“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” – Mister Rogers
I chanced upon Fred Rogers when I spent the summer of my 21st year running a summer programme in inner-city Philadelphia. Mister Rogers’ television programme sought to share lessons on love and kindness to his young audience.
This particular part of the City of Brotherly Love needed those visible helpers, having been impacted by economic challenges and the crack cocaine epidemic.
Fred’s gentle world of tolerance and respect was one we could all subscribe to.
My time in Philadelphia was one of possibilities, and even in a small way, I felt active in crossing the more obvious lines between communities in racially divided neighbourhoods. (Yes, that’s me with the hair.)
Given my early positive experience of bridge-building in the USA in my student years, I felt uneasy with the recent electoral campaign where rhetoric seemed to be designed to pit communities against one another. Troublingly, the post-election fallout has seen a rise in hate crimes, mirroring the increase in reported racial incidents triggered by Brexit. In her recent speech Hillary Clinton observed, ‘We have seen that our country is more deeply divided than we ever thought.’
Our political discourse is coloured by fear and uncertainty.
There seems to be a new flavour to these ‘scary things in the news’ where familiar ways are shifting with obvious negative consequences. It is surely a time to look for the helpers, and to figure out what our own role as helpers at a ‘time of scary things’ might be. Wherever and whenever we are in position to act or to speak, we need to summon our collective courage to form an alternative story to the one we see being told on the global stage.
The very existence of the helpers counters the argument that we are helpless and powerless in the face of irresistible forces.
I heard ethicist-theologian Stanley Hauerwas speak just a few weeks ago, challenging the Church to take courage in becoming a community that extols virtues. To live as a virtuous community is clearly a different story to the one that is unfolding.
Hauerwas also tells us something of the enterprise of being community; “First of all, it’s friendship with God that makes possible friendship with one another in a manner that is not that we just like one another, but that we are joined by common judgments, by God, for the good of God’s Church. Such friendship occurs not by trying to be each other’s friend, but by discovering you were engaged in common good work that is so determinative, you cannot live without one another.’
There is always a role for direct activism and critiquing government; standing as a credible witness of what could be. But an accessible entry point to live as a virtuous community is through the conscious practice of kindness, the need to act out our hope in ways which might counter the harsher realities around us.
Trying to be kinder, it turns out, is tough when you try it alone.
I experimented with this last week and found it quite hard-going! For all the challenge that being in community brings, it has huge potential to provide a vehicle for collective kindness. If you’d like a practical idea to model kindness, this simple, yet powerful ‘Kindness Advent Calendar’ might be a good start, and it may inspire a household-wide commitment. It’s available here.
Opening up a discussion in our church groups and community settings that asks ‘how can we be a community that demonstrates kindness?’ may sound initially superficial, but it won’t be long before we find practical steps that provide a way forward which may prove counter-cultural.
As we wait for global events to unfold, it seems to me that in this advent season we are being called to a particularly active and prayerful waiting. One where we can counter the tendency to fatalism and fear, by looking to the helpers and coming alongside them, whilst we live in hope for that final day where the government will truly be ‘on his shoulders.’
“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” – Isaiah 9:6