Audiences this season will get a preview of things to come at Chautauqua Institution when the Rev. Robert M. Franklin Jr. presents the afternoon Interfaith Lecture on July 10 and the closing Sunday worship service on Aug. 25.
Franklin, president emeritus and distinguished professor of social ethics at Morehouse College in Atlanta, will be succeeding the Rev. Joan Brown Campbell as director of the Department of Religion at the end of the year.
For many longtime Chautauquans, Franklin will be a familiar face.
“Over the past decade, I have visited each summer and have had increasingly deeper exposure to the community as preacher, chaplain, morning lecturer and as theologian in residence in 2005,” Franklin said.
He is the first African-American in a top leadership position at Chautauqua, and follows the institution’s first woman director of religion.
“I am honored to succeed someone whom I regard as a mentor, adviser and dear friend,” Franklin said.
Chautauqua President Thomas Becker sees Franklin’s previous associations with the institution as a plus.
“Robert Franklin has had a long history at Chautauqua – preacher, scholar, lecturer, board member,” Becker said in an email interview. His family “has invested in their own Chautauqua experiences. That familiarity coupled with his capacious intellect, global involvement, expressive capacities, educational leadership and generous heart make this opportunity to lead Chautauqua’s Department of Religion truly exciting.”
Franklin said one of his goals is to continue to push the institution’s reach beyond the borders of its small lakeside community.
“I’m really excited about expanding the interfaith program,” he said. “I want to ensure it is user-friendly for a 21st century audience.”
One priority is to broaden its presence online and in social media, he said, “for people to stay in touch all year, to help sustain the sense of community.”
He also plans to reach out even further to international religious groups.
Chautauqua in recent years has dedicated a number of programs to examining the Abrahamic faiths (Jewish, Christian and Islam) and emphasizing their commonalities as much as their differences. It’s something Franklin said he wants to continue, but he hopes to also bring in more presentations from Eastern religions, such as Buddhism and Hinduism.
On the world stage, this is an important moment for people of faith, he said.
“Religion is regarded as a very powerful force, for ill or for social good,” Franklin said. “I see Chautauqua in a leadership role in harnessing it for good, as exemplified by the work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.”
He may get some added financial help along the way.
Barb Mackey, a retired college administrator from Ohio, has donated the seed money for an endowment, dedicated to her friend Campbell, to support the institution’s Abrahamic programs.
“I just think it’s what the world needs right now,” Mackey said, adding she calls Chautauqua “my spiritual home. It has helped me see the world much more broadly. … This is just the right thing to do.”
Becker, too, is looking forward to an interesting future as the retreat continues to expand from its 19th century Protestant roots.
What was radical in the founders’ time, that faith and science are intertwining pathways to truth, remains a dynamic reality in our time, he said. “We live in a time in which we are enabled to screen out ideas, ideologies and expressions we don’t agree with – even those who make us uncomfortable. Chautauqua offers an environment conducive to risk-taking: intellectually, spiritually, artistically. When truly engaged, we are challenged.
Franklin acknowledged those challenges, and noted that the programming packs a multitude of riches into nine summer weeks.
“It is the proverbial firehose,” he said, when asked about the average experience on the grounds. Of course, along with the various speakers, vacationers get daily servings of music, theater, popular entertainment and a host of classes, along with boating, tennis, golf, swimming, hiking and sitting on the porch.
But some of his most meaningful experiences there, Franklin said, have been the “after hours” private meals and discussions, including invitations from visitors who want to continue the conversation.
“People who are faithful and thoughtful and who want to be agents of good will – and who also may feel kind of lonely at home when trying to express this – they enjoy being able to share those ideas,” Franklin said.