In a corner of the bus shelter, a young couple quietly conversed in a European language. From the opposite end, an elderly gentleman observed their smiles and exchange of pleasantries. As his bus approached, he suddenly opened a leather holdall, took out a beautifully boxed chocolate cake and presented it to the young couple with best wishes for an enjoyable evening. Then, bag in hand, he boarded and was off with a departing wave from the window. Bemused and delighted, the beneficiaries held out the cake for my admiration and approval.
“It is called an Act of Random Kindness”, I explained, “or ARK for short.”
Some years ago now, the ARK movement floated across the Atlantic to us from the USA, the idea being that we would each perform at least one act of kindness to a stranger every day, thus lifting spirits and bringing a feel-good factor to society in general. It may have had its genesis in the film, Evan Almighty, recently re-run for television viewing.
A Senator refuses to sign a land-development deal, fearing that corruption and greed operated in the system. At the same time, he sets about the construction of a huge ark of Biblical proportions, on dry land, whilst enduring vicious mockery and disdain. Animals begin to arrive as if by some invisible instruction, and the media becomes hyper-active in reportage. With the ark completed and occupied, the hero of the hour is mercilessly derided when the predicted deluge fails to appear.
Then without warning, a huge dammed-up lake bursts its shoddily built holdings, sending an enormous tide gushing towards the ark and its disbelieving opponents, all now desperately leaping on board to escape from drowning. At the end of the film, a messenger meets with Evan under a tree in a sunny field. Taking a stick, he writes on the ground, “ARK”, act of random kindness, thus initiating an attitude of generous benevolence and giving a benediction to a man who faced down criticism and acted on principle for the common good.
In The Hobbit, Mithrandir (Gandalf), contemplates a great darkness that threatens his world. He refuses to be daunted because, he explains, it will be kept at bay by the simple acts of love and kindness performed every day by ordinary people.
The Biblical account of the original Noah and his ark of refuge begins with a man who was in communion with God. He believed that he had been given a mandate and a set of practical instructions to provide a safe haven from a forthcoming catastrophe. Secondly, despite opposition and derision, he acted upon the instructions, persisting with his vision until the deed was done.
Our island history owes much in its progress to iconic figures like Wilberforce and Owen who battled through conflict and debate for the life and liberty of others. They regarded it as their reasonable service, rendered to God and to humankind as a thanksgiving offering for the eternal love freely given to them.
The Act of Random Kindness may be difficult to sustain in a global society where scepticism and suspicion often form barriers between strangers.
The young couple might have been bewildered and refused the chocolate cake. As it happens they were thrilled with the unexpected gift and will no doubt treasure the memory of a charming moment. So, perhaps what we need in our divisive, often venomous society, is a persistent stream of ORS, Our Reasonable Service, not rendering evil for evil, but remembering that mercy, love and generosity are stronger than hatred and revenge.
In Kentucky, some Christians put together the funding and expertise to construct a wooden ark in accordance with the Biblical proportions. The three-storey building is now a tourist attraction as a museum, demonstrating the feasibility of such a refuge, complete with storage and animal quarters. Its message is clear. Heed the warnings of God against the tide of evil deeds done to fellow mankind. In each of us, the ark of God’s love and power must lodge, a bulwark against disaster and a charter of salvation.