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Jesus in Disguise

As a Franciscan friar, I often hear the story of St. Francis and the leper—a pivotal event in Francis of Assisi’s life. The saint recounts in his own last testament how, as a young man, he was physically repulsed by the residents of a leper colony near his town in central Italy. One day, however, by God’s grace, he overcame his revulsion and embraced one of the lepers, kissed him, and washed his hands and feet. After doing so, the leper disappeared, and Francis realized that the shunned outcast was actually Jesus Christ in disguise.

The episode marks St. Francis’s conversion and the beginning of the radical life of joyful poverty for which he is now famous.

Anyone familiar with the work of Emmaus knows that, in many ways, men involved in prostitution are the lepers of our own day, the “outcast among the overlooked.” They are often met with fear, misunderstanding, and condescension. Men, conventional wisdom says, should be able to fend for themselves. Yet, as I discovered while living and working at Emmaus as a member of the Kaio community from 2007 to 2009, Jesus Christ lives in and among these men just as he did among the lepers of 13th-century Assisi.

I found Jesus in Dominick, who was still able to laugh and joke with Outreach volunteers while working a street corner in subzero weather at 2 a.m. with nothing but a thin windbreaker to shield him from the cold. I found Him in Dante who, having escaped the snares of prostitution, was eager to volunteer at the Ministry Center to help those who were still entangled in the life. I found him in Conner, a rambunctious teenager who shocked me when he sat, silent and enraptured, through an hour-long presentation of St. John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body” at Holy Name Cathedral. And I found him in Mark who, despite a history of sexual abuse and a lifetime of ill health, always prayed with a rawness that inspired me.

Ten years later, I still carry these men, living and deceased, in my heart and prayers. Through them I learned the great paradox of ministry: what one gives, he receives back a hundredfold. At Emmaus, I awoke every morning filled with a tremendous sense of gratitude and excitement for the work ahead. What greater job could one have than to spend the day (or night!) with Jesus and his brothers?

It is largely to them, and to the staff at Emmaus, that I owe my vocation as a Franciscan friar. My desire to live a life consecrated to God in the footsteps of the Little Poor Man of Assisi was born and nurtured among the poor men of Emmaus, who are often so rich in the things that matter most.

For that, and to them, I am eternally grateful.

That They May Be One

In March, Emmaus hosted a missions team from Franciscan University of Steubenville, a Catholic college in Ohio. After lunch one day, Abbey (one of the “Steubs”) and I ended up talking about the veneration of the saints.

“I’m not sure if you know, but we don’t worship saints,” she said, anticipating a common Protestant misconception. She explained that when Catholics venerate the saints, they do so to honor—not worship—them, seeking out those who knew Christ with a special intimacy. As signposts of God’s grace, the saints guide believers in their walk of faith. We can ask them to intercede for us as we grow into deeper communion with our Lord.

It reminded me of something that my Jesuit spiritual director said last fall, just after my grandpa passed away. He asked me if I had an understanding of Christians who have passed away accompanying us in our sorrow, witnessing to the comfort Christ shared with them in their own journeys of grief. I’d never heard that idea before, but it struck me as truly comforting to remember the communion of believers who have walked the path of grief before, and walked it with Jesus.

Later on that week, Heather and I were talking with Mike, a Steubenville student who’d forgone the morning’s outing in order to clean up after breakfast.

“Do you want to pray the Office?” he offered. (The Divine Office is also known as the Liturgy of the Hours.)

We’d be glad to, we told him. As we prayed through the psalms and the collect of the day, we fumbled a bit. Mike had to let us know what to say, when to repeat certain phrases, and where to pause. Toward the end of the time, we started to get the hang of it, stumbling and mumbling a little less.

It struck me later that serving together as an ecumenical ministry begins with these awkward steps. We acknowledge our differences, but in them we discover a common pursuit of God’s beauty and shared longing to cultivate the fruits of his love in our lives.

When we openly recognize what makes us distinct—the ways we think and act and worship differently—we can also discern together the bonds of Christ’s unifying love.

I’ve been grateful that this work of coming together to discern gifts we offer to the whole Body of Christ is in the DNA of Emmaus. We share these gifts as we eat together in the Ministry Center or spend time on the streets with our guys, witnessing to the unifying work that Christ will bring to completion when we join him in his Father’s house.

