One of the things my wife and I did this summer was to spend a week visiting Chautauqua. In the far western corner of NY State, Chautauqua was formed a century and a quarter ago as a summer school for Protestant Sunday school teachers. By early in the 20th century, Chautauqua had added a full cultural program including a symphony orchestra, opera, theatre, dance, music school, and sports programs, coupled with a day camp for children, and it broadened its welcome. As a friend of mine once said “Chautauqua is heaven.”
After World War II, New York City school teachers, mostly Jews, discovered Chautauqua. My dad, a school teacher, started taking us there in 1955. We were welcomed and spent many happy summers there; dad spent his summers at Chautauqua until at 93 he no longer could get around.
In my first summers there I often stopped by the open amphitheatre on Sunday evenings when they held the Sacred Song Service. It was not my service, of course, but it was rooted in values I shared, and I’d listen for a while, or join my friends.
A few years ago, a college classmate invited my wife and I to visit them in Chautauqua. The night we got there they had several people over to dinner and introduced us to Rev. Dr. Joan Brown Campbell, Director of the Department of Religion at Chautauqua. Dr. Campbell was leading Chautauqua in what they call the Abrahamic Initiative. Some of the countries’ great religious teachers came to Chautauqua that summer to describe the common patrimony and values of three of the world’s great religions, to help us understand the shared values of these great religions.
This summer we arrived in Chautauqua on a Sunday and in the evening I stopped by the Sacred Song Service. The amphitheatre seats about 5,000. I don’t know how many were there that evening but there were people in large numbers throughout the amphitheatre. This time I heard this audience reciting passages of the Bible, from the Old and New Testaments, and most wonderfully for this largely and historically Christian audience, from the Koran.
I had always known Chautauqua as a kind, tolerant and loving community. But the willingness of this American and largely Christian audience to be lead and inspired by passages from the Koran struck me deeply. How far had they come.
People come to Chautauqua from all parts of the country as they have been coming for generations. There are all kinds of religious views to be found there. The broadening of its vision reflects the best traditions of our country. I found myself very moved. Though the text is not “my” text, the embrace is ours, the welcome, the understanding that all the world’s great religions share the great message of love.
I found myself thinking about that message as I watched, in tears, the funeral of Senator Edward Kennedy. For it was clear that Teddy Kennedy’s vision for America, and for the world, included all of us. We have all been blessed by his life.