Christmas in Berea is an especially beautiful and moving time. Laurie and I deeply enjoy and appreciate the time we get to spend in fellowship with other Bereans, from our annual Christmas Concert held at Union Church to numerous campus celebrations. The lighting of the tree on College Square proclaims the wonders of the season and, truly, they fill the campus and the town with spirit.
We will be spending our Christmas in Michigan with children, grandchildren and other close family members, a chance to share in the blessing of the season as well as an opportunity to maintain our cold weather and snow skills.
Laurie joins me in sending our best wishes to all Bereans. So, from the Roelofs family to yours, we hope your holiday break—whether you celebrate Christmas or another seasonal tradition—is filled with joy and laughter and coming together with family and friends and that you will experience good health, abundant blessings and every success in the coming year!
Several years ago, Berea College joined more than 100 other liberal arts colleges in taking the position that the college rankings produced by US News and World Report do not represent a true measure of the quality and effectiveness of any particular school’s education. This large group of colleges is known as the Annapolis Group, and it includes many of the institutions that routinely do very well in that ranking.
The factors that motivated that concern were centered on false measures of quality on which the US News and World Report ranking is based. For example, those metrics include the total spending per student, which does not reflect whether that spending really contributes to educational quality or not. Heavy weight is also assigned to a reputational assessment that tends to perpetuate forever whatever judgment of quality was once in place.
The rating system was also pernicious in incentivizing colleges and universities to make decisions based upon how they might affect their rankings rather than on what is best for students and even society at large. These decisions often have real and detrimental effects on low-income students, in the following ways:
By heavily weighting test scores, like the SAT and ACT, students in the top income brackets, who routinely score higher, are favored for admission. There is a similar bias against first-generation students, who also do not score as well as those with parents who have been college. Also, more affluent students can pay to take these tests several times and improve their scores.
Students with higher test scores can be offered more financial aid as an incentive to enroll in a particular school to improve rankings, which means, again, students from lower income families are overlooked.
Colleges and universities looking to rise in the rankings spend more per student, which effectively raises tuition and attracts wealthier students. Colleges spending less per student and offering the same quality of education are penalized in the rankings.
Berea College has always stood against these perverse incentives, because they are in direct conflict with our mission. We admit only students with limited financial resources and consider so much more than test scores in making admission decisions.
For those reasons we do not look to the US News and World Report rankings as any sort of measure of how we are achieving our mission. On the other hand, we are very proud of our ranking in Washington Monthly, which developed its annual College Guide and Rankings in response and reaction to US News. For the past two years, we have been listed in the Washington Monthly rankings as the No. 1 liberal arts college in the nation. In addition, we were named the “Best Bang for the Buck,” which is appropriate considering we do not charge our students tuition. (Tons of “bang” for zero “bucks!”)
Washington Monthly describes its rating system in the following way:
We rate schools based on their contribution to the public good in three broad categories: Social Mobility (recruiting and graduating low-income students), Research (producing cutting-edge scholarship and Ph.Ds), and Service (encouraging students to give something back to their country).
Achieving a top ranking in Washington Monthly matches our values and goals, and so is very satisfying. In fact it is a powerful validation of what we do every day at Berea. And, most importantly, we do not have to change who we are to achieve it!
While most institutions strive to explain their missions in a short “elevator pitch” or one clear statement, our mission is too expansive for us to be able to that. Instead, we have our eight Great Commitments, and now an entire website devoted to exploring them in depth.
In development for more than a year, the new site offers visitors the chance to learn what the commitments mean, how they’ve evolved over time, what we’re doing now to live them out, and what we plan to do in the future in relation to them. Anyone wanting to learn about Berea College’s singular mission and be inspired can now do so by visiting a single site.
The Great Commitments originated in the 1960s, when the College outlined the essence of its mission in (at that time) six statements. (Later updates included some fissioning, so the six have become eight.) These statements gave voice to the important cultural and moral values of our institution: educational opportunity for those who can’t afford to go to college; the liberal arts; inclusive Christianity; the chance to work at campus jobs to pay for related expenses and gain job experience; interracial education and gender equality; wellness, mindful and residential living, and sustainability; and, finally, service to Appalachia.
