Gluten-Free Friendships


Can you recall encountering the love of Christ in a mealtime?

When I first moved to Chicago in August to be part of Emmaus’s Kaio Community, I did not know anyone and was in desperate need of friendships. I found out that a married couple who had both graduated from my alma mater (Franciscan University of Steubenville) lived close by, so I contacted them right away. As it turns out, Jenny and Bob only live five blocks from Emmaus, and they invited me over for dessert my first week here.

I always dread going to people’s homes for a meal because I am allergic to gluten. Usually when someone invites me over for dinner, I suggest coming over later in the evening and bringing wine. Wine is safe. That way, I’m not burdening anyone with my dietary restrictions, because I feel bad when people make adjustments because of me. So when Jenny invited me over for dessert, I gave my allergy spiel and proposed wine, which she quickly declined because “creating a gluten free dessert is a great challenge.”

When I walked into Jenny and Bob’s kitchen that Friday evening, there were at least fifteen different ingredients splayed out on the countertops. Jenny was making brownies. Now when I make gluten free brownies, I just buy a box from Trader Joe’s. But not this couple. They were making everything from scratch, even though I highly doubt that they usually have flax meal, gluten free flour, etc. in their kitchen cupboards. Bob brought a chair into the kitchen for me while they were baking, and started the kettle because I mentioned I loved tea. They felt bad for not feeding me dinner, so Bob heated up leftover chili, even though I insisted I was not hungry. I was completely overwhelmed by their hospitality. That night, they lived to serve me.

The brownies did not taste like brownies, but I couldn’t have cared less. We had a beautiful conversation, and I felt completely and totally loved. Jenny and Bob bombarded me with questions about Emmaus and my life; they wouldn’t allow me to ask about themselves. I’ll never forget this evening with Jenny and Bob. I profusely thanked them at the end of the night, and Jenny said, “Katie, Bob and I are in awe of what you are doing at Emmaus. You are serving these men, so we want to serve you.”

I have been over to Jenny and Bob’s house a dozen times since that night, and every time they treat me like royalty. They constantly thank me for who I am and what I’m doing. When I step into their house, the tea kettle is on and there is always a dish I can eat on the table. They buy gluten free snacks just in case I ever stop by. I honestly do not know what I would do without them in Chicago. These friends have not only fed me extremely well, but they have showered me with love and affirmation.

I want to celebrate the men of Emmaus like Jenny and Bob celebrate me. My desire is that each man feels like a distinguished guest when he walks through the doors of Emmaus. I want to be the face of hospitality to our men. Preparing a good meal for them is necessary, but I also want to feed them with love and affirmation. Modeling my new friends, I will strive to remember small details about their lives and preferences so they know I care and am invested. There are few greater feelings in life than feeling welcomed and wanted. I pray I can embody the love Jenny and Bob have shown me and share it with the men of Emmaus.

The Paradox of Ministry


Saint Augustine said, “Pray as if everything depends on God. Work as if everything depends on you.”

I love that quote. It expresses the paradox of ministry, and of the whole Christian life, really.

Everything we accomplish is due to God’s power, yet he refuses to act directly. He is omnipotent, yet he insists on using flawed human beings to accomplish his will. C.S. Lewis captured this dilemma nicely when he said that God “seems to do nothing of Himself which He can possibly delegate to His creatures. He commands us to do slowly and blunderingly what He could do perfectly and in the twinkling of an eye.”

Just so. We can’t do this work ourselves. We’re called to do it anyway. If we work like God will take care of everything for us, he doesn’t act. If we work like we have to take care of everything ourselves, God works wonders.

I don’t pretend to understand this. I just know that it’s true.

Given how imperfect we are, sometimes it amazes me that we produce any results at all. But that is just the paradox of ministry again, because God doesn’t just produce some results through our work at Emmaus; he produces amazing results. Men no one else cares for hear the message of God’s love for them, and respond. They accept his grace and forgiveness. They take on the hard work of leaving the streets and rebuilding their lives.

