Written by Ting Fan
Translated by Patrick McShane
Edited by Patrick McShane
The 2023 National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (NVOAD) Conference was held in St. Louis, Missouri, from May 8-11, 2023. Tzu Chi USA was honored to participate in this event which brings together organizations from across the nation to combine their efforts, share their practices, and coordinate activities to help those in need in the wake of disasters.
The event featured several activities, but the capstone was an awards dinner that brought together participants to celebrate all the attendees had accomplished over the past year. In addition to attending the gathering, Tzu Chi USA was given the honor of beginning dinner with an invocation to set the tone for the event.
One Tzu Chi volunteer, Guo Lijuan from New Jersey, was selected to lead the 800 participants in the dining room in praying the Sutra of Infinite Meanings for a better, safer world.
Her kind words extended the spirit of Master Cheng Yen’s teachings of unconditional love to the conference participants. She shared: “Once, I was on stage and thinking about Dharma Master Cheng Yen. It really calmed my heart, and sharing her love and her inspiration with all that are attending tonight’s dinner really brought peace of mind to me that I’m kind of, you know, speaking the words, but I’m really sending the Tzu Chi spirit to all.”
Beyond the prayers to begin the dinner, Tzu Chi USA volunteers worked throughout the conference to spread Great Love. The conference featured a series of Reflection Rooms set up by representatives of different faith groups and religious organizations. Volunteers set up a “Meditation and Prayer Room” decorated with flowers and heart lamps where they hosted a “Prayer of Gratitude.” Here, participants of diverse backgrounds, cultures, and languages could learn about the Buddha’s compassion and have a quiet moment of peace and unifying gratitude. During one of the conference’s morning sessions, Tzu Chi USA volunteers additionally held a Buddha Bathing ceremony to share insight regarding this meaningful faith tradition and pray for all beings.
All those gathered joined hands and began the event by singing a melodious English version of Tzu Chi’s song, “Love and Care,” hoping to unite attendees toward compassionate action. Volunteer Allen Chung reflected on the decision to have participants join hands during the ceremony, saying, “We decided to have everyone hold hands; it creates a different atmosphere. Because in the context of disaster relief, we can also see our beneficiaries holding hands when they hear this song. We want to give them the same feeling.”
Together, volunteers and attendees walked to the Buddha bathing platform, hearts full of love. Celeste Peart from the University of Delaware shared: “I really enjoyed the part [of the Buddha Bathing Ceremony] when we showed our gratitude, and the receiving of the flower.”
Tzu Chi USA volunteers engaged guests in the Buddha Bathing Ceremony while also introducing emergency relief partners from across the United States to Tzu Chi’s comprehensive approach to disaster relief. The aim was to demonstrate how the blend of relief efforts and meaningful community-focused activities can give survivors of sudden disasters a greater sense of warmth and peace. Through this traditional ceremony, participants can calm their minds, feel the love of all those gathered coalesce, and reflect on the kindness they receive from their family, friends, community, and all living beings.
The ceremony moved all present, and even the FEMA event videographer assigned to record the event could not help but feel loved and blessed while filming. Afterward, he said: “I was just covering it as a videographer, right? I just wanted to document it as part of the NVOAD conference, but I was completely moved by the emotion, and I guess wholesomeness of the ceremony itself. You know, I found myself after the gratitude ceremony fighting back tears.”
The blessing activity came to a conclusion when everyone held hands once more to pray for people who are suffering across the globe. Blythe Fowler, a representative from the International Fellowship of Chaplains, shared: “I particularly loved the closing prayer song today, for I feel that brought us all together in one group, and we unified our hearts with our respect for one another. It was a glorious way to begin the day.”
An atmosphere of compassion and love can help everyone understand peace and cause hearts to resonate without words. Tzu Chi USA will continue to move forward with dedicated relief work around the world. In addition, we hope to continue lifting up compassion and relief together through annual conferences such as this, and gather energy to illuminate the path forward for families in need of assistance.