Over the decades we have treated the Commitments as a living document, updating the language to both reflect modern realities and maintain their spirit and intent. Formal updates have been undertaken several times over the last few decades, most recently earlier this year. As in previous rewordings, updating the language was a years-long and campus-wide effort, including as well, approval by the Board of Trustees.
You can read an updated PDF of the Commitments here, but for a more immersive experience, please visit our new site, and feel free to offer your feedback for how to make it better—or just tell us what you like!
Last Sunday evening our nation suffered another unspeakable tragedy in the mass murders that took place in Las Vegas. Fifty-nine persons have died, each leaving behind an awful vacancy for their family members and loved ones; hundreds of others were injured; and nearly everyone else present will never be able to forget the horror of the experience. This is trauma for our entire country.
Our flag now flies at half mast, as we join the rest of the nation in grief and mourning for all the many victims of this horrendous event, their families and loved ones.
What occurred was a hate crime of unprecedented proportion. Not one targeting a particular group of human beings, but rather, seemingly, an act of pure evil, targeting other human beings randomly, persons who had gathered to celebrate and appreciate one of the cultural enjoyments of everyday Americans, country music. Perhaps in time we will come to understand a bit better than we can at the moment, what might have motivated the shooter. No vestige of understanding, however, could possibly stand in comparison to the degree of suffering he inflicted with his heartless fusillade.
What we can conclude from such an event is for all of us as a nation to ponder. In the meantime, the support available to us is what is always at hand for members of the Berea College community. At yesterday’s Chapel service, Chaplain Groth’s message and the selections sung by members of the Black Music Ensemble reminded us that, even in desperate situations such as we’ve witnessed this week, we can reach beyond ourselves to find comfort and peace. Let’s be sensitive to one another, too, knowing that each of us deals with tragic circumstances in our own ways. Please also note that you can avail yourself of a number of campus resources, including the Campus Christian Center and Counseling Services, for individual help in times such as this.
Only love can overcome hate, and the impartial love advocated by Rev. John G. Fee, founder of Berea College, is the only conceivable response to the seemingly impartial hatred exhibited by the perpetrator of this heinous act.
The tragic events that occurred last Saturday in Charlottesville are further reminders of just how long and difficult is our nation’s journey toward peace and racial justice. There have been too many reminders of that long ordeal in the last couple of years, but this one seems especially significant, because this was not one rogue racist or police officer, but rather a gathering of people, coming together to intimidate and threaten Americans who are not white, to undermine American values, and to express the worst kind of hatred. White supremacist, neo-Nazi terrorists target many groups—African Americans, Latinx, all other non-white ethnicities, Jewish Americans, LBGTQ folks—the list goes on. All these Americans are right to be deeply concerned by the rise of this scourge, but truly we are all threatened by this drive to undermine the very character of American society.
On the plus side, the response of many other Americans was courageous, vigorous and well organized. We are heartened by the resistance of many of our fellow citizens to these messages of hate and exclusion, and reminded of how we Bereans have always relied on our Great Commitments, the power of Love over Hate, and the strength of our inclusive slogan—God has made of one blood all peoples of the earth (Acts 17:26).
Since its founding, Berea College has very much been a part of the effort of reconciliation—to restore to African Americans some part of what had been taken from them; to make it possible for whites and blacks to live together in unity; to make fundamental changes in our culture. In the 21st century, we continue to add our voices to the cry for justice and for human rights, for the ideals of our country and the mission of this College and the City of Berea. Let’s also continue the fight on every battlefield—in the courts, in the Congress, federal and state agencies, in the schools and churches, and through the power of the ballot box.
In this time of challenge, we ask all Bereans to raise their voices in support of justice for all, and to remember and raise up in prayer the victims and their loved ones, as well as all those whose interests and rights as Americans were threatened in the Charlottesville rally. Continue to hold to our ideals, seeking peace with justice and relying on the power of love over hate.
