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The Changing Face of Virginia: We are more than just a University town!

07/15/2011

This installment of The Changing Face of Virginia series is written by high school student and Blanton Scholar, Eric Morris-Pussey. Eric writes about  the counterculture movement  in Lynchburg.

~Jennifer Rohrbaugh Nesossis, Programs Officer

Eric at the 2010 Blanton Scholars award ceremony.

One of the first things a new visitor to Lynchburg will notice is the huge LU on the side of Candler’s Mountain, visible from a good deal of the city’s busiest shopping and eating areas. It is the emblem of the controversial Liberty University, the evangelical college established by late Thomas Road Baptist Church founder Jerry Falwell, known across the nation for his far-right political views. With more than 60,000 enrolled students, Liberty is the largest evangelical Christian university in the world. However, it is not, as many believe, the only thing in Lynchburg.

Although the Liberty logo dominates the Lynchburg skyline, there are a number of things on the ground not involved with (and sometimes directly conflicting with) the university or its founders. The Academy of Fine Arts, Heritage High School, and E. C. Glass High School all put on music and theater productions. Heritage High School’s Acting II program allows students to write, direct, and produce their own one-act play—an opportunity high school senior Christopher Barbour used last year to express his views about Liberty University’s particular brand of politics and religion.

Christopher could not be reached for an interview, he has since moved and now attends a different high school, but his play was performed at the HHS auditorium last June. It featured a character named Tom Road, who represented (and made fun of) the views of Jerry Falwell and others like him, and the storyline centered around Barbour’s church, the First Unitarian Church of Lynchburg.

First Unitarian’s website describes it as “a voice of reason and tolerance in the modern world” and strives to promote equality and spirituality among all people through a “non-dogmatic religious program.” Unitarianism centers around Judeo-Christian ideals, but it incorporates elements from other religions and promotes “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”

Recently, an article about First Unitarian’s social outreach program, The Spectrum Café, ran in the Nelson County Times. The article included a photograph of Christopher Barbour with a few other church members. The Spectrum is one of the few gay-friendly places in Lynchburg, though people of all sexual orientations are welcome. Barbour, who is openly homosexual, attends church regularly and often goes to the café to talk to other church members and hang out with friends in an environment where he will not be judged for being gay. The Rev. Paul Boothby of First Unitarian says the café “reflects the church’s commitment to social justice.” On the contrary, Liberty University has a legal firm on campus called Liberty Counsel that speaks out against homosexuality, which it maintains is a disease curable through prayer. Many people, including some Liberty students, who attended the Spectrum’s annual Halloween dance last year refused to be interviewed for fear of repercussions at work and at school.

Activists vigil outside Liberty University (photo courtesy Soulforce - http://www.soulforce.org)

In 2005 and 2006, Liberty University had a bad relationship with Equality Ride, a modern civil rights organization set up to protect the rights of gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender people. The Ride, which visits organizations (usually colleges, though they also talked with the U.S. military at one point) they believe discriminate against gay students, tries to start a dialogue with people in leadership positions. If the dialogue fails, Equality Ride will use nonviolent means of protest based on those used by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mahatma Gandhi. The Equality Ride is part of the organization Soulforce, which uses religious and ethical values and nonviolent protests to try to gain rights for gays and other groups they feel are being treated unfairly.

A member of the Lynchburg community prepares to be arrested (photo courtesy of Soulforce - http://www.soulforce.org)

On Equality Ride’s second visit in 2006, twenty-four people were arrested for trespassing. It was not to be the university’s last public controversy. In 2009, Mark Hine, LU’s vice president of student affairs, e-mailed Brian O’Nill Diaz, president of Liberty’s branch of College Democrats, and said that the university would no longer recognize the club. This meant that though the club was still allowed to meet on campus, it could not use the university’s name or reserve spots on campus property. Later, Diaz was quoted as saying, “I want to be able to share the love of Christ, but I guess I can’t do that on campus because I’m a Democrat as well.” Hine cited several reasons for the college’s disapproval of the club, including the party’s view on abortion rights, same-sex marriages, hate crimes, and socialism. He said, “The Democratic Party platform is contrary to the mission of Liberty University and to Christian doctrine.” Later, Jerry Falwell, Jr. (president of the college since his father’s death) contradicted him by saying that it was not the college’s view that a person cannot be both a Christian and a Democrat. The school later saved face by changing the status of all political clubs to “unofficial” and by allowing them to continue to use the LU name. Diaz, however, had already transferred out.

