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Faculty panel discusses Berry’s religion

Caroline Claffey, Campus Carrier Deputy News Editor

A panel of faculty and staff discussed on Tuesday night how Berry’s increased openness to other faiths has enhanced rather than diminished the presence of Christianity on campus in a presentation called “From Mandatory Chapel to LISTEN: the Evolving Face of Religion at Berry College.”

Professor of Psychology and Education Steven Bell began the discussion with a lecture about the history of shifting religion at Berry.

In addition to teaching, Bell has been a member of the Interfaith Council since its organization in 2003. He also has represented the minority Jewish faith in the majority Christian population at Berry throughout his professional career, according to Berry’s event calendar.

Following Bell’s introductory lecture, a panel of Berry faculty and staff commented on the points Bell made as well as their own personal experiences with the shifts in Berry’s religiosity. The panel consisted of Associate Professor of English, Rhetoric and Writing Jim Watkins, Associate Professor of Religion and Philosophy Jeff Lidke, Visiting Assistant Professor of Teacher Education Eliana Hirano, Professor emeritus Lee Clendening and Director of Alumni Relations Chris Watters.

Bell began his lecture by quoting Martha Berry’s last letter, which was—he assumed—written in 1942, the year of her death. In her letter, she wrote, “hold the schools to the original plan: simple living, work, prayer, the Bible being taught, Christian leaders, keeping the schools a separate community… My prayer is that the Schools may stand through the ages, for the honor and glory of God and for Christian training of poor boys and girls of the mountains and country districts…”

In 1970, the Student Life Council voted to abolish mandatory chapel attendance, Bell said. Berry President John Bertrand wrote about the individualization of students and their faiths after the vote had been cast.

“…Chapel would now be voluntary, and that a broad program of religious activities be encouraged…and ministry of the chaplains in individual students be emphasized,” Bertrand wrote.

Bell then cited Berry’s mission statement, emphasizing the portions about Christianity on campus.

“Berry College is a comprehensive liberal-arts college with Christian values… The college is dedicated to the interdenominational Christian values on which it was founded and welcomes individuals of diverse backgrounds into the campus community… The term ‘Christian values’ historically refers to the values derived from the teachings of Jesus…and can vary widely between denominations, geographical locations and different schools of thought,” Bell quoted from the mission statement.

Lidke said he thinks Berry manages to stick to its mission while still embracing other faiths.

“I think Berry is true to its statement that it is Christian in spirit and accepting of others,” Lidke said.

Bell said he researched what the biblical teachings of Jesus are, and derived from various sources that they include: love of God, fidelity in marriage, renunciation of worldly goods, renunciation of violence, forgiveness of sins, unconditional love and the Golden Rule.

“These all seem like pretty good ideas in general,” Bell said.

 Bell discussed the effects of Sept. 11, 2001 on the religiosity of Berry.

“September 11 was kind of a turning point for Berry,” Bell said.

At the 8 a.m. service, then-Acting Chaplain Dale McConkey said it was a time to “ignore differences and uncertainty and come together for a time to weep and mourn,” according to Bell. Then-Berry President Scott Colley planned a service at 5 p.m. in the College Chapel with prayers offered by a Jew, a Muslim, a Catholic, a Mormon, a Buddhist, an Orthodox and a Baptist.

According to Bell’s research, a student wrote in a Campus Carrier issue in Oct. 2001 that “the worship service was a source of debate and controversy.” A student letter to The Carrier the following week said there were “students who felt the Chapel should not be used for other religions to pray to their gods and walked out as a group from the service.”

Watkins said he disagreed with the students leaving the service.

“It shocked and angered me that people who believed in the teachings of Jesus Christ would leave,” Watkins said.

Bell then compared student groups on campus from 2001 until 2012. In 2001, there were 12 explicitly Christian organizations and one ecumenical group: Habitat for Humanity. In 2012, there were 14 Christian groups and seven ecumenical organizations, with the addition of the Berry Muslim Heritage Group, the Berry Buddhist Students Group and LISTEN.

Bell said he included LISTEN in this last group less because of its religious orientation and more because of the obstacles it had to overcome.

“While LISTEN is not affiliated with any specific religion, its acceptance overcame some individuals’ biblically-based opposition,” Bell said.

Lidke, who has been a part of the Interfaith Council since 2003, said the Council investigated whether or not it was “Christian in spirit” to approve non-Christian groups while considering the approval of LISTEN.

“Not everyone on the committee was pro-gay, but everyone thought that LISTEN deserved a chance,” Lidke said. “That was a very satisfying experience for me.”

Watkins said he has seen a more diverse shift on campus since his arrival at Berry in 1995.

“I’ve seen a gradual sense of inclusion and I’ve seen no diminishing of religiosity and Christian life on campus,” Watkins said. “Nothing has harmed Christianity here.”

Watkins said the religious diversity on campus has strengthened his faith.

“I know for a fact that I am more religious now than when I came here because of Berry’s environment and mission,” Watkins said. “I feel very blessed to be here in this community, and it’s helped me grow.”

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