Interfaith Lecture Recaps

Judy Shepard and James Fallows Discuss Matthew Shepard’s Legacy and LGBTQ Visibility

James Fallows (left) in conversation with the founding president of Matthew Shepard Foundation, Judy Shepard, about the legacy of her son, Matthew Shepard, as part of the Interfaith Lecture Series. Tuesday, July 2, 2019, in the Hall of Philosophy. VISHAKHA GUPTA/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

On Tuesday in the Hall of Philosophy, Judy Shepard joined James Fallows to discuss the life of Shepard’s late son, Matthew Shepard, and the importance of embracing the LGBTQ community.

Shepard, advocate for LGBTQ rights and co-founder (with her husband, Dennis) of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, suffered the loss of her son, Matthew, in October 1998, when he was robbed, beaten and tied to a fence in a hate crime commited by two anti-gay men. In her New York Times bestseller, The Meaning of Matthew, Shepard addresses Matthew’s youth, his tragic murder and his legacy.

Fallows, national correspondent for The Atlantic and co-founder of the publication’s American Futures project, facilitated the conversation as part of Week Two’s Interfaith Lecture Series, “Common Good Change Agents.” 

What follows is an abridged version of the conversation between Fallows and Shepard. Their remarks have been condensed for clarity.

Fallows: Tell us what you think would be surprising to people who have only heard of (Matthew Shepard) as a public figure, about his life as a little boy.

Shepard: Well, I don’t know if there would be anything surprising. He was like any child you’ve seen or know. He was deeply involved in politics at the age of 7. He participated in his first campaign hanging those really annoying pamphlets on people’s doorknobs. He knew all about the candidates, who you should vote for and why. He knew who should win and who was going to win. He was pretty much right all of the time. He was acutely aware of how important elections are, for a 7-year-old. I was an election judge in our town in Wyoming, so maybe that’s where he figured that out. I don’t know. However, politics were his obsession in his short life.

He also loved the theater. He joined our local community theater at the age of 10. I think they were a little weary of having a 10-year-old be a part of their company, but everybody loved him. He took it very, very seriously and was the lead in many plays. He did a lot of college productions. He thought he could sing and dance, but he couldn’t. But, he was very good at interpreting drama and comedy.

He was empathetic. My mother told me, when he was 4, he was the most empathetic person she had ever met. He just knew by being around you if you were having a good day or a bad day. He would ask you about it, and he would listen. And he didn’t feel ever, at any age, that he needed to give advice. So, throughout his life, he was always selected by the student body to be a peer counselor — elementary, junior high and high school. Students really trusted him and looked up to him.

Fallows: Could you describe the process of his coming out, and how, now looking back on it, you think about it?

Shepard: So, I began to wonder if Matt was gay when he was 8. I had many gay friends in college and this wasn’t a new world to me. I never brought it up to him, though, because if I did, I knew he would retreat. So, I waited until he was ready to come out to himself and then when he was ready to come out to anybody else. When he was 18, a freshman in college in North Carolina, we were in Saudi Arabia because Dennis had work there, and Matt called me in the middle of the night and said, “Mom, there’s something I need to tell you.” It was about five in the morning, and he said, “I’m gay.”

There was never a question for me that, if this was him, I understood my role, that I should be educated and ready to help. I agreed to Matt that I would not tell Dennis that he was gay, but I told him anyway. And the reason I did was that Dennis is a lovely individual who sometimes says things without really thinking about them, and I didn’t want him to say something that would hurt Matt — not out of rejection but out of ignorance —  that he wouldn’t have been able to take back in such an important moment. So, I told Dennis and he said, “No, Matt just hasn’t found the right girl yet.” That’s when I said, “No, this is about Matt finding the right man.” He knew it would take him a moment to adjust because, as parents, you map out your children’s future without really knowing it because you expect it to be like yours … and now you’re in a fork in the road. You have no idea what that other road is going to look like, and we had to rely on Matt to be that guide. We were so intent on making him feel welcome and not at all like there was a question of rejection.

Fallows: From your experience, when parents who think one of their children may be gay come to you, what do you tell them?

Shepard: There’s really no blueprint because every family has their own cultural background, religion, environment. I have had kids come to me and say they leave gay publications all over the house, but their mom just keeps putting them back in their room, and they really want their mom to ask them a question. If I had done that with Matt, he would’ve just ran. They’re waiting for mom or dad to start the conversation so you really have to know the individual, child, friend or loved one. You just have to know what works best for them. And, we usually know if someone is gay, we’re just reluctant to bring it forward because we don’t know what to do when we bring it forward. The most important thing to do is make sure they know that you are accepting of them no matter what — you may not understand, but you love them no matter what.

Fallows: For teenagers now, is there a sense that the weight, pressure and trauma both on parent and child is any less than when Matt was a boy?

Shepard: It is absolutely less because it is part of public discourse now. We see the gay community pictured in positive ways in theater, in literature and on television. “Will & Grace” — I wouldn’t exactly call that ordinary, but they’re there and they are in your home. You’re inviting them into your home. So many people of influence are coming out now. The pressure is less, but that also depends on where you live and, again, your cultural environment, religious environment. So many schools now have gay-straight alliances, but some schools don’t have that. Teachers can still get fired for being gay, but the pressure, as a whole, is much less now than it was.

Fallows: Matt’s killing happened in Laramie, Wyoming. Tell us the proper way to think about Wyoming, about Laramie, as the scene of this horrific tragedy.

Shepard: Wyoming is the eighth largest in the union but the least populated with just over 500,000 people. We are 96% white, and the opportunity to see anything but straight, white, Christian, or to express something different than that is difficult. If you go to Laramie, you’ll get three answers (about Matthew Shepard’s murder). They’ll either want to talk to you about it and tell you that the town has changed; they will not want to talk about it at all; or, lastly, you’ll get the person who believes that the story is a lie and say that the rumor ruined the town’s reputation. But that’s their fault. We are one of five remaining states without hate crime laws. With this shady reputation, it is underserved because most people in Wyoming are loving and kind, but they don’t know that they know gay people. What they do know — or think they know — is the mythology, which is a lie. And it’s hard to break through that. The only way for people to do that is to come out and tell their story. … That’s when change happens, when folks have the courage to come out and tell their stories, knowing what the consequences might be, and most of the time, they end up finding acceptance, love and are embraced. That’s the only time things get better.

Fallows: Has the fact that Wyoming was the scene of this horror made them more willing or less willing to face these issues?

Shepard: I feel like they are very defensive. I think it makes them angrier, and they blame Matt for the situation. We go out of our way to talk about how great Wyoming is … but it’s very challenging if you are not a straight, white, Christian man. The wage gap for women is the largest in Wyoming than in any of the other states, but it’s a beautiful state. But, they have their back up and say that isn’t what they’re like. Then make it better. Don’t just fight it, make it better.

Fallows: Tell us how  Wyoming responded to this crime institutionally.

Shepard: We were, in retrospect, extremely fortunate. There were so many moving parts to finding Matt and finding the killers, and it happened in a small amount of time. I was included in much of the trial preparation, the investigation, and they told me as much as they could. They didn’t want me to be surprised. They were just so kind and very intent on making Dennis and I feel like we were a part of their family. They actually had to furlough many employees because it was not in their budget to work with us. And some of them underwent transformations from being your typical, homophobic Wyoming cowboys to strict, strong advocates for the gay community. The prosecutor couldn’t have been more kind and understanding. We felt like the people called on to do the right thing, did the right thing. Since then, we have found out some were not in favor of us, but at the time, they took very good care of us. They were professional and extremely careful in their words.

Fallows: Tell us how your thoughts on the death penalty have evolved over the last 20 years.

Shepard: James Byrd Jr. was murdered in June 1998. We spent time with Matt that summer, and we talked about how these white supremicists did something so deplorable. They tricked him into believing they were all friends and then dragged him to his death by a truck. In Texas, where the trials took place, they carry out the death penalty. We had a conversation that, sometimes, when there is no question of guilt, in certain human beings, this is what they are inviting. We felt that about the three men involved in the murder of James Byrd.

The first person in (Matthew’s) trial changed his plea from not guilty to guilty; he had a hearing, and the judge sentenced him to two consecutive life sentences. When the second individual came to trial — he had an actual trial — he was found guilty and made eligible for the death penalty by Wyoming statute, and it was up to the jury to make this recommendation. We had a conversation with the prosecuting attorney about how we felt about the death penalty because in the statutes this is what is required.

When the verdict came back guilty and the second young man was made eligible for the death penalty … Dennis and I said we will accept the same sentencing as the other young man with no appeal. I was pretty much, in the beginning, the only one who wanted to do that, and I wanted to do it because I wanted it to be over. I knew that if we went ahead with the death penalty sentencing there would be endless appeals — mandatory appeals — and we would be running into him all the time. … I just wanted it to be over. We talked about it. I won, reluctantly, and the rest of them agreed because, while they felt that this one young man totally deserved what would happen to him, we all understood this is what had to happen. Taking another life wasn’t going to solve anything.

Any notion that this was about mercy is misplaced because (the second man on trial) was 21. I mean, he’s going to spend the next 40 to 50 years in prison. In prison. They’re just gone, they’re just gone. Which is fine with us. This is not the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s of Nazi Germany. My son died because of your ignorance and intolerance. I can’t bring him back, but I can do my best to see that this never ever happens to another person or another family again.

Fallows: Tell us how you and Dennis are doing that through your foundation.

Shepard: Well, we started the foundation six weeks after Matt passed, on his birthday, Dec. 1, 1998. We had received so much correspondence while Matt was in the hospital and afterwards of people sending us money. … We wanted to make the money make a difference. So, we started this nonprofit, the Matthew Shepard Foundation. We had no idea what we were going to do with it because we only thought we’d be in existence a couple of years. People have a tendency to move from one tragedy to another. So we created this foundation. It’s morphed into many things over the last 20 years based on what my very small staff thinks we need.

Because of the current political climate … we have started conducting hate crime conferences trying to explain the federal hate crime law named after Matt and James Byrd Jr, what it does and doesn’t do and how important it is for victims of hate crimes to report it so that people who can do something about it know where it’s happening and why. We find there’s a deep-seated mistrust of law enforcement nationwide in that regard. We read about it in social media and in the press all the time, but that’s because that’s what makes the press. There are great cops, and they want to do the right thing, but they need help. They need the community’s help.

Fallows: What is the landscape of organized religion when it comes to the causes of your foundation?

Shepard: In the 20 years since we’ve been doing this, we’ve seen such a magnificent change. However, we do not work with interfaith agencies directly. Many of our conferences include interfaith because we feel it’s important; we feel all of these pillars are important in the work that we do to educate on a broad scale. So, we try to include them in everything we do, but we don’t work with them directly.

Fallows: I work for The Atlantic magazine. We had an article last week by a gay male writer in his mid-30s who was looking back on Stonewall and essentially saying, “Boy, for people of my generation, there’s no problem anymore. You know the discrimination is all melted away.”

Shepard: Oh, you’re just so wrong. What bubble do you live in? All you have to do is go to middle America and you will find that is not what it is like. Come to Wyoming. It is not all OK. Go to Western California. It is not OK. There is so much left to do, and so much of that relies on changing hearts and minds — people coming out and telling their stories so everybody knows who they are and where they are. That is just critical. … In this country, the work is definitely not over.

James Fallows Highlights ‘Common Good’ Work in Cities Across Country

James Fallows, co-author of, ”Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America,” speaks about the revitalization and equality efforts happening in traditionally discriminatory or impoverished cities such as Pensacola, Florida and Houston, Texas during the 2 p.m. lecture in The Hall of Philosophy. ALEXANDER WADLEY/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

On Monday in the Hall of Philosophy, James Fallows, a national correspondent for The Atlantic and co-founder of the publication’s American Futures project, shared his experiences from traveling around the country in the past year and witnessing the accomplishments of small communities overlooked by national media.

Before beginning his lecture, Fallows previewed the interfaith lectures for the week. Judy Shepard, whose son was murdered out of anti-gay hate in 1998, spoke with Fallows Tuesday in the Hall of Philosophy. The remaining interfaith lectures this week include a presentation with high school teacher Chuck Yarborough, and two students from the Mississippi School of Mathematics and Sciences in Columbus, Mississippi, on Wednesday; and with Emily and Stuart Siegel on Thursday.

“The (MSMS) is a phenomenal place,” Fallows said. “It is a public, residential high school in Mississippi for students who are from all around the state and gather there. While their stated specialty is math and science … (they use) the arts and humanities to deal with what is Mississippi’s legacy and America’s legacy — slavery and its aftermath.”

Fallows will join the Siegels and their son, who work in Ajo, Arizona, a town being revitalized “in an act of will, creativity, artistic imagination and generosity” by the Siegels and other residents there.

In his lecture, “Is Common Good a Lost Cause? Sources of Strain, and Re-Connection, in Modern America,” which began Week Two of Chautauqua’s Interfaith Lecture Series,  “Common Good Change Agents,” Fallows discussed some of the positive changes communities have made and how this type of action needs to percolate up to more influential levels.

The two main messages we were trying to convey when we spoke here last year was, number one, the sharp contrast between how the United States of this moment looks at the national level, where most people — regardless of their political affiliation — are concerned, unhappy or downcast about the state of the nation as a whole, and the way it looks city by city,” Fallows said.

After speaking at Chautauqua last year, Fallows and his wife, Deborah,  spent the next 11 months on the road visiting small towns and cities, partly because they are making a film with HBO, based on their book, Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey Into the Heart of America. The Fallows also traveled across the country to learn and to find patterns that “augment what we’ve seen before,” Fallows said.

Fallows then went through a list of 10 cities that he and his wife not only visited, but learned from and were positively impacted by.

The first city was Charlotte, North Carolina, where citizens prided themselves on the city’s thriving industry. One academic study, Fallows said, compared Charlotte to some 100 cities across the United States for “trust across racial lines … and other indications of wholesome civic fabric.”

Of all the cities on the list, Charlotte came in last, which was shocking to people there,” Fallows said. “The reaction locally was not denialism, defensiveness, challenging the report … but rather saying, ‘This is something we need to take seriously.’ ”

Now, there are a group of foundations, lecture series and libraries that engage more citizens and allow Charlotte to be more inclusive, he said.

