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Compassion Games – Survival of the Kindest

By Sande Hart


Darwin never said, “Survival is for the fittest.” What he said, studied, wrote about, and concluded was more in alignment with – “survival is for the most adaptable and collaborative.” But even if Darwin used the language of “fittest,” isn’t it time we change the way we think of being “fit”?

In 14 years of interfaith community building, I have yet to hear anyone suggesting that we destroy our neighbors in order to survive. The messages I am happy to have heard and practiced were all about finding common values, celebrating our unique differences, and realizing we need one another to survive.

We also understand the need to do more than survive. We need our neighbor to be as healthy and whole as they can be, so all may thrive. Moving beyond tolerance, we need to go bigger and deeper, beyond accepting, leaning into understanding and appreciating. When we realize our interdependence, an understanding of community emerges naturally.

The World Today, and New Kind of Game

Today, let us agree, is an ‘all hands on deck’ moment in time. Our environment, political climate, healthcare, homelessness, and personal poverty issues are on the rise. We need one another. And it does not have to feel like heavy lifting to make a big difference. If we are creative, we can achieve goals, make an impact, and have lots of fun doing it. That’s why the Compassion Games are proving to be so successful.

Karen Armstrong

Karen Armstrong

In 2008, theologian, author, and authority on world religions Karen Armstrong received the TED Prize for her wish to create a world focused on compassion. She wrote The Charter for Compassion, and the Compassion Movement was born.

Since then cities, schools and universities, and health care systems have begun to embrace the idea of promoting compassion. California is currently working on becoming the first State of Compassion in the world, while Botswana recently became the first Country of Compassion in the world.

Interfaith activists Judy and Woody Trautman just completed a 3-day intensive interfaith conference for their Compassionate City campaign in Toledo, Ohio, and the list goes on. With more than 300 Cities of Compassion in process, it’s clear this movement is escalating. And it’s not going away in my lifetime, I know for sure.

In 2010, Seattle, Washington became the first designated City of Compassion. Other cities followed. In 2011 Louisville, Kentucky earned the designation and really got serious. As Duane Elgin wrote at the time, “Compassionate Louisville then unleashed an outpouring of community service during their one-week long ‘Give a Day’ program. Roughly 90,000 volunteers performed more than 100,000 hours of community service in a single week in April. Acts of service included more than 30,000 meals packaged by volunteers for needy children and families around the world, more than 3,000 books donated for elementary and middle school students, nearly 1,000 blood donations, planting 200 trees in the city parks, and packaging and delivering seven tons of medical supplies to a Mexican community of 20,000 to establish the town's first medical facility.”

That week in April earned Louisville an international award. The award ceremony was in Seattle, where Louisville’s Mayor Greg Fischer challenged the assembled: “Louisville is the most compassionate city in the world, until proven otherwise!” Seattle leaders immediately took the bait, and the Compassion Games were born. These two great cities put their weeks of community service in the ring and it was “Game On!”

Last September 2013, 19 communities joined in the Games, 126,000 volunteer hours were logged, and 97,000 people were served in 28 countries.

The Official Games in September 2014

Today the official “Compassion Games, Survival of the Kindest” are played each year between September 11th, the National Day of Service and Remembrance, and the September 21 U.N. International Day of Peace. Over these 11 days, groups, cities, places of worship, schools and classrooms, and tribes are organized into “leagues.” You can get started now, as an individual or a group – go to Play, register, and go to work.

Then come back to the Compassion Map on the Compassion Games website and submit your report, including your points, your story, your links, photos, and also your zip code, so you will show up on the global map.

Compassion Games International is an organization inspired by a little challenge and a lot of creativity to change the way we look at one another, work with one another, and care for one another. Recently I overheard a Catholic chaplain say “Innovation is the weird idea that comes from creativity and brilliance.” Founder Jon Ramer, instrumental in dreaming up the Cities of Compassion initiative, used that same innovative thinking to dream up the Compassion Games. It also makes perfect sense that he turned to his respected friend Chief Phil Lane, Jr., Hereditary Chief and Elder, for shared leadership.

The Compassion Games are based on the indigenous gift giving ceremony called “Potlatch.” In a Potlatch ceremony I am going to give you my most cherished possession, entrusting it to you because I cannot be fully whole until you are fully whole. Like the African philosophy of Ubuntu, Potlatch reminds us that we must care for one another and see our neighbor as our relative.

The Games are also modeled on four directions; from in to out, from out to in, from down to up and from up to down. While we are competing to be first, we are committing to be first in compassion. In that compassion, we want one another to be first too, so we are inspired to stretch a little farther than we normally would. Competition is a funny emotion. Striving to be first chemically surges through our bodies so we can reach our goal faster and in a fierce way.

Since language is so important in our culture, the Compassion Games coined an underused word in hopes it will become part of our every day culture – coopetition. “Cooperating to compete” means we inspire each other to be better, kinder, more just.

Then there’s the word compassionfit. You can be compassionate, but when you are compassionfit, your compassion muscle is strong and requires exercise or it will go flabby.

Compassion Games in Action

In 2008, SARAH, a women’s interfaith organization in Southern California, launched an Annual Interfaith Weekend of Community Service. We reached out to our communities, organized them geographically, asked them to invite in more congregations, lay their specific and favorite charitable organizations on the table (every congregation has at least one!), and then agree to motivate their congregation to show up to serve those needy neighbors on our Annual Weekend. For the following five years, we mobilized an average of 1,000 volunteers out to about 100 service projects around Orange County, California.

Baha’i’ Community Kids baked 520 cookies for the homeless shelter during the Games

Baha’i’ Community Kids baked 520 cookies for the homeless shelter during the Games

We witnessed people who would otherwise choose not to show up at an interfaith event, packing boxes of food together for military families, laughing and telling personal stories. Five years later, a synagogue and a mosque partnered through the year supporting a homeless family organization, and another group of diverse congregations now delivers backpacks to underprivileged students returning to school each year. The results are measurable and impactful.

In 2013 SARAH heard about the Compassion Games and decided to move our date and our community activities from May to the September Games. Almost overnight we doubled our volunteerism, increased our collections of items for a variety of needy organizations five times, and five new faith organizations joined us.

Focused on compassion, our synagogues, mosques, temples, Baha’i’ centers, Christian Science reading rooms, LDS stakes, and more added blood drives (5 points a pint), extra collections, bake sales, painted the Boys and Girls Club, cleaned the beach – we saw a fierce love that we had not seen before.

Every community is unique, so you have to get creative in determining the best way to ‘play’ in the Games. A Masters degree social work intern at a downtown Los Angeles high school saw the Games as an opportunity to empower students, then found it was the staff, faculty, and even the maintenance workers who really needed to play.

A chaplain from a women’s prison in Chino, California brought the Games to the women she serves, who enthusiastically embraced them. For the first time ever, no recorded incidents of violence occurred in the prison during the 11 days of Games. A combined 6400 points of compassionate action were recorded.

What’s special about the Games, besides the unique look you get when you mention them to someone for the first time (then the “Oh, what a great idea” comment that follows), is how we are not creating anything new, except how we are convening community. “It’s plug and play,” says Rebecca Tobias, United Religions Initative Global Council trustee and Compassion Games enthusiast. “The Games provide a platform to highlight what’s already working best, grow networks for good, and maximize capacity for goal sharing, communications, and collective impact in community.”

When a leader from our local mosque, which clearly out-coopetited the rest, asked, “What do we get out of winning?” I answered, “You get to go help the synagogue, the next contender, to beat you next year!”

I got an enthusiastic, “Yes!”