Only love is strong enough to break down the walls of skepticism, prejudice, indifference, and fear. Pray with us that the Light of God’s impartial love, as promoted by Rev. Fee, our founder, will shine through the darkness and set us all free—free to see the beauty, worth, and dignity of all God’s children, whom God has indeed made of one blood.
On Tuesday, August 29th, our Noon Chapel service in Danforth Chapel will be dedicated to a time of solidarity, support, healing, and hope. We invite and encourage you to join us.
Standing firm with you,
Lyle Roelofs President
Rev. Loretta Reynolds
Interim Director and College Chaplain
Campus Christian Center
For myself and a number of other Bereans, Independence Day this year will be celebrated in an unusual location: the rural town of Rebild, in Denmark. The town has been celebrating American independence since 1912, and the four-day festival, called Rebildfesten, blends Danish and American traditions—with schnapps and hot dogs, burgers and pickled herring.
Why do the Danes celebrate the Fourth of July? It’s because of the large number of Danes who traveled and settled in America in the 19th century. Many of those Danish immigrants returned home later in life, but kept their American traditions.
Why are Bereans going to be there? Since the 1920s, Berea College has been involved in promoting the Danish model of folk education in Appalachia. When Olive Campbell set up a folk school at Berea in 1925, the model was viewed as a way to educate Appalachians without the expectation of them having to leave family, farms and community. It was also a way to preserve mountain culture. Since then, Berea College has hosted the Country Dance School and the Danish American Exchange program, which brought Danish gymnastics into the Berea College culture.
Many of our Country Dancers will be joining in the festivities in Denmark’s Jutland area, including Berea College students Yulesia Guzman, Shelby Plas, Bryce Carlberg, and Jackson Napier, as will Berea’s Folk Circle Association, the Lexington Vintage Dancers, the Berea Bluegrass Ensemble, and the Berea Festival Dancers. In total, about 65 people from the Berea-area folk organizations will be traveling to Denmark. One of our instructors, Jennifer Rose Escobar, who also directs the Mountain Folk Festival, will sing the national anthem during the festivities.
Deborah Thompson, coordinator of our Country Dance Program, notes that the values of community cooperation, well-rounded education, and healthy activity have bonded Berea and Denmark for a long time. “We are excited to share our Appalachian American music, dance, and culture with the Danes and to learn more about their beautiful country,” she said. “There is nothing like the students experiencing another culture first-hand.”
Before Rebildfesten on the Fourth, we will all be attending the Landsstaevne Sports Festival, a noncompetitive event every four years with over 30,000 participants. It’s similar to our Summer Olympic Games. I will have the honor of attending the festival with the Danish royal family, for which I will have to wear a tuxedo and learn royal etiquette! Another honor, in connection with the festival, is being initiated into King Christian IV’s Guild, named in honor of Denmark’s longest reigning king, who ruled from 1588 – 1648.The Guild named in his honor has a very interesting history going back to its founding during World War II.
This visit should be a wonderful and unique experience for all the Bereans involved. Stay tuned to Facebook and Instagram for photos and news from our trip.
Last week, I delivered remarks at Danforth Chapel, where the theme was “relentless tenderness,” or the call for all of us to not give up on our love for one another the way Christ does not fail in His love for us. To my surprise, Pope Francis also delivered a message on (revolutionary) tenderness around the same time, a coincidence that perhaps shows this is a subject on the minds of many. Here is what Pope Francis had to say:
“And what is tenderness? It is the love that comes close and becomes real. It is a moment that starts from our heart and reaches the eyes, the ears, the hands. Tenderness means to use our eyes to see the other, our ears to hear the other, to listen to children, the poor, those who are afraid of the future….Tenderness means to use our hands and our heart to comfort the other, to take care of those in need.”
The Reverend John G. Fee founded Berea College upon the “gospel of impartial love,” and my hope is that all of us can be as relentlessly loving as that gospel demands. My remarks at Chapel are below, along with a video of the service that includes my wife, Laurie, reading from The Runaway Bunny.
