In our increasingly multi-faith and multi-cultural society, one challenge is how we find both meaningful and inclusive ways to celebrate, commemorate, lament and strengthen bonds of peace and harmony. On the one hand, erasing spiritual expression in the name of secular unity impoverishes and leaves us short of the depth and connections which community ritual can bring. On the other, it is not enough today simply to settle regularly for one expression of faith leadership, however well tried, nor just to include several such expressions (at the risk of length, tedium, and exclusion of other 'minority' voices). In Toowoomba, we have employed various approaches in recent years for important community gatherings and recognition of disaster and tragedy. Depending on circumstances, through the Toowoomba Goodwill Committee, we have both used traditional means and venues and multi-faith representation, and have also begun to create new pathways.
One of the most moving explorative community rituals was at Acland on Australia Day 2015 - see further here - but we have also developed a number of 'community affirmations' for special occasions, including Harmony Day - see here for a well-established example. Last Sunday was another wonderful step forward. Together with Toowoomba Regional Council, it was a delight, as chair of the Toowoomba Goodwill Committee, to work with the Nepalese Association of Toowoomba on a commemorative event to mark the Nepal earthquake last year. Using the lovely new Civic Square space at the new Toowoomba Library, we shared stories, music, video clips from Nepal, and a moving candlelight vigil - first lighting and circling the area with candles and then placing them by the water. It was a powerful expression of lament and commitment to renewal and of the binding of our different lives and backgrounds together to celebrate, support and heal our shared city and world.
My own contribution to the event is below - a new community affirmation for such occasions I hope we can develop further with other elements in the future:
TOOWOOMBA STANDING TOGETHER
Community Affirmation in the face of disaster and emergency
We meet today to affirm and support each other.
We acknowledge the first peoples of this land and their continued gifts among us.
We welcome all who join us in our shared journey of peace and harmony.
May we always celebrate our diversity as central to our common life and fruitfulness.
We stand with one another – Toowoomba Together
We meet today to share and honour our pain and sadness.
We hold with tenderness all that is hurting among us and in our broken world.
We offer up our sorrow, heartache and compassion.
May our tears and grief be transformed into healing and renewal.
We stand with one another – Toowoomba Together
We meet today to strengthen hope and solidarity.
We pledge ourselves to rebuild with love and courage.
We seek to do all we can to rejuvenate what has been destroyed.
May our hearts and hands always reach out to those in need, wherever they may be.
We stand with one another – Toowoomba Together:
many outlooks, many cultures – one community.
One of the wonderful unexpected outcomes of our flag washing on Australia Day was a phone call I received from an active member of the Lock the Gate Alliance. This is a national coalition of people from across Australia, including farmers, traditional custodians, conservationists and urban residents, who are uniting to protect our common heritage - our land, water and communities - from unsafe or inappropriate mining for coal seam gas and other fossil fuels. The person who rang was unknown to me yet had felt moved to contact me by photos she had seen of our event. She expressed deep thanks for the gathering, telling me about her involvement with local people in Acland and further afield who had been so negatively impacted by unbridled mining development. She lives interstate but the photos of the event brought home to her the powerful mix of courage in adversity and deep distress in the people she had encountered. As a filmmaker trying to share such stories, she had frequently been torn, she said, by the need to encourage such people to tell of their experience whilst not seeking to make things worse. Initiatives like yours, she said, are so valuable as they provide people with something and somewhere to hold their grief, space for mourning, for healing and for hope beyond hope. She was, she said, today at best a non-observant Buddhist, yet she knew this was so needed.
It was a marvelous conversation, not just in justifying (if that were required) our gathering on Australia Day, but also in reminding me of the deep need we have in our contemporary world for meaningful community rituals to help hold share out common humanity and build solidarity in the midst of our pain and joy, our fears, hurts and hopes. For millenia the great spiritual and religious traditions of the world have offered this. They can still do much, if they are open to listen, to development and to creative partnership with others. We need also however, whatever out religious traditions or none, to respond afresh to the movements of challenge and grace in our own day. This has given me food for thought and, I hope, inspiration for further action. Indeed, my phone partner also reminded me of the work of another heroine of mine: Joanna Macy, an activist Buddhist who has so enriched us with her own creative community rituals, touching the depth of our hearts and the soul of our troubled yet astonishing world.
Jo Inkpin is an Anglican priest serving as Minister of Pitt St Uniting Church in Sydney, a trans woman, theologian & justice activist. These are some of my reflections on life, spirit, and the search for peace, justice & sustainable creation.