The next place was Danville, Virginia, which is known for being the last capital of the Confederacy, and was also known as a mill town. If one didn’t work in the mills, the only other option was to work in tobacco warehouses. With that said, Danville suffered a major economic blow when the mills and tobacco industry left town.

So, Danville sat with no industrialization, a ruined economic foundation and a history of racism and slavery. Despite what sounds like dark times, citizens of Danville have found opportunities to worktogether and across racial lines toward a better future for the town, Fallows said.

“They received a settlement from the tobacco case. … Danville used its money to build the equivalent of a research university, a sort of high-tech center to create new economic opportunities,” Fallows said. “What has been impressive in Danville has been the effort across the lines of the traditional racial divide to make a new future. The downtown historical buildings have been reconverted to lofts, restaurants and markets that draw people back in.”

Third, Fallows discussed Muncie, Indiana, the home of the Ball brothers’ glass canning empire, Ball Corporation, and home to a troubled public school system. As of three years ago, Indiana had to put two public school systems in state receivership — one in Gary, and the other in Muncie, where draining of students from school systems had become a challenge.

Muncie’s step toward “public good” was through Ball State University. For the first time in known American history, this major public university took over responsibility for the City of Muncie public schools.

The president of Ball State has made this part of his mission to be community involved and to recognize that to create this new school system, it needed to be inclusive and common good-guided in every way it could be,” Fallows said. “For a town with long-standing racial divides, they did everything they could to include people of different racial categories and income categories.”

The fourth location was Fort Wayne, Indiana. Fort Wayne had relied on a General Electric plant, before the company abandoned the town. Groups of young people, older people, public institutions and private institutions decided to turn “the shame of the community into the center of the community,” Fallows said.

“They are using (the plant) as a new hospital space and startup space and living space,” he said. “If you go to Fort Wayne, I encourage you to see this old building, a kind of Stonehenge of one industrial era of America, fostering space for another.”

Next on Fallows’ list was Pensacola, Florida, a town trying to make itself “the laboratory for democracy in the United States.”

There, a man by the name of Quint Studer believes it is his lifelong mission to develop techniques of civic engagement, collaborative reasoning and the common good for his town and then allow the techniques to spread throughout the country.

If you go to Pensacola, you will see a series they have called CivicCon where they try to enlist people who are working with a newspaper or working with everybody else to express that this is a connected community,” Fallows said.

The Latino-populated and largely impoverished Brownsville, Texas, became the focus of a June tragedy, after a Salvadoran father and daughter both drowned while attempting to cross into Texas via the Rio Grande River. Despite Brownsville’s poverty rate, Fallows said there are minimal drug problems. Fallows attributes this partly to familial ties.

“The family structure of the overwhelmingly Latino families is strong enough that young people have, in particular, a mother and a grandmother who are watching what they’re doing,” Fallows said. “So, Brownsville has a kind of civic fiber despite economic poverty.”

The residents of Brownsville are also working to bring more people to the town. The downtown area is old but has the potential to be made into “a new downtown.”

The seventh city is San Bernardino, California. It’s the most troubled city in California, and one of the most troubled in the United States. But now, Fallows said, the city has arguably “the most impressive public high schools in the state.”

Fallows said a business person, who felt a religious calling to be involved in the schools, worked to develop opportunities for students of all backgrounds to prepare for skilled, technical jobs and higher education.

Fallows then discussed Kenosha and Racine, Wisconsin, which have well-known racial and deindustrialization problems. There, a local college has taken on the responsibility of the city and the community. Additionally, a company called Snap-On, decided that “(its) well-being depends on the well-being of the community.”

Houston, one of the largest U.S. cities, was the ninth location; that city has developed a program called Report for America, whose purpose is to send young reporters to small newspapers throughout the country to do local reporting.

If you’re looking for somewhere to put your money, I would look at Report for America,” Fallows said. “Their entire goal is to advance the common good.”

Lastly, Fallows talked about the largest city in the United States: New York City. Specifically, in the New York City public libraries, Deborah Fallows reported on an innovation that made books available to the blind.

“These are things Deb and I didn’t know when we saw you all a year ago,” Fallows said, “of how widespread is this sense of innovation to try to address the problems of us in the broadest sense.”

With those cities and towns in mind, Fallows presented an action plan for improving the state of American cities. First, one must keep their eyes open and “simply notice” how much is happening in the country. Then, it is crucial to “see the patterns.”

“The third stage is where we ask, ‘what can people involved in the flotilla of renewed efforts do to magnify their efforts (and) give more leverage to what they’re all doing?’ ” Fallows said.

Fallows said a significant number of faith organizations are involved in efforts like refugee and immigrant resettlement. Many organizations also work with the homeless and try to address drug problems, among other things. There are rural revival centers scattered throughout the country and community foundations and universities. Even libraries are considered to be the new “civic convenors.”

“Deb and I are now thinking of what we can do to better connect, and tell the stories of and increase the power of the local-level groups who have locally based solutions for improvement,” Fallows said. “Then, the good that is happening at the local level can percolate up and offset the bad that is, in many places, seeping down from the national level.”

Fallows posed a series of questions about the actual power of the local level and its influence on the national level.

What if the power of example, locally, doesn’t work?” Fallows asked. “What if the strains on the national government finally are at a point where they don’t really recover from them? What do we think is the best way forward if that is the case?”

These are the “eternal questions of American life,” Fallows said. The question is one of balance between the central and the local, the federal and the state, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton.

“We have been here before,” Fallows said. “Deb and I think that all of us here are part of answering that question of whether we can establish a common good. … It’s something that depends on people’s actions locally; it depends on their imagination springing beyond the community and the local, and it depends on the ever-expanding sense of what the common good is, and that is what we hope to explore through the conversations this next week.”

Evangelical Amy Brown Hughes and Rev. V. Gene Robinson Discuss Prayer and God’s Purpose

  • Assistant professor of theology at Gordon College, Amy Brown Hughes speaks about Evangelical Christianity, and attempts to answer the infamous question "why do bad things happen to good people?" on Friday, June 28, 2019 in the Hall of Philosophy. MHARI SHAW/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

To start off the Interfaith Friday Series in the Hall of Philosophy, the Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson, vice president of religion and senior pastor, posed a series of questions to Amy Brown Hughes, who spoke on behalf of Evangelicalism.

Hughes is an assistant professor of theology at Gordon College. She earned her  bachelor’s degree in theology and historical studies from Oral Roberts University in 2001; her master’s degree in historical theology from Wheaton College; and her Ph.D. in historical theology with a focus on early Christianity from Wheaton College.

She is the co-author of Christian Women in the Patrisitic World: Their Influence, Authority and Legacy in the Second through Fifth Centuries, regularly presents papers at the annual meeting of the North American Patristics Society and is a co-host for the theology stream of the biblical studies and theology podcast, “OnScript.”

What follows is an abridged version of Hughes’ conversation. Hughes and Robinson’s remarks have been condensed for clarity.

Robinson: Will God intervene if we ask? Or, should we be asking for something different?

Hughes: God does engage with us and wants to interact with us. A Jewish friend once told me that if you’re not arguing with God, you’re not doing it right. That same friend told me she didn’t like Noah because he never said anything back to God after killing all those people. And, I think God is inviting us to engage and wants to intervene, and we choose into it. The key is that we have to see it, to recognize it. Once we recognize it, that then becomes an opportunity to work with God.

What are we asking for when we say, “God bless America”?

It depends on who you talk to. I do think that there is an assumption that God is on our side based upon the narrative we have about our country, and that can be really problematic. But there is also the idea that people make up America and we want God to engage with us. We want God to help us flourish as a people who live in this particular land at this particular time. If that is what we are praying for when we say, “God bless America,” that makes a little more sense. However, with the assumption underneath that’s saying bless us over other people, that’s a problem.

How do you understand prayer?

With prayer, there’s an assumption underneath prayer. First, we have to ask ourselves this question about determinism: What kind of universe do I think I live in? If we live in a universe where we think God has planned everything and we are just along for the ride, then why pray at all? But in Scripture, people pray over and over again, expecting God to do something, expecting something to happen. So, there is also that kind of universe. Ultimately, God is perfectly free. He doesn’t have to do what we pray. God can choose not to do that, and I am so grateful that God didn’t answer my prayers in college because, if he had, I would be married to somebody else, and it would not have been good. We pray things all of the time that aren’t good for us, but we’re learning. It’s conversation. We don’t know, and we have to grow and grow into maturity. God is gracious to us: “Well, let’s talk about why you want that.” That’s the kind of grace we should extend to others, so when we are praying for others, we do have to be mindful of their agency. God does act, but he is not going to intervene in someone else’s life in a way that is going to destroy them because you asked him to.

What is an ask that would honor who God is and what God is willing or not willing to do when praying?

I would pray for people to come to know who they are and pray for their own flourishing because I do not know their personal path, so I want to ask for God to be near them, for God to be with them — that’s a beautiful prayer. If you know nothing else to pray, pray that God will be with someone because presence isn’t coercion. It can be transformative. Think about when you’ve gone through something awful and your friend came and sat next to you and didn’t say anything. It doesn’t solve any problems, but it sure helped in that moment. The Scripture talks about how, when we don’t know what to pray, we ask for help because the Holy Spirit is always with us, always ready to help us.

Many ordained people would describe part of their life as feeling a call from God, which is why ordained ministry can be known as a “calling.” Would that be considered God meddling in their business?

No, I think that we are all individually on a journey of coming to know who we are, and I think God is working with us to help us try to understand who we are. Origen talks about this fundamental dictum that has been around forever: scito te ipsum. This means, “Know thyself.” And, you kind of have to start any theological process with “know thyself.” So, when the Psalmist talks about “search me and know me,” that’s an invitation to God to work with us to help us to know who we are, and I think that’s what calling is. Calling is the middle or end of a conversation where you have sort of been in the process of the “search me and know me,” and you’ve sort of come to some understanding of who you are.

So, let’s say that you say to someone who has Hodgkin’s (lymphoma), thinking that it will somehow bring them comfort, “God is trying to teach you something.” So, with that being said, what are some of the bad theologies around us?

Oh God, how many hours do we have? What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. God’s got a plan. God must be teaching you something through this. There are just tons of them. I mentioned earlier, the idea of “God must have planned this,” for a person to say that and think it’s comforting, it’s because the idea of something being out of God’s control scares them. Pentecostalism, for example, does a “God will heal you” kind of thing. “If you just believe, God will heal you,” and I have watched that literally destroy people’s lives. These people who believe in these preachers look so desperately for something, and these “ministers” sort of poke at this place of deep grief and pain, monopolize it, monetize it and sensationalize it. That sort of reputation of some ends of Pentecostalism is to our great shame, and we need to repent for that and change. Also, the idea of “it’s your fault” is problematic. I remember when there was all kinds of conversation around New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina, that it was because they were so supportive of the LGBTQ community they got a hurricane. Oh my gosh, no. Either assuming that authority individually in one’s life or assigning an assumption of what God’s judgement looks like in that way, are two really disruptive ends of theology.

If God isn’t going to control all of that, and it seems to me that all of the bad things we say are in an effort to not take responsibility for them ourselves, what is he in control of?

I tend to not use the phrase, “God is in control,” because that does tend to undercut the other things we know about God being noncoercive and a God who holds all things together on our behalf so that we can choose. So, if there is a sense of God’s power, God’s power is allowing us to have our own power, and he has created a space for us to choose, to live and continue to grow or continue to say no to that.

Ori Z. Soltes Reviews Dynamic Moments in Judaism, Connects Past and Present

Ori Z. Soltes speaks about “Obvious and Obscure: Moments that Have Transformed Judaism” during the afternoon lecture on Tuesday, June 25, 2019 in the Hall of Philosophy. MHARI SHAW/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Over the last 250 years or so, the definition of Judaism has grown “more and more complicated,” said Ori Z. Soltes, Goldman Professorial Lecturer in theology and fine arts at Georgetown University.

Soltes presented his lecture, “Obvious and Obscure: Moments that Have Transformed Judaism,” as part of Week One’s interfaith theme, “Religious Moments That Changed the World,” Tuesday, June 25 in the Hall of Philosophy.

“Is (Judaism) a religion?” Soltes asked. “Is it a body of customs and traditions? Is it a culture? Is it an ethnicity? Is it a nationality? Is it a civilization?”

Soltes said all of these questions apply to the definition of what Judaism is, leading to the logical thought that it would be unfair to strictly define Judaism as a religion, as that would construct boundaries and limitations.

This was the first complication that came with defining Judaism. The second complication was time — when does Judaism begin?

“If I talk about Abraham, most Jews would say that he is the beginning, but then of course Muslims and Christians would say the same for their respective faiths,” Soltes said. “And they’d all be right, and they’d all be wrong because, in fact, he’s not called any of the above in Genesis. He’s called a Hebrew.”

Soltes said the term “Hebrew” has no religious or ethnic connotation, but rather, a socioeconomic one. To be a Hebrew was to be someone who moved from place to place. Soltes moved forward through history and came to Moses, who was also not referred to as a Jew nor a Hebrew, but an Israelite. And when he came down from the mountain with the Ten Commandments, they were to be followed by the Israelites, who would later establish the Kingdom of Israel. Despite the lack of the actual term “Jew,” Soltes began tracing the history of Judaism from this moment.

After the death of King Solomon, that kingdom dissolved, and the northern part continued to be known as Israel, and the southern part was called Judah, named for the larger of the two tribes, Judah and Benjamin, Soltes said. After the Assyrians took over Israel, Judah and Benjamin were the only two tribes left of what had been the Kingdom of Israel. Judah specifically became important, too, in 586 B.C.E., when the Babylonians took control of Jerusalem, because they carried the Judeans “into exile.”

“When one is defeated by someone else, when one’s temple or temples is or are destroyed by someone else, the conclusion one arrives at inevitably is that their god or gods must be stronger than yours,” Soltes said. “So, you don’t continue to worship your god, you worship theirs. But (the Judeans) don’t.”

Rather than subjecting to the authoritative power, the Judeans reasoned that their god, the God of Israel, the Judean God, caused the destruction because he was punishing them for not paying attention to the prophetic voices of which, at that time, the most recent was Jeremiah.

