The Beacon was crowded, even for a Saturday. By noon, more than 500 people had already registered for lunch, and those unfortunate enough to arrive on time rather than an hour early were refused a shower or laundry service due to the long lines that had already formed. The ceramic tile and glass chamber echoed with the sounds of the gathered humanity, creating a dull roar that made conversation difficult. Smells of sweat, dusty clothes, and unwashed hair wafted across the room. The hundreds gathered in this church-sponsored food kitchen reflected only a portion of Houston’s poor and homeless, and yet, standing amid the throng of people – and the needs they represented — was overwhelming.
My brothers and I were scattered across a variety of stations: registration, where each person seeking a lunch, a shower, a washing machine, or some free clothing would have to check in with a number to get a place in line; the food line, the dish-cleaning area, the clothing pantry, the laundry. For the next three hours, we would interact with hundreds of men, women and children whose lives revolved around centers like this one for the basic purpose of staying alive. Some hoped to get a moment with the nurse. Others hoped to use one of the two free telephones, if only for a moment. All were hungry, thirsty, hot, worried – and weary.
My brothers and I all wore the same light blue shirt and dark blue hat, which proclaimed our affiliation and for these golden moments, our identity: Men in Mission. The thirteen of us on this Saturday announced through our apparel that we were united in purpose and intent. The uninitiated among us – sons, co-workers – saw the day’s volunteering as a random act of kindness; a gift to the less fortunate as a way to pay back their own blessings, a chance to gain perspective, to remember the bigger picture. But for the Men in Mission, this afternoon was about something more. Spending an afternoon serving the poor in a church in downtown Houston was part of a much larger mission – to create a world that was better than the one they entered.
In my judgment (and the judgment of many cultural sociologists and anthropologists), our current culture is marked by narcissism, or our preoccupation with the satisfaction of our own needs and the fulfillment of our own desires. We live in a culture of constant consumption, and we consume anything that satisfies or improves the self – better hair, better lawns, better emotions, better families, better sex, better happiness, better contentment, better relationships, better reassurance of eternal reward. Like all commodities, the consumption of self is perpetuated only in when it exists in a state of deficiency; the need to continue consuming is based on the fact that we are always lacking, always needing more. The result is self-obsession. Consumptive narcissism can quickly lock my focus onto my own hurts, hang-ups, needs and issues, making me blind to the needs of others. I am aware of only one reality, and it becomes my central goal: My cup runneth empty – how shall I get it full?
Living a mission of service to others is a different reality. It operates from a place of abundance. Living a mission is about sustaining a vision of things as they can be, not as they are, and then working to accomplish the vision.
In MKP, we say that our vision is about action – creating (or co-creating) a world that operates from an abundance of love, peace, understanding, respect, and service. Beneath every mission is a deep sense of purpose that supposes there is a reason for my hurts, my hang-ups, and my healing. There’s a reason I was given each and every experience, both good and bad, and the purpose is not for my own edification but for the collective, universal good. It’s not surprising that Rick Warren’s book, The Purpose-Driven Life, remains one of the best-selling books in publishing history. There is, I judge, a part of our soul that longs to make a contribution, what American psychologist Abraham H. Maslow called self-actualization; I am able to move beyond the fulfillment of my own needs and make a lasting impact on the world around me.
Joseph Morell Dodge, a public servant working for Dwight D. Eisenhower, once stated, “What every man needs, regardless of his job or the kind of work he is doing, is a vision of what his place is and may be. He needs an objective and a purpose. He needs a feeling and a belief that he has some worthwhile thing to do. What this is no one can tell him. It must be his own creation. Its success will be measured by the nature of his vision, what he has done to equip himself, and how well he has performed along the line of its development.” Author George Bernard Shaw captured the concept aptly when he said, “This is the true joy in life: Being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one, being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances, complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy. I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community and as long as I live, it is my privilege to do for it what I can. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.”
In today’s culture, we’ve somehow reversed the focus back on ourselves, and the result is more than our simple self-absorption. It’s left a world with greater and more devastating unmet needs.
The work of the ManKind Project has the potential to fall victim to the same narcissism of the culture, as does the work of any church or organization that attracts individuals who seek wholeness, fulfillment, and healing as if they were commodities to consume. The trap is set when we sell them salvation, initiation, integration, healing or self-improvement without insisting that the purpose of these gifts is to equip us for our larger mission. Without this outward focus, the means become the end rather than the entryway to a life lived in service to others – men’s missions become their own self-fulfillment and personal growth. For some in our brotherhood, I judge that this narcissism translates into an unbalanced focus on I-groups, carpet work, and the constant process of healing rather than on creating a better world for the rest of mankind.
It is when the MKP is seen as little more than another quirky self-improvement program that our critics gain their strongest ground against us. I am often saddened when I encounter an man who has completed the New Warrior Training Adventure who is unable to articulate his mission, as if it were an unimportant side-note from the weekend experience. For me, the formation of my mission was the pinnacle of the weekend training – it was the “take away” benefit of the hero’s journey. Like my talisman, my mission statement was an outward expression of an inner discovery, the gift that I could turn to regularly to remind myself of why I remained on the planet. It clarified my spiritual journey, and helped me to see the outward purpose of my spirituality. The two –my MKP mission and my Christian mission – became one and the same. I taped my mission statement to my computer at work, talked about it with friends and co-workers, even shared it with my students and used it as the basis for my teaching.
But a mission statement that has no opportunity to live is little more than a collection of words. Years ago, when I coached competitive speech and debate, I used to tell my students – many national finalists or champions – that the purpose of their trophies and awards was not for the confirmation of their worth but for the focusing of their gift. With each success, they were finding the power of their voices, and those voices had a purpose. Those voices, I told them, could change the world — or they could sit on a trophy shelf collecting dust. The choice was theirs.
The same is true for me, and perhaps for you. I have a voice, and I can change the world. I have arms, and I can assist the world. I have a heart, spirit, and soul, and I can embrace the world. I have a full life as a man among men, and I can serve the world. I can make the world the kind of place that I want it to be. Serving poor and homeless Houstonians at the Beacon or at Palmer, or cleaning up a cemetery, or volunteering at a museum or school or library — or any of the thousands of places that rely on human giving to fill the gaps of our society — may not match the wording of my personal mission statement, but I am convinced that it is one of the ways in which my mission is fulfilled. For this reason, I serve.
Standing in the Beacon on a humid Saturday afternoon serving red beans and rice or ham/turkey casserole to some of Houston’s poorest citizens, my T-shirt and cap suggests that I am more than a man at work on himself. I am a man working on himself so that he can serve another human being, looking them in the eyes with dignity, compassion, and love. My life is for this very moment, and my goal is evident only when it is given to the service of others, with my brothers beside me. In the Beacon, I was much more than a man with a stated mission – I was a man among men, creating the world I longed to live in.
The gift of mission, for me, is felt every time I serve others. I realize that my life – and my journey to heal the hurts, address the hang-ups, seek integrity and become an active part of a fellowship of men — has a purpose, and provides me with a reason for living. The gift is truly in the giving. I am suddenly much more than that sad, hurt, lonely boy. I am a man in mission.
I invite you to join me, and celebrate realizing our missions together.
– is a deeply personal issue that everyone decides for himself. Sometimes the price is high, sometimes low. But this is not very important for life. Life is an interesting thing. And the price on Viagra – too.