Week 4: Paradox

from Emily Provance, Friend in Residence

In front of Quaker House, there are two trees.  One has green leaves, and the other has red.  I don’t know enough about horticulture to explain this.  There’s also a squirrel—I call her Friend Squirrel—who delights in leaping between them.  Sometimes, when I’m working on the balcony, she comes along to practice her acrobatics.  I could never do what she does . . . but then, I’m not a squirrel.

The week’s theme at Chautauqua has been “Navigating Our Divides.”  Funny how nobody’s defined what that means.  First, “divides” could refer to a lot of things, and indeed, every speaker interpreted this differently.  And second, what do we mean by “navigating” our divides?  Do we mean working together?  Repairing harm done?  Co-existing without offending?  Convincing the other party that they’re wrong?  Do we hope that our side will win?  Are we seeking a way forward for everyone equally?

Our divides go back a long, long time.  Sunday night was “Christmas in July,” an old Chautauqua tradition.  (There seem to be a great many Chautauqua traditions.)  We read from the Christmas story and sang Christmas hymns, but beforehand, Bishop Gene Robinson explained a bit about the origins of the Christmas story.  Why is it different in Matthew and in Luke? 

Well, said Robinson, the book of Matthew was written for the Jews.  It was important to show, in keeping with the sacred texts, that the Messiah had come and was a divine king, and so Matthew wrote about kings bowing down to Him.  Matthew traced His genealogy back to King David.  Matthew was invested in the story of Jesus as royal.

But the book of Luke was written for the Gentiles.  It was important to show, because the Gentiles were often coming from poor backgrounds, that a great leader had come and was human and humble, and so Luke wrote about shepherds bowing down to him.  Luke told about a stable and a manger.  Luke was invested in the story of Jesus as relatable.

Today, we say that Jesus was both, and that very paradox is treasured.  But if Jesus were born in 2021, I think the two stories would become conflicting narratives.  One-or-the-other, and we’d be convinced of which was right based mostly on who we followed on Twitter.  How much we would lose by not understanding that two opposing viewpoints can both be true and holy!

Bridge over the Gorge at CHQ

All week long, I’ve been frustrated, wanting one of our speakers, any speaker, to tell us what we are supposed to do to “navigate our divides.”  But we never got any straightforward solutions.  Speaker Amanda Ripley said that high conflict (in which we get stuck and entrenched in opposing viewpoints) is bad, but good conflict (in which we disagree in dialogue) is necessary.  Katherine Cramer said we must listen intensely and patiently to understand those we oppose, but Eddie S. Glaude said that we must act aggressively to fight for what is right.  Eboo Patel said Christianity is at the heart of our country, but so are Buddhism and Hinduism and Islam. 

Welocome to Quaker House at Chautauqua

A highlight of my week came mid-morning Friday, when we gathered a small group here at Quaker House for coffee and tea.  We had put out invitations to the staffs of all the other denominational houses.  We want to make friends here.  We want to be in community.

At the end of our hour together, one visitor suggested that we join hands, going around the circle to each offer a blessing for Quaker House.  We did.  The House was well and truly blessed, with prayers for peace and calm and comfort for all who enter here—but also for courage to do difficult things.

Royal-relatable.  Listen-act.  Christianity-Islam.  Comfort-courage.  At the end of this week, I don’t believe I have all the answers about navigating divides.  But I do think I’ll take a cue from Friend Squirrel.  There are two trees, one red and one green.  Neither is leaving.  Both have truth.  Before I can do anything else, I have to learn how to leap between them.

Week Three: Trust

from Emily Provance, Friend in Residence

Slide from presentation in Amphitheater

The official theme of the week was “Trust, Society, and Democracy.”  I heard a lot about society and a lot about democracy but very, very little about trust.  The only explicit addressing of this topic was the week’s first speaker, Richard Edelman.  He established the Edelman Trust Barometer, which has published a report on worldwide trust every year since 2000.  Guess what the report says this year?

We don’t trust very much right now.

Trust is down in every sector.  Both media and government are perceived as unethical and incompetent.  NGOs are still perceived as ethical—but not as competent.  The only sector perceived as ethical and competent both is business.  Talk about society flipping upside down.

