guidance from the universal house of justice for south carolina
Fifty years ago, the Baha’i movement in the United States was in the midst of perhaps its most dramatic and consequential transformation since ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s visit to North America in 1912. During a six-week regional campaign designed to take advantage of the 1970-1971 winter school holidays, Baha’i teachers across the South had met with an unprecedented receptivity to their message, and thousands of people, mostly African Americans in rural areas, had embraced the Faith. The most astonishing results came from eastern South Carolina and nearby in North Carolina, where the remarkable Dillon Campaign resulted in the enrollment of 10,000 new believers, Black, white, and Native American. One scholar of religion has memorably called it the “Carolinian Pentecost,” and it forever changed the composition, structures, identity, and aspirations of the American Baha’i community. Indeed, the unprecedented burst of growth meant that since then South Carolina has been the scene of some of the American movement’s greatest crises and greatest victories, a unique terrain for innovation, experimentation, training, and creativity, a bell-weather of tension and progress.
Over the past two decades, it has been my great privilege to make this phenomenon the focus of my scholarly research and writing, and so far I have published two books on the subject, No Jim Crow Church: The Origins of South Carolina’s Baha’i Community (University Press of Florida, 2015) and A History of the Baha’i Faith in South Carolina (History Press, 2019).
But my professional pursuits are only one part of how the events of 1970-1971 have shaped my life. I was born a short five years after the Dillon Campaign, in the state with the largest Baha’i population in the country at that time. I first heard of the Faith as a young teenager on Radio Baha’i, itself an outgrowth of the earlier expansion, and the people who nurtured my interest and helped deepen my faith were all South Carolina movement veterans. My whole adult life—including college, marriage, graduate school, pursuing a career, and raising my children—has taken place in the context of the “twenty-five year thrust,” a new series of global plans developed by the Universal House of Justice beginning in the mid-1990s that were in many ways the fruit of painstaking efforts over the years in South Carolina and many other places in the world to develop the methods and structures necessary to make large-scale growth of the Faith sustainable. In fact, I was a freshman in college, just back from my year of service in Togo, when the first messages announcing the Four-Year Plan were released. Since then my decisions, large and small, have been informed by the desire to serve the processes it set in motion.
Now I am almost forty-five, and as my boys grow up before my eyes and the forces of disintegration that afflict our country and the world wreak increasing havoc, the need for the revolutionary society-building program that the Baha’i community has been pursuing is clearer than ever.
With the fiftieth anniversary of the Dillon Campaign just behind us and the end of this remarkable series of plans a few short weeks away, I am moved to share a letter I received from the Universal House of Justice two years ago, on March 12, 2019. It was a response to a letter I sent the previous August, in which I expressed dismay at what I perceived to be the slow progress of the Faith in South Carolina and the related issue of the American Baha’i community’s pursuit of its historic mission to eliminate racial prejudice. After calling to mind the events of 1970-1971, I wrote in part:
"At that time across the Deep South, our national community issued a promise to all African Americans—the promise of an equal place at the banquet table of the Lord, echoed now in the National Spiritual Assembly’s recent letters—that has yet to be fully redeemed. For reasons I cannot fully articulate but which my whole being tells me to be true, I believe that until we can truly begin to make good on that promise in South Carolina, with a sound and energetic program of teaching and community development that allows its people to take their rightful place at the forefront of learning, success in the rest of the country will remain elusive, partial, and delayed."
The gracious response of the Universal House of Justice offers timely guidance for all who are walking the path of Baha’i service in South Carolina, as well as those in other parts of the country who have yet to witness the acceleration that comes with successful implementation of a program of growth. It includes a nuanced assessment of the American Baha’i community as a whole; answers to specific questions I raised about the Baha’i institutional framework serving South Carolina and the most recent initiative to revive large-scale growth in the eastern part of the state; and a clear vision for initiating and sustaining programs of growth in cluster after cluster. Above all, the letter expresses confidence in the ability of the Baha’is and their collaborators in South Carolina to pursue “an effective pattern of activity at the cluster level, no matter how simply it begins.” Particularly touching, I feel, is the counsel of the Universal House of Justice never to lose sight of the fundamentally spiritual nature of our undertaking:
"No less important than the quantitative advances anticipated are the qualitative dimensions of how the work is conducted. A spiritual character of community life nourished by regular devotional gatherings, a passion for teaching the Faith, a culture of encouragement and mutual support where criticism, anxiety, and competition find no place, and ties of love and union that make all involved a single family are among the characteristics that distinguish a program of growth that continues to increase in intensity, enabling the friends to overcome inevitable challenges and setbacks. All, whatever their specific experience, should be joyous and take heart for they are united in a worldwide enterprise with their fellows, laboring in the Divine Vineyard in response to the pressing needs of humanity. All who walk this path win the good pleasure of their Lord as they persevere in their efforts, day by day, to create a new, expanding pattern of life based on His teachings."
I have kept this gem of a letter mostly to myself so far because of a number of reasons having to do with my own response to it, the needs of my family, and certain ongoing challenges in my local Baha’i community. I have decided to share it now in part to mark the confluence of the fiftieth anniversary of the “Carolinian Pentecost” with the end of the current series of plans, and in part that it might provide encouragement and perspective to others in the new season that is upon us.