Chautauqua. It’s easy to stumble over the name upon first reading it, but I’ve been saying it most of my life. My friend Helen has been attending Chautauqua since we were kids. She would come back full of stories, so I knew something about it. I knew that it operated each year during the summer. I knew there was a different theme each week. And I knew there was a plethora of lectures, concerts, and other performances. Beyond that, it was still a mystery to me.
Now that I’ve been to Chautauqua, it’s no longer a mystery. But that mysterious quality has been replaced with a dreamlike quality. Was I really there amongst that collection of Victorian houses and buildings situated on a beautiful lake shore? Did I really spend a week in a place where I and virtually everyone else traveled by foot or scooter everywhere we went? Did I really hear people like diplomat Nick Burns and Middle East scholar Aaron David Miller share their deepest wisdom? Did I really attend multiple concerts each day, everything from opera to Broadway to pop? And, finally, was that really me preaching at the Hall of Philosophy one unseasonably chilly Sunday morning?
Life at Chautauqua is different than outside its gates, which gives it that wonderful dream-like quality. For the time that I was there serving as minister of the week, it was a true community in ways I hadn’t experienced before. People said hello and introduced themselves as I walked along the flower-lined streets. Hammocks waited by the lake shore for any who felt in need of one. Doors to houses remained unlocked just in case a neighbor needed to borrow something while the owner was away. My spouse and I stayed at the beautiful UU House, operated by the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Chautauqua, where I had the opportunity to sit in rocking chairs over long television-free evenings and discuss concerns for our denomination and its future.
The Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Chautauqua couldn’t have been more welcoming. Planning the service with them, and then preaching that first Sunday was a pleasure. We were all excited knowing that our Unitarian Universalist message not only reaches UU’s at Chatutauqua, but so many other people who might have never heard of us before. I had several people of other faiths approach me at the end of the service and say how meaningful it had been for them, and how they were going to investigate the UU churches in their hometowns. At the Minister’s Talk Back, I had the opportunity to go deeper with the members of the fellowship and others, and our discussion ended up being quite meaningful for me. Throughout the week, I was deeply appreciative of their hospitality as they invited my spouse and me not only to their church meetings, but into their homes.
My week at Chautauqua was one where many of the important things in my life intersected. I had space and time to be in touch with myself spiritually, I could take care of my body, I could nourish my intellect, and I could enjoy a vibrant community. It was a time when I got to be a part of bringing our Unitarian Universalist message to a wider audience, and it was a true pleasure continuing the dialogue about the service throughout the rest of the week as I met person after person who had sat there in the Hall of Philosophy on Sunday morning. It was a time when I could meet new friends from the Chautauqua Fellowship and make deep, lasting connections. No wonder Chautauqua now rests in my memory as a beautiful dream—a dream I hope very much to return to one day.