The Edelman Trust Barometer doesn’t give advice, just survey data.  Nevertheless, it’s pretty telling.  We trust our government leaders less than we did a year ago.  Same for religious leaders, journalists, people in our local communities, our employers, and even scientists.    

What are we supposed to do about this?  Also, given the very real environment of false information, deliberate deception, and violations of integrity, is lack of trust a problem or a sensible response to our circumstances?

Sara Niccoli, our speaker for the Quaker brown bag lunch this week, suggested a possible solution to a lack of trust: we can try to create a system we trust, a democracy that will serve us, upon which we can rely.  But—and this is my interpretation, not Niccoli’s words—that seems to imply that one way out of the current trustless system is to ensure that we never find ourselves in positions where we are genuinely vulnerable.  If I can build a system that shelters me from the impact of your actions, then what you do or say doesn’t matter.  I’m safe anyway.

Sign outside the Smith Library on Bestor Plaza

 I don’t see how that works.  As I talked about last week, the future is reliant upon the actions of the entire worldwide community.  We are all in this together, like it or not.  Systems designed to protect us from each other can only get in the way of holding each other tight.  We’re going to have to address the situation of mutual trust.

But again—the week’s conversations and lectures at Chautauqua shied away from that.  Instead, we talked about patterns in society: reparative journalism, cancel culture, societal fracturing through social media.  Even the interfaith lectures didn’t really address mutual trust; they went, instead, with the theme of “the ethical foundations of a fully functional society.”

Play title – a one woman show about the killing of Rodney King in 1992

I kind of understand the hesitancy.  Trust is a really hard topic.  To rebuild trust after genuine harm—and we are absolutely experiencing genuine historical and ongoing harm—requires mutual commitment, empathy, mercy, repentance, forgiveness, and redemption.  The very idea feels almost absurd.  It’s certainly beyond our human capacity—which is why we need to be calling on God.

The best glimpse of a first step happened Friday afternoon.  About a hundred people traversed monsoon-like rain to attend a free performance of Anna Deavere Smith’s Twilight: Los Angeles, a documentary theatre piece about the aftermath of the 1992 verdict following the beating of Rodney King.  This one-woman play is constructed entirely of monologues drawn from real people’s real words.  Smith, the playwright, interviewed everyone from Maxine Waters to Rodney King’s aunt to jury members to gang leaders to  a wealthy white real estate agent to a Korean grocer, and in the play, a single actor embodies each of these humans one by one.

After the performance was a brief Q&A, and one man asked, “How do you play all these roles?  How do you step into the shoes of so many different kinds of people?”

Actor Regan Sims replied, “Well, Anna Deavere Smith is very wise in what she says about this.  She says it has to be without judgment, just believing that these people are real human beings, that what they say and the feelings they’re expressing are genuine.  Whatever someone says about their own experience, even if—even if—you just have to trust them.”

Week Two: Community

from Emily Provance, Friend in Residence

Space architecture.  Science Fiction.  Digital religion.  Genetic engineering.  Every speaker we heard this week agreed on one thing about the future: whatever it’ll be, we’re all in it together, and that is not necessarily a good thing.

The week’s theme was set up surprisingly well by Ted Chiang, who spent nearly an hour defining the differences between science fiction and fantasy, when most of us listening couldn’t figure out why.  We couldn’t have known that the distinction between science and magic, between egalitarian and individualistic, between an impersonal universe and a personal universe, would be so extraordinarily relevant to the rest of the week. 

Science fiction, he said, studies what happens when a new technology becomes ubiquitous: what effect does this have on the whole of society?  Science fiction leaves humanity in a different place from where it started.  It does not follow the hero’s journey, because the story is not about a hero, it’s about an impersonal universe that is not conscious and values nothing.  It reminds us that we are not special.

But fantasy, he said in contrast, spins a tale of an individual or set of individuals with powers.  These few are, for some reason, special; they are chosen by a personal universe that has some consciousness and respects individuality.  Fantasy often follows the hero’s journey because it is about a hero.  It reminds us that we are special.

Building Community and sharing food at Quaker House’s Open House – every Tuesday.

So continued the entire arc of this week, with persistent reminders that we matter quite a lot and, at the same time, we matter not at all.  The future will unfold as the cumulative result of countless individual decisions, so many that it will be impossible for any one person to alter the momentum–and yet, this wave of time we’re riding is guided by the actions we all take. We’re in this together, like it or not.

