Kindness In Action: the new politics?

It was Friday evening – and I was saturated with the coverage of President Donald Trump’s inauguration. His repeated election pledge, to “make America great again”, flowed on from a picture of a diseased nation: a “carcass” wasteland of outdated industry, gangs, poverty and the forgotten. Transformation wasn’t being promised through examples of past triumphs, common values, or what was possible – only from the catalogued failure of what had been. I watched and listened, holding out for a magic moment of oratory to inspire a new audacious dream.

I’m not talking about grandiose declarations – but a feel-good vision, resonant with deeper truth. At such times, the “little-me” marries with a universal ideal, transcending the boundaries of culture, time and place. Martin Luther King’s, “I had a dream” speech holds an eagle’s soaring perspective of unity, not gleaned from the ground. Neil Armstrong’s “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” statement planted on the moon has planetary narrative. As the Butterfly Effect suggests, nothing happens in isolation. And there is no sense of scale. A fluttering wing can be traced to an earthquake. By that same science: what serves the small services the whole.

Great leadership identifies the bridge we can all create between our personal dreams and their collective impact – however subtle or invisible they may well be. There was no such context in President Trump’s fresh brand of greatness. “America First” as many protesting chants claim, seems more about walls than bridges – rooted in enclosure, and self-centred focus.

These distinctions soon became real and meaningful – not from slumping more deeply into the sofa, to gawp at the coverage – but by heading out into the chilly cloudless evening. I’m a new volunteer for Feed the Homeless, a growing grassroots charity in Bristol. Three nights a week, a team walks through the city centre – pushing wheeled bags and trolleys of donated lifesavers: hot meals and drinks, bottled water, sanitary goods – soap, toothpaste, tissues – limited bedding and clothes, including woollen hats, socks and gloves. The same route is taken each time – so those sleeping out know what to expect, when to show up and where.

Like countless voluntary or charitable organisations, Feed The Homeless has many committed volunteers who help out, as if their livelihood depended on it. There’s a broad mix of backgrounds, age, skill-sets, and plenty of common ground. They are positive (good company during long anti-social hours), patient (they take all the time necessary to listen to those they are serving) and persistent (every hot drink or meal fortify mind and body; every donated glove warms a hand; every smile might cheer someone lonely).

As we walked together, I was struck again and again how there really is no profile of a homeless person. Addiction and spiralling circumstances – a loss of job and mounting debt – are regular stories picked up along the way. But there are many others, and all the more surprising for that. Being skilled, educated, well-spoken, smartly turned out and shaven is no protection from losing a home. Jostling for shelter beneath a shop doorway or bridge are also refugees, war veterans who’ve slipped through the benefit or pension systems. Mental illness and relationship collapse can stalk someone, until one day the last thread holding their life together comes apart, and every last thing is gone – including the roof that kept them safe, warm and dry.

Stirring sugar into a cup of tea, offering a choice of warm meals, opening a lid on donated woollens for someone to choose a good fit, has woken me up to the simple freedoms and privileges I take for granted – the flick of a switch to give me light, to boil a kettle, hot water to wash, a wardrobe of clothes to suit my mood and need, a locked door at night to keep secure, and for my possessions to stay put during the day.

As other volunteers have pointed out, it’s humbling work. These small steps have measurable results. Ninety hot meals at the start of the evening. None by 1am, when we go home. Real connections can happen in a quick encounter: a lingering glance and eye-to-eye exchange, a joke, a “thank you” that springs right from the heart, not from politeness or habit. You feel the difference. That’s when boundaries collapse – and someone with no possessions but a wealth of dignity offers themselves, however briefly, in that one moment of authentic encounter. Not every time, of course, but it happens – and is impossible not to notice. Time and again, I’ve also seen people with only a handful of pennies to their name insist on adding to the collection box; others turning down extra food to make sure someone hungrier won’t lose out.

Back home, swirling a tea-spoon of honey into chamomile tea – delicious and comforting – I felt truly grateful for the hot tea – as well as touched, moved, thoughtful, tired. I remembered how easy it is to get lost in big picture politics and ideas, frustrated by circumstances that can’t be changed. That night, at street-level, I had the chance to witness many moments of common humanity. And they made a difference – not only to the cold, the hungry, the weary, the vulnerable. But to those of us who felt the satisfaction of sharing our Friday evening with those we wouldn’t have otherwise met.

Such examples remind me of the power of local focus: the spirit of what can be great among neighbours. Feeding another feeds the soul of community. In small acts or moments of attention, generosity, kindness and compassion come alive. These qualities don’t shout to make themselves heard – but demonstrated in ways that are felt. This spirit behind heartfelt change acts. And it’s only in action that a real and lasting difference is made.

Mags MacKean ©