LOUISVILLE -- At a time when the nation seems deeply polarized and human relations are often strained, the Center for Interfaith Relations in Louisville is holding a four-day festival, April 19-22, that will not only be deeply thought-provoking, but will also focus on compassionate cities.

"We are bringing together world-renowned religious leaders, thought leaders, politicians, authors, artists and musicians to create thoughtful and aspirational dialogue on how cities need to be more compassionate," said Sarah Reed Harris, one of the chief organizers of the event. "The first thing to address is getting real about what a compassionate city looks like."

Harris is managing director of the Center for Interfaith Relations, which has put on the Festival of Faiths for 22 consecutive years. Every year, it explores issues that impact society in a way that helps deepen one's faith. This year's theme is "Compassion - Shining Like the Sun." The list of renowned presenters includes:

· Naomi Tutu - peace advocate and daughter of Nobel Peace Prize winner the Rev. Desmond Tutu

· Karen Armstrong - renowned British religions author

· Matthew Barzun - former U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom

· Jamie Comer - U.S. Republican congressman from Kentucky

· Francisco Cienfuegos - mayor of Guadalupe City, Mexico, and president of the Intelligent Cities Association of Mexico

· Ingrid Mattson - Muslim theologian and past president of the largest Islamic organization in America

Many other presenters are listed at festivaloffaiths.org.

"The noisy, superficial discussions have been exhausted, and people aren't interested in the us-versus-them horizontal debates anymore. So, we are bringing together people who are rock stars in their fields to roll up their sleeves and engage in discussions on how our urban areas become places where educational achievement grows, crime decreases, economic development flourishes, medical care improves and people do a better job of helping each other," said Owsley Brown III, an organizer of the festival as well as a documentary filmmaker and social entrepreneur. Brown is also an active fifth-generation shareholder of Brown-Forman, his family's international spirits and wine company, which is a sponsor of the festival.

"This is not about partisanship. It's not about a chosen religion. It's about creating deeper spiritual connections that lead to compassion at a time when our nation needs a healing message," he said.

The festival takes place at Louisville's Kentucky Center for the Arts. It has been praised over the years as one of the best gatherings of its type in the world. The Huffington Post calls it, "One of the top eight spiritual travel destinations." Fr. Richard Rohr, a globally recognized ecumenical teacher, describes the festival as "The Sundance of the Sacred.

"It's a platform for raw conversations on meaning at a time of multiple crises of meaning," said Harris. "The Center for Interfaith Relations offers itself as an honest broker and stakeholder in the discussion of what an authentic compassion is. In the light of today's challenges and opportunities, how do we more deeply engage, understand and define what compassion really means in order to move compassion from aspiration to reality?"

Louisville is an ideal city to host the event because it has also been named a Model City for Compassion by the International Center for Compassionate Cities. This past year, Louisville created the Compassionate Cities Index, which creates measurements in nine areas ranging from psychological well-being to standards of living.

"We're acclaimed for compassion. We're creating benchmarks. And we want to show how a moderate-sized city can be a big-time leader in this field. But we acknowledge that we still have a long way to go," said Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer.

Louisville is also the home to the Muhammad Ali Center and the Thomas Merton Center. The Ali Center not only honors the legendary boxer, but also promotes respect, hope and understanding to inspire people to be as great as they can be. The Merton Center, located at Bellarmine University, recognizes the work of the Catholic writer, theologian and Trappist monk, who was one of "four great Americans" Pope Francis spoke of in his recent address to congress.

The Festival of Faiths' opening session, Wednesday, April 19 at 10 a.m., is among the more topical discussions based on today's political climate. The session is simply titled Getting Real About Compassionate Cities. Armstrong, a former nun and world-renowned religions expert, will talk about the organization she founded, Charter for Compassion. Fischer will also take part in the discussion, as well as mayors from Mexico City; Gary, Ind.; and Ft. Worth, Texas.

Thursday morning starts with a session titled Religion and Compassion in World Affairs. Ambassador Barzun, a known computer whiz and grassroots fundraiser, shares the stage with religious author Armstrong and Noah Feldman, Harvard law professor and Middle East expert.

Tutu will be one of the featured speakers in a session Thursday, April 20 titled Living Compassion. Arab-American community activist and professor of Islamic studies Rami Nashashibi will also be a part of this session.

The festival concludes Earth Day, April 22, with activities at Spalding University, an urban university surrounded by the issues and challenges facing a city striving to be more compassionate.

His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama was originally scheduled to attend the festival but has postponed his trip because his travel schedule proved to be too demanding. He plans to spend the next few months resting and revitalizing with the intent to visit Louisville later in the year.

The Festival of Faiths was created by the Center for Interfaith Relations, whose mission is to promote interfaith understanding, cooperation and action through exploration of different participating faith traditions addressing common issues, topics or themes. Its motto is many faiths, one heart, common action.

More information can be found at festivaloffaiths.org.

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