Curtis Kelsey was an American Baha’i who served in Haifa during the final weeks of Abdu’l-Baha’s lifetime and who installed the lighting equipment that first illumined the Shrines of Baha’u’llah and the Bab.
Curtis was born in 1894 in Salt Lake City. He was a simple, happy-go-lucky, pure-hearted and easy-to-laugh fellow who only had a grade 8 education. Like many others, Curtis became a Baha’i because of a profoundly spiritual experience. His mother, Valeria, was a Baha’i and she tried to share the teachings with her family but they weren’t interested. Confined to his bed by typhoid fever and its accompanying severe headache, Curtis was cured when he heard orchestral music from an unseen source. Curtis called for his mother and asked her what he had just experienced. She turned to the few Writings in her possession. Curtis couldn’t rest until his experience was explained – he even left his work in order to “camp out on the doorstep” of every Baha’i and study the Writings. While an answer was not immediately found, his examination led him to the Faith. Abdu’l-Baha later explained that he had heard the music of the celestial kingdom and that it had awakened him spiritually.
Several years later Roy Wilhelm, a Baha’i in New York, asked Curtis if he would like to serve the Master in Haifa. Naturally, Curtis said yes. Roy Wilhelm had read a tablet of the Master which referred to the Bab’s sufferings when He was denied even a candle. Roy cabled the Master asking if he could send a lighting plant to illumine the Shrine of the Bab at night. Abdu’l-Baha replied, asking Roy to send three. Roy suggested to Abdu’l-Baha that Curtis install the equipment and a cable returned stating “Curtis Kelsey permitted.” Curtis immediately sold his car (his prized possession) and a few other things he owned. He didn’t have nearly enough money to make it to Haifa – never mind return to the United States – but he continued to make travel arrangements. Roy gave him $500 but Curtis’ father, for whom he worked, was not impressed with Curtis’ plans and while he didn’t prevent him from going, he refused to assist him. As Curtis boarded the boat to Paris, his father was one of the many at the dock wishing him farewell. He presented him with a camera, some film, and an envelope to be opened once the boat departed. Inside was $250, a silent blessing from his father.
Once in Paris, Curtis was told no boats would be leaving for the near east any time soon so he traveled to Italy via train, hoping to sail from Naples. There he was also told there would be no departures for the east for several weeks but that he would be called at his hotel should something unexpected arrive in the port. Within hours, Curtis received a call that a ship needed to drop off a sick passenger and there was room on board for one more person. Despite everyone else’s expectations, Curtis was in Haifa within days. “Did you notice how easy it was for you to get here?” Abdu’l-Baha asked him in English and Curtis realized how divine confirmations assisted him in every step of his journey.
The Master asked Curtis to alternate his work between Haifa and Akka, working for two weeks at a time in each place, thereby ensuring that the work would be completed at the same time and that the Shrines could be lit simultaneously. Curtis worked alongside Husayn-i-Kahrubayi, a young Iranian electrician from India who didn’t speak English. Despite their language barriers, they worked well together, albeit in a comical pantomimed manner.
Before the completion of his work, Abdu’l-Baha passed away and the Baha’i community plunged into devastated sorrow. Curtis’ love for the Master fuelled him to work even harder than before. The lighting of both Shrines proved spectacular and since no one in the area had electricity, the entire populace was excited – children would often play in the light cast upon the street near the Shrine of the Bab.
With his work completed, it was time for Curtis to return home but he didn’t have the funds for the journey. However, just as he had made travel preparations to Haifa with the assurance that things would work out, he began packing. He told no one of his predicament. Several days before his scheduled departure, the Greatest Holy Leaf called him to visit her and pressed into his hands the amount of money required. She insisted he take it and refused his promise of repayment.
He Loved and Served: The Story of Curtis Kelsey, Nathan Rutstein’s biography of Curtis Kelsey, is filled with numerous similar occasions where, while pioneering or travel teaching as an Auxiliary Board Member, Curtis turned to God for assistance, relied on Him, and found an answer to his prayers in unexpected ways. This is what characterized his life: instant and exact obedience and reliance upon God. If we all followed suit, perhaps we would all – in a metaphorical way – also be shining light on what we hold dearest.