Louis G. Gregory Bahá’í Institute – 50th Anniversary Celebration
A joyous gathering, attended by over 160 people, was held at the Louis G. Gregory Bahá’í Institute (LGBI) on October 22-23, 2022, celebrating its 50 years of service as an educational institution serving the Pee Dee region of South Carolina and beyond.
To put it in context, LGBI is located in a state where the Baha’i Faith is the second-largest religion in South Carolina. However, as a mostly Christian state, all the minority religions combined comprise only a tiny fraction of the population.
Historian Louis Venters who has written about the development of the Bahá’í community, “whatever the size of the Baha’i faith in South Carolina I think its history is quite compelling and worthy of attention in itself.” Since 1910, Louis says, “the Baha’is were virtually unique in Jim Crow South Carolina in attempting to create an interracial religious community — for which they suffered harassment and violence.”
In October 1972, this campus was dedicated to the sacrificial service of the Hand of Cause of God Louis George Gregory, the black Charleston native who first brought the religion to South Carolina. Recalled by several speakers, he was the first to raise the call of Bahá’u’lláh in South Carolina in 1910, the year after becoming a Bahá’í in Washington, DC where he was then working. Retired member of the Universal House of Justice, Kiser Barnes and member of the Continental Board of Counselors, Nwandi Lawson, both encouraged participants to recall the tireless service of Mr. Gregory as we arise to serve the Nine Year Plan, focused on “releasing the society-building powers of the Faith in ever-greater measures”.
LGBI and Radio Bahá’í WLGI — broadcasting from the same site beginning in 1985 — has brought the Bahá’í teachings to a large section of the state.”Gathering under a large tent on the lawn behind the main building near the playground, the sounds of happy children mingled with music, drumming and inspiring talks. The One Human Family choir from North Carolina and alumni of Black Men’s Gatherings inspired, uplifted and transported participants to the realm on high as they provided music and devotions. The spirit of all those dedicated souls who served and taught in the area over the past 50 years was keenly felt by those present.
The celebration began with the history of Mr. Gregory and LGBI. Historian Lex Musta shared details and stories of the life and service of Mr. Gregory while fellow historian Louis Venters described the history of the establishment of the Louis G. Gregory Bahá’í Institute and its early years, hosting deepening and training classes and programs for youth and children. (For more details see To Move the World, Gayle Morrison and A History of the Bahá’í Faith in South Carolina, Louis Venters).
Devotions by the One Human Family Choir opened the afternoon celebration, which included a welcome by Danita Brown, a native of Spartanburg, SC and chairperson of the Regional Bahá’í Council for the Southeastern States, and a message from the National Spiritual Assembly to the gathering, read by Jaden Alvizures, a local youth.
Dr. Robert Henderson, representing the National Spiritual Assembly of the United States, encouraged those present to consider the destiny of America as described by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and the knowledge and service of Louis Gregory in promoting race amity. He shared lessons we can learn from studying his life: understanding his sovereignty in choosing what to believe, despite pressure from others; understanding the critical needs of the time and following divine guidance in working for race amity; and having spiritual resilience, giving our souls to God, expanding our knowledge of the Divine Plan and how to implement it in this day. Dr. Henderson also shared the personal significance of the occasion for himself, as he was also present at the dedication in 1972.
A panel of participants in programs offered at LGBI from the 1980’s to the present time demonstrated the power of these educational programs to inspire and build capacity.
Jamie Abercrombie shared inspiring stories about the Black Men’s Gathering (BMG), held at LGBI from 1988-1997. He described the spiritual potency of this gathering, with prayer, meditation, drumming, study of guidance, learning and encouraging one another in building capacity for service.
Adalia Ellis and Deronda Sanders shared the impact of Youth Academies held at LGBI during the 1990s, which they both attended as participants and later as youth mentors. Both have continued to use the knowledge and capacities gained in their personal and professional lives, along with treasured life-long friendships made during these programs. Both of them remembered being on campus at the same time as the Black Men’s Gathering, sharing meals and being inspired by this group of Black men striving for spiritual knowledge and service.
As the Regional Training Institute became established in the area in the early 2000s, LGBI became a site for intensive youth institute campaigns. Melissa Smith-Venters, Carlos Serrano, and Rebecca Young shared about Project Mona, an intensive campaign for youth who studied the Ruhi courses and visited area communities to engage with local youth, inviting them to join them in service as children’s class teachers or junior youth group animators.
A group of youth from Florence, SC shared their current experiences with the training institute and the impact it is having on themselves and their families as they grow in capacity to build community, including the opportunities to participate in overnight camps at LGBI.
Ernest Hilton, long time staff member of Radio Bahá’í, shared the history and current status of the station. Thousands of people had become Bahá’ís in the 1970’s in the surrounding Pee Dee community, but very few experienced Bahá’ís lived in the area. Radio Bahá’i began broadcasting in 1984, with the first message provided by Hand of the Cause of God William Sears, as a way to share information about the Faith to these new believers and seekers, providing uplifting music and programs contributing to the area’s social and economic development. Radio Bahá’í continues to inspire and educate, broadcasting spiritually uplifting music, quotes from the Sacred Writings found in Ruhi books 1 and 2, musical devotions and Holy Day programs. Through the introduction of internet streaming, Radio Bahá’í is now available globally around the clock at www.radiobahai.us
Mr. Kiser Barnes, retired member of the Universal House of Justice, talked about the significance of LGBI as a center for learning and described the uniqueness of the Baha’i system of education in all aspects.
Sunday’s program was a look to the future. Counselor Nwandi Lawson shared her personal experience of how she was introduced to the Faith and the firm and persistent attention of her first Bahá’í teachers, as an example of how to successfully involve seekers and others into the life of our community. She also touched on the accomplishments of the Black Men’s Gathering, and the guidance provided to that program by the Universal House of Justice, guidance that can serve all Bahá’ís as we seek to accomplish the goals laid out by the Supreme Institution.
In addition, Counselor Lawson cited letters from the House of Justice that clearly state that all the tools necessary to achieve the Faith’s goals have been provided. She then focused on the Nine Year Plan and beyond. With the assistance of Auxiliary Board members Windi Burgess and Al Nesmith, participants then gathered in smaller groups by locale and to reflect on their role in the Nine Year Plan and plan for their next steps in their local neighborhoods or clusters.