Lately it can feel like society itself is unraveling at the seams, when the news is filled with angry rhetoric, deplorable violence, and dire predictions that the worst is yet to come. And yet there are people among us who continue trying to do the right thing, expecting little in return except maybe the hope of bringing a smile to a person having a rough day or forging an unexpected connection with another human being.
Written by Rosalind Fournier, Photography by Chuck St. John
When I sat down over coffee with the first person I interviewed for this story, she told me the news that a pipe bomb had been found in the mailbox of George Soros, the prominent philanthropist and supporter of liberal causes. Within a week, 13 more pipes were intercepted, intended for targets ranging from the Obamas to CNN. None detonated, but the scare was real. On the heels of that, a man shot 11 people in a Pittsburgh synagogue; the country was still reeling when another man entered a night club in Thousand Oaks, Cal. and murdered 12.
We can say there have been other times in our history when we confronted widespread fury and violence (there have), or that it will stop if only x, y, or z would happen (we can hope), but there’s no denying that the news over the past couple of years has been shocking.
Even for those physically untouched by the violence, the hostility we encounter in social media alone can be demoralizing. While it used to be that we mostly guessed at our friends’, relatives’ and neighbors’ political leanings by their bumper stickers or comments overheard at cocktail parties and family gatherings, now it’s all out there for public consumption on Facebook, Twitter or the platform of your choice. In this love ’em or hate ’em environment with regard to public figures, it takes a big man or woman to overlook the fact that the person teaching your kids or styling your hair or just living next door supports the very ideas or people you can’t stand.
Yet even now—call it the sentimentality of the season, hopes for new civility in the new year, or just anger fatigue—the bright side might be that daily life is actually filled with a lot more gray than black and white. Here’s one way I know this: I have a neighbor whose politics are approximately the opposite of mine, judging by the signs I have seen his yard over the years. It frustrates me (how could he possibly…?), and I make a lot of assumptions.
And yet, during the most recent political season I couldn’t look at those yard signs without remembering something else about him. The day in 2014 that “Snowpocalypse” hit, I joined every other parent in the greater metro area in trying to rescue my children from school before the roads became unnavigable. When I was almost there, I began to slide backwards downhill, barely avoiding a collision. I started to try again, but my neighbor—none other than the yard-sign man—happened to be there, saw what was happening and stopped me. “You should back down the hill and go home,” he advised. “I’ll go get the kids.”
It was as simple as that. I made it home without incident, and within minutes my children were safely at home, too. It was an act of kindness I’ll never forget—a seemingly small thing that meant everything that day. My neighbor wasn’t thinking about politics; he was concerned about a crazed mom trying to drive uphill on ice and the kids she was trying to collect from school.
Small things like that can make a big difference. When we reached out to the community to share a few of their own stories, one woman recalled seeing a patient at the doctor’s office worried over paying her balance, and she quietly paid the bill herself when the patient stepped away. There were bigger things, too—a man who never wanted to see the inside of a prison volunteered to join a group that visits a correctional facility to offer love and support to its inmates; and a bike shop whose employees regularly welcome in a man who happens to be homeless and just wants to spend time among people who treat him like anyone else.
If we can all be a little nicer to one another, will that outweigh all the anger? Probably not, but it’s a start. Lending a helping hand, letting go of negative assumptions, or just doing something fun and inviting others to join in—every act of kindness has the potential to make you pause the next time you’re inclined to be callous or cruel. Let the niceness begin.
THE POLITICAL SCIENTIST’S VIEW
Natalie Davis is a professor emerita of Political Science at Birmingham-Southern College
“We live in bubbles. We go to restaurants that are populated with people like us. We talk to friends who are people like us. And because we’re nice people in the South, and in other places, (you hear) ‘If I know you don’t think like I think, I’m just not going to bring up politics.’ But in the long term it’s bad, because if we don’t learn how to talk to one other, we can’t move anything. Politics becomes, ‘My guy is going to beat your guy, and I get stuff if he wins and you don’t.’
“In the meantime, you combine all of these elements of tribalism, and social media where you can say anything you want, and guns, race, and language, and that’s just like a big bomb waiting to go off. It’s a whole bunch of stuff working against our ability to have what political scientists call a civic culture, which means that there is a coming together of the view that we accept what government does is generally okay, but that we also are willing to participate.”
