Winding down from World Interfaith Harmony week would be a backwards way of saying it. For event organizers like the Compassionate Cities campaigners in Atlanta, the work is only just beginning.
This is true of Rev. Bob Thompson, Board Chair Emeritus of the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions, who is now championing a metro-wide effort to bring the Charter for Compassion to life in Atlanta. The Compassionate Atlanta kickoff event was held at the Carter Center on February 2 with co-sponsorship of the Parliament’sFaiths Against Hate campaign, and as a participating entity of the United Nations World Interfaith Harmony Week observance. Incidentally coinciding with the beginning of Black History Month in the United States, the Compassionate Atlanta launch embodies the beloved community vision of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
By launching the campaign, Rev. Thompson is primed to share how a Compassionate city campaign works, and what the Charter means to Atlanta. In a recent conversation with the Parliament, Thompson explains how Atlanta pulls interfaith and interracial harmony under the same umbrella, and why partners like the Parliament’s Faiths Against Hate campaign and other common causes can find a local focus to live out the Charter.
Parliament: Before we talk about the Charter, what can you share from your favorite memories of your time on the Parliament board?
Rev. Thompson: I cherish so many luminous memories from my tenure. From the Parliament in Cape Town to leading a small group of trustees to meet with the Dalai Lama—these and many significant encounters linger in my memory. But probably the most significant recollection occurred after 9/11 when we hosted a large interfaith gathering in a Chicago-area mosque. Following that gathering many of us in the Chicago interfaith community literally stood with our Muslim sisters and brothers outside of Chicago-area mosques for a number of subsequent days as a statement of our solidarity.
Parliament: How does the Charter for Compassion relate to its offspring movements, like Compassionate Action International, the Compassion Games, and Compassionate City campaigns?
Rev. Thompson: The Charter For Compassion was first articulated by Karen Armstrong in her “Make A Wish” TED talk in 2008. Her wish was granted and the Charter For Compassion was subsequently drafted by a “Council of Conscience,” consisting of interfaith global religious and spiritual leaders. The Charter is the blueprint for the International Campaign for Compassionate Cities and Compassion Games which serve as concrete expressions of the Charter for Compassion.
Parliament: What does it mean for a city to create a Compassion Campaign?
Rev. Thompson: Every city campaign reflects local capacities. But each and every city campaign is rooted in the Charter For Compassion. However we organize in our cities, the message is the same, “treat others the way you want to be treated.”
Parliament: How have municipal leaders taken to the Charter? Do governmental entities agree to change their practices to promote Compassion?
Rev. Thompson: When a city government declares itself a “compassionate city” it issues a proclamation that embraces the Charter for Compassion while working together with its citizens to develop a compassionate action plan that reflects the vision and capacities of that municipality. These efforts ultimately have the power of changing the public conversation and consciousness.
Parliament: What new and different outcomes can a city embarking upon a Compassionate Cities campaign expect, or hope to see happen?
Rev. Thompson: I live by the mantra, “communities consist of conversations. We change our communities by changing our conversations.” We learned from the Civil Rights movement and more recently from LGBT movement, when the conversation changes, communities inevitably change. I believe that compassion and compassionate action are conversation changers that are powerful enough to transform the communities in which we live.
Parliament: Your kickoff event attracted a large crowd of multi-religious and racially diverse faith leaders at the Carter Center in Atlanta over the Feb. 2 -3 weekend. How does the interracial network of faith leaders collaborate in Atlanta as compared to what you saw in Chicago? Moreover have you learned anything organizing in Atlanta which could help aspiring community leaders advance the beloved community in racially segregated cities (like Chicago)?
Rev. Thompson:The diverse Atlanta interfaith community has been the driver of the Compassionate Atlanta campaign. As an aside, when we were organizing to host the North American Interfaith Network (NAIN) in the summer of 2012, I looked around at members of our organizing team and realized I was the only white man on the committee of 12. That was a very different experience than I had while doing interfaith engagement in Chicago.
