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Scars and Healing

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Franklin was packing up his stuff to leave. “Well, I’m getting ready to swing on out,” he said in his usual cheerful way. But then he added something: “Hey, would you all pray for me before I go?”

It was kind of a shock; in a year and a half of working with Emmaus, I’d never heard Franklin ask for prayer.

We each prayed for him, as we often do. Franklin opened up at the end: “Lord, I know that the devil is trying to tell me a lot of lies right now and I know I need to hold on to your truth. Please give me the strength to hold on to you.”

He finished with tears at the corners of his eyes. “Thank you for praying for me. There’s so much that I’m doing that I need to stop doing. It seems like every time I’m on the right track, the devil tugs me away to something that I’ve got no business doing. Keep on praying for me.”

Sometimes the Lord uses small moments like these to open my eyes to his compassion for the men we serve. Franklin asking for prayer flummoxed me in the best possible way. When we’ve offered to pray for him in the past, sometimes he’s reluctantly agreed and at other times he’s bitterly refused. But I had never heard him ask for prayer, acknowledging to himself and to others how deep his need is for the Lord.

How often do I do that? How often do I put my pride down and ask others for help, admitting that God alone can give me what I need: the strength and wisdom to walk with him?

I find myself coming to a place of realization that we are, each of us, in recovery. The men at Emmaus have a lot to teach us, because they know through years on the streets, trapped in survival prostitution, that they do not have it all together. While many of us, including me, find ourselves doing image management—presenting our best side to the people we know and even to God—these men are acutely aware of their scars, on the outside and within. This awareness and vulnerability are the starting place for each of our journeys forward, where healing from the wreckage of the past can begin.

Like Franklin, can we come this way before a God who loves us, scars and all? He will heal us. But do we dare believe it?

Something Unexpected

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“You know what’s cool? When God speaks to you in unexpected ways.”

While sipping his coffee at the Center, Franklin reflected on something strange that happened to him recently.

“I had just bought drugs and was about to take them in an alley. Out of nowhere a woman came up to me and said, ‘Jesus loves YOU! He has a plan for your life!’ She repeated herself, like, five times. It’s true, though. In that moment of darkness, God showed up and encouraged me to stop using drugs.”

Hours later, José wanted to share a cool story.

“Just today, I took a little shortcut to the Center down an alley. All of a sudden, a man came out from behind a garbage can. He kept repeating ‘Jesus loves you!’ over and over again. It was weird! …But Jesus DOES love me!”

I’m a girl who always asks questions, but these are among the few times that I didn’t have any. All I could do was stand in awe of God and His amazing provision for our men. The whys and the hows faded away.

The truth that these strangers shared with our men was so simple, yet powerful. Jesus loves Franklin and José! He also loves you! And me! He loves the whole world! And He has a great plan for our lives! That is something to celebrate!

Prodigals on the Way to Emmaus

good-choice-bad-choice-500x298“Make good decisions!”

These words used to echo through my middle school as the vice principal finished up the morning announcements on the PA system. Later, a friend in college repeated them jokingly as we all dispersed after a Friday night hangout on our tame Christian campus. Now these are the words I say to Victor every time he leaves the Ministry Center. Sometimes he heeds them; other times he doesn’t.

Easter and the Lenten season have long passed. I had all these grandiose ideas of what I was going to do during Lent to draw nearer to God: read through The Confessions of St Augustine, spend more time in scripture and prayer, write a couple of new songs, etc.

I didn’t succeed in any of those things.

Lately I’ve been letting laziness take over and influence the decisions I make. Instead of drawing nearer to God, I’ve wandered farther away. This has made me realize that, just like Victor and many of our men here at Emmaus, I have the ability to intentionally make poor choices. At my core, I’m just a prodigal son walking alongside all the other prodigals.

But that’s what Emmaus is. Prodigals walking with prodigals. As we journey this path together, those of us at Emmaus are never the ones in the place of Christ as he meets the disciples on the road. Only Christ is. And just as he kindles a gradual fire in the hearts of our men, so he does in us.

Working at Emmaus is convicting. The more time I spend around the men, the clearer I see my own failures and sin. I may have made some healthier choices in my life than Victor has, but that doesn’t put me above him. Instead, I accompany him through his mess even as I work through mine, with Christ in the middle of it all to meet us where we’re at on this road.

