Women’s Club hosts Franklin for Chautauqua Speaks



According to the Rev. Robert Franklin, the Department of Religion and the Women’s Club share a distinctive mission to sustain the great conversations that were the reasons for establishing Chautauqua.

At 9 a.m. tomorrow at the Women’s Club house, Chautauqua’s director of religion will discuss “Religion at Chautauqua: Spirituality, Ethics and the Common Good,” as part of the CWC’s Chautauqua Speaks series. 

The legacy of Eleanor Roosevelt will be on his mind.

“Much beloved at Chautauqua and by the nation, she was determined, relentless and joyful in transforming our nation into a more perfect union,” Franklin said.

The director said that he “would like people to consider how they can play a role in their local communities at beginning and sustaining the ancient questions that go back to Socrates and the Bible. The best minds were grappling with them. What is a good person, a good life, a good community, a just society?” 

He is looking at ways of moving forward with Chautauqua’s great conversations legacy, which includes bringing people with an interfaith perspective to the Institution through the Chaplain of the Week program.

“I’m particularly interested in leaders who reach out to youth and the ‘religious nones,’ ” Franklin said. “Leaders who pour new wine into old wineskins and are leading renewal in the traditional denominations that are very important to Chautauqua yet are in decline. Thirty-four percent of people under 30 have no religion and yet they are undergoing a spiritual quest. I want to bring energetic change agents here.” 

Franklin said he would like Chautauquans to reflect on how their own minds have changed over the past 10 years as a result of the religion department, and on who has been especially meaningful to them.  

At Chautauqua, the director said that “part of what’s happening is a sustained nine-week focus on questions that matter, with all participating in the ‘Great Conversation.’ In the Amphitheater and Hall of Philosophy, there’s something about the lack of closed walls that’s like ancient Athens and the original Chautauqua campground, engaging sages on stage with voices from the audience.”

Franklin said that the “Great Conversation” is the tradition of raising fundamental questions and discussing the powerful ideas and books that have shaped Western society. 

While serving as president of Morehouse College from 2007 to 2013, Franklin espoused this perspective and developed a set of five “wells” for his students. He urged them to be well-read, well-spoken, well-traveled, well-dressed and well-balanced. 

By “well-read” Franklin meant reading extensively in the liberal arts, including the humanities, arts, sciences, technology, multiple languages and religion (interfaith and spirituality).

By “well-balanced” Franklin was advising his students to take time for reflection, which he considers to be particularly important. 

“Do Chautauquans take enough time to reflect?” he said. “Do we take Shabbat; do we take the Sabbath? Or are we programming hyperactivity into our days? We’re busier and more driven. This compromises our ability to have the great conversations and to sit, concentrate, listen and reflect.”

Franklin said that Howard Thurman is one of his favorite theologians because “he talked about the importance of centering down and removing ourselves from the traffic of everyday life.” 

“I have to do that to be creative,” Franklin continued. “I can’t be on a treadmill all the time. I like to sit by Chautauqua Lake and think. Meditation and silent prayer is what the Quakers have long known. Focus, settle, listen. Shabbat and the Sabbath are time for renewal.”

The renewal that Franklin has experienced following the birth of his first grandchild has surprised him. 

“What makes me happiest now is being a new grandfather,” he said. “It has changed my self-understanding, apart from the terror of wondering, ‘Am I really that old?’ I am reaching into the future through my 1-year-old granddaughter.”

Upon becoming the director of religion in January, Franklin began reaching into the greater Chautauqua community. 

“We can do more to build a stronger bridge to decrease the socioeconomic and ethnic divisions between Chautauqua Institution and the surrounding communities,” he said.

In Erie, he spoke at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Center banquet, and in Jamestown at the meeting of the American Guild of Organists. Splitting time between Chautauqua and Atlanta during the off-season, Franklin, during those trips, “discovered the polar vortex first hand.”