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The Vine & the Branches

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I love being part of Emmaus, but what we do is hard.

We’re only a handful of weeks in, but this new year has had a rough start. A couple of the men have lost their housing and are back on the street. One of the guys tried to throw himself under a car and ended up in the hospital. Another had a free ticket to rehab and decided not to take it.

In the midst of all of this it’s easy to get discouraged. Our work with the men here sometimes feels like three steps forward and two and a half steps back, and I often feel completely powerless to do anything to help them.

Oh wait. Maybe that’s because I am.

The thing about Emmaus, or any ministry really, is that it doesn’t depend on us. In John 15, Jesus says, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.”

It isn’t just things with the guys that have made life at Emmaus hard lately. Staffing changes in the past six months have left us all stretched a little thinner than before, and right now we’re all feeling our weakness. There’s a lot to do and fewer of us to do it all; you should know that the staff here is absolutely incredible to keep things going as they have.

But even with a team like us, we’re still not enough. It takes the whole Church. God didn’t create us to go it alone; every branch on the vine is a necessary part of the whole plant. We need others, too. We need you—the people who pray for us, read our blog posts, and support us. Together we’re the Church, and we’re all bound to each other by the body and blood of Christ.

It takes Jesus. Every branch only finds its place in the vine; without him, there’s no reason for Emmaus to exist. He’s the one who changes the men. He’s the one who rescues. Emmaus is only one small twig.

We can’t do this on our own, and thanks be to God that we’ll never have to! Thank you for being in this with us.

Men in Capes

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Sometimes working with Emmaus can get heavy. We often hear heartbreaking stories from our men. We spend time with guys who are on the streets, doing what they can to survive in desperate circumstances.

But sometimes we meet a man in a cape.

Andrew and I were sitting on a guardrail on Outreach when we spied a man in a cape across the street. We simply looked at each other and laughed. Over the next hour or so, we did our normal stuff: we hung out with Sylvester, danced around the parking lot with him, and walked to another gas station to grab our caffeines and snacks and sit on the curb.

Suddenly, the mysterious man in a cape approached. “Hello, Emmaus people!” he bellowed. “Meet my troubled entourage,” he continued, as he directed our attention to his two companions.

Gesturing toward a young man who clearly had a cold, Cape Man proclaimed, “He’s fighting death!” He turned to the young lady: “And she’s tired! And me, I’m just bored!”

We chatted and admired his black velvet cape with a skull border for a few minutes. Cape Man never mentioned his companions by name, and never explained how he knew Emmaus. Then he abruptly left.

Sometimes I sit back and laugh that this is my life. Two nights a week, in all kinds of weather, I hang out with people on the streets. I see, smell, and hear things that no girl from small-town Missouri expects to experience. I get to know people that the world ignores.

Jesus—the ultimate superhero—spent time with the homeless, the outcasts, the people hated by society. And he loved them. Normal people thought he was crazy for the ways he ministered to others. But his life was an example to us.

Some nights I go home and laugh and pray that in the weirdness, I will be reminded of this gift that I have been given: to serve our men. And when a mysterious man in a cape wants to talk, I remember Jesus’ service to outcasts. What a gift we have!

“Does anyone know how to break into a car?!?”

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Prior to moving to Ohio over seven years ago, my family and I lived in a condo that shared the parking lot with the building that housed Emmaus Ministries.

One summer day, I had just returned from taking my two young children with me on an errand. The baby, Daniel, had fallen asleep on the way home. I decided to let him sleep a few extra minutes while I got my toddler, Jonathan, into the house. When I returned to get Daniel I realized, to my horror, that I had locked my keys in the car.

And it was hot. Sweltering.

The last of the air-conditioned coolness had dissipated and little Daniel slept on as the moist heat began to dampen his soft baby hair. A bead of sweat trickled past his ear. I had to get him out of there immediately.

I suddenly realized that my little community of people across the parking lot might be able to help me. I sprinted across the parking lot and burst into the Emmaus Ministry Center.

“Does anyone know how to break into a car?!?”

Several hands shot up and one guy stood and said, “Oh, I’ll help you, Carolyn. It’s easy.”

He grabbed a coat hanger and began straightening it as we speed-walked to the mini-van.

He put both hands on the passenger-side window and shimmied it down a fraction of an inch.

“See, you don’t really need that much” he instructed as I watched. “Just a crack so you can get the wire through.”

A tiny space appeared at the top of the window and my friend slipped the straightened-out hanger into the crack, then straight town to punch the unlock button.