If you haven’t already, I invite you to join us in this work. Pray with us as if all we do depends on God, because it does. Work with us as if all we do depends on you, because it does.

Always On the Way

Peter joined the Kaio Community in August, after completing degrees in Philosophy and Biblical Literature at Taylor University. Here our resident philosopher reflects on his first few weeks of ministry at Emmaus.

nietzscheFriedrich Nietzsche rejected the idea of being, insisting our lives are only about becoming. We’re always on the way, never arriving.

Christians differ from Nietzsche in that we have hope, and our eyes are fixed toward a destination. This destination, and the road there, are personified in Jesus. However, perhaps Nietzsche is partly right. The frustrating truth remains that we never reach this destination in this life. There’s always more to learn, more to grow into.

So as I reflect on my initial time at Emmaus, I will focus on some truths which I hope to grow into more.

  • The gospel is that good. While I have my share of problems, I have not experienced the world’s evil the same way as our clients. My problems and questions have been of a particular shape. Thinking to myself, “If God is all-powerful, why does He allow evil?” and having that question posed to me by a client (which happened on my second day) are vastly different experiences. As I have thought on these men and their stories, I’ve realized that I have much growth to undergo in how deeply I believe God’s gospel, and I hope to grow more convinced that His good news is that good.
  • Jesus says, “Let’s do this together.” Often it’s tempting for me (and maybe you) to think that God is just on the other side of whatever problem I face. If I can deal with this (and maybe that behind it…), then I can be with God. Thankfully, Scripture is replete with people far from perfect virtue, or in a good deal of trouble, yet still aware God’s presence in their lives. God is right there with us in our troubles and our insufficiencies, not waiting on the other side tapping His foot. As I look ahead, I hope to grow more into a sense of God’s presence with me in every step of life and this ministry.
  • Jerry Maguire was wrong. Kierkegaard wrote of “religious isolation,” meaning I have to perceive myself standing alone before God, not needing another human to complete me, because I’m already one whole person. Kierkegaard says I can only discover this identity in relationship with God. So, Jerry Maguire fans, maybe the famous line, “You complete me,” is wrong. This is imperative to remember in ministry. If I look to complete myself in the response of the clients we serve, I’m not really serving them; I’ve entered into a contract saying, “I try to help you, and your response gives me permission to feel good about myself.” But this is not service, it’s a selfish employment. While I care for the guys, if they ignore my efforts, it doesn’t affect who I am before God. Surprisingly, this detachment frees me to best serve them, since then it truly is service, giving of myself freely. I desire their progress for other reasons (like care for them, not myself), but feeling completed can’t be among them. I must seek to serve from a place of bounty in God’s love.

I welcome your prayers for me as I work with Emmaus this year.

Scrabble in the Ministry Center

scrabbleEmmaus’s Kaio program brings together young adults from all walks of life. This year, there are four of us: Jessica, Peter, Ellen, and me, and I could not hand pick a group of people with such different personality traits if I tried. But the beauty of this is that each of us has specific and unique gifts and talents to offer the men, the staff, and each other. Throughout the year, I’ll write a story about each of the Kaio members and how they bless me and our men. Today, we begin with Jessica.

“José” visits the Ministry Center often, and Jessica quickly connected with him. Jessica has a gift of meeting the men where they’re at. She lets them come around to her instead of trying too hard or buttering up to them.

José enjoys the game of Scrabble, so Jessica frequently plays with him. One day while playing with them, I realized that José has about the spelling aptitude of a fifth grader. I was struck in two ways. Even though he doesn’t spell proficiently, José always asks Jessica to play Scrabble with him. If I were a poor speller, I’d try to hide it, and I’d certainly avoid games like Scrabble! But I highly doubt it’s the game itself that José loves. Rather, he loves playing it with Jessica because of how she makes him feel. And if I were Jessica, constantly playing Scrabble with someone who couldn’t spell, I’d quickly become frustrated and probably quit. Jessica, on the other hand, gently corrects José and teaches him how to spell, but still encourages him and gives him points. She doesn’t let José stay where he is, but she also shows him mercy.