Other important lessons the Judeans learned in exile were that they could still address God by reading, praying and discussing God’s word, and if they turned back to God, God would eventually turn back to them, Soltes said. These were particularly important lessons learned when, in 50 years, Cyrus the Great overwhelmed the Babylonians, expanding his empire to an unbelievable size, and allowed the Judeans to rebuild their temple.

“This is also the first time that the term ‘messiah’ is used to refer to Cyrus, anointed by the hand of God so that he could assist the Judeans to go back and rebuild their temple,” Soltes said.

A century after the Judeans returned from exile, in 444 B.C.E., Ezra, a high priest, organized the text of God’s word. With this organization of the text, the Judean community changed from a theocracy — which means power by prophets, by priests, by those who are assumed by their constituents to have the ear of God — to a nomocracy, which is power by law. This change proved important in the future.

“If we fast forward half a millennium, we find the Judean world struggling to assert its political independence from the Romans because the Romans are embracers of any and all faiths, provided you are not politically subversive,” Soltes said.

Because of the Roman dominance, some Judeans believed that Judea needed to regain the political independence that it lost, and the revolt of 65 C.E. resulted in the destruction of the temple in the year 70 C.E. A second revolt would ensue 65 years later, known as the Bar Kokhba revolt, which took the Romans three years to suppress.

“The outcome of this was, for the first time in Roman-Pagan history, Judeanism began to be treated as a subversion,” Soltes said.

This was a brief phase because, after the death of the Roman ruler who put the status in place, his successor revoked the status. In addition to this temporary status, another important development had taken place between the destruction of the temple and the Bar Kokhba revolt.

“The Judean community started to more substantially split between Judeans who believed Jesus was something special, called Judeans for Jesus, and Judeans who did not,” Soltes said.

This idea of Judeanism, though, began to transition into Judaism coming into the second and third centuries, specifically with the canonization of the Hebrew bible in the year 140 C.E. and the organization of the Mishnah in 212 C.E. Meanwhile, the Roman empire moved toward becoming Christian — a religious transition that became problematic for the followers of Judeanism.

“As the centuries move forward, distinguishing infidels, nonbelievers, from heretics, mis-believers, from Jews who are neither this or that will continue to be problematic,” Soltes said. “In 381, Theodosius makes Christianity the official religion of the empire. … Judaism now begins to be thought of as subversive.”

The Jewish people were viewed as a threat to the community, and things grew even worse at the fourth Lateran Council in 1215 C.E. because, during this council, much time was spent discussing what should be done with the Jews. For those in the council, Soltes said, the Jews were not completely heretics and they did not fall under the category of schismatic, and they were not infidels. But they were also not Christian.

As a result of the council, it was decided that Jewish people needed to be identified. The council agreed that Jews needed to wear upon their clothing some kind of symbol that allowed people to know who they were. One symbol was a hat with a horn, and the other was a yellow circle or square, Soltes said.

Then, in the early part of the 15th century, Jewish massacres took place in Spain. To make the situation worse, in August 1492, King Ferdinand II of Aragon had enforced an edict of expulsion, leading many Jews to join the staff of Christopher Columbus before he set sail on Aug. 2.

“It would seem that any number of those individuals were thinking, ‘Can we find someplace else to go to, besides back to some other part of Europe, back into the Muslim world?’ ” Soltes said. “Ultimately, of course, Jews for the first time would be thinking about America with Columbus in 1492.”

However, Soltes said that by the end of the 18th century, Jews were welcomed into mainstream cultures, society and economics thanks to political revolutions like America’s own revolution in 1776. In 1790, George Washington visited and communicated with a Jewish community in Newport, Rhode Island, where he left a letter at their synagogue. Soltes quoted the letter: “Ours is a government that happily gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”

With the 19th century and its surges of romanticism and nationalism all over the world, there was a call from a book written by Moses Hess, who declared the Jewish people could become great once more. By the end of the 19th century, the first Zionist Congress was held in Switzerland. European Jews were insulted, however, when Wilhelm Marr, a German publicist, wrote that the Jews could never be German and could never be European because they were Semites.

Soltes then went through additional events from World War I to present day — including World War II,  the Holocaust, John F. Kennedy’s election, the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy; the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, prime minister of Israel, in 1995; the election of Barack Obama in 2008; and the election of Donald Trump in 2016. Soltes said these events have been important to the development of Judaism and the Jewish people, and concluded that the world today is in crisis.

“Jews, like everyone else around us, find themselves at a kind of crossroads right now,” Soltes said. “In America, we are wrestling with whether we will follow the want-to-be path carved out in the mid-19th century by those who want to limit those who can come here, or whether we will follow the path that is signified by Washington’s letter about what we find in the Constitution and Declaration

First Interfaith Lecture: Laurie Patton Takes a Deep Look at the Bhagavad Gita

  • President of the Middlebury College and a leading authority on South Asian history and culture, Laurie L. Patton speaks about the ancient Hindu text, Bhagvad Gita, and how it has shaped our world Monday, June 24, 2019, at the Hall of Philosophy. VISHAKHA GUPTA/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

To Laurie Patton, the Bhagavad Gita — also known as “the song of God” — represents an antidote to indecision and despair.

At 2 p.m. Monday, June 24 in the Hall of Philosophy, Patton, president of Middlebury College and Hindu scholar, kicked off Chautauqua’s Interfaith Lecture Series with “That Driver Must be God: How the Bhagavad Gita Changed the World.” The lecture was the first of Week One’s interfaith theme, “Religious Moments That Changed the World.”

The Bhagavad Gita is a 2,500-year-old sacred Hindu text, written originally in Sanskrit, that delves into the conversations between a prince named Arjuna, and Krishna, Arjuna’s driver and confidant.

Patton said readers will never fully know the identity of the Gita’s author, but that their decision to tell the story of Arjuna and Krishna would ultimately change the world.

“Somewhere near the Ganges, in a wooden hut … someone whose job it was to tell stories decided to tell a story about despair,” Patton said.

The primary source of conflict in the Gita, according to Patton, is the tension between Arjuna’s desire to fulfill his duties as a warrior and his commitment to protecting his relatives.

“Arjuna must grasp the heartbreaking fact that his enemies are his uncles and teachers and cousins,” Patton said. “He’s rendered speechless at this.”

The friction between two difficult choices represented in the Gita is a conflict shared by many other pieces of classic literature, according to Patton, such as Shakespeare’s Hamlet and the ancient Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh.

“A decision in great literature can be a prism through which a culture is refracted into different modes of expression,” she said. “So, too, with the Bhagavad Gita. Its contents include simple and moving poetry, dense philosophy, moral musing and an explosive description of God.”

Patton, who authored a translation of the Gita for Penguin Classics, admits she is certainly not the first to interpret the sacred text in a different language.

“It has become a world classic, spawning over 250 translations, commentaries, renderings, paraphrases and synopses,” she said. “When I was asked to do the 251st translation of the Gita into English, I said, ‘There are no good reasons to do the 251st translation into English.’ ”

But Patton finds solace in her unique perspective as a woman translating the text, as well as the perspectives of the adult students she instructs in the lessons of the Gita.

She told a story about a student of hers, a Gulf War veteran, who experienced a moment of clarity upon realizing the similarities between the Gita and his own experiences in war. The student was completing a munitions transfer from Kuwait to Iraq, in a car with an unknown soldier as his driver. He said that the Gita would be “as if he stops the Humvee in the middle of our driving in this weird territory, and he idles the engine and he turns to me and says, ‘By the way, I’m God.’ ”

Beyond the fact that her students can make personal connections to the Gita, Patton believes in the Gita at its core.

“The central message — why the Gita is a text that changed the world — is it gives us the secret of how to act with discipline,” she said, “with hearts joined to God.”

“Krishna criticizes those who sacrifice with a view only to their own reward,” Patton said.

Yet Krishna also criticizes those who renounce the world entirely and desire a reward for that renunciation, according to Patton.

“It’s known in the West as ‘spiritual pride,’ ” she said. “The Gita teaches that clinging to your spiritual path is just as much a problem as not having one at all.”

The moral dilemma posed by the Gita initially reverberated throughout the Indian world, according to Patton.

“Up until the 18th century, we could say it was a text that changed the Indian world,” she said. “And then the British colonial environment and the rise of the East India Company provided a new stage for the emergence of the Gita, which changed the entire globe.”

The Gita was first translated into English by East India Company merchant Charles Wilkins, commissioned by Governor-General of India Warren Hastings in 1785.

Since then, Patton says the Gita has deeply influenced a variety of Western historical figures, from Henry David Thoreau, to J. Robert Oppenheimer to Martin Luther King Jr.

“There was someone else who took the key teaching of the Gita in a different direction,” she said. “He was a man who was fascinated by military strategy and how it could be turned into a moral force. His name was Gandhi.”

Patton said Mahatma Gandhi referred to the Gita as his “spiritual dictionary,” a text that would play a central role in his entire nonviolent philosophy.

“There are many political and strategic reasons that Gandhi pursued a nonviolent campaign,” she said. “But for him, the Gita was at the center of all of it.”

Indeed, Gandhi said: “Whenever doubts haunt me and disappointments stare me in the face, and I see not one ray of hope on the horizon, I turn to the Bhagavad Gita and find a verse to comfort me. I immediately begin to smile in the midst of overwhelming sorrow.”

And Patton said the Gita’s influence is detectable even now in the 21st century.

“Today, the Gita is a text in independent India,” she said. “It lives between East and West, between low caste and (high caste), rich and poor, secular and sacred.”

Patton said the Gita is a “meditation about action in war.”

“(The Gita) becomes a guidebook for a deeper, more transformative action of peace, of the nonviolent and of overcoming a paralysis against all odds,” Patton said.

Back in that wooden hut on the Ganges, Patton said, the story of despair and movement into action would eventually ring out across the ages.

“Two thousand five hundered years ago, a song in the forest shook the world,” she said. “A song in the forest can heal it too.”

Daniel Karslake speaks on Chautauqua’s influence on his films


According to Daniel Karslake, he won “the birth lottery.”

Karslake is part of the sixth generation of an eight-generation Chautauqua family. He spent his summers on Merrill, just down the hill from the Hall of Philosophy. For the first 10 years of his life, he walked up the Hall of Philosophy steps and climbed onto the white benches that led him to the “red brick road.”

His parents told him that road would lead him to the Chautauqua Bookstore, where he could get his daily dose of bubblegum. He made that trip a thousand times, walking the same route as the “parade of thinkers” who spoke while he was growing up. Those people shaped him as a person and inspired him to do what he does now: make films.

At 2 p.m. Monday in the Hall of Philosophy, Karslake opened Week Nine’s interfaith theme, “The Intersection of Cinema and Religious Values.” He spoke from the podium, where so many of the people who inspired him stood, about how his time as a Chautauquan influenced the documentary films he has made, including “For The Bible Tells Me So” and “Every Three Seconds.”

Karslake said there are two fundamental beliefs he got from Chautauqua. One is that anything is possible, and the other is from Luke 12:48: “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded.”

With those two principles in mind, Karslake has been drawn to make films about religion. He just finished a documentary about the Middle East, which he said heavily features religion.

“(Religion’s) power in our society,” Karslake said, “its ability to elevate us and make us the best people we can be, but also its propensity to separate and dominate, is also very, very interesting to me.”

Karslake’s films deal with different aspects of social justice. “For The Bible Tells Me So” is a film about five religious families whose children are gay, and “Every Three Seconds” highlights poverty and hunger around the world.

“I was born in an amazing country. I am a white male, (and) much comes with that is extremely positive. And I was created gay, which is one of the great gifts of my life because if I were just a Caucasian male, I would not understand, like I understand, what it’s like to be a minority — at least to a certain extent,” said Karslake, who lives in Berlin with his husband, his partner of 26 years. “That is a huge gift. I understand what it’s like to be tolerated, or looked down on and judged.”

Karslake came up with the idea for “For The Bible Tells Me So” after working on the PBS series “In the Life,” in which LGBTQ individuals talk about their experiences. On the show, Karslake explored the intersection of religion and homosexuality for the first time.

For his episode of “In the Life,” Karslake talked to the Rev. Irene Monroe, who was the Week Eight chaplain-in-residence at Chautauqua. At the time, she was studying at Harvard Divinity School. Monroe describes herself as an African-American, “street theologian lesbian.”

“I loved that message because as someone who grew up Christian who was also gay, I was very conscious of what I felt Christians thought of who I was, and that they thought it was based in the Bible,” Karslake said. “But here was this woman at Harvard, who was in the streets talking both about her faith and the fact that she was a lesbian.”

Karslake shaped that episode to be a profile on Monroe, but he added commentary from her professor, the Rev. Peter Gomes, author of The Good Book, about his interpretation of homosexuality in the Bible.

The day after that episode of “In the Life” aired, Karslake had about 70 emails from people all over the world waiting in his inbox. One was from a 13-year-old boy from Iowa. The message was only a few lines, and read: “Last week I bought the gun. Yesterday I wrote the note. Last night I happened to see your show on PBS, and just knowing that someday, somewhere I might be able to go back into a church with my head held high, I dropped the gun in the river. My mom never has to know.”

“Getting that email really seared into my soul,” Karslake said.

In 2003, Karslake bought a movie ticket to see “Bowling For Columbine.” While watching the film, he found himself enthralled in the format of the documentary. “In the Life” was only reaching about 1 million people a month, and Karslake wanted to grow his audience. At that point, “Bowling for Columbine” reached more than 10 million in its opening weekend, Karslake said.

It was during that screening he decided to make a documentary about parents of faith who find out they have a gay or lesbian child. The documentary follows the families and captures the moments following the revelation.

“(The subject matter would be) families who are able to hold onto their faith and embrace their child, because in the late ’90s, early 2000s, that was thought to be as completely mutually exclusive,” Karslake said. “You could either stay in your Baptist church or embrace your child, but you couldn’t do both. And I, in my core, do not believe that is true.”

At the time he started making his movie, the Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson, now the vice president of religion and Chautauqua’s senior pastor, was elected as the first openly gay bishop in Christendom.

