INDIANAPOLIS — A million acts of kindness helped forged the way for the nation’s mayors to meet here next week with one of the world’s best-known spiritual leaders.
The Dalai Lama is the keynote speaker at the June 24-27 meeting of U.S. Conference of Mayors, invited by city leaders who've enlisted citizens in the pursuit of world peace.
“The timing is just right. “I’m not sure there’s ever been a more important time for His Holiness to be here,” said Tom Tait, mayor of Anaheim, Calif.
It’s Tait who helped open the door for exiled Tibetan Buddhist monk to talk with the mayors about building compassion into the infrastructure of cities.
The 14th dalai lama, known as His Holiness to millions of Buddhist adherents, has said that compassion is contagious, radiating outward and fostering harmony.
For Tait, it’s more pragmatic than that. When he ran for office six years ago, as a Republican in a city facing poverty and a vexing racial divide, he promised to put kindness on his agenda.
After being elected, his endeavors included encouraging a Million Acts of Kindness program, inspired by a local father who lost his 6-year-old daughter in a car accident. He’d started a “Kindness Week” at her school in her memory and put up “Make Kindness Contagious” signs around the city.
Tait worked with the family to broaden the program into other schools. Each child was asked to perform 50 acts of kindness, from picking up trash to raising funds for Christmas toys for children who’d otherwise go without.
Collectively they hit the 1 million mark within a year.
And that caught the attention of Lama Tenzin Dhonden, the California-based personal peace emissary to the Dalai Lama, who invited Tait to meet with the spiritual leader and his longtime friend and fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner, South African Anglican Bishop Desmond Tutu.
“I thought I’d get a handshake and a five-minute conversation," said Tait, laughing as he recalled the moment. "I never expected to spend three days with these men.”
Last summer, the Dalai Lama visited Anaheim for the Global Compassion Summit, held there in his honor, where he spoke about the role that cities and their leaders play in creating a strong social fabric that would inspire kindness.
“It sounds so simplistic but it’s really powerful,” Tait said. “People are safer when people are kinder to each other.”
Tait said he is often asked if hard evidence exists to prove that. He thinks there is, pointing to significant drops in bullying complaints once the Million Acts of Kindness campaign was started.
Tait’s relationship with the Dalai Lama has led to meetings with other mayors engaged in similar efforts. They includes Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer, whose city has signed onto a growing list of “Cities of Compassion,” aided by the Seattle-based Compassionate Action Network.
From their relationship sprang the idea to invite the 81-year-old Dalai Lama to speak to the 1,400 members of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. While here, the Dalai Lama will also be giving a public address at the Indiana State Fairgrounds, on June 25.
At their meeting, cities' leaders will be talking about last Sunday’s mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando that killed 49 people and injured 53 others. Mayors are searching for a common response to the gun violence that has plagued many of their cities, conference organizers said.
Guidance may come from their keynote speaker.
Dhonden said the Dalai Lama's words may provide “a timely antidote to overcome violence.”
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to inspire hundreds of mayors whose work impacts millions of people in thousands of communities," he said. "The ripple effect of love and compassion in community building can be enormous."
— Maureen Hayden covers the Indiana Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.