On Monday night, I arrived at the Eternity Playhouse as the speakers found their seats. The backdrop is a set from another show and so the three speakers sit in front of an exposed family home, furniture dressed in doilies and patchwork quilts. It adds to what is already a night of inescapable heart.
Wind back a few weeks and I see the event details, I’m interested. The night has been advertised as a reunion between Rev. Graham Long, now referred to as the ‘grandfather’ of Wayside Chapel, and James Valentine, famous for his ABC Radio show Afternoons. Graham, in his role as the CEO and Pastor of Wayside, was a guest on James’ show regularly and their conversations became a staple. Their relationship was a balanced one, one without an “us and them” or a “me vs you”, and their conversations flowed with genuine human connection.
The Long View is in three parts – three sessions with three topics, “On Compassion”, “On Character” and “On Community”. I opt in for opening night, where Dr Masheed Ansari is listed as a guest speaker. Dr Ansari is a research fellow and lecturer at the Centre for Islamic Studies and Civilisation. I’m so interested to see what comes out of a discussion between a male reverend, a young female Muslim, and a popular voice with the ABC.
The connection between James and Graham is obvious, James takes the lead and Graham nods along and gracefully steps in to the conversation when called upon. It is not a dialogue of swift back and forth but a conversation built on solid understanding of philosophy and personal faith. Mahsheed is gentle in her approach, James inviting her in to define compassion and what it means to love. There appears to be no point to be made between Mahsheed and Graham, no scores to settle. They listen with respect and nod in agreement throughout the night.
The gentle nature of the speakers seems to intensify the message. Sitting there I feel like it’s not that I don’t understand what compassion is, but I don’t understand how something that means so much is so often lost. Listening to Graham I am reminded that compassion is about meeting people, rather than fixing people. Graham turns his face downwards as he reflects on the loneliness that comes with a lack of compassion, that we miss the opportunity to make a connection and to feel that warmth of knowing you have chosen to act in love rather than dismissal. The seed of hope comes through though, not in talking about where we fall short but recognising that it is a simple action that we are not incapable of offering.
Graham and Mahsheed respond to issues of the environment, trauma, relationships and politics with an unflinching commitment to openness and vulnerability. While compassion is the theme of the evening, the speakers offer their experiences and understanding recognising that compassion is an action, and we can all do more to acknowledge our common humanity and create space for that before being right or retaining more power.
The thing about the night is that, these three people are speaking about compassion without judgement and advice, directions for how to do better. I wondered how barriers would be dropped, how would it be possible to let go of the Western understanding of what it means to be a Muslim woman, and beyond that, how it is possible to have beliefs that differ while holding a space for love and connection. You get the sense that they are not fighting to be heard or to be believed, but sharing what they know to be true. They speak in celebration of compassion and, yes, where it is missed but also where we win. We may not walk on air and forgive all hurt but compassion doesn’t have to be the quake that shifts foundations, it can be hearing anger, hurt or pain and responding to the commonality of that experience rather than reckoning with the other to try and fix it.
For more information and to buy tickets for The Long View, click here.