A Christian mob invaded an Appalachian artists' retreat because of an "Om" symbol in the chapel
The artists, many of whom were people of color and LGBTQ, left the premises to avoid violence
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Over the weekend, a retreat for Appalachian artists in Bledsoe, Kentucky had to be cut short after a conservative Christian mob invaded the rental space falsely claiming that the participants were desecrating a local chapel.
The event was run by Waymakers Collective, a non-profit group that provides grant money and learning opportunities for artists in the region. They say they’ve given away over $1 million to date and this past weekend was supposed to mark their second annual gathering.
The three-day event took place at Pine Mountain Settlement School (PMSS), an 800-acre campus with dozens of buildings. The school’s website says “We have hosted everything from church retreats to theater conferences to recording sessions.” Given that many of the Waymakers’ members had attended events there in the past and “always felt welcome, safe and had positive experiences,” it seemed like a perfect place for the occasion. The schedule included performances, meals, lectures, and free time for the artists to explore their creativity among like-minded peers.
Importantly, participants also had an option to visit the chapel on campus as a “Healing Space.” Waymakers explained it this way:
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… 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.
Organizers said the chapel was decorated with pillows, “soothing lights,” plants, and a painting that included an “Om” symbol—presumably to facilitate the meditation.
That’s what this controversy is all about.
While the “Om” wasn’t meant to be religious in nature, when some people in the community saw pictures of the painting, they flipped out over the idea that a non-Christian symbol made its way into a supposedly Christian space (even though PMSS isn’t a religious location).
Waymakers organizers said they were told they had use of the entire campus as part of their rental agreement, and the only restriction regarding the chapel involved the pews—they were told not to move them because the floors were recently resurfaced. In other words, there was no reason the painting should have been a concern for anyone.
On Saturday, however, an estimated 8-9 community members took matters into their own hands, barged into the space, and entered the chapel “to make sure the House of The Lord wasn’t being disrespected.”
The people in the chapel said they were doing nothing wrong, and I asked if they were in there to worship Jesus, and a few started raising their voices at me, so I told them to just get their stuff - that we weren’t there to argue, and I even helped them gather their things and pack them to their cars. After that all happened, the state police and sheriff deputies showed up, and they agreed to stay out of the chapel, but then, ultimately, they decided to leave because they said they felt unsafe.
If they want to do that stuff, they can do it in their own homes or buildings or wherever else, but it’s not happening in Jesus’ house as long as I’m around to defend it…
Napier, a Christian who was charged with first-degree sexual abuse after being caught in bed with a 15-year-old girl, had no business telling anyone to “get their stuff.” He makes it sound like he was merely escorting out people who shouldn’t have been there when, in fact, he’s the one who didn’t have access to the space. Neither did his colleagues. (Two deputies were indeed stationed outside the chapel afterwards, but unlike what his post said, they weren’t necessarily there to keep people from entering.)
One of the artists in attendance didn’t see the mob’s actions as helpful in any way. Referring to them as “yt supremacists,” Kabrea James said the invaders alleged the artists were “desecrating their space” and “demanded that we leave.” The artists left in order to avoid escalating the situation—which was understandable given that a lot of them come from marginalized communities.
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Shortly after the conflict began, a PMSS staffer showed up and played mediator (which the Waymakers said they appreciated). Eventually, police were called in by both PMSS and some of the artists who felt like they were in danger. According to Waymakers, “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.” (How does that make any sense?!)
In a statement released by Waymakers on Monday, they expressed concern about why their safety wasn’t paramount in this situation and why their contract wasn’t honored:
What was, ultimately, at issue was the safety of our collective. We are a family-friendly community and we had parents at the event who had brought their children. PMSS is a place that has long welcomed children onto its campus, so we ask the PMSS Board and leadership: Why were children, families, and our guests put at risk in this way? Why were outside people who were not part of our gathering allowed to be present on the campus and interrupt our private, paid-for event? Why were there no safety procedures in place that the staff could follow to keep the people who rent PMSS safe?
These were some of the many reasons we made the call to end our event a day early and leave PMSS for the safety of everyone in attendance, including the staff of PMSS that we did not want to be witness to these intense interactions. To ensure the safety of all of those in attendance, we organized caravans out of the property and county so that no members left the property alone. Many of our participants are deeply traumatized by this experience, especially those of us with personal lived experiences of racial and gender-based violence. We are offering access to free therapy as part of our aftercare approach for the participants that were there.
McDaniels, the reporter, said it’s “unclear if the chapel was a part of the Waymakers Collective retreat facility lease agreement or not,” but the Waymakers certainly believed they had access to it. (Hell, their version of the story involves specific advance discussions about using the chapel.) PMSS has not yet issued any statement about the matter.
Meanwhile, Dan Mosley, the Harlan County Judge Executive, offered support for the mob shortly after the conflict occurred:
I have a lot on my mind this evening but I’m going to be brief. I’m proud of the people of Bledsoe and Big Laurel. Your perspective is my perspective, today, and in the days ahead. It’s always better to ask questions than throw stones and civil discourse is always the best pathway to resolution.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.” Matthew 5:9
“Your perspective is my perspective,” he said of the intolerant Christians who magically claimed ownership of space that wasn’t theirs.
Mosley added separately that seeing the “Om” symbol in the chapel “made me sick at my stomach”:
He basically praised the mob for taking a stand without resorting to violence, as if they deserved a reward for merely threatening the artists rather than doing something even more insane. The comments on that first post overwhelmingly agreed with that position, as did many others in the community. (This is apparently what they do in small towns.)
None of the groups opposing Waymakers’ use of the space has issued any official response yet. They sure as hell haven’t denounced the invaders, who simply don’t believe a chapel should be used by anyone who doesn’t share their conservative Christian faith, even if the space is no longer used as a religious site and even if the artists were contractually allowed to temporarily decorate the chapel as they saw fit.
This is nothing more than an act of white Christian supremacy that thankfully didn’t end with victims who are LGBTQ people and artists of color (including ones who are practicing Christians themselves).
If county leaders and PMSS officials aren’t going to take this seriously, and the invaders face no consequences for barging, uninvited, onto private property, it’s hard to imagine anything will change.
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