Students Attend Conference Centered on the Transformative Power of Non-Violence
Berea College students enrolled in Peace and Social Justice courses taught by Dr. Michelle Tooley and Jason Strange attended the 2012 Lake Junaluska Peace Conference from November 8-11. Lake Junaluska is located in the Smokey Mountains of Western North Carolina and has been a Methodist Retreat Center since 1913. Each year over 150,000 people experience Lake Junaluska through the ministry programs, church retreats, annual conferences and countless other events. The fifth annual Peace Conference theme was entitled “Love in Action: The Transformative Power of Non-Violence.”
The outstanding platform of key-note speakers included:
- Liberian Peace Activist and Nobel Peace Prize Winner Leymah Gbowee
- Distinguished Scholar-in-Residence, Candler School of Theology Rev. Dr. Bernard Lafayette, Jr.
- President of the Metta Center for Nonviolence Michael Nagler
- Central Methodist Mission in Cape Town, Africa. Rev. Alan Storey.
Each speaker has been on the front lines of non-violence movements around the world from the U.S to Liberia and South Africa. Their testimonies provided rich alternative paradigms to violence and built off applications of non-violence as taught by Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi and other spiritual leaders. The goal of the conference was to propose alternative patterns for resolving conflict, achieving justice and building peace.
Students who wished to attend the conference applied for Discovery Funds through Berea College’s financial aid and were awarded with sufficient funds for meals. The costs associated with attending the conference and lodging were provided on behalf of Lake Junaluska in form of generous scholarships. Erica Cook, a senior Communication major from Costa Rica said, “I’m so blessed to have the chance to attend a conference such as this one but if it were not for the grant I and others received from Berea College, many of us would not have had this amazing opportunity.”
This year a total of 20 students attended the conference, which is 10 more students than last year. Due to the immense popularity of the experiences expressed by the ones who attended the 2011 conference, more students decided it would be rewarding to see what the hype was themselves. Although many consider Lake Junaluska to be a relaxing and beautiful environment, during the Peace Conference there is little time for outdoor excursions. The conference schedule is quite hectic. Each day begins with breakfast at 7:30 am, followed by prayers and meditation and is continued with speakers throughout the day until about 9 pm.
Kenny Madden, a sophomore Sociology major from Greenup, KY shares, “I thought the Peace Conference was great. It gave me a much needed morale boost for continuing to work for peace. It strengthened my belief in the principle and practice of nonviolence, and taught me valuable skills for engaging in nonviolent resistance.”
Many of the students correlated the speakers to the ones that come to Berea College for convocations. Samuel Gilbert, a Political Science major from Lexington, KY observes, “I really enjoyed the peace conference, it was very informative and eye opening. The speakers were all well versed in their fields and had inspiring things to say. It felt like a long convocation, filled with cathartic speech and moments of peaceful resolution to change the world.”
Although many of the students were excited to learn more about conflict transformation in order to apply it to their Peace and Social Justice classes, they all expressed gratitude for being able to enjoy a “mini-vacation” away from Berea after mid-term exams. Jessica Wells, a junior from Greenup, KY said, “Lake Junaluska is beautiful! This has been the most stressful semester of my college career, so having the opportunity to attend this conference provided me with some much needed relaxation and de-stress time.”
George Marshall, an Education Studies major from Noblesville, IN admitted, “It was the highlight of my semester.”
Most of the students who attended enjoyed the conference because they learned how successful peace activists were able to apply the theories taught in Dr. Tooley and Jason Strange’s classes. Kathryn Pliml, a junior Child and Families Studies major from Grand Rapids, MI recalls, “We’ve been reading and discussing a lot of theory and it was great to see it carried out by professionals and to hear stories of how it’s been implemented in the work that they do. I also got to hear a lot of different takes on conflict transformation which was educational because there have been times when I’ve not completely agreed with ideas we’ve discussed, but they were presented to me in a new light.”
The key-note speakers made lasting impressions on the students. It is not every day you get a chance to meet a Nobel Peace Prize winner like Leymah Gboyee who is such an inspiration to millions of people. George says, “It was amazing to hear Leymah’s story of how she, along with thousands of Christian and Muslim women, started a revolution in Liberia and ended the Civil War.” The fact that Leymah Gboyee was successful in accomplishing one of the most difficult tasks in the world, bringing about peace in Liberia, struck many of the students and urged them to think about the ways in which they can also change the world.
Samuel says, “Leymah spoke about her struggle to change the course of history in Liberia, to end the Civil War and to bring peace to her fractured land. It was inspiring to hear her struggle and her triumph.”
Michael Nagler was another inspirational speaker the students were quite fond of, Kathryn recalls, “Not only was he informative, clear, and obviously incredibly intelligent but he also held a workshop about his work and had dinner with us. The ability to maintain a balance between being a renowned scholar and being personable and engaging with those who aren’t was very impressive.”
After four days of intense introspection and analysis of social change based on non-violent approaches, the students left with a sense of empowerment and an eagerness to make a difference in their world, beginning in their communities at the grassroots level. Sarah Clark, a sophomore Sociology major from Knoxville, TN says, “The Lake Junaluska Peace Conference was inspiring, empowering, eye-opening, refreshing, frightening at times and overall an enabler to reflect on all the conflicts that are waged in this world and within lifetimes.”
They all expressed either a new found interest in conflict transformation or the validation they needed. Sam admits, “I learned the value of using non-violence versus other means of interaction. It reinforced my belief that it only takes a few dedicated people to start a movement that can change the world.”
Photos by Erica Cook and Johnny Pope