Gail Wolford

Ms. Gail Wolford, Vice President of Labor & Student Life

The Great Commitments of Berea College

At the installation ceremony on April 6, 2013, members of the College community offered President Roelofs a series of charges based on Berea’s eight Great Commitments. A transcript of these charges is below.

Mr. Silas House, NEH Chair in Appalachian Studies, presented the following charge:

“The First Great Commitment of Berea College is ‘To provide an educational opportunity primarily for students from Appalachia, black and white, who have great promise and limited economic resources.’

“I encourage President Roelofs to always abide by this commitment that is so dear to my heart and to the hearts of so many Appalachians who have benefited from the education and fellowship they have received and will continue to receive at Berea College. Berea has always been a great light for the Appalachian people, and I trust that our new President will make sure that light keeps shining into every holler, spreading itself over every pasture, a light that must touch every hilltop rock from the ones at our own Pinnacles, to the Smokies, the Cumberlands, the Blue Ridge, and every magnificent one in between. That light has changed the lives of so many who only needed the opportunity offered to them and they have taken that light and spread it to others, illuminating the power of education, compassion, equality, fairness, and fellowship, all things that must continue to be fostered here. I offer a charge for our new president to defend and preserve this way of life and the many ways of being and speaking that exist here, realizing always the complexity of this place and its people.”

Dr. John Carlevale, Associate Professor of Classical Languages and Literature, presented the following charge:

“The second Great Commitment of Berea College is ‘To provide an education of high quality with a liberal arts foundation and outlook.’

“On a day rightly devoted to affirmation and commitment, it seems only fair to remember that it is not certainties but questions that drive our common academic work from the most elementary classroom exercise to the most esoteric scholarly crux. The more searching the questions we ask—and the less content we are with ready-made answers—the more we live up to the liberating potential of the liberal arts. And so what is true for students and for professors may sometimes even be true for presidents as well: when we feel challenged, unsettled, out on a limb, or even altogether at a loss—that moment may be the best proof we can have that we are really doing our jobs. Congratulations, President Roelofs, and good luck.”

Dr. Larry Shinn, President Emeritus, presented the following charge:

“The third Great Commitment urges those who work and learn at Berea College ‘To stimulate understanding of the Christian faith and its many expressions and to emphasize the Christian ethic and the motive of service to others.’

“In the spring of 2002 and after five years of study and campus conversations, the faculty and trustees approved a statement of Berea’s ‘Christian Identity’ that says, ‘Berea College has a particular Christian self-understanding that makes it stand apart from most other schools that call themselves ‘Christian.’ Berea College’s founder [John G. Fee] argued that the Christian gospel could be described best by the phrase ‘impartial love’ that welcomed black and white men and women students in a day when such equality was not supported in most Christian communities in Kentucky and much of the United States. [As a non-sectarian college from its beginning,] Berea College was rooted in a Christian spirituality that was egalitarian, socially provocative, and focused on serving the black and white students and communities of Appalachia and beyond.

“Thus in its very founding, Berea College gave practical expression to its welcoming Christian faith and ethic of inclusion and service to those on the margins of society. In 1993, the Berea faculty and trustees added a Preamble to all of the Great Commitments that said, ‘Adherence to the College’s scriptural foundation, God has made of one blood all peoples of the earth, shapes the College’s culture and programs so that students and staff alike can work toward both personal goals and a vision of a world shaped by Christian values, such as the power of love over hate, human dignity and equality, and peace with justice.’ Thus, the two-fold truth that presents itself is that all eight of the Great Commitments arise from Berea’s inclusive Christian self-understanding and yet Berea’s mission is unique only in the complex fusion of all eight of the Great Commitments.

“So Lyle, I commend to you this third Great Commitment that is one expression of Berea’s inclusive Christian faith that, although a subject of passionate debate throughout Berea’s history, undergirds all of Berea’s Great Commitments.”

Ms. Gail Wolford, Vice President of Labor & Student Life, presented the following charge:

“Mr. President: I rise to remind us all of Berea College’s Fourth Great Commitment – ‘To provide for all students through the labor program experiences for learning and serving in community, and to demonstrate that labor, mental and manual, has dignity as well as utility.’  

“College students work. That’s not news. But there is something truly noteworthy about it here, something that matters.

“Berea has always provided opportunities for students of need to work as a means of financial aid, and for over 100 years has required that all students participate in an educational program unifying the head, the heart, and the hands.

“Mr. President, on behalf of the College community, I charge and encourage you to embrace this singular commitment to the integration of learning, serving, and working

  • where work deepens and extends classroom learning;
  • where work cultivates habits of contribution;
  • where all work has utility and dignity; and
  • where work teaches ‘the practice of neighborhood’ in a globally interdependent world.