Karslake wanted Robinson to be in his documentary, but the security surrounding Robinson was tight. At the time, Robinson was getting more death threats than the president of the United States, but Robinson agreed to be in the movie, which opened lines of communication with other potential subjects.

“It’s really because of Gene that the film got made,” Karslake said.

It took Karslake four years to raise funding and make “For the Bible Tells Me So,” and it finally premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2007. It has since beentranslated into more than 20 languages, premiered in Tokyo in December 2017, has been shown in more than 4,000 churches and is the focus of two Bible studies.

“I grew up relatively convinced that Christians hated me,” Karslake said. “That is the word I always came to. But boy, did I find out I am wrong.”

Karslake’s second film was inspired by a 2005 lecture he heard in the Amphitheater. Karslake was visiting his family when the Rev. Jim Wallis came to Chautauqua and gave a sermon titled “We Are the Ones We’ve Been Waiting For.”

“These are the opening lines: ‘Every three seconds, somebody dies somewhere in the world from hunger or extreme poverty. Usually it’s a child, and usually it’s from a preventable disease,’ ” Karslake said. “That blew my mind. That meant 30,000 people were dying, and usually children, from things we’ve solved, in the developing world.”

Karslake left the Amp that day “on fire,” he said. He knew someone needed to do something about it. After “For The Bible Tells Me So” opened, Karslake spent time researching the poverty and hunger, and he wanted to be part of the solution.

Up until that point, there was a hopelessness surrounding world hunger, Karslake said. The UNICEF commercials persuaded people into contributing, but made it seem like world hunger would never be solved.

During a residency at Stanford University, Karslake was able to find a quiet place to map out “Every Three Seconds,” which took six years to make.

Before making “Every Three Seconds,” Karslake thought he knew what hunger was. He always thought hunger was a problem that existed outside the United States.

When Karslake started filming in Malawi, Kenya and the Congo, he thought seeing people who were hungry and impoverished would be devastating because he is an empathetic and emotional person. The opposite was true.

Every house Karslake went to, the people would offer him food out of their week’s rations. He would try to say no, but the residents always insisted. That’s when he realized there were two types of hunger.

“I came back understanding that world hunger really does cover the globe. There are two kinds of hunger: there’s hunger … where’s there’s not enough food or basic medical care, but there’s this other hunger, where ‘I live for bigger, better, newer, faster,’ that’s killing the planet,” Karslake said. “It’s killing our oceans. It’s taking our natural resources, and that is the much more dangerous hunger. So what a gift that has been to know that and to learn that.”

Karslake is currently working on a follow-up to “For The Bible Tells Me So.” He never anticipated revisiting the crossover of religion and LGBTQ issues, but when he started getting death threats again a few years ago, he gave it a second thought.

Karslake and his husband had been living in Berlin for a couple of years and were out of touch with what was happening in the United States. After receiving threats, they heard a contentious election was taking place, and decided to tune into a Republican debate.

“During that debate, I heard out of eight or nine of them things I had not heard publicly said by a politician in years,” Karslake said.

The topics of conversation were re-implementing “don’t ask, don’t tell” and overturning marriage equality.

During Salt Lake City screenings of “For the Bible Tells Me So,” Mormon men would stand up and say how moved they were by the movie, but were curious as to why no one of their faith was featured in the film. Karslake has always remembered those men, and that, coupled with the political climate, made him certain he wanted to make a documentary similar to his first.

This upcoming film will feature two people who are transgender, one Mormon story, a Catholic story and a deeply devout evangelical couple who put their child in conversion therapy for six years.

Through it all, Karslake’s journey traces back to the time he has spent at Chautauqua.

“I truly believe that I am the luckiest person I have ever met, mostly because of my base here at Chautauqua,” Karslake said. “And the thing that I’ve really come to know, and I learned it here, is that it’s not so much my duty to want to make a world that works. It’s not our responsibility. That’s not what’s it’s about. It’s my great privilege to do that. It’s my great blessing and what gives my life incredible meaning, separate from my family and my friends. It’s trying to find a way to that world that works for everyone.”

Joel Hunter expands on evangelical Christianity in eighth Interfaith Friday


In the eighth edition of the Interfaith Friday Series, the Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson, vice president of religion, moderated a number of questions with interfaith advocate Joel Hunter, who represented evangelical Christianity.

Hunter served as a spiritual adviser to President Barack Obama from 2008 to 2017. He served on the boards of the National Association of Evangelicals from 2004 to 2017 and the World Evangelical Alliance from 2006 to 2017. He participated in the Global Christian Forum in Bangkok, Thailand; the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Melbourne, Australia; the U.S.-Islamic World Forum in Doha, Qatar; and the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations in Madrid, Spain. Hunter was senior pastor of Northland Church in Longwood, Florida, for 32 years.

Now, Hunter serves as the chairman of the Community Resource Network, a nonprofit organization he founded that focuses on helping marginalized and homeless families.

What follows is an abridged version of Hunter’s conversation Friday in the Hall of Philosophy. Hunter and Robinson’s remarks have been condensed for clarity.

From where you sit in your tradition, why should we be moving in an interfaith direction either here at Chautauqua or in the world?

Just from a utilitarian perspective, we have problems in this world that are way too big — not only to solve with any one group, but even to move the needle with any one group. So if you are serious about any world problem — poverty, climate change, the marginalization of people, the persecution (of people) and so forth — we have to do that together. When I say together, I am not just talking about interfaith; I am talking about people of good faith and good will, people who have a basic humanitarian inclination that says, “I want everyone to be treated with respect, to be treated fairly.”

The second answer I would give to that is that the universe has been created in a complementary fashion. We see this in Scripture when God said, “It is not good for you to be alone.” We see this in the very nature and in the very ontology of God. But then he said, “I will make you a helper suitable.” In Hebrew, the word helper is “one who answers back.” Now, why did God do that? Not only because we are made in his image and were made for relationships, but there is a sense in which we only best operate in the midst of differences that can complement our deficiencies.

We see that all the way from quantum mechanics to the principle of entanglement. When two photons become somehow linked in a spooky universe, if you affect one, the other one eight miles away shows a reaction. So there is a principle built into our very creation of us being entangled together. In our faith tradition, there is a sense in which the church is made up of differences that fit together. We need each other, and that same principle is true in the world. Personally, we will not grow without befriending and advocating for people who are different than we are.

There is something that happens when you know someone who is different and you now have a friendship. When people talk to me about Muslims, they are not talking about Muslims in general, they are talking about my friend, Muhammad Muslih. Whatever they are saying better come out pretty well in that shape because this guy is my friend. There is something about this connection of differences that is really beneficial and we need personally.

When you come to the metaphorical interfaith table, what gifts do you bring as an evangelical Christian to that table? 

Just Jesus. Jesus or God. I was walking with a monsignor and I said, “I will tell you, evangelicals are so thankful for the 200 years of Catholic social, theological development. We are leaning heavily into what you guys have already studied, we are with you, thank you.” He said, “I will tell you what, we could use your passion. We need your passion because we tend to live in our heads and in our rituals. We need to be fired up, and that’s what evangelicals can bring us.” So maybe we can bring some fire.

What gifts do other religions bring to the table that you might benefit from? 

This is so fun for me because I go down my list of friends and I just see what they add to my life. So, Judaism is our mother religion, and you’re always nice to your mama. There is a sense of identity. There are observant Jews and non-observant Jews, there are believer Jews and non-believing Jews, but there is a sense of cultural belonging that they have, and there is a sense in which there is a kinship there. That is such a healthy thing. There are always a dozen (religions) that point out that the world is the enemy, but there is a resilience there that all of us would benefit from knowing, because a lot of us tend to get panicked when we just get poked a couple of times.

With the Muslims, there is an obedience there, a simple obedience and observance that is quite admirable.

With the Hindus, I love the inclusiveness of the Hindus. Hindus have never met a belief they couldn’t go, “Alright, I kind of like this.” There is this warmth and this friendship. If you hear an evangelical say, “Tell me what you believe,” it’s like we are already on alert, but a Hindu goes, “No, really, tell me about what you believe. I would be interested and maybe I could believe some of that, too.”

For Buddhists, there is this sense of, “Don’t throw all of your eggs in the basket of this world. Don’t think that just because something has happened in this world, it is the end of the world or the end of your life.” When Buddhists practice right, there is this healthy detachment. There are a lot of great qualities that all of us can learn from.

Do you have any sacred texts or holy teachings that are telling you that yours is the one true religion? 

Yes. In John 14:6 (Jesus said), “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Don’t get all offended, or be offended, I don’t care. Yes, Jesus is the center of our universe. He is the creator of the universe. In the beginning was the word, the word was with God, the word was God, nothing was made if not made through him, and the word became flesh and dwelt among us. So he is the organizing principle of the universe.

There are two ways to interpret that Scripture. One is exclusively. If you’re not an active, believing, follower of Jesus Christ and have given your whole life to him, then you are going to hell. That is the exclusive way. If you can’t get to the Father, give it up, you’re going to hell.

There is another (interpretation), though. There are several Scriptures I could point you to that would be more inclusive in its interpretation and it gives room for “I haven’t had the opportunity to hear who Jesus is,” or they have lived in a world where that option was not a viable option for them. That is not to say that his death on the cross hasn’t also paid for those. Because remember what he said on the cross? “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do.” Ignorance is a line of defense, and he was dying for those who were ignorant and pleading for their forgiveness at the same time.

So, yes. On one hand, I believe that all that is goes through Jesus Christ, but that does not necessarily mean that I think that everybody who doesn’t carry around the label of Jesus Christ is doomed.

Do you have extremist practitioners of evangelical Christianity? 

I used to, and still do, defend my Islamic brothers and sisters when people accused Islam as a religion of terrorism. That can’t be any more possible than Christianity as a religion of KKK people. There is a great propensity for all of us to try to justify what we do through the use of Scripture and to somehow contort the natural meaning of Scripture into something that is not at all like Jesus. So we do have lots of folks now who are claiming to have Biblical backing, but remember, the devil knew Scripture. Those of you who are Christian, remember the desert temptation — it talked about the devil coming and quoting Scripture to Jesus in order to tempt him. Well, he still does. Those who are anti-God still use Scripture to justify what they are doing to make it seem like that is what God would want.

Clara Ester reflects on memories with Martin Luther King Jr. in interfaith lecture


Clara Ester will never forget the look on Martin Luther King Jr.’s face as he lay beside her on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. However, even 50 years later, she still can’t manage to describe it without nearly falling apart.

At 2 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 15,  in the Hall of Philosophy, Ester gave her lecture, “Spirituality, Advocacy and Activism: an MLK-Inspired Life,” presented in conversation with the Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson, Chautauqua’s vice president of religion.

Ester, a retired deaconess of the United Methodist Church, is also the founder of People United to Advance the Dream. Her lecture was a part of Week Eight’s interfaith theme, “Not to be Forgotten: A Rememberance on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.”

Ester has dealt with the effects of racism her entire life, but it wasn’t always clear to her that was what she was facing.

She grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, in an all-black neighborhood and attended all-black schools and churches.

“I could ride anywhere I wanted on the bus because the bus came to our neighborhoods to take us downtown,” she said.

Once she arrived downtown, she was always dropped off at the back door of her destination.

“We would enter and go down into the basement, never understanding that they had seven to eight floors in that store that we were not allowed to shop in,” she said.

When she was 5 years old, her mom took her and her brother to Chattanooga, Tennessee, to see Lookout Mountain. Because of her Native American ancestry, Ester’s mother could often pass as Caucasian, so when they arrived at Lookout Mountain, the employees said nothing to her. Ester believes this is only because they could not see her and brother at the time.

Once the family was inside the park, Ester and her brother went into the bathroom.

“It looked like a mansion,” she said. “It was spotless, clean, they had tables to change the baby, they had mints on the counter.”

But then the two of them were spotted, and Ester said the entire day changed.

“A gentleman came over to my mom with his nger in her face and said, ‘You know better,’” she said.

Therefore, Ester’s family left the park and went across the street to eat breakfast at a cafe, but Ester’s brother was forced to wait outside.

“My mother would not allow my brother to go into the cafe,” she said. “It was not the thing, in those days, for a young, black male, 7 years old, to look at a white woman.”

Ester said she remembers asking her mom what happened that first day in the park. But all her mother would say was “one day,” she would tell Ester.

Ester’s church pastor was James Morris Lawson Jr., a leader in the civil rights movement who advocated for the use of nonviolent tactics.

“Jim was into everything civil rights,” she said. “He even came back from India and shared with the staff and Dr. King the nonviolent concept.”

Ester said in the wake of the Freedom Rides, her church became a “holding ground” for travelers so they did not have to sleep on the highway at night. Many of them were white, and Ester and many others helped make food for them and their families.

“It allowed you to understand the urgency that some white people had for things that are not correct, for injustices,” Ester said. “There were young couples that wanted to stand up and say this was wrong.”

During her junior year of college, the sanitation strike began. It all started on Feb. 1, 1968.

There was a thunderstorm, but in Memphis, the Public Works Department required all of their black sanitation workers to continue working. That day, two sanitation workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, took shelter from the rain in the back of their garbage truck. As Cole and Walker rode in the back of the truck, an electrical switch malfunctioned, the compactor turned on, and they were crushed. The Public Works Department refused to compensate their families.

“What happened from that, from their death, was 1,300 sanitation workers stood up a week later and refused to go to work,” Ester said. “The strike took a very active role in the city. Can you imagine garbage not being picked up around here for a couple months?”

Lawson contacted King about the strike, and King came to speak with the sanitation workers. When he left, he promised he would return soon.

When King returned to Memphis on April 3, 1968, the first thing he was told was that there were threats against his and his wife’s lives. Ester said King declared those threats were meaningless to him.

“He talked about seeing the mountaintop and that we as a people will get there one day,” she said. “He said he was not afraid of anything because his eyes had seen the glory.”

As a way to get involved in the movement, Ester would leave school to prepare food for sanitation workers to take home. On April 4, 1968, a member of the church staff came into the room to invite everyone to get catfish that night.

Ester arrived at the Lorraine Motel grill for catfish, and King was exiting his room.

“He was laughing and talking to everybody and telling Ben Branch to play his favorite song, ‘Precious Lord,’ ” she said.

Then she heard the gunshot.