A Different Lens

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“Do you care if I hang out with you tonight?” asked Steven.

A Chicago native in his early twenties, Steven has become a tourist of sorts. He’s started visiting different bars in unfamiliar neighborhoods to experience new cultures. Heather and I, sipping our fresh cups of tea outside the Circle K gas station, were the first people he met in Boystown.

After we exchanged names, Heather and I explained that we were working, and that our job is to talk to people in need in parking lots and street corners. Steven was intrigued, and asked if he could stick with us for the night.

We soon ran into Patricia; we chatted with her a bit and offered to buy her food. About an hour later, we got an update from John on the book he is writing about his life. Later, Chris spoke with us about Easter. Then Jevon asked both Heather and me to be his girlfriend. We said yes! (Just kidding, Mom.)

We also met a young man named Art who, on this chilly evening, only had a t-shirt on. Art’s partner had recently broken up with him. He told us that he had recently had a mild stroke, but did not go to the hospital. When we asked why, he explained that he did not want to live. All he was living for was to find another cigarette.

Heather and I did what we could. We listened to Art and prayed for him. We gave him a map to the Center and encouraged him to come.

Near the end of the night, as we often do, Heather and I sat down at a stoop and processed the night’s events. Steven came with us.

“I never stop to talk to these people,” he said. “I tend to ignore them. But being out here with you was cool. I saw everyone through a different lens. I heard their stories and saw that you care for them.”

Steven saw Heather a few days later and told her that that evening had been life-changing.

Emmaus can do that to you. I’ve been here less than a year and can already see that I have been changed by this experience. This has been a year of healing, mercy, community, and God’s provision.

While I am thankful for the ways God has shaped my life this year, it was a blessing to be reminded of the impact of our work on people like Steven. He may not know it, but he saw Boystown through the eyes of Jesus and was changed because of that experience.

Seeing Through God’s Eyes

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I get songs stuck in my head very easily. I almost always have a tune and lyrics running through my mind.

This night on Outreach is no different. My partner is tired and conversation has died out as we head up to the ‘L’ station, our last stop for the night. We have to walk a long stretch of Halsted before we turn onto Belmont. Praise choruses aren’t always my favorite things, but as we hike along, I really like the one thrumming around in my head.

“There is hope in the promise of the cross.
You gave everything to save the world you love.
And this hope is an anchor for my soul…”

At first, I’m just stepping in time with the beat as we walk block after block. But then we pass a bar with a group of drag queens standing out front smoking, and abruptly I realize the simple truth of the lyrics humming through my mind.

“You gave everything to save the world you love.”…Wait a second. THIS is the world that you love, God?

Farther down the street, we pass some rowdy twenty-somethings who have had too much to drink. Then there’s a group of drug dealers crowded around a doorway, and a man urinating against a brick wall. A homeless guy out panhandling—one hand outstretched, the other cradling a bottle of vodka inside the flap of his coat. More drag queens, druggies, drunk people…the usual crowd.

God, seriously? This? You gave everything for THIS?

Yes, he did. And it’s ridiculous.

A holy God, pure and without sin, steps down into our filthy world. He should be disgusted by what he sees; instead, he gazes with compassion on the beggars, swindlers, addicts…and he decides that they’re worth his own life.

“In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:10).

If the world I see in Boystown is worth everything to Christ, then it’s also a world worth seeing through God’s eyes.

Breathe

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I’ve never tried scuba diving. Friends who do it say i would enjoy it, but the opportunity has never come up, and, you know – sharks.

But lately an image of scuba diving keeps pressing on me. Because of staff cuts, most of us at Emmaus are managing multiple roles. Two of my three current jobs here make me spend a lot of time in areas i’m either weak in or unqualified for. My to-do lists grow longer every day. I’ve completely missed one or two meetings. I’m training volunteers, which feels absurd to me. Emmaus is short on cash again. The city is breathing down our backs over permits. A few days ago, during a torrential rain, i walked into our boiler room to find water pouring down the wall over the back door. It’s overwhelming and frustrating and exhausting.

All of this sits on top of normal Emmaus feelings. Watching brothers i love kill themselves with shocking efficiency and self-awareness. Sitting with them on yet another rainy Wednesday night because they shouldn’t be alone, but unable to change anything, to really do anything.

