The following message is written by the Cambridge Self-Help Food Bank’s Executive Director. It was originally printed in the Cambridge Times, and is a reflection on the spirit of generosity and compassion during the holidays, and throughout the year.
One hundred and seventy-six years ago, Charles Dickens’ wrote his classic story, A Christmas Carol.
In the story he describes Bob Cratchit’s family and in so doing gave us a window into poverty in Victorian England.
Dickens experienced poverty firsthand. At 12 years old he was removed from school to work long days in a blacking factory. Charles’ father, along with his mother and siblings, had been sent to prison, as John Dickens couldn’t pay a debt of £40. Young Charles lived alone, where he worked off his family’s debts.
In 1843, Charles visited a school and saw the state of children in London’s slums. He was so disturbed that he set out to tackle the unfairness, greed, and callousness of London society in A Christmas Carol.
Its lessons remain relevant today.
In the 1980s, when many families were struggling through a devastating economic recession, the Cambridge Self-Help Food Bank was formed by Cambridge residents, ensuring their neighbours were nourished — a legacy that lives on today.
This same community formed Out of the Cold, opening up churches for meals, shelter and fellowship. Eventually, this caring community came together to build The Bridges, in the hopes that nobody in Cambridge would be unsheltered.
Over the last few years, increasingly I hear the remark: “This isn’t the Cambridge I once knew.” Sometimes it’s said referring to the growing crises of poverty, homelessness, substance use, and the overall disconnection felt by so many. Often, it’s in reference to a feeling that our Cambridge is not the caring one so many of us knew from our earlier days.
And sometimes I can’t help but agree. Recently I was walking in downtown Galt and saw a man crossing the street in front of me. Not unlike Dickens’ description of Bob Cratchit’s family, his shoes were worn and his clothes provided little protection from the cold. We made eye contact, and both nodded and said hello.
Just at that moment, a vehicle slowed down to yell, “Get a job!” with profanity added for good measure. The man, clearly targeted, yelled back at the vehicle, picked up his pace, and walked on. I also walked on. Indeed, this wasn’t the Cambridge I once knew.
But I also have the good fortune of spending my days at the Cambridge Self-Help Food Bank, where I witness acts of caring, compassion, and generosity on a daily basis.
Not long ago, I had someone visit me at the food bank. It was one of the first cold and rainy days leading into winter. He told me he had been outside for several nights, and the stress of that was written on his face. He pointed to the sole of his shoes falling off, and his wet and cold feet. I thought of Dickens and Cratchit’s family.
We found him dry boots, socks, and snacks. He asked if we had a jacket. I rooted through our clothing room and found a big warm fleece. I asked if that would help, and he said yes, with heartfelt thanks.
Just then, another man approached and asked if we had a jacket, as he too was cold. Before I could answer, the person I’d been helping handed the man the fleece, saying: “Here man, you take it. I’ve got all day to find another one.”
And with that he departed, out into the cool, rainy street outside. This caring, generous man.
In some ways, not much has changed since Dickens’ days. Poverty continues to be present and punishing. But at that moment, I saw that the Cambridge of my childhood has not really changed, when we match poverty with generosity, compassion, and care for our neighbours.
As we approach another season of giving, and the change of the calendar to a new decade, I invite you to envision the Cambridge you want to see, and then take action to create that caring future.
Cameron Dearlove is the Executive Director of the Cambridge Self-Help Food Bank.