President Michael E. Hill Delivers Annual Closing ‘Three Taps’ Address
“If We Knew Then …”
“What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.”
— T.S. Eliot
From our Unitarian Universalist brothers and sisters:
“Spirit of life, we look within our own hearts, to the burning coal that is at the center of our being, the place where our hope for the world lives, the place where our faith in humanity resides and there we find the strength and courage to continue moving forward however muddy and rough the path may be.”
Until we meet again …
I begin tonight with the words I used to close the 146th Summer Assembly Season on the grounds of our beloved Chautauqua from this very stage one year ago. We could never have known the first time these words appeared together just how much the close of last summer’s assembly would mark a transition to a new way of life here. We also could not have anticipated that it would be the beginning of such an adventure as the one we have experienced this summer. We certainly could have had no clue how “muddy and rough the path” would be. If we knew then what we know now, how might we have thought about our time together in community and all that we had learned together and laughed over together and loved in together? And how might we have thought differently about the work that was ours to do in this country and in this world?
And yet tonight sets us up with another chance, a reset button of sorts. In keeping with our long-held tradition, this Sacred Song service will conclude our 147th Summer Assembly season, a most unique season in which many still gathered on these grounds for safety from a once-in-a-century global pandemic while others held the Chautauqua vigil while tuning into our new CHQ Assembly digital platform for hundreds of programs in the arts, education, recreation and religion.
And in keeping with another of our traditions, we cannot close out this assembly season without a moment to reflect on its many blessing, admonitions and challenges we’ve received over these past nine weeks of exploration:
- It seems like just yesterday when I was standing on this stage to open the 147th Assembly. I’ll never forget the technology system failure five minutes before we were to go live with the opening Three Taps of the Gavel. I watched our production team problem solve like they’d been working together for decades.
We were a little late getting started, but the rest went very well. And it was a sign of good things to come. They lived the anthem of “The show must go on!” This team proved time and time again that they could make things work even in the most difficult of circumstances. And they did so with a commitment to mission, motivated significantly by the kind notes and reflections by Chautauquans all summer telling us how impactful CHQ Assembly has been.
- Another unforgettable moment — or hour — was Bishop Gene’s conversation with Avett Brothers bassist Bob Crawford. Over the course of the interview, Bob spoke about his two-year-old daughter getting a brain tumor, the treatment for which left her without much of her brain and a drastically altered lifestyle, not only for her, but for the whole family. By the grace of God, she is now 11 years old. He talked about what he has learned from his daughter and caring for and living with her — and more especially how it has changed his view of God and his life with God, as well as his relationship with his other band members.
It was an unusual and intensely personal view into the life and faith of one of Chautauqua’s most popular entertainers. Thanks to CHQ Assembly, if you haven’t yet watched it, you can go back after this program ends and experience it.
The 2020 Summer Assembly will also be marked by:
- The ever-present message of the importance of empathy as our guiding light this summer, from artist Anna Deavere Smith, AI pioneer Rana El Kaliouby, advisor on education Sir Ken Robinson — whose recent passing we mourn and lift up this evening –, UN undersecretary general Fabrizio Hochschild and many others. From Darren Walker, who offered, “The thing that we need today is compassion, is love, is grace. This is what will get us through this moment. (But) only if each of us commits in our own lives, to live by those values, and to show love, compassion, and grace to others.”
- The stories of reckoning happening across institutions in the United States in confronting systemic racism after the murder of George Floyd, from law enforcement and public education to the news media and the film industry. We were guided by the likes of Cedric Alexander, Errin Haines, Franklin Leonard and so many others.
- A reminder that the road to progress is long, whether it be the fight for voting rights to the collective action required to address climate change.
- From Petina Gappah, author of the 2020 Chautauqua Prize-winning novel “Out of Darkness, Shining Light,” and CLSC author David Treuer, author of “The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee,” an insistence on how the stories we tell—and who tells those stories—can challenge the histories we’ve learned that have far too often been constructed by outsiders.
- Similarly, from Rhiannon Giddens, Cristina Pato and Mazz Swift, a reminder of the importance of art in lifting up and amplifying our culture’s hidden or invisible voices —and the responsibility of those with a platform to do so.
- Our Schools of Performing and Visual Arts, which went entirely online this summer, where we saw some of the most impactful teaching moments by famed singers Renée Fleming and Susan Graham to Native American artist Wendy Red Star to former American Ballet Theatre star Julie Kent and the namesake founder of Alonzo King LINES Ballet, to our own amazing faculty, teaching students across the globe. We learned so much about courage and determination and grit, and about using our bodies as instruments to express the ideas of our hearts and minds.
