Amid all the news on Ukraine and the war its people are enduring, have you stopped to consider how much you may have in common with Ukrainians? There are striking similarities between Appalachian people and culture and the people and culture of the Carpathian Mountains in western Ukraine. According to Christopher Miller, curator for Berea’s Loyal Jones Appalachian Center, the people in that part of Ukraine, like Appalachia, have struggled with stereotyping, out-migration and resource extraction by outsiders. People from the Carpathians produce beautiful crafts that are uncannily similar to those in Appalachia.
On Berea College’s campus we often say we are more alike than we are different. Historically, this has been primarily to promote harmony between races, but it applies in other ways. We have Ukrainian and Russian students enrolled in Berea who must study and work together despite the conflict between their countries. Around the world, people suffer because one side of a dispute or the other (or both) have forgotten their basic kinship with one another. On campus, our motto reminds us that “God has made of one blood all peoples of the earth” (Acts 17:26), a concept that seems more relevant than ever in our divided society and world.
I hope we can all remember that concept as we welcome Ukrainian refugees fleeing their home country due to Russia’s invasion. We should consider it an opportunity to test the limits of our love for humanity with the understanding that there is no limit if we truly open our hearts to people who are struggling. We should see ourselves in the people of Ukraine, who fight for liberty and independence, the way Americans once had to.
Alas, the war in Ukraine, while getting most of our attention at the moment, is far from unique as there are a number of other ongoing conflicts that are causing great misery and danger to people who bear little responsibility for the situation. Conflicts in Ethiopia, Myanmar, Haiti, and Pakistan come to mind, and these are all places where some Berea College students call home. Regardless of where they are happening, we need to learn to see ourselves in other people’s struggles. In so doing we become a more compassionate and just society and, perhaps most importantly, a model for the world. And wouldn’t we want “other peoples of the earth” to have such compassion for us were the situations reversed?
It often seems that there is little we can do as individuals to stop war and oppression in other countries, so we need to focus on what we can change in ourselves and what we can do at home. At Berea College, we will remember and teach our common humanity even as we recognize important differences. Future leaders from all over our country and the rest of the world are learning right now that we are more alike than we are different, that we have more in common than we have differences that divide.
Imagine the power of that lesson if everyone learned it and applied it. It might be naïve to think things could change. People and nations have fought each other for millennia, and there is nearly always on-going conflict in several places, so much so that we are sometimes tempted to turn away, to pretend it isn’t happening. It can, after all, be overwhelming. The invasion of Ukraine has removed that luxury, at least temporarily. The horrible destructiveness of modern weapons, the suffering, death, and displacement of so many people are there for us to see every day on the media. A little boy walks alone across the frontier between two countries; mothers in Poland leave baby strollers with supplies at the train stations for arriving mothers from Ukraine. It is heart breaking! And there is similar suffering in those other conflicts; the photos and reporting are just not being shared by mainstream media.
Yes, maybe it is naïve, but Ukraine has reminded us that we really have only two choices. We can either accept and apply the truth that “God has made of one blood, all peoples of the earth,” or we will continue to see more people suffering, more cities destroyed, and more enmities created or renewed.