CHAUTAUQUA, N.Y. – Sid, our American driver for the day, forgot his passport on his kitchen table.
The Yank border guards are predictably excited. Leave your vehicle.
Get in that building. Then, the goofy questions.
Later we — me, Sid, my wife Jean — are on the road again, Hamilton to the Chautauqua Institute, a historic and venerable centre known for, among other things, its discourse on global issues. Ecumenical and eclectic, Chautauqua is dubbed “the most American thing in America.”
Sid talks the place up. I put aside my book, Uwem Akpan’s bestseller Say You’re One Of Them, a collection of disturbing stories on the plight of African children.
I tell Sid of another border experience.
I was around 18 when I walked across the Rainbow Bridge with just a driver’s licence for identification. I found a bar, had a beer, and left the waitress a $100 tip, neatly folded inside a $1, before returning to Canada.
Sid laughs. “Really?”
“Yeah,” I answer. “I guess it was a random act of kindness before the random act of kindness movement became vogue.”
We continue down New York’s I-90. Jean, one of the few Canadians ever invited to speak at Chautauqua, will present on “Maternal Mortality in the 21st Century.”
Jean is a banker’s daughter, by the way, and handles money astutely.
Still, money — how you or I or anyone might use or misuse it — is on my own mind.
It’s the following morning in Chautauqua’s main hall. Jean’s afternoon session is promoted with a flub, on maternal “morality” not “mortality.” But then, there is a morality, or immorality, to it all: the socioeconomics of why, every year, 325,000 women die terrible and preventable deaths in childbirth. What’s their value?
Next, Alastair Symington, a Scottish chaplain to the Queen, shares. We need to see the poor as equals. He notes the apostle Peter was impoverished. (Unlike, say, Queen Elizabeth II or Peter’s successors — history’s string of popes.)
Symington reads the Scripture.
“We have neither silver nor gold.”
That’s what penniless Peter and the apostle John once told a lame beggar looking for help. Instead, in Jesus’ name, they told the man to get up and walk. He did.
I get up and walk into Chautauqua’s current photo exhibit, One World, One Tribe, by world-renowned photographer Reza Deghati.
The Iranian’s adage? All the world’s darkness can’t cover the light of a single candle.
Reza’s photo of Afghani schoolgirls is both beautiful and haunting. I look into their eyes. I wonder how many are mothers by now. Or dead. I can’t help them.
Jean then presents at the acropolis-styled Hall of Philosophy. Six hundred listen. She shines her own light. Answers questions. Sid tells me, “That was incredible. One of the best talks I’ve heard.” Twenty years at Chautauqua, he has heard hundreds.
Later, at dinner, we’re joined by an Egyptian atheist and a senior couple, two women together since meeting decades ago in a Ghana hospital where one was a Catholic nun.
I chew on it all, our past 24 hours, freedom in all its stripes, and how Chautauqua — with 150,000 visitors a season — feeds America’s spirit through both secular and religious knowledge, the arts, or just rest at its idyllic lakeside location.
A $23-million-a-year operation, it relies on earnings and donations, not government.
Then there’s Jean’s brainchild, the Canadian-Ugandan charity Save the Mothers. Six years in, it has trained 150 East African leaders to save Africa’s best resource: its mothers.
All with donations from generous Canadians, not a government drop to now, the one-year anniversary of Ottawa’s $5 billion G8 initiative for the world’s neediest mothers.
Ancient King Solomon once said that where there is no vision, the people will perish. That’s the currency Jean uses. Vision.
We’re back in our Hamilton home. Sid phones. I forgot my book in his van. He’ll mail it. Then he says that, incredibly, he’s about to drive another Chautauqua speaker, my book’s author, Jesuit priest Uwem Akpan, just flown in from Nigeria.
Really? I say.
He asks if I’d like Akpan to sign my book. Sure. To who? Thom and Jean. What should he write? Tell him just to encourage us with our work.
I laugh. Oh man. What are the odds?