Award-winning author and screenwriter Frank Cottrell-Boyce explains the significance of tiny acts of kindness and why Blessed Frédéric Ozanam would have loved WhatsApp…
Blessed Frédéric Ozanam would have really loved WhatsApp. He’d have wanted to create a global “network of charity” - to wrap the world in a kind of tapestry of acts of kindness. Ever since the pandemic started my local SVP Conference has used WhatsApp as a way of alerting members to who needs a visit or a bit of shopping. The kindness of posting the message, “this person needs some shopping”, connects with the kindness of someone else saying, “I’m going to the shops anyway I’ll do that.”
Tiny acts, not much more than gestures really, but plug them into Frédéric’s network and they have the power to make the world a slightly better place. And this Friday it will send me off on one of my favourite journeys. SVP WhatsApp says it’s my turn to do the “bun run”. That means nipping to each of the two local bakeries at closing time to collect the leftover bread, pies and cakes and then driving them to the convent in the city centre where the Sisters of Charity run a kitchen for the homeless. The pies will be gone in no time.
For me the bun run is the epitome of that idea. It’s a sequence of tiny acts, not much more than gestures really. When I get to the shop, I have a joke and a chat with the women (they’re all women) who are already carefully bagging and boxing the leftovers for me to take. I never have to explain what I’m doing. If I turn up late to one of them, they sometimes ring me to make sure I’m coming. Then I’m off to town.
The smell of the pasties and steaks slices is intoxicating but not really tempting because it’s Friday, so no meat. The vanilla fragrance of the iced buns on the other hand writhes around me as I stop-start through traffic lights and road works. I have to be like Orpheus and try not to look behind me at the back seat where the cakes loll on their trays like sirens on a rock.
The back gate of the convent opens onto the pulsing heart of hen/stag night land. During lockdown it was eerily quiet but now there are already girls in sashes and tiaras and boys in tutus falling in and out of the bars. So, it never fails to amaze me when Sister Bethany comes to open the gate and reveal the lovely little garden hidden behind. That gate is like the Narnia wardrobe. I’d say it was an oasis of calm, but, of course, it’s the very opposite - this is where the lost, the troubled, and the addicted go. It does not stand apart from the chaos of the city, it invites it in.
Volunteers and service users always come to help me unload the food and to pile the empty trays back into the boot for me to return next morning. And before I say goodbye, I take a moment just to look at the garden. The garden itself is lovely - blazes of flowers climb the walls to the little grottos of the Sacred Heart and Our Lady of Lourdes. There’s a little St Bernadette on the lawn. But you enter it through a spruce little drying area, smelling of disinfectant. Mops and brooms hang from a rack on the wall like flowers. It speaks, and smells, of calm and good order and co-operation.
That garden, a brick’s width from those hen nights, is a place where piety, beauty and practicality meet. It’s where Frédéric’s network of kindness plugs into the all-embracing love of God. Where I remember that I’m not doing this just to help fight food waste, or to feed the hungry, or even to benefit my own mental health, because it definitely does. Every time I set out thinking this is a task, and every time I come home aglow from having stepped into this particular current of kindness. I’m doing it because you were hungry, Lord, and I gave you food. Not even that, I helped give you food. I feel that here, at the point of delivery, I’m helping connect everyone I talked with on this little journey with you, Lord.
On the way back I often think of the Australian poet Les Murray’s little quatrain about St Vincent De Paul, Incorrigible Grace. He calls St Vincent “my sometime tailor” because, growing up poor in the outback of Australia, it was the SVP that clothed him and his siblings. See? A network of millions of kindnesses that reaches all the way to the Outback and, if you believe Murray, up into Heaven itself …
St Vincent de Paul old friend
My sometime tailor
I dare say by now you are feeding
The rich in heaven.