Berea College Students Explore Poverty, Abundance and Peace
by Erica Cook ’13
From November 13 to the 15, eight Berea College students traveled to the foothills of the Smoky Mountains in North Carolina to attend the 2011 Lake Junaluska Peace Conference. The conference was positioned in a beautiful setting, almost idyllic. The speakers focused their topics on “Poverty, Abundance, and Peace: Seeking Economic Justice for all God’s Children,” the theme of this year’s conference. The worship services were led by scholars from Christian, Jewish, and Muslim backgrounds and traditions. The widespread premise in each of these beliefs is that concern for all God’s people is key to any sense of justice and peace. The speakers included Bishop Nkulu Ntambo from the Democratic Republic of the Congo; Michael de Kuany, one of the “Lost Boys” of the Sudan; Rev. David Beckmann, President of Bread for the World; and Rev. Bob Edgar, President of Common Cause. Each of these speakers was engaging and inspirational. Each reinforced the tragic message of poverty around the world, yet each one brought a message of hope in caring for all God’s children.
This eye-opening journey was made possible through the Peace and Social Justice Program, directed by Dr. Michelle Tooley (Eli Lily Professor of Religion) and Mrs. Ernestine Upchurch, a 1959 graduate of Berea College. Upchurch received her master’s in social work and then became a social worker in her home county of North Carolina. Upchurch contacted Tooley and said this was the kind of conference that would benefit Berea College students. Tooley said, “It connected to my Poverty and Justice class and so I thought this would be a wonderful learning opportunity for us all. The two most important themes I want students to learn from this conference are that policy has a human face and there are ways to solve injustice and violence in the world.” Most of the students who chose to attend had been involved in similar topics either through their academic classes, the Occupy Movement, protests and rallies or other programs.
Lwamwe Muzima is a sophomore political science major who works for the Emerging Scholars Program (ESP) on campus. ESP’s mission is to provide a support system that assists students in achieving academic, personal, financial, social and career planning goals. Muzima recalled, “As an African student, I thought these were very relevant themes to my life and my community back home. I’m from the Democratic Republic of Congo and we are still experiencing the consequences of the recent war. Poverty is really visible. Through this conference I learned that third world countries don’t need food or money; they need to develop skills so they can rely on themselves and produce a better quality of living. I want to help the poor emerge and equip them with the skills necessary to help fight poverty.”
Tara Meadows is a junior agriculture major who was inspired to attend the conference because of the theme of abundance in a time of inequality. Meadows stated, “In the United States we see homeless people but we don’t see people who don’t have access to clean water, we don’t see the extreme poverty. I thought it would be interesting to see what experts had to say and what solutions can help combat these injustices.”
Jessica Roberge is a junior communication major who has been involved in campus protests and the Occupy Movement and feels strongly about solving poverty. Roberge said, “We are the leaders of tomorrow and we need to stand up and make a difference. By going to this conference I learned ways of standing up for what I believe in. We take what we have in the United States for granted, through the speeches I learned how important it is to live without unnecessary commodities and help others in need.”
Nicolas Cress is a transfer nursing major who has been exposed to various topics and pressing issues such as economic injustice and poverty. Cress explained, “I was inspired by the fact that it was interfaith, searching for a common ground amidst our religious differences. One of my favorite parts of the conference was when Rev. Bob Edgar said, “We are the leaders we have been waiting for.” He opened my eyes to a variety of solutions to combat injustice such as working for organizations like Bread for the World, becoming more involved in volunteering, protests and writing petitions to our government officials.”
Sarah McLewin is a senior English major who has a vast experience with the themes and solutions presented at the conference. McLewin smiled and said, “It was nice to see how many Berea College students were ready to answer the question posed by Rev. David Beckmann, asking how can we reduce poverty? I was proud that students were able to give several different answers and not necessarily the conventional answers you would expect. These are students that have studied it academically and/or experienced it firsthand or through someone they know. Beckmann saw that Berea students stick out academically and through activism. It’s exciting to sit down with someone at that level and have a meaningful conversation with them. Berea College has prepared us for that.”
The ride back to Berea was serene. We carefully observed the fiery leaves as they fell to the ground, symbolizing what was yet to come. We thought of a time for change, a revolution that would end poverty and hunger in the world. We discussed our thoughts about the conference and came up with possible strategies to apply what we had learned to our Berea community and our hometowns. Coming from low socio-economic backgrounds and having experienced some form of poverty first-hand, these topics sunk deep into our minds and our hearts. The Peace Conference reinforced our knowledge, spread solidarity and offered us not only inspiration, but motivation to become the leaders we have been waiting for.