When we look at climate change or Christian nationalism or racism, this word “community,” which Friends call a testimony, becomes bigger, because now we’re talking about the future of all we’ve known, and how the story ends will depend upon the whole of humanity.  Another speaker on Monday, Katharine Rhodes Henderson, admonished us to hold each other tight.  That, she said, was the only way we had a hope of getting through this.  But what does it mean to hold each other tight?  Hold who tight?  How, exactly?

Gretchen Castle, who served as our brown bag speaker on Wednesday at Quaker House, talked about the globalization of religion, particularly in the Covid era, when suddenly it became nearly as easy to worship with someone many countries away as it was to worship with one’s own local community.  In some ways, this is a glorious thing.  We can cross many boundaries we couldn’t before: national boundaries, language boundaries, theological boundaries, cultural boundaries.  We can hold each other tight from quite far away.  But resonant from that conversation, too, was something that a participant said: it’s a little too easy, with the whole world to choose from, to find someone who doesn’t bother me, someone with whom I already agree.  But is that the same as loving my neighbor?  If I am not longer obliged to form relationships with my immediate local community, am I finding ways to skip over the tough questions?  Am I forming a safe bubble while claiming to reach across boundaries?  Which are the boundaries that really matter?  What does it mean to hold each other tight?

On Thursday, we heard from Ariel Ekblaw, who leads a lab at MIT with the mission of building the space technologies of the future.  She and her colleagues are actively creating and testing prototypes for self-assembling space pods, musical instruments that play only in weightlessness, holodecks, radiation filters, and more.  What I loved most about her presentation was the way in which she talked about assembling her team.  “No one wants to live in a place designed only by engineers.  So we work with artists, musicians, ethicists, communications experts…we want to inspire people by telling stories of the future extremely well.”  In other words, they are building a community, a real one, where each person uses their own gifts for a united purpose.

Fresh air painting class for children on Bestor Plaza

Someone asked the obvious question: why spend money on space travel when people are starving?  But of course, there was an answer to that too.  “It’s not an either/or, it’s a both/and.  Not to mention the ways in which our science will contribute, must contribute, to a better life on Earth.  As we design radiation filters and biodomes and more efficient carbon dioxide processors, we are well aware that the work we do many eventually mitigate the effects of climate change on this planet.”  This felt to me like a group of people conscious of their role in a global community

Friday evening prayers Chautauqua Hebrew Congregation

I worshiped Friday evening with the Chautauqua Hebrew Congregation.  Again, I found myself witnessing a people, in this case a people who have known themselves as a people for many thousands of years.  On one level, I didn’t understand the Hebrew prayers.  On another level, I understood them viscerally, as a ritual that connects this people across all time, many centuries into the past and more centuries into the future.  At the beginning of the service, the rabbi said, “You will notice security parked in the parking lot.  This is not because there is a particular problem…it is just what most of us do now, to make sure there will not be a problem.”

What does it mean to hold each other tight?

On Thursday in morning worship, Zina Jacque told us the story of Tamar, who (righteously, in the context of the story) tricked Jacob into impregnating her and, by doing so, became a part of the lineage of Jesus.  Jacque said, “All Tamar wanted was a son, and she birthed an entire religion.”  This scared me.  To think that one act, and a precarious one at that, could mean the existence, or not, of all Christianity.  What implications does that have for my life?

Chairs empty, chairs full. Room for more in this community.

But on Friday, Jacque told us of Esther, who saved the Jews from the wicked Haman.  Her uncle Mordecai said to her, “If you keep silent in such a time of this, the Jews will still be saved, but you…will be destroyed.”  In other words, God could find another way—but even so, intervening was Esther’s responsibility.  She could have said no, but she became her fullest self by saying yes to God’s call. 

Call to what?  To step into her place in her community. Hold each other tight.  Whatever the future will be, it will be the future of the whole global community.

