Hands of the Cause of God:
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How can I adequately write about Hand of the Cause H. Collis Featherstone. For me, he was a spiritual guide and mentor during my early years as a Bahá’í – almost a ‘second father’. Even before my formal declaration as a believer, Collis Featherstone had been praised as an outstanding Bahá’í, one who really ‘lived the life’. Preparing to attend that summer school at the end of 1953, I had been promised that I would meet Collis Featherstone – someone “really special in the Faith”.
That promise was truly fulfilled – though with Mr Faizi also attending that summer school, and over-shadowing everything else, I may not have fully recognised the special quality of the one who was truly the outstanding believer of the Australian community at that time. But as time passed it soon became quite clear that here was a special individual – one of those spiritual giants that have always appeared in the early stages of each dispensation.
Once my path was set in the direction of the Pacific islands, I came to know Collis much better – he and Madge were both members of the committee looking after the Pacific island pioneers: the Asian Teaching Committee – an Australian version of the U.S. Asian Teaching Committee that had spear-headed most of the pioneering activities in the first year of the Crusade. As I moved around in those early years, the Featherstone home became a ‘second home” for me and I often visited them. The pioneering efforts that Shapoor Soheili and I shared in New Caledonia during 1955-56 were all reported back to the committee, and encouragement and guidance came from them, or personally from Collis and Madge. That created a firm bond that grew with the years.
When the Asian Teaching Committee was first formed, with Collis as its secretary, he realized that not only were the pioneers the Pacific area isolated and lonely, each island being far from home and from each other, but they were seriously starved for news – news of developments in the Faith outside their reach and also news of what each was doing in their isolated islands, news of their successes and news of their trials and how they were overcome. So a regular newsletter in the form of the Koala News came into being and, with this, Collis spent many hours, often late into the night, sharing the news of all the pioneers with each other. For the pioneers it was a lifeline, connecting them with the outside world, and Collis spared nothing in energy and time to keep the pioneers informed. He also acquired a typewriter with very small print – postage, particularly air postage wherever that was available, was expensive and the weight of each letter important. Much more would fit on a page in smaller print, and he often sent out short compilations on various aspects of the teachings and charts clarifying some aspect of the world order. Those who were serving in the pioneering field at that time still have treasured copies of these compilations – a reminder of Collis’s sacrifice of time and constant effort.
The importance of sharing news – an awareness that was probably acquired during this period – remained with Collis through his life and wherever he visited the communities, he would enthusiastically share the news of the world community or of neighbouring communities where success was being experienced. He knew the beneficial effect it had on the friends, many of whom were experiencing disappointments in the teaching field or feelings of inadequacy due to the slow development of the Faith. And ‘enthusiastic’ is perhaps the word that best epitomised all that he did, and it was a contagious enthusiasm which lifted the friends and confirmed their devotion.
In early April 1954 the Guardian instructed the Hands of the Cause to appoint Auxiliary Boards to assist them in their work, and the Hand of the Cause in Australasia, Clara Dunn, had appointed two Auxiliary Board members, Collis and Thelma Perks. Their appointment was announced at the National Convention in 1954 when Collis was also chairman of the National Spiritual Assembly. Collis had always borne a special respect and admiration for Clara Dunn – ‘Mother’ Dunn to all the Australian community – and now working more closely together this bond had been strengthened. Thelma had also been supporting Mother Dunn for many years, both financially for her travels and work, and caring for her in many ways. They were obvious choices for this expansion of the Institution of the Hands at that time.
As I got to know Collis during this period, I could see that he alone, of all the Australian community, seemed to fully appreciate Mother Dunn’s station as a Hand of the Cause. One visit to their home, I remember, we were all going out to the airport to pick up Mother Dunn – she was then living with Eric and Marjorie Bowes in Adelaide and had been away on some trip. As Collis backed out of the driveway, he suddenly stopped and jumping out of the car, said he had forgotten the camera. Madge called to him, saying it was not necessary, they had many photos of Mother Dunn, and Collis’s response was that “she is a Hand of the Cause, and everything she does is important and must be recorded.” I could feel in that response his full appreciation of what it meant to be a Hand of the Cause, and have no doubt that that is why he also was called to that station.
