Reflections on the Rev. Joan Brown Campbell

Chautauqua’s pastor, the Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, will retire as director of the Department of Religion at the end of the year. Throughout the 2013 Season, The Chautauquan Daily will share reflections by those most familiar with Joan’s work both at Chautauqua and around the world.

Albert M. Pennybacker | Guest writer

Joan Campbell’s leadership has genuinely changed lives through her unfailing care as a Christian pastor. She is both wise and kind — sometimes not an easy combination.

I remember one occasion in years past when she was pushed aside by the religiously rigid with the terse assessment “Joan is simply not ideologically reliable.” It was — and is — true. Caring can get you there. I cheered.

Joan, in my view, has enlarged Chautauqua’s religious scope and interfaith impact. She has made it a piece of life here. Her guidance in worship, her prayers, and her sense of the splendor and mystery of God have lifted our spirits to new levels of aspiration, compassion and hope. And, Chautauqua will carry forward this religious integrity beyond her time on these grounds. Again, I cheer the religiously mature gifts that she will leave in this place.

Joan did not appear here out of nowhere. Her leadership had been shaped through years of ecumenical engagement. Candidly, Joan came here from being the best general secretary in the history of the National Council of Churches. I have known them all, some better than others. Dr. Samuel McCrea Cavert, the first general secretary, filled a special role in the National Council’s formation. But like none other, Joan Brown Campbell led the council in keeping faith with its founding vision of unity, justice and peace for all people.

As her one-time pastor, her colleague across the years and an enduring and grateful friend, let me share some seldom- seen snapshots that come from the breadth of her ministry.

When Joan took more than 70 church leaders to the White House, she guided a wide-ranging discussion with the then new President Clinton. He doubled his allotted time with us, and, finally leaving, he stopped halfway, smiled and asked, “Is there anything you people don’t care about?” Joan had made her point.

Shift to an altogether different setting: Cornell University. It was the university’s celebration of the 60th birthday of its internationally acclaimed astrophysicist Carl Sagan. In the weekend symposium, Joan was asked to deliver a paper on science and religion focused on environmental issues. Deliver she did — a standing ovation from the  more than 200 noted scientists present. In an offstage scenario, as Carl Sagan was leaving, a fellow scientist jumped to his feet. In feigned anger, he erupted, “Damn you, Sagan. For years I’ve had this religion business all settled, and then you bring this woman here to speak and now I have to think seriously about it again!”

Again, another setting: the Middle East, specifically Lebanon. Joan gathered with church leaders from across the world to honor the consecration of the Catholicos of the Armenian Orthodox community. At the appointed time the guest religious leaders were invited to the platform to greet the new Armenian leader, with Joan in line just in front of the Catholic cardinal for ecumenical activities. As she approached the steps, a uniformed soldier stepped forward, slapped her face and ordered her back to her seat: “Only men allowed.” Her colleagues were stunned, not the least the cardinal who later confessed that what he had seen completely changed his understanding of what women face in a male-dominated world.

Now let me share some scatter-shots that add to the picture.

• Elián González is an energetic young man embracing life in his native Cuba, engaged to his girlfriend and surrounded by his Cuban family. The ‘miracle’ boat survivor, he was returned to his homeland by Joan’s astute caring and Attorney General Janet Reno’s intervention based on Joan’s persuasive wisdom, all about a 6-year-old boy far away and needing to go back home.

• A risk-taker for a larger vision, she guaranteed financial support with National Council funds to allow the Interfaith Alliance to survive at a critical moment. And, she recruited her friend, Walter Cronkite, to become its advocate. It continues today as a multi-million-dollar voice against religious extremism and for welcoming religious diversity and justice.

• When a rash of African-American churches were burned, largely across the South, she came to their rescue. In a remarkable ecumenical response, the National Council of Churches raised funds, recruited volunteers and rebuilt 168 burned church buildings in 18 months, at a cost of nearly $20 million.

• Back in Washington, when Joan completed her testimony before a congressional committee on the “takings” legislation as an advocate for public lands to be protected for all to enjoy — that is, for “the common good” — the conservative senator presiding came directly through the crowd to thank her generously for introducing moral and human values into what had been a jumble of political contention, fiscal issues and commercial developments. Subsequently he joined the losing side — with Joan.

• With her lifelong commitment to racial justice as a spiritual mandate, well documented by active involvement, she currently envisions for Chautauqua the establishment of the Martin Luther King Jr. House, a place of welcome and contribution to Chautauqua’s ongoing life. Now who is surprised that she is in the middle of it?

In her final address to the NCC board as general secretary, Joan thanked the then exclusively male heads of member churches for allowing her at last to be treated as “one of the boys.” Here at Chautauqua she has redefined what it means to be “one of the girls” — and Chautauqua through her commanding contributions has been changed and blessed.

Ahead, Joan Brown Campbell will take her place of respect and counsel as one of only a few acclaimed religious leaders of America. With vigor and voice she will keep turning up. Don’t be surprised! And thereby, our land will be stronger and our world better — and Chautauqua will be proud.

The Rev. Albert M. Pennybacker is an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and former director of Chautauqua’s New Clergy Program.