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Flaky

This has been a brutal winter: the coldest four-month stretch in Chicago’s history, with more days at or below zero since they first started keeping records in 1870-something. As I write this, the days have started to warm, but it continues to be cooler than average, and I’m half expecting old man winter to raise one last middle finger salute to us in the form of one last snow.

Snow. In December it is so lovely. By March I could not have despised it more.

snowflakesOne night in early March we were hanging out with Gary. It was bitterly cold, as was the custom, and deep snow covered the ground, as it had for all of recorded history. But earlier in the day, Gary had been downtown pan-handling when a snowflake landed on the back of his black glove. “It was huge! I’ve never seen anything like it! So beautiful and all—what’s the word?—symmetrical.” Even as he described it to us that night, his face lit up like a little kid’s: like it was reflecting the beauty of God’s delicate creation he had witnessed earlier in the day.

“I must have looked like an idiot. My eyes wide and my mouth hanging open like, EEaueeaauugghh!”

We were all laughing now. Gary is incapable of telling a story half-heartedly. And for a moment we forgot how numb our feet and fingers felt, and remembered how beautiful snow really is. I’m really grateful to Gary for re-opening my eyes.

Later in the month, Andi and i were in Colorado doing some “Stories from the Streets” gigs. Toward the end of our trip we caught another eight inches of the white fluffy stuff. I pulled on my black gloves, went outside, and did my best to catch a few flakes, singing Prince’s “Sometimes It Snows in April,” and thinking of Gary the whole time.

The reason for the season

crucifixion
Our founder, Deacon John Green, has a wry sense of humor. For many years, he had a bumper sticker on his van that said SIN is the reason for the season, a message that seemed to subtly mock the “Jesus is the reason for the season” pictures and bumper stickers we often see during Christmas time. (No one who knows John will be surprised that he had this bumper sticker.)

And, of course, John wasn’t at all mocking the message that we must keep the true meaning of Christmas—the birth of Jesus Christ—in our minds during Advent and Christmas. He was putting out a reminder that the reason Jesus came into the world was because of our sin. That seems to be an increasingly important reminder for us. Today, we remember the reason why Christmas was necessary in the first place.

Jesus came into the world to die. And not in the sense that all human beings are mortal and must die. No, it was in the sense that the whole point of his life, his mission in life (or his secret ambition, for any Michael W. Smith fans out there), was to be tortured and killed in the most brutal way imaginable. And he did it for the most hateful, ungrateful person imaginable.

That would be me.

And you.

And every single human being who has ever lived.

We human beings are the apple of God’s eye, his beloved creation, the pinnacle of the creation narrative in Genesis. He has loved us from the first moment we existed. And we hated him for it — so much so that we murdered him in cold blood. Today we recall the amazing love of Jesus, who came to us as a human being even though he knew we would kill him for it.

As St. Paul said in Romans 5:6-8, “For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”

So that is what we celebrate today, on Good Friday. We remember the astronomically massive love God has for each and every one of us. We remember the unspeakably cruel death Jesus endured in order to break the power that sin and death had over us. We mourn the immense pain and suffering that our sin caused him.

And we wait expectantly for the triumph of Easter Sunday.

What Christopher said

doug-and-r
One of the last stories Doug shared with me before he left was a story from his first couple years on the job.

He had recently gotten to know “Christopher,” a young man we’ve been working with for several years. Christopher’s story is a sad one, and he has been a hardcore heroin addict for a very long time. Like many of the men we serve, he was very skeptical when he first got to know us. And yet Christopher’s also a very gentle soul; it didn’t take him long to trust us.

Some time after he and Doug had gotten to know each other, Christopher confided that many folks on the street thought that Doug really cared about him. Maybe Christopher had doubts too.

Some guys, they told me that you wouldn’t care about me if you didn’t work for Emmaus, he said.

I wouldn’t have met you if I didn’t work at Emmaus, Doug said. But now that I have met you, I’ll always care about you.

A perfect reply, and one that really sums up what it means to work with Emmaus.

Saying goodbye to Doug

Outgoing Outreach Director, Doug Van Ramshorst

Outgoing Outreach Director, Doug Van Ramshorst

Doug completed his term on staff with Emmaus on Friday. We’d say we’re happy about this development… but we’re not.

Oh, don’t get us wrong: we’re very happy for Doug. He wasn’t looking to move on or anything. It’s just that the perfect job for him dropped in his lap about a month ago. It’s a similar type of outreach job (for a local health clinic in Indiana) that pays him about what he got at Emmaus, is just a 10-minute drive from his home, and has a normal 9-5 schedule—which means he can actually spend time with his infant son Henry when he’s still awake. This is the right move for him, no question. As far as we’re concerned, similar money + more sleep + more time with family + less time on the road = the right choice.