- Support for young Chautauquans’ emotional and physical wellbeing made possible through carefully designed online youth programs during the most disruptive year of their — and our — lives.
- A much deeper understanding of the unequal and far-reaching impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the tremendous privilege that so many at Chautauqua have, which leads naturally to a resulting fierce desire from Chautauquans and thought leaders to “get to work in our communities.”
We opened and closed our season with weeks dedicated not simply to talking ABOUT the world’s most pressing problems, but looking at the specific actions we can take as individuals and communities.
And these are but a very few of the incredible moments on CHQ Assembly and from our 147th assembly. I hope if you missed any part of this amazing summer that you’ll go back to the Assembly platforms and take it in!
At the close of our last Assembly, I noted that Chautauqua both concludes and commences, so it begs the question, if we again “commence” from this evening:
- Where do we go from here?
- What forecasts might we make for our 148th Assembly in a world that is at best discontinuous?
- And what role do we have as Chautauquans — either those that count themselves in generations or the thousands who experienced Chautauqua for the first time on the Assembly platforms this summer?
The late Rev. Peter Gomes served as Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in The Memorial Church at Harvard University for decades before he passed in 2011. Rev. Gomes has been one of my spiritual guides this summer. I’ve tried to digest one of his sermons every morning as part of my own prayer life, and for those who know Gomes, you know this can amount to a spiritual punch in the face compacted into a 15-minute read.
One of the questions I have been trying to answer for myself, and in some ways for Chautauqua, is “how should we be thinking about Earth’s next revolution around the sun when so many pieces of information are missing?” Gomes, like most spiritual guides, has not given me a direct answer, but most of what he preached about and put into words leads me to one guiding word: “hope.”
“I know that for many ‘hope’ can seem like a wimpy word,” Gomes offered in his own assessment. Some of you who are listening now or may read my words later may even be rolling your eyes, noting that Chautauqua’s president often takes a liking to lofty words, to big ideas. I have been, perhaps rightly, criticized in the past for taking too large a leap without what others want to see as incremental steps toward a grander vision of what we aspire to be in the world. But the specific choice of the word “hope” is not an easy one and is also not without work. It doesn’t skip the hard work to get to “the good stuff.”
Gomes shared with an audience at Trinity Wall Street in 2007 a sermon titled “God’s Unfinished Future,” in which he reminds us of the words of St. Paul, who describes in Romans 5 “that suffering produces endurance and endurance produces character and character produces hope.”
We close this summer assembly with a world deep in suffering. We have been locked away, figuratively and literally, from one another, forced into digital spaces or quarantined bubbles, and by any measure, this has stretched and strengthened our characters, and I would join Gomes in arguing, has produced a reservoir of hope for a better future.
So what do we do with this reservoir of hope?
And what can we do when we all still feel locked up, locked down and locked out?
If hope is the central ingredient to be able to do anything, then the achievement of authentic experiences of empathy may well be the secret ingredient we need to heal a broken world. A focus on building our capacity for empathy may be the most important thing for all of us to do to make a difference, regardless of the timing of a COVID-19 vaccine and, in particular, as we approach and manage the results of the forthcoming general election. Unfortunately, empathy is the very thing that seems to be in short supply these days.
As many of our patrons know, Chautauqua Institution has existed for nearly 150 years, framed in the wake of the industrial revolution and amid the women’s suffrage era, and founded as an education center for adults, children and families to make purposeful use of leisure time. Our founders — Lewis Miller, a businessman from Akron, Ohio, and John Heyl Vincent, a Methodist clergyman and eventual bishop — had a vision to prioritize continuing and enrichment education for everyone. This vision guided the ambitious mission of Chautauqua, and influenced the formation of like-minded organizations across the United States and into Canada.
But at the center of our founders’ educational intent was to establish an idyllic bastion for peaceful exchange of civil dialogue, a place to deeply understand the perspective of others – a place and a movement that championed empathy.
Studies in recent years have concluded there is an empathy deficit in modern culture. Paired with a divisive political climate, there can be a reluctance to ask another to take you on their journey — a prerequisite for empathy, according to Interfaith Lecture Series speaker Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin. In his lecture this summer, Rabbi Salkin asked, “When was the last time you engaged in conversation with someone with whom you violently disagree?”.