25 April 2017
Lyle D. Roelofs
The children’s book Runaway Bunny, and
These days it is considered a compliment to be “relentless.” We use that term to denote utter determination in an admirable way, or at least sort of admirable. The professor who makes absolute certain that every student does the assigned readings by whatever means necessary is “relentless.” The junior who is doing everything possible to get the internship that is vital for his or her career is “relentless.” The basketball team that plays a suffocating defense for an entire game is “relentless.” (Coach Nolan Richardson of U. of Arkansas called that defensive style “40 minutes of hell,” and if you watched the NCAA play-offs this year, the University of South Carolina played that way.)
Another example comes from one of my favorite movies from some years ago. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in the movie of that title were pretty bothered by relentless pursuit of a tracker. They kept saying to one another, “Who is that guy?” as they tried yet again to lose the team of men following them, succeeding finally only by jumping off a cliff into a roaring river. You’ll recall the best line of that movie. Sundance doesn’t want to jump off the cliff, and Cassidy asks him why. Sundance says, “Because I can’t swim.” (Clearly he should have gone to Berea!) Cassidy laughs and tells him not to worry about it because the fall will probably kill him. Anyway, they jump and survive and escape the relentless pursuit.
Even when the connotations are grudgingly favorable, however, it is still hard to think of “relentless” as a fully positive characteristic, because it really isn’t. If we are being relentless we are likely not taking a balanced approach to life and its various challenges.
So, today let’s look at two examples of relentless behavior. First, we have the mother rabbit, whose relentless pursuit of her bunny takes them through a stream, up a mountain, into a garden, into the air, across the sea, under the big top, and finally back home. The story is 75 years old, but young children never tire of hearing it and looking for the bunny in each picture. It still speaks truth about parental commitment and a mother’s determined love, too. By the way, don’t forget that Mother’s Day is coming up soon, May 14th.
We see a second example in Psalm 139 where our loving God displays a relentless side, too. He will hear every word we speak, box us in front and back, follow us as high as the heavens or as deep as hell or if we board an early flight (I think that’s what the King James Version means by “the wings of the morning”) or dive beneath the sea. No matter where we go, God’s hand is on us to guide us. Even the darkness is no help if you’re trying to hide from God. And, even as we were being formed in our mother’s womb, God was there, and for that reason are we “fearfully and wonderfully made,” in the lovely phrase again of the KJV.
In the end, we simply have to give way to God’s relentless pursuit, and the Psalmist ceases all the running away to acknowledge God’s precious care and keeping.
How precious also are thy thoughts unto me, O God! how great is the sum of them!
18 If I should count them, they are more in number than the sand: when I awake, I am still with thee.
You can just about hear God replying, “Have a carrot!”
So, here we arrive at the redemption of relentlessness. These two examples suggest to us that it is OK, or even more than okay, to be relentlessly tender, to care enough about someone to never give up.
We have two examples, but any sermon writer knows that in order to really make a point, ideas need to come in threes. Fortunately, a third example is readily to hand, because Berea College was founded by a relentless man. The Rev. John G. Fee. Fee was threatened with death by hanging, by drowning, by gunshot, but nothing deterred him from the mission of living out the moral imperatives of his Christian belief, and the conviction that “God has made of one blood all peoples of the earth” (Acts 17:26), and that to enslave or deny opportunity to anyone was contrary to God’s wishes and his duty. During his time of leading the fledgling college he was separated from his family for extended periods, lost two sons to early deaths, and stood up to angry mobs on more than one occasion. Even Cassius Clay, the wealthy man who supported Fee initially and provided him with the grant of land that was to become the College and town of Berea, came to think of him as too radical in his abolitionist views. Rather than direct confrontation, Clay favored a more gradual end to slavery by means of a Constitutional amendment. Relentless people are hard to get along with, and Clay and Fee eventually had a falling out.
But, surely it is because of Fee’s relentless desire to advance the cause of Christ by working for justice here in Kentucky, that Berea College exists today, and he attracted other men and women to that cause. You could say, really that Berea College itself, because it has stayed true to those founding commitments, remains relentlessly tender.
