Social Justice in the Buckle of the Bible Belt

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Kentucky dirt roads

“What were your impressions of today?”
“My impressions are that if I’m not careful, I might move to Kentucky.”

Almost as soon as I crossed over the border from Tennessee, the landscape changed. There were more hills. Thicker trees. It reminded me of home in Vermont.

The weekend was spent drinking tea, eating garden-fresh veggies, walking, and discussing matters of social justice. Berea is a unique place. A small city of about 14,000, it boasts a lively artistic community, the first abolitionist church in the south, and the liberal arts Berea College. It is a hub of progressive thinking located in the buckle of the Bible belt.

On Saturday afternoon we went to a panel on community policing and police brutality. It was hosted by Berea College students and featured four community panel members, including the city mayor and the chief of the Berea police department. The dialogue in that room was incredible. There were high tensions due to recent events in Ferguson, MO, which is just under six-hour drive away. This being the first meeting between the Berea police chief and the Berea college students, it could have been an ugly conversation. In fact, I’d say that in most communities it would have been an ugly conversation. But there was a stronger force held in the room than anger or frustration or sadness or fear: respect. All parties ultimately respected themselves and each other to such a degree that real, productive dialogue could occur.

I couldn’t help but think back to events that I have witnessed in Albuquerque over the last several years, with a police force that now has a national reputation for excessive brutality. There is so much anger in Albuquerque over the killings at the hands of APD officers. How could some of the earlier conversations gone differently if all participants agreed to the same rules of conduct that were followed in Berea this past Saturday? Could they be implemented now, or is there such a thing as it being “too late” to expect respect?

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Sunday afternoon concert by Dr. Javier Clavere

On Sunday morning I attended the worship service at Union Church, where Rev. Kent Gilbert (also my wonderful host for the weekend) preached a powerful sermon on forgiveness. Stakes were high here, too, because the church is working hard to pass a fairness ordinance in the city that would protect LGBTQ individuals against discrimination due to perceived gender identity or perceived sexual orientation. The final public hearing on the ordinance was Tuesday. No one knows how the city council will vote.

These kinds of communities are so inspiring. Rev. Gilbert told us in his sermon about how back in the early days of Union Church, many men couldn’t attend the Sunday service. They were too busy riding shotgun around the church – literally, riding around with shotguns at the ready – in case anyone decided to attack the anti-slavery church in a slave-holding state. Shotguns aside, how much have our politics really changed?

I left Kentucky wondering when I could return. And I haven’t even mentioned the new English Country Dance series, the Berea College professor who played all of Mozart’s sonatas in a weekend, or the lively contra dance in Lexington. All of these things make up what a community should be: joyful living, plus a fierce drive to work towards social justice and equality for all. Someone get me an “I ❤ KY” tshirt or something, because I’ve gone ALL fangirl.

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One thought on “Social Justice in the Buckle of the Bible Belt

  1. Glad you enjoyed your visit to KY, but don’t forget this is the land of Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul. It’s kinda like Berea surrounded by Alabama.

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