I don’t want to be a whiner. I know plenty of people who are struggling far more than me. But i am in over my head. It feels like this ocean is pressing in around me, threatening to crush me. This has always been my reality, but current circumstances force me to open my eyes. I can’t survive here on my own. I need this tank, regulator, Holy Spirit, Jesus.

My one job: breathe.

The analogy goes on. It’s beautiful here. There are things i would never get to experience if i weren’t doing this work. And there are certainly ways i am growing. No one really grows when they’re comfortable.

I keep thinking of 2 Corinthians 12:9. “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Too much of my life is lived with an illusion of self-control. But when circumstances unmask that illusion, when i stop taking credit for “my” work, i can witness that perfect power, the beauty of God’s work around me. I get to participate in that work – to live and work within that power.

I just have to remember to breathe.

Stuck Like Glue

annettes_diner-_tableI’m sitting in a diner on the outskirts of Chicago’s south suburbs. Al and I made the 45-minute drive to visit “Gary,” who is in the booth across from me. He has a warm smile that carries a hint of mischief, but right now he is dead serious.

“I guess my biggest question is …does God really forgive me every time I ask, even when I don’t feel sorry?” Gary’s voice is anxious, his brown eyes questioning, and in that moment I can almost see Jesus plopping into the booth next to him, smiling, and saying, “My son, you are not far from the Kingdom of God.”

Gary is a new believer, and his history with Emmaus is long. Al would tell me later that Gary always seemed too kind to be a street hustler, yet he spent years selling his body to support his drug habit. The scars on Gary’s forearms tell of years of heroin usage, a habit that he recently quit cold turkey.

In his years of friendship with the staff of Emmaus, Gary heard much about Christ’s love. But he never believed in it.

A few years ago, Gary moved to Texas for rehab, then ended up in Indiana with his mom. Unfortunately, his mom is also using and, while living with her, he relapsed. Then, a few months ago, while high, Gary had a strange experience in which he met Jesus. He suddenly no longer felt high, and he realized that his whole life had to change. Through social media, Al found out about this experience, and he and Andi were able to visit with Gary. Soon thereafter, he moved back to Chicago, and I got to go along with Al on yet another Gary visit.

And so here we sit in the booth of a quiet diner – me, Al, Gary, and Jesus. As I listen to Gary and Al talk about forgiveness, video games, and funny stories from before my time at Emmaus, it occurs to me that what I now see is what we hope for every man who walks through the door of Emmaus: a broken and contrite heart leading to genuine faith and true life change.

The men at Emmaus can leave you dizzy: soaring joy one moment, crushing disappointment the next. But when you glimpse the end result of sticking with them, it’s all worth it.

Of course, our “sticking with” isn’t what rescued Gary – that’s all on Christ. But because Emmaus stuck with him through his highs and lows, we get to be here to celebrate his new life in Christ, to watch him grow, and to grow in our own faith because of him.

Food and Friendship

“I’m just so lonely!” Craig blurpancake-smileted out as he approached Andrew and me. We were on Outreach on a chilly Sunday evening.

You try not to pick favorites, but Craig has endeared himself to me. Whenever he sees me, he screams “MARY!” and scurries over to give me a hug. He towers over my six-foot frame, but is childlike in his demeanor.

Craig’s loneliness is a frequent conversation topic. That night he said, “All my friends do drugs, and I know it’s bad for me to be around them. I know I should not be out here, but I knew you all would be here and I wanted to hang out with you.”

The next day at the Ministry Center we cooked a meal that included ham and macaroni and cheese. During lunch, I invited Craig to join Andrew and me at a diner during our Outreach shift that night. His face lit up as he agreed.

When we got to our meeting spot, Craig was there, grinning and shouting our names. We entered the diner, chose a booth, took off our layers, and settled in for midnight pancakes, coffee, and conversation.

“What’s your dream?” I asked Craig. “If you could have any job and live in any location in the world, what would it be?”

“I want to be a CTA bus driver in Chicago!” he declared.

Craig talked about his aspirations and his love of driving. Andrew and I shared funny moments from our day. While we were eating and chatting and tossing back late-night coffee, Craig forgot that he would soon call a train seat a bed.

For me, it was just like hanging out with any friends of mine. It was almost a revelation to me later that Craig does have friends who don’t use. He has Andrew. He has me. He has other staff members and volunteers at Emmaus.

