Last summer, a small number of serious students at Harding University, the Church of Christ college in Searcy, committed themselves to a budget of $10,000 ? on top of their student loans ? to stage a conference to explore contemporary interpretations of Christ's instruction to “love.”
Believing they had the university's approval and permission to use campus facilities, the students named their conference “Peace by Piece” and arranged to pay travel costs and honoraria for 10 speakers.
By the week of Thanksgiving, they had established a website, prepared a registration table to be set up in the student center, and were ready to announce plans for the event ? to be held in February ? at the school's daily chapel service, which Harding students must attend.
That's when Harding administrators told them that their conference was not welcome on campus. They could not announce it at chapel. They could not advertise it on campus.
The students say they were told that administrators pulled their support when they learned that women were among the scheduled speakers. Publicly, Harding officials have said only that some of the speakers “represented perspectives counter to our religious positions.”
No one from Harding's administration responded to phone calls from the Timesseeking comment. Karen Kelly, an assistant professor of nursing at Harding, who is among the conference's scheduled speakers, did not answer a request for an interview, either.
One Harding professor, who is scheduled to speak at the conference, did agree to talk. However, Mark Elrod, who teaches political science and international relations at the school, stipulated that he could only be interviewed if he was not identified as an employee of Harding University and if a copy of his statements were provided to him ? and copied to Harding officials ? before publication. The Timesdeclined.
Concern about any association of Harding with the conference is apparently significant enough that brief biographies of the speakers that were posted on the conference website, which at first identified Kelly and Elrod as Harding faculty members, were changed to say only that the two teach “in Searcy, Arkansas.”
Harding's decision to disavow the conference was a blow to the student organizers, and not just because it meant they would have to find a new venue and new ways to publicize the event. The students, who see themselves as a minority on campus, were disappointed that school officials were so opposed to participating in the “conversation” they'd hoped that the conference would begin with other students, the faculty and the administration.
They see their minority status as arising from an understanding of their Christianity that includes a commitment to justice. “It grew out of some questions we've stumbled upon, or that we decided to ask,” Josh Nason said. “We saw the conference as a way of starting a conversation with the people living around us.”
Kevin Lillis put it this way: “A lot of our sense of justice has stemmed from our experiences. We wanted to start dialoging with friends and the administration ? to have somethingto start building around ? so those who haven't had the experiences we've had can see that maybe we're not so different.”
The group turned a difficult situation to its benefit. They turned to the town of Searcy, where a church and several businesses readily opened their doors. Thus, the Peace by Piece Conference will be held Friday through Sunday, Feb. 5-7, in spaces at that city's Underground Coffeehouse-Eatery, Sowell's Furniture store, Rialto Theater and Trinity Episcopal Church.
“ ‘Community' is an important word for us,” one organizer explained. “So on one level, we're excited now that the conference won't be at Harding, because supporting local communities is a lot of what it's about.”
Anyone interested is welcome to attend. Details at www.pbpconference.org.
Dave Pritchett, a senior in Harding's physician-assistant program, is one of the conference's two directors. The son of missionary parents, he spent a significant part of his childhood in Kenya and other developing countries. After high school, Harding, a conservative, evangelical college, seemed a natural choice.
Like many students there, Pritchett has augmented his formal education with extensive missionary travel. He believes those experiences have clarified and intensified his commitment to the gospel. But along the way, he acknowledges, something changed for him.
Pritchett has participated in medical teams that traveled to economically distressed areas, offered help, and left, sometimes after as little as a week. There were times, he said, when time and supplies were so limited, and demand for medical help so great, that team members had to pass out tickets to limit the number served.
Pritchett recalled seeing sick people in Haiti get into fist-fights over those tickets. He began to think that maybe his team had “created another problem by provoking violence among people who all were sick.”
Over time, he began to think that perhaps real help would only come from “permanent communities, living among communities that are resource poor, working beside them every day, and not just going for a week.”
That thought had been “building up,” he said, when, again while in Haiti, “we met this girl. She was probably 8 or 9 years old, and she was an albino girl ? an albino girl living in this tropical country where there were hardly any trees for shade. She already has melanoma all over her body.”
Pritchett said the experience was for him what the French philosopher and Talmudic scholar Emmanuel Levinas called an encounter with “the other.”
“I think what he meant by that,” Pritchett explained, “is it's a moment when you fully experience another person in all they are and all you can't understand.
“Here was this girl, living what I consider to be a terrible life, perhaps shunned by friends and family who may have seen her as having a curse. I see her as having melanoma and not much chance of life. But when you move past all that, and you simply encounter this child in all her suffering, your life is changed by that encounter.”
He continued: “Levinas says there is nothing written in the stars that says you have to help this girl. But, once you have encountered her, this suffering child, you know you have to do what you can.”
