Pilgrim Pathways: Notes for a Diaspora People

Incarnational Discipleship

Christian Colleges/Universities Making a Real Difference 1) Berea College

I have made the charge that the majority of the the numerous Christian and church-related colleges and universities in the U.S.A. are failing the Kingdom of God. They should be producing “creative malcontents,” or, in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., “transformed nonconformists” who are “creatively maladjusted” to the world and work to transform in it in line with the values of the Rule of God.  I heard one president of a Christian liberal arts college brag about how many graduates were accepted in the top medical schools, law schools, M.B.A. programs, and how many went on to work at Fortune 500 companies.  But if the school was really about the work of the Rule of God, that president would have said something like this, “Our graduates who go on to law school are troublemakers in the profession, insisting that the practice of law work to promote justice for poor and marginalized.  They can be found taking unpopular cases and working to get better representation for the poor and they are suing the pants off the Fortune 500 companies that violate worker or product safety or harm the environment.  Our graduates that go to medical school are equally troublemakers, working to provide quality healthcare to all, with no regard for profit, insisting that nurses be treated as amazingly dedicated professionals who deserve incredible respect, rather than as drudges for doctors. They open free clinics around the world and are disproportionately found in the ranks of Doctors Without Borders and Physicians for Social Responsibility.  Our business graduates not only go on to achieve MBAs at top-ranked schools, but continue to push the frontiers of business ethics, seeking to transform capitalism from within so that commerce serves the common good.” 

Far too often in these United States (I don’t know enough about how this works elsewhere in the world to comment), the leaders of movements for injustice for the poor, the immigrant, the marginalized, for profit above people, and above the health of the planet ARE ALUMNI OF CHRISTIAN AND CHURCH-RELATED COLLEGES AND UNIVERSITIES.  It’s a crime and should be a cause of shame.

But there are major exceptions.  There are Christian colleges and even universities which are amazing gems.  This blog series of occasional posts will highlight ones that I know personally.  If they are highlighted on this series, they meet several criteria:  (1) They are academically challenging. It is shameful that too many Christian colleges give the impression that a Christian education is an inferior education and that a school must break from it’s church connections to become a decent institution of higher learning.  The schools I will highlight cultivate the life of the mind, with heavy emphasis on the liberal arts  and on life-long learning. (2) They have strong elements of hands on “service learning” and promote the values of service to others and work for the common good throughout the curriculum–instead of the service learning standing in contrast to what is taught in business or economics classes, for instance. (3) Christian identity is taken seriously, but in a fashion that promotes openess, respect, and tolerance, not a sense of narrow pride or exclusion.  Non-Christian students are welcomed and not treated as second-class.  They are invited, not coerced, into faith. (4) A global awareness is cultivated throughout the campus–in recruitment of international students and international faculty, in study abroad opportunities and mission trips and in work/experience among the poor of the U.S. (5) I take off points for the presence of an ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) program, but, since the majority of the Church universal has not been pacifist since the 4th C., such a program will not automatically eliminate the school from this list–but heavy atmosphere of uncritical nationalism and militarism will. (6) The presence of programs in peacemaking, international relations, conflict transformation, and/or a heavy emphasis on social justice greatly enhance the chances of the school making my list.

Berea College, Berea, KY.  I begin this series by highlighting a hidden gem here in my state of Kentucky.  If I could “clone” Berea 10 times and scatter it strategically across the U.S., it would greatly change the country for the better.  Berea is the product of an unlikely 19th C. alliance between a fiery abolitionist preacher and a wealthy landowner and leader of the “gradual emancipation” movement.  In 1855, John G. Fee, a Kentucky native and longtime fiery preacher against the evils of slavery, started a one-room school which he hoped would grow into Kentucky’s equivalent of Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio “anti-slavery, anti-caste, anti-rum, anti-sin.”  Fee dreamed of a college that would give an excellent education to men and women (the abolitionists were the first to argue for co-education of the sexes) of all races and available to those without wealth.  Cassius M. Clay, wealthy landowner and moderate “gradual emancipationist” donated 10 acres to Fee on a mountain ridge that they called “Berea” after the biblical town that was more open to the gospel message (Acts 17:10).  Clay also raised funds for the school and tried to run interference for it in the state legislature.

Berea had its trials. The initial articles in 1859 established the school’s interracial character and the commitment to provide enough work to students that they could attend regardless of ability to pay.  That same year, pro-slavery forces in the state chased Fee and his initial faculty from the area.  The Civil War years (1860-1865) were spent raising funds for Berea College, which re-opened in 1869. From its opening until the turn of the century, Berea’s students were divided equally black and white, but it was not to last. In 1904, Kentucky’s Jim Crow legislature passed the notorious “Day Law” forbidding black and white students to be educated in the same buildings or institutions.  Reluctantly, Berea went along rather than close, and changed it’s focus to the education of poor Appalachians.  When the Day Law was amended in 1950 to allow interracial education above the high school level, Berea was the first college in Kentucky to re-open its doors to students of all races.  College faculty and students participated in the 1965 Selma to Montgomery march of the Civil Rights Movement.  The late Alex Haley, author of Roots, became a trustee of Berea College during the 1970s. Berea’s commitment to enroll a minimum of two Tibetan refugee students per year grew from the friendship of a former college president with the Dalai Lama.

