Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Of One Blood

berea-fountain.jpgIn the middle of the Berea College campus is a fountain. Around the outside is the Bible verse that is also used in the college coat of arms (found in many places throughout the campus): Acts 17:26. God has made of one blood all nations of people.  What a guiding Scripture in our world of raging nationalisms, ethnocentric and religious violence, and racism!!

July 30, 2007 Posted by | race | 2 Comments

Today in Church History: Death of William Penn

penn-statue.jpgWilliam Penn (1644-1718), founder of Pennsylvania (“Penn’s Woods”) as a colony where Quakers and other Dissenters could enjoy religious freedom, died on 30 July 1718. He made peace with the Native Americans by the simple practice of treating them like equal human beings and dealing fairly with them–something few European colonizers were willing to try.  As long as Quakers dominated the Pennsylvania colonial legislature, it stayed out of wars and had no slavery (Correction–I am reminded that Penn owned slaves and that although Quakers abandoned slave-holding prior to the U.S. Revolution, they did not begin “without sin” in this area. Thanks to Friend Kirk for catching my inadvertant anachronism.)–but all that changed once Quakers were outnumbered (and then went into their “Quiet in the Land” apolitical phase). But in Colonial America only Catholic-founded Maryland and Baptist-founded Rhode Island rivaled Pennsylvania for religious liberty.  Much of that is the legacy of Friend William Penn.

July 30, 2007 Posted by | church history | 3 Comments

Vern Ratzlaff Speaks to the Children

vern-shares-a-story-with-the-children.jpgHere is Vern sharing a story with the children during one of their special sessions.

July 30, 2007 Posted by | young people | Comments Off on Vern Ratzlaff Speaks to the Children

Dr. Vern Ratzlaff: Mennonite Pastor & Theologian

vern-ratzlaff-leads-bible-study.jpgMost years at “peace camp” we have Bible Study in the mornings and good preaching in the evenings.  Our evenings were more varied this year, but we were led in a fantastic set of Bible studies by Dr. Vern Ratzlaff.  A Canadian Mennonite minister, Vern worked for many years in the Middle East for the Mennonite Central Committee, a pan-Mennonite agency that combines mission work with peace and development work.  After returning from his time in the Middle East, Vern worked for the Canadian branch of the MCC in Ottawa.  Officially “retired,” now, he pastors a small Mennonite congregation in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan and is an adjunct professor of theology at the nearby Lutheran seminary(philosophy and historical theology) . 

So, how did the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America manage to invite a fantastic (but hardly famous) Mennonite pastor and theologian to lead our Bible studies this year? Well, it turns out that one of our Canadian members, Bob Doll, had gone to university (the University of British Columbia) with Vern and they had remained friends.  Bob had said that we needed to hear Vern–and he was right.

Our theme this year was As the Powers Fall: Sustaining Our Faith and One Another As Empire Crumbles.  Vern’s Bible studies were:

  1. Powers, Stuctures, and G-d: Creation and Power (Genesis 1 and 2).
  2. Powers, Structures, and G-d: Prayer and Power (Matthew 6:9-13).
  3. Powers, Structures, and G-d: The Church and Power (1 Corinthians 12).
  4. Powers, Structures, and G-d: Suffering and Power (Revelation 1:4-10).

These lectures will soon be available on compact disk (and also DVD?), I believe, from the BPFNA and one can order them from the BPFNA website.

But, Vern did more than fly in (I picked him up from the Louisville airport and drove him and others to Berea and then back at the end of the week) and give Bible studies.  He joined the volunteer choir for the week and made sure to give special talks based on his lectures (but more age appropriate) to the children and youth programs.  Then he joined in nearly every activity for the week.  We found that he has a great sense of humor. (At one point he wanted us Baptists to know that, although his branch of Mennonites–and most Mennonites–baptize believers by pouring water thrice over the head, he, Vern, had been properly immersed–dunked fully under water. We did not, however, find out the circumstances behind his immersionist baptism–or, at least, I didn’t.)

As regular readers of this blog (are we up to 6 of you, now?) well know, I am one Baptist who emphasizes our Anabaptist roots more than our roots in English Puritanism or our later Revivalist influences.  And several 16th C. Anabaptist theologians and more recent Mennonite theologians (like John Howard Yoder, J. Denny Weaver, Gayle Gerber Koontz, Duane K. Friesen, Willard Swartley, Mark Theissen Nation, and Mary Schwertz, to name a few) have been influential on my theology, to say the least.  So, I was glad to see a greater connection this peace camp, via Vern Ratzlaff–something that hasn’t happened since we met on the campus of Eastern Mennonite University (Harrisonburg, VA) in the mid-’90s.