“That kind of educational vision is news. Good news.

“Lyle, I pledge my support in our shared labors and wish you and Laurie every success in your service to Berea.”

Ms. Laura Tate, ’15, Vice President of the Black Student Union, presented the following charge:

“The Fifth Great Commitment is ‘To assert the kinship of all people and to provide interracial education with a particular emphasis on understanding and equality among blacks and whites.’

“The term kinship reminds us of the College’s motto, ‘God has made of one blood all peoples of the earth.’ But the commitment goes further than the motto, specifying that the College should provide an opportunity for people of different races to come together. This is what John G. Fee intended at the founding of our institution over 150 years ago. This commitment is more than mere desegregation, which only brings different groups together. It means supporting programs, curriculum, and organizations that promote equality among blacks and whites. In doing this, we can maintain individual identities. We can, and should acknowledge, the differences between our cultures. But, at the same time, we must seek ways to find common ground and build bridges of understanding.”

bell hooks, Distinguished Professor in Residence in Appalachian Studies, presented the following charge:

“Commitment number six: ‘To create a democratic community dedicated to education and equality for women and men.’ In the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes, we are told two are better than one. For if one falls down, the other can help them rise. This vision of mutuality and support is echoed in our sixth commitment. A democratic community encompasses all of us not just trustees, administrators, professors, students, but all of us who labor here to make Berea College a humanizing learning community that works. All of us then are to be accorded respect, rights, and privileges. To achieve this end, we must dare to oppose oppression and/or exploitative hierarchies. We must dare to fundamentally challenge structures of domination, especially the patriarchy that keeps us locked in a system of dysfunctional gender inequality. Our collective challenge spearheaded by our new leader Brother Lyle is to rededicate our lives, our labor, to the mission of creating a just democratic learning community—one that embraces women and men as equals at all levels. We are not called by this commitment to make women be new patriarchs.  We know patriarchy has no gender. It hurts women and men. Rather we are called to joyfully create and sustain a secure foundation for transformative, transgressive, democratic learning—grounded in love—that will empower us all—women and men to be fully self actualized, self realized, whole and complete, able to work together in affirming, mutual partnership.”

Joe Saleem II, ’08, Residential Life Collegium, presented the following charge:

“Commitment number seven of the Berea College Great Commitments reads, ‘To maintain a residential campus and to encourage in all members of the community a way of life characterized by plain living, pride in labor well done, zest for learning, high personal standards, and concern for the welfare of others.’

“As an alumnus of the Berea College Track Team and knowing your love for running, I felt I could best express my charge to you as an analogy to which we both can easily relate. The Berea College Community is like a team. Each year we gain new members, in the form of freshmen and transfer students, and our team, in its entirety is at various skill levels and abilities. We have some sprinters, some distance people, and even some walkers, but our job is to transform every member of our team into someone who can finish their race in this life. Likewise, we as an institution should take the members of our community and transform them into citizens of the world.

“As a student years ago and now as a staff member in our Student Life Division, I can see this cannot be done in the classroom alone. That is why Great Commitment seven is so important and instrumental in the transformative learning and the college experience of each and every person at Berea College. I encourage you, Mr. President, to continue our mission to encourage in all members a way of life characterized by plain living, pride in labor well done, zest for learning, high personal standards, and concern for the welfare of others, so that once they leave here, each and every student can be equipped with what they need to finish the race!”

Ms. Jane Stephenson, Founder of the New Opportunity School for Women and former first lady of Berea College, presented the following charge:

“Berea College’s eighth Great Commitment is a call ‘To serve the Appalachian region primarily through education but also by other appropriate services.’

“While it has been many years since John and I were privileged to serve the College, Berea’s commitment to service in the region has remained constant.

“Early in the history of Berea College, Berea sent wagons loaded with books to share with people in the mountains of eastern Kentucky. Classes were taught in small communities all over the region—many for credit—by professors from Berea College sharing their knowledge.

“Most recently, the College continues its commitment of service to the region through the CELTS Program, Students for Appalachia, GEAR UP, Promise Neighborhood, Grow Appalachia, the Brushy Fork Institute, and other worthwhile endeavors.

“Berea College must continue to join its historic intellectual experience with service to the region through encouraging leadership, community development, civic participation, and increasing awareness of environmental concerns in Appalachia.

“Berea has never been afraid to speak out, to challenge the misperceptions of the Appalachian region, and to commit to change, while encouraging each graduate to experience the wider world but never forgetting to serve the needs of their communities back home.

“Lyle and Laurie, all of us at the New Opportunity School for Women wish you every success in your service as Berea’s ‘first family.’”