When we lived in Canada my parents worked for the social service wing of The Salvation Army in our town. My dad ran a small office with support workers that helped people who were struggling - debt management, signposting services, housing clinics - it was a place buzzing with need and it was the backdrop to my childhood. There was a food bank run year-round by volunteers, and every Christmas our Salvation Army joined the rest of The Salvation Army around North America in collecting money in supermarkets, streets and malls with the familiar sight of the Christmas kettle. (If you are unfamiliar, please refer to this episode of Friends where Phoebe works on the kettle outside Macy's).
Sorting out volunteers to man the 20-odd kettles across our town in 2-4 hour shifts for 25 days leading up to Christmas was no easy feat for my dad and his team so my brother and I got roped into doing 2 hour shifts from a pretty young age. It was pretty boring, except for when mall staff would bring you a Coke or when there was the drama and panic of seeing someone you knew from school and you unsuccessfully tried to hide behind the big plastic collection ball to avoid embarrassment.
The best bit, though, was the end of the day when we would all gather around a big table in my dads office to count the money that had come in (my brother and I would compete to see whose kettle brought in the most, of course). There would be a whole bunch of us, me the littlest amongst mostly adults, and I can still remember the feeling of joy when the giving had been good, and the clear sense that we were all a part of something really special that was going to help lots of people in a tough spot.
Another strong memory is how we used to spend a few days each Christmas season with lots of friends from Church packing food hampers to go out around our town to people that were struggling to make ends meet over the holidays. I have vivid memories of going on runs in the pick up truck to get donations of bread from the local bakeries; or of making up endless amounts of boxes in the church hall. One particular year, I was in charge of putting canned vegetables into the hamper on the assembly line. The Michael Jackson song 'Heal the World' was top of the charts and my brother had bought the single. We played that song to death through a tiny boombox in the packing hall and even as a 9 year old, I can really vividly remember feeling overwhelmed with emotion as I looked around, watching people work together with those words ringing in our ears "there are ways to get there, if you care enough for the living. Make a little space, make a better place"
I know he was cray, but boy did MJ have some proper good tunes.
This week I have felt those feelings all over again. I know what they are because they've been seeds planted in me as a child by parents who modelled compassion - I'm so grateful for the needs we were exposed to as children.
Last night, as I joined a dozen other friends and strangers to sort and pack a donation pile twice my height, I felt those same seeds burst into life; shoots pushing up through the soil & the weeds of ignorance, caution, selfishness and paralysing need - weeds so easily distracting.
We have to cultivate compassion. It does not grow by itself.
This morning, my boy had his first day of big school. As usual, he clambered into our bed first thing and as I felt his warm little body snuggle up to mine, I wearily cracked open my eyes. He gave me a smooch on the arm and his first words were "So how did it go last night, mummy?". To say I was weepy at his tender enquiry would be an understatement. I hope we are scattering the same seeds of compassion around his heart as my parents did mine.
There was much to be done in the warehouse last night, but there was an air of togetherness as we determinedly opened and sorted bag after bag after bag until the pile disappeared.
We laughed together as we packed in a brand new fleecy Superman onesie, hopeful that it would brighten the day of the refugee that it was handed to on the other end.
We cooed over the beautiful baby blankets, so lovingly crocheted by mothers and grandmothers, hoping it brought warmth of heart and body to children displaced and afraid.
We looked at each other awkwardly as we held up donations of stiletto heels and cut-away bodycon dresses, so wildly inappropriate for the muddy 'Jungle' in Calais.
We moved around each other, singing the 80's songs coming from the iPod dock under our breath as we matched shoes, filled toiletry bags, knelt on stuffed boxes to tape them closed and it felt like a little 3-hour slice of heaven on earth. You can feel it when that happens - the thinness in the air, our common urge to share a sense of humanity so tangible you could nearly touch it.
I am not naive enough to think that collecting a van load of supplies is the answer to the biggest most complex refugee crisis since the Second World War, but I do know that we connect more when we step into the issue and become a tiny fraction of the solution.
There is something so significant about responding together. There is something so holy about giving our prayers some legs. There is something so deep that happens when information - so saturating, sensationalised and skewed - is turned into heartfelt action.