Letter to the Editor of the Berea Citizen

To the Editor of the Berea Citizen,

In light of the present debate in our city regarding the proposed fairness amendment, some have asked me about the position of Berea College, and this seems a good opportunity to explain our policies and practices in this area.

Berea College’s nondiscrimination policy was approved on campus and adopted by the Board of Trustees in 2001. It begins as follows…

Berea College, in light of its mission in the tradition of “impartial love” and social equality, welcomes “all peoples of the earth” (Acts 17:26) to learn and work here. It is the policy of Berea College not to discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, national or ethnic origin, age, sex, handicap, or sexual orientation in its educational programs, admissions practices, scholarship and loan programs, athletics and other school-administered activities or employment practices. 

You will note that our policy protects our students and employees by ruling out discrimination in a number of categories, including sexual orientation. We were one of the first colleges or universities in Kentucky to establish this protection, which is now in place at many other institutions. We also provide same-sex partner benefits.

Following this policy has enabled us to assemble a highly diverse faculty, staff and student body, which in turn has enabled us to create and sustain a wonderful learning community. Honoring diversity does not mean that individuals in the college community agree on all matters. Rather, a hallmark of our community is that we engage across the many differences, black and white, Appalachian and international, faculty, staff, administrators, gay and straight, and the many religious perspectives that are represented in the institution.

This aspirational goal is occasionally quite a challenge, however, and the current debate reveals one of those cases. We welcome gay persons into our community and affirm their agency and dignity. We also welcome persons of all religions or none at all into our community. Some come from religious traditions that regard homosexuality as wrong, and we respect their right to that belief. Some members of our LGBTQ community report having suffered discrimination, harassment, and other sorts of harm in their lives before and even after coming to Berea College, and sometimes that this harm is related in one way or another to prejudice based on religious or cultural beliefs.

So, it is readily apparent that individuals in these two groups could easily find themselves in conflict, but that is not the Berea College way. The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.” Our boat contains many complex identities, but we are committed to building relationships that go beyond mere toleration to seek affirmation, cooperation, and appreciation of other ways of seeing the world. Being in the same boat does not mean that the differences of our identity are to be erased. Rather it leads to a stimulating opportunity for everyone’s preconceptions in our community to be challenged, sensitively and respectfully, and then growth can occur. Our students learn real appreciation for this rich learning environment and, after they have graduated and moved on, some remark poignantly how they miss it.

My purpose in writing is to share how we embrace and affirm differences at Berea College and to reveal the challenges that come with that and how we aspire to convert them to opportunities for learning and growth. As an institution we are choosing not to enter the debate over whether this model of engaging with differences would be useful for our city as a whole; that is for our elected representatives to decide.

It is truly an honor to serve as president of an institution with values that originate from the Christian conviction of our founder, the Rev. John G. Fee, that “God has made of one blood all peoples of the earth” (Acts 17:26). It is also a pleasure to be part of the very special community that is the City of Berea, an association that continues to benefit all of us who live, study or work here.

Lyle Roelofs, President

Berea College