For Pritchett, that meant giving the girl sun screen and sunglasses and teaching her aunt how to care for her and to keep her in the shade. But, as he prepared to leave Haiti and the child, it also meant recognizing that his response to Christ's call to care for the poor could never again be as limited as it once had been.
“For me, it's hard to come away from that and feel that the Bible is all people need,” he said. “At a conservative school like Harding, there are a lot of people who do trips overseas and have experiences similar to mine, but the language we learn here is, ‘Well, we can't change people's lives but we can offer them eternal life.'
“I can't speak that language anymore. Sure, the story of Jesus is important, but I can't walk away from an experience of being with sick or hungry people and say learning about Jesus is more important than having food on the table every night. For me, it's not one or the other, it's both.”
The conference's other director is Zach Seagle, a religion and history major from New Jersey. He too was “a very conservative Christian” when he came to Harding. He says it was “studying about social justice and care for the poor” that led him to “a broader view.”
Seagle and Pritchett say their experiences have made them both more liberal and more literal in their faith. They tend not to concern themselves much anymore with denominational differences, with condemning sinful behaviors, or even winning souls for Christ, in the way they once viewed that evangelical mission.
Seagle's view has changed so much that he now regards some missionary activity as a form of imperialism, which he opposes. He prefers to focus instead on “creating a peaceful world through nonviolent actions, subverting systems of government that suppress and repress people, and working for individual, local communities. The idea is to make life better for the people we live with, for ourselves, and for the world.
“Now, evangelism for us is without words. It's about using our hands and feet and sacrificing ourselves for other people.”
That new understanding of evangelism has led Seagle, Pritchett, and seven other of the conference's organizers to embrace what some call a “radical love,” similar to Christ's, for the poor. After they graduate, they plan to move to Mali, where they intend to establish an “intentional community,” along the lines of Catholic monasteries, and live among that nation's Dogon people for a minimum of 10 years.
Asked if bringing Christianity to the Dogon is part of their plan, Seagle shook his head. “Not necessarily,” he said. “Our goal is not to bring Western ideals to them, but to try to live in a way that makes all of our lives more full.
“We hope to be able to teach them some things, and we expect to be taught things too, like how to do community better, and how to rely on each other better ? things that Western capitalistic culture isn't so good at.”
The “Dogon team,” as members call themselves, are being deliberate in preparation. Some spent last August in Mali trying to learn as much as they could about Dogon life, the water system, health problems, the language and how villages function.
For six weeks during Christmas vacation, Seagle visited the West Bank of the Palestinian territories “to try to understand that political situation.”
“Mali is also a very violent country with a lot of oppression,” he explained. “So I wanted to experience first-hand people's attempts at non-violent resolution of problems.”
Team members plan to remain in the U.S. for a year after they leave Harding, working to pay off their student loans (and any debt remaining from the conference) and learning French, a necessary precursor to learning the Dogon dialect.
They also started a non-profit corporation, called the Khora Project, to provide a fiscal structure for their project. Khora is a Greek word that means “endless potential,” Seagle said. To him it means “building a world that can always continue to better itself.”
Reaching out ‘heart-wise'
Seagle had not yet returned from the Middle East when, on a blustery January evening, Lillis, Pritchett and three other conference organizers gathered over homemade pizza in Lillis' sparse Searcy apartment to explain the conversation they hope to promote about the relationship of faith to justice.
For Pritchett, justice has come to mean “people living well with each other and with the land.” For Lillis, a nursing student from Georgia, who is also heading to Mali, it means that “impoverished people get what they need to lead healthy lives.”
Josh Nason, of Tennessee, who signed on to be venue coordinator for the conference, said the idea is simply that faith touches every part of life, and that once a person realizes that, “It changes how you live. You begin to see that everything you do has consequences.”
For example, Nason said, watching the documentary “Food, Inc.” with some friends forced all of them to reassess, not just how they eat, but other aspects of their lives as well. Along with Ragan Sutterfield, a non-student who will be speaking at the conference, he and Seagle began a community garden at Harding.
Later, they organized a fashion show at Harding to highlight how many of our clothes come from countries that allow sweatshop conditions. Their hope, Nason said, was to reinforce the idea on the Harding campus that “almost everything about how we live is connected in some way to justice.”
Also at the pizza dinner were Stephanie Allen, of Missouri, who's handling registration for the conference, and Ashley Reeves, of Tennessee, who's in charge of advertising and promotion.
Reeves said, “When I was a freshman, I saw these older guys who were being passionate about caring for people, and I, like, didn't see that in a lot of other people.” After a missionary internship to Mozambique, she talked about her experiences with Pritchett, Seagle and others, and, she said, “their questions became my own.”
Allen recalled a similar search for a Christian connection to justice. “Growing up in the church, I never saw much community,” she said, “much reaching out to people heart-wise. I think that's what we're doing with this conference.”