Week One

Week One: Integrity

from Emily Provance, Friend in Residence

Quaker House Entrance

Certain types of communication can cross a lot of boundaries.  For example, The Glenn Miller Orchestra, which came to Chautauqua Thursday night.  Everybody turned out, from infants to elderly, and everybody danced in their seats.  In fact, one woman, who looked about eighty-five, refused to sit down for the first song after intermission, jitterbugging merrily “Little Brown Jug.”  One babe in arms, just old enough to support her own head, sat in her mommy’s lap and pointed at the orchestra, mouth agape, as big band worked its magic on yet another generation.

Glenn Miller Orchestra in the Amphitheater

But not every moment of the week represented the best of humanity.  The institution focused on the theme of China, and we heard about China’s one-child policy, about the relationship between China and climate change, about religion in China, about government censorship, and about the gap between the Chinese government and its surprisingly diverse people.  I expected to spend a lot of time thinking about the ways in which Chinese people differed from me, but in fact, the various speakers and discussions suggested no such thing.  I got the feeling that the “average” citizen in China, if there is such a thing, isn’t really all that different from the “average” citizen of the United States.

Most of the speakers this week were either academic experts or writers of some kind, but one was a diplomatic advisor who’d served in various iterations of the U.S. government.  More than anyone else all week long, he felt very different from me.  Although he didn’t, in his speech, specifically articulate the assumptions from which he was operating, I had the sense that they were drastically different from my own, to the extent that if we sat in a room together, I’m not sure we could communicate successfully.  Even if we both spoke with integrity, I suspect our underlying world views would get in the way.

This reminded me of a gathering I attended in the Chabad house.  Tuesday morning, a small group assembled to talk about ethics.  Many of us weren’t Jewish.  At one point, the woman next to me could not contain herself and started to protest a (relatively minor) point that the rabbi had made.  In a specific example to do with finding lost money, the rabbi said it was ethical to keep it, and the woman sharing my couch was certain this wasn’t right.  The truth was, I agreed with her, but I could also see that in the context of our discussion, her sense of right and wrong (or mine) was genuinely irrelevant.  We weren’t discussing ethics.  We were discussing Talmudic ethics.  Of course, to the rabbi, “Talmudic ethics” would have been a redundant phrase, and so he didn’t say this.  Nevertheless, that was the basis of our entire discussion.

Our underlying assumptions were just different.  We could have an interesting discussion about Talmudic thought—and we did, and I enjoyed it thoroughly–but we could not come to a final, unanimous conclusion about what to do, ethically, regarding a specific situation.  I’m glad we didn’t need to.

Which brings me back to our political/diplomatic speaker.  Friends talk a lot about a testimony of integrity, but all that really means is acting and speaking in accord with what we know to be right.  This speaker was doing that, but he was also coming from the point of view that the United States must maintain the number one position in political, economic, and military power in the world, and from that fundamental assumption came every other action and thought.  So basic was this truth, in his mind, that it didn’t even need articulating.  And this man represents me as part of my government…but his way of thinking does not represent me at all.

How do we communicate with, and about, our governments when their ways of thinking may be alien to our own?  What does it mean to act from integrity in such situations?

Week three of this season is on “Trust, Society, and Democracy.”  I look forward to digging into these questions further.  In the meantime, I’ll keep wandering the grounds, meeting new people, and entering conversations, because if nothing else, we’ll never find our way to unity if we don’t keep on communicating.

Week Zero: Making Space

(Emily is our Season long Friend in Residence — and is seeing Chautauqua for the first time. Here are some of her impressions (Ed.)

from Emily Provance, Friend in Residence

One thing I notice right away is the amount of space that drivers leave for pedestrians.  I’m used to places where a car will swish right past me if I’m walking.  But here, no vehicle goes by unless I physically step all the way out of the street.  Nor does anyone honk at me; they just slow down and quietly wait.

Quaker House, too, is about making space.  The steering committee has put so much thought into every cabinet, every light switch, every book, every quilt.  Who do we hope to welcome in this space?  What will they need?  How can we provide it?  When you come, you’ll discover a warm and comfortable home in which to meet, sip tea, nap, chat, go spiritually deep, or simply play. 

Read, relax and chat in our comfortable living space.

The ground floor is designed for people dropping by, with space for worship, meals, and conversations.  I look forward to discovering how else we might gather here.  Worship sharing?  Board games?  Intergenerational story times?  Bible studies?  We’re prepared for any and all of the above. 

Bubbles and Puzzles aren’t just for children.

