A Tapestry of Compassion: Changing the World for Good

Printed in the  Winter 2024 issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Kathy, Gann "A Tapestry of Compassion: Changing the World for Good" Quest 112:1, pg 19-22

By Kathy Gann

KathrynGannThe letter was clear and unambiguous, even blunt in places. It said that Theosophy must not consist merely of theory and useless talk, but that Theosophy had to be made practical if it was to be of real value to the world. Furthermore, it emphasized that the goal of putting Theosophy into action was to alleviate suffering: “It is esoteric philosophy alone, the spiritual and psychic blending of man with Nature, that, by revealing fundamental truths, can bring that much desired mediate state between the two extremes of human Egotism and divine Altruism, and finally lead to the alleviation of human suffering.”

 The letter (which can be found as letter 82 in Letters from the Masters of the Wisdom, Second Series, edited by C. Jinarajadasa), explained that the great mission of true Theosophy involved ethics and duties whose value we could test and discern for ourselves because it “would satisfy most and best the altruistic and right feeling in us.” The letter admitted that modeling these ethics was laborious, requiring strenuous and persevering effort, but it promised real spiritual progress in return for the efforts. Here, it said, was a way of simultaneously diminishing both self-centeredness and suffering in the world, if only we would put forth real effort and stick with it.

 To the extent that the letter was clear and direct, it was equally mysterious. Nobody knew exactly who wrote it or, perhaps fortunately, to whom it was written, as it reprimanded a pompous gentleman claiming that because he was a Theosophist, he somehow had a right to judge others. H.P. Blavatsky gave her word, documented in a paper at Adyar, that the letter was written by a Master of the Wisdom. A modified version was published as an article titled, “Some Words on Daily Life” in an early edition of Lucifer, the magazine of the Theosophical Society.

Fast forward to 1908, and life was good in many ways. The new year was celebrated with New York City’s first dropping of the lighted ball in Times Square. Dutch artist Piet Mondrian found Theosophy, the Chicago Cubs won the World Series, and the Summer Olympic Games were held in London. Terms such as “world war,” “global pandemic,” or “Great Depression” had no place in anyone’s vocabulary.

At the same time, 1908, like all years that came before and after, saw tremendous suffering in human beings, animals, and the environment. People in cities like London and Delhi died prematurely because air pollution was much higher than today’s levels. Animal experimentation, including vivisection, was widespread and largely unregulated. The labor laws and social safety nets we take for granted today were unheard of. The result was a widespread and heartbreaking level of suffering.

In Madras (now Chennai), India, sixty-year-old Annie Besant, newly elected international president of the Theosophical Society, studied the mysterious but adamant letter-turned-article, which stated, “Theosophy must be made practical; and it has, therefore, to be disencumbered of useless digressions, in the sense of desultory orations and fine talk.”

Captivated by the idea that Theosophy put into practical action could reduce human misery in the world, in February 1908 Besant founded the Theosophical Order of Service (TOS), whose mission was to unite all who love in the service of all that suffer. The goal was for TS members to put Theosophy into action so that suffering of all types in their communities could be alleviated.

Since that time, the TOS has continued to serve as a haven and structure within which volunteers release, bit by bit, the inexhaustible light that lies deep within their hearts and integrate it with their mental, emotional, and physical natures to ease the world’s suffering. Today, as in Besant’s day, TOS projects reflect the widely varied interests of its members. More importantly, today’s TOS still plays a dual role in the life of its workers: (1) selfless service to those who suffer, and (2) the inner transformation of the server who loves.

Today the TOS continues to function as the service arm of the TS, and the two organizations are inextricably linked. The president of the international TS serves ex officio as the president of the international TOS, appointing a secretary (currently Nancy Secrest) to oversee the operations of the TOS in national Sections.

As the TS fulfills its mission to make Theosophical teachings available to the world, the TOS gives its members and workers the opportunity to put those teachings into practice in order to reduce suffering of all kinds. It’s a simple yet profound formula: Theosophy in action changes the world for good! The very reason for being of the TOS lies within the First Object of the TS, with its emphasis on universal brotherhood.

How has the TOS in the United States put Theosophy into action over the years? Any attempt at a detailed history would be beyond the scope of this article, but even a bare-bones summary will show the enthusiasm and life force poured by Theosophists into the alleviation of suffering.

Early workers, such as Max Wardall, inspired a great deal of activity in several departments: social service, animal welfare, world peace, arts and crafts, healing, and going back to nature. “Mr. Max,” as he was known, was a passionate speaker, writer, and worker who not only championed TOS projects but also lauded the efforts of Theosophists who worked through and within other organizations. Unfortunately, Max succumbed to illness and exhaustion and passed away in 1933. His death, combined with the Great Depression, led to a brief decline in TOS activities during the early 1930s.

