastic about everything, but they are not profound. They should become more profound, like the Germans. The Germans have a profound understanding of the Faith. . . . We must develop a more profound understanding of the Faith. Being serious-minded is not the same thing as having a profound understanding. Consecration is a quality that is required.”

Brent ends the session with the learners by thanking Sheila for sharing her heart and spirit and also by noting that what Shoghi Effendi said to her is divine guidance for her, but to the rest of us her accounts are pilgrim’s notes.

Amelia (Milly) Collins (1873–1962) with whom Sheila Banani spent two nights at Bahji during her 1956 pilgrimage. Photo courtesy of the Baha’i International Community.

The final three videos (4, 5, and 6) were recorded without an audience. Sheila’s interviewer, Brent, takes a different approach, eliciting from Sheila many insights about Shoghi Effendi. Brent opens Video 4 (57:30) with a question about a letter that the Hand of the Cause of God Milly Collins wrote to Sheila’s parents Charles and Harriett Wolcott on May 7, 1956, the day after Sheila’s pilgrimage ended. In the letter Milly said that Sheila had made Shoghi Effendi happy. Brent then explores a paragraph in ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Will and Testament (third from the end) in which he exhorts the Bahá’ís “to take the greatest care of Shoghi Effendi,” so that “day by day he may wax greater in happiness . . . and grow to become even as a fruitful tree.” Sheila responds by telling a story about how she answered a question Shoghi Effendi asked her after she returned from spending two nights with Milly Collins at Bahji. You must watch the video to see what evoked from Shoghi Effendi a hearty laugh. And what action he took.

As the fourth video progresses, Brent asks a variety of questions: What was Shoghi Effendi’s impact on people? What was Shoghi Effendi’s impact on Sheila? (Sheila says it was like getting commands from the commander.) How was Shoghi Effendi, as Ruhiyyih Khanum has written, “as sensitive as a seismograph?” (Shoghi Effendi’s advice about the slowness of the growth of the Faith in Greece, Sheila’s pioneering post, was “Patience. You must have patience.”) Did you have a spiritual connection with the Guardian after your pilgrimage ended? How did Shoghi Effendi exhibit candor? (This question led to a discussion between Sheila and Brent about the importance of reading Ruhiyyih Khanum’s biography of Shoghi Effendi The Priceless Pearl, which Sheila is using in her study class on the Guardian’s World Order of Bahá’u’lláh letters, and also Riaz Khadem’s Shoghi Effendi in Oxford and Earlier.

The fourth video ends with a discussion of the tests Shoghi Effendi had gone through, which caused Helen Bishop, an American Bahá’í, to observe that “Shoghi Effendi was the most complete man she ever met” and Lorol Schopflocher, another American Bahá’í, to say that he was the “most alive-looking person she ever met.” Sheila, a twenty-three year old, says she saw the man who has triumphed; she saw his achievements.

Amatu’l-Bahá Rúhíyyih Khánum (born Mary Sutherland Maxwell) was the wife of Shoghi Effendi. Sheila Banani had afternoon tea with her a number of times during her 1956 pilgrimage. 

The fifth and sixth videos (31:52 and 21:54 respectively) can be viewed in one sitting. In the fifth video, Brent continues with a series of questions: Did you get a sense of Shoghi Effendi’s physical vigor? Do passages in ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Will and Testament trigger any insights into the Guardian? How do you understand Shoghi Effendi’s being called “the sign of God”? Sheila’s thoughtful answers give us insights into his being that both humanize and set him apart as “a giant” to Bahá’ís.

When asked about the encouragement that Shoghi Effendi gave pioneers, Sheila says he was the “best encourager.” Then she shares a postscript he had penned on a letter to her, one dated April 30, 1957, some seven months before his passing. The note reads: “May the Almighty bless your efforts, guide your steps, aid you to extend the scope of your activities and win great victories in the days to come. Your true brother Shoghi.” She says she takes his encouragement up to the present day, where we are all pioneers, we all need encouragement, and we have the Universal House of Justice, which is our Center of Strength.

Part of Shoghi Effendi’s postscript on a letter to Sheila Banani, April 30, 1957.

