ECOC promotes religious and economic diversity at Chautauqua

The communal kitchens and eating areas are the heart of the buildings that make up the Ecumenical Community of Chautauqua. Cabinets line the walls and nearly none of them have doors; everyone’s food is on display — as is much of the color spectrum. It’s not just the ubiquitous Frosted Flakes blue and peanut-butter brown; with a closer look, there’s also a vase of green basil, a purple eggplant and a yellow watermelon.

Tables take up more than half of the floor space. One table may fit only two or three people, but their neighbors are only an arm’s length away. It’s cozy, and during meals there’s always  pleasant chatter and laughter.

The ECOC was founded in 2003 to offer low-cost housing for clergy and religious leaders of all faiths and denominations. Thanks to the many communal spaces of the ECOC, its guests have many opportunities to take part in interfaith and interdenominational dialogues or to strike up a conversation about the latest lecture on the grounds.

The ECOC hosts the second-largest number of guests over the course of the season; only the Athenaeum Hotel has more. The most affordable rooms are just big enough for a bed, a chair and a sink, but there are also rooms suitable for couples and families. Most of the bathrooms are communal.

“For our old-timers that are not wealthy, this is the only reason they can come,” manager Marjorie Johnston said. “Some are kind of worrying that we’re upscaling it.”

But ECOC board members are committed to keeping the prices of rooms down for guests with lower incomes. And since there is not a specific organization or religious community that supports the ECOC, the board must rely on donations and volunteer work to maintain the buildings and prepare for the upcoming season.

Clergy and religious leaders are the first who can reserve rooms, and they receive a 10 percent discount. After religious leaders, volunteers can sign up, and then the remaining rooms are open to the general public.

“We get good fellowship here,” said Howard Bright, a guest who’s been staying with the ECOC for the last 20 years.

Given that the guests of the ECOC often belong to different religions or denominations, there can sometimes be tension and disagreement, Bright said. But he thinks that’s a good thing; that’s the way it’s supposed to be at Chautauqua Institution.

A few of the ECOC volunteers and board members mentioned that there was one night earlier this summer when two guests — one Jewish and one Muslim — were having a debate in the kitchen. They were surrounded by a number of other ECOC guests who were quietly rapt with attention. Even when the time came for the volunteers to close the kitchen, it remained open, so as not to disturb the ongoing dialogue.

“We’ve had dialogue on every subject in this kitchen,” guest Marie DeMarco said. “And that’s why we keep coming back. It’s so stimulating to have someone look at something different from the way you do. For me, it’s like being in school again.”