Over the last ten years, I’ve noticed there’s one thing we all need. . . . If I were to ask you what that thing is, many of you would say love, money, friendship, or family—and you would be right to an extent. But for a lot of people whom I call friends, there’s one that’s just as important. The homeless and broken don’t have money. Many don’t have friends, or someone to love them; most don’t have family—at least family that will talk to them. So what is it they need? They need to be needed. They need a purpose, a job, a way to make a difference.
A few years ago, before Manna Café existed and when I was still in Nashville, I was in charge of a Thursday night meal (it was similar to Thursday Café, but indoors, and we called it Meal of Hope). Every week, homeless people from the neighborhood and missionary volunteers gathered to get a hot meal. There was this homeless guy named Charlie who came almost every week, and when it was time to clean up, he’d volunteer to take out the trash. This became Charlie’s thing, so much so that if someone tried to take out the trash (even me) he’d get upset—even mad at times. This went on for a year or more, until I went on a month-long mission trip to Seattle to work the streets there. While I was gone, the person who was temporarily in charge of the meal decided it was wrong to “make” someone who came to get food take out the trash, so he took Charlie’s job away from him and gave it to a volunteer. Shortly after that, Charlie quit coming to Meal of Hope. So what happened?—did he get a job or become less hungry? No, he lost his sense of purpose. He didn’t feel needed anymore.
This summer, another story unfolded at the Manna House that brought this idea to light. Ricky, my brother and warehouse manager, took some much-needed time off. It was the first time for him to be gone for more than a day since he started the position a year ago. So he left instructions for those who would be covering for him during his absence to make sure everything ran smoothly.
Every one of our volunteers, each with his or her own personality, has a special place in our hearts. One of our favorites is Tommy, a young man with Down syndrome who’s been helping us for a long while. Tommy is very loved. Early on, his job became sorting and bagging bread that comes in, and then putting it in the food distribution carts as they go out the door. That’s not all he does (he also makes us laugh a lot), but taking care of the bread is “his” job—and if for any reason he can’t do it or if you get in his way, you’re going to know about it. Tommy and Ricky, by the way, are big buds.
While Ricky was gone, the bread distribution wasn’t going the way Tommy thought it should. I didn’t see him around, so I went looking for him. I walked around the corner, and there was Tommy, in tears. “What’s wrong?” I asked him.
“This is my job! Ricky’s my boss, and he told me how to do it. They won’t let me, but it’s my job! Rick’s my boss!”
So I took Tommy with me to help me make a decision about how the bread should be bagged that day, and Tommy was right: there’d been a misjudgment about how much bread we had on hand, and we needed to give out more to each client. And then it dawned on me: this wasn’t really about bread at all; it was about Tommy feeling needed—even if he was “just” bagging bread. You and I probably wouldn’t have made a big deal about the issue, but this was Tommy’s purpose, and he wanted to hear “good job” when Ricky came back.
We all need purpose. In fact, I think that’s why God lets us be involved in spreading the gospel. That’s why He commands us to take care of the poor and the broken—so that we feel needed. He could do it without us, but He lets us do it so we’ll have purpose—I know that’s the way it is for me. In fact, I’m not much different from Tommy in that I, too, want to hear the words “good job.” Isn’t that what we all really want?