THE PSYCHOLOGIST’S VIEW
Dr. Virginia “Lee” Bare is a psychologist with Bare and Bare, P.C. and assistant professor of Psychology at the University of Montevallo
“I think we under-emphasize the positive effects of taking care of each other as human beings. There is some really interesting research on what are called ‘blue zones,’ areas in the world which have pockets where the life expectancy is like 100. And in trying to figure out the common factors that lead people to live longer, live healthier lives and have that kind of life satisfaction, we’ve learned social connection is one of those key factors. Just being a human being in the world with other human beings and taking care of each other. Opening the door for somebody, or having a conversation where you say, ‘How are you today?’ and you really want to know.
“Something about that human connection has value. We really do not spend enough time emphasizing them. There is much more focus on the bad stuff when really, there so much value in those good parts of human relationships.”
THE SOCIOLOGIST’S VIEW
Dr. Christopher Biga is a teaching associate professor and director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Sociology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham
“This idea of division in the United States has always been there. The difference is in how vocal these groups are now. If our society continues to move in the current direction that it is, many of those people who historically had social control mechanisms to hold them in check now feel emboldened to act out verbally or socially. So we see increases in verbal rhetoric. We see increases in hate crime.
“(But) the research does show that the more diverse your friends are, the more encompassing your social interactions are, and the more you travel… the more you’re inclined to be accepting of other people, because you see the world more globally.
“And being nice to and interacting with someone knowing that they have vastly different political views than you—and you both know it—humanizes the labels we put on one another. But it’s hard.”
Here is hope for us…
If you look hard enough, there are positive stories all around you.
“Just Like Me”
A volunteer finds an unexpected human connection by delivering hope to prisoners.
“A friend at church was leading a weekend for Kairos (a prison ministry). He asked me to be a part of it, and I told him, ‘No way am I going into a prison. Probably like millions of people, I thought, ‘They committed a crime, and they belong there—out of sight, out of mind.’ But I thought about it, and eventually I agreed to check it out.
“Each volunteer sponsors an inmate, and when I met my guy, we introduced ourselves and just talked. I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m talking to a prisoner here.’ But after about five minutes, I thought, ‘I’m not talking to a prisoner. I’m talking to a human—a guy who has a family he cares about, just like I do.’ A lot of emotion overcame me. It was the humanness of the whole experience.
“A pat on the back, a hug, a handshake, a smile…they crave that. They crave conversation and companionship. Maybe they made a bad choice in their past, but many grew up with no real family unit, no structure, and it led them down the wrong path. But over the weekend we spend there, they come to realize there are people out there who care.
“While we go in there to give, we get so much back. Those inmates minister to me, too. When we see the things we have in common, they’re able to come back and say, ‘Hey brother, I love you, too.’ It’s powerful.” —Charles McCalley
Kairos of Alabama has chapters across the state dedicating to serving prisoners. Volunteers also minister to family members through Kairos Outside Ministries.
The Yin and Yang of Bicycle Repair
A local bicycle shop regularly helps customers who can’t afford to buy a bike or maintain it. But they found an unexpected purpose through a customer who just needed companionship.
“We have a couple of really frequent clients who come to the shop—and by frequent I mean that they just continue to stick around and help us. We have one gentleman who happens to be homeless. His name is Bonner, and he’s in the shop three or four days a week, because he says being in the shop keeps him out of trouble. But also I think it’s impactful for him that we greet him by name when we see him, ask how he’s doing and follow up on whatever news is in his life. I don’t think he has gotten that elsewhere. You can see that he thrives in an environment where he’s respected and cared for, and we try hard to provide that for any client who’s in the shop.
“What’s unique about Bonner is every time he comes in, he sets his bike down, and he goes to work scrubbing the bathrooms. He has made it his personal mission to keep our bathrooms sparkling clean, which is really an act of kindness from him to us. There’s a yin and yang and give and take in at all, and we’re all richer for it in the end.” —Kathryn Doornbos, executive director of Redemptive Cycles
Redemptive Cycles is a 501(c)3 nonprofit that operates as a full-service bike shop but also offers programs like Earn-a-Bike, where those in need can volunteer at the shop, learn bike repair and maintenance, and leave with a bike of their own. Redemptive Cycles relies on volunteers and donations to maintain its programs.
Youth Joining Hands
Kids from all over the city come together to pack gift bags for the needy, making friends along the way
“On November 10, 2018—a freezing cold Saturday morning—more than 80 kids from dozens of schools showed up at the Salvation Army Angel Tree Warehouse to help build out the distribution center for the holiday season. The greatest task is setting up about 2,000 boxes with bags that will be designated for each family on the Angel Tree. It was not easy work, but they did the work cheerfully, while meeting new friends from around the city. The event was organized by the YouthServe Youth Action Council, who has hosted this event with the Salvation Army for over a decade. They recruit friends to participate and are team leaders at the event, conducting ice-breaker games as well as instructing their peers on how to do the service.