In the initial days of Chautauqua Institution with Miller and Vincent, those exchanges were many, exacted as a mutual exchange of viewpoints to both state a position and, ideally, find common ground. Today, these visionary founders would see that Chautauqua remains in this mold as a place where inquisitive people of all educational backgrounds, interests, and economic and demographic descriptions can explore — and get to know more about the worlds each inhabits.
Miller and Vincent would be amazed that “The Chautauqua Sunday School Assembly” has evolved into a thriving non-profit organization that is sustained significantly by gifts from those who believe in the importance of the Institution’s crucial role in facilitating a deeper understanding of issues affecting modern society. They would be delighted that the educational program they established in 1878 —the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle—continues to this day to engage people across the globe in reading important works and committing themselves to lifelong learning.
This goes hand-in-hand with expansion of the arts, whether in the physical plant and facilities, and in the scope, breadth and diversity of mainstage programs, speakers, preachers and performers. All coincide with the Institution’s initial priorities, and all complement its ongoing aims of affecting the overall state of the world by illuminating the beauty in different thoughts, beliefs and perspectives, that central ingredient of empathy.
But more than any element, they would be astounded to find out that, through technological expansion initiated by the constraints of a worldwide pandemic, Chautauqua Institution’s programs are reaching a more extensive and diverse audience than ever before.
In many cases, technology can shelter us from finding vital understanding of polarizing issues — but it doesn’t have to. Our educational programs — whether online or in-person — continue to be devised to inform and connect different viewpoints. Miller and Vincent understood the importance of human, face-to-face connections, but could obviously not foresee the oversized role technology would come to play in modern society — and the learning possibilities it could unleash. Today’s Chautauqua is using this potential for good, enabling inquiry and discussion across an accessible forum, and allowing different viewpoints to intermingle for more expansive insight.
Would our founders agree? We think they would. It’s certainly evolved, but with its mission still rooted in a genuine exploration of the best in human values and the enrichment of life across four programmatic pillars — education, the arts, religion and recreation — we feel certain the Chautauqua of today would please Miller and Vincent.
The place continues to build upon the fashion our founders imagined in 1874, and all against a societal backdrop that’s as tumultuous as any in memory. With natural beauty as a centerpiece attribute of the scenic lakeside grounds, Chautauqua has both advanced and, in many ways, stayed frozen in time. We celebrate the fact that some of the picturesque homes on the grounds remain built upon the original tent platforms that held the meager and temporary accommodations of Chautauqua’s first families and visitors. Miller and Vincent would see Chautauqua in 2020 as a much-needed salve for the state of our nation’s discontent — in much the same way it brought everyday people together with purpose in post-Civil War America.
On the cusp of our sesquicentennial, Chautauqua remains timeless and forward-thinking in a time of tremendous uncertainty — and just as relevant today as it’s ever been. People need a forum where they can inhabit and understand the challenges of our time and of the other, and to find a way forward. That’s Chautauqua, and it stands as a hopeful beacon for those eager to comprehend the meaning of the moment from all sides, and how we can work together toward a lasting solution.
These past several years we have all experienced seismic cultural forces rocking our world and calling us to be better. Occupy Wall Street, 1 percent for 1 percent, the Black Lives Matter Movement, economic uncertainty and a global pandemic. The great struggle about how to “Make America Great Again,” and whether it ever lost its greatness to begin with – the philosophical battle about putting America first, and the costs and perceived losses on all sides of the political debate about what that means, what is to be gained and what might be lost.
What will Chautauqua do with all we’ve been given, to contribute to these and so many other challenges? Will we endeavor to motivate the privileged or give a voice to the voiceless? Can we do both? Will we find a way to take the knowledge of this summer to inform our own reservoir of empathy? And, if we do, what might we do with this vital resource that seems to be among the most scare in the world today?
Samantha Power, who concluded our lecture series this summer just a couple of days ago, wrote in her book “The Education of An Idealist,” “People who care, act, and refuse to give up may not change the world, but they can change many individual worlds.”
Or as Bishop Gene reminded us this morning in his reflections on the story of Esther, “Perhaps we were brought to the kingdom for just such a time as this.”
We now have to choose. Will we marshal all the gifts we have been given: hope and empathy, knowledge and insight, courage and compassion, to do more and be more in this world that needs each and every ounce of these scarce resources we can muster?
I have confidence Chautauqua and Chautauquans will rise to the challenge.
I tap the gavel three times.
Chautauqua’s 147th Assembly may conclude but our work has just begun.
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