Mobilizing our Collective Compassion
Rev. Kevin Tarsa
Unitarian Universalist Community of the Mountains
July 5, 2020
Our Journey with Compassion
How has your journey been, on the path of compassion?
We’ve been exploring compassion over the last 5 weeks – what compassion is and ways to cultivate our compassion – as if, like Black History month is often treated, compassion is a once-a-year, one-month focus. But Buddhist teachers remind us that the point of cultivating our compassion is so that compassion might become more than a temporary theme or a practice, that compassion might become a way of perceiving the world, a way of being in the world, a way of relating to all that is, was and will be, including ourselves.
Drawing on the Loving-Kindness or Metta Meditation from the Buddhist traditions we’ve been moving outward, from compassion for ourselves, to compassion for those with whom we have loving relationships, to people we don’t really know, to people whose behaviors and perspectives challenge and irk us.
Two Sundays ago, we invited you to find the growing edge of your compassion, to notice where you are holding someone just outside the circle of your active care and concern, and today we consider the possibility of extending our compassion fully, to encompass all beings and all that is, messy, painful, beautiful, exasperating, exhilarating and unpredictable as life and the universe and its inhabitants are.
I’ve held off naming the root meaning of the word “compassion,” which originates in ecclesiastical or church Latin in a word that meant “to suffer with,” to recognize and empathize with, to feel another’s suffering. As one person put it compassion, “… is the heart’s response to suffering.”
It begins not in response to some abstract idea of suffering, but to very particular and personal experiences of suffering that move us.
PR personnel for non-profits know this. Speaking of starving children in general, or of a war-torn nation in general does not generate the compassionate and generous response that a photo of one particular suffering child will, or the story of one particular suffering family.
Compassion begins in the specific, and that’s where we first need to nurture it, in our heart’s natural response to suffering.
When we can extend our compassion outward into this final, all-encompassing ring in the Metta meditation practice, compassion toward all, we move beyond our empathetic response to particular suffering, toward a more abstract sense of compassion and a desire to lessen suffering in the world in general, wherever we find it.
As Thutpen Jinpa puts it, “Compassion [at this level] arises as our response to suffering; period. Whose suffering it is should not matter (232).”
Now, there’s compassion at its largest.
Jinpa quotes Shantideva (the 8th-century, Indian, Buddhist monk, scholar, and poet):
Simply because it’s suffering,
it must be warded off.
Why is any limitation put on this?
No one disputes and questions
why suffering should be prevented.
If [suffering] must be prevented, all of it must be.
If not, this goes for oneself and everyone.
Jinpa says that this is where justice and compassion come together: when we can extend our natural compassion for specific suffering, outward into a wider, more open responsiveness to all suffering, including compassion for those whose suffering leads them to cause suffering.
“Whose suffering it is should not matter.”
As Allison and I thought through this series of services, we wanted, here, on this final Sunday of the theme, to look at our Collective Compassion – the compassion that we share, that we cultivate in each other, that we focus and channel outward together to relieve suffering in the wider community. We wanted to bring the theme ‘round to “justice,” (which “is what love looks like in public,” according to Cornel West), justice which is calling so loudly these days for our attention and our action, even from our homes.
UUCM’s mission names compassion as the first of the reasons that this congregation exists at all, and the reason members cultivate various strengths: in order “to create a world more compassionate, sustainable and just.” It is right that compassion is named first, because a more compassionate world demands a more sustainable and more just world. It’s strategic to begin with compassion if we want justice, compassion for all who suffer!
It’s a mission worthy of a religious community’s heart and soul and commitment, a mission worthy of the Universalist legacy we inherited which was rooted entirely in compassion. Our Universalist ancestors could not imagine that anyone ever would need to suffer for all eternity.
This congregation’s mission is a mission that demands that compassion be central, that compassion be the grounding for everything this congregation does and how it does it, from washing the dishes, to communicating via email, to disagreeing in a meeting, to showing up at rallies for black lives – with our masks on.
I caught up with a friend from seminary this week, who began a ministry on the east coast at the same time my ministry with you began here at UUCM. As part of our conversation my colleague named the challenge that most every UU congregation I’ve ever known faces.
He explained that he’s been trying to help the congregation he serves to collect and focus its social justice energies and resources in ways that will channel and amplify the members’ individual voices into something greater than the sum of the parts, but as different people have different justice causes that speak to their heart most strongly, they have not been able to get beyond the usual set of people doing separate good work in many different areas of the community, wondering why more members aren’t joining in their particular cause.
UUCM has faced that dynamic too, and leaders here have sought to focus the justice work of this congregation through a set of task forces – right now, one focusing on addressing climate change, one focusing on challenging white privilege, and one focusing on supporting and being in right relationship with the local indigenous people, the Nisenan.
This has indeed helped to focus congregational energies and resources in helpful ways, and I encourage you to lend your support and energy toward one of them. Pick one, and join others in that effort.
As I reflected on what would help deepen and strengthen this congregation’s collective justice work, its ability to channel and focus its capacity to speak truth to power, its ability to draw on its own members’ power to change systems in ways that could relieve suffering, – help its compassion flourish into solidarity, and its solidarity bear fruit in justice – I realized that it is the same thing that’s needed to deepen and strengthen the congregation period.
It is the need to cultivate compassion explicitly as the primary anchor for every aspect of this congregation’s life and liveliness. Not simply to name compassion as important or even as central, but to grow compassion, practice compassion, support compassion, expect compassion, live compassion with each other and as many rings outward as we possibly can, even and especially in the midst of putting ourselves on the line for the sake of justice in our community and nation.