It’s also interesting that our Bible study leaders at peace camp for the last 3 years have all been Canadians: Cam Watts, Baptist pastor in Ontario in 2005 (when we met in McMinnville, OR), ex-patriate African-Canadian Baptist Peter J. Paris of Princeton Theological Seminary in 2006 (when we met in Atlanta, GA) and Vern Ratzlaff this year.  Hmm.  I hope our U.S. members are still remembering how to read Scripture!!! 🙂

July 30, 2007 Posted by | anabaptists, Biblical exegesis, peacemaking | 3 Comments

Si Kahn: Folksinger and Labor Organizer


Sometimes the BPFNA peace camp has interfaith guests as well as ecumenical guests.  Much of our music this year was led by legendary folk singer and labor organizer, Si Kahn, who is Jewish and the son of a rabbi. (Well, last year we had two rabbis with us!) Si has been playing folk music since the 1960s and working with justice organizations since then, too. Currently, in addition to his labor work, he is involved with Grassroots Leadership, a Southern-based national organization working for 25 years to defend democracy, enhance the public good, and stop the erosion of the public sphere.  Si’s major campaign in recent years is to stop and abolish the privatization of prisons in the U.S.  A prison industry (If you build them, they will be filled), often supplying cheap labor for factories inside prisons (slave labor) is a huge erosion of the public good and has contributed since the mid-’90s to the U.S. becoming the nation with the largest percentage of our population under lock and key.  My prayers go with those of Grassroots Leadership in abolishing private prisons and I thank them for sharing Si Kahn with us this week.

July 30, 2007 Posted by | music, peacemaking | Comments Off on Si Kahn: Folksinger and Labor Organizer

Down to Earth in Concert


Kate Sanders and Paul Whitely, Jr.  are the husband and wife duo known professionally as Down to Earth.  They have been making music together since meeting as students at Georgetown College (a Baptist college in Kentucky not to be confused with the Catholic-run Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.).  Paul has an M.Div. from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville and Kate has an M.A. in music education from the University of Louisville.  Kate Sanders is a poet, songwriter, and composer who plays several instruments. At last year’s annual Kentucky Folk Music Festival, Kate came just to observe and, at the last minute, entered the dulcimer competition–and took first place!  Among her musical competitions is her own setting of Mary’s Magnificat and a tribute to Oscar Romero.  She is also a social worker.

Paul Whitely, Jr. is an ordained Baptist minister who earns his living as a union organizer–mostly organizing poultry workers in Eastern Kentucky. (This is hard because the Powers conspire to turn people against each other so that they can more easily be exploited.  After several textile mills were moved to Mexico from Eastern Kentucky–devastating the local economies for the sake of global capital–the Commonwealth of Kentucky offered huge tax incentives to poultry plants to move in and provide jobs for the area. The companies took the tax incentives and moved in, but, instead of hiring all local labor, stationed “recruiters” on the Texas-Mexico border and brought up cheap immigrant labor–often undocumented aliens, to fill the poultry jobs.  Needless to say, this has led to much Anglo-Latino tension among workers who should be organized to work together for better wages and working conditions. Divide and conquer is an old strategy, but still effective.) Prior to becoming a labor organizer, Paul worked for Jobs with Justice, a national people’s campaign for jobs that pay living wages for all.  He is also guitar player, singer, and songwriter who uses music in organizing for peace and justice.  Paul and Kate are the volunteer Ministers of Music at Jeff Street Baptist Community at Liberty–my church.  Together, they are raising two children, Martin and Sophia.  Down to Earth specializes in music of faith and social struggle.  Their first CD is finished and will be available soon.

They gave a concert after evening worship on Wednesday (25 July) at Peace Camp–giving a small taste to the folks of the good music my congregation gets to enjoy nearly every week. 

July 30, 2007 Posted by | Baptists, music, progressive faith | Comments Off on Down to Earth in Concert

Alicia and Ray

alicia-pagan-and-ray-two-crows-wallen.jpg Peace Camp always includes incredible music: congregational singing, choirs (usually volunteer) and great musicians.  This one had more guest musicians than usual. I will post them for the blog.  Alicia Pagan and Ray Two Crows Wallen are a husband and wife team (he’s Cherokee and she’s from Puerto Rico) who use music and the arts in social justice education. In addition to the worship services, they worked with the children and all who were interested in a week-long mural project. (My daughter, Molly, worked on the peace mural and took pics of its beginning, middle, and end, which I’ll share later.)

