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Closing of the 144th Assembly, Three Taps of the Gavel Address

Three Taps of the Gavel Address
Closing of the 144th Assembly

Michael E. Hill
18th President of Chautauqua Institution
August 27, 2017


“When I was a kid, ‘sanctuary’ meant only one thing. It was the big room with the stained-glass windows and hard wooden benches where my family worshipped every Sunday. Church attendance was not optional for my sisters and me, so that sanctuary was where I learned to pray — pray that the service would end and God would release me back into the wild. I also learned that not all prayers are answered, no matter how ardent.”

These words from Parker Palmer, a columnist and founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal, speak to me as we conclude our 144th Assembly.  I suspect that many of us came to these sacred grounds and this hallowed grove to find sanctuary: sanctuary from a chaotic world; sanctuary from political divisiveness; sanctuary discovered in community, in the trademark fellowship envisioned by Vincent and Miller 143 years ago when they first scouted out this place that would become our beloved Chautauqua.

 We’ve shared quite a remarkable season, you and I, and I find myself challenged by the notion of sanctuary and whether we have delivered that to you. 

What I am more confident about is that we have collectively dined at a table of intellectual, emotional, spiritual and artistic richness.  This table, my first as your 18th President, brought us prophetic voices in the vessels of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks and Eboo Patel, through weekly chaplains like Ginger Gaines-Cirelli and Teresa Fry Brown, and a whirlwind of artistic delight and intellectual challenges in lectures, performances, exhibits and classes.  I was haunted by the questions inherent in Chautauqua Theater Company’s production of “Build the Wall” and delighted by another season of “Opera Invasions.” And I can’t forget the power of our magnificent lake, which beckons us to leave our cares on the shore and take moments together free of our devices and our distractions, a lost art form in and of itself.

Our weekly probing brought to our shores some of the most pressing issues we’re facing as a society, from a crisis of faith and the state and stability of the Supreme Court to international issues and the ethical state of the media.

But we also found time to laugh with one another and enjoy some great food on Bestor Plaza, and we did so with some of the greatest thought leaders on the planet.  I’m grateful to all of our speakers for giving us the raw ingredients for this delightful meal we’ve dined on this summer.

And I’ve had wonderful personal moments that will forever stay with me as memories of my first season:

  • Celebrating my first Old First Night as President and running with my partner Peter and colleague Deborah Sunya Moore through the streets of Chautauqua to mark our birthday;
  • Perhaps one of my favorites, a group of 5-year-olds from Children’s School coming to the President’s Cottage for “Kids Government” day with a list of “demands” — not requests — including that I appoint a kid co-President and create a mythical monsters zoo;
  • Saying farewell to Judy Clinger in a memorial service that taught me more about the impact of this special place on people’s lives than almost any other moment this season;
  • Celebrating our new incredible Amphitheater, and, yes, even when we were working out the bugs of audio issues;
  • Watching young people realize that the soundtrack to Harry Potter came from this thing called an orchestra!
  • The bitterness of saying farewell to colleagues like Robert Franklin and Sherra Babcock, and the sweet anticipation of new colleagues who will bring voice to our next season;
  • Sharing the stage with Ted Olson and recognizing that in one man you had someone who effectively put George W. Bush in The White House while later litigating the case that would set the precedent to bring gay marriage to the entire United States.  Truly in Ted and others like him, I was reminded that people are not easy-to-define monoliths.

Those are certainly salient moments that will soon be precious memories.  But, what’s the bigger picture of the lessons from this assembly?  You may recall, we opened our time together with three promises:

  • A promise to listen and learn;
  • A promise to be responsible citizens in our communities, beginning in our own backyard; and
  • A promise to seek the best in human values, not for the pursuit alone, but to shape a better tomorrow.

We also opened our assembly with what I have been calling a vision thesis, a series of questions coupled with an invitation to seek the answers … together.  And while those opening questions may take years to probe, I think we made a good start.

The racism-laced attacks in Charlottesville reminded us that finding a greater diversity and inclusion at Chautauqua is critical to our core mission of exploring the best in human values while also moving us toward creative and thoughtful responses to the issues of the day.

Thanks to the generosity of two Chautauquans, we will begin our next Assembly with a season-long rental of a home to host a cohort of diversity fellows, we will add a part-time diversity and inclusion officer in the Office of the President, and we will launch a President’s Advisory Council on Diversity and Inclusion that will help my administration and our Trustees explore how issues of diversity and inclusion need to show up in our programming, throughout our grounds and in the very fabric of Chautauqua. This is just the beginning of tackling a lack of diversity that robs our yearly exploration of the necessary voices to truly explore the best of human values, not just for a majority white audience. Truly, this is a beginning to our vision of shaping a better tomorrow together.

Thank you to all of you who asked how we could shatter the image of our gates and turn them into gateways.  Our Week Six partnership with the National Comedy Center was a marvelous outreach to our neighbors in Jamestown and, I am proud to say, also happened to be the third best attended week in the close to 20 years since we’ve kept attendance data.  We proved that sometimes that best talent is truly in our own backyard – and we learned that we can laugh and not be so serious all the time. 