Whatever difficulties have surrounded the Liberty Democrats club, the Lynchburg Democrats one is doing quite well. There are bumper stickers on many cars here that say “Lynchburg Democrat.” The mother of one of my close friends is a member of the local Democrats club and goes to meetings often. As well as being a liberal, she is a devout Catholic, and her car features a bumper sticker that says, “Get real—like Jesus would ever own a gun and vote Republican.” Her son, Brendan Navarro, is the drummer in alternative rock quartet Paper Monday (which also includes myself, guitarist Ian Wright, and bassist Zach Betterton), whose songs often reflect the band members’ antiwar and anticorporation political views.

Another local band, comprised mostly of people around my age, is hardcore metal band Leave Me the Lost, which has played several shows at venues in and around Lynchburg and has recorded an EP. I talked with lead guitarist Dalton Huskins, who said that a lot of people in Lynchburg don’t like their music because some of their lyrics are “so political.” He also said of his band, “We’re all pretty happy kids, but there’s some [political] stuff that really [makes us mad].”

The music scene in Lynchburg is growing and becoming more varied. As well as rock groups like Paper Monday and Leave Me the Lost, there are acoustic and country acts, jazz and funk groups, a symphony orchestra, and excellent high school and college-level orchestra, chorus, and band programs. I played guitar for the Heritage High School Jazz Ensemble my freshman year and am singing in the school’s chorus this year. No matter what kind of music you enjoy, you can find it in Lynchburg. A new venue, The Hive, recently opened (mostly offering rock and acoustic music), and there is also live music at coffeehouses, such as The Drowsy Poet, The White Hart, and The Muse, and restaurants, such as Benjamin’s and Outlander’s. There are also two well-known musical instrument shops in town, Lynchburg Music Center and L. Oppleman’s, and both provide repair service and advice on buying instruments and are always bustling with musicians buying, selling, and trading instruments and accessories. Lynchburg Music also gives lessons on instruments not usually taught in school music programs. (Dalton Huskins learned to play guitar several years ago from one of their teachers.) The town also has a former speakeasy, the Ellington (named after jazz great Duke Ellington), that has been restored and turned into a popular jazz and blues venue.

A postcard from the early 20th century showing Randolph Macon Woman's College (photo courtesy Virginia Historical Society)

As well as music and theater in Lynchburg, there are a few stand-up comedy venues, a local magicians’ society (of which I am a member), and many places for artists and photographers. The Maier Museum of Art at Randolph College (formerly Randolph-Macon Woman’s College) is a popular place, featuring both year-round displays and travelling exhibitions. Besides the Maier, there are also several other galleries that recently opened in downtown Lynchburg.

The downtown area is quickly changing. It was the commercial center of town many years ago, but it has since been mostly abandoned and fallen into disrepair. Recently, however, there has been a movement to revitalize this part of the city and turn it into a cultural center. The Farmer’s Market, which sells organic vegetables, locally raised and slaughtered meat, and hand-crafted goods, is downtown, as well as the Amazement Square Children’s Museum (which was built inside an abandoned pest-control building and is now one of the most popular family attractions in Lynchburg).

The Farmer’s Market is gaining popularity because of the emerging “green” movement in Lynchburg and the surrounding areas. There are several recycling centers in and around the city, and the theme of this year’s Virginia Ten Miler (a Lynchburg race that attracts many world-class runners) was “going green.” Also, a community project known as Lynchburg Grows was started in 2003 to teach gardening skills, help our public schools’ lunch programs, and create a good environment in which our city’s mentally and physically disadvantaged citizens can work and socialize.

An E.C. Glass student in front of the Lynchburg Grows property. (Photo courtesy Lynchburg Grows - http://www.lynchburggrows.com)

Lynchburg Grows is a nonprofit organization that started in 2003 to help one mentally challenged man, Paul Lam, grow his own garden. The organization quickly grew, and it now gives gardening classes regularly. It not only focuses on teaching the disadvantaged but also helps people in low-income households, and it provides gardening workshops for anyone who wants to learn about growing their own food. Lynchburg Grows grows all-organic food and donates much of it to our city’s elementary schools. The organic food is probably helping a lot at the schools, because our lunches are notoriously unhealthy (if one places a paper towel on a Heritage High School pizza, the grease will soak all the way through it in less than ten seconds). Perhaps the organization will eventually grow to supply healthy options for students at the middle and high school levels.

Lynchburg is a great example of the changing face of Virginia, because there are so many different views here. The far-right politics of Falwell and his followers and the more liberal grassroots movements and budding cultural scene often conflict, but they give Lynchburg a wide variety of viewpoints and experiences. Any visitor will find something of interest here.

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Jennifer Rohrbaugh Nesossis is the programs officer at the Virginia Historical Society.

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