A Chautauqua Story
David Kyle Foster on the Intolerance of “Open” Communities
What an exciting thing it was to be invited to speak at the venerable Chautauqua Institution. Founded in 1874 as the Chautauqua Lake Sunday School Assembly, it touts itself in one promotional piece as “ecumenical in spirit and practice . . . [a place] where students share learning experiences in an open, congenial atmosphere . . . a community renowned as a center for the performing arts and a resource for the discussion of the important issues of our time . . . [and] a national forum for open discussions of public issues.”
In another piece, it claims to be “a community in which religious faith is perceived, interpreted and experienced as central to the understanding and expression of our social and cultural values, a community which is open to all and is distinctly founded upon and expressive of the convictions of the Christian traditions . . . [with] participation by persons of all ages and backgrounds.” I couldn’t wait to get there and share the good news that God loves the homosexual and wants to rescue any who will come to him from a life of physical, emotional, and spiritual devastation.
Of course, I wasn’t to be the main speaker. That was Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, who sold more books on Tuesday than I have sold in my entire life. My invitation came from an unofficial organization called Alternatives. Five years ago, the then-president Dan Bratton gave Alternatives permission to bring speakers who would provide an alternative voice to the gay and lesbian groups that sponsor weekly meetings on the grounds. These groups included PFLAG, a group of pro-gay parents, and the Gay & Lesbian Community of Chautauqua.
Before leaving for Chautauqua, I boasted in my ministry’s newsletter that I was going to “be following in the footsteps of the Apostle Paul by speaking at a place where secular intellectuals gather to discuss the various philosophies and ideas of the day . . . the ‘Mars Hill’ of America.”
My lecture was scheduled in the early evening, before the main event of the night. I should have suspected something was afoot when twenty or thirty extremely somber-looking people swept into the room simultaneously. Before I could speak, the man who appeared to be their leader stood up. He was the former head of religion and the current historian for the venerable Chautauqua Institution. The sponsor of the event, Libby Duryea, all of 5’1” tall and 68 years old, reluctantly told him that he could hand out his list of grievances.
He proceeded to read them to the crowd—“shout” might be a better word. He protested my right to say what I was about to say, though he had not yet heard a word. Then he turned his back to the podium. Others then stood at their seats to block the view of those who came to hear the lecture. Then the shouting began—the protesters often shouting at the top of their voices, and continuing throughout my entire lecture. Certain epithets rose above the din: words like “hateful,” “bigot,” and “liar.” They seemed determined to prevent anyone from hearing what I had to say, or at least to cast serious doubt about my expertise and character.
And the mean, vicious, and hateful subject of my lecture? “Love Is Not Love: How to Love the Homosexual.” Ah, the wonderful ironies of life. They keep one amused even as one suffers the slings and arrows of outrageous threats and what seemed to be impending violence. Not that it mattered to them what I was going to say. The insurrection had begun before I had spoken my first word, which, by the way, was “love.” They simply didn’t want people to hear it.
One man shouted so loudly that I asked him to leave. Four times I asked him to leave. On the fourth request, one of the “brown shirts” yelled to me that he was not leaving. I was grateful at that point that someone thought to call the police. It was getting very ugly, and I was by then afraid not only for my own safety, but for the safety of Libby, who was surrounded by the mob in the back of the room.
This was a pivotal moment for me. Was I going to demonstrate unconditional love by weathering the scorn of my attackers and continuing to speak the truth in love? Was I going to cave in to their pressure and water down the truth in order to please them? Or was I going to cut and run from the conflict altogether? God was indeed challenging me to practice what I preached.
This has never happened to me before in 21 years of ministry. In fact, several years ago I gave the same lecture for the Episcopal diocese of West Tennessee to a hall filled with gay activists, and not one word of protest was ever uttered. No one maligned my character. No one called me a liar. No one screamed and shouted so that others could not hear. I had to come to the Chautauqua Institution in 2001 for my first experience of Orwell’s 1984.
I deliberately gather my statistics from gay studies, from the Center for Disease Control, from the American Psychiatric Association, and from various medical societies and reports so as to head off any charge of bias or amateurism. No one has ever impugned my expertise or the veracity of my data. This crowd, however, did not seem to care about the truth—they wanted to shut me up, and the Alternatives group down. This was an orchestrated attempt to create such a disturbance that the voice for healing the homosexual would be banned from the so-called open discussions of public issues at Chautauqua Institution.
What kind of people hate the truth and choose to live with lies? What sort of people scream and shout at opponents so that that others cannot hear what they have to say? What pathology explains people filled with hate and anger, who attack other human beings for loving them enough to tell them the truth about their self-destructive lifestyle?
