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  • Louis Venters

South Carolina's Baha'i Movement, Past and Future

Baha’i communities around the world are embarking on a new Nine Year Plan set to last until 2031. As a part of the coordinated global effort to advance each geographic region along a continuum of development, the Universal House of Justice recently issued a call for individuals and families to consider the possibility of relocating, particularly from stronger to weaker areas, either within their own countries or internationally. For Baha’is residing in the 48 contiguous United States, this call is reiterated in the National Spiritual Assembly’s letter for the Feast of ‘Izzat.

For me, this brings to mind another time of great peril for the United States and the world, and another call for movement to lands near and far. In 1953, Hand of the Cause of God Dorothy B. Baker, acting as representative of the Guardian of the Faith, Shoghi Effendi, spoke passionately to those gathered at the Intercontinental Conference in Chicago for the formal launching of the Ten Year Plan in the Western Hemisphere. Fresh from pilgrimage to the Holy Land, she recounted emphatic instructions from Shoghi Effendi that the “most important teaching work on American shores today” was to bring the Baha’i Faith to African Americans and indigenous peoples. In particular, he had said “one driving thing over and over—that if we did not meet the challenge of raising to a vast number the believers of the Negro race, disaster would result.” She called the American Baha’is, who were then mostly white and mostly living in a few urban centers, to move if necessary and “dedicate their lives” to working alongside the Black and brown peoples of the continent.

The results, coinciding with the social and political revolution of the civil rights movement, were remarkable, with the geographic diffusion of the Faith and the racial and ethnic diversity of its members increasing dramatically. The high point of this development occurred in the early 1970s with the enrollment of tens of thousands of people, mostly African Americans, as Baha’is across the Deep South—a phenomenon one scholar of religion has dubbed the “Carolinian Pentecost.”

In a few short weeks Baha’is in South Carolina, the epicenter of the Deep South campaign, will mark an important anniversary: fifty years since the dedication of the Louis G. Gregory Baha’i Institute near Hemingway in October 1972. Named for the son of South Carolina freedpeople who did more than perhaps any other individual to bring the Baha’i message to African Americans in the first half of the twentieth century, for fifty years the Louis Gregory Institute has been at the forefront of the Faith’s global efforts in education and community development and a rallying point for the Baha’i movement in South Carolina.

Participants in a program at the Louis G. Gregory Baha'i Institute, early 1970s

Today, as the country faces another moment of profound social and political crisis, the fact is that progress in many of South Carolina’s geographic clusters has been slow in recent years. As Baha’is consider the new call for pioneers, perhaps there are some who might be moved to throw in their lot and help reinforce the vital community building process in South Carolina. Anyone who would like to explore this option should of course contact the appropriate agency, as indicated in the National Spiritual Assembly's letter.

For those who may be interested, I’m sharing again a letter from the Universal House of Justice dated March 12, 2019, in response to questions about the current status and future prospects of the Baha’i Faith in South Carolina. It is a challenging and ultimately optimistic assessment of the tasks at hand.

For more background, see especially the latter chapters of my book, A History of the Baha’i Faith in South Carolina (2019), the first published work to recount developments in the 1970s and bring the story up to the early 21st century.

I'll share details of the 50th anniversary program, scheduled for October 22-23, as soon as I receive them.

Listening and reflecting at an Institute program, 1970s


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