Jacobsen aims to strengthen Abrahamic family ties

A decade ago, Chautauqua Institution embarked on an uncertain journey — building bridges not only between the Christian and Jewish communities on the grounds, but the Muslim ones as well.

The Rev. Ross Mackenzie, former director of the Institution’s Department of Religion, created the Abrahamic Initiative, and his successor, the Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, inherited it.

Then, the Sept. 11 attacks happened.

“All of a sudden, anything having to do with Islam, with Muslim traditions, with the Muslim faith, was a hot potato. We had to tread very carefully because the wounds of 9/11 were still very raw,” said Chautauqua Institution organist Jared Jacobsen. “The Abrahamic Initiative took on a very great significance here.”

Roxana Pop | Daily file photo
Members of the Chautauqua Choir watch during the 2013 Abrahamic Sacred Song Service in the Amphitheater

Jacobsen and the Chautauqua community will celebrate that significance at Sunday’s Sacred Song Service at 8 p.m. in the Amphitheater. The service’s theme is “Strengthening Ties in the Family of Abraham.”

Jacobsen developed the service, a work in progress each year, in a way that celebrates the three religious traditions and simultaneously wrestles with the issues they present. One thing, however, remains the same: all three traditions can be traced to the family of Abraham.

“When we started this, nobody was speaking to Muslims in this country … and people weren’t really taking any opportunity to learn anything about them. Chautauqua is all about lifelong learning,” he said. “Nothing does it like watching young people come together and bonding.”

Jacobsen tries to weed words out of the service each year, in favor of symbolism. He invites the congregation onto the stage to walk through the representations of the religious traditions.

“There is a direct connection with what’s happening on the stage and what’s happening out in the congregation,” he said. “Much of what happens is visceral. It’s gut-level.”

Roxana Pop | Daily file photo
Members of the audience take dates offered by the 2013 Abrahamic Program for Young Adults coordinators during the service. People were invited to take a date, eat it and plant the seed in name of love and friendship in a place of their choice.

It’s difficult for Jacobsen to plan the music for the service, because the Muslim tradition doesn’t incorporate music into worship, and Jacobsen has only found one song that incorporates all the traditions, “Tu solus” by Michael Mendoza. Jacobsen will incorporate background music that has no text, and the choir will sing in different languages to represent the traditions.

“I try to find ways to honor the language,” he said. “I think in the Amphitheater, if people are going to get a sense of things, they have to hear things in Hebrew and they have to hear things in Arabic, even if it makes them squirm.”

The service will also feature an art piece by Nancy Chinn, a paper lace work that hangs from the Amp’s ceiling to stage depicting the family of Abraham: Ishmael, Hagar, Abraham, Sarah and Isaac.

Jacobsen was as worried as anyone about the success of these interfaith initiatives early on, but he said there are signs that they are beginning to work. It is important to “keep Chautauqua’s feet to the fire” to continue to promote an interfaith dialogue, he said.

“This is in-your-face church on Sunday night in many ways,” he said. “Chautauqua’s poised to be the leader in this.”