I can’t seem to get the boys my husband and I met in Africa out of my mind because, as many of you know, some of the greatest gems of experience take time to sink in.
One of my favorite experiences of the Kenya trip Kevin and I took last year was the time spent with the young men of the Hardy House – a group of 20- and 30-something young men with special needs.
They had lived in the Feed the Children orphanage in Nairobi since childhood but had aged out of the system with nowhere else to go. Thus, the Hardy House was created for them to live in for the rest of their lives.
Over the course of two days, we shared a dinner with them, slept in their guest room and woke up watching the cartoon “Fat Albert” on their TV and laughing with them.
When it came time for us to leave, the Hardy boys became serious: “Could you take us back with you to America? Could you find us work there? We just want to do something. We want to feel useful.”
While the “take us back to America with you” part was expected – those who have traveled overseas in the developing world know that this is a common request made by folks desperate for a way out of poverty – the “we just want to do something, we want to be useful” part surprised me.
Before us sat young men who were blind, deaf and full of mental and physical challenges of all kinds. I wondered in the moment: “How did they know that they weren’t useful? Weren’t they satisfied to be in a safe and loving place with folks watching out for them for the rest of their lives?”
In Kenya – like other developing countries with few resources to go around for even the able-bodied citizens – the citizens with physical or mental challenges of any kind are naturally tossed to the side.
They are sent away to the alleys. They are hidden in the back rooms of homes. They aren’t acknowledged as full family members. They are not sent to school with an individual education plan as children in America with the same challenges are.
Therefore, if young men like the Hardy boys make it into adulthood in a place like Kenya (thanks to the quality of the Feed The Children staff and programs), there’s no social services to offer them a nondiscriminatory hiring or then accommodations on the job. They simply don’t get to work.
But they said to us: “We just want to work. We want to be useful.”
They’re still hoping for a better life. And I don’t think my Kenyan friends are alone in their longings.
All of us hold a deep desire to be useful, to do something that matters to someone, to contribute so that when we die we’ve made our mark.
As much as we told the Hardy boys that we loved them and that their concern for us was useful, it didn’t seem to satisfy them.
I believe we can’t muster up usefulness for another. A person has to feel it. A person has to live it.
Whether it comes from a job completed with our hands or from a relationship where we know our presence matters to another person, usefulness is something we crave.
We crave it so much that many of us will often go to the extremes to create it:
â— We’ll butt our way into a position on the steering committees at work or the PTA at our kid’s school or on a neighborhood board with meetings we hate – just to say we’re doing something of value in our free time.
â— We’ll not say “no” when a friend asks a favor – just to have proof of our importance to him or her.
â— We’ll fill up our weekends with family and social events of all kinds – just to feel like our presence matters to those we claim as our own.
It’s not that “usefulness” is a wrong desire or that our Creator doesn’t long for us to use our gifts in meaningful ways, but sometimes those of us with every opportunity in the world take our work to the extreme.
We don’t stop. We never pause to consider our motivation for going and doing and doing some more.
We forget that there are those in this world who want to be seen and heard and validated for doing something and we’ve got the gifts to help them.
As I keep the Hardy boys and their joy, hope and desire to find useful work in the dear places of my heart, I hope that a way might be made through Feed The Children in the future for them to “do” more.
I hope that my resources and the resources of others might be funneled toward their needs.
But I also hope that God will stop me when I get busy doing “useful” projects, which were never my business to be a part of in the first place. I hope that I will have more loving eyes to see those who need to feel useful to me and I to them.
Elizabeth Evans Hagan is a freelance writer and minister dividing her time between Arlington, Va., and Oklahoma City, Okla. She regularly blogs about the art of pastoring at Preacher on the Plaza, where a version of this column first appeared.
Elizabeth Hagan is senior minister of The Palisades Community Church in Washington, D.C. Other hats she wears are as a preacher, author and executive director of Our Courageous Kids, a foundation dedicated to orphan care.