An act of generosity appeared in Belfast city centre this past weekend and was quickly removed by the City Council. Someone erected an emergency sleeping shelter, a wooden box for homeless people to find some protection from the wind and cold. It even had a phone charger inside. What a generous thought and action?
There was a plaque on the side of the box which read “SOCIAL EXPERIMENT - Do Not Remove” and gave an email address firstname.lastname@example.org. If the experiment was to see whether the city would allow such shelters then the answer was swift.
Let us not damn the Council too quickly. There has to be a fear that one of these shelters is far from enough and that it would take perhaps 100 erected in city centre locations if they are to make the inroads into Belfast’s homeless problem. The Council then thinks about how the shoppers will feel walking around homeless shelters to spend their well earned cash. Common Law NI technically broke the law in not having asked for permission for the shelter.
However, as a social experiment it raises serious questions about the soul of Belfast city. It has often been said that if you want to examine the social health of somewhere do not ask how well a place looks after its strongest but how well it cares for its weakest. Without question this shelter brings us face to face with the uncomfortable reality that our city, like all western cities, puts its emphasis on the wealthy and healthy and not the poor and vulnerable.
Imagine a city that was more generous. Imagine a city that practiced indiscriminate acts of kindness as, one of our favourite sons, Foy Vance sings. Imagine if, as Jesus suggested, we put the the first last and the last first. What kind of city and society would we breed?
This year’s 4 Corners Festival is all about imagination and generosity. We are encouraging our city to imagine what it could be. We are hoping to inspire a generous city at every level of political, religious ad community structures.
So… why not imagine a generous act that we can do. We could pay for a meal at the 4 Corners Festival Refugee Banquet at City Hall. Perhaps we can pay for the office coffee for day… or a week? Maybe we can do something for a homeless person? What about doing something for our neighbour or for a relative? Why not pay for someone’s coffee in advance of them ordering? Common Grounds on University Avenue allows you to do that.
What if we were generous enough to see the other side of our historical story, listening to the other side’s opinion? What if we found it in our hearts to forgive and even seek forgiveness for our contribution to the conflict?
The homeless shelter on the street might have been removed but the act of its social experiment should inspire us all to be generous.