“The Youth Action Council members use the “#ServetheHAM” hashtag on social media to promote the work they do, which includes multiple service opportunities every month.” —Jennifer Hatchett
Jennifer Hatchett is executive director of YouthServe Birmingham. Youth ages 13 to 18 can register for regular service opportunities at youthservebham.org/events.
At the doctor’s office, a woman overhears another patient worried over her bill and spontaneously pays it for her.
“Last December I was at the doctor’s office waiting to check out after an annual check-up. There was an elderly woman in line in front of me…the woman processing her check-out said she had a balance and needed to pay it on that day. The elderly woman was visibly upset as she counted out enough single dollars and coins to pay the minimum balance on her account, and she left still (concerned) about how to pay the rest of the balance.
“When it was my turn, I asked what her balance was (it really wasn’t that much), and I paid it anonymously so she wouldn’t have to worry about it. I didn’t go seeking to do an act of kindness that day, but it was so obvious that I needed to do it that I didn’t think twice.” —Anonymous
Being a Blessing for the Homeless
Volunteers bring a bag full of clothes and supplies the homeless need.
“One Saturday each month, the Be a Blessing Birmingham crew transports 175 packed bags plus tubs of sorted clothes, shoes, snacks, and breakfast items to Linn Park in downtown Birmingham. There they set up distribution lines and the breakfast table. Our homeless neighbors wait in two lines, for men and women. Each person receives a bag packed with a hygiene kit, two rolls of toilet paper, a pair of socks, and a bottle of water. Women have the option of an additional ladies’ hygiene kit. Then volunteers help each person choose an outfit and a pair of shoes, as well as seasonal warming or cooling aids when available.” —Erica “Star” Robbins
Erica “Star” Robbins is executive director of Be a Blessing Birmingham, which is a registered 501(c)3 nonprofit in Alabama. Volunteers collect donations of hygiene items and clothing and distribute them monthly to homeless citizens in downtown Birmingham.
Local groups encourage people to hide painted rocks that become unexpected surprises for neighborhood kids.
“The discovery of something you don’t expect to find in the park or wherever you are is really fun for little kids. They can post a picture of themselves with their rocks on the (Homewood Rocks—Alabama) website, and they think it’s awesome. Then they can hide the rocks again to let somebody else find them.
“A lot of times, there will be words on them, and the one we found last time said, ‘You matter.’ My son is four, and he wants to know what every word is. So we had a whole talk about what that meant, and it was an unexpected, extremely upbeat moment with my child—he said, ‘Right, because everyone is important!’ It was a life talk based on this rock. I thought that was incredible.
“The other thing that happens is when you find one and you realize someone went to the trouble to paint it and hide it for you, it makes my kids want to go home and paint rocks for others. So it’s this chain reaction of fun activities and acts of kindness.” —Amy Mezzell
Homewood Rocks, Alabama Rocks, Happy Rocks Birmingham and other informal networks encourage people to paint and hide rocks for others to find; most have websites where people can share stories or hints of where rocks are hidden.
Bringing Comfort to Families
Ever since her own son spent time in the NICU right after he was born, Jennifer Jensen vowed she would one day dedicate her time to helping families facing the same fears and challenges.
“I have wanted to volunteer with NICU babies and families since my own son was in the NICU with pneumonia. He was only there for 10 days, but I met couples who were there for months, and I could only imagine what they were going through.
“So eventually I started volunteering at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) and the Ronald McDonald House in Birmingham. Later, UAB opened up a family room by the NICU—a common area with snacks, a refrigerator and microwave, coffee, a sitting area and a few family sleep rooms for people who really need them. You can’t imagine how stressed those parents are. They face so many roller coasters where their baby’s doing great one day, and the next day they’re not sure if their baby is going to make it… But you also see things like a mom who donated several items to the family room in memory of her little girl. The doctors are so wonderful, too. Every Tuesday and Friday a group of them brings meals for all of the families.
“A lot of what I do is just listening. I was talking to one mom, and as she started to get into the details of her situation, I realized she really needed to talk about her baby. So I said, ‘Tell me about your precious little boy.’ And she started showing me pictures, and she told me how at the Ronald McDonald House she had found a friend and mentor who was further along this journey than she was, and how much quality time they had spent together. It’s good to see how they come together as moms and dads and encourage one another.” —Jennifer Jensen
The Ronald McDonald House in Birmingham provides a home-away-from-home for families with children receiving medical treatment at Children’s of Alabama, UAB and other area hospitals. •