Collis and Madge joined the Faith in December 1944, and their ‘genealogy’ as Bahá’ís was very close to the ‘source’. They learned of the Faith from Bertha Dobbins, who had heard of the Faith directly from Father Dunn in early 1929, and with her husband, Joe, was amongst the very early believers in Adelaide. Spending time with Bertha Dobbins in the New Hebrides in 1958, I heard directly from her the story of how Collis and Madge became Bahá’ís. Bertha and Katherine Harcus, another of the early believers in Adelaide, had been walking around the Port Adelaide area, searching for someone to teach and when they reached a rail-crossing at Albert Park, in the Woodville area, weariness caught up with them and they stopped. Leaning against a post at the rail crossing they called on the Greatest Name – a prayer much used in those early days – for a home to be opened up to the Faith. Little did they know that some three houses up that road was the home of Collis and Madge Featherstone.
A short time after that Madge was invited to the home of an acquaintance to meet a former teacher of that friend, who had an important message to share – the teacher was Bertha Dobbins. Madge attended several of these gatherings and shared what she was hearing with Collis. He expressed an interest on reading some of the pamphlets she brought home and asked for “a decent book”. He was given Nabil’s Dawnbreakers and started reading it that very night; when he reached page 92 and read the Báb’s address to the Letters of the Living, he realized that this was from God; he had found what he was looking for.
Collis and Madge attended the first Intercontinental Conference in New Delhi that launched the Ten Year Crusade and from there went on pilgrimage to the World Centre. While there, the Guardian spoke several times on the functions of the Hands of the Cause and how this institution would develop in the future, and with his deep love and regard for Mother Dunn, Collis listened intently to the vision the Guardian laid before them, little realizing how he himself would be personally involved in the near future.
The New Delhi conference was at that time a highlight in the lives of many Bahá’ís; it was the largest ever gathering and Collis had a photograph of those attending in the lounge room of his Adelaide home, along with an architect’s drawing of the Shrine of the Báb and the International Archives building, which were current goals for the World Centre. The conference photograph was in an elongated format, and he was tickled by the fact that the same person appeared on each end of the photo. It had been taken by a revolving camera – a new technology that fascinated him – which required the group to stand in an almost complete circle, where it was easy for an individual standing at one end to step across to the other end of the circle while the camera was swinging around. Collis was a keen and proficient photographer himself and left a huge collection of photographs of Bahá’í individuals and communities around the world – he even bought a half-frame 35 mm camera which took twice the number of photos on the one film, a great asset for travellers.
On many occasions in the future Collis would share with the friends his recollections of pilgrimage and their meeting with the beloved Guardian. The Guardian was the focus of his life – a common facet shared by all the Hands of the Cause – and he hung on each word Shoghi Effendi said or wrote. The issues that were clarified at the Guardian’s dinner table became the whole focus of his future life: the role of the Hands of the Cause and their future auxiliary institutions; the major Plan of God and the minor Divine Plan of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá; the role and responsibility of the pioneers in executing this minor plan; the two magnetic poles of the Pacific region – Australia and Japan; and the need for the friends to abstain totally from politics and give complete obedience to the government of the day. These were all issues that he spoke about repeatedly in the years to come.
One incident of their pilgrimage that he shared with the friends on several occasions was when, on one evening, the Guardian sent a message that he would be late for the evening meal and the pilgrims and members of the household should go ahead without him. Shortly after they had started eating, Shoghi Effendi came in – his face more alight than usual and obviously excited. He sat down at the table and, before starting to eat, announced some plans that he intended to execute – these related to developments in the newly formed International Bahá’í Council, developments relating to the Hands of the Cause, who were to have their own auxiliary institutions, and other developments of the Faith at the World Centre.