Isn’t that the Lord? Jesus calls us out of our complacency to walk with Him, but at the same time showers us with His compassion and love.

José and Jessica have also bonded over their love for sweets. The other day he brought her Twizzlers, and he told me he’s planning to buy her ice cream next month since it’s her favorite dessert. I wish you could’ve seen the excitement on José’s face as he revealed to me his plan! This man desires to spend what little money he has on a gift for Jessica, because it brings him great delight to make her happy.

I am reminded of James 1:17-18: “Every good endowment and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth that we should be a kind of first fruits of his creatures.” The Lord has instilled this selfless heart of love in José, a reflection of His own most sacred heart. Likewise, Jesus takes pleasure in doting upon us and giving us His good gifts and graces; all that’s required from us is our “yes.”

I’m looking forward to the day José gives Jessica her gift of ice cream. I bet they will enjoy it together over a game of Scrabble.

Seeing Power

happiness & freedomGod did not give us a spirit of fear, but of love, power, and self-discipline. — 2 Timothy 1:7

“The devil knew I was doing good, so he got me down.”

I’ve hardly heard this sentiment expressed as succinctly as it was the other day by “Victor.” The men of Emmaus face many concrete difficulties that threaten their recovery and path to wholeness: drugs, sexual addiction, discrimination, lack of shelter, finances—the list goes on. But there is usually another, more hidden roadblock they encounter. Time and again we see men start to make progress in their lives only to fall back into familiar habits.

Victor was telling me about being in a recovery facility getting treatment. During that time, he said he started to feel really good mentally, physically, and spiritually: “I was reading the Bible, and starting to feel close to God.” By Victor’s estimation, this was the closest he’s come to full recovery. But it didn’t last. He couldn’t keep up his sobriety and left his treatment program.

The three components in Victor’s life—mental, physical, and spiritual—are part of all our men’s lives, just as they are part of ours. Because their physical and mental challenges can be more intense than other people’s, it’s easy for them to spend all their time addressing these issues alone. However, as Victor so rightly put it, beyond the mental and physical challenges, there is a spiritual component that cannot be overlooked. Sometimes the devil really does see someone doing well, and he exerts extra effort in the form of temptations and hopelessness to stop it.

From one perspective, spiritual attack and spiritual hurt seem like yet another discouraging area in which our men get a raw deal. But a wise person once told me that the devil only takes extra care with people that he is extra afraid of. So while our men need prayer and spiritual healing just like any of us, I have been thinking lately about this area of their lives in terms of potential rather than something that needs to be “fixed.” Why is it that when Victor tries to do well, the physical world works against him, his mental habits inhibit him, and his spirit tells him he can’t do it? It is because of society, the things he has been through, and his habits and choices; but it’s also because he is powerful, and the devil just can’t take that.

Powerful: it’s not a word our men hear applied to themselves too often, but it’s true. We are privileged to see glimpses of it in them every day. We see it when “John” comes to the Ministry Center having a bad day and “Drew” comforts him because he’s “been there.” We see it in the cheerful way “Jeremy” volunteers to do extra chores to serve his brothers, even though he’d slept on the street the night before. We see power when Victor remembers he has failed in treatment numerous times, but comes in asking for our help to find a new place and to try one more time.

The men we serve at Emmaus are powerful because of their love and courage, but most importantly because they are designed and loved by an infinitely powerful God. So now when I see them experiencing spiritual struggles, I am learning to take it as a sign not only of the difficulties they face, but of just how much work it takes to keep them down. They are not oppressed because they are weak, but because they are strong.

So when you pray for Emmaus and pray for the men, don’t just pray that their challenges will be removed, but pray also that God will enable them to use the power he has given each one of them—to the fullest potential!

