In the end, she is going to talk about faith, hope and healing. That is the theme for Week Nine, the final week of the upcoming summer season at Chautauqua Institution, which opens June 22.
For Joan Brown Campbell, it will be a bittersweet time.
Campbell is 81 now, and as her granddaughter reminded her a few years ago, she has “more years behind her than ahead of her.” She has spent the last 14 of those years at Chautauqua, the summer retreat about an hour’s drive southwest of Buffalo, where she led the Department of Religion into a post-9/11 world. At the end of this season, she will move on – although those close to her know better than to call it “retiring.”
“This has been the most pastoral experience of my life,” Campbell said as she reflected on her time there.
And, she told Chautauqua President Tom Becker, “This has been my most rewarding job.”
Becker, in turn, praised Campbell’s commitment to the Chautauqua community.
“Joan has brought a joyful energy of mind and spirit to this work,” Becker said in an email interview. “She has an inclusive sense of faith, a constant sense of curiosity about our world, and an energy of spirit that draws in enthusiasts and skeptics alike.”
She also brought quite a resume to the job. Born in Youngstown, Ohio, and later a resident of Cleveland, her activism on behalf of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s eventually cost her marriage. (“For a husband who wanted to be a partner in a law firm, having his wife work with Dr. King was not helpful,” she said. “In the early days with Dr. King, there were parties you were not invited to.”)
But for her, it was life-changing.
“It gave me purpose. I was never born to be a stay-at-home housewife,” she said. “I value people who do that – highly – but it was not for me.”
Instead, Campbell took on a higher profile and became a witness to – and participant in – several key moments in modern history. She is able to name-drop with the best of her generation about friends, foes and colleagues, having worked, on one side of the table or the other, with President Bill Clinton, Nelson Mandela, Carl Sagan, Fidel Castro, Jesse Jackson, Al Gore, Madeleine Albright, Slobodan Milosevic and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, among many others.
“Joan’s career reminds me of a Buddhist meditation known as ‘The Immeasurables,’ in which you extend your sympathies to the four corners of the earth, not omitting a single creature from this radius of concern,” wrote her friend Karen Armstrong, author of “Islam” and “The Case for God,” in a forward to Campbell’s book, “Living Into Hope.”
Noting that Campbell does not back down when faced with injustice, Armstrong also noted, “For Joan, faith has meant engagement with the world and its pain. Her spirituality has been formed not by silent meditation, but in action.”
Woman of the world
And looking at her record, there appears to be no place in the world Campbell will not go and no one in the world she would not talk to for a chance to advance her case for loving one’s neighbor.
“My travel agent said to me, ‘Why don’t you go to somewhere like Paris, and have some fun?’” Campbell said recently, and laughed. “Instead of, oh, Africa, Russia, Cuba.”
She has, in fact, been to Paris and loved it, and not long ago went to London with a Cleveland theater group and saw 12 plays while there. It is just that those other places, those problematic places, are where things are really happening for her.
The globe-trotting came later in her life, after her three children were grown and she took on the posts of general secretary of the National Council of the Churches of Christ and executive director of the World Council of Churches. By then, her 25-year marriage had ended and she had become an ordained minister – at age 50 – with the Disciples of Christ.
Those were high-profile positions with high-pressure issues, coordinating the affairs of 37 denominations, on the one hand, and trying to get clergy of all faiths and nationalities together on the other.
The biggest issue she faced, she said, was of equality for all races and genders.
“The question was, how do you get people to embrace change, or at least accept and understand it?” she said.
Oddly enough, that all was good training for Chautauqua Institution, a deceptively quaint recreational and intellectual retreat in rural Western New York that began as a Sunday school camp and has evolved into an exercise platform for new ideas of all kinds. Each year, it hosts for vacationers’ listening pleasure dozens of speakers – political, theological, academic, literary, journalistic and more, with most of them considered experts in their respective fields.
The Religion Department is responsible for filling the afternoon Interfaith Lecture series, in which the talks are much more seminars than sermons.