In 1934, Robert Logan headed the TOS-USA, assisted by two energetic members, Edith Lee Ruggles and Blanche Kilbourne. Together they kept TS members posted about service opportunities and asked them to engage as activists for the causes of the day, including abolishment of capital punishment, antilynching legislation, protesting the import of monkeys from India to the U.S. for vivisection, and protesting Sonora Webster Carver’s diving horse act, in which horses were trained to jump off diving ramps from heights up to sixty feet! Each issue of the American Theosophist magazine contained more and more appeals. Kilbourne wrote to members, “The test of sincerity of one’s beliefs is action in support of them. Let’s be doers . . . not readers only.”

During World War II, Esther Renshaw and Edith Ruggles coordinated projects for wartime relief for TS members in Europe, including shipping food and supplies to members in war-torn areas.

Joy Mills joined the TSA staff in 1942 (later to become the Society’s president) and recalled, “At Olcott I remember packing boxes of donated items: warm clothing, basic foods, personal essentials, to be sent to members in Europe . . . it involved the entire Olcott staff (we were such a close-knit community in those days, everyone lived in the main building), so in the evenings we would gather in the basement to fill boxes and ready them for shipping.”

Inspiring pamphlets and pen-pal letters were sent by members to servicemen and women serving abroad in the war. Many families were grieving because of the many deaths during that time, so members in the healing department sent copies of C.W. Leadbeater’s leaflet “To Those Who Mourn” to provide comfort.

 To help traumatized soldiers returning from the war reintegrate into civilian life, the TOS established the arts and crafts department, which included a national weaving guild known as the Olcott Weavers. TOS workers saw this creative work as a therapeutic necessity for soldiers suffering from shell shock or battle fatigue (now known as posttraumatic stress disorder, or PTSD) long before the condition was well recognized.

Diana Winslow and Marion Swift kept the momentum of the TOS going with their Bundles for Korea movement during the Korean War in the early 1950s. Starting in the mid-1960s, Jean Gullo headed the TOS-USA and worked to rekindle interest in the organization by making members aware of its activities and work. As a national speaker for the TS, Jean traveled extensively and wove her enthusiasm for service into her work for the TS.

For the next few decades, the TOS, through several dedicated volunteers, published newsletters keeping members abreast of opportunities for service in parenting, animal welfare, healing, environment and energy conservation, peace, and social service, to name a few. In the 1970s, Jean’s husband, Joe Gullo (who recently died at the age of 102), became an invaluable TOS worker as well. In 1982, Joe suggested that the various newsletters be combined into one magazine: For the Love of Life. The TOS raised funds to help refugees in Bangladesh, orphanages in Saigon, and Tibetan refugees in Dharamsala, India.

 One project that began in 1979 deserves special mention. TS member Karole Kettering began a TOS project in her home, collecting food for needy families in the area near the Olcott campus in Wheaton. Originally called the Senior Citizen Project, Karole’s work flourished to the point that her project eventually became a separate nonprofit organization, the Humanitarian Service Project (HSP), now overseen by her husband, Floyd Kettering (now national treasurer of the TSA). So dedicated and successful was Karole’s work that she received special recognition awards from the state of Illinois prior to her passing in 2013. HSP continues its mission through three main programs: the Children’s Project, the Senior Citizen Project, and the Christmas Offering. TOS workers who live near the Olcott campus still volunteer regularly at HSP.

From the 1980s to 2006, TOS member Joseph Tisch focused on hard-hitting issues, with a special interest in the plight of the poor and the needs of those who were incarcerated. Joseph regularly visited and counseled prisoners near his home in Melbourne, Florida. When prisoners were released, Joseph provided them with clothing and basic toiletries and helped them find housing and a job. Under the direction of Deni Gross, the peace department became one of the TOS’s most active endeavors until her retirement in 2006.

From the 1980s into the 2000s, Karen Schulz-McCormick headed the family department. For a number of years, she gathered and personally delivered warm winter clothing for children and seniors, as well as school supplies for children each fall, to the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Candi Phillips continued the work of the animal welfare department.

From 2007 to 2013, the TOS adopted the Chushul Orphanage in Tibet, providing over $30,000 to provide necessary supplies and build new bathrooms and showers for the children. TOS support came to a reluctant end when Chushul was closed by the Chinese government.

When the COVID pandemic confined us to our homes, the TOS still found ways to help. To bring relief to overburdened hospital personnel, TOS volunteers in Chicago and other cities worked with restaurant owners to provide nourishing vegetarian meals and snacks to hospital personnel. Medical caregivers loved the thoughtful support, and the restaurant owners appreciated the business. Another win-win solution was woven into the TOS tapestry of compassion.

