How two sisters navigated a conservative perspective in an inclusive space
Berea’s founding motto that “God has made of one blood all peoples of the earth” has always set a high bar in terms of inclusion and belonging. Its inclusive Christian values and its approach to the spiritual dimension of life are radically different. On the one hand, secular institutions often devalue spiritual dimensions of lives well lived. On the other, church-related schools often focus on just one particular version of Christianity, sometimes devaluing other versions as well as other faith
While this spiritual inclusivity brings great value in offering learning opportunities to everyone, few new arrivals to the Berea campus have experienced a community that values the spiritual dimension of life without elevating a specific version. In particular, students who come to college from conservative faith backgrounds as well as some from mainline backgrounds may have difficulty being open minded about other religious traditions; hence, such students can face significant challenges in feeling welcome in a community of religious diversity. Despite, or perhaps because of, how challenging this religious pluralism can be, many graduates of Berea testify to the profound opportunities for growth offered by this radical difference.
Two sisters—both alumnae who have returned to their southwest Virginia community—had college experiences that show just how radically different Berea’s inclusive spirit can be.
Kena Long Sizemore ’03 graduated from high school a year early, at 16. “At that age, it’s difficult to know what direction you want your life to go,” she admitted. “I knew what was important to me at that time,” though, “my faith and my family.” Her father had always encouraged his children to get a higher education, so it was a given that she would attend college. “I was accepted to several colleges, but the labor program, ‘free’ tuition and location of Berea made it an easy choice.”
Life in Rose Hill, Va., compared to Berea, Ky., was different. “My initial impression was a whirlwind,” Sizemore said. “I had only had my driver’s license less than a year. I had made very few decisions on my own.”
Still, she said, “I never remember a time when I felt like I didn’t have someone I could go to, or somewhere I could get assistance with whatever I needed. I think that was my first impression,” she explained. “I felt at home in a place where I knew practically no one.”
“To sum up my years at Berea,” she reflected, “I began as a young girl with a strict Christian belief. I met many who understood and many who didn’t. I met many who respected my faith and some who didn’t. I took the same courses, had the same professors and lived in the same dorms as my peers. The years flew by,” though, she remembered, “and I was introduced to new lectures, new foods, new ideas and new people.”
Her younger sister, Ashley Long Seals ’09, would eventually follow Kena to Berea with her faith in tow. “We always considered ourselves conservative when it came to religion,” she explained. “I never really knew we were considered different until I was well into middle school. At home we called ourselves Holiness. Elsewhere we may have been considered Holy Rollers.” No matter what she and other believers were called, she said, “it meant we were peculiar,” but that notion was a moniker embraced from Deuteronomy 14:2 (King James Version): “For thou art a holy people unto the Lord thy God, and the Lord hath chosen thee to be a peculiar people unto himself, above all the nations that are upon the earth.”
I maintained the same religious beliefs that I was raised with while at Berea, and I still believe the same things.Ashley Long Seals ’09
For both sisters, the key to their persistence and success at Berea was mentoring and advising from a host of faculty, staff and even students. “I met another freshman during my first year,” Sizemore recalled, “who would become my best friend and roommate. We were from different states and different majors, but we became lifelong friends.” She was “blessed” to work at the circulation desk at Hutchins Library all four years, where Barbara Power ’56 “treated me like family.”
Mrs. Power also figured prominently in Ashley’s academic life. “I had a rough go at first,” she said. “I never really had people to make me feel unwanted. I felt like I belonged at Berea.” But homesickness was acute. “Being from the mountains of southwest Virginia,” she explained, “it is a common trait to be homesick.” Eventually she had friends and “a small, but very real community. I was able to connect to my sister’s labor supervisor, Barbara Power. She knew my story was much like Kena’s, and she loved me for it. And oh, how I loved her.”
Finding an academic advisor also enhanced her sense of belonging, Seals said, one who “listened to me and understood a little about my beliefs and background. I felt I was able to tell him that I was homesick without danger of being belittled or made to feel less than.”
Sizemore and Seals earned first-rate degrees, but how did Berea affect their faith? Seals says emphatically that Berea made her a stronger Christian. “I maintained the same religious beliefs that I was raised with while at Berea, and I still believe the same things. However, this never stopped me from making friends and loving each of them,” she added. “I would like to think that they loved me, too! Kindness is not reserved for only those that mirror you. Kindness should be a human condition,” she explained.
During a study-abroad trip to Egypt, Seals recalled, “I studied Islamic religion and was able to sing a homegrown Pentecostal gospel song to a backyard full of people of the Muslim faith. Where else but Berea College?”
Sizemore reflected, “As a person matures and grows through personal experience, you see things differently. I began my college experience as a young, somewhat sheltered child, with a strong Christian faith and limited experience in the world. I was vulnerable.”
Her life changed completely with her move to Berea. Over time, she said, “I learned it was important to trust my instincts, hold firmly to my values and make my own path.”
“Go!” is Seals’ message to students like her. “You will encounter people just like you, and people nothing like you. You will hear languages you never knew existed, you will learn of traditions from around the globe, and you will make friends with people you never thought you would have the opportunity of being friends with. Go!,” she urges. “You will learn so much from them, and they will learn so much from you.” Berea,
she concluded, “will help you see how unique you are, and make you appreciate the sound of your sweet Mama’s voice even more.”