Monica Bushong: Creating a Compassionate Memphis

In her last year at Rhodes, Monica Bushong has not only accomplished some of her major goals on campus, but also in the city she now calls home. As the student representative for Rhodes’ Compassionate Campus Initiative, the Austin, TX, native spent much of the last year working alongside President William E. Troutt and Professor Mark Muesse to draw up a plan for spreading the initiative into the greater Memphis community. While working to put together a day-long symposium on compassion in higher education hosted by Rhodes, Bushong noticed that there were other events happening around the city that directly dealt with similar issues of making communities kinder and friendlier.  After pairing with various non-profits, schools, and artists, the result was Memphis Compassion Week, held from March 31 to April 7.  The week was kicked off by the opening of Rhodes’ Exhibition Momentum at Evergreen Presbyterian Church and the Vanderhaar Symposium at Christian Brothers University (CBU), which each year features a noted speaker addressing a social and moral issue related to peace and justice.

In the past, Exhibition Momentum has been a general art show organized by the Rhodes’ CODA (Center for the Outreach and Development of the Arts)  fellows to give them experience working with art professionals, while showcasing the works of talented young people in the Memphis area. However, Bushong, an art history and religious studies double major, decided to adapt the show to fit within the context of Compassion Week, serving as both the opening and closing space for the week’s events and as a conversational forum throughout the week. Events throughout the week also included the Gandhi-King conference, hosted this year by CBU, a lecture series at the National Civil Rights Museum, and a community potluck sponsored by Caritas Village and The Center for Transforming Communities. Says Bushong, “It was a week of acknowledgement of the many events happening throughout this city and community focused on social justice and compassionate action.” 

The project was very much in line with Bushong’s academic work. She came to Rhodes knowing that she wanted to study both art and religion, and using her two majors, she has focused her academic inquiries on the intersectionality of spirituality, action, and art. “Beginning last year, several of the art events that I was going to around town had a central theme of talking about how art could serve social justice or build a community that’s more capable of supporting itself. I felt like I couldn’t ignore this movement that was happening in so many different places, but for the same purpose,” Bushong says. “Because of these urgent conversations, I decided to focus Exhibition Momentum 2017 on artwork that wasn’t just by young artists, but that would invite discussion about or address issues of social justice, mindfulness, compassion, peace, and non-violence.”

Compassion Week came to a close with the final reception at Exhibition Momentum on April 7. Having drawn support this year from so many different parties (including Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell, who composed and signed a proclamation outlining the mission and events of the week), Bushong is hopeful that Compassion Week will continue and grow in the years to come. “It’s catering to every individual in the Memphis community, and so many people are involved in making it possible. I came to Memphis knowing it was a music city with a difficult history that it’s working to reconcile with. Memphis Compassion Week has to continue to include the arts, because that’s where most of the conversation is happening,” she says.

For her own future, Bushong plans to stay in Memphis doing the work she loves. “I don’t know when I could move away. In Memphis, I feel like I’ve finally found the place I can serve and the place that serves me.”

By Kenneth Piper ‘17