By Brenna Lewis, Appalachian Regional Coordinator
On Saturday, November 18th, Berea College kicked off its BereaFest Homecoming weekend and played host to many visiting alumni from various graduating classes. Berea is a small Christian college about 30 minutes south of Lexington, Kentucky. It’s school motto is: “God has made of one blood all peoples of the Earth.” By virtue of its size, location, and Christian foundation, most objective observers would probably assume Berea is a welcoming place for Christian values, or at the very least, open to the free exchange of ideas.
Quite unfortunately, this was not the case when our “Stop the Violence” display visited the school this past Saturday. In order to reach the largest audience possible, our student leader decided to host the display during their Homecoming weekend. All appropriate procedures were followed, and the space was approved by the administration. About five minutes after finishing setup, an older couple stopped in front of us and asked, “Is this an anti-choice display?” We explained why we were there, to which the woman responded, “This is disgusting. I am a labor hall nurse and I am very pro-choice.” We invited her to dialogue with us, requests which she rudely shot down repeatedly until angrily stomping away.
This behavior was dishearteningly common throughout the day. Not long after this altercation, two administrators approached us, pulled our student leader aside for about 10 minutes, then returned asking us to move our entire display to a back hallway. At a private school, students basically check their free speech rights at the door, and we had no choice but to comply. One of the administrators even helped us move our things.
During the few hours we spent in the back hallway, we had a number of interesting conversations. A current Berea student confronted us saying, “I don’t understand why you’re doing this when so many African-Americans are killed by police every day. And there are women who are here who have had abortions, and you’re telling them that it was violent?” Again, we asked if she would stay and have a conversation with us about it, but she was intent on getting us removed and took pictures of the display to show to “someone in charge.” By the end of the day, we found it refreshing yet incredibly ironic that one of our most productive conversations was with the student leader of the Planned Parenthood group on campus.
During our last half hour of the display, the Head of Alumni Relations approached us and insisted that we needed to censor the portion of our banner that depicts medical diagrams of abortion. She was far less polite than the other administrators from earlier in the day, demanding to know who exactly we all were and questioning our student leader’s right to invite outside groups on campus. She even made a remark that our presence there was grounds for them to re-evaluate their policies regarding which outside organizations are allowed to be invited on campus (can you say discrimination?). Our day at Berea was capped off by a visit by a school Public Safety Officer who was sent over to us – whether to check on our safety, or to assess whether we were threatening others, wasn’t clear.
Receiving this type of treatment from any educational institution that prides itself on being a safe haven for the exchange of ideas (which is to say, all colleges) is disappointing enough without the school also being Christian. One conversation we had informed us that the administration is trying to decide whether or not to remove Christianity from the school’s platform – not surprising considering the school hosts abortionist (and alumnus) Willie Parker annually. We pray for the angriest of the dissenters we met that day who may have been hurt by abortion at some point in their lives, and that the leadership at Berea will respect the free speech of the students on their campus.
The school did not immediately respond to requests for contact.