And we’re excited to see what Caleb Anderson—who will be our new Outreach Coordinator, stepping into the role after almost 2 years in the Kaio Community—will do during his time as the director of our street ministry. Caleb brings a wealth of his own talents and experience to the job, and he was the unanimous choice among existing staff and our guys for who we’d like to see step into Doug’s shoes. We’re happy to know that Caleb will be sticking around for a while.

But still… we’d be lying if we said we were happy that Doug is gone. He’s been a fixture on staff for almost a decade. He revamped our Outreach ministry, helping us move away from the bar outreach we used to engage in and toward a more strictly street encounter-based model. He helped Emmaus build inroads among the alternative communities in Boystown. He’s been fabulous at managing interns and long-term volunteers, building tremendous loyalty that led some volunteers to drive an hour each way for the privilege of spending all night out on the streets and driving home bleary-eyed at 4:00 am. His Renaissance Man background means that he has something in common with nearly everyone he meets He’s been a blast to work with. And he’s been a great friend to all of us.

We’re sad to see Doug go. We’re excited to see Caleb start. We’re looking forward to what God has in store for us.

That is all.

I am “those people”

homeless-man-2When I first started working with the men here at Emmaus, I’d often wonder how they got to be where they are in life. I’ve always thought of people like the guys (especially those struggling with homelessness or addictions) as “those people.”

“Those people” are the ones that I pitied, but never wanted to be around. When I was growing up, they served as the prime example of what would happen to me if I didn’t work hard, do well in school, and get a good job. I’d end up like one of “those people.”

It only took a few months of being at Emmaus, though, for me to begin asking myself who “those people” really are. I mean, I had a clear image of what they looked like, and I could identify them really easily. But who are they?

After I started to answer that question— by building relationships with and getting to know them (especially the guys in the Ministry Center)—I began to confront the question of whether I am really better than these men at all. Living in my cozy suburban existence, I can pretend that none of the problems facing them touch my life.

Author Brené Brown has spent years writing and lecturing on the issue of poverty. When I started thinking about the stories and myths I have in my head about “those people,” I thought of a quote from Brown that really gets at the reality that we are—or easily could be—just one step away from joining the broken people I see all around me. Brown says:

We are “those people.” The truth is… we are the “others.” Most of us are one… paycheck, one divorce, one drug-addicted kid, one mental health diagnosis, one serious illness, one sexual assault, one drinking binge, one night of unprotected sex, or one affair away from being those people —the ones we don’t trust, the ones we pity, the ones we don’t let our children play with, the ones bad things happen to, the ones we don’t want living next door.

When I reflected on Brown’s words, I had to admit that in different circumstances I could be one of them: the poor, the pitied ones. So, how should I respond to those who are living these difficulties now? How do I make a difference in their lives?

I thought of Micah 6:8: “And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” It is an inspiring verse, but it seems so vague. How do I do these things? Give me a formula, or an easy answer, or something! But, as everyone in ministry learns sooner or later, no such formula or answer exists.

What I have found, though, is that living out this powerful, simple verse is not as difficult as it might sound. It just takes the willingness to take a simple step: to be open to love and connecting with another person. I’ve found that saying, “Hello! How are you?” is a good beginning. I let the relationship grow from there. Simple. Not flashy. But very soon I find that the ones I once called “those people” I now call “my friends.”

Why can’t you see the men we serve?

invisible-manAfter 5 years on the job here, I’d say that the biggest challenge I face in telling people about who Emmaus is and what we do is that the men we serve are invisible.

When I share the work of Emmaus Ministries, nine times out of ten I get the same response: shock. People are usually surprised by the existence of the phenomenon that is Emmaus’s raison d’etre.

“Wait a second,” many of them will say. “Male prostitution? Like, men to men? That happens in Chicago?”

People are even more surprised when we tell them that it doesn’t just happen in Chicago, that it happens A LOT. That it’s all over the city, and that Chicago is definitely an example of the rule, not the exception. Male survival prostitution afflicts every city of any kind of decent size everywhere in the world.

When people hear that, their response is usually something like:

Mr. Anderson learns about Emmaus

Mr. Anderson learns about Emmaus

There are many reasons why people are shocked to learn not only that our guys exist, but that they do what they do to survive.

First off, the men we serve tend to be poor and homeless. That alone makes them less-than-visible to most people. Plus, as I often joke, men who are out hustling aren’t generally wearing high heels and fish net stockings (or other stereotypical clothing people think of when they think of “prostitution”). So it’s pretty hard for most folks to identify men who are prostituting anyway, even if they do know that these men exist.

