“We never know, at the time, the ripple of consequences set in motion by the slightest act of kindness.” Those words of the late Jonathan Sacks seem especially apt in the case of a man helped recently by the Irish Chaplaincy.
One of our team, Fiona, had, before the pandemic, begun to visit a Traveller man in one of the big London prisons. He was in segregation, ‘seg’, due to making threats to prison staff and having a weapon smuggled into the prison via a corrupt officer. His original sentence had been four years but he had served sixteen due to poor compliance and aggressive behaviour. Like many of those we meet in prison he had lived a chaotic lifestyle. His childhood included his father committing suicide when he was ten and his mother becoming a drug addict shortly afterwards. I can imagine that he had not received a great deal of kindness growing up. Tragically several of his sons are also in the criminal justice system. Fiona took an interest in him and she would often tell me in supervision about the hilarious comments he would make about various things. He was clearly responding to someone simply giving him a bit of positive attention and treating him in a different way to how he was probably used to being treated.
With prison visiting not possible through the lockdown the contact continued via phone. His aggressive behaviour diminished. He also heard that Fiona had managed to get two other Traveller men from the same prison into a rehab. facility following their release and he began to see this as a possible future option for himself. Eventually Fiona managed to get him considered for parole, and supported him closely through the process. And then one morning we all received an e-mail from Fiona with the incredible news that the parole outcome had been successful. He has just been released and has gone voluntarily into the rehab facility. It’s very early days and there is a lot of anxiety on his part but for him to have got to this point from where he was is nothing short of miraculous.
My background will have been very different to that of the man mentioned above: a stable home with a loving family and lots of opportunities. And yet, there have particular times in my own life when a simple act of kindness has been transformative, and has almost certainly inspired in me the wish to do likewise to others. When I eat my pre- big cycle bowl of porridge I’m often reminded of an act of kindness that was shown to me over twenty years ago. When spending a year in Seoul with Yim Soon and our three then young children I used to go once a month to spend twenty-four hours with the Columbans, a bunch of very welcoming and very entertaining Irish missionary priests (and it was the Columbans who founded the Irish Chaplaincy back in 1957). It was a little oasis for me: a chance to rest, relax, speak English, hear some funny stories, drink ‘real’ tea. One time at breakfast one of the guys, Pat Muldoon, was served with a big bowl of porridge which had been made specially for him. A usual Korean breakfast is much like lunch or dinner: rice together with various side dishes, some of them very spicy, a bowl of soup, meat, maybe even some raw fish for a special treat! He must have seen my eyes light up at the sight of the porridge because he put the bowl in front of me and walked off. True enough, after months of Korean style breakfasts, delicious as they were, all I wanted that morning was a bowl of simple, plain porridge served with a little sprinkling of sugar and a little bit of milk. I’ll never ever forget that gesture of Pat that meant the world to me at the time, nor the words he said to me on every visit, “Be nice to yourself.”
Sacks goes on to say that every day gives each of us an opportunity to change a life and by so doing to change the world, and he concludes that, “We mend the world one life at a time, one act at a time, one day at a time,” and that, “Every good act, every healing gesture, lights a candle of hope in a dark world.”
(Quotes taken from: ‘To heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility’ by Jonathan Sacks)