“OH, THANK YOU!” I said, opening the door and retrieving the sweaty, startled-awake five-month-old.

My Emmaus savior assured me it was no problem. “Anytime,” he said, and sauntered back to the Ministry Center, tossing the wire in the dumpster

Emmaus is about moving from old, bad habits, to new, healthy, Christ-centered ones.

But I’m still grateful to God for the day I was rescued by a friend who knew how to break into a car.

(Go here to read another car-door-unlocking story.)

Children of Light in Dark Places

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Back in October, I was doing Outreach with Sean and Sill on the South Side. We sat on our usual park bench with a bag of candy, pretzels, and granola bars, enjoying the fall breeze. A man was about to walk right past us when he changed course abruptly. “Oooh! I feel the presence of God coming off that bench!” he exclaimed as he approached.

He stopped only briefly, not even sharing his name, to chat about the weather and the Cubs’ amazing season, grabbing a little candy as he did. “I’ll catch you later,” he said after a minute or two, “but I want you to know: you guys do amazing work, ‘cause there’s a lot of darkness out here. No one’s out here doing what you do. So God bless you guys!” He beamed as walked away.

That’s not the first time I’ve heard that. Sometimes our Outreach teams are called a beacon of hope, or a light, or people who have the presence of God radiating out from us. In the literally (for our night-time Outreach) and spiritually dark places where we reach out, we are often the only people without ulterior motives that the guys encounter. We listen without judgment, sharing the Lord’s love as He gives us the opportunity.

This past Christmas season reminded me of the darkness of the world that Christ stepped into as Emmanuel, God-with-us. Matthew quotes the prophet Isaiah: “the people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death, a light has dawned” (Matthew 4:16). Jesus came during a time of great darkness, when oppression, persecution, and death at the hands of the rulers were unsurprising, even expected. And still he chose to enter our world, vulnerable as any of us, to be “the true light that gives light to everyone” (John 1:9).

As he was, so each of us is called to be light in a dark world, a living reminder that the Kingdom is coming, that “the night is nearly over; the day is almost here” (Romans 13: 12). Let us imitate Christ in this way, as he proclaims through his coming the dawn of a day when all things are made new.

A Great Adventure or a Terrifying Experience

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This piece was originally written for a March 2014 Emmaus publication.

There are so many things that you can only experience on Outreach. One night I saw a guy juggling fire to the left of me while another guy came up on my right and tried to sell me meat out of a TJ Maxx shopping cart. I have had snowball fights with drug dealers. My beard has frozen solid more than once. On two separate occasions, I have seen someone who was thought for years to be dead, walking around all casual-like. I have seen some crazy stuff, and I count it all as blessings.

The craziest thing I experience happens every night. I see white, middle-class, suburban, nineteen-year-old Moody Bible Institute students talking to drug-addicted, prostituting, homeless ex-cons like they grew up together. Discussing video games, food, books, and TV shows. Laughing so hard that they spit out their coffee. Encouraging each other. Praying for each other.

These moments are the biggest reason that I keep going out, night after night.

Over the years, I have found that when I tell people about volunteering with Emmaus, they think it sounds like either a great adventure or a terrifying experience. If you fall into the “great adventure” category and you have one night a week to spare, let us know. We may have a spot for you out on the streets, where you, too, can buy unrefrigerated meat out of a shopping cart.

The Little Things of Fall Outreach

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We bundle up and watch as the crowded streets become sparser, with the temperature dropping fast. Outreach is getting colder, and contacts’ requests for snacks change from sodas and slushies to coffee and hot chocolate. It’s quieter now, and I like it that way. With fewer distractions, our conversations seem to grow longer. The men that are out now are out because they have to be.

Our outreach team spent over an hour listening to Adam rant (gleefully) about the Bears’ mishaps, and praise the success of his favorite sports teams. By the time we had exhausted our sports small talk, the mood was light and positive, and Adam was very open to answering questions. For some of our team it was the first time meeting him. We learned a lot about what he has been going through lately, and the strength he has shown to get through hardships and stay motivated. He misses his twin daughters, who he hasn’t seen in years because their mother didn’t want him around; and his dad died just a few weeks ago. His bipolar disorder is what usually gets him in trouble—when his “evil twin” comes out, the world becomes his enemy. He recently started seeing a psychiatrist and taking meds, both of which have been hard, but helpful.