Both those of the household, which of course included most members of the International Bahá’í Council, and the pilgrims sat agape with surprise; only Rúhíyyih Khánum spoke: “But, Shoghi Effendi, you didn’t say anything about this before.” He bowed his head and replied softly: “I did not know before tonight; I am under the guidance of Bahá’u’lláh.” This was the reason for his late-coming and the incident, which Collis freely shared with the friends, reveals much of the way the Guardianship operated. Whatever plans he made, whatever guidance he gave – all came not from him but from Bahá’u’lláh. This was the pattern of the infallible guidance with which ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had invested him.
During those early years I visited the Featherstones whenever I could and kept in touch with Collis through reports and letters while in New Caledonia; I also had the great bounty of visiting them on route for my own pilgrimage, which involved bus and train travel to Perth to catch a steamer, and theirs was the first Bahá’í home I entered on my return. My bed whenever I was there was in a small guest room off the back verandah and before retiring that night, Collis came out in his pyjamas and asked me if the Guardian had said anything and then told me not to speak about it back in Australia. I remembered the Guardian speaking about the building of the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár for the Antipodes, soon to be constructed in Sydney, and also cautioning me not to speak of this, as the friends in Australia generally had not been told, so I said: “Yes, he did.” Collis immediately replied, with a smile: “Well, don’t tell me.” He, of course, knew all about it as the National Spiritual Assembly had been dealing with it for some time – but such was his obedience to the Guardian, that he would let me say no more – he was just checking.
The building of the House of Worship was formally announced in the Guardian’s Ridván Message for 1957 and when this was read at the national convention which established the separate National Spiritual Assembly for New Zealand – which we were all attending – I was able to see the look on Madge’s face as she looked sideways at Collis sitting beside her, and her eyes spoke much more than words: “You knew all about this and you didn’t tell me!” It was truly one of the Faith’s ‘best kept’ secrets.
Through Collis’s unfailing kindness and care, I found my life following pilgrimage unfolding without much effort from me. The following day, he called me to the phone, with: “Say ‘yes’, without asking.” The caller was one of the earliest of the Australian believers, Percy Almond – he and his wife, Maysie, were among the very first to declare in Adelaide – so I said ’yes’ as bidden, and found that I had accepted a paid-for air ticket to Auckland for New Zealand’s first national convention at Ridván 1957 – a brief trip which extended for more than six months, visiting communities in New Zealand. And during that day, with more than a little encouragement from Collis, I had committed to going to the New Hebrides the following summer so that the pioneer there, Bertha Dobbins, could take a break from the tropical weather and the strain of pioneering in that far-off island on her own. I knew that Collis and Madge, unable to pioneer themselves because of their young family, were fully financing Bertha in her pioneering venture and she had refused to leave the island for a break unless some other responsible pioneer were there, in case she was not able to return. This was planned for a couple of months during the following summer so that Bertha could attend the continental conference in Sydney in March – one of the series that marked the mid-way point of the Ten Year Crusade – so I was at a loose end till then and Collis’s quick intervention made it possible for me to spend much of that year in New Zealand. And while the commitment for New Hebrides was for a couple of months only, little did I know that plans for providing Bertha with a new school building that would evolve while she was in Australia would extend my stay in the New Hebrides for a whole year. As recorded before, Collis and Madge were the driving force behind the committee that planned the lives of the pioneers in the Pacific, and they planned my life very well indeed. In matters like this, I owe Collis more than I can ever fully appreciate.
I visited the family once more before going to New Zealand and on that occasion, I remember painting their bathroom. This also had its lesson because his daughter, Kaye, cautioned me that her father was very fussy that things were done properly and the painting of the bathroom had to be executed with the utmost care and precision. That was another facet of Collis’s character that I had not previously been acquainted with.
Attending the convention in Auckland was a story on its own – and some of that will be told in my recollections of Mother Dunn, because she was also involved. But it enabled me to observe Collis directing, from well back – behind the stage, so to speak – the birth and development of a new institution of the Faith. His guiding hand was evident, in a community that was still very new – though not young, because its birth actually preceded that of Australia. When Father and Mother Dunn held their first public meeting there, in Auckland, on their sea voyage to Australia, one of the audience spoke out and announced that she was a Bahá’í. That was Margaret Stevenson, the first Bahá’í in New Zealand, who had heard of the Faith first through The Christian Commonwealth, a copy of which had been sent from England by her sister, and later in 1912 through a friend of her sister who had heard ‘Abdu’l-Bahá speaking in London and had come to New Zealand for some theatrical performance; she stayed with Margaret’s family during her visit and what she conveyed of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s teachings enabled her to perceive its truth and accept the validity of Bahá’u’lláh’s message. But I digress – the community was fairly inexperienced and it was largely Collis’s quiet guidance that kept the process on course.
