Carnell reflects on God’s call to continue to grow

One of the ways that Chautauquans keep in touch these days is through The Chautauquan Daily online. Mitch Carnell reached out to me a few years ago when I took over the morning worship column after Joan Lipscomb Solomon’s retirement.

Joan and Mitch have been friends since the mid 1950s, when they met at debate tournaments. Mitch had only heard of Chautauqua in his college days. Joan suggested Mitch teach some courses through Special Studies, which became his formal introduction to the Institution.

Our Father: Discovering Family is Carnell’s reflection on the ever-widening, yet interconnected events of his life. Chautauqua is just one step in his journey from small-town South Carolina to a growing understanding of what it means to be part of the family of God. It was an experience in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London that set Carnell on the path of writing his spiritual autobiography, which he published in 2015.

Carnell and his second wife, Carol, were on a trip to England, and one of the spots they stopped to see was the cathedral. Every day at 11 a.m., a priest asks the visitors to pause and say the “Our Father” or “Lord’s Prayer.”

“Then the most unbelievable thing happened,” Carnell wrote in Our Father. “Voices belonging to people from around the world, of every language, of every color and hue, of every nationality, handicapped and whole, male and female, child and adult, gay and straight prayed aloud together.”

The emphasis for him was on the “our.” He had never paid much attention to that three-letter word.

Carnell’s reflections on his life spiral out from the small town where he was born. His eyesight was so bad it might have qualified him for disability but he decided he was never going to use his poor eyesight “as an excuse for not doing what I wanted or needed to do.”

In fact, it surprised him to learn in college that most people did not know he wore glasses until he got a new pair.

Going to college was the starting point to knowing a wider world and expanding the definition of “Our.” Carnell graduated from Furman University, he worked in an outdoor drama called Chucky Jack in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and for the first time encountered openly gay and lesbian people. He also met his first wife, Liz.

Carnell was raised a Southern Baptist and Liz a Presbyterian, and her parents were missionaries in the Philippines. He went to work at the Wheeling Home for Crippled Children in Wheeling, West Virginia, and then to Louisiana State University to work on a doctorate in speech language pathology and work at the Cerebral Palsy Association of Greater Baton Rouge.

He arrived back in Charleston, South Carolina, to direct the Speech and Hearing Center in 1964, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. He and his wife hosted the first integrated PTA meeting for their school.

The PTA purchased a cotton candy machine to use at fundraisers, and the Carnells set it up in their bathroom. When the one African-American board member arrived, Carnell didn’t treat him any differently.

“We are all in the bathroom, come on in,” Carnell wrote. “It set the right tone for the year.”

As his life and work grew, he continued to learn from others that the meaning of “Our” was about discovering the world family.

Many of Chautauqua’s preachers have reminded congregations this summer that African-American preaching is about including everyone in the family of God. Carnell was learning that — even though it seemed like his life was full of meaningful but unconnected experiences.

One of his more painful epiphanies came during the division of the Southern Baptist Convention and a break with his own congregation.

In response, Carnell began promoting “Say Something Nice Sunday” on the first Sunday in June. In 2014, the Baptist World Alliance agreed to help promote the event. He also edited a book, Christian Civility in an Uncivil World. While at Chautauqua, he held discussions about Christian civility at the Baptist House.

He wrote that his experience in St. Paul’s Cathedral unsettled his comfortable faith. At 80 years young, God is calling him “to learn more, experience more, love more, trust more, risk more, and to open my heart, my eyes, my ears, my brain, and my soul.”