Compassion without action is nothing, so they say. I’ve been looking for examples of concrete goodness in the communities around me, so a few weeks back I went to a deserted car park in Middlesbrough on a Monday evening, to help members of the Sikh temple hand out food to the homeless.
Now, I think I’ve been conditioned by many TV shows to expect a certain kind of soup-kitchen vibe, perhaps featuring a cheery guitar-playing proselytiser or two, and of course a load of grateful recipients. But it’s not like that. Of course it’s not like that. For one thing, Sikhs aren’t big on preaching while they work. The development and practical application of compassion is an essential part of devotion for Sikhs, with particular emphasis on the distribution of food. In cities with larger Temples, for example in Birmingham, the community goes into the town centre on a weekly basis and simply gives away free hot food to whoever wants it. In our slightly Walking Dead-style Boro car park, we were five people, two camping tables, forty takeaway cartons of lentils and rice, and two boxes of second-hand Greggs donuts. The handout was swift, slightly chaotic, and mostly conducted in silence by both givers and receivers. I wondered what the youngest member of our group, just a boy, made of this dutiful work.
I had a bit of a chat on with one woman, who carried in her head the days, times and locations of all the charitable food handouts currently running in the area. It’s obvious they are essential for her and many others. But do they provide compassion, emotional sustenance beyond the bare nutritional essentials? It was very difficult to make human contact, very difficult for both sides of the table to make eye contact, very difficult indeed to feel anything other than desperately sad as the thirty-minute feeding frenzy came to an end and the last six spoons of sugar were ladled into the last cup of coffee, and the forty homeless men and women drifted away to places I can’t fully imagine.
I swear, I don’t know I’m born.