One arts gathering flees, another cancels after confrontation in Harlan County

Published 6:47 pm Friday, August 25, 2023

By Jamie Lucke

Kentucky Lantern

An Appalachian arts nonprofit’s gathering at Pine Mountain Settlement School in Harlan County ended abruptly last weekend after local residents objected to the group’s presence in the chapel, raising concerns among attendees about their safety.

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A statement issued by the Waymakers Collective says participants decided to end their annual assembly a day early “for the safety of everyone in attendance,” including the school’s staff.

The decision to leave came after “a group of white men and women in trucks and on ATVs from the surrounding” area blocked exit roads and paths and demanded that conference participants leave the chapel.

“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 the event,” the Waymakers statement said.

Statement from Harlan County Sheriff Chris Brewer: “On Saturday August 19th, the Harlan County Sheriff’s Office received a call that a group who had rented the PMSS were in the chapel which was not part of the rental agreement. The staff requested assistance from HCSO just to be present and keep the peace as they asked the group to vacate the chapel. Upon the arrival of HCSO Deputies, KSP was already on scene and the group stated that the chapel was included in their rental agreement but they would voluntarily vacate the chapel. HCSO Deputies remained at PMSS for several hours out of precaution to keep the peace. At this time there is no criminal investigation being conducted by HCSO.“

Kentucky State Police and the Harlan County sheriff’s office were called to the scene Saturday but no charges or arrests were made.

Harlan County Sheriff Chris Brewer said deputies remained at the campus “for several hours out of precaution to keep the peace.” He also said his office is not conducting an investigation.

The  confrontation has already cost the school one event. Nicole Garneau, organizer of the Rebellious Performance Retreat, said she is moving the five-day immersive theater workshop from Pine Mountain Settlement School, where it had been scheduled to be held over Labor Day weekend.

“I cannot host a retreat dedicated to supporting artists working on challenging material in a place where we do not feel safe,” Garneau told the Lantern in an email. “I will be sharing the new location of the retreat only with people who are registered.”

A statement released Wednesday by the Pine Mountain Settlement School said that photos of the conference posted on social media, especially of the chapel, “upset some members of the local community, who interpreted this as non-Christian.” They reached out to interim director Jason Brashear and board of trustees chair James Greene who asked the Waymakers to vacate the chapel.

“The Collective agreed they would relocate the space at their next class break. However, some community members decided on their own to come to campus, entering the chapel, and blocking access to buildings and roads,” says the PMSS statement.

The statement, printed below, says the school “is reviewing its policies and procedures to ensure that this type of misunderstanding does not occur in the future and to ensure the safety of all guests, visitors, and staff. Pine Mountain will continue its tradition of being open and welcoming to all as well as to promote mutual understanding among all those it serves.”

Founded in 1913 and set on 800 acres, the Pine Mountain Settlement School is a national historic landmark. It once served as a boarding school for young Kentuckians; its residence and dining halls and other buildings still host visitors and events throughout the year, including wildflower and fall color weekends.

Brashear, the interim director, said 5,000 students visited last year to hike, study nature and learn square dancing and crafts.

The Kentucky Arts Council provides operating support to the school “from state tax dollars and federal funding from the National Endowment for the Arts,” according to the PMSS website.

The Kentucky Natural Lands Trust, which raises money to preserve Kentucky forests and natural habitats, has held artists weekends at the campus. The land trust, Kentucky songwriter Daniel Martin Moore and 40 musicians teamed up in 2019 to produce a double album titled “Pine Mountain Sessions” recorded in the school’s chapel which benefited KNLT and the school.

The Waymakers Collective, which says it has distributed more than $1 million in grants to Appalachian arts and arts organizations, describes itself as “a multiracial group that is also inclusive of queer and trans people.”

The Waymakers’ statement said that for its annual gathering the chapel had been set up as space “for rest and quiet reflection” and “healing.”

“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,” the statement said.

“It was a spa-like environment to help facilitate restorativeness, rest, and reflection.”

“Our coordinator specifically asked if there were any special instructions that should be honored in the chapel,” the statement says. “The only instructions given were not to move the pews as the floors were recently resurfaced. Our team requested two tables in the chapel to display aromatherapy oils and other items for the participants, and upon our arrival, the tables were set up by the PMSS staff.”

On Saturday, a few conference participants were “gathered in the chapel to rest: taking naps or sitting in quiet reflection or prayer” when two men and a woman who were not part of the group entered and sat apart watching, said the statement.

More people arrived, said the statement, and conference attendees were told that they were “desecrating a Christian space” amid demands that they leave, according to the statement, which also said the local residents used “their vehicles to block the roads and paths to exit.”

The settlement school staff intervened and separated the two groups, said the statement.

“The group of people who entered the chapel stayed for over an hour, often lingering on the outside of where we were gathered as though to tell us we were not welcome and were being watched,” the statement said.

The statement says they later learned that Facebook posts had accused the group of “desecrating the chapel and other horrible allegations that simply are not true.”

The weekly Tri-City News, also of Harlan County, in an article posted on its Facebook page, reported that Bledsoe resident Tate Napier said that he was part of a group of “eight or nine” who entered the chapel “because we wanted to make sure the House of The Lord wasn’t being disrespected.”

Napier is quoted as saying, “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.”

On Tuesday afternoon, Napier posted on his Facebook page that he had received a lot of requests from reporters and journalists — the Lantern sent him a direct message via Facebook — seeking interviews but that he had decided to “leave it” with the interview he gave “a local journalist” on Saturday.

“The news and social media are tools the devil uses the most to stir up division, and I don’t want to partake in anymore,” he said.

Garneau, an actor who has performed at the settlement school, said the decision to cancel the Labor Day weekend performance retreat had left her angry and sad.

“I have attended many wonderful gatherings at Pine Mountain Settlement School, many of which were dedicated to social and racial justice. Rural Eastern Kentucky needs a place like PMSS where people can come together to make Kentucky, and the world, a better place,” she said.

“I am angry and sad that some members of the Harlan community decided to violate a sacred space for healing, and in so doing, traumatize an entire community of folks gathered at PMSS. I fear this will have repercussions for years to come.”

The Waymakers Collective statement ended with an invitation to the settlement school staff and leadership to “think, with us, about how to ensure Pine Mountain Settlement School continues to be the inclusive, beautiful, and hospitable place it has historically been for many of us — including how best to communicate with potential guests what your boundaries are for the use of your campus.”