We will do much more in the months before you return, opening the vast resources of this incredible Institution to our region’s young people and discovering ways we can use our grounds throughout the year.  To do so not only makes us wiser stewards of this resource, it also contributes to reducing the poverty rate in one of the poorest counties in the state, indeed the nation.

We asked how we might engage younger people in new and exciting ways. Our NOW Gen group met with me twice formally and many other times informally. 

We will begin working through a resulting white paper from that group in hopes that new ways of convening and programming might show up next year, including by taking their suggestion that a business center might allow those who still must work to come to these grounds more often.  We will fulfill that suggestion from their list by the time we return next June.

And perhaps our best work this season -- and our hardest -- was finding ways to “listen and learn” with one another at a time when our nation seems to get more tone-deaf to viewpoints that don’t perfectly align with our respective echo chambers.

We practiced and modeled a form of civil dialogue, even if some disliked the adjective “muscular.”  And we delighted knowing we could debate even that, because at Chautauqua, words and actions matter, and coming to a greater understanding of both is critical to the process.

Our friend David Brooks in a New York Times column this week reminded us that “the truth is plural,” that “creativity happens when you merge galaxies of belief that seem at first blush incompatible” and that suppressing facts and data that go counter to one’s preferred claim, even if for noble reasons, puts ideological expressions ahead of the “truth.” This is the slippery slope that leads to division.

I want to thank you for wresting with “the truth” this summer, even when we didn’t get to a common definition in all cases. By doing so, we can get closer to a world where we all believe, as Malcolm X said, “I’m for truth, no matter who tells it. I’m for justice, no matter who it’s for or against.”

Finding sanctuary by meeting in the middle

But how does all of this fit into our pursuit of “sanctuary”? And, can it?

Trevor Noah, the host of “The Daily Show,” has had reason to reflect on what is possible and of the pitfalls when this dialogue is not present.

He wrote recently:

“In South Africa … I grew up under the harsh racial oppression of apartheid as a person of mixed ethnicity.

America, I’ve found, doesn’t like nuance. Either black people are criminals, or cops are racist — pick one. It’s us versus them. You’re with us, or you’re against us. This national mentality is fueled by the hysteria of a 24-hour news cycle, by the ideological silos of social media and by the structure of the country’s politics. The two-party system seems to actively encourage division where none needs to exist.

He continues:

To the extremists and true believers of any cause, there is an idea that moderation and compromise are simply a prelude to selling out and giving up, when in fact the opposite is true. … Nelson Mandela never wavered in his demand for “one man, one vote”; indeed, he endured 27 years in prison to make that notion a reality. But when our nation stood on the brink of civil war, Mr. Mandela spoke to white South Africans in a language that soothed their fears and reassured them that they would have a place in our new country. He spoke to militant black nationalists in a way that calmed their tempers but did not diminish their pride. If Mr. Mandela’s efforts had failed, South Africa’s peaceful transition to democracy would never have come to pass.

He concludes:

When you grow up in the middle, you see that life is more in the middle than it is on the sides. The majority of people are in the middle, the margin of victory is almost always in the middle, and very often the truth is there as well, waiting for us.”

As much as we may have come seeking “sanctuary,” I would challenge that this can never be our aim.

We started our season together questioning what might come next in the world.  I shared a story with you about the collision of the inauguration of Donald Trump and the Women’s March, events that were 30 hours and ideologically a universe apart.  The common denominator of all those gathered was the question of “now what?” That question — on the lips of the men and women who gathered for those events in Washington, D.C. on those January days — rings even stronger as we wrap up our time together. “Now what?”

The Trappist monk Thomas Merton is my “go-to guy” when I want to be challenged, and not just because he taught at my alma mater, St. Bonaventure University!

Merton puts his finger on our deepest need and may hold the answer to “now what?”  He said, “We need to protect and nurture the ‘root of inner wisdom’ that makes work and life itself fruitful. Fed by the taproot some call the soul, we need neither to flee from the world, nor exploit it. Instead, we can love the world with all of its (and our) flaws by trying to live in a way that models life’s finest possibilities.”

We need sanctuary to make this kind of love a reality, but it’s not because sanctuary is a place to hide.  Rather it is what’s necessary to renew ourselves so we might engage the world in life-giving ways.

The power of Chautauqua is not in in our convening.  The power of Chautauqua is in the returning to our home communities, ready to bring all we’ve learned and practiced to the world in “life-giving ways.”  You, my friends, are the solution to what ails a broken world.

So, did we find sanctuary this summer? Let’s return to our friend Mr. Palmer, who asks us to think differently about the very definition. He writes:

 “Sanctuary is wherever I find safe space to regain my bearings, reclaim my soul, heal my wounds, and return to the world as a wounded healer.”

My prayer for you, for all of us really, is that this 144th gathering of this Chautauqua Assembly has created a veritable force of “wounded healers,” ready to engage a world desperately in need of the best in human values … the best in each of you.

I tap the gavel three times …

Chautauqua 2017 has concluded.

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