“I remember seeing people ducking and somebody hollering, ‘Get down, get down,’ ” she said. “The whole time, I was looking up.”

Ester said she doesn’t remember how she got there, but she arrived at the top of the balcony, stepped over King’s body and began to feel for a pulse.

“There was maybe something moving, but it didn’t appear that his stomach was even moving,” she said.

To aid his breathing, Ester unbuckled his belt and pants. She then asked for a towel to press against the wound on the right side of his neck.

The thing Ester said that has stuck with her all of these years later is the expression on King’s face as he lay beside her.

“He talked about the mountaintop and his eyes were open, and he had the most pleasant expression on his face because he was talking and laughing,” Ester said. “So his eyes are open, with a smile on his face. ‘I may not get there with you, but we as a people will get to the mountaintop.’ I will never forget his face.”

Ester said the church staff went to the hospital with King, but before they returned, she knew he was no longer with them.

Ester still does not believe it was solely James Earl Ray who assassinated King.

“I am not making a public statement saying this was a set up, but deep in my heart, how does a man who is in prison escape from prison and have enough money to stalk Dr. King in Atlanta, and then make his way to Memphis without some kind of support?” she said.

Ester said there are still many details that do not add up, and even five decades later, more details are still surfacing.

According to Ester, Lawson met with Ray on many occasions and even performed his jail cell marriage and, later, his funeral service.

At one point, Lawson told Ester that Ray did not do it.

“Will that ever change?” she said. “Who knows. Fifty years later, we are getting information. We are seeing the information the government holds on to.”

Ester said she struggled with hating white people after King’s death, but the lessons he left behind helped her heal.

“That hate started building up in me,” Ester said. “He changed my life because I could see those eyes; I could see them looking toward those pearly gates and saying we are going to get there and realizing we couldn’t get there through hate. How can I hate people and make this world any better?”

Apologizing for her previous animosity toward white people, Ester told the audience that she wants to work on creating a better world together, regardless of differences.

“We have to get busy building relationships, quicker and faster,” she said. “I have to love everybody in this room before I leave Saturday morning to start making a difference in this world. It has to be personal. Together, if we work together, we can change and make this world better.”

Peniel Joseph outlines moments in ‘heroic’ civil rights movement


Peniel Joseph refers to his mother as his first historian.

As an immigrant from Haiti, Joseph’s mother raised him in New York City during the race riots of the 1960s. The city was afire with protests against racism and de facto segregation, but she refused to shield him from the flames. Standing with him on his first picket line at 9 years old, it was his mother, a black feminist, trade unionist and activist, who inspired him to create change.

At 2 p.m. Tues., Aug. 14, in the Hall of Philosophy, Joseph, the founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the University of Texas at Austin, gave his lecture, “The Passion of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: How the King Assassination Continues to Shape American Democracy,” as part of Week Eight’s interfaith theme, “Not to be Forgotten: A Rememberance on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.”

“My mother believed in human rights and social justice with every fiber of her being, and she really tried to transplant that feeling and that belief in both of her sons,” Joseph said.

According to Joseph, the “heroic” civil rights movement took place from May 17, 1954, to Martin Luther King’s assassination on April 4, 1968.

“When we think about that heroic period of the civil rights movement, in a way — as Americans and even globally — that period unspools cinematically for all of us,” he said.

In 1954, the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case decision declared separate public schools for black and white students to be unconstitutional.

In 1955, Emmett Till was murdered in Money, Mississippi.

In the same year, Rosa Parks and King, who served as a spokesperson for the Montgomery Bus Boycott, fought for the end of racial segregation on buses in Montgomery, Alabama, which they achieved in 1956.

In 1957, the Little Rock Nine, a group of nine African-American students, enrolled in Little Rock Central High School. Their enrollment was followed by the Little Rock Crisis, in which Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus called in the state National Guard to prevent the black students from entering the high school. However, later that month, President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent in federal troops to escort the Little Rock Nine into the school.

The start of the direct action movement took place in February 1960. As a result of that, four black students from North Carolina A&T College sat down at a Woolworth lunch counter in downtown Greensboro, North Carolina. That sit-in movement expanded from four students to tens of thousands of people by spring.

Joseph said the most important part of the sit-in movement was that it became the “seed bed” for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

“SNCC is going to be the group that are the designated shock troops of American democracy,” he said. “It is SNCC that is thinking about interracial democracy. It is SNCC that is talking about environmental justice and anti-war activism.”

In 1961, Freedom Riders rode interstate buses into the segregated South to fight for the enforcement of the Supreme Court decision in Boynton v. Virginia, which declared segregation of interstate transportation facilities, including bus terminals, unconstitutional.

“They are going to be violently repulsed by white supremacists and Klan violence,” Joseph said.

In May of 1961, President John F. Kennedy’s Justice Department, led by Attorney General Bobby Kennedy, is “forced” to work to protect civil rights activists, Joseph said.

“Really the Kennedy administration, for the next two years, are grudging allies for the civil rights movement,” he said.

Kennedy started civil rights reform in 1963, nearly a decade after the beginning of the movement.

“Before, the Kennedys are really only begrudging allies because they feel that the civil rights movement is going to hijack the president’s domestic agenda and his international agenda,” Joseph said. “By 1963, the president realizes his agenda should be the civil rights movement.”

The year 1963 is also the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation, and the Birmingham campaign.

“Birmingham, Alabama, is literally and figuratively on fire in 1963 at the prospect of not just racial segregation, but at the prospect of a movement for black citizenship that is not just led by Martin Luther King Jr., but by Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth,” Joseph said.

As a result of the Birmingham campaign protests, King was arrested and wrote the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

“King talks about the consequences of white liberals and white moderation,” Joseph said. “He talks about his disappointment with white moderates and would-be allies who are more satisfied with peace at the expense of justice.”

Joseph said the greatest outcome of King’s letter is the connection he made between the civil rights movement and the founding principles of American democracy.

“(King) makes an argument that the core of American democracy should be racial justice and black citizenship,” he said.

Also in 1963 was the March on Washington, where King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

Joseph said the speech is only remembered by its last stanza, even though that was not King’s main point.

“That is a 17-minute speech where we have remembered to forget the most radical components of that speech,” Joseph said.

According to Joseph, the most radical component of King’s speech was the beginning.

“He starts by saying, ‘Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy,’ ” he said. “King is constantly talking about small-D democracy and connecting that to the ideas of racial justice, economic justice and peace.”

Joseph said it is important to remember that the events in 1963 not only affected black people, but their white allies as well.

“The racial terror that engulfed the United States transcends race, even as it focuses on black and brown people primarily,” Joseph said.

In 1964, the Civil Rights Act passed and outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin.

In 1965, the Watts Riots took place in Los Angeles, California, when Marquette Frye, a young African-American motorist, was pulled over and arrested by a white Highway Patrolman for suspicion of driving while intoxicated.

Joseph said King’s work in Los Angeles following the riots mirrored the work of Black Lives Matter activists in present day.

“(King) confronts groups and neighborhoods who are being assaulted by a criminal justice system that is a gateway to multiple systems of oppression,” he said.

Even though King was celebrated in previous years with honors such as the Nobel Peace Prize and Time magazine’s Man of the Year, Joseph said he started to be vilified in 1967.

“He is vilified as a troublemaker, as somebody who is fomenting violence, as somebody who is un-American and not a patriot because he is saying the triple threats facing the world are materialism, racism and militarism,” Joseph said. “King is talking about perpetual warfare in 1967 and guess what? Fifty years later, we are a country that is in a perpetual state of war.”

Additionally, King spoke out against the Vietnam War in 1967 in a speech titled “Beyond Vietnam” in front of 3,000 people at Riverside Church in New York City.

“(King) says that it is going to be a ‘bitter (but) beautiful struggle,’ but the only way to achieve racial and economic justice domestically is to stop exporting violence overseas in the name of freedom,” Joseph said.

In 1968, King was trying to organize 1,000 sanitation workers who were on strike in Memphis, Tennessee, when he was assassinated.

Joseph said when looking back on the 50 years following King’s death, one must pay attention to how the “juxtapositions have grown.”

“We live in a country that elected the first black president in 2008, yet at the same time, Barack Obama presided over a criminal justice system where you had a disproportionate amount of black and brown women and men engulfed in the belly of the beast of that system,” he said.

Another example of a juxtaposition under and since Obama’s leadership is the resurgence of hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. According to Joseph, the most prominent example was the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, organized and comprised of white supremacists.

“We should not immortalize white supremacy,” he said. “We should not say these are just regular people who are misunderstood. It is the opposite of citizenship, the opposite of democracy, the opposite of not just Dr. King’s dream, but the opposite of what we think of as our core values as Americans. It is the opposite of equality, the opposite of justice, the opposite of fairness and certainly it is the opposite of nonviolence.”

In the midst of those modern-day juxtapositions, Joseph believes America is still democracy’s best hope.

“We are still the last, best hope on earth for social and political transformation, for racial and economic and gender and LGBTQ justice, for human rights,” he said. “King imagines a democracy capacious enough to include and to place at the center the most marginalized, dispossessed, humiliated and disparaged among us.”

Joseph said it is King’s example of optimism that encourages him to keep his faith.

“What is so important for us is that we remain hopeful and are committed to doing the work that King was unable to finish,” Joseph said. “He provides us so much optimism in expanding our vision of what is possible. There is an alternative that is possible.”

Bryan Stevenson imparts Martin Luther King Jr.’s requirements for justice, peace


As a child, Bryan Stevenson’s biggest dream was to swim in a swimming pool.

When he and his sister, Christy, recall the first time they did, they joke about how they had to ask all of the white kids to get out first. Except that is not how it happened. Bryan and Christy learned at an early age to alter the memories they can’t bear to remember.

When Stevenson was 12 years old, his mother announced she had saved enough money to send them on a bus trip to the brand new Disney World resort in Orlando, Florida. He and his sister wore their swimsuits underneath their clothes, and the minute they exited the bus to spend their first night in South Carolina, they raced to the motel pool. On the count of three, they jumped in, and chaos immediately broke out around them. Parents were screaming at the other children to get out of the pool, some even grabbing them before they had the chance to respond. When there was one little boy left in the pool, a white man came over and pulled him out. That is when Stevenson asked him a question.

“The question that I asked him was ‘What’s wrong?’ ” Stevenson said. “What he said to me, I remember like it happened yesterday. He looked at me and he said, ‘You’re wrong, n*****.’ ”

At 2 p.m. Mon., Aug. 13, in the Hall of Philosophy, Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit organization that represents prisoners who may have been wrongly convicted, poor prisoners without effective representation, and others who may have been denied a fair trial, gave his lecture, “Honoring Dr. King’s Legacy: What Should We Have Learned in the Past, but Have Not Yet, to Our Peril?” as part of Week Eight’s interfaith theme, “Not to be Forgotten: A Rememberance on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.”

Now, Stevenson, who is also the author of Just Mercy, has started to think about that day in the swimming pool differently. He wonders if the children remember getting out of the pool because two black kids jumped in. He wonders if that man remembers what he said to him or why he felt the need to say it.

“I worry they haven’t talked about it,” he said. “I worry that they are not haunted by what was done, and I even worry that they do not have a consciousness of wrongdoing or shame or mistake.”

Stevenson said he worries about the lack of consciousness because without memories, human beings repeat mistakes again and again.

“Because we don’t remember, I think we are living in this time of crisis,” he said.

There are four things Stevenson said Martin Luther King Jr. would want people to remember.

The first is that Americans can’t have justice if they are unwilling to get into close proximity to the people who are suffering.

“(Dr. King) could not march without going to Selma, he could not be an advocate unless he was willing to go to Albany, he could not make a difference in the lives and spaces of this country without going to Birmingham,” Stevenson said. “It was key to his philosophy and to his vision that justice requires proximity.”

Stevenson learned about proximity from his grandmother. When he was a little boy, his grandmother started giving him hugs and would squeeze him so tightly it would start to hurt.

“An hour later, she would see me and she would say, ‘Bryan, do you still feel me hugging you?’ ” Stevenson said. “If I said no, she would jump on me again.”

Stevenson’s grandmother developed cancer in her 90s, and Stevenson, who was a college student at the time, went to visit her before she passed. Her eyes were closed, and he was not sure she could hear him until the moment he got up to leave.

“My grandmother opened her eyes and she squeezed my hand, and the last thing she said to me was ‘Bryan, can you still feel me hugging you? I am always going to be hugging you,’ ” he said.

Stevenson said that day with his grandmother taught him the importance of presence within proximity.

“There is something that happens when we get closer to people who are suffering and struggling,” Stevenson said. “When we get close to people who have been abused and neglected and who have been marginalized, at minimum we can wrap our arms around them, and our presence means that something can be transformed.”

Stevenson said he experienced the power of proximity firsthand when lawyers came into his home community and fought for all of the black children’s rights to receive an education. That work led Stevenson to become the first in his family to go to college.

Stevenson loved college so much that he wanted to stay for as long as possible. He went through undergrad as a philosophy major and realized he could only do graduate work in history, English or political science. Stevenson chose Harvard Law School and said he found himself “deeply disillusioned.”

“I went there because I was concerned about inequality and racism and poverty, and it didn’t seem like anybody was talking about those issues,” he said.

After finishing one year of law school, Stevenson switched to the school of government to get a degree in public policy, only to find he was more miserable there than he was before.

“They were teaching us to maximize benefits and minimize cost, but it didn’t seem to matter whose benefits got maximized and whose costs got minimized,” Stevenson said.

Therefore, Stevenson returned to law school and aimed to become proximate with the work that really mattered to him.

He took a course that required him to spend a month with a human rights organization. Stevenson ended up in Atlanta, Georgia, working with a group of lawyers who represented people on death row. After one week on the job, a lawyer asked Stevenson to go to death row and let an inmate know he was not at risk of being executed in the next year.

The next day, Stevenson left to meet the inmate. He said he was most nervous about the man being disappointed that he was only a law student.

“I was pacing back and forth, trying to rehearse exactly what I was going to say to this man,” he said.

When the guards finally opened the door, there stood the first condemned prisoner Stevenson had ever seen. When the prisoner walked over to him, Stevenson told him about his execution date, and the prisoner grabbed his hands and asked him to repeat it two more times.

