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

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

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