Bahai News - Bahai radio broadcasts in Old South To be published Saturday, April 8, 2000

Bahai radio broadcasts in Old South

Gustav Niebuhr / New York Times News Service

HEMINGWAY, S.C. -- Williamsburg County, a rural slice of the Bible Belt an hour's drive from the Atlantic coast, is just the place one expects to find religious radio. Roadside signs testify that Jesus saves, and the steeples of Baptist and Pentecostal churches can seem as ubiquitous as the tall pines and the Spanish moss.

Yet it is just this setting that makes WLGI, a 50,000-watt FM station outside this small town, such a surprise.

On one recent morning it was broadcasting gospel music. But then came a station break, and a woman said: "Across America, Bahais are tapping into the power of unity to build racial harmony in their communities. The Bahai faith attracts people like you from every race and nationality." The announcement included a toll-free number for more information.

To listeners, WLGI is known as Radio Bahai (pronounced buh-HI), a 15-year-old project of one of the world's newer religions, a monotheistic faith that emerged in 19th-century Persia, now Iran. Bahai has gone global, with 5 million adherents in nearly 200 nations.

The Promised One 

Bahais follow the teachings of a Persian nobleman, a prominent member of a popular religious movement of his time, who in 1863 declared that he was the Promised One, anticipated by all major faiths. From then on, he was known as Baha'u'llah, Arabic for the Glory of God.

He taught that all humanity is a single race, that men and women are equal and that the world's major religions are all true expressions of God. Bahais accord him the status of divinely chosen Messenger, the latest in a line that in their belief includes Abraham, Krishna, Moses, Buddha, Jesus and Muhammad. Bahais believe that all were sent by God in successive eras to teach humankind, a process called progressive revelation.

Amid the musical programming, Baha'u'llah's words (along with readings from the Bible and other sacred texts) can be heard on WLGI, whose signal spans eastern South Carolina, touching metropolitan Charleston and the resorts of Myrtle Beach, and reaches into North Carolina as well.

"We say prayers for folks," said Ernest Hilton, 42, the station's associate manager. "A lot of folks call us in the mornings for prayers for people who are ill or who have passed on," he said, displaying a leather-bound Bahai prayer book.

The Bahai faith counts about 130,000 members in the United States. Minnesota has about ..... World headquarters are in Haifa, Israel, and American administrative offices are in suburban Chicago. The faith operates six radio stations. Only one is in North America -- in Hemingway. The obvious question is, why here?

Well, this state is important to Bahais, and has been ever since thousands of South Carolinians converted in the 1970s.

"From my understanding," said Lanita Barnes, a Bahai who moved to South Carolina from Southern California to administer many of the faith's local programs, "there was never a true civil rights movement in South Carolina," at least nothing approaching the history-making events of Montgomery or Selma.

But when Bahais began working in the area, promoting their ideal of racial unity with a religious rather than secular message, they won a hearing.

Hilton, who is black, grew up nearby and attended a Bahai youth gathering in 1980.

"I sat, I listened, and I was really impressed with the racial makeup of the event," Hilton said. "I thought back to Martin Luther King's dream, because there were black kids, Persian kids, white kids, Orientals. And these kids were talking about how they could change the planet."

Faith-based school

The Bahais have had property in Hemingway since 1972, when the faith established a school focused on social and economic development. Called the Louis G. Gregory Institute, it occupies a largely wooded tract where the air is alive with dragonflies and the chatter of birds.

Barnes, who serves as administrator, says relations with neighboring churches have been amicable, with ministers invited to events at the institute. (What surely helps is that Bahais abstain from aggressive proselytizing, teach a personal morality whose standards -- no gambling or alcohol, for instance -- fit well in a culturally conservative area and regard Christianity as a divinely revealed faith. The station also runs free announcements about local churches' events on its community calendar.)

Bahai emphasizes religious service, and the institute attracts volunteers, such as Nancy Nawi, 19, of Norwood, N.J., who grew up in a Bahai family and will enter Smith College in the fall. "I know people who had come down here, who had volunteered down here," she said. "People would talk about Radio Bahai down in South Carolina."

The institute (whose initials give WLGI its call letters) is named for an early convert, a South Carolinian born in 1874 to former slaves. He earned a law degree at Howard University in Washington and flirted with black nationalism before finding the faith in 1909. Thereafter, he traveled widely preaching racial unity, often in the segregated South. Twice, Booker T. Washington invited him to speak at Tuskegee Institute, the predominantly black school that Washington founded in Alabama.

One recent graduate of Tuskegee University works at the station. He is Jonathan Graham, who grew up in the nearby town of Kingstree and embraced the faith at 15, after encountering a Bahai youth group. Like Hilton, he was impressed with the message of racial unity.

"Here in the faith, it's all about us getting the world together," said Graham, now 30. "That's what appealed to me."

  •    Bahai is a relatively new world religion. It was started in the 1860s by a Persian (Iranian) nobleman who declared he was the Promised One anticipated by all faiths. He changed his name to Baha'u'llah, Arabic for the Glory of God.

  •    Bahais say the core of their belief is that humanity is a single people with a common destiny. In the words of Bah'u'llah, "The Earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens." The faith also teaches that the world's major religions are all true expressions of God.

  •    Bahais said their faith has become the second most widespread of the world's independent religions, embracing more than 5 million members from more than 200 countries. About 800 live in the Twin Cities metro area; statewide the total is about 1,200, a Bahai spokeswoman said.

  •    Two Websites have information about Bahais: http://www.bahai.com and http://www.bahai.org.


    ©Copyright 2000, New York Times.

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