Jokes are my brother's love language. If you know a good joke, or even an average joke, telling it to my brother Matthew is probably the best decision you could ever make. Even if you fumble the delivery, as I'm wont to do, Matthew won't hold it against you. His deep contagious laugh softens even the most curmudgeonly.
Throughout my life, Matthew undid many bad days with his laugh. I'm now reliving many of my childhood moments through a new lens. I watch my three-year-old son, Desmond Matthew, interact with his uncle and I can't hold back the smiles. More than once, the two of them have exchanged knock-knocks in the backseat of our car to the point that we all were laughing insuppressibly. We laughed at our laughing at our laughter.
The joy of growing up in a special needs family shaped and taught me. It continues to do so today.
It was not all merriment, of course. I remember the school bus being particularly difficult. We rode the bus together with kids from all the surrounding neighborhoods. (As an aside, if you ever hear someone making a "short bus" joke, please don't laugh. These jokes aren't funny to special needs families—trust me on this one.) For kids, school buses are like the comments sections on web sites: the place all human decency and civility go to die. Masking their own insecurities, bullies would sling the "r" word or provoke Matthew to laugh or do something they could ridicule. In these instances, laughter was painful, not good medicine.
One of Matthew's many virtues is his resilience, and he would bounce back quickly from the insensitivities of his peers. Like all siblings, there were joys and challenges in our relationship. But through the bumps and laughs, Matthew taught me a lot about a lot of things, most pointedly the virtues of patience, contentment and faith. The way he models these virtues can almost be discouraging because of the purity with which he practices them.
But he's taught me most about dignity.
A noble and important response to someone with special needs is charity. Whether those special needs are cognitive, like Matthew's, or if the special needs are physical; a leading human response is to give. 'They can't and we can' is how the logic usually works. As my friend Peter has said, however, "Charity is a great place to start and a terrible place to end."
For someone like Matthew, it would be easy to assume that given his limitations, the best way to help him would be to provide for him. But the best gift he's ever received didn't come at the hand of traditional charity and it didn't arrive in a wrapped package. It came through a phone call from a Costco store manager.
The call came close to fifteen years ago. And for thirty-to-forty hours every week since that call, Costco has been Matthew's second home. That's almost saying it too lightly. To give you a sense for his commitment, he bought his first home due to its proximity with Costco. Matthew and Costco literally share a backyard.
When a Costco opened up in our hometown of Lancaster, Pennsylvania in 1996, its reputation for treating its employees with dignity preceded it. Today, after several promotions, consistent pay increases and with a supportive team around him, Matthew has found his career.
It's odd to describe physically demanding labor as a gift, I realize. Matthew worked for years in the Costco parking lot, bearing the wind, rain, cold and snow as he cleared the lot of shopping carts. On top of the weather conditions, Matthew could have easily succumbed to the drudge of monotony by now. In his current role, he assists customers in boxing up their oversized condiment bottles and bulk toiletries. On the surface, this is not exactly the work dreams are made of.
But here's the magic of it. Matthew brings joy into the lives of his coworkers and customers. He helps the regulars save money and buy quality stuff—even if it is more batteries than they'll ever be able to use. Matthew's job has illuminated to me just how central work and purpose are to our lives.
It's how we are all wired. We were created to create. In a counterintuitive way, a job allows Matthew to experience dignity in a way that charity never could. He's valued and needed at Costco—as evidenced by the community of people there who love him. And by the supervisors who have been able to count on him for over a decade. Work fills a human need that we all have.
One of my friends recently went through a difficult season of unemployment. But even worse than the financial hardship it caused was the sense of meaning and purpose that unemployment lacked. For my brother, my friend, and for all of us, our souls crave dignity. For my brother, that's found in the checkout line at America's largest wholesaler. For others it's found in the cubicle or the playroom. The construction site or the classroom.
Matthew makes his Cotsco a better place. He brings joy to his customers and experiences rich meaning through his work. Costco fulfills a deeply human need for Matthew, providing a place for him to use the unique skills and abilities God's entrusted to him. We each need charity to help us land on our feet. But even more, God designed our hands and feet to work, because in our work, we find meaning and purpose.
Chris Horst is the vice president of development at HOPE International, where he employs his passion for advancing initiatives at the intersection of entrepreneurship and Christian faith. In addition to his role at HOPE, Chris serves on the boards of the Denver Institute for Faith & Work and the Colorado Microfinance Alliance. Chris has been published in The Denver Post, Christianity Today, and has co-authored Mission Drift with Peter Greer. Connect with Chris on Twitter (@chrishorst).
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