You may have heard about something called Compassionate Winston-Salem. But possibly not.
Although there have been meetings with Mayor Allen Joines, city council members and other community leaders, the idea is still emerging.
Locally, Compassionate Winston-Salem originated with Interfaith Winston-Salem, a nonprofit group which sponsors activities to help people understand and respect the religious traditions of their neighbors. Internationally, writer Karen Armstrong, His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu sowed the seeds three years ago.
At the center of the idea is the Charter of Compassion. In part, the Charter says:
“The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves. Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the center of our world and put another there, and to honor the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.”
A small group in Winston-Salem is working to make compassion a hallmark of our city, to have Winston-Salem known broadly as “the city of arts, innovation and compassion.” More than 230 local individuals and organizations have already signed the charter. We are working with members of city council to find an appropriate way for the city to officially affirm the charter. From there we would apply to Compassionate Action Network International for certification as a city of compassion.
Rather than define what compassion is, the group is asking the community to live its own definition. We see Compassionate Winston-Salem as a movement rather than as a program. It’s what can happen when compassionate action blooms in all corners of the community.
One challenge we have faced is how to describe something that by its nature is ineffable. Compassion is something you know when you see it or feel it or do it. In our minds, it can be as simple as a smile or as complex as a network of independent organizations collaborating to address a need like poverty and hunger.
We will highlight as many acts of compassion as we can, as we have already begun in this “good news” blog. It includes brief sketches like 10-year-old Langston Peoples, who calls himself the “Food Dude”; Emily and Keith Davis, who started a program to give free shoes to homeless people and others in need; ninth-grader Josh Breakstone, who collected items at Temple Emanuel for the Second Harvest Food Bank; and Jonathan Milner, who started a program for UNCSA students to volunteer in an orphanage in Haiti.
Some people have raised the question: Can Winston-Salem rightfully call itself a City of Compassion when homelessness remains a problem and some surveys say that our area has a higher percentage of children vulnerable to hunger than most any other area of the country? We acknowledge that those are among our city’s challenges. Our challenge is to apply compassion in action to address them.
How can we make that happen?
As the Charter of Compassion says, we must “dethrone ourselves from the center of our world and put another there.” Science has demonstrated what each of us knows intuitively: when we place our focus on helping someone else, our own problems and anxieties become less burdensome. By helping others we are helping ourselves. That is true for individuals as well as for the community.
Within the faith community, Interfaith Winston-Salem currently is organizing several interfaith book clubs that will study Karen Armstrong’s book, “Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life,” this fall. Armstrong’s is the first in a series we hope will connect people of different segments of the community to build relationships and to build an understanding of how they can make compassion a guiding principle in their lives.
At the same time, we recognize that compassion is not a trait owned just by those who participate in a religious tradition. People who subscribe to no particular tradition and people who would describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious” also share the compassionate gene.
We’re inviting everyone to join in the movement we call Compassionate Winston-Salem. You can act individually or you can become involved in some of the joint efforts that emerge. But, the important thing is to bring compassionate action front and center to all that we do in Winston-Salem.