But perhaps the biggest barrier I’ve found to realizing that male prostitution exists is that we are not culturally conditioned to view men as victims. The terms men and survival prostitution unconsciously reside in mutually exclusive categories for us. Men just don’t do that kind of thing, most of us tend to think. I know. That’s how I thought, too.

When I first heard about Emmaus I was a student at Wheaton College in the Chicago suburbs. A couple of my friends there volunteered with Emmaus, and after I heard what the ministry did it was clear to me that my friends had lost their minds. My conversations with them usually went something like this:

Me: “Wait, wait. Hold on. Male prostitutes?”

Friends: “Yeah.”

Me: “We’re not talking like gigolos or something like that?”

Friends: “Nope.”

Me: “Well … I mean … there’s only like three of them, right? I mean, there can’t be that many. Why do we need a whole organization devoted to them?”

It just didn’t make sense. Even after my friends patiently explained that, actually, male survival prostitution was an exploding phenomenon and that it was everywhere in the world, it still didn’t compute. Men just don’t do that.

It wasn’t until an urban semester internship brought me into the same building where Emmaus is located and I got to know a few of the men Emmaus serves (and heard some of their stories) that it started to make sense. My assumptions about reality, assumptions shaped by my cultural conditioning, were just wrong. As the saying goes, there are none so blind as those who will not see.

I saw another example of that cultural blindness today in an article on the American Psychological Association’s website about a new study on victims of sexual coercion.

The article headline reads, Coerced sex not uncommon for young men, teenage boys, study finds. “Sexual victimization continues to be a pervasive problem in the United States,” the study’s lead author says in the article, “but the victimization of men is rarely explored.” The study found that almost half of the respondents reported being coerced into some kind of sexual activity by the time they were 25.

Now, if this was a study about women, my guess is that the author wouldn’t say that the victimization of women is rarely explored. I could see the study being a featured item on news programs around the country. I have no doubt that the plights of the study’s subjects would be viewed as another sign of a national crisis. And rightly so. It’s immoral and unacceptable for any society to allow a huge portion of its citizens to feel unsafe and coerced like this. The study’s subjects were men, however. My guess is that most reactions to it will probably be closer to bemusement than outrage. Think less, “Oh my God! This is terrible! We have to do something about this!” and more like, “Huh. Wow. Wasn’t expecting that.”

Do I think this because I believe most people don’t care? Not at all. This is more of the blindness we all share. We can’t see what’s in front of us. It’s just one more manifestation of our limited human nature. Our challenge is to recognize that we have these limits and step outside the boundaries of our own perspectives. As I have found time and again, stepping outside of what “I know” to be true about people is when transformation, love, and connectedness show up. That is when God can work in us, on us, and through us to heal the wounds of a broken world.

And, through the miracle of God’s transforming love, he opens our eyes to see men who are invisible.

Where is Jesse now?

snowy-sandalsThere was a time when I would see Jesse every night on Halsted, usually dressed in a manner totally inappropriate for the weather. Not in a scandalous way—more like, in a flip-flops in November way. Jesse slept at the park, on the train, at friends’ houses, and oftentimes, in the houses of strangers.

Jesse lives with the symptoms of his mental illness and all of the side effects that his correlating medications cause. I very distinctly remember a conversation that we had on a warm, early autumn night. I was concerned that he had no plans for housing as winter approached. He had no desire to try, no motivation to do anything positive in his life. He spent most of his disability check on junk food and other things that offered him temporary relief from the stress in his life.

After a couple of years of us seeing him at our Ministry Center during the day and on Outreach at night, Jesse really bonded with some of the volunteers. He was introduced to some friends of theirs at Moody Bible Institute. He started attending church and going to small groups. For over two years now, Jesse has been budgeting his check. He pays rent on his room in the suburbs, and buys groceries, clothes, and a bus pass. Now we only see him once a week, when he uses his bus pass to volunteer with an organization that provides meals to the homeless in Boystown. As he puts it, “I like to keep busy and give back. It keeps my mind focused and I feel like I should be doing something positive.”

Grammar Lesson: It’s vs. Its

grammar-lessonThat bit on forming possessives was unendurable. Who edits these things? To compensate, dear reader, this week’s grammar lesson is short and sweet, like some of my friends.

Remember possessives? Lots of apostrophes: Nicholas’s tattoo, the families’ houses. Well, throw them out the window when you consider it’s/its. It’s the opposite of what the whole possessives lesson taught us. (See what I did there?)

