Historically, African-American churches are one of the earliest forms of American religion, but that form of spirituality has never been formally celebrated at Chautauqua — until now.
If all goes according to plan, the African-American Denominational House will become an official presence at Chautauqua Institution in 2016.
“Many of the historically African-American congregations and denominations have been around since the early 18th century and have no official or institutional presence at the Institution,” said the Rev. Robert Franklin, director of religion. “I think this is a wonderful opportunity to welcome, really, one of the earliest expressions of religion in America into the Chautauqua family.”
The Rev. Sterling Freeman, AADH project manager, said the organization has been in the formative stages for the last several years. The mission of the house is to be “deeply ecumenical and interfaith, and at the same time, rooted in African-American spirituality and experience,” Freeman said.
While African-American churches often carry the same denominational names as other churches, such as Episcopal or Methodist, Freeman said, the African-American faith traditions carry additional social and spiritual meaning for their adherents.
“The African-American faith tradition in this country is woven deeply into the fabric of this country,” he said. “In fact, I might go as far as to say that we wouldn’t know the African-American community and culture as we know it today without the African-American faith perspective, because it was the African-American faith community that was not just the place to learn about God and be spiritual, but it was a place for organizing, and a place of refuge, for succor in order to establish the dignity of black lives and black people in this country.”
This spirituality has taken many forms since the civil rights era and encompasses theologies focused on the prosperity gospel, internally focused personal piety, salvation, and prophetic traditions that see the black church as a pathway to justice and liberation.
“In my opinion, in the African-American faith tradition we continue to be in a fight to hold onto, or reclaim and to amplify that prophetic tradition which has really always been the bedrock to these faith communities,” Freeman said.
According to Geof Follansbee, CEO of the Chautauqua Foundation and member of the AADH Board of Directors, the AADH is well on its way to fulfilling the requirements to becoming an official denominational group on the grounds, but still requires “significant philanthropy” to establish a physical house.
Other requirements to become a denominational house include the formation of a board of directors, 501(c) (3) tax-exempt status, intention to further Chautauqua Institution ideals, membership to a branch of an Abrahamic religion, and an agreement to be tolerant and accepting of all other faith traditions represented on the grounds.
Serving on the AADH Board of Directors are Follansbee, Helene D. Gayle, the Rev. Raphael Warnock, the Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, Erroll Davis, the Rev. Cynthia Hale, Rahsaan Harris, Edward Jones, Ernie Mahaffey and Board Chair the Rev. Otis Moss III.
At an institutional level, the AADH presents both opportunities and challenges in improving diversity at Chautauqua.
“On the whole, the reaction [to the AADH] is, ‘Finally, we can make a serious effort to expand diversity at Chautauqua,’ ” Franklin said. “Then I’ve heard concerns raised to ensure that this not be a separate and exclusive operation, which according to the guidelines of Chautauqua, it could not be.”
However, Follansbee said the AADH is about more than simply expanding diversity.
“A lot of people here on the grounds see it as a way to fix the diversity problems, and it can’t be about that,” he said. “I think if we’re really going to explore the topical imperatives of the day, those things that really challenge us, we’ve got to have more voices at the table, and not just people in our socioeconomic level. This is not the only voice Chautauqua is lacking, that’s pretty clear.”
Even so, Follansbee said that the lack of racial diversity at Chautauqua has been a matter of concern for “almost 50 years,” and that improvement in that vein would help the Institution to become “a more authentic community.”
“I think everyone believes everyone wins if we can get this done,” he said.
For Freeman, the establishment of the AADH is an opportunity to provide greater cultural understanding in the Chautauqua community and beyond.
“The main focal point here is to have a place where there is a great space for knowledge-sharing about the importance and the impact of this tradition and its relevance today, and to build communities around that tradition,” he said. “Hopefully, [that will] inspire folks to sort of spread what we know has been essential to the black community since people of color set foot on these shores.”