We listened to Adam float between serious and light-hearted conversation, trying to encourage him as he travels over a particularly bumpy stretch in his life. In return, he blessed us with a night of laughter and wisdom gleaned from his experiences. We asked him how he keeps going; he just shrugged and said that he has God on his side. When we put him on the train he asked us to pray for him. We all huddled up and prayed for as much of his situation as we could remember. He smiled, and we all said our see-you-laters.

I know Chicago winter is crazy, but I love the cold. It brings out the worst… and the best in people. Such a simple night, but so many little blessings. I love the little things, and winter outreach is full of them. Looks like a long winter ahead, full of opportunities—sounds perfect!

Lessons on Locks

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Last week, Victor came to our Ministry Center. In the two or so months that I’ve been at Emmaus, he has endeared himself to me. We often see him on Outreach, and he usually says that he’ll come to the Center, then doesn’t. I was glad to see him.

On this day, he drove over in a friend’s borrowed car. A few minutes after arriving, he couldn’t find the car keys, and then realized he had locked them in the car. Victor was distressed.

Andrew, who was working with me that day, found a wire coat hanger somewhere in our building, and he, Victor, and I headed out to the car to see if we could get it unlocked.

None of us on staff here would succeed as car thieves. Andrew tried for several minutes to get the door unlocked, but the coat hanger just wasn’t doing the trick. Victor was getting more upset each moment, exclaiming, “Oh man, oh man, I don’t know what to do! How’m I gonna get outta this one? What are we gonna do?!?” His nerves were starting to get on mine. Taking a deep breath, I said, “Victor, you know what you need to do right now? You need to ask God for help.” (In hindsight, this is probably the first thing we should’ve done anyway.)

Victor groaned. “No—ohhh, seriously!?” Like many of us, he can be pretty stubborn when it comes to letting God work in his life.

“Seriously. Just say a short prayer. You might be surprised at what happens.”

Victor hesitated, then sighed. “Okay. Yeah, you’re right.” He looked off into space for a moment and then mumbled these words:

“God, help me.”

I could tell that he meant it from his heart.

Andrew readied himself for one more try with the coat hanger. A diesel engine suddenly roared behind us, and Andrew, Victor, and I turned back to see a tow truck pulling to a stop four feet away. It came out of nowhere.

The driver hopped out, wordlessly popped open the car door, and climbed back into his truck. It was over in a matter of seconds.

“I just saved you 65 bucks!” the driver called out the open truck window as he shifted into gear and drove away.

Andrew and I looked at each other and blinked. Victor’s mouth was open in astonishment. Andrew turned to him.

“Well, I’ve never seen prayer answered that quickly.”

It wasn’t just Victor who was pleasantly surprised at how God answered his prayer. I’ve resisted God many times, too stubborn to always believe that he works everything together for our good. But, lately I’ve been challenged to surrender certain areas of my life that I’ve “locked” God out of, and in this moment I was reminded that when we surrender, he does amazing things.

The guys aren’t the only ones at Emmaus that God teaches. It was a blessing to share this lesson on locks with Victor.

(Go here to read another car-door-unlocking story.)

The Surprising, Healing Love of Christ

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A few weeks ago, I learned that my grandfather had died unexpectedly in his sleep in his home in southwestern Virginia. A few hours after I got the news, I headed over to Emmaus’s Ministry Center for my shift. That afternoon was pretty heavy for me. Memories of my grandfather slipped into my mind unbidden, and I mourned a little bit more with every image or story that played itself out.

As I was preparing dinner in the Ministry Center—hamburgers that day—Greg came up to me. “I’m so sorry for your loss,” he said with the beginnings of tears playing at the corner of his eyes. He told me about how his mom had died within the past year and how that had rocked him to his core. He gave me a hug. “I may tease you all and give you a hard time, but I really love you guys.”

Later, as we were sitting down to dinner, Cliff prayed for the meal. “Oh, Lord, we pray for the Joel Brown family…” he began. He asked for the Lord’s mercy and grace on all of us as we mourned our loss.

I’m really glad I came into the Ministry Center that day, where I was ministered to rather than the one doing the ministering. I learned later that Heather, a fellow Kaio member, had led the guys in a time of prayer for me that morning. The Lord had used that time to give me the gift of Greg and Cliff’s words of comfort.

