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Alvin Blum reached out and shook the hand of the Solomon Islander.
This simple act said it all about Alvin’s very real belief in the oneness of humanity.
The everyday greeting of shaking hands was not practiced between Europeans and locals in the Solomons in the 1950s. There still existed an insidious “master-boy relationship” produced by colonialism.
But Alvin, like his wife Gertrude, was a true Baha’i and was having none of it.
Not only did Alvin shake the man’s hand, but he invited him home for a meal where Gertrude’s delicious stew and hot tea accompanied discussions of spiritual things in an atmosphere of love, laughter and equality.
“The news of this event soon spread through the village networks,” writes Keithie Saunders in Of Wars and Worship, her emotionally gripping biography of her parents, who were named Knights of Baha’u’llah for introducing the Faith to the Solomon Islands.
The man Alvin greeted with a handshake, Bill Gina, became the first Baha’i in the Solomons.
As the book recounts, over the decades to come – in their everyday spontaneous acts of kindness as well as in their planned activities in business and for the Baha’i Faith – the Blums demonstrated their heartfelt commitment to the fundamental principle of Baha’u’llah, that all people are equal members of one human family.
With the assistance of professional writer Prue Rushton, Keithie Saunders has written a book that moves away from the standard biography of spiritual heroes.
Using the techniques of a novelist, she breathes life into the characters, surrounding the facts with the thoughts and feelings of the protagonists. Some of those thoughts and feelings come from the Blums themselves, some are clearly inferred and are added with literary licence to keep the story alive and moving.
Hollywood could not have thought up this story. A US military medic who had such traumatic experiences in the war torn Solomons’ island of Guadalcanal in World War 2 that he never spoke about them returns to the island with his equally impressive wife to bring Baha’u’llah’s message of world peace through world unity.
The author describes her parents and their lives in a frank manner, not hesitating to portray their difficulties and weaknesses as well as their strengths and triumphs.
In doing so, the couple emerge as very real people, not super humans, but as folk who conquered themselves and achieved superhuman results.
Coming from a Jewish background in the United States, the Blums first lived, taught and proclaimed their faith in the racially divided Southern States. The book has absorbing accounts of Jewish life in New York that reach back into the history of both Alvin and Gertrude’s families. Disturbing as well as happy incidents are described.
We learn how Alvin (1912-68) and Gertrude (1909-1993) became Baha’is, how they served the Faith together, how they fell in love, and later how they married.
There is a lovely pen portrait of Mary Maxwell as a young woman long before she became Amatu’l-Baha Ruhiyyih Khanum, the wife of the Guardian: “she is the freest spirit Gertrude has encountered, untamed and untainted”. Decades later, Ruhiyyih Khanum visited Gertrude in the Solomons.
For the Baha’is of New Zealand, now celebrating the centenary of their community, there is important historical information about the Baha’i activities of Alvin Blum when he was a medic stationed in Auckland in World War 2. He returned with Gertrude after the war had ended.
For Australian readers there is a funny anecdote about how Hand of the Cause Collis Featherstone, Mr Frank Khan (father of Dr Peter Khan) and Alvin Blum had to share the same room at a Baha’i conference because they were unable to afford individual accommodation. It had only one double bed. “Well here we are,” he [Alvin] chuckles. “A Muslim, a Jew and a Christian all sharing a bed. If that is not the oneness of mankind what is?”
As a study of personalities the book is intriguing. Alvin is a dynamic, go-getter businessman always coming up with ideas and then putting them into practice. He is restless, full of energy. Gertrude on the other hand is ethereal and contemplative—and cautious in the practical matters of life.
Alvin and Gertrude could exasperate each other but there was no question that what they had in common was an unshakeable faith in the teachings of Baha’u’llah.
This combination of opposites, a living example of the Baha’i principle of unity in diversity, had a power that will humble most readers
As a businessman, Alvin dedicated himself to the development of the Solomons. He introduced into the country a taxi service, a “hometel”, a dry cleaning business, a bakery, an ice cream and soft drink business. He was also a member of the Honiara Town Council, established the Chamber of Commerce and the Scout Movement.
His energy for new enterprises was astounding, his bravery incredible — he once rescued a shark attack victim amidst a sea of blood.
Gertrude helped establish the National Council of Women and the Red Cross Society, but her contributions were far more widespread at a personal and organisation level than that description can cover. Her services to the Faith in themselves were extraordinary. Mrs Blum was named a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in 1989. The Governor-General attended her funeral and throughout the islands there were memorial gatherings in her honour.
One of the most touching aspects of the book is the theme of the love and support of the head of the Faith, Shoghi Effendi, for their service.
There is a truly tear-jerking account of what happened when the Blums— with Gertrude particularly apprehensive—were about to sail to their pioneering post.
A friend on the wharf shouted out to Alvin, who then walked back down the gangplank to where he was handed a telegram, the words of which were to sustain the Blums forever and which today are emblazoned on Gertrude’s resting place.
The cable contained these simple words:
“LOVING PRAYERS SURROUNDING YOU. SHOGHI.”
Of Wars and Worship: The extraordinary story of Gertrude and Alvin Blum, by Keithie Saunders with the assistance of Prue Rushton. George Ronald Publishers.
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