The ardent abolitionists and radical reformers who founded Berea College were motivated by their Christian faith. The scripture, “God has made of one blood all peoples of the earth,” (Acts 17:26) inspired them to create a school open to everyone of good moral character. Though much has changed since 1855, this verse, which has become the Berea College motto, continues to inspire our sense of radical inclusivity. It was one thing to be an abolitionist in the North, but being one in the South was dangerous, a fact that all early Bereans knew acutely. And yet they prevailed.
Such courage inspires us today. What once was meant to apply only to Blacks and whites and women and men now applies in a much broader sense as the world reveals its diversity. And we hope, as always, to lead by example as we apply the deeper meaning of this scripture in a modern era.
As the nation was on the brink of civil war over the issue of slavery, Berea College founder Reverend John G. Fee preached a “gospel of impartial love” and built a little school and church to promote the idea until it became too dangerous for him and his family—and the families of those who assisted him—to stay in Kentucky. He returned at the end of the war to make his inclusive vision a reality. The first interracial and coeducational college in the South opened its doors to freed people of color from nearby Camp Nelson, and the formerly enslaved studied alongside whites, women alongside men, even though the society at the time may have found this unfathomable.
We tell that story as often as we can to illustrate our modern motivation, which is to continue to be radically inclusive as a College. Inclusivity remains, as it was in the beginning, our institution’s spiritual imperative. We haven’t always been perfect at it—in fact there are long stretches of time in our history where Berea College didn’t live up to its inclusive roots. But it has always been in our spiritual DNA, and here we are today with renewed vigor to realize those ideals. Realizing them demands we mean it when we say we include everybody, even when it doesn’t please everyone.
What does it mean for us today to continue to hold to our inclusive ideals? Well, it’s challenging in two ways. First, we hope, is that inclusivity challenges widely held prejudices and reminds our fellow citizens that God really has made of one blood ALL peoples of the earth. Going one step further this draws attention to systems of oppression, highlighting our goal of educating citizens to recognize and oppose the exclusive systems that adversely affect low-income families, persons of color, religious minorities or members of the LGBTQPIA+ community. But in another sense, it might be challenging to us as an institution to espouse views unpopular to some because Berea College depends on the support of many friends and alumni to continue its mission of educating students who cannot afford tuition.
Should we worry that these inclusive ideals might alienate some supporters? In fact, experience shows that friends and supporters are reassured by considering the Berea experience, precisely because of its inclusivity. Here a conservative Christian will encounter a student raised in another of the great faiths and both will benefit by the engagement that can only happen because both are welcome. Here the person who prefers a simple view of the gender binary will encounter a person of nonconforming gender identity, and both will come to a deeper realization of just how mysterious is human sexuality. Here the politically conservative person will encounter someone on the left, and they will come to understand that the other is not in fact a demon, but a thoughtful and patriotic fellow American. All come to appreciate inclusivity and the institution that welcomed them in all of their diversity.
That’s why our alumni so value their Berea College experience and why our thoughtful donors from across Kentucky and throughout the country continue to support us regardless of their identities and their particular perspectives on various issues. They have come to understand that engaging with one another in a spirit of inclusivity is a unique and transformative way to learn, a model we hope will have influence beyond Berea College.