That day in the Ministry Center let me realize what a gift it is to get to do life with the men of Emmaus. Each of them has experienced very difficult situations and far more death than one person should have to endure. But somehow the Lord is working and shaping them, taking the broken pieces of their grief and pain and slowly but surely making something beautiful. With the comfort that they have received from the Lord, Greg and Cliff reached out to me and offered up that comfort. They shared with me a part of what Christ had ministered to them through Emmaus over the many years of meeting our staff and volunteers on the streets and in our drop-in center: the surprising, healing love of Christ. And that is truly beautiful.

The Noise Inside Your Head

mriThese past few weeks sure have been a doozey. A few weeks ago, I had the unfortunate experience of getting initiated into the “Hit by a Door on a Bike,” Club and my knee has been hurting ever since. My doctor order an MRI scan to figure out what’s going on inside my knee, and when I went to have the scan, they stuck me inside this little tube and told me not to move. Fortunately, though, I got to pick out some music to listen to while I had the 30-minute test. I settled in and prepared to lie there and listen to some tunes. But instead of music, I was startled to hear:

MRAAAAHHHHHWAHHHWAHHHWAHHHWAHHH CHUG CHUG CHUG CHUG CHUG

Then silence, with only the faint sound of Gabrielle Aplin playing in the background. “Maybe that was just the beginning part, and now it will be relaxing,” I hoped. Just as I was being lulled by the dulcet tones, once again I heard:

MRAAAAHHHHHWAHHHWAHHHWAHHHWAHHH CHUG CHUG CHUG CHUG CHUG

MRAAAAHHHHHWAHHHWAHHHWAHHHWAHHH CHUG CHUG CHUG CHUG CHUG

The noise did not stop for 30 minutes. If you know me at all, you know that I deplore loud noises. I couldn’t think about anything else while I was in there because the noise was so overwhelming. But while I was lying there on that cold, hard bed, my head spinning, I realized that perhaps this was something like what people felt when they were in the midst of an addiction.

When you are in the middle of an addiction, your brain has been hijacked. There is nothing else that is even remotely as important as getting that next fix. Everything else is drowned out by the overwhelming noise in your brain that says, “Do whatever you need to do to get that next high.” Is it really any wonder that it is difficult to talk to people who are struggling with something like that?

I have had my own struggles in the past and to some extent, I can understand what it’s like to feel that all-encompassing desire to pursue something that will, in the end, destroy you. For me, it was so important to have people who cared about me be a consistent presence in my life. At first, it was more like the music in the background, something that I could only hear in those small and infrequent quiet moments in my life. However, as time moved on, I began to hear them more clearly above the noise and finally, Jesus spoke. His voice wasn’t loud, but it cut through the clamor like nothing else had before.

As I work with the men at Emmaus, I truly hope that my presence and that of all the Emmaus staff can be the quiet music that eventually heralds in the voice of Jesus. Please join me in praying that His voice cuts through the cycle of destruction and leads the men to the path that brings eternal life.

Vegas

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Having just moved to Chicago a couple of months ago, I never expected one of my biggest lessons so far to be about Vegas. But it’s surprising sometimes how God works.

Outreach in Boystown has become a place where I expect God to work. One night in early September was no exception. I was walking the streets with Andrew, a fellow Kaio member. Each block we walked we would smell a combination of cigarettes, beer, and pot. One co-worker explained Boystown as an exploitation of sex every place you look. It’s not a place I would go for fun.

That’s why running into Victor surprised me that night. He had been coming to the Ministry Center frequently and seemed to be making progress, but that night we ran into him right in the middle of Boystown. He was in the center of temptations of sins that he had been trying to escape.

Our conversation was short. He apologized for being there. We encouraged him to go home. But before he left, he gave me a little treasure with his response to my last question.

“Hey Victor, why are you out here tonight?” I asked.

“It’s my Vegas. The people, the excitement, the buzz. This is where it’s at,” was his reply.

Suddenly, so much started to make sense. Boystown is Victor’s Vegas. It’s the place where all of his temptations are staring him in the face. He has access to them. He knows it’s wrong but still runs to his temptations.

But don’t we all have our Vegases? We all have places and things in which our temptations are easily accessible. In our weak moments, we run right up to the edge of our temptations because the closeness of temptation can be thrilling.

That night, the Holy Spirit used that little interaction to point out “Vegas moments” in my own life. When I walk those streets now, I’m often humbled and reminded of that conversation with Victor. The Holy Spirit did work in Boystown that night, but it was in me.

My “Vegas” may not be Boystown, but I could see similarities in how Victor and I react to our temptations to sin. The more I’m around our guys, the more I see how similar we really are. Our temptations may be different, but we are all broken people who can only be healed by the blood of Jesus Christ.

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