Enoch Olinga

Mr. Jamshid Arjomandi, custodian of the House of Abdu’llah Pasha in Akka, is a beloved figure at the Bahá’í World Centre.  His whole life has been devoted to the Faith, and he is full of stories.  Sadly for us, he is leaving the World Centre shortly.  Luckily for us, he gave a farewell talk on Enoch Olinga, who was one of the Hands of the Cause.  I’m going to do my best to paraphrase the story he told.  Of course, my write-up cannot convey the emotion and reverence he expressed–often, he would have to pause to gather himself and wipe his tears.  But here goes.

“A few weeks ago, I was showing some of the friends around Akka, giving them a tour, telling them stories.  One young lady in the group said to me, “Jamshid, your cup is so full!”  Now I puzzled over what she had said.  I was full?  Then I looked back over my life, and I realized that yes, my cup is full!  And I figured I should share it with all of you, because keeping it to myself would be greedy.

When I was a boy, I lived in a small town in Iran–it was so small, in fact, that if you ran fast enough you wouldn’t even notice that you had passed it.  It was very sandy.  The buildings and streets were the color of sand, and so were the people.  But the Bahá’ís had their local Haziratu’l-Quds (center).  The inside was so huge!  And just imagine, having a big, beautiful hall in a town like that.

Well, it was October 1957.  I remember I was at a Bahá’í gathering in this hall, and a telegram from the Guardian, Shoghi Effendi [head of the Faith at that time], was read.  In this cable he announced the final contingent of Hands of the Cause.  One name struck me: Enoch Olinga!  Enoch Olinga, from the mysterious land of Africa!  It was a strange name, and from the moment I heard it, I knew that he was my Hand of the Cause.

Later, in the early 1960s, I was in university in Ireland, and I had the opportunity to help at the convention in London, ushering delegates at the resting place of the Guardian.  So, in between ushering, I rushed to the hall where the convention was being held.  But I arrived late, and all the doors were closed–all except the entrance to the gods.  Yes, that’s actually what they call it in the theater–the highest balcony, so high you can’t go any higher!  So there I was, miles above the stage.  And there I saw two people, one the blackest black imaginable, so black he was sparkling, and one whiter than the most precious flower ever to bloom, with streaks of yellow and gold.  Yes, the black one was Mr. Olinga, and the white, Amatu’l-Baha Ruhiyyih Khanum [the wife of Shoghi Effendi and a Hand of the Cause].  And to behold those two souls standing together!

In 1963, I had a special hope.  You see, this was the hundredth anniversary of Bahá’u’lláh’s declaration, and I wanted so badly to go to the convention in the Holy Land.  But I was a student and very poor.  I worked in a canning factory just to keep studying–not that I was a particularly good student!  Only by the grace of God did I graduate–I guess He wanted me to have my degree in theology so I could go teach!  Anyway, I received a message from the National Spiritual Assembly inviting me, if I wished, to attend the convention as assistant to Mr. Faizi.  ‘If I wished!’  I had just enough to cover costs.  It was quite a lot of work, arranging flights and hotels for the British delegates, about 200 of them–because you know, if we put them all on one plane and something happened, there goes our British community!

By the time I got to the Holy Land, I was quite tired.  I wasn’t even able to get to the first day of the convention because I was staying far outside Haifa.  But that week, I was walking down the stairs at one of the holy places, and to my astonishment, at the foot, I came across Mr. Olinga!  He was telling some friends about the place, and they were nodding along, positively enraptured by his warmth and the way he spoke.  But they could not understand him–they spoke no English!  I humbly went up to him and said, “Mr. Olinga, they do not speak English and can’t understand you–do you want me to translate?”  He said yes, and that was the first time I ever translated.  Once we were finished, my knees went so weak I had to hold myself up against a pillar.  I dreamed of one day returning to give pilgrims tours of the holy place, and thirty years later, I did!

After I graduated college, I was asked to pioneer to Guyana.  That didn’t work out–they thought I was a British spy!  So I went to Suriname.  One day, I got a message that Enoch Olinga would be visiting, and would I please arrange his stay.  He wanted to go visit the tribes there.  You see, many slaves escaped and each tribe established a settlement along one of the five main rivers.  They call themselves Bush Negroes, and each tribe, which is dispersed among various villages, has a paramount chief toward whom they show complete deference.

Getting to these villages was a long journey up the river in very long 45-foot dugout canoes that occasionally had to be taken out of the water and pushed over land were there were rapids.  We would stop at a village for the night, and they were very hospitable, always giving us a place to stay and a meal.  Enoch Olinga, somehow he always had plenty of food for all the children.  Give him one plate, he could feed twenty–it was like the loaves and fishes.

Eventually we reached the paramount chiefs.  They were fascinated by Mr. Olinga, the visitor from Africa.  He told them about the new Revelation, how we are all equal in the sight of God.  The chief said to Mr. Olinga, ‘I cannot blame anyone for bringing my ancestors as slaves, for if that had not happened, I would not have met you.’  Imagine!  One day, while Mr. Olinga and the chief were talking, a woman came wandering up, very distressed and wild.  “Paramount Chief, you must cure me!  I am possessed by a bad spirit!”  The chief said to the woman, “Sit down.  I am talking with a very important visitor from Africa–and he will cure you.”  What!?  When this was translated to Enoch Olinga, I expected him to react with surprise, but he took it calmly.  He turned to me and told me to recite the Prayer for the Dead.  It was communicated, “Our guest has ordered his assistant to chant a prayer in a foreign language to cure you.”  Luckily, I had one from Abdu’l-Baha memorized, and I chanted it in Farsi.  (Enoch Olinga would say to the friends who always relied on prayerbooks, ‘In the next world there are no prayerbooks!  We should learn prayers now so we can say them there.’)  It sounded very good, I must say!  The woman calmed down.

Later I had to ask Enoch Olinga what that was all about.  He explained, ‘There are many spirits in the afterlife–those who died peacefully or violently, and those who led terrible lives and have not come to rest yet.  We were praying for the restless soul who was tormenting the woman to find peace.”  This is amazing, no?  We understand very little of the spirit world.

Oh, how he loved to laugh.  He had an incredible laugh–he could laugh for fifteen minutes straight, until tears poured from his eyes.  I knew lots of Irish jokes, and I told him this one on that trip.  ‘Patty went to the pub one night and had a bit too much.  As he staggered down the street, the pastor looked out at him.  “Patty, where are ye goin’, my son?” he asked.  “Home,” Patty slurred.  “Well, God go with ye!” the pastor said.  Patty continued walking, then stumbled and fell into the gutter.  He lifted himself, and wagging his finger, said, “You can come with me, but don’t push!”‘  Enoch Olinga roared at that one!  And on this trip, as we would walk behind him, he would tell us, ‘You can come with me, but don’t push!’

At the end of this journey, he told me I should come to Africa.  I promised.  Things did not work out.  It was 27 years until I went to Africa, and then I visited his grave.  ‘I came, my Hand, but too late,’ I told him, kneeling there.

But Enoch Olinga always wanted the friends to be happy.  He struggled greatly, living the peaks and valleys, but still, he was happy.”

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