So, these are powerful examples, united both in the level of determination of a mother rabbit, of God, and of Rev. Fee, but also united in tenderness and love: mother’s love for a naughty bunny, a heavenly Father’s love for imperfect human beings, and an abolitionist’s impartial love for all peoples of the earth.
So that’s how to be admirably relentless, and, of course, I do also want you to be relentless in finishing the work you have left this semester.
Earth Day was last Saturday, but we take environmental sustainability so seriously at Berea College that we celebrate the entire month of April. And really, every day is Earth Day here, because of our daily efforts to reduce our impacts on our environment and teach others to do the same. The largest ways we do this is through living-learning laboratories, where our students not only study sustainability—they live it.
For example, Berea College operates a 500-acre farm and trains our agriculture students in sustainable organic farming. Our Gardens and Green House, certified organic since 1998, use compost made from food waste collected daily from Dining Services. There is also an apiary used for honey production, pollination, and teaching. Our goal with the farm is to present a model of farming that is ecologically sound, socially acceptable, economically viable, and humane.
Then there is our Ecovillage, an ecologically sustainable residential complex for student raising families. Here, parents and children can learn to live in a sustainable way daily. The complex includes 50 apartments that incorporate a wide range of green design elements like passive solar heating, photovoltaic panels, and rooftop rainwater capture that contributes to landscape irrigation and gardening. Two great features of the Ecovillage are the Aquaponics Facility and the Sustainability and Environmental Studies (SENS) demonstration house. The Aquaponics Facility uses a recirculating aquaponics system to produce fish, like tilapia and catfish, and grow vegetables without soil. Solar panels heat the fish tanks, and greenhouse gutters collect rainwater for use in the system.
The SENS house serves as a way SENS majors can live out what they learn in their classes. Mostly self-sufficient, the SENS house uses different technologies for energy conservation and production, water conservation, waste treatment, and use of local construction materials. Four students live in the house while developing and implementing educational programs in sustainable living and ecological design.
One of our latest efforts to raise awareness of everyday sustainability involves maintaining campus landscaping. This month we will be placing signs on our lawns explaining the value of things many regard as unsightly and a nuisance, like dandelions and other “weeds.” Naturally occurring lawn plants that many people try to eradicate are actually very important for local ecosystems and food chains. Dandelions are among the first plants to bloom in spring and allow our critical pollinators—bees—to survive those early spring cold snaps. The bees themselves are also crucial to a thriving ecosystem, so to protect them and to achieve a balanced ecosystem on campus, we have a no-spray policy. We do not use pesticides or herbicides to kill insects or plants that some regard as undesirable, except in areas like our athletics fields where particular turf conditions are necessary. This makes our lawns and campus friendlier to humans as well.
From living-learning laboratories for students to everyday policies and practices for faculty and staff, we are creating a mindful and sustainable community that acts, not in opposition to nature, but in concert with it. We are counting on our students to absorb this commitment on campus, and to take it to the world beyond after they graduate.
African American Women have contributed much to Berea College over the years. In honor of Women’s History Month, I’d like to feature a few of them in this post.
Early in Berea College’s history, Julia Britton Hooks and her sister, Mary E. Britton, were among the College’s earliest students. Both born to a former slave, Julia and Mary attended in the early 1870s and were among the first African American women to attend college in Kentucky. Julia, who later became known as “the Angel of Beale Street” in Memphis for her vocal talents, also was the first African American faculty member here. Mary also joined the faculty, and later achieved another first, becoming the first African American female physician to be licensed in Kentucky. Julia was a charter member of the NAACP, while Mary was an original member of the Kentucky Negro Education Association.
This month we are honoring not only African American women alumni, but also great alumni from other schools through the Berea College Service Award, which recognizes individuals whose daily lives have provided outstanding service to our society in achieving the ideals of Berea’s Great Commitments.
Odessa Woolfolk and Lynda Whitt
Our recipients this year, who will be honored at our annual Service Convocation, are Odessa Woolfolk and Lynda Whitt, both from Birmingham, Alabama, from whence have hailed many wonderful Berea students.