‘A broader idea of Christianity'
It was Seagle, as a conference director, who, at the start of last semester, contacted David Collins, Harding's dean of students, about hosting a conference at the school. Seagle said he told Collins that the conference would be about “shalom work,” which he defined as “not just about religious salvation, but about doing the work of God on behalf of the poor.”
“At first, Dean Collins thought it was a good idea,” Seagle said, “so we began lining up speakers. We wanted 10 different speakers so that the Harding community could be exposed to a broader idea of Christianity.”
He explained: “No speakers are invited to come to Harding who don't have the Church of Christ label, and yet there are so many other good theologians and thinkers. We wanted to bring speakers who ordinarily would not be invited to come here so that the community could hear some new ways of thinking about God.”
Seagle said the group warned Collins that some of the ideas presented might be controversial. “We told him we were going to be talking about political issues, but from a Christian perspective. And he said that Harding doesn't have any political affiliation, so that wouldn't be a problem.”
According to Seagle, Collins was given a list of the speakers “about three weeks before Thanksgiving,” but it was not until Thanksgiving week, when the group planned to make its campus-wide announcement, that “Dean Collins pulled the whole thing. He said that he and the president's cabinet would meet over Thanksgiving break, and when we got back from break, they said the answer was no.”
“They said Peace by Piece was in contrast with the mission of Harding. They objected to the women speakers. And they said they could not approve of presenting an overtly Christian message without having Church of Christ speakers.”
Seagle's voice grew more intense. “We think these issues areovertly Christian. They are about the message of freedom and liberation and caring about other people more than yourself. They are about acting nonviolently and about love for the other, whoever that other is.
“So much of right-wing, evangelical Christianity is against so many things, like homosexuality. But once you know people who aren't like you, once you're out of your comfort zone for a while, and you're able to experience other people's lives, it's not so easy at that point to demonize groups of people.
“Look at Christ. He went against the empire of Rome. And he sat with prostitutes and the poor ? real people with real lives and real feelings and real problems. He showed us with his life that God cares about the orphan and the widow and the people the wealthy often ignore.”
Seagle said it would be hard to assess just how the ideas to be presented at the conference conflict with the school's mission, because, “The problem with Harding is that no doctrinal positions are written down. They're just assumed. And our conference is challenging a lot of those assumptions.
“For example, environmentalism is something that fundamentalist Christians haven't really cared about. They see environmentalism as something liberal ? worshiping nature instead of God.
“In the same way, issues like poverty and social justice are not generally acceptable here at Harding. So when someone wants to talk about these issues, they're usually labeled as liberals and cast out and not allowed to express those opinions.
“Harding's administrators see postmodernism or liberalism as an attack on their way of life, so they fear what they don't understand. But the students here are very active, and curious, and they're beginning to question the idea that Christ's message is only spiritual and not connected to the political and social issues that affect people's lives.”
Pritchett would have appreciated being able to talk to the school's administrators. “I wish there was a good way to sit down with them,” he said, “not that I think we could come to terms, but in a spirit of dialogue. I think we have a great lineup of speakers that will challenge anyone who wants to think seriously about community and justice.
“We have Pete Rollins, a philosopher and theologian from Ireland, who's going to talk about bringing appropriate postmodern, post-structuralist thought into Christianity.
“And Karen Sloan, who lives in an intentional community and knows a lot about them. She's going to talk about the nitty-gritty of community ? things like relationships, economics, sexuality and power.
“Chris Haw is another theologian, and he also lives in an intentional community. He'll be speaking about what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.
“We'll have Philip Spivey, from UCA, speaking on ethics. And members of the Dogon team will discuss moving to Mali.”
Pritchett said Harding officials have been invited to the conference, but he doubts they will attend. “It really is a cultural difference,” he said. “They don't understand what we're trying to do.”
He speculates that there might be another factor at play, as well. “They've got to consider the constituency of their donors, and a lot of this is generational. For instance, I could care less that two of our speakers are women, but a lot of the donors grew up in a time when that just wasn't done.”
Lillis seemed puzzled by the officials' decision. “The core values outlined on Harding's website seem very similar to what Peace by Piece is trying to do,” he said. Indeed, part of the site's mission statement reads:
“The board of trustees, the administration and the faculty believe that the freedom to pursue truth and high academic achievement is compatible with the Christian principles to which the university is committed.”
And one of the school's goals is listed as: “The promotion of citizenship within a global perspective ? developing a Christian understanding of and respect for other cultures through an emphasis on liberty and justice.”
“I deeply respect that the leaders here would care enough to take these matters seriously,” Lillis said. “But my question is: How is dialogue not helpful to the students?
“If anything, it seems to me, it would strengthen their theological belief.”