Outreach is boring.

outreach-is-boring-1I know, I know. Outreach at Emmaus is cool. You get to stay up really late, walking the devilish streets of Chicago, offering hope to men living in desperation. Yeah. OK.

It sounds so sexy when you say it like that, but the truth is that most of the time, Outreach is boring. The interesting bits are scattered among hours of waiting. Last Wednesday night I had the first significant conversation with one of our guys in over two months of Wednesdays. On several of those nights we didn’t talk with anyone.

On nights like those, I struggle to believe that we’re doing anything worthwhile. I know we are seen by various people, potentially opening doors to relationships down the road. I know we are two or more gathered together and when we pray, we bring God’s presence into a space where God is needed. And I know we can’t predict when a guy might be walking around the neighborhood, seeking a relationship with someone who doesn’t just want to use him.

outreach-is-boring-2But honestly, it’s late and I’m tired, feeling underutilized and, yes, bored. (Andi, my outreach partner and wife of 25 years, provides scintillating conversation, of course. But if she’s honest, she’ll tell you she’s bored too.)

Sometimes we are called by God to stand on a street corner and do nothing. I have told countless volunteers how important it is to be able to do this, but these last couple months I have been reminded that this might be the most difficult aspect of working with Emmaus: trusting God to make use of our time when we show up, but nothing seems to happen.

First Week Musings

keep-calm-first-weekHello there! My name is Katie Iversen, and I’m a new member of the Kaio Community. For the next year, I will be a full-time volunteer at Emmaus. When I was a junior at Franciscan University of Steubenville, I came to Emmaus with twelve other students, and we spent a week amongst the men loving and serving them. During that week, the men and the mission of Emmaus branded my heart, and I always knew I’d come back. It’s now been five years since I was last at Emmaus, but there is no other ministry that I am more passionate about, so I’m thrilled to be here.

One of my other loves is writing, so I’ll be submitting a blog post every week—so, you’re stuck with me! I was asked to write a reflection about my first week at Emmaus. Gosh, there is an endless amount to write. This is my first time living in Chicago. I left behind my friends, family, and beautiful Catholic community. I don’t yet know anyone here. And it was my first week with the men.

Before I moved to Emmaus, I had no concerns about actually working with the men. My experience with the men five years ago was powerful and beautiful: they opened up and shared their lives with me, and we connected and bonded at once. This time I expected to fit right in again, and for the men to take to me immediately. My fears were more based on moving to the city and living in intentional community. Well, as of now, living in Chicago with the other Kaio members has proven to be much easier than interacting with the men.

I understand relationships are built on trust and time, but I was not expecting resistance from the men. Emmaus is undergoing a number of changes, including staff, which is a difficult adjustment for them. At the same time, I assumed they’d be more open and engaging with me; but so far, it seems like most of them are ignoring me or are deterred by my presence. This week, I have been struggling finding my place amongst the guys. I don’t know what to say, or what my role as a staff member looks like yet. Since we don’t yet know each other’s stories, it’s a challenge finding ground we can both stand on.

I took all that was on my heart before the Lord in prayer. I was reminded that I cannot be an apostle of Jesus Christ without effort. The Lord led me to Mark 2:1-4, which is the story of the paralytic being led down to Jesus through the roof. Jesus said to me, “It is not as easy as walking through the front door. You, my dear, must go through the roof. But, think of what is on the other side. Jesus! Heaven.”

I am currently reading a masterpiece called My Other Self by Clarence Enzler, and Christ is the narrator in this book. The reflection last night pierced me: “Do not think that Paul had only to enter a city, preach a sermon or two, baptize the converts who flocked to him by the thousands, and then go on his way to new fields and new cities. Paul preached for many years in the regions of Syria and Cilicia. He was in Antioch for a year, in Corinth for eighteen months, in Ephesus for three years. Paul made prodigious efforts and met with violent opposition, far more than you will be called upon to withstand. No, I do not promise to spare you work and trials; but I will make your burden light. Carry only a sliver of my cross, and I will carry all except a sliver of yours.”