The interracially diverse interfaith community in Atlanta reflects in part, the cultural complexity of Southern history. This diversity was also evident at our Compassionate Atlanta launch at the Carter Center. It has been my experience that the Atlanta interfaith community is intentional about living out the vision of the Beloved Community as Dr. King so eloquently articulated. In terms of residency, most of our cities are racially segregated, Atlanta included. But if we become conscious and intentional about WHO we engage in our conversations—we can make the Beloved Community real in terms of everyday life. It all begins with being conscious and intentional and culminates in developing relationships that change how we see ourselves and each other.
Parliament: What happens next for the Compassionate Atlanta campaign?
Rev. Thompson: The purpose of our February 2nd Compassionate Atlanta gathering at the Carter Center was to call all citizens in metro Atlanta to concrete actions that invite cities in the metro area to:
We plan to gather again at the Martin Luther King Jr. Chapel at Morehouse College on April 3rd for a Compassion Celebration to report back on what we have done and learned in this two month compassion experiment.
Parliament: The Faiths Against Hate campaign of the Parliament is a co-sponsor of Compassionate Atlanta. How can (and why should) an organization become a co-sponsor?
Rev. Thompson: The Faiths Against Hate Campaign is a very important first step! When CPWR Chair Malik Mujahid called me last April asking if we could organize a Faiths Against Hate event in Atlanta, my immediate response was “Yes!” Yet, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that we needed to mobilize people around something concrete and positive. I checked out the compassionate cities movement and asked Malik if we could use this as our organizing strategy. He was very enthusiastic and supportive. So the Parliament has helped to make the Faiths Against Hate campaign real in Atlanta through the Compassionate Cities movement. Each and every locality must find their own way to give expression to the Faiths Against Hate initiative. Finally, we are all in this together. If we want to bring change to our world we must think globally and act locally. This is what we have done in Atlanta.
Parliament: Are there any lessons you picked up during your time leading the Parliament that have contributed to how you inspire interfaith and compassion now?
Rev. Thompson: The most important lesson I learned in my role as Parliament Chair was that interfaith dialogue and engagement empowers us to understand that our differences present us with an opportunity to go deeper. Beneath our differences we share a common humanity. It is this vision of our deep unity amidst our diversity that gives me hope and keeps me doing the work I continue to do.
Featured image: Compassionate Atlanta kicks off in beloved community on Feb. 2 at the Carter Center
Top left: Rev. Bob Thompson kicks off with Compassionate Atlanta Feb. at the Carter Center. Image courtesy of Compassionate Seattle
Bottom right: A Proclamation in honor of Compassionate Atlanta was signed by the Atlanta City Council for the kickoff celebration
Middle left: Interfaith advances the Beloved Community through the Charter for Compassion in Atlanta at their kickoff event in February 2014
Rev. Robert V. Thompson - Chair Emeritus. A native of the San Francisco Bay Area, Bob Thompson graduated from Berkeley Baptist Divinity School (Graduate Theological Union) and was ordained an American Baptist minister in 1973. He served American Baptist Churches in Kansas, Ohio, and for 30 years, as Senior Minister of the Lake Street Church in Evanston, Illinois. He retired in November of 2010. During the 1980′s Thompson became an activist pastor focusing on issues such as homelessness, racial reconciliation and advocacy for LGBT rights. He is recognized as Minister Emeritus of the Lake Street Church and Chair Emeritus of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. Over the years he has contributed articles to periodicals including The Christian Century, The Chicago Tribune (op-ed), Sound Vision (a Muslim outlet), and others. He is the author of A Voluptuous God: A Christian Heretic Speaks (CopperHouse, 2007) and a contributor to the book for preachers, Feasting On the Word, Westminster John Knox Press.
Upon retirement he moved to Atlanta, Georgia where he is actively engaged in the Atlanta interfaith community.