Coming Together; Being There for One Another

Dear Bereans,

Throughout its history Berea College has been committed to inclusive community, as called for in its inspirational motto, “God has made of one blood all peoples of the earth” (Acts 17:26).  In words and actions, then, Berea became the first coeducational and interracial college in the South.  When the forces of segregationism arose in the late nineteenth century, Berea College stood as long as it was able against Kentucky’s Day Law, appealing that exclusionary requirement all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States.  When that law was set aside in the 1950s, the College was quick to re-integrate.  More recently the College extended its welcome to students from other countries and now admits about 7 percent of each incoming class from countries across the globe where young women and men face great challenges in attaining higher education. In recent decades, incoming classes have become more diverse racially and ethnically and with respect to gender identity, reaching beyond the founding mission of educating blacks and whites and women and men together.  With the incoming class in the fall of 2014 we also began to admit undocumented students with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status, an initiative that has added to our already impressive Hispanic and Latino student body cohorts.

In 2001 the College formally stated its dedication to equal protection for students and employees regardless of sexual orientation, and when the issue of fairness arose in the City of Berea in 2014, I wrote to the citizens in our town, sharing with them the advantages of a welcoming community. (That commentary is included in the Addendum document under the title: “To the Editor of the Berea Citizen.”)  In November of 2015, instances of racial and sexual harassment of members of our community by persons driving through campus began to occur, and on November 23 we as a community stood together in a demonstration against hate speech, proclaiming the power of love over hate.

In the wake of disturbing rhetoric throughout the presidential campaign, and with the results of the recent national election, profound concerns have arisen for many members of our community from across the political spectrum.

  • International students, particularly those from Muslim countries, are alarmed.
  • DACA students are rightly very concerned about the strongly anti-immigrant campaign rhetoric, including a pledge to roll back DACA, a highly successful program created by President Obama.
  • LGTBQ students and students of color report having experienced renewed verbal assaults.
  • Students who supported President-Elect Trump in the election are reporting serious verbal abuse on social media by those who opposed him.  (This concern has also arisen elsewhere. K. N. Pineda, an Hispanic NYU student who voted for Mr. Trump has an eloquent piece entitled “Divisions in My Dorm Room” in the New York Times on Monday, the 28th.)
  • Women are expressing concerns about gender equality.

I share these deep concerns and want to address two challenges for our community that stem from them.

First, I am concerned about the impact of these developments on the community we treasure at Berea College, a community created by our Great Commitments and dedicated to “the power of love over hate, human dignity and equality, and peace with justice.”  When persons in the community feel marginalized or threatened, it becomes much harder to focus on our educational mission and to dedicate ourselves to that larger enterprise of building community.  And, when the threats are exacerbated by externalities beyond our immediate control, we begin to wonder whether the consensus around our values is robust and intact, whether our commitment to true community will hold firm.

In times like this, though, the work of sustaining our strong community becomes even more important.  Even as that sense of togetherness is challenged, it becomes our best resource for supporting one another to transcend current challenges and to achieve our shared goals.  So, this is a good time to remind ourselves of those inclusive goals.  All are welcomed here no matter their gender, race, religion, country of origin, and even political ideology.  That’s right, fellow Bereans, whether we are Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, Greens, etc., we need to welcome one another.  And all are not merely tolerated, but rather appreciated for the differences that distinguish us.  We value those differences because they are the foundation of the vibrancy, interest, challenge, learning, and ethical integrity of this community first created by Rev. John G. Fee.

Elections can be traumatic, particularly when “the country” seems to be in the mood for change.  It has been traumatic for our community as well, and in this area, as in so many others, I sincerely believe that Berea College needs to be a model for our town, for Kentucky, and even for the country as a whole, in showing that our unity can transcend such a challenge.  I heard some recent pertinent comments by President Obama on the subject of elections, democracy, and stability.  They are appended under the title, “Remarks by President Obama at the Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative Town Hall.”  As Americans we are committed to managing transitions of political authority without disruption of our national unity, and in that we can join President Obama in his leadership.

We need to come together to meet these challenges to community.

A second concern for me is the immediate threat perceived by our DACA students to their continued access to the benefits and security that that program has provided, of which access to higher education is an important component.  Hearing of those concerns in the days immediately following the election I wrote to our DACA students, and then subsequently shared that communication with the faculty and staff of the College.  That communication is reproduced below under the title, “Message to DACA students.”  The concerns of these students and others who support them have continued in the following days, and I have received a letter from that group requesting further commitments and assistance.  That communication is reproduced in the Addendum under the title “Letter from SGA.”

The SGA letter calls on Berea College to become a “sanctuary campus”  In alignment with a number of other schools, including Wesleyan University, Reed College, the University of Oregon, and Portland State University, have taken this step, using as a model “sanctuary cities” such as Austin, New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia and dozens of other municipalities, which have declared their intention not to cooperate with federal officials seeking to deport residents simply because they lack appropriate immigration documentation.

Taking a formal step of this sort will require further consultation on campus and with the Board of Trustees, but irrespective of that further process, please know that Berea College will remain committed to the principles of non-discrimination, including equal protection under the law, regardless of national origin or citizenship, and that the College will not voluntarily assist in any efforts by the federal government to deport our students, faculty, or staff solely because of their citizenship status.  These two commitments are fully consistent with our history, mission, and identity.

In an anxious time, such small steps, added to the assurances previously made in the letter to DACA students, may offer some comfort to the most vulnerable population in our community.  I expect them to be supported as well by other members of the community as a continuation of Berea College’s strong historical stand for social justice.

This is a time we need to be there for one another!  From that we can draw confidence and comfort.

Lyle Roelofs

Leave a Reply