My ministry here will be a ministry of time. The men we serve at Emmaus have no reason to trust or like me—so many people in their lives have abused and degraded them. However, the Lord called me to Emmaus for a specific reason, and I have no doubt that He prepared a place for me here. I must have faith that Jesus will use my gifts and talents to love and transform the hearts of these men. I am going to continue showing up day in and day out. I will climb the roof to see Jesus on the other side. And who is Jesus, after all? The men of Emmaus.

Little Miss Dark Chocolate Peanut Butter Cup

sydYears ago, Al and I had a cat. Her name was Sydney, and she was great.

We got her used. When we lived downstate, we both worked for a child welfare agency. One of the clients, “Matt,” had Sydney in his apartment, and he wasn’t supposed to have pets. We temporarily took Syd to buy time for Matt to find another apartment in a building that allowed pets.

The first night we had Sydney, she plunked herself at the bottom corner of our bed and didn’t move until we got up the next morning. After two weeks, we told Matt he wasn’t getting her back. We were moving to Chicago, and she was coming with us. Matt was okay with this.

Syd was a wonderful, quirky, beautiful little companion for years. She had a pack-a-day-habit-sounding meow. She loved cantaloupe. When she drank from the bathroom faucet, she let water run off her forehead. On hot summer days, we’d find her lying in the bathtub.

After we lost Sydney, we cried pathetically … for weeks. One of the saddest things was coming home and then, with a pang, realizing she wasn’t at the door. Eventually (after a couple of years, I think) we stopped expecting her.

lmdcpbc-on-bedNowadays when we come home, we hear a mew before we even put the key in the lock. This cat belongs to “Darren,” one of the Emmaus guys. He needed to go into treatment for a couple of weeks, so we took her. Temporarily.

We have dubbed this cat Little Miss Dark Chocolate Peanut Butter Cup, by the way. Don’t judge. These things happen.

When we get inside the door, Little Miss Dark Chocolate Peanut Butter Cup greets us, then trots down the hall ahead of us, pausing to stretch her legs and look over her shoulder. She flops over as she’s being petted. She loves to lie in the sun and to chase wadded-up balls of paper.

Al and I were determined not to fall for this cat. But gosh, she’s adorable, and that two weeks that we were supposed to have her has stretched into four months as of this writing. And now I want to tell Darren that he has forfeited his chance of ever getting her back.

But what Little Miss Dark Chocolate Peanut Butter Cup does best of all is remind me to pray.

lmdcpbc-in-boxYears ago, Darren told us about how he wanted to be in a relationship and hoped to maybe get married someday. He prayed about this. The answer he got, he felt, was God putting this little cat in his life and saying, “You know, let’s see how you do with this relationship first.” And he did pretty well. She’s in good health, and she is alert and lively and sweet-natured. When I’ve talked to him, Darren has expressed how much he misses her. He has such tenderness toward her.

So when Little Miss Dark Chocolate Peanut Butter Cup makes me laugh, or when I marvel at how she never bites or scratches no matter how much she hates having her claws trimmed, or when I lean in to hear her sweet little purr, she reminds me to pray for Darren. Maybe he’ll get well, his housing situation will be stable, and he’ll get in touch with us to arrange to get her back. I hope so. Because as much as I love having this cat around, I would love even more for Darren to be clean and sober and able to take care of another living creature.

If he doesn’t get there for a while, it will not be for lack of prayers prayed on his behalf. Little Miss Dark Chocolate Peanut Butter Cup is seeing to that.

A quick errand (that spanned years)

milk-bottlesIn the midst of baking bread for the next day’s communion service at my church, I realized I didn’t have enough milk. Grabbing my wallet, I walked to my local Jewel grocery store.

