MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) - When it comes to religion, South Carolina has its share of churches, from Baptist and Catholic, to Methodist and Lutheran. While it's no surprise that Christianity is the most prevalent religion in the state, the second-most common religion might surprise you. It's not Islam, Buddhism, or Judaism. It's the Baha'i faith.
Baha'is embrace diversity, and what they call the "oneness of humanity," which means accepting black, white, male, female, anyone, as equal and one. That notion of equality is the opposite of what many people faced in South Carolina decades ago, and some even still today. An aversion to inequality so rooted in racism and intolerance is what drew so many South Carolinian's to the Baha'i faith.
Today Baha'is gather - some, several times a week. They meet in community centers and homes around the state without fear, though that wasn't always the case.
The religion started in present-day Iran, founded by a man named Bahá'u'lláh, in 1863. The son of a minister to the Shah of the then-Persian Empire, Bahá'u'lláh was destined to inherit his father's position. He was accused of blasphemy when he declared he was the messenger of God.
"He was imprisoned, stripped of all his wealth and position, his whole family and he were exiled," said Greg Kintz, Program Director of Radio Baha'i.
Still, Bahá'u'lláh and his teachings survived. "Basic teachings of the Baha'i faith are that there is one God, that one creator who created humanity who created the Earth, who created the solar system, that there's one creator," Kintz said.
Baha'i's believe the many religious teachers throughout time were, like Bahá'u'lláh, manifestations of God for that time period.
"Whether it's Zoroastrianism , the lord Krishna, or the teachings of Buddha, Moses, Christ, Mohammed, or, more recently, Bahá'u'lláh – we see them as coming at different stages in history, different periods of time. None of them overlapped in their missions," Kintz said.
"Bahá'u'lláh says you can't make a distinction between any manifestations of God - Baha'ullah, Mohammad, Jesus, Buddha, the Bob- they all came from the same God," explained Marjene Nelson, a follower of the Baha'i faith.
Fast forward to the 1900's, a time when segregation was not only rampant, it was law.
"The Baha'i faith was initially introduced in South Carolina in the early 1900's, and the Baha'i faith grew slowly from that period forward," Kintz said.
Then things started to change as Jim Crow Laws were struck down in the mid-1960's. "There was a tremendous upsurge of interest in the Baha'i faith in the late 60's in particular," according to Kintz.
As the civil rights movement took its hold on the country, people gravitated to the Baha'i faith's core values: the oneness of humanity, and embracing of diversity.
"I grew up in a church, very strong, went to church all the time," Nelson said. But she didn't like what she saw when times started to change. "I was very concerned about justice and injustice, and knew that some African American members who were trying to join our church, and they did, but some of the people at the church did not like that, and that didn't make sense to me. I became a Baha'i in 1978."
"In the 60's, 70's, 80's, and 90's and to some extent even now, people referred to the two most segregated places in South Carolina is the barbershop or beauty salon, and the church on Sunday morning," Kintz explained.
It wasn't easy for Baha'i's in South Carolina.
"It was not safe, it would not have been safe for a group like this to gather a number of decades ago, very recently really, and so that's changed a lot," Kintz continued.
A very present danger presented itself for anyone who strayed from the norm, in a time when laws had changed, but who it was acceptable to be seen with had not. Hatred and racism flared in the state, and people who didn't like what the Baha'i faith stands for, acted out.
"The building was shot at, we've had dead animals left on the grounds, all sorts of rumors of what took place out here, because there was mixing of races," Kintz said.
Despite all of that, Kintz said, the religion exploded in the state.
"Estimates are 15,000 to 20,000 at that time," Kintz said. "If you turn on the light in a room that's dark, that light shines – that was the Baha'i faith in South Carolina focusing on the oneness of humanity." And that light shone brightest in the Grand Strand, Low Country, and Pee Dee.
"Dillon and Marion counties, southern Florence County, but throughout Darlington, Horry County, Georgetown, Berkeley County, a little bit in Lee, a little bit in Clarendon, so that was the initial, that was the largest grouping of Baha'is," according to Kintz.
There was so much growth that the Louis Gregory Baha'i Institute was built in a central location in the state, in Hemingway, to serve as a training center and retreat for Baha'i's.
To further outreach in the community, Radio Baha'i hit the airwaves. "It's all about finding music that is uplifting, positive, and it creates an atmosphere of unity among, hopefully, the community, as we say on Radio Baha'i," explained Ernest Hilton, Production Director for Radio Baha'i.
Hilton plays a blend music. Turn on Radio Baha'i, and you may hear Tim McGraw, Kelly Clarkson, Pharrell Williams, and Beyonce songs along with some gospel and jazz.
Hilton has been a Baha'i for decades. "I was born and raised in this area, I became a Baha'i back in 1980," he said. "I just was curious about this building, who these people were, and I sort of just wandered inside and talked to someone about the faith. 'Who are you, what do you do here, and what is this Baha'i faith all about?'"
He said he just happened to find what he was looking for. "Diversity of religion, and also, talking about the love of mankind and how they can be unified," Hilton elaborated.
Even Baha'i's from younger generations, like Khadijah Gore, said the same values that attracted her counterparts generations ago are what keep her invested.
"I have been a Baha'i for like my entire life," Gore said. "I remember being like 15 - that's the age of maturity for Baha'is. My parents made it very clear, 'Yes we raised you as a Baha'i, you know a lot about the Baha'i faith. But now it's time to go out and make sure that this is the right path for you'."
After studying other religions, Gore decided to stick with the Baha'i faith.
"Dedicate my life to serving this cause," Gore said. "After that, I was like, 'Okay, I've chosen this path, it's my path, it's no longer the path my parents put out for me'." She is part of the Baha'i Youth Empowerment Program.
Gore was raised in Conway, and is spending a year between high school and when she will start college to work with youth in Charleston.
"And working with the youth there, start like junior youth group, children's classes, or places where you can have devotion and pray, and just building up that community," Gore said.
Baha'i's don't have a church that the average person would recognize, because they don't have clergy. The Baha'i center in Conway is home to worshipers from Hemingway up to to North Carolina. They don't have car washes and bake sales to raise money. The only money Baha'i's accept is not from outside donations or the federal government, but from other Baha'i's.