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Thursday, Sept. 8, 2011 07:30 am

Making Springfield a compassionate city


The Council of Conscience, a multi-faith, multi-national group of religious thinkers and leaders, reviewed and sorted through all the world's contributions to craft the final Charter for Compassion.

Long, long ago, Rabbi Hillel, an older contemporary of Jesus, was challenged to teach the Torah while standing on one foot. Hillel responded, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.” He went on to tell his challengers that this statement alone sums up the teachings of the Torah and that all the rest is commentary.

Following the Golden Rule is hard. Becoming a truly compassionate person, allowing others to become the center of our world, and committing ourselves to acts of kindness in the face of adversity, requires true courage. It takes a kind of courage that Springfield citizens have shown in the past.  

Take for example this story told by Driss El-Akrich, a graduate student at the University of Illinois Springfield and a member of Springfield’s Muslim community. “Sept. 11, I wasn’t here, but when it happened other faith traditions came and protected the Muslim community when they were praying on Friday. When I was told that, it really made me proud of being here in Springfield. Look, these people from other faith traditions, they came and protected us. How beautiful is that? That’s really very meaningful.”

According to scholar and author Karen Armstrong, living the compassionate teachings of Christianity, Judaism, Islam and many of the world’s other faith traditions, is the one thing that brings us into the presence of the Divine. In 2008, Armstrong asked the nonprofit organization TED to “help with the creation, launch and propagation of a Charter for Compassion, crafted by a group of leading inspirational thinkers from the three Abrahamic traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam and based on the fundamental principles of universal justice and respect.”

Armstrong’s goal was to create an instrument that could be used to help return religion to its rightful role as a source of peace in the world.

In the fall of 2008, more than 150,000 people from 180 different countries and many different faith traditions shared their thoughts on compassionate tolerance. A Council of Conscience, made up of 18 religious scholars and humanitarians from around the world and representing many of the world’s faith traditions, gathered to consider the collected thoughts from round the world and to craft the Charter, which was unveiled on Nov. 12, 2009. Since then more than 75,000 individuals have signed the Charter for Compassion online. Five American cities, with combined populations totaling more than one million people, have become “Compassionate Cities.” Sixteen other cities, including Chicago and Springfield, are candidate cities, exploring the idea of becoming full-fledged Compassionate Cities.

Over the next year, the Prairieland Compassion Network hopes to spread a culture of compassion across the city of Springfield. Formed by members of the Grassroots Inter-Faith Team (GIFT), the Prairieland Compassion Network grew out of a desire of some GIFT members to expose Springfield residents to the Charter for Compassion, to encourage community discussion of the Charter and to engage community members in activities that promote compassion and tolerance for diversity in the Springfield area.

When asked what they know about compassion that the rest of us do not know, Network members confirm that becoming a more compassionate person is hard work. However, they also confirm that we have a duty to recognize that compassion is a universal way in which Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and others can live out the primary teaching of even the most ancient philosophies, “Never do to other people what you would not choose for yourself.” Compassion allows humans to become the hands of God in a world full of suffering.

To date, 16 local organizations have agreed to partner with the Prairieland Compassion Network to search for creative ways to encourage compassion. Planned events include “Compassion Sabbaths” in local congregations and faith communities, a Vigil to Remember 09/11/01 sponsored by Pax Christi, a Gandhi Event focusing on the message of peace and compassion lived by Mahatma Gandhi, a book club focusing on Karen Armstrong’s Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life and an open mic night hosted by Poets and Writers of Springfield. The Network continues to look for partner organizations and anticipates that new events will be added throughout the year, culminating with a closing ceremony on Sept. 11, 2012.

To learn more about the Prairieland Compassion Network, visit their website at www.prairiecompassion.org. To hear or read the Charter for Compassion, visit www.charterforcompassion.org. To learn more about the worldwide compassion movement, go to www.compassionateactionnetwork.org, and to learn more about Compassionate Cities, visit www.compassionatecities.org.

Contact Grace Sweatt at writtenbygrace@yahoo.com.

A peace vigil sponsored by Pax Christi is planned for 1-2 p.m. Sept. 11 at the Federal Building, Sixth and Monroe. At 3 p.m. on Sept. 18 Rajmohan Gandhi, grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, speaks at Laurel United Methodist Church, Walnut and South Grand. For other “September Days of Compassion” events go to www.prairiecompassion.org.

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