Jesus met people where they were, developed friendships, invited them to His table, and saw lives changed. We meet our guys where they are, develop friendships, invite them to share a meal, show them the love of Jesus and, little by little, start to see lives changed.

In my work with Emmaus, sometimes I’m a cook. Other times, I’m a counselor. But my favorite role is being a friend.

The Path through the Pain

tears_of_sadnessI was cooking in the Ministry Center when Emilio burst into the room and snatched his belongings out of the cupboard. “This place is no damn different,” he muttered under his breath. As I reminded him to respect the space (the men agree not to swear in the MC), he exclaimed “I’m gone!” and strode out the door.

Back out on the streets these days, Emilio has been using up the money in his bank account for drugs to escape and to quench his anger. My coworker Andrew had just tried to explain to him that he (Andrew) couldn’t do what Emilio had requested—in this case, contact Emilio’s mom about the debit card she was holding for him. Emilio’s anger choked off all our attempts to reason with him.

Many times at Emmaus, we’re called to love the guys in the ways they need, not necessarily in the ways they ask. It’s difficult, and there’s always a work of discernment in understanding, from knowing their story and situation, what’s most likely to give them a foundation for moving forward.

Emilio reminds me of the title character in the film Good Will Hunting. Will is gifted with a remarkable intellect. He is able to solve a complex theorem that has the students at MIT—where he works as a custodian—scratching their heads. But past abuse haunts him, giving him an uncontrollable anger: a defense mechanism in the harsh street culture of South Boston. He lands himself in jail, losing his job before he is discovered by a math professor who takes him under his wing. As he slowly opens up through the help of a therapist, it becomes clear that past abusive treatment by his foster father is undermining not only his most important relationships, but also his ability to accept and use his gifts.

Like Will Hunting, Emilio’s anger has deep roots in a hard past. It derails his attempts to move forward, even at Emmaus, which is a safe place to grapple with the past.

Sometimes the path forward is messy. We encounter the bitter fruits of a past filled with unimaginable abuse as we point the men towards Christ. But this is the Christ who took on terrible pain and humiliation, and triumphed over the powers of Satan in His cross. With our pain-accepting God, we walk through the hurt, in the hope that by His wounds our guys might be made whole.

The Nasty Things We Step In

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I turn onto Halsted Street and immediately sidestep a chunky puddle of someone’s stomach contents. Half a block down, as we pass two men talking, one of them leans out to caution, “Careful of your step, babe.” I glance down in time to avoid a stream of what seems like urine running across the sidewalk.

A couple of minutes later, we reach the 7-Eleven parking lot, littered with the usual cigarette butts, puddles of unknowns liquids, trash and, yes, more urine running down from where some guy just peed on the brick wall.

We step in a lot of nasty things on Outreach. Thankfully, we wear shoes to keep the filth from touching our feet. But what if that wasn’t the case? What if we walked around the Boystown neighborhood barefoot?

I don’t know how many times I’ve read the passage about Jesus washing the disciples’ feet in John 13 and understood it only as a command to serve others as Christ did. But recently I’ve been challenged to read this passage from the receiving end, not just the giving end. What is Jesus teaching us here?

In first century Jewish culture, foot washing was a task for the lowest of the low. Everyone walked everywhere and, with sandals on, the stuff that collected on their feet was not unlike the stuff I try to avoid on Outreach. And yet, Jesus knelt down to scrub the filth off the feet of these men. Men like Judas, who would betray him, and Peter, who would deny him.

Knowing full well who he was (the King of kings and Lord of lords) and that these men would flee in terror the moment he was arrested, Jesus STILL washed their feet. He didn’t run from their filth, but waded right into it.

I think of myself and the gunk Jesus would have to scrub off my feet if I walked around Boystown barefoot, and I’m ashamed. I’m ashamed of the filth I carry, inside and out. God forbid that the King of kings and Lord of lords should bow down and wash me clean!

Yet that’s exactly what he does. That’s how great his love is. He doesn’t run from the mess. All the urine, all the puke, and whatever grime I am holding in my heart…it’s not enough to deter God’s love. He comes into the mess, whether I want him to or not.

Heather has noticed that “God of the mess” seems to be a theme in her life since coming to Emmaus. To read more of her reflections along these lines, go to this blog post.

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To provide Christ-centered support to men seeking to escape survival prostitution and embrace a life of health and wholeness.

 

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