COLUMN BY MICHAEL E. HILL
You’re here! You’re back!
As I write these words, I am peering out onto Bestor Plaza, and it brings me tremendous joy to see new and seasoned faces alike populating these sacred grounds. Whether you have been coming for decades or today is your first day, there is a ritual to this “returning” that is all the sweeter as we begin our 149th Summer Assembly season. In many ways, it feels as if we have been on a three-year journey to this season, with 2020 being an entirely online experience, 2021 serving as a “hybrid” approach, and this season with Chautauqua returning to all her splendor in our various buildings, programs and communities. Your presence here in Week One symbolizes all that and more.
And what a Week One we have in store for you. Chautauqua is known as a place of questions — important questions — that frame how we view our nation and our world and invite each of us to consider how we view even ourselves. In this first week of summer 2022, we come right out of the gate with a provocative question: What should be America’s role in the world? More than a year into President Joe Biden’s administration, we offer a “check-in” on the state of U.S. foreign policy and diplomacy while looking historically at America’s role in the world. Our guides are among the most thoughtful and celebrated minds on the topic. From our opening lecture with Fareed Zakaria, host of CNN’s “Fareed Zakaria GPS;” to Constanze Stelzenmüller, an expert on trans-Atlantic relations at the Brookings Institution; Kathryn Stoner, author of Russia Resurrected: Its Power and Purpose in a New Global Order; Kori Schake from the American Enterprise Institute; and concluding with George Packer, author of Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal, we explore a full range of political and cultural perspectives.
In our companion Interfaith Lecture Series, we examine “America’s Global Conscience.” Looking historically at America’s almost 250-year presence on the world’s stage, we invite spiritual leaders to guide us in a conversation on what America’s role in the world should be as a leader of conscience and integrity. Our pilots through this exploration of global consciousness include my dear friend Rabbi David Saperstein, former U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom; Mohamed Elsanousi from the Network for Religious and Traditional Peacemakers; the Very Rev. Dr. Michael Battle, director of the Desmond Tutu Center at General Theological Seminary in New York — a fortuitous replacement for a different Michael Battle, nominee for U.S. ambassador to Tanzania, who sadly had to decline to join us; Satpal Singh from the Religions for Peace, USA; and Georgette Bennett, founder and president of the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding. One personal note about Georgette: I completed my doctoral studies at Vanderbilt University this past spring, and the Tanenbaum Center played heavily in my dissertation research. On Friday, I feel like I’ll be going back to school; I hope you’ll be in the class with me.
I’m overjoyed to welcome my friend and colleague the Rt. Rev. Mariann Edgar Budde, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, to be our first chaplain of the week. Bishop Mariann’s official “seat” or “cathedra” is at Washington National Cathedral, a place where I was blessed to serve as a senior leader for many years before coming to Chautauqua. Her prophetic witness has been a clarion call for so many in our nation. Chautauquans will not want to miss her daily reflections, regardless of whether you are a person of Christian faith or no particular faith at all. Bishop Mariann is known as a uniter of people; she’s a perfect choice to open our first week.
There’s so much more happening this week from Dance Theatre of Harlem to Ben Folds; an evening with our own artistic adviser and artist-in-residence, Ukranian-born pianist Alexander Gavrylyuk, and the first downbeat of our Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Maestro Rossen Milanov. Add that to Chautauqua Opera Company & Conservatory, Chautauqua Theater Company, our stunning visual arts galleries and Joshua Bell and Larisa Martínez — not to mention classes, clubs and gatherings of friends — and we are back to a dizzying array of activity to delight, challenge and inspire us all. Proceeds from Sasha Gavrylyuk’s concert will benefit relief efforts in Ukraine.
I want to thank all my staff colleagues for working so hard to prepare this table for us all and for preparing our grounds and facilities to host these vital conversations. We’re curating this summer with far too few staff due to shortages felt across our country and Chautauqua County. One of the hallmarks of Chautauqua is its role as a community. I’d ask each of us to be kind to those trying to provide an outstanding service experience this summer and to bring patience as we access the rich array of resources here at Chautauqua. I saw a sign recently in an ice cream shop that read, “Remember that the person behind the counter is someone’s son or daughter, and for many, this is their first job. Be kind to them as you would want someone to be kind to a member of your family.” That’s good advice for all of us, regardless of the age of the person “behind the counter.” There’s so much rancor in the nation; let’s all work to make Chautauqua a place that leads with kindness and generous assumptions. When we do that, we not only make our own community a better place, but we also model what we hope to find in the society that we are all tasked with creating for the better.
Welcome to Week One of Chautauqua’s Summer Assembly. You are continuing the tradition celebrated 148 times before this summer. As it is every year, it will be an honor to tap the gavel Sunday three times to start our journey together. Perhaps we look at our Week One question slightly differently: What should be Chautauqua’s role in the world? We get to choose from the start. May our actions and our inquiry be one that leads to joy and discovery.
Welcome home, Chautauqua!