A MESSAGE FROM REV. STEVE SIMMONS: A Remarkable American Experiment

This past Tuesday marked the 145th birthday of a remarkable American experiment in “out of school vacation learning,” the Chautauqua Institution, which was founded by two Methodist laymen, Lewis Miller and John Heyl Vincent in 1884.

Originally created for the training of Sunday School teachers, it has since expanded to encompass a vast array of public lectures and forums, musical, artistic, and dramatic productions, opportunities for interfaith engagement, and other cultural experiences for curious adults and young people.  My wife Cindy and I, along with more than a few members of First Presbyterian, have been privileged to participate in the Institution’s summer offerings over the years.

In July, we experienced a week on the theme of “Uncommon Ground: Communities Working Toward Solutions” and one on “A Planet in Balance,” the latter presented in partnership with the National Geographic Society. We also heard a variety of presentations on topics ranging from Report for America (which supports young people in helping to revitalize local journalism in small and mid-sized towns), to a “Nat Geo” initiative that is enabling both ranchers and wolves to coexist and thrive in Montana (who knew?), to a cooperative that is removing an enormous amount of plastic from our oceans and recycling it into flip-flops and other useful items to support low-income communities worldwide, to a local high school teacher in Mississippi whose nationally-recognized oral history project is helping his students and the broader community explore and heal the wounds left by slavery and its aftermath. And that’s only a sample.

Beyond lifting up the unique entity that is Chautauqua*, there’s a bigger point here.  It’s tempting, in the face of a 24/7 news cycle that seems to bring nothing but the latest round of bad tidings, to throw up our hands, tune out, and simply say, “What’s the use?” But even now, countless people and organizations (more than a few of them sponsored by the PCUSA and other faith communities) are rolling up their sleeves in creative and effective ways to work for a better future for this generation and those that will follow.

Their work often goes largely unheralded, but they represent a tremendous force for good. May their tribe increase!

Steve Simmons

* Recognizing the moral imperative of fostering deeper, more meaningful dialogue among people of different faith traditions, Chautauqua offers programs that engage religious leaders and communities in public and private dialogue. They continue to build upon Chautauqua’s historic convening power and 20-year Abrahamic Program, and its growing role as a lived interfaith community, with perennial work that brings leaders and scholars into conversation — with one another and with the broader community — and challenges us all toward interfaith learning and understanding. More information: chq.org