Upstairs is made for those who are staying here, with comfy beds, warm lamplight, breezy windows, and rocking chairs on the balcony.  These spaces are about sabbatical: connected to sabbath, both from the Hebrew word shabbath, meaning “rest.”  Those staying at Quaker House will never need to be bored, with lectures and discussions and entertainment all over the Chautauqua grounds, but it’s equally possible to stock up on naps.

The front porch is waiting for you!

In just a few days, we’ll transition from waiting time to welcoming time.  But for now, it’s all about making space.

Why Come to Chautauqua?

Reflections of a Fifth Generation Chautauquan (and Quaker House Committee member) Submitted by Shari Castle

I am a 5th generation Chautauquan.  There are so many reasons why I come back year after year.  But you may never have been here. 

So Why Should You Come?

Young artists on Bestor Plaza

The Programming

You get the arts, education, religion, and recreation all in one place. All of the highest quality. Symphony, opera, theater, visual arts, classes, lectures, book club, worship services, interfaith lectures, swimming, boating, running, shuffleboard and so on.

Students busking on Bestor Plaza

The Community

It is a safe, friendly, and respectful community. Shared space and civil discourse. Single individuals and multi-generational families. 

Great Blue Heron enjoying the twilight lake

Self-determination

  You can attempt to do everything or you can do nothing but sit on the porch and watch the lake.  Or something in between.  It’s totally up to you

View from one of the many porches at Chautauqua

The Experience

Restful, rejuvenating, inspiring, reflective, restorative, social. Busy, but not stressful. Historic and cutting edge. Partaking in something unique, important, and special.

Children visiting near the fountain

And, There’s More….

walks, picnics, porches, yoga, ice cream, bikes, the library and the bookstore, a grand hotel and a sidewalk cafe, a bell tower that chimes, people of all ages, and so on.

The iconic Miller Bell Tower at dusk. Symbol of the relaxing and enriching environment that is Chautauqua

Just a few reasons why you should come to Chautauqua.

A Spirituality of Anticipation

 by Deb First

Forty-five years ago, I planned to attend Meeting for Worship for the second time. My usual procedures for going anywhere- simplest (have something to eat. Write the directions)  to adaptive  (was it snowing? Did I need an umbrella?) were this time accompanied by an unfamiliar sensation – a feeling that almost anything might happen once worship began.  And so it did. And so continues my still-surprising and warmly welcomed anticipation that Meeting for Worship will be a time of unpredictability , surprise and grace.  

As Quaker House at Chautauqua has emerged out of the ministry of Chautauqua Summer Meeting and the wholly-present work of those who breathed  life into those ministries, this strangely familiar sensation connects me to the very practical work of this new creation. What will this little home for Chautauqua Meeting become? Who will minister there and what life will be changed because of a word, a teaching, a living example? Our committees all have sturdy agendas yet Steering Committee members approach each meeting with the expectation that something unexpectedly, enrichingly  wonderful is likely to emerge. 

I once thought that creating the place for welcome and worship at Chautauqua would be a process of orderly organization and careful attention, and so it is and must be. The mystery held within a spiritually-grounded anticipation has led to miracle and wonder, and  to our nourishment from deeper waters. While we are in those deeper waters, being challenged, stretched and tipped-over a bit by our committee work, we come to know the joyful astonishment that accompanies a good spiritual workout. 

Years  after that second Meeting for Worship, I taped up an Annie Dillard quote:   

“ it is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets…”  

Spiritual anticipation is like that.  

Making a Family Home into Quaker House

The past few months

The past few months have been a mix of discovery, experimentation, thoughtful organization and amazement. This is not unlike my own spiritual journey and perhaps yours?  Quakers found ourselves homeless on the grounds of Chautauqua…then receiving the promise of a house of our own at Chautauqua – a handsome 1911, gabled three story, 5 bedroom, 2 bath 1800 sq.ft. cottage with oak trim and hardwood floors:

We were faced with two practical challenges:  converting a traditional family style floor plan of separate rooms and simple accommodations into a public space that could welcome worship for up to 40 attenders with space flexible enough to serve living, dining and small group programming during the week, and making certain that every change met local building codes, zoning regulations and as much accessibility as could be managed within the building’s structure.