“That is when this man said, ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you,’ ” Stevenson said. “He said, ‘You are the first person I have met in the two years I have been on death row who is not a death row prisoner or a death row guard.’ ”

After that initial conversation, Stevenson and the inmate got wrapped up in conversation about each other’s lives for three hours. After that, the guards burst into the room, and Stevenson noticed they were mad.

“They threw his arms back and started putting the chains on his wrists so violently I could see the metal pinching his skin,” Stevenson said. “I begged them to be gentler, and this man looked at me and said, ‘Bryan, don’t worry about this. You just come back.’ ”

The guards shoved the man toward the exit, and when he reached the door, he planted his feet.

“I stood there and I watched this man close his eyes, throw his head back, and then he started to sing,” Stevenson said. “He started singing this hymn: ‘I’m pressing on the upward way, new heights I’m gaining every day; Still praying as I’m onward bound, Lord, plant my feet on higher ground.’ ”

Stevenson said having the proximity to hear that man sing is what changed his life forever and decided his career path.

The second thing Stevenson said King would want people to remember is the power one has to change narratives.

“We can’t just engage in policy debates and issue debates,” he said. “We have to understand the narratives underneath the policies and the issues.”

Stevenson believes mass incarceration exists in America because of a “false narrative.”

“We say that people with drug dependencies are criminals, and so we put them in jails and prisons,” Stevenson said. “We did not have to do that. We could have said that people with drug addiction and drug dependency have a health problem, and we need our health care system to respond to this problem.”

According to Stevenson, people made the choice to imprison those with addiction and dependency because of what he calls “politics of fear and anger.”

“We were being governed by people who were preaching to us to be afraid and to be angry, and I believe if we allow ourselves to be governed (that way), we will tolerate things we are not supposed to tolerate,” he said.

King taught that fear and anger are the essential “ingredients of injustice,” Stevenson said.

“Go into the world where there is oppression, and if you ask the oppressors why they do what they do, they can give you a narrative they believe justifies the abuse of other people,” Stevenson said.

Stevenson said the narrative regarding race needs to change more than any other.

“I don’t think we are free,” he said. “I don’t. I think we are burdened by a history of racial inequality that has created a kind of smog in the air, and it doesn’t matter where you are — California, New York, Alabama or Mississippi — we are all burdened, we are all unhealthy as a result of history that we haven’t talked about.”

Stevenson said what needs to be talked about is that Americans live in a “post-genocide society,” the genocide being the massacre of Native American people.

“We kept their word, ‘Chautauqua,’ but we made the people leave,” he said. “And we do not have any echo of that suffering in our minds or in our hearts.”

That massacre created a narrative of racial difference, one that Stevenson said led to Americans being comfortable with two centuries of enslavement.

“It was this ideology of white supremacy that we made up to justify enslavement,” Stevenson said. “It was that black people are different than white people — they can’t do this, they can’t do that, they aren’t full human. They are three-fifths human, the Supreme Court said. That narrative was the true evil of slavery.”

The 13th Amendment talks about the abolishment of involuntary servitude and forced labor, but because it does not say anything about ending the narrative of racial differences, Stevenson believes slavery did not end, it only evolved.

“(Black people) were murdered and beaten and drowned and hanged, and it was something that we turned our eyes away from,” he said. “We were tolerant. We allowed fear and anger to make us do nothing, and millions of people were terrorized.”

The third thing Stevenson said King would want people to remember is to stay hopeful, because hope is a “super power.”

“It is critical that we hope, because hope will get us to stand up when other people say, ‘Sit down,’ ” Stevenson said. “It will get us to speak when other people say, ‘Be quiet.’ There is something powerful about it, and the truth is you’re either hopeful or you are the problem.”

Stevenson said living in Alabama makes it hard for him to remain hopeful. In Alabama, Confederate Memorial Day and the birthday of Jefferson Davis, the  president of the Confederate States, are state holidays. In addition, Alabama does not celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day. It celebrates MLK-Lee Day.

But it is not just the South that causes Stevenson to struggle with hope.

Stevenson was representing a client in the Midwest, and when he sat down in the courtroom, the judge got angry and told him to sit in the hallway until his lawyer got there. Stevenson got up and introduced himself as the lawyer, and both the judge and the prosecutor laughed.

“I got to thinking what it was about this judge that when he saw a middle-aged black man in a suit and tie, sitting at the table, it didn’t even occur to him that that’s the lawyer?” Stevenson said.

A couple years ago, he talked about the incident in a TV interview. A few weeks ago, Stevenson’s secretary approached him and said there was a man who wanted to talk to him. The secretary tried to explain that Stevenson was busy, but the man began to cry.

“I went down into our lobby, and it was an old white man and he just grabbed me and started sobbing,” Stevenson said. “I didn’t recognize him, but through his sobs he said, ‘I heard you talking on TV. I am the judge that told you to go back out in that hallway. I am so sorry.’ ”

Although Stevenson told him he did not need to apologize, the judge persisted.

“There is something powerful that happens when we have the courage to confront the things that need to be confronted, but our hope is key to our ability to do that,” Stevenson said.

The fourth and final thing Stevenson said King would want people to remember is that one must be willing to do things that are inconvenient and make the individual uncomfortable.

“We can’t create justice if we insist on only doing the things that are comfortable and convenient,” he said. “It just doesn’t work that way.”

A few years ago, Stevenson got a call from a man who was scheduled to be executed in 30 days. The man said his lawyers had abandoned his case and he needed someone to take it. Stevenson discovered the man suffered from intellectual disabilities, meaning he could not legally be executed.

Stevenson went to the trial court, the state court, the appeals court and the federal court, and all told him it was too late.

The day of the execution, Stevenson was still waiting for a decision from the United States Supreme Court. An hour before the man’s scheduled time, the phone rang. The clerk told him the motion was denied.

Stevenson said this situation embodied the most difficult part of his job.

As Stevenson told the man he could not stop the execution, the man began to sob. But he told Stevenson to stay on the phone because there was something he needed to say. However, he could barely get it out because an aspect of his disability was severe stuttering under stress.

“At one point, I was just standing there holding the phone, and tears were running down my face,” Stevenson said. “It was so uncomfortable, so painful, my mind actually wandered.”

Stevenson’s mind wandered to a little boy he knew in church when he was a child. This little boy also had a stutter, and Stevenson’s mother witnessed as he started to laugh at the boy. Stevenson’s mother made him apologize, give the little boy a hug and tell him he loved him.

As Stevenson returned to the present moment, he heard what the man on the phone had to say.

“He said, ‘Mr. Stevenson, I want to thank you for representing me. I want to thank you for fighting for me,’ ” Stevenson said. “And the last thing that man said to me was ‘Mr. Stevenson, I love you for trying to save my life.’ ”

After the man was executed, Stevenson thought he could not continue his work.

“It was too hard and it was too painful,” he said. “I was thinking about how lonely he was, and the question I had in my mind was ‘Why do we want to kill all of the broken people? What is it about us that when we see brokenness, we want to crush it and hurt it and kill it?’ ”

Not only did Stevenson realize he represents broken people, he also realized he works in a broken system. But his greatest revelation that day was discovering why it is he started to do this work in the first place.

“I realized I don’t do what I do because I have been trained as a lawyer,” Stevenson said. “I do not do what I do because someone has to do it. I don’t do what I do because it is important. I realized I do what I do because I am broken, too.”

However, even though some people are broken, Stevenson does not believe it makes them any less capable of changing the world.

“It is the broken among us that can teach us the way mercy can heal,” he said. “It is the broken that understand the power of compassion. It is the broken that can teach us why justice is urgent in a society like ours and (it is) in brokenness that we understand what our humanity is all about.”

In the end, Stevenson said in order to achieve King’s ideal peace in society, people must learn to look beyond the surface of those around them.

“I believe each of us is more than the worst thing we have ever done,” he said. “I think if someone tells a lie, they are not just a liar. I think if someone takes something, they are not just a thief. I think even if someone kills someone, they are not just a killer. Justice requires that we know the other things you are.”

Brigham Young University law professor and expert on religion and law Frederick Gedicks to explain necessary limits of religious pluralism


As a young boy growing up in New Jersey, Frederick Gedicks believed he was a religious minority. Gedicks was raised a Mormon in a community with few Mormons — a childhood experience that sparked his interest in the study of religious liberty. Now, Gedicks works as Guy Anderson Chair and professor of law at Brigham Young University and has been cited in United States Supreme Court opinions.

This combination of academia and personal experience as a religious minority has led Gedicks to understand the role of religious freedom in America and the necessity of balance. Blind acceptance of complete religious pluralism, he said, is dangerous.

“Often, people talk about religious pluralism as if it’s an unqualified good, saying difference is always good and the more difference we have, the better,” he said. “But there has to be limits to pluralism.”

At 2 p.m. Thursday, August 9, in the Hall of Philosophy, Gedicks will address the limits of religious pluralism in his lecture, “Three Problems of Pluralism,” which is part of the Week Seven interfaith theme, “Let Them Eat Cake? Defining the Future of Religious Freedom in the U.S.”

Gedicks, who previously served as a visiting research fellow of the ReligioWest project in Florence, has spent years explaining the balance of church and state in the United States. At Chautauqua, he will analyze what happens without balance, when the government relinquishes its role of law enforcement in religious freedom cases.

Gedicks will lay out the consequences by identifying three necessary “limits.”

“First, if a religious accommodation generates harm to other people who don’t benefit from the accommodation, that suggests a limit,” he said. “If an accommodation is requested in an area of American life that is more public than private, like a government office, that suggests a limit. Finally, what would happen if we push the justification for an accommodation to its logical limit? It could spill over and result in a situation that would undermine the government’s ability to operate.”

Beyond explaining general principles, Gedicks will connect the limits of religious pluralism to the contested Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission Supreme Court case. In addition to this case, Gedicks said there are applicable, real-world examples that demonstrate the necessity of balance between church and state.

“There are religious parents who, for religious or spiritual reasons, are suspicious of modern medicine,” he said. “If they don’t treat their children for easily curable diseases, then they’re liable under the criminal law. We also have religious polygamists who marry underage girls. So yes, religious pluralism is good, but it’s not an unlimited good.”

Gedicks also recognizes that the Masterpiece Cakeshop case marks a shift in the overall discussion of American religious liberty. When he began his academic work, Gedicks said much of the religious freedom discussion centered on minorities, but recent cases have demonstrated a change.

“I think discussions about religious liberty are more polarized now than they used to be,” he said. “Twenty or 30 years ago, a discussion about religious accommodation was focused on minorities. Now, Christians, particularly conservative Christians, have been aggressive in seeking religious accommodations in public life.”

Tayo Rockson emphasizes global understanding, cultural communication

  • Tayo Rockson, founder and CEO of UYD Management, speaks on the importance of communicating across cultures during his lecture Wednesday, Aug. 8, 2018 on the Amphitheater stage. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

Tayo Rockson has a message drilled into his head: “The world is bigger than you, and if you want to succeed in it, you have to understand it.”

He shared this mantra with Wednesday’s 10:45 a.m. morning lecture attendees in the Amphitheater on Aug. 8, speaking to communicating across cultures, a continuation of Week Seven’s theme, “The Arts and Global Understanding.” The morning kicked off with a celebration of the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle Class of 2018, which graduated earlier that day.

“If you look around the world today, we can see that due to the internet and migration patterns, we’re experiencing a whole new world. The intersections of worldviews, ideas, cultures, religions, is influencing every single policy we have today. … So, it’s imperative for leaders of today and tomorrow to learn how to navigate across these differences. It’s no longer just an option to ignore them.”

-Tayo Rockson, CEO, UYD Management

A son of a diplomat, Rockson was raised in Nigeria, Sweden, Burkina Faso, Vietnam and the United States, where he now resides. Rockson serves as the chief executive officer of UYD Management, a consulting and leadership firm that helps companies incorporate diversity, inclusion, hiring, retention and social justice strategies. He is also the host of “As Told by Nomads,” the No. 1 cross-cultural podcast in the world.

Rockson was named one of the Top 40 Millennial Influencers to Follow in 2018 by New Theory magazine and is the author of The Ultimate Guide to TCK Living: Understanding the World Around You.

He opened his lecture with a question for the audience: how many people have had a “nagging thought?” For Rockson, his is how to efficiently execute cross-cultural engagement. As a child, his method was through basketball.

“I had a Taiwanese teammate, a Dutch teammate, a Cameroonian teammate, an American teammate, and I’m Nigerian,” he said. “We had a common goal that was to win. That was my first clue, a common goal. Establishing mutual purpose is so key when you want learn how to communicate effectively across cultures.”

Thus began his quest to connect across borders, a question to resolve his nagging question. The answer: To effectively engage cross-culturally, one must educate — not perpetuate — and communicate. Education begins with the education of ourselves.

Rockson asked the audience to think about three questions — “What have my experiences been?,” “What prejudices do I hold?” and “How much have I strayed outside of my comfort zone?” To answer, he asked the audience to jot down three places they lived, their three best friends and their last three partners, followed by descriptors. Rockson then asked for volunteers to share their responses.

Chautauquan Joann Rose offered to share. A Philadelphia native, Rose moved to a small town and has since relocated to a suburb. One of her best friends was born in Puerto Rico; the other two are her husband and grandchild.

“You can really get isolated in your environment, but over the years if you move and you change, you expand, hopefully,” she said, when asked by Rockson what this information said about herself. “There’s always room for expansion.”

Based on these answers, Rockson asked the audience to examine their biases — are they rooted in fear, insecurity or avoidance?

To overcome these prejudices, Rockson said, people must educate themselves about their environment by learning to collect and gather information, becoming an active listener and being an active member of their community.

“Something amazing happens when you commit to active listening,” he said. “Because actively listening is listening to learn, listening to understand and listening to evaluate. … It is not listening to confirm, which is what a lot of us do.”

Listening to confirm only perpetuates stereotypes and prejudices, Rockson said. He experienced this firsthand when he moved to the United States and a man, after learning he was Nigerian, approached Rockson pretending to hold an imaginary object, which he raised after singing “Circle of Life” from “The Lion King.”

