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Art of Compassion

Artists from three different faiths promote respect for all

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For 11-year-old Camryn Kangas, compassion is as simple as being friendly to her classmates, and as involved as caring about people who are completely different from her.

"It's a really big part of life, and you really need compassion in the world for people to be equal and get along with each other," explains the Grade 6 student at St. John Brebeuf School.

In addition to that eloquent explanation, Camryn and her classmates at the Roman Catholic elementary school in River Heights are dancing, singing, chanting and even rapping their feelings and thoughts about compassion.

With the help of their teachers, the dozen grade 5 and 6 girls created a five-minute mini-musical about compassion, based on a poem by Winnipeg artist Manju Lodha.

"It reaches the soul of the listener," Lodha says of the mini-musical, which includes a rap about human rights.

"I only put the words to it, and the students invoked the life in my words through their talents and the directions of their teachers."

Lodha and fellow Winnipeg artists Isam Aboud and Ray Dirks spent the last two months leading workshops on compassion in eight Winnipeg public and independent schools for a project sponsored by the Manitoba Multifaith Council.

Called the Art of Compassion, the project culminates with a week-long student art exhibit, which opens 7 p.m., Wednesday, Feb. 1 at Canadian Mennonite University, 500 Shaftesbury Blvd., and features the St. John Brebeuf students and Hindu dancers.

Since 2007, the three artists, representing three different faith traditions -- Hinduism, Islam and Christianity -- have led workshops for schoolchildren and adults on topics such as multiculturalism, respect and more recently, compassion.

Those efforts resulted in two exhibits at the Mennonite Heritage Centre Gallery, where Dirks is curator, and a new book called In the Spirit of Humanity, which will be launched on Feb. 1. The 110-page, full-colour book features painting by the three artists and artwork by hundreds of students, as well as a companion DVD.

"I couldn't do it by myself, but with a group, we are stronger, we are learning about each other, and our diversity is working for us," says the Indian-born Lodha, who practises Jainism and Hinduism, of the joint projects with Dirks, a British Columbia native who is Mennonite, and Aboud, a Muslim originally from the Sudan.

"For all three of us, we are teachers, but we are also students," adds Dirks of what he's received from the years of workshops.

The Art of Compassion exhibit is timed to coincide with the second annual Interfaith Harmony Week, initiated by the United Nations to promote harmony, co-operation and understanding among people, explains project co-ordinator Lynda Trono, chairwoman of the Manitoba Multifaith Council's education committee.

She also has a very personal motivation for initiating the project, which received $6,250 in combined grants from the federal government and St. Mary's Road United Church, where she is a minister.

Several years ago, her teenage son converted to Islam, and one morning while walking to mosque wearing traditional Muslim garb, he suffered taunts and shouts from neighbours.

"I think part of my energy comes from his experience," says Trono, 52, who lives in Wildwood Park.

"I realized my neighbours who are people of faith and who dress to express their faith experience violence that I don't experience, so I need to do something about it."

For Lodha, who dresses in a traditional Indian sari, just looking different can be a starting point for discussions around compassion and acceptance. For years, she was afraid to enter Christian churches because she feared attempts at converting her, but now she feels comfortable in many religious settings.

"It's unbelievable being a non-Christian," explains Lodha. "I'm very comfortable in a Christian church."

In addition to the Art of Compassion project, Lodha and Dirks are currently filming a documentary on expressions of faith in Winnipeg, recording religious ceremonies and interviewing the faithful at temples, synagogues, churches and aboriginal settings.

"We are doing major world religions and showing a little of others," explains Lodha.

"We're trying to be as inclusive as we can."

The documentary, called Leap of Faith, is intended to be shown in schools and may also result in a book.

"(It's about being) willing in faith to leap out and get to know other faiths and know there's nothing to fear if we do," says Dirks of the video project.

One way to alleviate fears is to foster understanding and compassion among children so they'll come to see that differences are a part of life, says Trono, who travelled to Australia in 2009 for the Parliament of Religions.

"I think compassion is built into us," she says.

"If we nurture that when we're children and learn to respect and accept differences, we'll make a difference."


The free Art of Compassion exhibit of watercolour and acrylic paintings runs 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 2 through Wednesday, Feb. 8 at Canadian Mennonite University, 500 Shaftesbury Blvd. The exhibit is closed Sunday, Feb. 5.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 28, 2012 J13

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