Franklin finds new ways to deepen spiritual life, bring new faces

Kreable Young | Staff Photographer
Director of Religion the Rev. Robert Franklin leads the Amphitheater audience in prayer during a worship service earlier this season. Franklin finishes his first season as director of Chautauqua’s Department of Religion with a sermon titled “The Adventure Continues” at 10:45 a.m. Sunday in the Amphitheater.

Looking back on his first season as director of the Department of Religion, the Rev. Robert Franklin is tired. Tired, but happy and full of plans for the future.

Franklin has a 13-year history with Chautauqua Institution, visiting as a lecturer and chaplain, and serving as theologian-in-residence during the 2005 season. He will preach at the service of worship and sermon at 10:45 a.m. Sunday in the Amphitheater. His sermon title will be “The Adventure Continues.”

The former religion director, the Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, announced her retirement at the end of the 2012 season, around the same time Franklin announced his own retirement from his position as president of Morehouse College. The two, along with Institution President Tom Becker, had been engaged in a four-year conversation about the future of the religion department and its outreach to broader communities — specifically to African American and Latino communities.

Franklin has strong connections in both religious and educational leadership development institutions. He served as president of Morehouse from 2007 to 2012. He was the Presidential Distinguished Professor of Social Ethics at Emory University from 2004 to 2007, and was also a senior fellow at the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory’s law school. As an ordained member of both the American Baptist Churches USA and the Church of God in Christ, Franklin holds a pastoral position at St. Paul Church of God in Christ and acts as Protestant chaplain at St. Bernard Hospital, both in Chicago. He is also a member of the American Academy of Religion, the nation’s guild of religious leaders and educators.

Franklin said that this long list of credentials morphed into the question “How might we leverage that for Chautauqua’s benefit?”

“I really began to see the possibilities and synergies where I could continue my role as teacher, as preacher, as pastor, as program planner and simply transfer that to Chautauqua,” Franklin said.

The decision to appoint Franklin as the new director of religion was officially made in spring of 2013.

Quality Counts

The next time Franklin attended a meeting with the American Academy of Religion, he said he instantly saw a networking opportunity. Very few of the members had heard of Chautauqua before.

“Yet these are professors and scholars of religion in America,” he said. “So I realized one very easy, low-hanging fruit here is for me to show up in the community I was already a part of, but simply to wear, as it were, my Chautauqua T-shirt.”

This strategy allowed Franklin to reconnect with previous Chautauqua speakers — such as Sister Joan Chittister, who gave an Interfaith Lecture during Week Four, and John Esposito, who spoke Week Eight — and to add new names to the department’s roster.

The latter is important to Franklin. He’s governing his role with four thematic goals, one “ensuring that the finest quality of religious scholarship in the world comes to Chautauqua.” Instead of simply recycling the list of chaplains and lecturers every-other season, Franklin said he wants to bring in fresh faces with diversity in gender, faith, ethnicity and region.

While this usually means keeping speakers who are in line with the Chautauquan ethos, Franklin also recognizes a need to take some risks.

“Although much of our focus in the afternoon is on scholars and practitioners of the religion and ethics, spirituality arena, there are times when we want public figures — who bring a following — and have them encounter Chautauqua,” Franklin said.

That’s something, he said, he thinks Chautauqua has done “from the very beginning.”

“When the Pastor John Heyl Vincent invited the president of the United States, a former practitioner, Ulysses S. Grant — that gives me a clue about a strategy for outreach for Chautauqua that I want to keep alive in the 21st century,” he said.

Franklin put this strategy into action when he invited Herman Cain to speak in an Interfaith Lecture during Week Four. Cain claims to reach about 4 million listeners through his radio program, “The Herman Cain Show.”

“In some ways he’s a little outside the usual box for Chautauqua,” Franklin said. “I thought it would be valuable to engage people who have enormous influence and visibility, and who I think would benefit of knowing about Chautauqua as a place where there’s diverse varieties of opinion that can be expressed respectfully and in a civil environment.”

Unfortunately, Franklin said one of the obstacles he’s been running into is a financial wall. He said he simply doesn’t have a big enough budget to bring in the big-name speakers he would like to.

To combat that, Franklin said the best he can do is to present an appealing program and hope friends of the religion department will help him foot the bill.

“We have a number of [scholarships and chaplain funds]. We’re grateful to those that exist, but in order to continue to bring in more quality people, we’re going to continue to need more resources,” he said. 

The second of Franklin’s thematic goals is to deepen spiritual life at Chautauqua. To help address that, he has framed the afternoon Interfaith Lecture series as a nine-week semester course for Chautauquans.

“This is not just a series of themes and lectures, but an introduction to religion, ethics and spirituality in the 21st century,” he said.

Franklin starts out by reviewing the “course syllabus” every Monday — explaining the themes of each week. He wraps up on Fridays by offering a summary of all the lectures from the week. It’s a new take on the lectures, and one that’s been receiving positive feedback.

“I actually began writing this as part of my own diary, and then I shared it once with the leaders of something called Chautauqua Dialogues,” Franklin said. “Roger Doebke, the chair of that effort, said, ‘Robert, this is really helpful, thank you. You give us a one-page summary of highlights and I’m able to share that with people that show up, who might have forgotten what happened on Monday by Friday.’ The work of synthesizing and putting together to help people walk away with an experience is important to me.”

Outstretched Arms

The remaining two goals are to broaden interfaith outreach and to attract a younger demographic.

To extend outreach, Franklin is probing former African American Chautauqua chaplains for ideas. He’s also working with the Rev. Otis Moss, senior pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ and Ambassador Andrew Young, a former assistant to Martin Luther King Jr.

