Mark Russell: After a year of division, let’s make 2017 a year of peace and unity

Can the wounds of Brexit be healed in 2017?
Can the wounds of Brexit be healed in 2017?
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WELL that was quite a year. From the national shock of Brexit, to the election of The Donald, the world of politics has been an rollercoaster.

We’ve seen the Great British Bake Off sold to Channel 4 but without its three key ingredients Mel Sue and Mary Berry – I am glad I wasn’t responsible for that negotiation!

We’ve lost David Bowie, Prince, Victoria Wood, Harper Lee, Muhammad Ali, Leonard Cohen, George Michael and Jo Cox. We’ve watched the horror of Aleppo, and the image of little Omran with his face caked with dust stunned the world.

Of course it hasn’t all been bad news. We’ve celebrated the Queen’s 90th birthday, enjoyed amazing success at the Rio Olympics and Paralympics, Andy Murray became world number one, and Leicester City stunned the world by winning the premiership, forcing Gary Lineker to honour a promise to present Match of the Day in his boxer shorts. We’ve marvelled at Tim Peake in space, been inspired by Attenborough’s Planet Earth 2 and who will ever forget Ed Balls’s Gangnam Style salsa.

I wonder how 2016 was for you and those you love. Perhaps you had a good year, or perhaps 2016 was a difficult year. Maybe you struggled with work, our health, or lost someone special from your life. New Year’s Eve is a time to look back and reflect on the year gone, the joy and the pain, but it’s also a good moment to look forward to think of what we can do in the year ahead, our hopes and dreams for our own lives and for the world around us. It’s a chance to think of where we went wrong in 2016 and resolve to learn lessons.

It felt like 2016 carved our nation in half, the 52 per cent and the 48 per cent. I can’t remember our country feeling more fragile and fractured. Swathes of our nation feel disillusioned and unheard. Personally I was devastated by the referendum result but I accept it, and hope we can begin to heal our divided nation in this New Year.

I am reliably informed that the Oxford English Dictionary word of the year is “post-truth”, whether fake news stories or people playing hard and fast with facts, I hope we can build unity rather than perpetuate divide, and recognise that many of those who have moved to our country and who contribute to our economy and public services feel anxious about their future. I hope in 2017 we can become a more united nation.

Brexit is a great unknown but one risk is that we can unwittingly send a signal that Britain is withdrawing from the world stage. We have a proud history in this country of standing up for justice and human rights across the world, fighting for democracy and freedom. There are whacking great problems that need solutions. To put Syria in context, the number of deaths is the same as the population of Sheffield, and the number homeless is twice the population of Yorkshire and the Humber.

Meanwhile President-elect Trump is sceptical about climate change yet scientists tell us temperatures in the arctic have risen by 20 degrees, melting ice and sparking more unpredictable weather patterns across the globe. It is good news that global emissions have plateaued but we need to seriously work harder to steward the planet we’ve been entrusted with. I hope in 2017 we can rediscover what Britain does best, using our confident national voice for progress, justice and change in the world around us.

But what about closer to home? The number of street homeless has doubled, and each of us has the power to make a difference. My team runs the Marylebone Project, the largest women-only homeless project in London, and I was there last week with the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan and singer Ellie Goulding. Our clients tell us the most important thing people can do is say ‘hello’. If you’re sat on a street, feeling invisible and forgotten, having people walk by just perpetuates that feeling of isolation.

There’s a story of a boy walking on a huge beach and a freak tide had thrown thousands of starfish onto the shore, and he ran along throwing them in. A dog walker saw him and remarked cynically that there were thousands and he really couldn’t make a difference. As the child picked one starfish up and flung it into the sea, he smiled and said ‘Well it made a difference to that one’.

George Hoffman once said one person cannot change the world but can change the world for one other person, so I encourage you to say ‘hello’ to someone on the street, buy someone a cup of tea, and you will change the world. My friend Desmond Tutu says that if we all do a bit of good then all those bits of good add together to overwhelm the world. If you think you are too small to make your presence felt, you have never met a mosquito! I hope in 2017 we will become a more compassionate nation.

In the Hebrew Scriptures the Book of Genesis tells the story of God asking Cain where is his brother Abel. Cain replies asking “Am I my brother’s keeper?” For me, this is one of the most profound questions we can ever ask. Do we care about the welfare and the future of the most vulnerable around us? Do we tolerate people sleeping on streets when we should scream loudly that no one should ever be forced to sleep rough? Are we concerned that our dependence on fossil fuels is altering our planet forever and endangering whole countries in the Pacific?

My big hope for 2017 is that together we will rediscover that we are our brother’s keeper and our sister’s keeper. That each of us in our daily lives can sow hope and goodness into an ever more fearful looking world, and that we will remember we can change the world for one other person.

I wish you and those you love a peaceful and hope filled New Year.

* Mark Russell is Chief Executive of Church Army. He lives in Sheffield and writes in a personal capacity. He tweets @markrusselluk