Activities and Schedule
Wednesday, 7-8 P.M.
Sunday, 11 A.M.-12 P.M.
There are five spiritual assemblies in the Columbia area (two in Lexington County, and one each in Richland County, Forest Acres, and West Columbia), but the lines are rather blurred; meetings of Baha'is regularly span geographical districts. Celebrations of holy days, devotional meetings, study programs, and the hosting of children's classes all cross district boundaries. The group also hosts public events for the Columbia community on topics such as the basics of the Baha'i faith, racial unity, and racial and gender equality.
According to Louis Venters, who is studying the history of the Baha'i community in S.C. in the Master's program in history at the University of South Carolina, the earliest records of the Baha'i faith in South Carolina date back to 1910. In that year, Louis Gregory, a South Carolinian from Charleston living in Washington, D.C., returned to the South and began giving public lectures on the Baha'i faith. Louis Gregory, according to Venters, could be called the "founding father" of the South Carolina Baha'i communities. The result of Gregory's spread of the Baha'i faith, with its teachings of racial and gender equity, was a highly unusual phenomenon: multi-racial religious communities in South Carolina pre-dating the civil rights movement. The first cohesive Baha'i community in South Carolina emerged in the 1910s, on the Georgia border in Augusta (GA) and North Augusta (SC), Venters said. The state's first Baha'i Spiritual Assembly was elected in Augusta/North Augusta in 1935, and Greenville soon followed in 1937. As far as records show, the faith arrived in Columbia in 1938, when two African-American women accepted the faith: Pearl Dixon, the wife of an American Methodist Episcopal (AME) minister, and her daughter, Jesse Entzminger. Dixon and Entzminger learned of the faith through a white woman doctor who had moved to South Carolina to live and share the faith with others. Entzminger, who died in the late 1990s, was the "core" of the Columbia Baha'i community for many years, according to Nancy Songer, a member of the Columbia Baha'i community. The Baha'i faith's presence in South Carolina spans the 20th century, and although virtually ignored in most South Carolina history textbooks, provides a unique example of racial cooperation in a state where tensions have always run high. "That's a story somebody needs to write down," Venters said. "That’s a distinctive heritage that people deserve to find out about--and ask, you know, so what has their experience been? Is there anything that these Baha’is have figured out over these, you know, nearly hundred years? "I mean, it’s not a perfect record of instant racial harmony when you become a Baha’i, but the point is that in South Carolina, it’s just really unheard of for, you know, in the 1930s, for a religious community to, at the local level, say, 'we are not going to have any separate congregations.' So that’s something that we’re, I think, very justly, proud of." Starting in the 1960s, the Baha'i faith in general began to expand its focus to a more global context, Venters said, and South Carolina was no exception. There was a major effort to bring the faith not just to the cities, but into the small towns and rural areas of South Carolina. African-Americans were found to be particularly receptive in the late 1960s and early 1970s, according to Venters. The largest numerical expansion of Baha’i membership in North America to that date took place in South Carolina. Currently, Baha'i communities throughout the world are seeking to firmly establish their roots and transform the societies in which they live, rather than having "a light sprinkling of Baha'is across a state or across a country," according to Venters. In South Carolina, the fruits of these efforts are seen in the activities of the Louis Gregory Institute, named after the aforementioned "founding father" of the S.C. Baha'i communities. The school was founded in 1972 in Hemingway, S.C., a small town about 50 miles west (inland) of Myrtle Beach, and is focused on economic and social development. South Carolina is home to the only Baha'i radio station in North America, "Radio Baha'i," also based in Hemingway, which has been broadcasting on a 50,000-watt FM station (WLGI) for 18 years. The station is one of only six in the world. In February of 2003, South Carolina opened the first Baha'i museum in North America, the Louis Gregory Museum in Charleston, which is located in Gregory's childhood home. (For more information, visit the museum's website at www.louisgregorymuseum.org.) The Columbia Baha'i communities are currently in the process of seeking a Baha'i center to serve the greater metropolitan area. The community already has land on which to build, but they are debating whether to build an new structure or to purchase an existing building in another location. Venters said the building is not the center of the Baha'i faith itself, but of the activities. Although there is quite a large Baha'i community in Columbia (around 100 people), obtaining a central building for worship purposes has not been as high on the priority list as simply gathering as a community and sponsoring various community activities.
There are around 100 Baha'is in the Columbia area, ranging in age from infants to senior citizens. Ethnically, the group is composed of African-Americans, Caucasians, and Persians (immigrants from Iran). The community is mostly middle-class, but its members stretch across the economic spectrum. There are slightly more women than men in the community, and most members are first-generation Baha'is, although there are a number of second and third-generation Baha'is among the youth of the community. According to Songer and Venters, one particularly unique characteristic of the group is the high degree of intercultural and interracial marriage within the Baha'i community. "The Baha’i writings are really serious about, you know, we’re one family," Songer said. "And the differences of color, of language, all these things, are to be appreciated and valued, and we have a lot to learn from each other. And that results in, not just tolerance by any means, and not even just friendship, but love."
The Baha'i faith emphasizes the importance of learning from other religious traditions, and thus the Columbia Baha'i community has been heavily involved in Partners in Dialogue, a local interfaith organization based at the University of South Carolina. Songer said that the group has also been pointed out by other religious leaders in the area as an example of how to train children in principles of racial unity.