Later that year I was able to visit the family again before leaving for the New Hebrides – to garner encouragement and final instructions from Collis. This was October 1957 – and I remember the over-night bus to Adelaide stopping in the middle of those western plains known as the Mallee so that its passengers could all pile out, sleepily, to watch Sputnik 1 passing overhead. This was Russia’s and the world’s first venture into the realms of space, regarded as the marvel of the age, and it was launched, I think, on 4 October. Epoch making though it may have seemed, there were other things more important in the air – the letter from the Guardian appointing the final contingent of Hands of the Cause of God, preceded by a telephone call from Noel Walker, as secretary of the National Assembly, to Collis at work in his factory on 7 October, asking if he were ‘sitting down’ and then breaking the news that he had been appointed a Hand of the Cause. The cable that Noel read to him stated: “Announce your elevation rank Hand Cause. Confident new honour will enable you rise greater heights service beloved Faith. Shoghi”.
So the person that greeted me was a rather shattered Collis – in fact, the whole family were in trauma, dealing with this new situation. I feel the impact on Collis was even greater because he did understand all too well what it meant to be a Hand of the Cause, and how this was going to affect his life; he had studied all aspects of the institution and had listened attentively to the Guardian’s words. He needed time to assimilate what was happening, and that ‘time’ was just not available; there were things to be done. I remember thinking he looked like a person sleep-walking, or walking in a dream, as though life had suddenly become unreal.
The Port Adelaide community rallied and organised a gathering in the Featherstone’s home. Mother Dunn was in Adelaide at the time, so Eric and Marjorie Bowes brought her and the small community gathered for a first meeting with the ‘two’ Australian Hands of the Cause. I still have a photo of that gathering – an historic photograph.
Four weeks later an even great shock had to be sustained, and this was felt all around the Bahá’í world: the untimely – as we felt it was – passing of the beloved of all hearts, Shoghi Effendi. This immediately galvanized Collis into action: as one of the Hands of the Cause he not only needed to go to Haifa, to participate in the gathering that came to be known as the Conclave of the Hands, to determine what needs to the done now, but he also had to arrange for his fellow Hand, Clara Dunn, to make the same journey. She was 88 years old and frail; it was uncertain whether she could make the journey. She had attended the national convention in New Zealand earlier that year and had managed, but only just. She also needed her birth certificate to renew her passport, and while growing up in the United States, she was born in London, England – and Collis discovered that all records of her birth had been destroyed by wartime bombing. Through sheer perseverance – a quality much encouraged and admired by the Guardian – he was able to secure her passport just in time for the journey.
On his return to Australia he shared as much as he could with the Pacific pioneers of the events that had transpired: the interment of the Guardian in London, with all its sorrows and uncertainty for the future; the discovery that there was no ‘will’ and the only guidance the Hands had was the current Ten Year Crusade; their decision to fulfil the goals of the Crusade to ensure the election of the House of Justice, the only possible source of further guidance for the future; and their determination to vary ‘not one hair’s breadth’ from the plan the beloved Guardian had left us.
By this time I was in the New Hebrides, alone except for the handful of local believers who made up the community. It was a time of rapid maturity – for me, as well as for many Bahá’ís of that time. A letter had come from Collis, sent just prior to his departure and in it he wrote: “Now we will learn who the next Guardian will be.” That was fairly typical of the vision of most believers at that time: we were used to having the Guardian and we could not see life without him or some replacement. The fact that Collis had expressed this view demonstrated how most of the believers felt. It was a time of rapid maturity for all of us.