Here’s where we started

Here’s where we started with the main floor dining and living space prior to the remodeling:

In order to make a multi purpose Quaker meeting and resident living space, the plan was to remove the dividing wall between the dining and living room and expand the living space onto the side porch to square off the room, making one large unified room.  Here is the work in progress with the walls reconfigured, the dry wall restored and first coat of primer.

Now, this may not look like that wood coated entry hall now but for us the founding committee it is a living transformation that will welcome many Friends into gathered worship and inform our Chautauqua experience with a sense of fellowship and joy.

Next, are some different challenges for making a home into a Quaker House and some buried opportunities to help bring this endeavor to life.  Stay tuned and see what will come to light, through the Light in this, our Quaker House.

Ted First, construction manager

Beginnings

Dear Friends,

         More than 120 years ago in western New York, Quakers found their way to the Chautauqua Institution. Yes, it was the place where several regional and national Quaker committees came together, in 1900, to form Friends General Conference and it was  a place that helped Friends find-among the Institution’s buildings-  a right-sized space for their First Day worship. For decades, that space has been the Octagon House, a small building donated in 1884 by graduates of the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Club (CLSC)-America’s oldest book club. Although it was our happy home for decades, it was not accessible, had no bathrooms and was on one of the noisiest street corners in the Institution. For all of those years, Friends would rise after worship and ask one another whether there was a way to find, get, raise funds for or be given a house that could become the Friends House- a home of our own.

         Two years ago, Chautauqua Institution reclaimed the building as a book shop for the CLSC, and the Quakers became houseless, filling in ‘here’ for one year and then ‘there’ for another. The Unitarian Universalists graciously provided their Denominational House parlor which meant that their guests couldn’t be there on Sunday mornings.  The space was smaller than we needed and it was clear that this was not sustainable.

We Find a New Home

         Friends from Farmington-Scipio (NY) Region joined in spirit and with bodies to help find a way forward. Much looking, and meeting, and consulting led to the arrival of an anonymously gifted house in the Institution. Centrally located, modest and sufficient in size, rehab-able to meet the needs for worship, hospitality and program, the house was built in 1911 and was purchased from the children of Mary Louise and Rev. Carl Viehe who were founding members of the Chautauqua Peace Society. The house felt as if it were filled with spirit.

         Located at 28 Ames Street, the story of making a house into a Quaker home began with the house’s  3 stories, 5 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms and a two story wrap around porch (see photos of outside).

         The first house inspection noted that the electrical entrance needed to be updated, that the dormers were in need of caring for wood siding that was bare and exposed and the insurance required that the moss on the roof be removed.  Then, we moved onto designing the modifications needed for our purposes and then addressing code requirements as part of the process.  We confirmed that a 3 story home converted for public space required life-safety measures that included a fire suppression (sprinkler) system and smoke and CO detection in every room.  ADA accessibility required an entrance ramp and an enlarged first floor bathroom to accommodate a wheel chair.

Remodeling begins.

Remodeling to Fit Our Needs

         For the purpose of Meeting for Worship, the living room would be enlarged to combine with the dining room into one large meeting space.  To do this, the side wall of the living room would be moved out onto the side porch requiring new foundation piers to support new bearing beams replacing the old bearing walls. At each step of the way, what had become the “founding committee” enlivened the full process with cheerful and creative problem-solving.

         Construction started with removing the interior wall coverings, insulation and oak moldings that would be set aside and saved for reinstallation later. But first, we had to transport all the furniture to storage and cover the floors to protect them from the construction activity. (photos of inside demolition).

The Way Forward

         Friends have responded to this calling with spirit and heart. The Founding Committee divided its members into website development, communications, programming, house management, hospitality and governance documents. Members have served in clerking and recording, and taken on the roles of treasurer and construction manager/ general contractor. Some members of Fredonia Friends Meeting- Ron Peterson, Rick Townsend and Sam Kaiser have offered their skills as electricians, carpenters and painters for the making of this dream into a reality.

         We share in a boundless gratitude: for everyone whose shoulders have been put to this wheel, for everyone whose spirit has encouraged and guided us, for everyone whose astonishment and joy have been contagious. Our story- the story of Quaker House at Chautauqua- has only just begun. Welcome, each of you, to join and rejoice with us.

To Be Continued…