By LINDA M. LINONIS
The Rev. Dr. Joan Brown Campbell, director of religion at Chautauqua Institution for the last 14 years, is retiring.
The native of Youngstown, who will be 82 in November, said she felt it was “time for a younger person” to step in.
The Rev. Dr. Campbell said Youngstown was her home from her birth in 1931 to the time she went off to the University of Michigan at 18 years old. While in the city, her family belonged to Tabernacle Presbyterian Church.
Dr. Campbell said she received a strong foundation in faith and family growing up in Youngstown.
“My grandfather was a Presbyterian minister,” she noted.
Her parents, the late Dr. James and Alice Jane Bunn Brown, were involved in the community. She noted the Bunn family was in leadership roles in the schools.
“I remember going to Chautauqua as a child,” she recalled. The nonprofit educational center was a family destination when she was growing up.
“I got my first taste of it at 5 years old and went until I was 10 or 11,” she said.
She returned in 1985 as a guest preacher when she was serving as executive director of the U.S. office of the World Council of Churches. In 1999, the director of religion was retiring and suggested she apply. She is the first woman to serve in that capacity.
Her family legacy and “religion as a part of life” contributed to her decision to become an ordained minister. But encouragement came from an unexpected source: black ministers.
“I was working with African-American preachers and Dr. [Martin Luther] King on the campaign for Carl Stokes,” she said of being a part of a volunteer effort to register voters. “They encouraged me,” she said of the black pastors who supported her wish to be a minister.
She is an ordained minister in two Christian denominations — Disciples of Christ and American Baptist. She was one of the first women to be ordained, at 50 years old.
Dr. Campbell also was the first woman to be associate executive director of Greater Cleveland Council of Churches and the first ordained woman to be general secretary of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA. She is a lecturer and author.
Dr. Campbell arranged for Dr. King to speak at her home church, Heights Christian Church in Shaker Heights, in 1965.
“We were working to get Carl [Stokes] to speak to white congregations,” she said of the man who would be Cleveland’s first black mayor.
She said she was compelled to be involved for a simple reason — “it’s what God calls us to do ... love your neighbor.”
She said that “shared commandment for all religions” translates to social justice.
Dr. Campbell said her work in this area was clearly life-changing.
“For the first time, I could see the high cost of important issues,” she said. “It was my first encounter with racism ... directed at Dr. King and me.”
She remembers Dr. King fondly.
“He was a generous man ... so willing to give,” she said. “He really had a good sense of humor and was a kind person.”
In remembering King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, which marked its 50th anniversary last week, Dr. Campbell said “progress has been made,” as evidenced by the election of President Barack Obama.
But, she added, racism continues to be an issue in America, and poverty remains linked to race.
In her position as director of religion, Dr. Campbell has arranged 69 speakers annually.
She said a “good representation” of race, gender, sexual orientation and denomination were priorities.
“I wanted quality and diversity,” she said.
Dr. Campbell lives in a senior community in Chagrin Falls and has spent summers in Chautauqua.
She said she hasn’t decided exactly what she will do in retirement but remains involved in Heights Christian Church.
The Rev. Dr. Nick Mager, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Youngstown, said Dr. Campbell spoke at the church years ago in a program sponsored by First Presbyterian and St. John’s Episcopal Church.
As one who frequents Chautauqua, the Rev. Dr. Mager said Dr. Campbell had a “great ability” to line up big names in theology.
“She’s been a leader in ecumenical and interfaith movements,” he said.