Moral leadership comes from practice, empathy, love, says Franklin

The Rev. Robert M. Franklin, former vice president of religion and senior pastor of Chautauqua Institution, delivers his sermon Friday morning in the Amphitheater. Carrie Legg/Staff Photographer

Column by Mary Lee Talbot

“The Bible begins in a garden and concludes in a city, and I love when the two come together. I was raised near a garden in a robust city, the southside of Chicago,” said the Rev. Robert M. Franklin. “My family was part of the great migration, the extraordinary mobilization of people in the early part of the 20th century.”

Franklin preached at the 9:15 a.m. Friday morning service of worship in the Amphitheater. His sermon title was “A Grandmother and a Garden: Modeling Moral Leadership,” and the scripture reading was Philippians 4:4-9. 

Martha McCann, Franklin’s grandmother, and her sister bought houses side-by-side. Next door to McCann’s house was an empty lot where she put in a garden. Franklin described his Grandma Martha as a nurturing, wise person who shared hospitality and moral exhortations to her family and neighbors.

Five adults and four young boys lived in her house. 

“There was a sense of safety, love and protection in her house, even as we were aware of the dangers beyond our neighborhood in the Chicago style of Jim Crow,” Franklin said. Mamie Carthan Till, the mother of Emmett Till, was a friend of his grandmother.

Emmett Till’s ghost haunted the neighborhood. Franklin was born in 1954 and Till was murdered in 1955. 

“In the nights, the mothers and grandmothers worried, but my grandmother felt free in her garden. She probably never read English essayist Francis Bacon’s essay ‘Of Gardens,’ ” Franklin said, but she would have understood his motivation for writing it.

“God almighty first planted a garden: and indeed it is the purest of human pleasures,” Bacon wrote in 1902. “It is the greatest refreshment of the spirits of man; without which, buildings or palaces are but gross handy-works: and a man shall ever see, that when ages grow to civility or elegancy, men come to build stately, sooner than to garden finely, as if gardening were the greater perfection.”

Grandma Martha cared for her garden, but it was Franklin and one of his brothers who pulled the weeds, dug out rocks, scared birds away and helped bring in the harvest. 

Once the harvest was in, Grandma Martha spent hours preparing the food. As part of her church’s home missionary board, she put on a white nurse’s outfit and delivered food to the sick and shut-ins. Franklin got to carry boiling collard greens up three flights of tenement stairs. 

Two of Franklin’s uncles did not go to church and preferred “fermented fruit,” but they occasionally came by their mother’s house and sat with the church ladies who were there.

“They showed respect to the church ladies and the church ladies sat next to the winos,” Franklin said. “Everyone experienced something special at Grandma’s table. Everyone experienced the breadth, depth and essence of life, and everyone was nurtured with love.” 

One day, there was a confrontation between two gangs in front of his grandmother’s house; everyone expected violence.

“My grandmother ran from her kitchen and into the street. I was 9 or 10 at the time and the only thing I could think was ‘Grandma, you are going to ruin my reputation on the street,’ ” Franklin said.

She had her apron on and she spoke to the two groups. “I know you boys are angry and you want to fight, but then what? Your mother is going to receive a call saying you are shot or injured. I got one of those calls when my son was wounded in Italy. I have fed many of your families and watched you grow. I have supported your mothers,” she said.

Slowly the groups backed down.

“No one came out to stand with her,” Franklin said. “The gangs soon walked away to fight again, but not on that day or in that place because of her moral leadership. She had earned it. She had empathy, wisdom and integrity, and that day we saw she had courage.”

The Apostle Paul told the Philippians that they lived in a dangerous place, but he assured them not to worry because God had their backs. They could go into the world with the assurance that they could live lives of virtue. 

Paul wrote in Philippians 4:8: “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

Franklin said Verse 9 had even more meaning for him. Paul wrote: “As for the things that you have learned and received and heard and noticed in me, do them, and the God of peace will be with you.” The Philippians had seen, heard, received and learned how to act from Paul and he urged them to practice what they had experienced.

Paul had studied in the school of Gamaliel, who taught Jewish law but, Franklin said, “50% of the curriculum was Greek philosophy, especially Aristotle.”  

Aristotle taught that to be a moral leader, a person needed to have three things. First, a person needed moral knowledge, to know what was right and what was wrong. Second, a person needed moral will, to want to do what is right. Third, a person needed moral practice.

Franklin said, “Moral practice is to try, to fail, to try again, to fail again, to try again, to fail better. These actions lead to what Robert Bellah called ‘habits of the heart’ which becomes character. When we listen to the stories and practice the rituals, we receive a revelation of who we are.”

The four pillars of Chautauqua are tailored to the varieties of human learning and point to what we need to practice, practice, practice, when we leave here, Franklin told the congregation. 

“We are not perfect,” Franklin said. “Poet and playwright Oscar Wilde said, ‘The only difference between the saint and the sinner is that every saint has a past and every sinner a future.’ ”

Franklin said, “Everything we have learned about moral authority, we learned from our grandmothers and grandfathers.” 

He recognized the Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, who was seated in the congregation.

“Joan went from being a church volunteer, who brought Martin Luther King Jr. to Cleveland, to the head of the National Council of Churches,” he said. “But it was in 1993, when everyone was fighting over the fate of Elian Gonzales, she said, ‘Let the grandmothers work it out.’ ” 

Franklin then shared a litany of “Chautauqua Grandmothers,” women who have brought their wisdom and moral leadership to Chautauqua. They included: Sandra Day O’Conner and Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Marian Wright Edelman and Jane Becker, Joan Chittister and Helene Gayle, Sister Simone and Sherra Babcock, Edith Everett and Maya Angelou, Maureen Rovegno and Megan Rapino, Elaine Davis and Brenda Thompson, Cheryl Franklin and Sonya Sutton.

“Thanks be to God for the badass grandmothers who love God and work in the garden,” he said. “And as the teacher Hillel said, ‘The world is balanced between good and evil. Your next action will tip the scale.’ ”

The Rev. Luke Fodor, rector of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Jamestown, New York, and vicar of the Episcopal Chapel of the Good Shepherd in Chautauqua, presided. Gladys R. Goffney, mother-in-law of the Rev. Robert Franklin, read the scripture. The prelude was “In a Monastery Garden,” by Albert W. Ketélby, played by Joshua Stafford, director of sacred music and Jared Jacobsen Chair for the Organist, on the Massey Memorial Organ. The Motet Choir, under the direction of Stafford and accompanied by NIcholas Stigall, organ scholar, sang “Christ Hath a Garden,” by K. Lee Scott. The postlude, played by Stafford, was “Toccata,” from Symphony No. 5, by Charles-Marie Widor. Support for this week’s chaplaincy and preaching was provided by the Samuel M. and Mary E. Hazlett Memorial Fund. 


The author Mary Lee Talbot

Mary Lee Talbot writes the recap of the morning worship service. A life-long Chautauquan, she is a Presbyterian minister, author of Chautauqua’s Heart: 100 Years of Beauty and a history of the Chapel of the Good Shepherd. She edited The Streets Where We Live and Shalom Chautauqua. She lives in Chautauqua year-round with her Stabyhoun, Sammi.