Campbell shares faith journey, Chautauqua’s influence on her

Brian Smith | Staff PhotographerThe Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, director of the Department of Religion, answers questions about her spiritual path from her daughter, Jane Louise Campbell, during Sunday Vespers in the Hall of Philosophy.

Brian Smith | Staff Photographer

The Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, director of the Department of Religion, answers questions about her spiritual path from her daughter, Jane Louise Campbell, during Sunday Vespers in the Hall of Philosophy.

Jane Louise Campbell served as the liturgist for the Sunday 5 p.m. Vespers and promised the congregation that she would provide answers to questions about her mother, the Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, that they might not even think of asking.

Like the time Joan Brown Campbell, at age 70, met with an image consultant who told her that unless she had a breast reduction, her career was over.

Or the time that Jane and her brother Paul were waiting on the tarmac at Andrews Air Force Base for their mother and Jesse Jackson to return from a mission in Kosovo. Paul turned to Jane and said, “Aren’t mothers supposed to be waiting for their sons on the tarmac? What is wrong with this picture?”

Or when Jane turned 16 and wanted a driver’s license.

“My mother told me I could get my license and I could use my father’s car — he could take public transportation to work — if I took my brothers with me, went to the store and bought the ingredients for dinner with no disagreement … then she would would cook what we bought,” Jane said. “If there were any disagreements, I was out of luck. It taught us to negotiate.”

Using a Q-and-A format, Joan Brown Campbell and her daughter explained some of Joan’s faith and life journeys.

Jane Louise Campbell: The Bible says, “When I was a child, I thought like a child.” How has your faith changed as an adult?

Joan Brown Campbell: My grandfather was a minister and teacher of Hebrew Scripture at Muskingum College in Ohio. He always gave us tests about Bible stories and Scripture texts. When I was 10, I asked him why I had to learn these verses, because I could always look it up in the Bible. He told me that I might be in jail sometime, and if I knew the Bible stories and verses, it would bring me comfort. Little did I know, a doctor’s daughter from Ohio, that is exactly what people who had been in prison said.

Church was a serious business, and Sunday was a serious day when I was growing up. It gave me a very serious understanding of faith. The only social liberal with staying power is one with a serious church upbringing.

What changed for me was meeting my pastor, the Rev. Albert “‘Penny” Pennybacker. He told me, “You have the strongest commitment to justice of anyone I have ever met, and the worst content I have ever seen.” He gave me books to read and helped me learn about Scripture, the background of how and when it was written, to not just take a single verse and quote it.

When Martin Luther King Jr. came to our church, there was great turmoil. Penny told the congregation that racial justice was related to communion. In the Disciples tradition, we have communion every Sunday, and he said that when we say ”the gifts of God for the people of God,” we don’t say “for the white people and not the black people.” He said we don’t do racial justice work because it is the right thing, but because God’s gifts are for all God’s people.

JLC: What is the hardest choice you ever had to make, and how did your faith guide you?

JBC: One of the hardest choices was to move to New York City from Cleveland to work for the National Council of Churches. Cleveland was home, and I knew everybody. I was going through a divorce, and it was one of the high costs for me of my work in social justice. I had turned the National Council down before because my son, Jim, was still at home. I told them I would come for three years and work with local ecumencial councils; I stayed for 20 years.

JLC: Were you ever mad at God?

JBC: I was mad at God when my father died at age 58. He had a disease called malignant hypertension that people don’t get anymore because of new medications. My grandfather was very angry and would not pray; he did not understand why his son died. That experience has been very helpful when people come in for counseling; asking why is not a strange or irrational response to tragedy.

JLC: You have experienced different faiths in many cultures. What are the differences and similarities that you have experienced?

JBC: What I have taken away most is the poverty. The poor seem to have a deeper sense of faith because they need it. In India, with all its abject poverty, I wondered why there was a disconnect with faith and the capacity to deal with it. It may have had to do with the belief in reincarnation, but Gandhi urged the people of India to take on the difficulty of dealing with poverty. It has been the gift of my life to be able to travel around the world.

JLC: You have been at Chautauqua for 14 years. How has your faith journey been influenced, and what do you hope will be your legacy?

JBC: These 14 years have changed me. To say that the 2 p.m. lecture is now interfaith and to understand what that means has had the most influence on my faith journey. I think it is the responsibility of a Christian not to take his or her faith and say, “This is for everyone,” but to honor the faith of others, to believe that their faith means as much to them as mine does to me.

This is hard for Christians, because we remember the call to go into all the world and make Christians of everyone. We can no more do that today than we can fly to the moon. We have come to believe that we are not responsible for converting the world, but to be fully and completely Christian.

After 9/11, in the year we studied Islam [at Chautauqua Institution], we learned a lot that we might never have learned without that tragedy, and we are not finished yet.

I am very proud of Chautauqua. It is in the board minutes that we will spend the next 10, 15, 20 years learning to be interfaith; not just Christians, Jews and Muslims, but open to all faiths.

At the central core of all faiths is respect for a deity and respect for what each faith contributes to peace, ending poverty and loving thy neighbor. I think that the Martin Luther King Center will make Chautauqua more racially inclusive.

Robert Franklin was my choice for the new director [of the Department of Religion], and he will make a marvelous contribution. He will help us to move forward, increase diversity and continue the love affair with all God’s children.

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