I hope and pray for more of these spaces, where we can minister together as a united Body, acknowledging our shortcomings, the strengths that others bring, and the overwhelming power of God to bring together what we too often are quick to tear apart.

Keep Paddling

We were stuck. My family and I had been on the river for an exhausting two hours already. Some places had a gentle current; other sections felt like a water park ride. Now our raft, fully exposed to the wind, was going backwards!

Thankfully, my brother-in-law is a beast. He found a reserve of energy and paddled us through the unmoving water.

Not long after that, we came to a very shallow part of the river. The adults got out to lighten the load, and I stepped on something that cut deep into my foot; I was useless for the rest of the trip.

When the beach finally came in sight, everyone cheered! We had made it, surviving all that the flowing water had to offer, plus an injury. And we did it as a team.

While I was on vacation, I was unexpectedly reminded of the constantly changing water of our men’s lives. For a year now, the guys have welcomed me onto their boat.

Craig has gone through so much this year. Sometimes he’s paddled, strong and certain, through clear water. Sometimes the winds of circumstance have pushed him back, and he had to dig in. Some days he found himself among the reeds, and had to back out and make a course change.

There have been times when I also have had no clue how to navigate the uncharted waters of Emmaus. I have felt weak, and inadequate. And Craig, with a big smile, has nudged me and encouraged me to keep paddling.

I had a conversation with Craig recently in which he expressed frustration with figuring out the truth about Jesus. I and other volunteers encouraged him to truly seek Jesus. We reassured him that the Lord will be found. Craig stayed in the boat.

Sometimes Craig and I have both been weak and unable to move forward. But then we realized that someone more powerful than us was in the boat. Jesus navigated and powered us through the unmoving waters in His time.

As I approached the end of this year of voluntary service, it became clear to me that the beach that was in sight was not my final destination. These relationships are too precious for me to let go of after this short time. And it has become obvious that God has more to teach me.

I’m still cheering about what we have accomplished, but I’m staying in the boat with Craig, the rest of the men, and Jesus. I’m looking forward to the bends and tributaries of year two.

A Whisper from the Other Side of the World

A Whisper from the Other Side of the World

 

The struggle is real. I sigh to myself and grit my teeth as I shuffle along the sidewalk on Outreach.

I’m buried in struggles right now. I’m wrestling with the dichotomy between God’s faithfulness and my lack thereof. I’m fighting weariness as I go through the routines of being part of Emmaus each day—I’ve been here long enough that some things are starting to feel old. And I’m trying to fend off the guilt I feel every time I think about how small my struggles are compared to the ones our men have: they face daily difficulties of finding a meal or a dry place to sit when it’s pouring down rain.

We all know that life isn’t easy, especially when you’re following Christ. But is it supposed to be this hard? Does everyone else struggle this much?

By the time I reach the 7-Eleven parking lot, my thoughts are swirling. God, why is it so hard for me to stay passionate? Why am I so quick to forget you? I’m tired of these struggles and I’m really tired of feeling so self-centered!

I’m in a tailspin when, out of nowhere, a feeling of contentment comes over me. It doesn’t make sense, but suddenly I feel like it’s okay to struggle. It’s okay to feel tired. I’ll work through the struggles, and they’ll produce fruit in time. Meanwhile, God is in it, with me.

It feels like a wall has been knocked down in my heart. I breathe a sigh of relief as this sudden peace floods through me, but I wonder…how did my thoughts switch gears so abruptly?

Then I remember. Earlier that day, I was Skyping with a friend who lives overseas. I had confided in her about my struggles, and she had promised to pray for me. I pull out my phone and check the time: it’s near 9:00 am where she lives, so she’s been awake for a couple of hours.

Lauren is praying for me! The thought flits through my mind, and a quick text message to her confirms it. Her prayers must be the reason for my sudden peace.

For the rest of the night, this peace stays with me, and I find myself wondering anew at the power of prayer. In the ears of God, a small whisper from the other side of the world is able to transform the chaos in my mind.

Yes. Our struggles are real. But so is the power of prayer.

 

 

Birthday Ruminations


On a recent Wednesday, “Cliff” came to the Ministry Center. It had been almost five months since he’d been by, and we had heard that he had just been briefly hospitalized after a fall, so we were relieved to see him.

“You know,” Cliff said, “I was filling out a form this morning when I suddenly realized it’s my birthday! I just didn’t think about it until I had to write down the date. It’s my 50th!”