Today, Berea continues to stress “Learning, Labor, and Service.”  Committed to providing quality education for students that cannot otherwise afford it, students are turned away if they or their parents make too much money! Every student is on full scholarship–a scholarship that includes part-time work. All students must work throughout all four years of instruction.  Students are assigned jobs their first year, but after that choose their own path.  They are also given job counseling and taught habits for success–since more than 50% come from homes in which they are the first generation to go to college!  Students are taught the dignity of labor and to respect persons in difficult or dirty jobs that few want and to treat them with dignity.  Students also have numerous service learning opportunities throughout their stay.

Berea’s faculty are committed to strong liberal arts education.  It is an undergraduate, liberal arts college that has refused to become a university or seek to offer graduate programs in order to keep focus on excellent undergraduate education.  The student-faculty ratio is 10:1 and average class size is 16 ensuring personal attention to each student.  Current enrollment is around 1,600 students.   Faculty promotion is based on teaching excellence, not on publications or luring government research contracts to campus.  Majors include the usual suspects (biology, chemistry, economics, mathematics, etc.), but also African and African-American Studies, Asian Studies, Women’s Studies, and Child and Family studies.  There is a peace and social justice minor, an environmental studies minor, and a minor in Appalachian studies.  Pre-Dental, Pre-Med, Pre-Vetinary Med, Pre-Engineering, and Pre-Law programs are strong, majors in Spanish, Franench and German flourish.  There are numerous study-abroad programs and financial aid is available for them, so that over 50% of the student body study abroad at some point during their Berea education. Global citizenship is emphasized.

The school’s character is Christian and ecumenical.  The current president is a United Methodist minister (Dr. Larry Shinn) and the religion and philosophy faculty include two Baptist ministers, a Lutheran minister, a Presbyterian, a Friend/Quaker, an Episcopalian, and a member of the United Church of Christ.  This same broad ecumenical Christian presence is found throughout the faculty and staff.  There are numerous churches in the area.  The one adjacent to the campus, Union Church, was founded by John Fee and is today a part of the United Church of Christ.  The Campus Christian Center employs 3 professional chaplains (who also hold appointments in the faculty of the religion department) and numerous student chaplains.  There are numerous student religious organizations:  Baptist Campus Ministries, Chi Alpha (Assemblies of God), Canterbury Fellowship (Episcopal/Anglican), International Christian Fellowship, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, InterVarsity Fellowship, Newman Club (Roman Catholic), as well as a Buddhist Student Fellowship, and Muslim Student Fellowship.  There is support to help faculty integrate their faith with their academic disciplines. There are numerous annual lecture series and events that help explore dimensions of Christian faith.  There is a specific program in African-American religion and spirituality run from the Campus Christian Center.  Internships in Christian Ministry and Service are promoted. Non-Christians know they are at a school that is Christian in more than name, but they are not made to feel like second class citizens.  They are respected and interfaith dialogue is encouraged at all levels and is facilitated by program initiatives.  Worship services are available to all, but not compulsory.

Intramural athletics, performing arts, student government, the Appalachian Center and Black Cultural center and numerous student organizations make for a well-rounded education and nurture leadership abilities.  The opportunities are greater than with a large university where most students are lost in the shuffle.  There are no sororities or fraternities having drunken orgies, engaging in dangerous hazing, or promoting cliquish insularity on Bearea’s campus. 

The Alumni network program does more that seek donations for the college.  The alumni continue service projects together in ways that continue the traditions they learned while students at Berea.  Likewise, faculty spend leaves and sabbaticals not just in writing new scholarly works (though they do that, too), but in local and global service programs.

Here is one college with a truly Christian outlook and mission which is making a difference in the world.


October 1, 2010 - Posted by | blog series


  1. Excellent, you are right. Too many of our churchmen are friends with the very powers they should call to account. Too often the word of God is too hard for them to say.

    Your information about Berea was most useful and I hope many people read about it.

    James Pilant

    Comment by southwerk | October 2, 2010 | Reply

  2. […] have made the charge that most Christian colleges and universities in the USA are not adequately doing the work of the […]

    Pingback by Christian Colleges Making a Real Difference #2 Eastern University « Pilgrim Pathways: Notes for a Diaspora People | October 11, 2010 | Reply

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