Through an ever-changing group of directors, officers, and volunteers, TOS-USA provides much needed support for diverse causes including the environment, animal welfare, homelessness, hunger, education, and healing. The TOS sponsors two healing networks—one for people and one for animals. The networks consist of dozens of groups and individuals who regularly perform a healing ceremony designed by Geoffrey Hodson, invoking the cooperation of devas to send healing energy to people and animals suffering illness, injury, and other challenges. (You may submit recipients’ names for healing via the TOS-USA website: TheoService.org.)  Recently, TOS-USA launched the Meditative Action Network, a group of volunteers who meditate on infusing difficult world situations with light so they may be resolved in accordance with Highest Will.

TOS-USA cooperates with other TOS sections around the world to ensure that help is at hand where it is most needed. American Theosophists have taken great joy in helping to support the Golden Link College, a project of the TS/TOS in the Philippines, which provides Theosophical education to students from preschool to college. Most students are from low-income families and rely on scholarships to pay their tuition. Donors love knowing that their support (up to $18,380 this fiscal year) is doubled by a generous matching grant from the Kern Foundation. A donation of $120, for example, is matched and becomes $240, enough for one elementary school student’s annual tuition at Golden Link.

With the Russian invasion of Ukraine, TOS-USA sent substantial support for refugee relief and other urgent projects in war-torn areas. The most basic human needs such as food, water, shelter, clothing, and hygiene products were provided to people in areas cut off from supplies, often at great personal risk to those making the deliveries. With donations flowing from TOS groups around the world, the TOS in Ukraine has wisely partnered with like-minded organizations to form a tapestry of compassion that’s making a huge difference in a time of unthinkable suffering.

Local groups around the U.S. have undertaken a rich variety of projects through the years. In Houston, members regularly worked at a food bank to ensure that those living in food-insecure households had plenty to eat. They also assembled and delivered care kits to the homeless. Members of the Cleveland-Besant Lodge participate in and support numerous organizations in their area dedicated to animal welfare and children and families. They regularly perform a TOS healing ceremony, and one member not only provides free Reiki healing weekly but also conducts Reiki training (called attunements) at no charge.

Members of North Carolina’s Research Triangle Study Center assembled lunches in lovingly decorated bags for people experiencing homelessness, which were distributed by an outreach center run by Raleigh Catholic Charities. The Salt Lake City study center raised awareness about plastic pollution in the ocean through large events in cooperation with the First Unitarian Church and a local university. Their events educated local residents on simple adjustments to their daily routines that would help lessen the amount of plastic that ends up in our oceans.

Each December, Denver members focus on projects for animals and children. In 2019, members donated blankets and comforters, which were shipped to the Ironwood Pig Sanctuary in Marana, Arizona.

During the pandemic, TOS members kept their service projects alive through the magic of drop-shipping. In 2020, Christmas gifts for traumatized children with mental health issues were drop-shipped to a member who delivered them to the Denver Children’s Home. Members purchased warm winter clothing and wish-list items for the Lakota Waldorf School on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. For the past two years, members have purchased Christmas gifts for children at Warren Village, an organization providing housing and services for single-parent families who have experienced homelessness or housing instability.

Members of Philadelphia’s Abraxas Lodge worked with a local organization called the Joy of Sox to provide new socks to the homeless, proving that Philadelphia truly is the City of Brotherly Love.

In 2016, Milwaukee Lodge raised and delivered $550, along with carloads of goods, to Daystar, Inc., a local long-term transitional housing facility for women who are victims of abuse and poverty. The TOS Dharma Group in Wheaton provided copies of the Quest book and audiobook War and the Soul by Edward Tick to local veterans’ organizations to provide combat veterans with a means of healing. Members of the Portland Lodge purchased backpacks and stuffed them with food for a local school’s backpack program. Backpacks were delivered to children who would otherwise have gone hungry during weekends and school holidays.

With the COVID pandemic receding into the rearview mirror, local groups are once again emerging and looking for ways to alleviate suffering in their communities. In May 2023, the Wheaton-Olcott TOS group helped their local post office “Stamp Out Hunger” by sorting and packaging food items donated by postal customers. The food was distributed to community members in need by the Humanitarian Service Project.

A thread here, a project there—bit by bit, year by year, TOS volunteers continue to build a tapestry of compassion that started with Besant’s brilliant idea and has grown through the actions of countless TOS volunteers, known and unknown. Why do they do it? Perhaps it’s because their inner natures have become such that they have no other path to go, no other way to be, than to put Theosophy into action to change this world for good.

Kathy Gann has studied Theosophy since 1994. She has served numerous terms as secretary of the Denver Study Center and served for twelve years on the TSA board of directors, including a term as vice president. She currently serves as president of the TOS-USA (theoservice.org).