M Stories

Rebequa (Becky) Getahoun Murphy

Her love for children and youth was legendary. In Ethiopia, she organized some of her friends and established an orphanage for about a dozen homeless children. At 19-Day Feasts she would take the children aside during the consultative portion for their own consultation.

Rebequa (Becky) Getahoun Murphy
Born: July 24, 1953
Death: November 25, 2008
Place of Birth: Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Location of Death: New York
Burial Location: New York

An overflow crowd attended the funeral of Rebequa (Becky) Getahoun Murphy at the New York City Bahá’í Center Friday morning, November 28, 2008. Burial was in a plot owned by the local Spiritual Assembly.

She was survived by her husband of 35 years, Robin Marshal Murphy; son Rahim, his wife, Jessica and their 2 daughters, Ella and Aliyah; son Yohannes and his wife Laila and their 2 daughters, Malaika and Zia; son Yosafe and his wife Itanna; and thousands of devoted admirers throughout the world.

On the weekend of November 22-23 Counselor Murphy met with fellow Counselors in Palm Beach, Fl. The next morning, she woke up feeling a lack of energy and overall tiredness. On Tuesday, November 25, she kept a business appointment at the office of Dr. John Kadhem in New York City, even though she did not feel well. While there she collapsed. Paramedics rushed her to Saint Vincent Hospital where she was pronounced dead at 11.44 a.m. of a heart attack.

To understand her unique contributions, it helps to know her background. Her natural qualities and abilities were blended into a world of starkly mixed and contrasting experiences. The result was a wide range of understanding embodied in an astute, flexible, compassionate and incomparable mind and heart.

She was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia where her father, Getahoun Tessemma, served high level offices in the government of Emperor Haile Selas­sie. His Ambassadorships to the Soviet Union and India enabled young Rebequa to live in Russia an India. She lived in the United States, briefly, when her father opened the first Ethiopian embassy in the United States.  Much of her early years were spent in her native Ethiopia. From childhood she spoke French, Russian, English and her native Amharic, which was the language of her heart.

Her audacious nature appeared early. In Moscow, when her father was ambassador to the Soviet Union, she was about 6. During a reception, she charmed First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev. He told her to see him if she had any problems. She soon had a disagreement with her mother and had their chauffer take her to the Kremlin to see Khrushchev. He was busy at the time or who knows what might have happened.

When she was 16 and living in Ethiopia her father said she should find something worthwhile to do. So, she organized some of her friends and founded an orphanage. The city has many abandoned babies called “throwaways”. Becky and her friends collected about a dozen infants, found a house, hired a couple to be in charge and figured out ways to finance the project.

When she was ready for college, her father was minister of agriculture. Wanting to assist him and relishing novelty, she attended the University of Alaska because it had a department of agriculture. That is where she befriended some Bahá’ís students. They were soon joined by an enthusiastic group of youth for the beginnings of Alaska’s mass teaching.

At age 18 she was among the first to recognize Bahá’u’lláh during that teaching campaign. Her enrollment card is dated March 28, 1972. She insisted on also writing the Bahá’í date: 17 ‘Ali’ 128.

She immediately joined the travel teaching teams. Unlike the others, she knew all the Bahá’í teachings, but not the vocabulary. Instead of saying “the oneness of mankind,” she might say, “We are all members of the same human family”.

It was during her time in Alaska that she took up the Americanization of her name and was called Rebeca or Becky instead of Rebequa (Reb’ i ca).

After winning the goals in Alaska and Canada, the teams were invited to teach in Europe. She went by way of Africa, where she did some travel teaching in route to Ethiopia to visit her family and ask permission to marry a fellow team member, Robin Marshal Murphy.

Passing through Somalia, she met Counselor Mihdi Samandarí, who commented that he hadn’t anything like her since Enoch Olinga accepted the Faith.

She knew that her father had gone to school at the American University in Beirut, Lebanon and that Ethiopian students tended to hang out with Persians, rather than the larger population of Arab students. What she did not know until then, was that among her father’s closest friends were ‘Abul Qasim Faizi,Ali Nakhjavani and Hushmand Fatheazam.

When her father was ambassador to India, Hushmand Fatheazam was Secretary of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of India. The families spent much time together and Mrs. Fatheazam even made some of Rebequa’s clothes.

While her father never embraced the Faith, he had absorbed much from his Bahá’í friends and infused his beloved Rebequa with these principles, ideals and world view. That explained why she had the Bahá’í concepts, but not the vocabulary.

She then discovered that her father had many Bahá’í friends and associates in Addis Ababa. Among them were her father’s lawyer and the family dentist.

Raised in the high court of Ethiopia, she brought to the western world an appreciation and respect for the majesty of kingship that is uncommon in the west. It manifested itself by an unusual depth of reverence for the Universal House of Justice. Listening to her talk about that sublime Institution was awe-inspiring and very different from what any other American Bahá’í Might say.

Her contrasting experiences of attending high level diplomatic functions in Ethiopia, Russia and India and later sloshing through villages in Alaska that had neither plumbing nor electricity, fostered an ability to talk easily and freely with people from all strata: high or low, titled or commoner, poor or rich, laborer or executives, rural or urban, illiterate or well educated, she understood and could empathize with the concerns and interests of all on a heart level.

At the age of 24, she became the youngest person elected to the Nation­al Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of Alaska. As an NSA member, she was a delegate to the 1978 International Convention for the election of the Universal House of Justice.