Near the end of the fifth video Brent poses a question, noting that during World War I, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá went on about His business so that God’s will would be done. Sheila responds by saying that Shoghi Effendi had stressed the importance of God’s Plan, adding that we do not understand it. At that moment the battery in her computer ran out. After moving from her office/guest bedroom to another room where she had plugged in her computer, Sheila continues with some impassioned comments (paraphrased) that Shoghi Effendi had shared at dinner about God’s Plan and the Minor Plan, the Bahá’ís plan:

“God’s Plan is the more important plan. Our plans, the Bahá’í plans, are referred to as the Minor Plan. God’s plan is the Major Plan. The Minor Plan that the Bahá’ís have—in those years was the Ten Year World Plan—that works in a very orderly fashion, clear-cut goals, Bahá’ís organized to pursue the goals, hopefully to be successful in achieving the goals. But they have to remember that God’s Plan, which is the Major Plan, is the more important in the sense that God’s Plan works to create the conditions under which our Minor Plan, our Bahá’í Plan, is advanced.

“And, if God’s Plan works by chaotic disruption, the breaking down of institutions that no longer are adequate to meet the needs of humanity, and so God works in these mysterious way, as God is known to do, and to our view it might appear chaotic and disruptive and difficult because, of course, we are in this world and suffering all the ills of the world. But the Bahá’í Plan, if we pursue it in the fashion in which it must be pursued, the successes that we will have will be to be ready for and adequate for the needs of humanity as it survives God’s disruptive Major Plan, which is helping the Minor Plan, ours, in our slow development, so slow, and it takes a long time. It doesn’t happen overnight.

“But God’s Plan will eventually prepare us to serve by, through it, and come out the other end as a form of development that could not be achieved in any other way because the Bahá’ís are not working to disrupt the world. The Bahá’ís are working to rebuild in the process of the disruptions we see all around us, the inadequacies of the institutions of our world society—their inadequacies are their destruction, their self-destruction. Bahá’ís should be only building.”

The sixth and final video ends with Brent and Sheila discussing how Shoghi Effendi, when war threatened the Holy Land in 1948 as countries vied for the Port of Haifa, continued to work on improving the Bahá’í World Center; how Shoghi Effendi’s leadership still offers a model for us today; how Bahá’ís today need to think clearly about working with like-minded organizations which may or may not be using means consonant with Bahá’í ideals. Brent showed on the video screen the oft-quoted statement of Bahá’u’lláh (see The Tabernacle of Unity, pp. 35–36)—made in the context of discussing laws of previous dispensations—that we “Be anxiously concerned with the needs of the age in which ye live,” but noted that He explains in subsequent sentences “That is, fix your gaze on the commandments of God, for whatsoever He should ordain in this day and pronounces as lawful is indeed lawful and representeth the very truth.” Thus we have the laws, the prayers, the guidance, the institutions to establish justice in the world.

Highlighted excerpt from The Tabernacle of Unity

As their conversation draws to a close, Brent observes that Sheila had been working toward that justice since she became a Bahá’í some seventy years earlier. Sheila ends by saying that she hopes young Bahá’ís, responsible for growth, will take hope from the learnings of earlier Bahá’ís. Each generation of Bahá’ís, she adds, has a responsibility in building the World Order of Bahá’u’lláh. That is our most important goal in life.

Surely, as Brent noted, Sheila’s soul was touched by Shoghi Effendi. And Sheila’s soul continues to touch our souls today with her warmth, her love for the Guardian, and her wisdom in sharing what she learned from him. This article, and the one published in February, capture only a fragment of that wisdom.

A Final Question: How might we use the six videos of Sheila Banani’s pilgrimage to Haifa in 1956 and her accounts of dinner talks with Shoghi Effendi? Here are a few ideas. Just listen to the videos, one by one, to be inspired. Use them on November 4 in a personal or family gathering marking of the death of Shoghi Effendi. Gather a group of youth or adults or both, and have a listen-in focused on a very special pilgrimage and a lifetime of meditations and acting on learnings from Shoghi Effendi. Make the videos a part of studies of books by Shoghi Effendi or when you read The Priceless Pearl, Ruhiyyih Khanum’s biography of Shoghi Effendi. Ruhi tutors of Book 8, The Covenant of Bahá’u’lláh, Unit 2, “The Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith” can use the videos to supplement the study of that book.

A Help for You. Here is a customized playlist on YouTube from which you can access all six of the videos of the long conversation between Brent Poirier and Sheila Banani about her 1956 pilgrimage.

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