The Hardest Working Man in Savannah

- by

Photo by Katie McGee

IN FEBRUARY 2014, Wayne Harden received a strange request from his employer, Hugh Barnes. The United Ministries of Savannah: Emmaus House Soup Kitchen had lost an employee. A member of their church board had then reached out to Barnes, a personal friend and the owner of Barnes Restaurant, to ask if he had an employee he could “lend” them until they found someone. Barnes knew of the perfect person.  

 Harden arrived at the interview, and it only took him a minute to realize, “This was not about a job,” he says. “This was a calling — a calling from God.”

 As clinic supervisor, Harden is the first smiling face clients see when they arrive at Emmaus House, an interfaith ministry that provides food, care and dignity to some of Savannah’s most vulnerable residents. He is there at 6 a.m. each weekday to facilitate showers and begin loads of laundry.

 “We are a soup kitchen that serves breakfast five days a week,” Harden explains, “but we also run showers and laundry service, and that’s the primary part of my job description.”

 Harden speaks humbly about his duties, which also include custodial and stocking needs, but his team calls him “the hardest working man in all of Savannah, Georgia.”

 “That’s quite a flattering compliment,” he says. “One of the principles I operate with is, I do the very best I can at all times with whatever situation I’m in. That way, when I look at myself in the mirror before I go to bed, I can say, ‘Well, I gave it my very best.’”

 That includes when the pandemic hit. Like many others, Emmaus House had a wrench thrown into their operations. “As the sports people say, there was no playbook for us to refer to,” Harden says. “When the state shut down, we were shut down for six weeks.” Being deemed essential, their services reopened — but not their 56-seat dining room. The hot meals are now served outside in to-go boxes.

 “We were actually several months into the planning to reopen. We were going to reopen [in early] September, but then the Delta virus got out of control. And you can’t tell who is vaccinated and who isn’t, and you can’t eat and wear a mask at the same time. So, it’s been postponed indefinitely,” Harden says. “We do not want anybody getting ill on our watch, but we are eternally optimistic that we’ll be able to open our doors again sooner than later.”  

 Eight years after he was “loaned” to them, Harden, 64, will retire from Emmaus House in February. He calls his years there helping people an “amazing adventure.”

 “I’m semi-retiring,” he emphasizes. “I’m a workaholic. I like to do yard work, and I’m still also a part-time employee with Barnes Catering.”

 But the highest priority of Harden’s semi-retirement?

 “I’m going to find someone’s grandkids or first-graders and get them to teach me the computer,” he shares with delight. Harden is not so much interested in social media, but “the basics of survival.” He realized the importance of this knowledge when he learned that Emmaus House volunteers all must register online.

 “What if John Wayne Harden wanted to volunteer at Emmaus House?” he muses. “I would have to go online.” 

Sounds like Emmaus House might have found their newest volunteer.