Misguided questions about his culture led Rockson to realize that people trivialize others’ identities through jokes and that marginalized groups feel the need to hide to avoid this humiliation. He said it’s too easy for people to brush others aside as being “too sensitive,” something the media perpetuates through misrepresentation and lack of diversity.

“If we don’t do a better job of creating these stories that are accurate, inviting more people to create these stories through the media,” Rockson said, “… if we don’t do a better job of just clicking send or reshare based on a headline without actually reading, we are going to create this system where no one is listening and we are going to perpetuate certain stereotypes. … Once you perpetuate, you create systems of discrimination, intentionally or unintentionally.”

Communication is key to eroding stereotypes, he said. Rockson quoted Martin Luther King Jr.: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

Rockson offered self-directed questions as a guide for contentious conversations: “What is my goal for this conversation?,” “What do want from this person out of this conversation?,” “What do I want for myself out of this conversation?” and “What do I want from the relationship moving forward?” After examining these motives, Rockson offered a final question — “How will I act if that’s what I want?”

Communication is rooted in abandoning egos and the need to be right in order to find common ground, Rockson said.

“My call to action to you all today is this: educate, don’t perpetuate, instead, communicate,” he said. “Fact of the matter is, you all have a choice; you can choose to see the world as is and do nothing about it, or you can choose to see a world that is hurting and participate by changing the narrative. Whichever choice you make, you’re changing the world in some shape or form. My choice is that you choose the latter, so I leave you with this question: Will you use your difference to make a difference?”

After the conclusion of Rockson’s lecture, Institution Chief of Staff Matt Ewalt opened the Q-and-A by asking if “exposing ourselves to other cultures at times limits ourselves from thinking of cross-cultural understanding within our own community.”

“I don’t think it’s mutually exclusive,” Rockson said, “that if you educate yourself on another person or another culture, you’re going to lose that aspect of yourself.”

Ewalt then turned to the audience for questions; two attendees asked how to find spaces to communicate across cultures.

“If you share your story and create spaces for others to tell their stories, you don’t know what the ripple effect of that is,” Rockson said. “But one thing that won’t allow growth is not doing anything. The very least that anyone can do is tell their story.”


Douglas Laycock outlined the parameters of religious freedom

  • University of Virginia Professor Douglas Laycock speaks about religious freedom during the Interfaith Lecture, Monday, August 6, 2018, in the Hall of Philosophy. BRIAN HAYES/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Even before the First Amendment was ratified, Douglas Laycock said practicing religious freedom has never been a piece of cake.

At 2 p.m. Monday, August 6, in the Hall of Philosophy, Laycock, the Robert E. Scott Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of Virginia School of Law, gave his lecture, “Free Exercise of Religion – from Martin Luther to Masterpiece Cakeshop,” as part of Week Seven’s interfaith theme, “Let Them Eat Cake? Defining the Future of Religious Freedom in the U.S.”

The prelude to America’s “experiment with religion liberty” began with Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation, Laycock said.

“Earlier reformers had been oppressed, but Luther had the enormous advantage of the printing press and he spread alleged heresy on a continental scale,” he said.

Laycock said although Protestants and Catholics were fighting for religious liberty, neither group was ready for it.

“They both assumed that they should enforce their faith wherever the government would cooperate,” he said. “Never forget that it was government, not churches, that had the power to punish and to execute. That is why our constitution protects religion from government, not the other way around.”

However, it turned out many governments were willing to persecute. The resulting persecutions, or “wars on religion,” consumed Europe for the next 200 years, Laycock said.

“Of course, the English experience is most salient in America,” he said. “England was irretrievably Protestant by the end of Elizabeth’s reign in 1603, but the persecutions continued, and religious warfare broke out in intervals. Anglican Puritans’ civil war in the 1640s was a revolution that overthrew a Catholic king in 1688, and a final climactic battle between Protestants’ and Catholics’ claims to the throne in 1746 is within the living memory of the men who wrote the Constitution.”

All of this human suffering led “sensible people” to question the premise: Why not let each individual determine a religious stance for his or herself?

First came the idea of tolerance.

“The state would still designate the true church and support it in various ways, but the state and the true church would tolerate dissenters,” Laycock said.

Religious equality was the second idea, Laycock said.

“Rather than one official church that tolerated all of the others, religious liberty would be a natural right,” Laycock said. “It would mean equal rights for every church and every believer and, eventually, every non-believer as well.”

The concept of religious liberty sparked debate among the American people.

“Defenders of the old regime offered multiple reasons for state control of religion, but all of the reasons had one thing in common: Religion is too important to be left to individuals,” Laycock said.

One of most common reasons for giving the state control of religion was to “save souls.”

“If there is one true faith whose believers will be saved, and many false teachings whose believers will be damned, then heretics need to be forced into the true faith for their own good and also to protect the innocent that they might lead astray,” Laycock said.

Laycock said the argument of keeping the peace was secular and the argument of saving souls was more theological and with both, each individual’s salvation was at stake.

“That turned the old view on its head,” he said. “Religion was far too important to be left to government.”

By the early 18th century, toleration had come — even to New England. First, government officials exempted dissenters from attending the established church. Eventually, they declared that any Christian denomination can hold its own worship service and by the 1720s, the United States and New England were enacting regulatory exemptions for religious minorities.

“First, they exempted Quakers and Baptists from paying a church tax, then they exempted Quakers from swearing oaths, and in 1757, during the French and Indian War, Massachusetts finally addressed the most difficult issue of all and exempted Quakers from serving in the militia,” Laycock said.

During the American Revolution, every state wrote a constitution; the federal constitution followed in 1787.

“Church and state was a major issue in those constitutional conventions, but the fight was over how to finance the church,” Laycock said. Including religion in the state and federal constitutions led to the most fundamental disagreement, Laycock said.

On one side, Americans declared that the constitutional right to religion must include the right to be exempt from laws that interfere with one’s religious beliefs unless the government has a strong reason for refusing an exemption.

The other side of the debate said that exemptions for Quakers, Jewish people and dissenters who refused to pay the church tax were all enacted by legislatures, Laycock said.

“(The legislatures) addressed specific problems,” Laycock said. “They tell us nothing about what rights were made judicially enforceable, and they tell us nothing about any claim to religious exemptions for any new law or new practice that might arise in the future.”

The issue of church and state first reached the Supreme Court in 1878 with Reynolds v. United States, the prosecution of a polygamous Mormon leader.

“The opinion is embarrassing to read today,” Laycock said. “The court said polygamy wasn’t even really a religious practice, and it had been a practice of Asian and African people, but never Europeans.”

Laycock said the court drew a definitive line between belief and action.

“It said you can believe any religion you want, but you have no right to practice it if the legislature says no,” Laycock said.

But the court’s protection of belief was short-lived. In 1890, the Supreme Court upheld a test oath that prevented Mormons from voting in Davis v. Beason. The oath covered not just polygamy, but also “speech, church membership and mere belief.”

“Congress revoked the church’s corporate charter and seized all of its property besides actual places of worship,” Laycock said. “Shortly after, the Mormon Church banned any plural marriages.”

However, in 1892, the Supreme Court had ruled on a case about a Presbyterian church in Louisville, Kentucky. The court declared that civil courts must defer to the highest authority in the denomination.

“That decision has given rise to a principle that churches have the right to control their own internal affairs,” Laycock said.

He said that principle is why the Supreme Court unanimously decided in 2012 that employees in positions of religious leadership can’t sue their churches for alleged discrimination and why churches can’t be required to perform weddings, except in accordance with their own rules.

The debate around the free exercise of religion remained an issue of personal belief until it became a “culture war issue” in the late 1990s, Laycock said.

“Gay rights groups and civil rights groups demanded a total carveout for all civil rights claims, and of course, the sponsors couldn’t give them that,” he said. “Secular civil liberty groups dropped out of the Coalition for the Free Exercise of Religion, and religious groups could not pass a bill without them.”

The most recent example of a culture-based case was the Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission.

Masterpiece is among a handful of cases where conservative Christians in the wedding business refused to assist with a same-sex wedding and get sued under a state public accommodations law,” Laycock said.

Laycock said vendors, like the owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop, view marriage as an inherently religious relationship and therefore think of weddings as religious events, too.

“Their job is to make their part of the wedding the best and most memorable it can be,” he said. “(People who provide services for weddings) see themselves as promoting it, celebrating it, and they say they can’t do that.”

Over time, Laycock said cases like Masterpiece have been litigated under state constitutions in blue and purple states with statewide gay rights laws. However, the federal government took a much larger role in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case because Colorado had no previous ruling interpreting the state constitution’s free exercise clause.

The baker claimed that the cake decorations were works of art protected by the free speech clause.

“If you look at the pictures of those cakes, that’s not crazy, but it is an argument with no logical stopping points,” Laycock said. “If cake decorating is speech, then lots of businesses are speech.”

Laycock and a colleague filed a friend of the court brief for Masterpiece devoted to free exercise.

“We said this (wedding) is a religious event; only small business should be exempted and only with things directly connected to the wedding,” he said. “Almost no one took us seriously except for seven justices on the Supreme Court.”

In 2015, William Jack, a Christian activist, tested the flip side of the Masterpiece argument. He went to three different bakers requesting cakes with religious messages hostile to same-sex marriage. Each baker refused to make  the cake, and they were charged with religious discrimination, but the charges were dismissed.

“The same Colorado law that prohibits sexual orientation discrimination prohibits discrimination on the basis of any religious belief or practice,” Laycock said.

Laycock said in its decision of the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, the Supreme Court proved that the reason for protecting free exercise now is the same as it was 200 years ago: to reduce human suffering and preserve social peace.

“Religious liberty is one of America’s great contributions to the world, and we should not let it slip away either in legal wrangling or in a bitter culture war,” Laycock said.

John Scherer discusses five questions to change one’s life, work

  • The Rev. John Scherer discusses how to transform one's workplace into a "Spiritual Development Dojo," on Wednesday, August 1, 2018, in the Hall of Philosophy. ABIGAIL DOLLINS/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

As a former combat officer on a U.S. Navy destroyer, Lutheran chaplain at Cornell University, co-creator of the Leadership Institute of Seattle Graduate Program, therapist, author and magician, the Rev. John Scherer has mastered the art of doing it all. Now, he works to help others do the same.

At 2 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 1, in the Hall of Philosophy, Scherer, founder and president of Scherer Leadership Center, gave his lecture, “Seva as Sadhana: Workplace as Spiritual Development Dojo,” as part of Week Six’s interfaith theme, “The Spirituality of Work.”

Acknowledging that every audience member is a “work in progress,” Scherer began by posing a question:

“What if you could see that every day you are going into work, you are going into a classroom, or a dojo, where you get to practice and develop yourself?” he said.

Scherer’s answer to that question is derived from his latest book, Five Questions that Change Everything: Life Lessons at Work. According to Scherer, the five questions he compiled will “change everything.” Everything except for one’s self, the “one thing that never needs to change.”

“You do not need to change yourself. You need to come home to yourself,” he said. “That changes everything.”

Scherer said steering people away from the mindset of being “more (of) this, less (of) that” was the founding principle of his leadership program in the 1980s.

“(It’s) not about trying to be somebody else, but discovering more fully and deeply who is alive in there and bring that to the world,” Scherer said.

The first of the five questions is: What confronts you? To give more depth to this question, Scherer used a metaphor of a tiger.

“If you were in a jungle in India and a tiger came up on you suddenly, what would the human instinct be to do?” he said. “Run.”

Scherer said if one runs, instinct also kicks in inside the tiger’s brain.

“It sees that small, slow figure trying to run away, the yummy one with the crunchy center, and the tiger sees lunch,” Scherer said. “The cat is hard-wired to chase something trying to run away, so if you run away, your chances of survival are zero.”

However, if one turns and faces the tiger, the tiger will process that reaction and think about it, Scherer said.

“If you think about it for a second, that is fairly significant,” he said.

Scherer said if one’s chances of survival by running is zero, and the chances of survival in facing the tiger are “something greater than zero, it is probably a chance worth taking.”

Scherer then asked the audience what the tiger represents in their own lives.

“Who is a difficult person in your life right now, a difficult relationship?” Scherer said. “What is a decision you are having trouble making? What is something going on in your circle of in uence that doesn’t feel right, that you are hesitating to confront?”

Scherer said something that has assisted him in confrontation is practicing aikido, a traditional Japanese martial art.

Aikido has been very important to me in reframing something,” he said. “When something is coming at me, I am trying to figure out how can I get off the line of attack and figure out what the lesson is.”

The second question is: What am I bringing to this encounter?

“If I were to face the tiger, what am I bringing?” he said. “My hopes? My fears? My intentions?”

The third question is: What has been running me? For this question, Scherer used a metaphor of a hamster running in a wheel.

“How is my life like the hamster in the wheel?” Scherer said. “It might be a lovely, lovely life, but how is it lovely in the wheel? It might only be lovely in the current wheel, and that is better than having a life in a wheel that’s not very lovely, but it is still a life inside of a wheel.”

A life inside the wheel means “every day is the same, only a little different,” Scherer said.

“What you hope for is incremental change,” he said. “Maybe I can make this a little better, maybe I can make my relationship with my partner a little better, my kids, my neighbor, whoever.”

Scherer said what runs people is “default.”

When working with executives and senior-level management in his leadership program, Scherer often sees that people are trying to be a persona, rather than a person.

“We wake up in the morning, and we pump up that persona,” he said. “Whether it’s a mom or a dad or whatever your roles are, you put on the role, and meanwhile, behind that pump-up doll is a real person. That is the position.”

Scherer believes alternating between position and person causes an internal disconnect.

“That’s why you feel like something isn’t working,” he said. “You are not here to be the position, you were created to be the person that is inside of the position.”

The fourth question is: What calls me?

“What calls out from inside you?” Scherer said. “What are your charisms? What are your gifts?”

Scherer said charisms are what one is good at, but has never been taught.

In addition, Scherer asked, “What calls from outside one’s self?”

As an example, he told a story of his son Asa. One day when Scherer was coming home, he heard Asa playing the grand piano in their living room. Scherer said he could feel the entire house shaking, and that is when he had a realization. The realization was that it was not the piano or the music that was shaking the house — it was Asa.