The Murphys had no money but it was unthinkable not to cast her ballot in person. So, they cleaned the gooey, sticky, stinky messes left at a movie theater by sodas and popcorn, spilled by overindulgent and sloppy American movie goers.

What an irony and contrast to do this in order to vote for the world’s superlative deliberative body and what a change from her Ethiopian home, compete with domestic help.

During that Convention, Ali Nakhjavani realized that one of the delegates was Getahoun’s daughter. They became inseparable. Throughout the Convention, where you would see one, the other was near.

In 1980, the Murphys pioneered to Nigeria for over a year. When they returned to Alaska, she was again elected to the National Spiritual Assembly.

During this busy time, they raised their three wonderful boys and served as care-takers at an institute facility. She was also the coordinator and hostess for regular weekend deepening sessions, finished her bachelor’s degree, and, for 2 years, served as Secretary of the National Spiritual Assembly.

While living at the Bahá’í facility, they received a copy of the Zimmer book. Briefly holding the unopened package, she called out, “Take this from me. I feel sick to my stomach holding it.” Only later, did they open the package and discover what it was that made her sick to her stomach.

Her love for children and youth was legendary. As mentioned earlier, in Ethiopia, she organized some of her friends and established an orphanage for about a dozen homeless children. At 19-Day Feasts she would take the children aside during the consultative portion for their own consultation. How many Bahá’í youth have slept on the floor of the Murphy home over a weekend devoted to reading from the ­Dawn-Breakers?

Her love for the Bahá’í Writings was monumental. On a trip, when about 50 miles from home she shrieked! She had forgotten her copy of the World Order of Bahá’u’lláh. How could she ever go to sleep without reading from that first?

And, there was her concern for those who, for whatever reason, felt estranged. How many people, outside the mainstream of Bahá’í activity, would get a call from her, just to chat? She was a peace-maker and a balm for many.

That is a glimpse of some of the lesser known and personal elements of her all-too-short, but remarkable life. What about her more conspicuous activities?

She earned her Master’s Degree in International Studies at the University of Oregon with a focus on Alternative Models for Women and Development in sub-Saharan Africa. She was so highly regarded at the school that a few years later she was invited back to give a commencement address.

Then, began a series of important positions: Deputy Director of the Office of the Environment of the Bahá’í International Community (BIC) in New York City, including intimate involvement with the 1991 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, in Rio de Janeiro; playing a major role in the organization of the 1992 Bahá’í World Congress in New York City; a representative to the World Woman’s Congress in Beijing,  for a Healthy Planet; National Spiritual Assembly’s representative to the United Nations; and election to the Regional Bahá’í Council for the Northeastern States.

In the spring of 1996, she joined Idea Connections, a senior executive consulting firm, and continued a professional association with it for the rest of her busy life. Her incisive wit, penetrating insights and unflagging compassion, gained her the endearing nick-name of “chocolate-covered razor blade.”

In October of 2000 the Universal House of Justice appointed her to the Continental Board of Counselors for the Americas.

When she read the letter of appointment, the shock was so great that she felt an immediate need to lie down. When Robin got home, he found her, stretched out on the couch, still numbed by the weight of the news. In a flat voice, she handed him the letter and said, “Here, read this.” He, too was, at first, in misbelief.

Once recovered from the shock of the appointment, her whirlwind travels accelerated. She was a frequent speaker at conferences and other gatherings throughout the world. News reports of such events would often include something she said.

She attended four International Bahá’í Conventions in Haifa – two as an NSA voting delegate and two as a Counselor. She also attended two special meetings when the Universal House of Justice and the International Teaching Centre consulted with Counselors from around the world.

She had consummate consulting skills; was a peace-maker, bridging and resolving conflicts; clearly stating her own thoughts; cherishing views different from her own; quickly changing her mind in the light of new information; and vigorously supporting decisions, even when different from her own opinion.

As fellow counselors have reported: “…(we) could always count on her as one who would provide insights that reflected her years of experience at the local, national and international level.” “Always detached, her voice reflected an uncommon understanding of all sides of any issue.” “In one moment, she was all business and in other we would witness her hearty and joyful laughter.” “A meeting would not pass without her sharing the latest pictures of her dearly loved grandchildren.” “She was a consummate story teller and with every story there was a message of principle.”

Another Counselor reported: “I read [of her passing] this morning and have been trying all day to process it.  What I keep seeing, in my mind’s eye, is Becky’s twinkling eyes and mischievous look when she was making a joke; I keep hearing both that soft little voice that sang prayers with exquisite sweetness and that incredibly strong, forceful voice that rang in our ears when she spoke on points of principle. I know there is wisdom in her passing: there must be.  But oh, how I will miss her dear presence when we gather.”

On Sunday evening, November 23, 2008, Counselor Murphy attended her last 19-Day Feast in Broward, Florida. There was consultation on the 41 the Regional Conferences to be held throughout the world. She gave an electrifying appeal to attend; she said, “…only sickness and death are your impediments to attend the [Atlanta] Conference, any other impediments should be removed.”

In death, dear Rebequa, Counselor Murphy, was free to attend them all.

Courtesy of John Kolstoe


About the author

John Kolstoe

John Kolstoe is the author of God-Intoxicated Lovers of Baha’u’llah; Consultation, Compassionate Woman: The Life of Patricia Locke, and The Covenant and You. John has been a Baha'i since 1953. He and his first wife Beverly pioneered for 27 years in Alaska, then pioneered to St. Lucia in teh tropical Caribbean. He also served 8 years at the Baha'i Academy in Panchgani, India where he facilitated workshops on Universal Human Values.

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