We all congratulated Cliff and wished him a happy birthday. The occasion was announced and re-announced throughout the day, and Cliff was congratulated over and over again.

Over lunch, i asked Cliff to reflect on his fifty years. My first question to him was “What is the greatest change you’ve seen in your lifetime?” After a couple of queries, it was clear that all of Cliff’s responses were going to take the same form: “That’s a really good question, and I have an answer for you,” he would say, then immediately answer.

When i asked Cliff when he has felt like he was at his best, he didn’t hesitate. “Great question! I have an answer for you. I would have to say I’ve been my best when I have been of use. When I have been helpful to someone.”

There were nods of agreement around the table. Several of the other men talked about times when they have been helpful. Whether it was through a job, helping a neighbor, or volunteering at the Endurance Ride, helping people was clearly a source of satisfaction and self-esteem.

There is a bunch of research that shows that altruistic behavior doesn’t just make us feel warm and fuzzy; it has a genuine positive impact—physical and emotional—on the helper. It can lower levels of pain and depression in people who are ill. People in recovery may even have a greater chance of maintaining their sobriety if they are helping others.

You could see that in the faces around the table. Victor, talking about a customer service job he held for years. Franklin, remembering how he helped Emmaus move into this building. Mary, Al, other staff, and me, hearing the warmth and wistfulness in their voices, and perhaps praying that in this work we, too, may be helpful to someone.

It’s Called ENDURANCE Ride

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

It was a hard day.

It started well enough. As the 6 am airhorn started the 14th Annual Endurance Ride, it was 63 degrees, with south winds at five miles an hour. For the first 25-mile loop the birds were singing, conversation was lively, confidence high—life was good. By the second loop the winds had picked up significantly. By my third loop the temperature passed 90 without bothering to stop and chat. Winds were gusting between 20 and 25 mph.

Pride is a sin, so i am confessing to you right now the wee bit of pride i hold in the fact that i have ridden at least 100 miles in every Endurance Ride. I know at some point my streak will have to end, but i’m only 50! I should have a few more good years in me, right?

But after 75 miles i felt like a puddle of sour pudding. On the heels of a cool spring that barely made it out of the 60s, these 90-plus temps sapped me. And the wind! Even when it wasn’t blowing in your face, you had to grip your handlebars like a fundamentalist grips a Bible at a Nick Cave concert. Two riders’ bikes got blown over!

My friend Judi and i decided to do the shorter 10-mile loop since we couldn’t face another 25. It was still ridiculously hard, and when we got back we both said that maybe this was the year we stopped at 85 miles.

But then two things happened. One: Al from Somavida Pain Relief Center did something to my hamstring that i would have considered miraculous if not for the regularity with which he and his colleagues perform “miracles.” (Call me old-school, but you can’t really call them miracles if they happen every day.) Two: Judi walked up to me and spoke the words i was feeling. “I’m not ready to give up.”

The last time i heard those words they came from Franklin, and he wasn’t facing heat and high winds. He struggles against addiction that has ravaged his body, depression, a system stacked against him, and a childhood history that offered him a series of increasingly bad options. He’s back out on the streets, “in his madness,” unable to turn from the things he knows are killing him. But when i asked why he keeps faithfully showing up at Emmaus, he simply said, “I’m not ready to give up yet.”

So, unable to give up, Judi and i did another 10-mile loop, bringing us up to 95 miles. The winds were still high, but the strength from my renewed hamstring helped tremendously. Then we both kept riding up and down the quarter-mile driveway until our odometers registered 100 miles.

Yes, it was hard. But it can’t begin to compare to the struggles almost all of our men face. Thank you SO much for the prayers and support you give to Emmaus. They allow people like me to keep walking with men like Franklin for as long as he’s willing to keep trying.

Our Endurance Ride fundraising site is still up! You can still support us at https://www.grouprev.com/EnduranceRide2017-andi-and-al-tauber

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One of the rare moments Andi and i saw each other on the ride.

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

flower-in-asphalt

“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

new-perspective

“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.

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Our Mission

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

 

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Offices & Ministry Center:
Emmaus Ministries
4201 N Troy St
Chicago IL 60618

Financial Contributions:
Emmaus Ministries
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PO Box 431
Wheaton IL 60187-0431

773-334-6063
emmaus@streets.org

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