Here is the nutshell version – the guideline and some examples. I’m using capital letters to make it clearer.

  • IT’S is a contraction of IT IS or IT HAS. You realize it’s not okay to wear a fanny pack, right? Let me know when it’s safe to pass through the herd of zombies. It’s always been difficult to be this glamorous.
  • ITS is the possessive of IT. The dog pulled at its leash. The alien excreted an anesthetic, so Jeff never felt its tendrils reaching into his intestines.

Remember contractions? I mean the kind you learn about in English class, not the kind you learn about nine months after a snowstorm. If so, you should remember that the apostrophe replaces letters that you lose* when you lump two words together. “Can not” becomes can’t, with the apostrophe replacing the now-missing N and O. “Have not” becomes haven’t, with the apostrophe replacing the O. Should’ve puts the apostrophe in for the missing H and A in “should have”**.

If you memorize this sentence you’ll never go wrong: When a soul-sucking alien wraps you in its sweet embrace, it’s probably okay to scream.

 

*Not loose. Don’t get me started.
**Not “should of.” What does that even mean?

Come in, Travis

At one in the morning we took refuge from the cold in a seedy little all-night dive that serves Pakistani food to cab drivers. Andy and I discussed my feelings of uselessness over a platter of chicken biryani. I know that it is worthwhile for us to be out every night, but after a couple of long, cold shifts of seeing no one out on the street, it is tempting to go out and get a normal job. We cleared our trays as the Al Jazeera newscast squawked in the background, and headed out, despite the looming sense of futility that hung around us like a stench.

Standing in the entrance, we added a few layers of clothing and braced ourselves for the nine-degree weather. On nights like this we sit on a stoop until we can’t feel our feet and then we walk around the block to get the blood moving through our bodies again. Stepping outside, we thought we saw Travis, one of our older clients, cross the street two blocks ahead. “Oh man, if we could just talk to him for thirty seconds tonight, that would make this a great night,” Andy said while I nodded my head in agreement.

homeless-manWe picked up our pace a bit and tried to nonchalantly “bump into” him at a contiguous intersection, but as we rounded the corner Travis seemed to have disappeared. We walked around the neighborhood for about an hour to no avail before retiring to our stoop. After only 15 minutes, we were already starting to lose feeling in our butts when I said, “Okay, let’s go home.”

Andy and I walked to the van but were interrupted by a tall man in a colorful ski jacket. It was Travis. With a smile and a couple of handshakes Travis brought us up to date on how he has been for the past few months. It was good news for the most part. He found a room for rent in a quiet neighborhood a few miles from downtown and he picked up a job as a temp for a company in the Loop. The pay was decent, but he couldn’t get enough hours to afford much more than just his rent. It was Tuesday night, he wouldn’t get paid until Friday, and he was hungry. Without many other options, Travis returned to the survival tactic that he knew best, which was why he was walking around on Hubbard Street at two in the morning.

I sensed Travis’s ambivalence about being in this neighborhood, so I offered him a ride home. He told me that he was hungry and that he was hoping to stay out long enough to scrape up some money for groceries. We started to part ways, and I clicked the unlock button on the van’s remote. Travis suddenly turned around and let us know that he decided to take us up on that offer after all.

On our way to Travis’s neighborhood, we drove through McDonald’s and bought him a big meal to hold him over well into the next day. We wrote up a list of social services, churches, and pantries in his area that could help him with groceries and other needs until he could get some more hours at his job. Even after we arrived at our destination, Travis continued to talk.

“You know, if I stayed out there any longer I would have ended up making some money hustling. And I know me. Yeah, I would have bought a little something to eat, but then I would have felt bad about what I just did, so I would have gotten high. I am one hit away from losing my job and my apartment. I am not that secure yet. I could be back out on the streets real quick if I messed up like that again. I don’t know why you guys were out there in this weather, but I sure am glad that you were.”

Alfalfa

Last week we were gathered around the table for lunch. It’s our practice for someone to read a scripture, then someone else to pray. During his prayer, Chris stumbled over “Alpha and Omega” and it came out, “Lord, you are the Alfalfa.”

alfalfaTo everyone’s credit (including Chris’s), the laughter didn’t burst out until after he said, “Amen.” We all knew what he meant, but the image of God as Little Rascal was too much. It took several minutes before any of us were capable of eating.

There are plenty of heavy discussions in the Ministry Center. Talking about the recent tragic death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman was even more disquieting because heroin is a regular part of many of our guys’ lives. But laughter also comes easily around our beautiful table, and is a merciful balance to the difficulties each of us face every day.

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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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