“Nothing happens until he places his hands on that keyboard,” Scherer said. “Your job, your work is just your piano. Nothing happens until you take your uniqueness, your God-given charism, and you put your hands on that keyboard.”

The fifth questions is: What will unleash me?

Scherer said this question is derived from the basis of the Aramaic name for salvation, which is to be “delivered, released or set free.”

“It is the word Jesus would have used if he talked about salvation,” he said. “(Jesus) never asked people, ‘Do you believe this, this and this?’ ” he said. “ ‘You are seeing something, you are coming here to me, and that has already set you free.’ ”

Ultimately, Scherer said he believes everyone was put on earth with an assignment.

“A great theologian said, ‘We show up here with sealed borders,’ ” he said. “How do you discover what your sealed borders are? That is what life is about: discovering why we are here.”

To figure out one’s purpose, Scherer suggested three things:

“First, why we are here? (For) continuous development, continuous discovery of the soul and the essence of who we are,” he said. “Second, expressing whoever that is out into the world as fully and free without abandonment. And the third thing is (to live) in such a way that that contributes to the creation of life in the way it could be. I guarantee one of those questions will be a key that can unlock the door to your greatest life.”

Maggie Jackson stresses need for face-to-face interaction in interfaith lecture

  • Maggie Jackson, author of "Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age," speaks during the Interfaith Lecture Series, Tuesday, July 31, 2018, in the Hall of Philosophy. BRIAN HAYES/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Due to rapid advancements in technology, Maggie Jackson knows the art of asking for directions is dying. However, she still believes it is worth asking because the benefits of face-to-face interaction — even with those who disagree — are endless.

At 2 p.m. Tuesday, July 31, in the Hall of Philosophy, Jackson, a journalist and author of Distracted, gave her lecture, “Outside the Walls of Our Perspective: How Tolerance Sets Us Free,” as part of Week Six’s interfaith theme, “A Spirituality of Work.”

“The moment when I am asking (for directions), I am placing myself in the hands of a stranger, I am trusting their take on the world, and they too gain by offering the gift of their knowledge and by interacting with someone who, for a little while, sees the world with very fresh eyes,” Jackson said. “You might say that what is really going on here is the gift of a second chance. New connections are made, new perspectives are constructed before two people head off in new directions.”

According to Jackson, only a quarter of Americans talk regularly to people with opposing political views, and social circles are shrinking. She said that applies to both core networks: the intimates or family and friends we talk about important matters with, and larger networks or one’s “weaker ties.”

“We are essentially talking to the mirror,” she said. “After all, it is easier, quicker, smoother to keep behind the walls of our perspective and affirm the rightness of our tribe. As a result, common ground shrinks, science tells us, and differences in perspectives widen.”

Jackson said staying behind these walls leads to “clashing realities” among different groups of people.

“Interactions with others, when they do occur, seem to be chances to do battle with an online comment, a dinner party rebuttal or a street confrontation and then retreat, retreat, retreat,” she said.

Jackson paraphrased the novelist Richard Wright and said, “We are hugging the easy way of damning all we do not understand.” She posed three questions to the audience: How can we? How can we start getting along together? How can we rediscover the humanity of those most different from us?

Answering Wright’s questions is where Jackson said many people tend to “give up the fight.”

“Here is where some might say ‘get real,’ ” she said. “Democracy is under threat; this is an age of anxiety and anger. Sixty percent of Americas call this the lowest point in U.S. history in memory, across generations. Some might say we need to ‘take our country back’ and that ‘the time for compromise has passed.’ ”

Jackson referred back to a moment in history when a metaphorical “green shoot of hope sprouted in a desert of hate.”

Durham, North Carolina, was one of the last towns in the country to formally desegregate its schools in 1970. When a federal court-ordered ultimatum came down that the schools must be integrated, school administration set up a 10-day series of town hall meetings to prepare for the changes to come.

Two co-chairs were named: Ann Atwater and C.P. Ellis. Along with being co-chairs, the two also happened to be mortal enemies.

Atwater was an eighth-grade drop out, a sharecropper’s daughter and a tireless advocate for Durham’s poor, black population. Ellis was a gas station owner and the local chief of the KKK in Durham, the most active Klan chapter in the country, Jackson said.

“Atwater and Ellis knew one another well,” Jackson said. “They had met on many battlegrounds such as marches, boycotts and city council meetings.”

In the lead up to the town meetings to discuss desegregation, Atwater and Ellis refused to speak to or even look at one another, Jackson said. However, after the first meeting, Ellis called Atwater and proposed that they set aside their differences for the sake of their children.

After finding common ground stemming from their shared roles as parents, Jackson said the effect of Ellis’ call on the second meeting changed their relationship entirely.

“Both (of their) kids had been taunted and bullied at their schools for what their parents were doing,” Jackson said.

Although their rivalry could have ended there, Jackson said Ellis continued to retreat to the “comfort of his assumptions” and still pushed back on Atwater’s principles of belief.

In planning for one of the last nights of the meetings, Atwater invited a celebratory gospel choir, and Ellis retaliated by demanding he be able to set up a exhibit to display KKK, Nazi and white supremacist paraphernalia.

To everyone’s surprise, Atwater stood up for him, Jackson said.

That night of the final meeting as he sat in the classroom with his exhibit, a group of angry black teenagers headed his way.

“The city was tense; the time was right for a riot,” Jackson said. “They headed to the classroom, and Ann Atwater stood and blocked their way. She said ‘If you want to know where a person is coming from, you have got to see what makes him think what he thinks. Step closer. Take a look. What is on the other side of the divide? What are we failing to see?’ ”

According to Jackson, Atwater countered Ellis’ gesture of contempt with “the gift of deep regard.”

“She answered his retreat by stepping forward and standing up for her enemy, calling on all around her to see the world from his point of view,” Jackson said. “This perspective-taking was a folk wisdom that is now being understood scientifically as one of the most powerful antidotes to prejudice that we have. Perspective-taking is the cognitive side to empathy. It is reaching out for fuller understanding of another. By taking one another’s perspective, we begin to flesh out the stereotype. We look past the labels.”

Jackson said by taking a new perspective, Atwater and Ellis called on the people around them to probe opposing views, not to condone or destroy them and to cultivate something Jackson called miraculous: the gift of another chance.

“In one masterful moment in 1971, Ann Atwater gave both herself and C.P. Ellis a new beginning that neither opposed,” she said.

After the meetings, Ellis left the KKK and was labeled a pariah in his KKK chapter. He went on to help lead a mostly black union at Duke University. Although Atwater was accused by some in her community of “selling out” by working with Ellis, she became one of the city’s greatest activists.

“Each learned how to stand up for what they believed was right, while adjusting what right might be,” Jackson said. “Step closer, imagine (a different) point of view and this thoughtful regard sets people up for mutual discovery. This is how tolerance can be freeing.”

Jackson believes the hope for tolerance displayed through this unlikely friendship represents the importance of both the “science of prejudice and the lessons the past can teach us.”

“Division breeds hatred, quickly and easily,” Jackson said. “While seeing the other up close, taking on another’s perspective, engaging with others despite inevitable discourse, all of this opens and then changes minds.”

Simran Singh talks a need for more Sikhism representation in interfaith dialogue

  • Simran Singh, assistant professor of religion at Trinity University in San Antonio, lectures on Sikhism as part of the Interfaith Friday series Friday, July 27, 2018 in the Hall of Philosophy. RILEY ROBINSON/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

In the fifth edition, July 27, of the Interfaith Friday Series, the Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson, vice president of religion, moderated a number of questions with interfaith advocate Simran Jeet Singh, who represented Sikhism.

Singh is an assistant professor of religion at Trinity University and senior religion fellow for the Sikh Coalition, a civil rights organization based in New York City. This year, Singh is serving as the Henry R. Luce Fellow for Religion in International Affairs at NYU’s Center for Religion and Media. Simran is also on the board of the Religion News Association, a fellow for the Truman National Security Project and a term member for the Council on Foreign Relations. Simran has received various accolades and awards for his teaching and social justice work. Most recently, he received the Walter Wink Scholar-Activist Award from Auburn Seminary, the Presidential Excellence Award for Teaching from Columbia University, Educator of the Year from the Dialogue Institute of the Southwest and the Community Pillar Award from the Northside Education Foundation.

What follows is an abridged version of Singh’s conversation. Singh and Robinson’s remarks have been condensed for clarity.

From where you sit in your tradition, why should we be moving in an interfaith direction either here at Chautauqua or in the world?

Singh: For communities like mine that are so often invisible, marginalized or disempowered, interfaith can serve as a vehicle for lifting up these communities. I have been involved in interfaith work since elementary school; we were the only (Sikh) kids in San Antonio, and my parents would have us perform, speak and represent interfaith programs. For me, I have found that at that time, no one thought about Sikhs. No one in Texas was thinking about interfaith any more broadly than Jewish, Christian and Islam — if they could find a Muslim. That is what interfaith looked like to us then. Now, 30 years later, (there is an) increasing inclusion of minority communities, the affirmation that we belong, we matter. Even sitting on this stage with you, I could not imagine doing something like this when I was kid, and I feel like myself and members of my community have fought tooth and nail just to be seen. I know this is happening more and more on a national level, but it is not happening at a lower level. People aren’t reaching out and making the effort to do that.

This interfaith (dialogue) historically has been and continues to be a power play. There are certain people who get seats at the table, and there are certain people who don’t. In a sense, it is not different than how power works in any other context, whether we are talking politically, in local communities or in your own household. There are people who have power, who can open up spaces for people who don’t have power and create equity. We can produce equal footings for other people in our community. For me, that is what I really appreciate about interfaith.

When you come to the metaphorical interfaith table, what gifts do you bring as a Sikh to that table?

Singh: So one of the things I am working on and writing on is this idea called the “technologies of the self.” It is something that I find to be incredibly powerful in a world where it seems to me that people are becoming disillusioned with discipline and practice. So many young people that I encounter in my classrooms and outside of them say, “I am spiritual, but not religious.” And I am all for that, but what I often interpret from that as we talk further is that they are interested in this concept of spirituality and meditation and yoga, but don’t want to commit to any sort of daily ritual because they find that to be meaningless. In many ways, I completely empathize with them. I felt that way growing up. As my daily discipline as a Sikh, we are supposed to do prayer five times a day, and as a teenager, I found it ridiculous that I was saying the same thing five times a day. (When) I came across Saba Mahmood’s book, Politics of Piety, it completely changed how I understood the importance of the practice of discipline, and that is what gave me the insight into what is different about the Sikh community that we are seeing right now: why is it that in every single incident that I have encountered and studied, Sikhs respond with their values? It’s always love, it’s always optimism, it’s always justice. The only answer I have is this idea of daily sustained discipline. Every single day, do the right thing, so when push comes to shove, you do the right thing. That is something I have seen from the Sikh community, and it’s the most powerful lesson that I have taken in the last 10 to 15 years.

What gifts do other religions bring to the table that you might benefit from?

Singh: The past few years I have been teaching Islamic studies at Trinity University in San Antonio. One of things I have really appreciated from studying Islam has been this concept of Ahl al-Kitāb, the idea that there are “people of the book” and that they share a fraternity of Jews, Christians and Muslims. The idea of “book” has transformed over time, but they have a core identity that stays together. What I love about that is that it gives us a language for this idea of familyhood. I would love for us, Sikhs especially, to think about what it would mean to develop language that extended beyond our identity. This idea of Ahl al-Kitāb allows us to do that, to imagine what a community looks like and what they have in common in a way that is actually tangible. We can identify based on that single term that there is a set of core values, of a shared history, of shared texts, of shared ritual and of shared culture. We have language that does that for us in a broader way. We can say “humanity,” we can say “familyhood,” but those terms, when we use them to talk about one another, have become so watered down that it doesn’t really do any work for us. So what does it mean to develop language that we can institutionalize in a way that really means “I have a connection with you”? I don’t know what the answer to that is, but I look into that concept and say, “I want some of that.”

Do you have any sacred texts or holy teachings that are telling you that yours is the one true religion?

Singh: In our tradition, we have a scriptural text that was compiled by our gurus themselves. It is all music, it’s all written to song and it is all poetry. It is not just their own writings; they included the writings and songs of other traditions. It is a sort of devotional and mystical literature and music that essentially communicates two messages: What it’s like to experience that connectedness with love, and how does one get to experience it? There is not much of anything else. What we find in our tradition and our theological belief is that one can reach this goal of love from any religious path. It is this true, essential idea of pluralism to the point that we have other religious figures in our own Scriptures, and we have no problem with that because our idea is it doesn’t matter what your background is, as long as you live a life of love. We don’t care too much about afterlife, we don’t have a concept of missionizing or conversion, and it is because we have this core, deeply held belief that one should be devoted, and one should be loving, and it doesn’t matter where they are coming from. So there is not anything to be interpreted as “You have to be a Sikh in order to be a good person” because we explicitly believe the opposite.

Do you have extremist practitioners of Sikhism?

Singh: Just like any religious tradition, we have extremists, and just like any other religious tradition, we have them of all stripes. I think the violent extremism is boring, and so I don’t want to touch on that because that is what we always talk about as a society. What I think is super interesting, what I am constantly trying to wrap my head around, is the type of extremism that I find reads religion in such a way that it flips the core idea on its head, and then you end up with something that seems exactly opposite of what was intended. For example, I have talked about how oneness is the ultimate principle and so much of the Scripture talks about “How do we break down these divisions and dichotomies we have produced in our heads, not just about people we encounter, but how we organize our understanding of the world?” The most common in the context of religion is what’s pure and what’s polluted. In the Sikh tradition, a lot of work is done by our gurus institutionally, scripturally around destroying these ideas of divisions, destroying the idea that there is something better than something else and the constant reminder that God is in everything. But still, there are Sikhs who end up living in such a way that they have very strong beliefs that there are only certain things that are divine and only certain things that are profane. That strikes me as fascinating because the entire logic of the Sikh theological system relies on this core principle of divine presence in everything. To then say this particular site is holy because God lives here, or this particular day is the most holy because this is divinely sanctioned, or this material substance is something we should eat, or that we should touch because God is here or God is not there — that is extremism. They take those ideas to their edges, and it completely changes the way we understand what Sikhism is about.

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