Although it is not a Department of Religion project, Franklin is supporting and helping to facilitate the building or purchase of a Martin Luther King House, which was proposed by Young. It’s currently a “slowly evolving” process.

“Young, in dialogue with Joan Campbell, felt that one way to increase and sustain some diverse presence throughout the season would be to have an ecumental denominational house for the African American denominations that exist,” Franklin said. “Most Americans know very little about these denominations, but there are 10 or 12 that are quite significant in terms of having more than a million or two members.”

Franklin and Moss have been hosting regional receptions in cities such as Atlanta and Chicago, and will continue to reach cities such as Cleveland, New York and Washington D.C. in the fall.

“The idea is to introduce the African American communities to Chautauqua and to ensure that people who are likely to find this appealing know about this opportunity and are invited,” Franklin said.

The other part of his initiative is lacking a definable strategy. Youth are a conundrum Franklin can’t quite keep hold of — but he’s not alone in his confusion.

“That’s going to be a harder challenge, because I think the whole Institution is struggling with that,” he said. “And if anything, religion’s role is both more difficult and easier that other departments.”

It’s more difficult because more and more millennials are losing interest in organized religion. According to a 2007 Religious Landscape Survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, when asked about their religious affiliation, 16.1 percent of people declared themselves unaffiliated. Within that category, 12.1 percent said they aligned themselves with “nothing in particular,” rather than defining themselves as atheists or agnostic.

This is doesn’t mean that those millennials aren’t spiritual. Of the 16.1 percent who were unaffiliated, 36 percent said they still believed in some form of a god with absolute certainty, and 34 percent said they were fairly certain or unsure about the existence of a god. Only 22 percent of unaffiliated people said they didn’t believe in a god at all.

“There is a strong interest in spirituality and living lives of meaning, purpose and authenticity,” Franklin said. “And I think in that respect, religion can really address that high priority space — that sweet spot in people’s lives — where they really want to have assistance in living lives of meaning and purpose. We just have to understand better how to address that hunger out there in the world, and I don’t think we know that at this point. So that’s where the learning is going on in this department right now. We need informants from the youth community — tell us how to get this right.”

Creative Consciousness

Franklin said the beauty of Chautauqua is that “this is a place where great conversations occur, where we bring in thought leaders to stimulate and inform the great conversations about truth and goodness, beauty, justice and the large questions of life.”

He recognizes those conversations can be difficult, though. This season has showed Franklin that the arts — theater, dance, music and the like — can help make that dialogue easier.

“The arts can break the silence in a way that even religion and politics and the academy and science and business have trouble,” he said. “We don’t do as well with that. People have defenses when religion talks about how we should live our lives. But when the arts present a picture of discrimination or exclusion or of failed relationships or whatever it is, people are more open. That’s terrific — when people are open to hearing difficult truths.”

Franklin had the opportunity to speak at a Brown Bag during Week Two on race and opportunity in America — a conversation reflecting on issues presented in Chautauqua Theater Company’s A Raisin in the Sun.

The inter-arts collaboration Go West! was another example of how the arts can encourage further discussion. The theme was mirrored in the Interfaith Lectures, opening the door to conversations about westward expansion is relation to Native Americans, women and religious minorities.

For these reasons, Franklin said he plans to work more closely with the arts at Chautauqua in the future.

He also said he’s trying to learn more about the theater and the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra for himself, but it’s proving to be tough with his schedule. There’s breakfast with guests of the religion department, the morning services, various meetings to speak with Chautauquans and offer pastoral services, the afternoon lecture and dinners with other speakers and guests. After that, Franklin said, “I decide if I have the energy for the evening program or not. I’m hitting about 40 percent of them.”

Continuing Conversations

A personal goal of Franklin’s is to visit each of the denominational houses for their worship services — one he wishes “there were more hours in the day” for.

“I see this is going to take years just to make the rounds in terms of attending a Sunday morning prior to our main service,” he said. “So that’s been my ambitious goal — to try to pop in and let them know I’m interested in learning.”

Bud Brown, co-host of the Baptist House, said the effort has been appreciated.

“He just seems to be more aware of the role the denominational houses play,” Brown said.

Franklin demonstrated this by publicly acknowledging the houses at Sunday morning worship services.

“At least twice he asked people who belong to the denominational houses at Sunday morning worship to stand up, and then he asked people who are staying in the denominational houses to stand up,” Brown said. “That’s never happened before.”

Marcia Pops, co-host of the Everett Jewish Life Center at Chautauqua, said that “it’s wonderful to see him walking around the grounds and stopping to say hello.”

She said Franklin had visited every single house, and attended some of the programming at the EJLCC throughout the season.

Both Brown and Pops agreed Franklin always seems to have a positive and patient attitude and is always available.

Franklin said he initiated this relationship at the beginning of the season, telling the leaders of the denominational houses: “As you’ve been a friend to Ross Mackenzie and Joan Brown Campbell — my immediate past predecessors — be a friend to me. Offer advice, offer support, offer constructive criticism and know that you have my ear.”

Some of these bonds will continue to be forged in the coming off-season. Franklin said one of the surprising treasures of Chautauqua is the year-round community that is present here.

A polar vortex welcomed Franklin to his apartment in the St. Elmo on Jan. 6. Despite the rough winter, he was invited to give a talk at Hurlbut Church on various books that inspired him. He was invited to potluck dinners and discussions in the Turner Community Center.

“The surprise to me is that this doesn’t stop at Week Ten or Week Nine, but it goes on in this band of faithful Chautauquans who huddle together amidst the winter months and continue the conversations and that’s really neat,” he said. “That’s the fireplace that’s burning while everyone else is away until next spring when people gather for the summer.”