After buying what I needed, I stepped onto the sidewalk and started on my three-minute walk home. It was then that I saw him: a man, naggingly familiar, talking on his cell phone.

It finally dawned on me: “Mel?” I inquired. He looked up, his eyes widened, and he quickly told the person on the other end of the line that he would call back later. Mel gave me a huge hug, and then we spent 30 minutes catching up on the past 18 years.

Mel and his dad, a successful businessman, had had a very difficult relationship. In his twenties, Mel chose a path that was different from the one his father wanted for him. Unfortunately, that path led him to the streets and prostitution. During this time, Mel came by Emmaus frequently. He had a daughter, but was in and out of her life. I remember long conversations with Mel, his justifications of life on the streets, and his denial about how that was affecting his health and his family. I remember the inner demons he fought on a daily basis. And I remember that Mel disappeared.

At Emmaus, we do not always get to know what happens to men who disappear. We worry about them, look for them, and pray for them, but we don’t always find them; the uncertainty is painful and frustrating.

Mel is now doing well. He lives in LA, and was just back here briefly to see his dad and help handle his affairs, because his father is dying of brain cancer. Mel told me that when he saw his dad, his father told him, “Now I can let go and be at peace.” Shortly after that he slipped into unconsciousness. He was transferred to hospice two days later.

Tears formed in my eyes as Mel talked about his father and how they have made peace. I could see how good he felt to be here, fully present to his family. In acknowledging what was previously broken in their relationship, and reaching out to his dad in his time of need, Mel allowed healing to happen.

Mel said he looked at our website from time to time. He said, “I think about you guys a lot. Without you I wouldn’t be where I am. Not just because of the services you provided, but because you were my friends when I was a mess. You stuck by me and I knew you were always there for me no matter what.”

He pulled out his phone again and proudly showed me a picture of a beautiful young woman, his adult daughter, who lives here in Chicago and who has also been present for Mel’s father. He said, “I really like who she’s turned out to be.”

I’ve never been more thankful to have run out of milk.

Letters from an Inmate

wwii-era-lettersI knew Dirk by his voice before I ever saw his face. As a Kaio Community member, one of my projects was keeping in contact with Emmaus men who were incarcerated. I wrote Dirk a couple of times. He wrote me a couple of times. We chatted on the phone here and there, trying to process life in prison while constructing a plan for his approaching release date. Where would he live in the short term, as well as long term? What would he do for food? Finances? Clothing? As a fairly new face at Emmaus I did not have many answers, and the ones I did have were usually borrowed from Sill, the director of our Ministry Center. But Dirk seemed to know what he was doing. Confident and independent, he was never short on plans or ideas.

When his release date came, Dirk came to visit us right away. We were able to get him some clothes and a couple of bus fare cards. Dirk was always on the go. He always had an appointment, a meeting, a group, an interview. Gradually we saw him less and less. In this case, that was a good thing: moving into a new apartment, making it to meetings, Dirk was taking care of business.

One day down in the Center, Dirk was in his usual business mode when he suddenly looked up from piles of paperwork and asked me to come with him into the chapel. I agreed, assuming he had another big plan and that he needed a bus card or other assistance. As soon as I shut the door he started talking. He began walking me through how difficult it was in prison, how he got to where he is now, and where he wants to get to. As I waited for the imminent request for bus cards or clothes, Dirk started to cry. He tipped up his business-mode-sunglasses (as I like to call them) to wipe his eyes as he talked about our correspondence while he was in prison.

“Emmaus was the only ones who wrote me in there,” he told me. “I felt so alone, so isolated. I just wanted to tell you that the encouragement, taking the time to write and take my calls, meant so much to me. Means so much to me. I am so thankful for the relationships I have here. I don’t know that I would be where I am now if not for that. I just wanted to say thank you.”

Before I was even able to finish thinking about how small a thing it seemed to me to write a couple of letters and listen to him talk on the phone a few times, Dirk stood up and gave me a hug, then walked out of the room. Back to business.

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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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