I was standing by the main doors of the Topeka Rescue Mission, preparing to meet with a large group of leaders who were interested in learning more about the value of our current initiatives in place. As I greeted them one by one upon their arrival, I heard Tommy yell my name. He rushed up and gave me a warm hug with his bright and familiar toothless smile. He was rugged and extremely worn from years of homelessness and abuse; a stark contrast from the others I was greeting at that same time.
I started my journey at the Topeka Rescue Mission back in 1986. I struggled back then with something that still plagues me today: I am a fixer. For years, I worked in the field of mental health with the objective of fixing problems. I came to the Mission with the same ideal, that I was going to “fix” the homeless. I’ve learned since then, however, that my role isn’t to fix anything. My value is in showing up and letting God do the rest.
Thirty-two years ago, I was looking for a job for Tommy to help with at the Mission. He was a healthy-looking young man at the time with no visible limitations. I couldn’t figure out why he was homeless but I set out to fix him by helping him obtain some tools so he could move forward with employment and life. I decided we’d start with the menial task of emptying the trash and running the vacuum. In my mind, anyone could do that. In those days, we had an old canister vacuum cleaner, the heavy ones that roar like an airplane and have to be manually emptied. As he was vacuuming, I closed my office door to answer the phone. To my surprise, a well-known physician and former United States Congressman was on the other line. He was inquiring of how to make a considerable donation to the Mission. I was elated! One hundred dollars was like a million to us back then and this was the first potentially major donation we had received since I had become director. I couldn’t wait to hear more. But, as the doctor was talking, I was distracted by the loud vacuum repetitively banging up against my door. The more it happened, the more irritated I became. I was just about to ask Tommy to stop when the engine roar ceased. I was grateful for the reprieve and settled back into my call, only to be met with a deep wail of sorrow rising to a crescendo outside my office door. The volume of hysteria was louder than the obnoxious vacuum had been, and I felt my blood pressure rising. What would this prestigious man on the other end of the phone think? Was our donation going to be sabotaged? That’s when I heard the gentle voice of the Lord speak to my heart, “I’ll take care of the doctor; you take care of Tommy.”
I left my office and the phone call obediently, but confused. When I approached Tommy, he exclaimed that the hose had detached from the cannister and he was unable to get it back on. I couldn’t believe he wasn’t able to figure out such a simple task but I patiently showed him, as he watched through tears. He picked up where he had left off and continued crying as he did. I was perplexed but felt I had done what was needed.
A couple of days later, my phone rang again. This time, from a case worker calling to check on Tommy. I shared about the previous incident and how incredulous it had been to me. This woman had worked with Tommy when he was a child and asked if I had ever seen him without a shirt on. I had not, but she told if I had, I might understand why he had trouble maneuvering a vacuum. His shoulders, neatly hidden under clothing, were disfigured which prevented him from being able to adequately use his hands.
The woman then gave me a glimpse into Tommy’s childhood. When he was a toddler, his mother worked fulltime to try and provide for their family. While she was at work, her live-in boyfriend would stay home with Tommy. Unfortunately, this boyfriend would easily become irritated with normal toddler antics so he would bundle Tommy up in a winter coat and hang him up on a coatrack… sometimes for the entire day when mom was away. Over time, this recurring torture had cut off the circulation in Tommy’s armpits and caused permanent paralysis to his hands. The case worker shared that his torso and arms were also dotted with perfectly rounded scars. When Tommy cried, the boyfriend would take cigarettes and burn him in attempts to punish.
The case worker knew perfectly well why the situation with the vacuum cleaner caused such anguish within the man she knew from his boyhood. Tommy was in anguish, not over a broken vacuum cleaner, but over disappointing me. My heart sunk and my attitude towards this man immediately changed. I’ve never looked at him the same. But I’ve also never looked at my role and value to the ministry the same.
My job isn’t to raise money, develop a great program or fix anybody.
My job is to be as kind as possible to everyone I come in contact with. Everyone has a story. I didn’t understand back then the ways in which trauma affects our brains and physiologically alters our judgement and ability to do some of the most menial things. But today, I’m learning. I believe, as a nation, we are all learning more in this area. The abuse that Tommy endured as a young boy damaged his brain; not in a way that is obvious to the naked eye, but one that is significant nonetheless. For thirty years, Tommy has stayed at the Mission, under bridges and in abandoned homes. He looks “normal,” but his capabilities as an adult were greatly altered as a result of the suffering he endured as a child.
