Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Charter for Compassion

A more compassionate city, a more compassionate country, a more compassionate world: this was religious historian Karen Armstrong’s vision when she launched the ‘Charter for Compassion’. Parveen Muhammed speaks with Terry Ayling and Lesley Bryant, who are working to make that vision a reality on Queensland’s Gold Coast.

Armstrong won the TED prize in 2008 for her proposal to make ethics part of everyday life. With the $100,000 prize money and the support of the TED organization, she set up a ‘Council of Conscience’ made up of spiritual leaders of the Abrahamic faiths. The Council, based on contributions from people around the world, gave birth to the ‘Charter for Compassion’, a pledge that motivates individuals and communities to care for each other and to relieve suffering wherever it is found, transcending religious, ideological and national differences.  ‘Do unto others what you would have done to you’ is the Golden Rule spread by the charter.

In 2010, the Federal Parliament of Australia became the first parliament in the world to recognize the Charter, setting a vision for Australia to become a more compassionate country, and giving impetus for cities within Australia to take on the challenge of becoming more compassionate. The sunny city of Gold Coast is one city that has taken on this challenge.

Compassionate Gold Coast

Compassionate Gold Coast is an independent, not-for-profit organisation. It has been in operation since 2015 and was formally launched to the public on 21 September 2017, which coincidentally was also United Nations International Day of Peace. The Commonwealth Games, to be held on the Gold Coast in April 2018, has been a catalyst for the group members, who would like to ensure that one of the event’s legacies will be a Gold Coast that is more compassionate.

Bryant has been associated with IofC for many years and drew comparisons between its work and that of Compassionate Gold Coast. ‘IofC gives you the vision for your own work, and we grow as we’d like,’ she said. 'Just as IofC got started in Melbourne in 1956 through an invitation to Frank Buchman to visit in the lead-up to the Olympic Games that year, this initiative is being started alongside the 2018 Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast.' Besides her work with these organisations, Bryant is part of other initiatives on the Gold Coast that work to bring all communities together, 'focusing not on the differences but on what we have in common'.

Ayling is the Facilitator of Compassionate Gold Coast and is also a member of the Australian Organising Group for the Charter for Compassion. He has been working to get the Gold Coast City Council on board with the Charter, and was due to make a presentation to them soon after our meeting. The meeting went well – Ayling reported afterwards that the Council had unanimously agreed to sign up the City of Gold Coast as a compassionate city, paving the way for more projects to be implemented in future with the backing of the Council.

Mayor Tom Tate and Councillors, Gold Coast, Queensland, sign the Charter for Compassion. Mayor Tom Tate signs the Charter for Compassion with Compassionate Gold Coast representatives.

Ayling explained that the objectives of Compassionate Gold Coast are two-fold: to evoke compassion in the Gold Coast community; and to respond to identified community needs. He said that this is achieved by facilitating respectful conversations, giving voice to the things that are already happening, and working collaboratively with other organisations. 'It is not a spiritual network but a free-standing organisation that is human-spirited', said Ayling. Currently, Compassionate Gold Coast works across three different groups: the Multi-faith Advisory and Action Group, the Griffith University Centre for Interfaith & Cultural Dialogue, and the Spiritual Care Services for Gold Coast.

Ayling explained that, at the international level, the Charter for Compassion does not have an organised structure, but seeds ideas and initiatives in countries, cities and individuals; what grows from these will become ‘their own organisms’. Similarly, Compassionate Gold Coast is an organism rather than an organisation, evolving to meet the needs around it. Ayling aptly summed up his vision of the Charter for Compassion, quoting his grandmother's famous saying, 'Anybody can count the seeds in an apple but only God can count the apples in a seed'.

Working with Students

Compassionate Gold Coast has been working hard to plant the seeds of compassion, and what better way than to start with the next generation. A recent project involved 11 high schools on the Gold Coast, where students were asked to brainstorm answers to the question, ‘What would it mean to be a compassionate Gold Coast?’ Issues such as homelessness, poverty, domestic violence and cultural cohesiveness were discussed. Groups were then asked to pick one issue and report back in three months as to ‘what would your school do?’

Margaret Hepworth, peace educator, facilitated discussions with students, using illustrations from her book, ‘The Gandhi Experiment: Teaching Our Teenagers to Become Global Citizens’. Each school that took part was presented with a copy of the book.

Peace educator Margaret Hepworth presents students with a copy of ‘The Gandhi Experiment’

Students reported back with a variety of plans to address these issues. These included film festivals to showcase films on compassion, a multi-cultural week to help international students settle in better, positive relationship days, and a mental health expo to spread awareness of mental illness. These projects are currently being implemented with the guidance and support of Compassionate Gold Coast. The project also resulted in representatives from four high schools making a presentation to the mayor about what they would like implemented in their city. The idea they jointly put forward was the setting up of ‘Friendly Fridges’ whereby fresh food could be left in a place that would be accessible to people in need. With the mayor's approval, this is currently being implemented within the high school community with the help of school canteens, parents and friends.

Ayling noted that, 'The concept of spreading compassion has brought two diverse reactions from the audience; good on you, says one group, whilst the other says, what's the point? However, we cannot ignore that humans have an innate capacity for empathy and compassion and also a deep yearning to give and receive empathy and compassion. Our work will carry on.'

As in most cities around Australia, compassionate projects continue to be carried out daily by individuals and organisations on the Gold Coast. The umbrella of Compassionate Gold Coast gives voice to these happenings and also encourages new projects to be implemented. It is their hope that this pilot project on the Gold Coast will encourage other cities to adopt similar approaches in tune with the overall vision of the Australian organizing committee to be ‘a compassionate continent’ by 2021. The committee anticipates a ‘compassionate continent’ launch event on 21 September 2021, hopefully at Uluru, and proposes that this day in future be observed in Australia as a national day of compassion. – Parveen Muhammed

Images courtesy of Lesley Bryant

For more information about Compassionate Gold Coast, contact terry.ayling@compassionategoldcoast.org.au or lesley-b@bigpond.net.au. See the Facebook page here: facebook.com/compassionategoldcoast