July 30, 2007 Posted by | arts, holocaust, music | Comments Off on Alicia and Ray

Michelle Tooley and the Story of Berea College

michelle-tooley-tells-the-berea-college-story.jpgI have known Dr. Michelle Tooley, Lilly Professor of Religion at Berea College for the last 6 years, since we were both Glen Stassen’s Ph.D. students in Christian ethics.  But even before that time, Michelle had been an amazing Christian disciple.  A native Texan, she had been a youth minister and a teacher of English as a second language in both Texas and Louisiana.  She earned her M.Div. with a Christian Education emphasis from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, TX where she studied liberation theologies with Bob Adams and Anabaptist history with William Estep.  She began making trips to Central America, often with students or youth, working with the poor.  During her Ph.D. work at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, she took on an amazing workload: deacon and, briefly, Minister to the Homeless at Jeff Street Baptist Community at Liberty; teaching religion courses at Jefferson Community College, Bellarmine College, and Hanover College (Indiana); working with Louisville United Against Hunger, the Kentucky Taskforce on Central America and the Caribbean (KITLAC) and the Coalition for the Homeless; becoming a trained conflict resolution mediator; serving on the boards of Habitat for Humanity, Bread for the World, the Children’s Defense Fund, and Witness for Peace. She would take retreats with the Sisters of Loretto to get her dissertation written and, though Protestant, is still a member of the Sisters of Loretto. (Michelle participated in the “new monasticism” long before it was “emerging” or “chic.”)  She continues most of these commitments today, having taught at Nashville’s Belmont University prior to coming to Berea.  She is the author of one book, Voices of the Voiceless: Women, Justice, and Human Rights in Guatemala (Herald Press, 1997) and is working on her second book, studying the role of Christian communities in peacemaking around the globe.

Our first night at Peace Camp, Monday, 23 July, Michelle was the keynote speaker and related the Berea College story to us.   Founded in 1855 by abolitionist Christians, shut down by slaveholders in 1859, it reopened after the Civil War in 1865 as the first integrated and coed (men and women admitted equally) college in the South.  Dedicated to the principles of ecumenical Christian faith, labor and the dignity of manual work, academic excellence, economic, racial, and gender equality, and service to others, the college had an almost 50-50% black/white enrollment until, at the height of segregation in the 1920s, Kentucky passed the “Day law” forbidding blacks and whites to be educated in the same classrooms–or even the same county.  Rather than be shut down, Berea College took part of its endowment and created the Lincoln Institute (now Kentucky State University) for African-Americans and redirected its mission to the education of Appalachians.  (Non U.S. readers: The Appalachian mountain range stretches down most of the U.S. Atlantic seaboard from Pennsylvania to Alabama. The “mountain folk,” often caricatured as “hillbillies” form a unique, and mostly impoverished and exploited, sub-culture in the U.S.) After the Day law was abolished, Berea quickly reintegrated.

Today, 80% of its students must come from Kentucky or Appalachia. About 12% are African-American. The remaining students are mostly international students, with the majority coming from Asia or Africa.  No student is admitted whose family income is above the U.S. poverty line.  No tuition is charged. All students are on complete tuition scholarships. All students must work at college jobs (usually for less than minimum wage) or off campus and this income pays for room and board as well as reinforcing the commitment to labor and service.  Excellent fundraising and development officers over the years have ensured that Berea’s endowment (greater than Harvard’s when measured per-student ratio) is large enough to keep offering tuition free education to the poor.  Entrance and achievement requirements, however, are high.  Each year a majority of students are the first in their families to have postsecondary education.  Berea is in a dry county (the abolitionist founders were also prohibitionists–and there is currently a referendum to keep the county alcohol free) and smoking is allowed only in tightly designated areas.  Chapel services are mandatory as are a minimum number of religion courses.

When I toured the campus during free time, I was extremely impressed. Recycling was fanatically observed. I never saw anyone litter! I saw security and service vehicles with signs saying, “this electric vehicle was designed and built by Berea engineering students!” I toured the model “eco-village” (solar powered, green construction materials, etc.) designed by students in several of the science departments.  I saw a Center for Appalachian History and Culture and service projects to the mountains. Students were part of efforts to stop coal companies from the “mountain-top removal” which is destroying the Appalachian mountains–getting to coal and mineral deposits by blowing off the tops of mountains!  The dorm showers and toilets used water-saving technology, as did the washing machines and dryers (which were NOT coin-operated).

Since this was summer, I had no chance to see classroom instruction, but I could well believe the U.S. News and World Report rating which made Berea the #1 small liberal arts college in the U.S. South.  My church works with poor teens and a couple have gone to Berea.  After this, I will recommend it to others in stronger terms.  More Christian colleges and universities should have commitments and orientations similar to Berea’s instead of conforming to the consumerist ethos of the dominant culture.

July 30, 2007 Posted by | Baptists, church history, economic justice, human rights., just peacemaking | Comments Off on Michelle Tooley and the Story of Berea College

Rev. Kent Gilbert: Pastor of Union Church, Berea, KY

kent-gilbert.jpgRev. Kent Gilbert, a minister in the United Church of Christ, has been, since 1997, the current pastor of Union Church.  Here he is welcoming participants in the summer conference of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America. He was telling a story about this guitar, but I was concentrating so much on getting the photo right, that I didn’t catch the significance. Sorry.

July 30, 2007 Posted by | progressive faith | Comments Off on Rev. Kent Gilbert: Pastor of Union Church, Berea, KY