How many Tommy’s are there with different, but similar, stories?
Every time I see Tommy, he makes a point to go out of his way to tell me hello. His bright welcome is usually accompanied by a large hug. A week had passed since that greeting on my way into the leadership meeting. But the image of his face would not leave the forefront of my mind. I didn’t fully know why, but I was eager to see him again. Our paths don’t cross regularly, so I wasn’t sure how I’d find him or how long it would be before our next encounter. My question was answered after just a couple days. I was walking into a Board meeting one evening and I passed Tommy in the Mission hallway. He lit up like a Christmas tree when he saw me and said what I perceived to be the strangest thing: “Thank you for building these buildings. Thank you for having these programs. Thank you for always being here!” I stared at him, stunned, and told him with deepest sincerity, “Tommy, you inspire me.” The cry within him let out with the same intensity it had over thirty years ago with the vacuum cleaner. I embraced him with a brotherly love as he cried and cried until the shoulder of my shirt was soaked with his tears. I told him I loved him and we both proceeded on with our evenings.
I told the Board members that night about Tommy and the encounter which had just taken place outside of the conference room door. I shared of the great programs, opportunities and services that take place every day at the Mission, but I shared that if we do nothing more but to be there for Tommy, we still did something incredibly great.
Who would have been there for Tommy throughout his adult years of struggle had it not been for the Mission? How many more people are in our community, nation and world who are just like him? How many Tommy’s are there in our churches, neighborhoods and schools? And how many just need someone to be there? Not to fix them. Not to mold them into someone who meets our “standards.” Just someone to be there, love them and show them through our presence that, they too, are worthy of love. We’re not supposed to try and fix people. We’re just supposed to be there. From there, God does the work.
“For this is what the high and exalted One says – He who lives forever, whose name is Holy: ‘I live in a high and holy place, but also with the one who is contrite and lowly in spirit…’” – Isaiah 57:15
God lives in a Kingdom and dwells on a majestic and royal throne. But He also dwells with those who are contrite and lowly in spirit: the broken, powerless, and weak. If we are not willing to go where He dwells, how will we ever fully see and connect with God? The Church is hungry for His Presence, but scripture doesn’t say His Presence dwells within a building’s walls. It says He dwells with those who are broken. We often spin our wheels, working desperately to create programs and systems that will solve a problem or societal crisis, and we get frustrated when those intricately calculated systems fail. We shun the people and shift the blame saying that certainly they are the reason our program didn’t work for them. And that it’s not our fault, it’s Tommy’s. But God dwells with them. And that’s where He wants us to be.
The Lord’s ministry to people on the earth today is through His people. He uses His Spirit working through people to lead others to Himself, make disciples and develop agents of light within this dark present-world. Those agents of light are then to personify the feet, eyes, hands and heart of Jesus to minister to those broken and contrite in spirit – so they too can see God and be transformed. Unfortunately, we often have it so backwards that we end up repelling people like Tommy by discounting their worth through our actions, or lack thereof. We judge them, just like I judged Tommy thirty years ago, by expecting them to be able to do at least menial employment tasks and rejecting them when they can’t; robbing them of services or support when they don’t. We don’t always realize it but often, with the standards we set, we make people prove their worth in order to receive our support. I’m not saying we shouldn’t establish criteria and guidelines, but if we do so without taking into account the deeper reasons behind the behaviors we see, we’re doing a significant injustice to those God dwells with and calls us to love.
There’s always more to a person’s story beyond what we can see with our eyes. People that are hurting and desperate carry the same emotions and desires as we do; but they also often carry weights and pain from their pasts which are too heavy for any one person to bear.
God wants us to see past the obvious and reach into the depths of their pain with His love.
So many are hurting. And God is calling us to come alongside, rise up with our God-given value and show them their worth.
That’s really where our true value lies.
If we fail to do that, we’ve failed at one of the primary reasons He’s called us into His Kingdom.
Together, we can make a difference. Together, we can partner with God in expanding His Kingdom on earth.
Together, we can help Tommy – and so many others like him – not only survive, but truly thrive and discover the reason that they too are alive.
–Barry Feaker with Jessica Hosman for Metro Voice News
Editor’s note: In Part III of a series, Barry Feaker, Executive Director of TRM Ministries, examines life’s biggest questions, and how we as individuals, the church and the community can provide value and help solve the issues faced by our society today. If you missed Part I or Part II, click the links below.