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The Episcopal Church of St. John Baptist 200 Main St., Thomaston, Maine 04861
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Secret Agents of Kindness By Dr. Anthony Antolini
In my September column, “Uncomfortable Numbers,” I cited statistics showing the dramatic decline in membership and activity in most mainline churches. For those readers who found the column a downer I suggest that it really isn’t, but rather a clear indication that the conclusions drawn by the researcher are well worth pondering.
To recap the conclusions of the column that relate most strongly to St. John’s (with added italics):
“Denominations have to learn to value the local church theologically…The things we value are the things that tend to flourish. If we want to see growing local churches, we need a theology that values the local church more.”
“…The secular West is a tough climate in which to sustain congregational life, but it can be done and is desperately needed. For example, there is an avalanche of data that shows how wellbeing correlates with being part of a congregation. And the practices that promote congregational growth are…not a complete mystery. Focused attention on such practices and the theology that undergirds them is central to the existence of Anglicanism in the US and elsewhere.”
This month’s column offers a suggestion on how a local church like St. John’s can flourish in spite of the statistics we worry about. The idea comes from the Fall 2017 issue of Teaching Tolerance, a periodical published by the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama. This magazine is focused on the challenge of eradicating ethnic hatred in schools and is aimed at both teachers and parents. There is a great deal in this work that’s also valuable for churches even though the domain of the magazine is secular.
On page 19 is a short piece entitled “Secret Agents of Kindness,” by Debra Ginsberg with illustrations by Shaw Nielsen. I am happy to share copies of the article with anyone who would care to read it. What follows here is a condensation of the ideas in the article and an adaptation to what “Secret Agents of Kindness” would be like in a church setting.
The article begins with this quotation: “Kindness,” Mark Twain said, “is the language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see.” We’ve seen the effects of extending our hospitality to our Congolese neighbors in Thomaston. They did not need to know English to understand that there was a welcome offered to them from our congregation when they were moved here. Organized kindness is what inspired Ferial Pearson to start a program called Secret Kindness Agents. Pearson is a nationally recognized and award-winning high school teacher and instructor in the Teacher Education Department at the University of Nebraska Omaha. To learn more about Pearson and the Secret Agents of Kindness program watch her TED Talk at
The program is both simple and profound: to perform an anonymous act of kindness every day and, thereby, spread kindness throughout the community. Anonymity is a key element of the program, as it shifts the focus from the self to others and thus allows the “agents” of kindness to remove themselves from the equation – in effect to become “…selfless, which is the DNA of kindness.”
Here’s an outline of the process, step-by-step, that the Agents do together. I’ve edited it so it is more general and not focused solely on students and schools:
Make a list of about ten to fifteen potential positive benefits of Secret Agents of Kindness and make a list of potential risks involved. (Positive example: Getting people to church who can’t or don’t drive. Risk example: The person rejects the offer because they fear being ‘evangelized’.)
Brainstorm anonymous acts of kindness or “jobs.” (Positive example: Someone volunteers to call people who don’t come to church but might like to and that person invites them to be driven to church. Risk example: The person making the calls may feel rejected if the offer isn’t appreciated.)
Have Agents select their “jobs” and verbally commit to honor these commitments to perform acts of kindness daily for a week. (Positive example: On a given Sunday, a member of the congregation gets up early and picks people up and drives them to church and back home again afterwards. Risk example: A passenger falls and breaks a bone getting out of the car.)
And the end of the week, have the Agents write reflections on how their “jobs” have affected them and those around them. (Example: The person who drove strangers to church makes friends with them and discovers that they could help that person get to a grocery store. The driver has made a new friend. The church has one more person sitting in it. Risk: Some Secret Agents of Kindness feel as if they’ve failed at their tasks while others feel wonderful. An atmosphere of competition arises.)
Students who have become involved in this program must discuss what risks are involved and make a list of the risks. Some of these include worry that their acts of kindness might be rejected or turn out to be embarrassing. The next steps involve brainstorming random acts of kindness or “jobs.” Examples of these “jobs” might be as simple as picking up trash or holding open a door for someone. Others require more effort, such as having lunch with someone the Secret Agent might not ordinarily talk to or writing letters of appreciation to people who are rarely recognized for their work.
Some jobs take the Secret Agents outside their comfort zones – for example, striking up a conversation with somebody new. These involve a higher level of risk but also offer the highest rewards.
After selecting their jobs and verbally committing to honor the jobs they are about to do, the students perform acts of kindness every day for a week. At the end of the week, they write reflections on how their jobs have affected them and those around them. They then select new jobs for the next week and begin the process all over again.
What’s important is that the acts of kindness are not random but carefully planned and discussed with others in advance. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with random acts of kindness but the payoff for the community is far smaller. Students at a high school in San Diego where the program was implemented reported as follows:
“My kind acts are not just one ripple but a rock skipping on water, radiating good deeds to multiple people who can also create those ripples…Secret Kindness Agents have taken my shallow attitude and narrow mind into something much greater. I would go day to day keeping to myself and only thinking about waking up and getting my day over with… After being a part of the Secret Kindness Agents, I have developed an overall sense of happiness. I enjoy waking up every day in hopes that I will make someone’s day. Noticed or not, my simple acts have made me a happier person.”
The Bible is full of stories of the power of kindness. Probably the most famous is the parable of the Good Samaritan. But the Samaritan’s generosity was not anonymous. The wounded man in the ditch who had been beaten and robbed knew who had stopped to help him. And the story does not mention whether the Good Samaritan felt happier because he took the time to care for someone in need. Perhaps we need to look deeper into this and try to discern what God wants us to do if we become Secret Agents of Kindness rather than just thinking “jobs” up that would feel rewarding if we did them.
There’s the old joke about the Boy Scout who wants to earn a merit award for doing good deeds. So he sees an old person crossing the street and helps them across so he can say he did it. (Perhaps the old person didn’t need or want any help!) Our goal is not to get the merit badge but to do something that God has inspired us to do for the common good. We need to listen to God’s guidance as to our calling. Choosing a “job” that is totally outside our comfort zone isn’t the point. (Examples: If the Secret Agent is afraid of dogs there’s no point offering to take somebody’s dog to the vet! If the Secret Agent has a hearing loss it doesn’t make sense to offer help to someone who is deaf.)
St. Paul reminds us that what we do as Agents of Kindness needs to be “…worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (Ephesians 4: 1-3).
Skeptics in our congregation will undoubtedly point out that we already have a successful Outreach Program that benefits the community in many ways. Isn’t helping Trekkers or Hospitality House the same thing? My answer to this is NO! We raise money to help these vital services in our communities but when we donate to them it’s not the same as putting our own selves into the process. The money is much needed but it removes us from the process of doing something personally for an individual.
What does the Bible have to say about this? Here, in closing, are some citations that encourage Secret Agents of Kindness and underscore a way that we can live out “a theology that values the local church more.”
“But love your enemies, do good and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6: 35-36).
“…and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.” (Ephesians 4:32).
“By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (Galatians 5: 22-23).
“As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.” (Colossians 3: 12).
“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” (Hebrews 13: 2).