The dominant cultural influences in this nation will continue to try to pull us toward a selfcenteredness that serves no one’s true well-being. Even in the midst of a pandemic that ought to be bringing us together, divisiveness reigns. It is counter cultural and challenging to prioritize compassion, to cultivate it courageously, patiently, deeply with each other. But informed and powered by well-developed individual compassion and group compassion, focusing compassion outward together would transform everyone involved, and truly help us use our power to lessen suffering in all the worlds we touch.
What Would it Take?
So, what would it take to cultivate compassion with that kind of clarity and commitment?
That’s one of the important questions before us, one that will require our creativity and our focus to answer together, as a community. Thupten Jinpa sheds light on a few aspects of the foundation.
He shares that the CompassionLab at the University of Michigan has been studying for 15 years now “how compassion can become organized and spread throughout an organization. . . . Researchers at CompassionLab have found three, interrelated factors that allow compassion to take hold.” In this moment they each have a unique poignancy.
- “The presence of networks of people who know each other well enough to share their pain;”
- “Established routines within the organization … [that foster regular … human contact;]
- [A shared set of values that supports compassion.]
Let’s start with the easy one, the values. We’re good there. UUCM’s got the values, at least in aspiration, in the hearts and minds of its members and friends, and in the Principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association.
I’ve been reading Dr. David Campt’s Compassionate Warrior Boot Camp for White Allies – the UU edition. Dr. Campt has been studying dialogue, inclusion and racial equity for 25 years. He specifically teamed up with UU Allison Mahaley to create a UU-centered resource for would-be allies, because he found that the values, principles and interests of UUs matched his approach to allyship unlike any other predominantly white organizations he had worked with.
Dr Campt’s approach to racial equity is rooted in developing and acting from compassion – rather than confrontation – in order to effectively engage the white people in our lives who are influenceable, but who are not there yet.
He takes some heat for this, from people who suggest that using compassion to address white supremacy risks coddling us white people in our white fragility. He makes a very clear case for why, in his experience, compassion is the most effective one-on-one path to a change of heart, and why he was willing to create a Spiritual edition of his white ally workbook for UUs because of the values to which we aspire.
As for Establishing routines that foster regular human contact; That’s going to take commitment, creativity and action from all of us over this next while, as the virus remains a factor in our lives. Online connections work well for some of us, and not for others.
René Wiley, with Family Ministry, and the Caring and Membership Teams, is initiating an invitation to everyone to make safe one-on-one connections with each other this summer, whether by phone or snail mail, or a driveby, or a fun quarantinable delivery, or a masked driveway visit.
Watch for an invitation from René. And however you might choose to do it, I would ask you, please to reach out to others, to foster some form of safe human contact, for your own sake and for the sake of the congregation.
Eventually, I trust, we’ll be able to find that contact more readily and directly in person. Meanwhile, we’ll need to work at it.
The first factor, too, will warrant our creative attention now: nurturing networks of people who know each other well enough to share their pain.
UUCM’s Soul Matters Circles are meant to foster that kind of knowing, but ideally we are investing ourselves in that kind of knowing – at least a little – in every gathering, every conversation, whether online or in person, in opportunites to reveal ourselves honestly and be seen for who we are, and the opportunity to witness, with care and compassion, who others are when they reveal themselves honestly. You are not alone.
I encourage you to lean courageously into the ways you might get to know others here well enough to share their pain, and for others to know you well enough to share theirs. Even while our physical in-person contact is limited.
Values, regular contact, networks of people who know each other well enough to share their pain.
The pandemic challenges these foundational aspects of compassion in religious community life, at least as we have known them, but I believe that they are still important and available, with some creativity, some flexibility, some intention, and some commitment on all our parts.
I’m about to take time for study leave and vacation. I’ll be thinking about how I might best cultivate compassion in myself and how I might best support compassion in the life of this congregation.
I invite you to do the same…with courageous love, and a sense of wonder…as you are reaching out to one another, as you are getting to know each other well enough to share your pain, and as you are working toward a more just world in the ways that you can.
I believe that if we truly center compassion as the key, our collective compassion can indeed “flourish into solidarity,” and our “solidarity can bear the fruit of justice.”
So may it be.
Each week we’ve invited you to do something that cultivates or strengthens compassion. This week, I invite you to take part in a justice effort that is right now drawing on all three of those aspects named by CompassionLab, and involving all three Justice Task Forces.
Thanks to Reine Thibeault, every Thursday between now and early November, at 4:00, via Zoom, members and friends gather to complete the handwritten portion of letters which will later be sent to infrequent voters around the country, particularly underrepresented voters, through the VoteFoward program. This is a tactic that has proven successful in other elections.
Rather than simply writing those letters alone, people connect and support and get to know each other while taking on this COVID-safe way to seek a more just world. Often there will be a theme or an artist or an additional activity. This past week, Tom Wernigg serenaded the group with his songs – on his Birthday, no less! Thanks, Tom.
I would invite you to take part, at least once and hopefully many times.
UUCM’s goal is to prepare 3000 letters by November.
For more information, Check out the events page at uugrassvalley.org
Or Contact: new board member Reine Thibeault with question, or watch the echalice for the link and passcode.
Resources consulted, cited, recommended…
Campt, David W., and Mahaley, Alison. Equipping Anti-Racism Allies Unitarian Universalist Edition: Fighting Racism…One Conversation at a Time. N.p., I Am Publications, 2020.
Jinpa, Thupten. A Fearless Heart: How the Courage to be Compassionate Can Transform Our Lives. United States, Hudson Street Press, 2015.
CompassionLab: a group of organizational researchers who strive to create a new vision of organizations as sites for the development and expression of compassion.
Vote Forward: Write letters to increase voter turnout, particularly among underrepresented populations.