The themes for this year’s calendar are dynamic and forward-looking – and could be read as the headings for much of Campbell’s personal spiritual adventure.
For instance, Week One, “Journey of the Universe,” explores the world and creation views of many faiths, including Native American, Eastern and Abrahamic (Jewish, Christian and Muslim). Campbell was a close friend of Sagan, the popular astronomer who helped explain the heavens through his television shows and books. They disagreed on the possibility of God, she said, but she always insisted on it being a “fair fight.
“I used to say to Carl ‘You can’t compare good science to bad religion,’ ” she remarked. And in her book, she quotes a letter from Sagan, inspired by a call to people of faith and science for environmental action:
“As scientists, many of us have had profound experiences of awe and reverence before the universe,” he wrote. “We understand that what is regarded as sacred is more likely to be treated with care and respect. Our planetary home should be so regarded.”
She counted that as progress, if not a “win.”
“Religion and Spirituality” is the theme of Week Two and speaks to the future of faith.
The 21st century has seen a rise in public proclamations of atheism, so much so that lists of hundreds of “celebrity atheists” and agnostics can be found easily online, and Campbell believes churches themselves share some of the blame.
“We’re in a time when the word ‘religion’ has a very bad name – and religion has gotten itself into it. People are quick to pick out the negatives,” she said. “There’s a statement that’s popular now – ‘I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual.’ Even though people don’t always seem to know what they mean by that.”
For faith to be meaningful to society, she said, “You have to engage the world. Good religion touches on people everywhere – people you can’t see and don’t know.”
Organized religion is undergoing an important change, Campbell said, one that is reflected in something as simple as a baptism.
“You have parents and grandparents and godparents and others – you could easily have five denominations up there,” she said. “Our congregations now are ecumenical. I would claim for Chautauqua (with its large, inclusive Sunday services) an image of what the future church might look like.
“You can’t look at the service as some kind of a bland melding, but as a combination that has real ecumenical power.”
Further along in the season themes include “The Pursuit of Happiness,” with speakers in the morning and afternoon addressing this uniquely American and universally sought-after right; “Restorative Justice,” something Campbell has advocated for in such places as South Africa and elsewhere; “Religion, Culture and Diplomacy,” which brings to mind her role as mediator when Elián González, a boy found adrift in the Caribbean in 1999 and brought to Florida was returned to his father in Cuba; and, in the final week, “Faith, Hope and Healing,” when Campbell will lead morning worship each day.
“I’m going to focus on healing,” she said. “So much of the ministry of Jesus had to do with healing.”
And after that?
Campbell hopes this summer to finish compiling a collection of prayers written at Chautauqua, and is considering a request to help out on a project with Tutu.
So far, she says, she has been blessed with good health, and may use that as a starting point for another project.
“If I were to write another book, it would be on aging well,” she said.
“You don’t want to have to spend the years ahead cleaning up the mess from the years behind. Instead, look back at a life well-lived. We have all paid our dues, no one has led a perfect life, but this is a wonderful time of relaxation and reflection.”
With a smile, she added, “There are so many things I don’t worry about anymore.”
Chautauqua season / The Chautauqua Institution 2013 season opens June 22 and runs through Aug. 25.
• Week One includes performances by Straight No Chaser on June 22; Sonic Escape on June 24; Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers, featuring Edie Brickell on June 28, and pianist Andrew von Oeyen with the Chautauqua Symphony on June 29.
• “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” by the Chautauqua Theater Company, also opens June 29.
• The Rev. Thomas Tewell, director of faith-based programs for the Cousins Family Foundation, will be guest pastor for Week One.
• Admission to the grounds during the season is $33 from morning to 8 p.m.; $20 for mornings only; $13 for afternoons; free on Sundays. Evening shows and theatricals are extra. Go to www.ciweb.org for a complete season calendar and information on tickets, accommodations, children’s programs and classes for all ages. Chautauqua Institution is located on Chautauqua Lake, about an 80-minute drive south of Buffalo via the Thruway and Route 394 (Westfield exit).