And it was a time when we learned to rely on the Hands for support and comfort – comfort from those whose hearts were truly broken. Bahá’ís in Australasia turned instinctively to Collis and he was there for us – all the way. He had the vision for the future and could convey it to us – even though those events had been even more traumatic for his own life. He was called upon to travel more frequently; he filled in for other Hands when they were ill and could not complete a mission – he was, after all, one of the younger members of the institution, some ten years older than Dr Muhajir and thirteen years older than Enoch Olinga who was the youngest. The record shows that from the first Conclave until the election of the House of Justice at Ridván 1963, Collis made 29 visits to 14 countries in Australasia and Asia; visited 9 countries in Europe and 5 in Central America and travelled 6 times to the Holy Land.
His travels to far-off countries alerted him to the fact that Australian news services – radio, as it then was – left a great deal to be desired, covering only or mainly British Commonwealth countries in its overseas news. He determined to fill this gap in his information supply – if you are planning to visit a country it’s useful to know whether there is a revolution or civil war going on – and he sought out and acquired short-wave radio equipment so as to be able to listen to overseas broadcasts. I recall him seeking advice from one of the friends pioneering in the Northern Territory – Bertha Dobbin’s son, Joe junior – who was knowledgeable in this technology, as to what sort of receiver he needed. And I recall Madge complaining that he used to sit up sometimes all night, to catch information on some broadcast that would be useful. He was very thorough in whatever he did.
Collis had a strong sense of the importance of proclamation activities and encouraged many communities to pursue these goals actively. He also had a natural and amazing ability to deal with those in government and was often sent on proclamation missions to meet with heads of state. On one occasion he was sent to Taiwan to patch up some damaged relationships. A travel teacher had quoted from the Guardian’s assessment of problems the world faced in “The chief idols in the desecrated temple of mankind … the triple gods of Nationalism, Racialism and Communism, at whose alters governments and peoples … are now worshipping” – and even offered to loan a government official the book, The Promised Day is Come. ‘Racialism’ and ‘communism’ were fine, in that situation, but to link those evils with ‘nationalism’ which was the founding principle of the state of Taiwan was more than a little upsetting for the official, and he took offence – a situation that could have endangered the whole Bahá’í community in Taiwan. Collis was sent to ‘soothe the troubled waters’ – and he did so, very effectively. Immediately after this incident, he visited Japan – that was during the mid-1970s – and related the story to the friends there.
Collis also had a keen sense of humour and fun, and liked to relax his listeners by telling stories and jokes. Once in a meeting in our home in Kyoto, Japan, he poked fun at the Australian accent. He had just been in Okinawa and had been referring in his talk to ‘race prejudice’ and how we must overcome this fault in our daily dealings with others. One of the friends listening, an American pioneer there for many years, told him afterwards that she kept hearing him referring to “rice prejudice” and wondered why this had to be eliminated, because she was quite fond of rice and had no prejudice against it. Collis laughed over this as he told the story, and said his Australian accent often led to misunderstandings.
A repeated exhortation to the friends wherever he went was to read the Writings daily and to delve deep into the holy words, constantly searching out their inner meanings, and also to be familiar with the writings of the Guardian and messages from the Universal House of Justice. This was something he himself practised; even travelling he always had books with him. I recall on one of his visits to Tasmania, when I was picking him up from his hotel, he had been reading the Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh – which had recently been published, so it must have been around 1980 – and he had found a passage that interested him immensely and he needed to share it with someone. “And here’s another one – listen to this.” We were a little late for the meeting that evening. And he always had handy in his pocket a notebook with short quotations which he would use when addressing the friends. He knew the power of the Word, and could convey that appreciation to others.
