Over in Bledsoe, Kentucky there has been an incident that truly merits a bit of attention. It concerns a shutting down of an artistic conference by some fanatical Christians.
OK, I can hear your thoughts, you are thinking that nudity was involved, or something along those lines … right?
Nope, this was nothing like that at all.
OK, let’s start by laying out the details of the innocent people that were caught up within this sordid little saga.
There exists a non-profit group called Waymakers Collective. They are basically an Appalachian based Arts and Culture Assembly. Think ‘artistic networking‘, and also ‘support via the distribution of grants to artists and communities‘ and you have nailed what they are all about. Last August 18-20 they held their annual conference at the Pine Mountain Settlement School (PMSS) in Harlan County, Kentucky.
The Pine Mountain Settlement School (PMSS) is a community facility that is available to be rented out to anybody for events exactly like this. The name relates to a bit of history. Back in 1913 it was indeed founded as a school and continued in that role until about the 1970s. Round about then it evolved into a space for environmental education but now it is simply become a community non-profit space that can be rented out.
As is often the way of any and every event, Waymakers Collective conference participants were having a great time and so pictures were taken and shared on social media.
One image triggered what happened. Here is that triggering image …
Now before I reveal the concern, take a look at the above and see if you can guess what it was.
The above is within a chapel that is part of the Pine Mountain Settlement School (PMSS).
What is going on there is that the conference organisers had setup a meditation space inside the chapel. This was of course optional and was there for any conference participants who wanted to meditate.
Just to be clear, they are primarily focused on artistic networking, not religion, because creative art is the core of what they are all about. Reading their own words to describe the event makes this transparently clear …
Our weekend gathering included performances by our members, workshops for artists, shared meals, film showings, and art activities led by our members. People in attendance included Waymaker Collective members, individual artists, staff from regional nonprofits, program officers from regional and national foundations that fund the arts in Central Appalachia, and people from our region new to us that were interested in learning more about our work.
They described the above meditation space as follows …
We also set up a healing space: a space for rest and quiet reflection, in the chapel. The healing space was something we instituted last year when our gathering occurred right after the flood in Eastern Kentucky and we knew many of our participants traveling from Eastern Kentucky were coming off of weeks of relief work and being impacted by the floods themselves. We chose to continue that offering this year. The set up of the room included pillows, meditation cushions, soothing lights, plants, crystals, and some artwork including a painting that included an “Om” symbol. It was a spa-like environment to help facilitate restorativeness, rest, and reflection that we invited people to use how they wanted to: take a nap, sit in quiet meditation, or prayerful reflection within their own religious and spiritual traditions. It was not an environment intended to promote a certain religion, nor an environment meant to insult or degrade any one religious tradition. It was simply intended to be a beautiful place to rest.
Now before we get into the details of what then happened, let’s mull over one other key question – Was this use of the chapel OK with the Pine Mountain Settlement School?
Short answer – yes.
Again, here is the context …
In preparation for our event at PMSS, we talked at length with the staff at PMSS about what we had access to on the campus. We were told by both the Director and his support staff that we would have use of the entire campus — including the chapel. At the time of our conversations, our event coordinator specifically asked if there were any special instructions that should be taken into consideration when using the space. The only instruction we were given about the use of the chapel was to not move pews as they had just had the floors resurfaced. We were never told we couldn’t bring anything into the chapel to create a healing and restful space for our participants and were told what we had planned in terms of using it as a restful space was okay. Our event coordinator requested two tables in the chapel to put items on including aromatherapy oils for use by participants, and upon our arrival, the chapel was set up as requested.
To be wholly clear about this, Waymakers are a very diverse group, some are Christian and some are not, so they respect all traditions and had offered this facility as a neutral space.
Who could possibly object?
Well yes, fanatical Christians can and that’s how this then played out.
After seeing the image on social media, a gang of local fanatics turned up on the Saturday afternoon, stormed into the chapel and demanded that all those there must leave the sacred space …
The people who entered the chapel demanded that we leave. Our group was told they did not belong there, were desecrating a Christian space, and needed to leave right away. We were shocked by this as we had rented out the entire campus of PMSS for our event and were treating the entire property with respect and in the manner we had communicated to PMSS prior to our event. However, our group was now being told by the people who entered the chapel that we did not have a right to be there. It was unclear to us who they were representing.
To be wholly clear about this, these religious fanatics were nothing to do with the Pine Mountain Settlement School, they had self-appointed themselves as sacred-space guardians and then directed themselves to remove people from a space that they had decided was sacred.
Here is a posting from one of the mob …
So yes, WTAF is indeed the right response.
A staff member representing PMSS stepped in and kept the parties separated. Law enforcement was also called.
The Waymakers response was a good one …
Our Executive Director calmed our collective worry and fear with a moving speech about love and we sang a traditional spiritual to steady our nerves and recommit ourselves to non-violent action. We feel fortunate that the conflict did not escalate and no one was physically harmed.
The PMSS response was wholly wrong. They did this …
We were also then told that the Executive Director and Board of the PMSS had ordered our group to not return to the chapel during our stay.
What should have happened is that the outsiders should have been arrested for trespass and ejected.
Why were conference participants not protected?
For this and other related reasons Waymakers packed their bags and left a day early because they felt they were not being protected from some very hostile religious fanatics.
This is the Waymakers official statement. They would be fully within the rights to sue, but that’s clearly not who they are or what they are about.
A few Additional Thoughts
What is deeply absurd regarding all this is that as far as Christianity is generally concerned, there are no sacred or special places. Well yes, for some there clearly are, but generally this idea that the body-of-Christ, the church, is the collective of believers and not a building is a key tradition. The claim that some place is specifically holy or special is rooted more within primitive superstitions and not Christian theology.
A second rather fascinating observation is that the leader of this angry mob of self-appointed sacred-space guardians, Tate Napier, is a convicted sex offender – he was caught at the age of 21 in bed with a 15 year old. He is not exactly the poster boy for being the guardian of supposed sacred spaces. When challenged about that incident from seven years ago he plays the usual “jesus-has-now-saved-me” card.
A third observation is that the chapel is historic. It is not currently in use as a meeting place for any domination. Will Tate and his band of holy rollers be keeping tabs on every structure ever used as a meeting place for any variation of Christianity and policing all such non-Christian usage?
Fourth and final observation. What is clear from Mr Napier’s FB postings is that he believe that “they” were evil and that he is the good guy “defending the faith”. He very obviously has no appreciation that the cause he has done rather a lot of work for here is non-belief. He has brought a considerable degree of disrepute to his “faith” via intimidation, intolerance, and raw ignorance.
Just imagine the total and complete uproar if some native Americans rocked up to his church and told them to collect their stuff and leave because the building was desecrating their ancient sacred space.
There really is no hate and intolerance that is quite like Mr Napier’s Christian “Love”.