Any clinician will tell you: Such a group likely suffers from arrested emotional development. Like wounded animals, they lash out at the very people who are trying to help them. Like pre-adolescents, they throw temper tantrums when they don’t get their way. They exhibit outlandish, “in-your-face” behavior to attract attention. They see the world in black-and-white, simplistic, and romantically exaggerated terms. They employ magical thinking to solve or deny reality.
The homosexual world is in many ways its own worst enemy. It wants us to believe that homosexuals are as healthy and happy as anyone else (a claim they made in a full-page ad in USA Today several summers ago, for example), yet they suffer from much higher levels of disease, self-destructive behavior, suicide, depression, alcoholism, drug addiction, domestic violence, pedophilia and pederasty, premature death, and many other dysfunctions than do heterosexuals. As Fr. Benedict Groeschel noted recently, they parade down the streets of New York City almost naked, stopping in front of St. Patrick’s Cathedral to perform obscene acts, and they want us to think they are normal?
My message to the group at Chautauqua that night was that it is not love to ignore or dismiss the wholesale devastation and destruction homosexuals suffer by pretending that everything is all right in their world and with their lives. Neither is it love to pretend that the Bible doesn’t clearly condemn homosexual behavior as a crime against God that will result in eternal damnation for those who refuse to repent. Love does not pass by on the other side. As the Holy Spirit directs, love yells, “The emperor has no clothes!” and then runs and gets the person a robe.
Love risks the rejection and the anger of those who are so wounded that they are just as likely to curse you as to respond to your attempts to bring healing. Love is what they need. Love is what they do not have. It is the only thing that will persuade them to forsake their life of rebellion against God. It is what they have been looking for all along. If we will truly love them with all the dimensions of love, many will forsake their life for the high calling in Christ Jesus.
I came to Chautauqua to teach Christians what it really means to love the homosexual. Little did I know that God’s plan was for me to demonstrate that love to a very different audience. He brought me there to express sacrificial love to those who did not want it, who would see my efforts only as a demand that they forsake the only thing that they have ever found that brings them any sense of joy or pleasure, fleeting though it may be.
As I lay in bed that night asking God what on earth had happened, he said one word: “Intervention!” What Satan had meant for evil, God had turned into an intervention—just as we do with alcoholics, drug addicts, and others so deep into their bondage that they can no longer see the destruction that they are bringing to themselves. As with any intervention, some will respond and others will not.
As people came up to talk to me after the lecture, several homosexuals who had not been a part of the planned disruption came forward and apologized profusely for what had just been done to me. A lesbian pastor came up with her lover in tow and interrogated me on various aspects of the cultural debate—and I saw that the Spirit of God was at work in her questions. The avalanche of statistics that I had given had broken through, and she was beginning to see the lie that she had been living. I expect to see her in heaven one day.
As for the venerable Chautauqua Institution, world-renowned for its claim to be a forum for “open discussions” that invite participation by “people of all backgrounds”: Did they fire the employee who led the disruption? Did they ban or in any way penalize the on-campus organizations whose leaders participated in the planned invasion? Even after being shown a videotape of what any nonbiased observer would conclude to be a hostile violation of basic human rights and civility, did they apologize to those who came to hear the lecture, to the 68-year-old lady who sponsored the event, or to the one delivering the message on loving the homosexual?
No, they did not. Rather, they have rewarded the protesters’ tactics of intimidation and suppression of free speech by siding with them. While printing numerous letters supporting the aggressors, the daily newspaper at the Institution refused to print letters that criticized the attack.
Two days later in the Hall of Philosophy, the former General Secretary of the National Council of Churches and current Director of the Department of Religion at Chautauqua, Joan Brown Campbell, stood with the man who led the disruption and made it very clear that I was the one who had failed to enter into civil dialogue. “We have unfortunately seen on these grounds in the last two weeks what happens when civil dialogue does not take place. . . . And I’m sorry to say we have seen that in the presentations of those who have spoken in the Alternatives program.”
It reminds me of the line from the old Cole Porter song, “Anything Goes”: “The world has gone mad today, and good’s bad today, and black’s white today, and day’s night today. . . .”
The Reverend Dr. David Kyle Foster is the executive director of Mastering Life Ministries and a canon at Cathedral Church of the Messiah in Jacksonville, Florida, in the Charismatic Episcopal Church. He is the author of the books Transformed Into His Image and Sexual Healing: God’s Plan for the Sanctification of Broken Lives (Mastering Life).
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“A Chautauqua Story” first appeared in the July/August 2002 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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