Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #200. First published in the St. Cloud Times in print and online, March 3, 2024

“I believe that at every level of society — familial, tribal, national and international — the key to a happier and more successful world is the growth of compassion.” These words of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama are backed up by his lifetime of commitment to the welfare of others and by the Nobel Peace Prize. Pope Francis agrees, and notes what endangers it: “If compassion is the language of God, so often human language is that of indifference.”

“The Compassionate” is a name of God in the Qur’an. “Dignity, compassion, and justice” are declared values of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. In a January statement countering antisemitism and Islamophobia, St. Cloud Faith Leaders, including Bishop Patrick Neary of the Catholic Diocese of St. Cloud, declared, “It is as important as ever to remember that we are neighbors, not adversaries. We choose compassion over division, understanding over fear, and love over hate. Only by standing together, united in our common humanity, can we uphold a community and build a world where all people can live in peace and security, free from prejudice and violence.”

In 2009, noted historian of religion Karen Armstrong unveiled the Charter for Compassion, a brief and compelling text that begins, “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.” A “Seeds of Compassion Gathering” in Seattle in 2008 had inaugurated the idea. In the interim, 150,000 people around the world made suggestions for the charter.

I recently had a conversation with St. Cloud residents Cristina Seaborn, well-known musician, and Judy Foster, member of the St. Cloud Regional Human Rights Commission since 2010. Seaborn has dreamed about our area becoming a “Region of Compassion” since she first heard about the initiative at the Parliament of the World’s Religions. Foster sees the charter amplifying the goals of the Human Rights Commission.

My column’s theme has been, from the beginning (this is No. 200), “the renewal of human community” — hence my excitement at learning about the Charter for Compassion, and my eagerness to let my readers in on it, hoping they will support our becoming a “Region of Compassion.”

Many organizations and groups have made assessments of issues and needs and opportunities in our community. Waite Park (demographically the most diverse city in Minnesota) recently did a “Future Search” that took months and involved scores of residents. Create CommUNITY’s vision is “a welcoming, anti-discriminatory environment with respect and opportunity for all.” United Way Partner for Student Success is a coalition of business, civic, and educational leaders dedicated to supporting students from birth to career. GREAT Theatre is committed to “eliciting joy, empathy, and self-discovery through live theatre experiences.” The list goes on.

I suggested to Seaborn and Foster that they gather a diverse group — seven to 10 — to assemble the accumulated plans/reports/assessments, study and analyze them, and make a proposal for how a commitment to compassion — to feeling with, and taking on, the struggles and sufferings and hopes of others — would help coordinate and energize them all.

To date, 121 cities in 13 countries and 23 of the United States have signed the charter. Rochester is the one Minnesota city in the list. The City Council in 2017 adopted a resolution “to designate Rochester, Minnesota a City of Compassion.”

From Cathy Ashton, spokesperson for Compassionate Rochester, I learned that the process leading to the council’s action was birthed in a “Journey of Peace” program of the Franciscan Sisters at Assisi Heights.

Ashton made clear that there isn’t a template that can be imposed. Each community works out its own scheme to harness compassion’s power — “a clear, luminous and dynamic force,” as the charter puts it — by helping people throughout the community see what it looks like in practical terms — and by bringing to awareness the compassion that people are expressing without even knowing that’s what they’re doing. Indeed, as countless spiritual advisers these days say, compassion undergirds personal growth.

Rochester has a committee like the one Seaborn is considering. Following the council’s action, the committee held listening sessions with politicians, businesspersons, educators, police officers, social service providers, and others, to hear from them the “why” of the work they do. They keep in touch with the wider community through a well-curated 805-member “Compassionate Rochester MN” Facebook public group.

Compassion — in essence: treating all others as you would wish to be treated — is an antidote to our fractured and fractious dysfunction. I urge the mayors and councils of St. Cloud, Waite Park, Sauk Rapids, Sartell, St. Joseph, and St. Augusta to begin thinking about the Charter for Compassion as — to use the Dalai Lama’s words — “the key to a happier and more successful” region — for the benefit of everyone.