Ms. Whitt, a guidance counselor at George Washington Carver High School, has led a number of Birmingham students whose parents did not have the financial resources to attend college to Berea. Her passion for helping students from dysfunctional environments attain an education and overcome “a broken system” has helped a great number of young people believe in themselves and work to achieve their dreams.
The former President and Board Chair of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, Odessa Woolfolk has spent her life as an educator and activist, fighting socioeconomic barriers and prejudice in the areas of housing, community development, public welfare, and education.
Ms. Woolfolk is a founding member of Leadership Birmingham, served as the state chair of the National Conference of Christians and Jews and as the first African American President of Operation New Birmingham’s Board of Directors. The University of Alabama at Birmingham, where Ms. Woolfolk worked as the director of the Center for Urban Affairs and lecturer in political science, among several other positions, honored her with the establishment of the Odessa Woolfolk Presidential Community Service Award. It’s very exciting to recognize both Ms. Whitt and Ms. Woolfolk with the well-deserved honor of the Berea College Service Award.
Joining them on campus today, we have a number of talented African American women, students, faculty, and staff, who are working toward a more equal world and who also deserve to be recognized. Please visit, for example, the Feminist Artists of Kentucky exhibit at the Hutchins Library; it runs until March 31. Also, African American women leaders—faculty, staff, and administration—tell us about their influences and how women are nurtured on campus in this recent video for the African American Opportunity Fund.
Berea College remains a school for all peoples of the earth, and our diversity makes us better. Engagement with our fellow Bereans who are different creates unity in difference. Encountering disparate cultures and the myriad ways human lives are lived and understood makes us stronger by expanding our perspectives.
Inspired by the “gospel of impartial love,” our founders established the first interracial and coeducational college in the South, welcoming students and staff from “every clime and every nation” to work and study together, even as national political tensions pushed citizens toward war with each other.
Our sustained effort to build an inclusive community has often met resistance from the outside, most famously when the State of Kentucky targeted Berea College by passing legislation requiring segregation even for private colleges. Though Berea College fought “the Day Law,” named after Carl Day, the state representative who introduced it, all the way to the Supreme Court, the legal battle was ultimately lost. But even in defeat, Berea held to its principles. To ensure that promising African American students of limited means and excellent character could still receive a comparable education, the principals of the College raised money to set up the Lincoln Institute, near Louisville. And for the African American students then enrolled, the College paid their tuition so they could finish their educations in other states. After the Day Law was repealed in 1954, Berea College was again able to welcome African American students into our community.
Today, Berea College is one of the most diverse private liberal arts colleges in the United States. Forty percent of Berea College’s student body identifies as a person of color: there are approximately 21 percent African American, 10 percent Hispanic, and 7 percent international students, representing more than 60 countries.
Unfortunately, there are still cultural and political forces hostile not only to citizens of color, but also to immigrants and those of minority faiths, so we are still fighting against prejudice. Recent events have resulted in growing concern about Berea’s international, DACA, and Muslim students.
Our Center for International Education and the Campus Christian Center are taking the lead in supporting these students and all others who have become fearful over whether they are welcome in our society. In addition, we are monitoring developments that might affect them and are keeping them informed. For our Muslim students, we affirm our commitment to supporting all faith and spiritual traditions at Berea and our rejection of any discrimination on the basis of religion and any and all prejudice against the Islamic faith.
Many members of the Berea College community are also concerned with the plight of undocumented students and their families. Recently, I was in Washington, DC, sharing Berea’s mission as well as our concerns regarding the struggles of DACA students and their families, with members of our congressional delegation.
I believe there is reason for optimism that the President and Congress will act to support the thousands of undocumented students at America’s colleges and universities who are pursuing education to realize their ambitions to contribute to American society.
In the days and weeks ahead, the College will do all that it can to protect the legal rights of these students and their dream of a college education.
Here at Berea College and still in the 21st century, we work toward our vision of a world shaped by the power of love over hate, human dignity and equality, and peace with justice.