Collis was passionately interested in the history of the Faith and the importance of keeping archives, and often spoke on this point in communities he was visiting. He himself collected a massive amount of archival materials: his collection of photographs, recording faces in remote communities that would have otherwise been lost from the record; the audio material he had amassed, mostly on reel-to-reel tapes which were later converted to digital format and sent to the archives department at the World Centre – three large boxes reduced to 27 DVDs of digital recording. These included interviews he had organised himself: Mother Dunn relating how she became a Bahá’í and her meeting with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá; Effie Baker, the first woman to declare in Australia who worked with the Guardian at the World Centre for 12 years, from 1925 to 1937 and travelled through Iran in 1930 taking photos which were later used in the U.S. edition of The Dawnbreakers; Percy Almond relating how he joined the Faith in 1923 – he was amongst the first to declare in South Australia. We have Collis’s enthusiasm for archival material to thank for these precious records. He took colour slides of the World Centre on his pilgrimage, and made two 16 mm silent colour films which were both used extensively for teaching – this was, of course, all pre-television and their use had a significant impact. He also made a 16 mm colour film of the second Conclave of the Hands in 1958 at Bahji – 25 of the Hands were present, Corinne True and Clara Dunn being too frail to attend – and that is the sole record of this historic event. He also kept and bound Bahá’í magazines and newsletters of the period. As he often said to the friends wherever he was visiting: “You are making history now – record it.” He was very conscious of this, and his enthusiasm ensured that others in the community caught his message.
I recall one day in 1968 when Collis was visiting Darwin; he was on his way home from the World Centre where the Universal House of Justice had been consulting with the Hands of the Cause on the issue of extending their functions into the future – one of the goals of the Nine Year Plan. He had left the assembly’s post office box as a forwarding address up to a certain date, as he had planned to stop-over in Darwin, and we had just been to the post office to clear the mail. There was one letter him and he had been reading it on the way home. As we pulled into the driveway he started reading aloud to share its content with me. It was the letter of 8 June 1968, announcing the establishment and initial appointments of the Continental Boards of Counsellors – it was the decision on the issue they had been consulting on; Collis had been a party to that consultation but did not know what the House of Justice’s final decision would be. When he reached the point where the letter says that the Hands “will operate increasingly on an intercontinental level”, his voice choked and he stopped reading; then he whispered, “We belong to the world now”. He could see that in the coming years there would be much less time at home, less time for the family.
We have no idea, really, of what these great souls sacrificed of their own life and time. I remember reading an account of Hand of the Cause Tarázu’lláh Samandarí travelling through the United States in his later years, accompanied by his son, Dr Mehdí Samandarí, as translator. Someone had remarked to Dr Samandarí that it was a great sacrifice on his part, to spend his time travelling with his father, and his response was that he had seen so little of his father when he was growing up, that it was a great bounty for him to be with his father now on this trip.
Collis did indeed “operate increasingly on an intercontinental level”, although his one compensation was that Madge accompanied him whenever possible on his overseas trips. He still travelled within Australia visiting the communities – I remember his coming to Tasmania several times and sharing his experiences, particularly with the youth, but increasingly his work took him overseas, carrying out important missions for the Universal House of Justice. He represented the House of Justice at conventions for the formation of new National Spiritual Assemblies in the South West Pacific (Solomon Islands) in 1971 and the North West Pacific (Guam) in 1972, and also at international conferences in Anchorage, Alaska in July 1976 and in Dublin, Ireland in June 1982; with the diminishing numbers in the ranks of the Hands, he served as one of four Hands in the Holy Land, when needed, since May 1983; and attended the conference of the Continental Boards of Counsellors with the International Teaching Centre in the Holy Land, in December 1986.
In the five years from 1963 to 1968 he had made a total of 66 visits to 42 countries; in later years – from 1968 to 1976 – he made 126 visits to 49 countries and attended three of the oceanic and continental conferences in 1971 – in Singapore; Suva, Fiji and Sapporo, Japan. With the number of Hands rapidly diminishing and the expressed desire of the House of Justice that he be completely free to travel, he sold up his engineering business in 1976 and during the last 14 years of his life he made 243 visits to 95 countries on all continents.
His untimely passing came in September 1990 when, while on a visit to several countries in Asia on his way to an International Youth Conference in Lahore, Pakistan, he suffered a heart attack in Kathmandu. There is a vast distance between the small country town in South Australia where Collis was born and Kathmandu, Nepal, where his remains are now interred. There is also a vast difference between the world he was born into in 1913 and the one he left – and in no small measure some of the credit for those vast changes belongs to him. As the obituary, prepared by his family, records: “he died ‘with his boots on’ doing what he loved best – serving the Cause”.
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