A bigger world: IOKDS scholars experience Chautauqua for the first time

RUBY WALLAU | Staff Photographer

International Order of the King’s Daughters and Sons scholars Peter Ori, Danny Ruiz, Jordan Ellis, Gabor Balla and Guy Karam introduce themselves to members of the Chautauqua community June 30 at Florence Hall.

The International Order of King’s Daughters and Sons Scholarship recipients are nearly halfway through their tenure at Chautauqua Institution, but many of them still aren’t sure what to make of the Institution.

“It’s too perfect to believe,” said scholarship recipient Guy Karam. “The first few days I was here, I was overwhelmed. But now I’ve been here for more than a week, and it’s still the same feeling. It’s amazing.”

Karam, of Lebanon, is one of 11 students selected by IOKDS to attend Weeks One through Four of the 2015 Chautauqua season.

To qualify, students must be Christians between the ages of 19 and 25 who have completed at least two years of college and are either working or continuing their education. This year’s class hails from Hungary, Lebanon and the United States.

“I just think a place like Chautauqua provides all of these young people with a bigger world,” said program director Vicki Carter. “It strengthens and deepens your faith.”

Joe Abi-Khattar, also of Lebanon, said he has already found this to be true.

“All the conversations you have with different people about their faith makes you realize that this is true, this is God, so this strengthens your faith,” he said. “It makes you believe even more, makes you want to pray more, makes you want to get involved in the Christian community even more.”

Melissa Tawk came to Chautauqua from Lebanon as a scholar last summer and has returned for the 2015 season as an intern for Carter. Tawk said her experiences at the Institution have taught her to think beyond her own community and church.

“If you just think about your community, or where you go to church, that’s safe,” Tawk said. “But if you want to think of all human beings and all people that have a relationship with God, that’s the challenge. I think what changed in me was really accepting wanting to know each and every other experience of each and other human being on this Earth. We might have opinions, or we might have learned from our own church different things that other Christian people don’t agree on, but each [person] has his own history. We don’t have the one history, but we have one God.”

Danny Ruiz, of Arizona, said “letting your guard down” in this way has been his biggest challenge since his arrival in Chautauqua.

“We all come with some sort of presupposed ideal or just basis of how you believe things,” he said. “And you’re thrown into this pool of different ideals that you are challenged by, and your beliefs are challenged. So you don’t want to dismiss the different ideas, you want to learn. So you have to let your guard down.”

Despite this challenge, Ruiz said the kinds of conversations such different ideas lead to have helped him begin to “uncover the reason God has sent [him], or has allowed [him] to be here.”

The scholars live communally in Bonnie Hall and Florence Hall and attend morning worship services both in IOKDS’s Ida A. Vancerbeck Chapel and the Amphitheater. Though their scholarships also cover Special Studies classes, they are given free time to attend lectures or experience other aspects of life at Chautauqua.

“The most exciting things come when you don’t expect them,” said Peter Ori, of Hungary. “There was a program which Gabor [Balla, another scholar]  was invited to, and I didn’t know exactly what it would be. It was the Labyrinth, and even when I was standing in front of the Labyrinth, I didn’t know what to expect or why I came or what could happen there, but it was one of the greatest experiences. If it were the only thing I came to Chautauqua for, it would have been worth it.“

Balla, who also hails from Hungary, said he has been most excited by learning about other cultures, especially when it comes to forms of worship.

“I realized that the most sacred part of the worship [here] is the singing, so we always stand up when we sing,” Balla said. “In Hungary, we stand up just at the beginning of the worship, and then we remain seated and we stand up when we pray. I feel that here, singing is a very, very important and serious part of the worship. When we praise God we have to give respect, so we stand up. It was a really good thing to experience.”

Many of the scholars said that they are already seeing a difference in the way they understand their faith.

“As Christians, we always say that we should live our daily lives as Christians — whatever we’re doing,” Karan said. “I think after my experience here, living as a Christian will be on a whole different level. It’s going to be challenging, but it’s going to be something new, something deeper.”

Also participating in the program are Caroline Bradley of Mississippi, Madison Davis of Texas, Jordan Ellis of Texas, Miranda Shoop of Pennsylvania, and Ashley Walters, of Mississippi.

Erin Sears, of West Virginia, also said that she feels her Chautauqua experience will change her spiritual life in the long term.

“I think when I look back on this years and years later, this will be one of the most pivotal faith points in my life,” she said. “I thought I had already experienced that, but this feels like it’s going to be one of the biggest and something that I will carry with me throughout my life. I don’t even think I can tell you the person I will be 10 years down the line because of this.”