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.”


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.

Grammar Lesson: Possessives

grammar-lessonAh, possessives. No, we’re not talking about too-clingy boyfriends, though we could all throw one of those stories onto the fire, amiright? No, today’s lesson is the all-important one about turning a humble noun into a noun that HAS something.

Here, in a nutshell*, is what we’re going to learn: John’s book, Nicholas’s tattoo, the women’s accomplishments, the teamsters’ concerns.

Case One: Singular nouns that don’t end in S. To form the possessive, simply add an apostrophe and an S. Thus, the book that belongs to John becomes John’s book. The meow of the cat becomes the cat’s meow. The car that belongs to Ashish: Ashish’s car. The suit of that ace: the ace’s suit. (It doesn’t matter if the noun ends in an S sound. Same rule.)

Case Two: Singular nouns that end in S. Sing it with me: “Second verse, same as the first!” To form the possessive, simply add an apostrophe and an S. Look at that—two cases, one rule. The tattoo that Nicholas has becomes Nicholas’s tattoo. The bray of that ass: the ass’s bray. I’m not trying to be funny here—it’s a good example! Lots of esses. (Esses? Okay, we’ll have to tackle that sometime.)

Case Three: Plural nouns that don’t end in S. Aren’t they pesky, those plural-but-not-plural-looking nouns? Men, women, hippopotami, bacilli, fish? But again, sing it with me: “Third verse, same as the first and second!” To form the possessive, simply add an apostrophe and an S. Women’s accomplishments, hippopotami’s teeth, fish’s wariness.

Case Four: Plural nouns that end in S. Ah, here’s the rub. What do you do with the concerns of teamsters, or the duplicity of those politicians we love to hate? Here’s where the new rule comes in: To form the possessive, simply add an apostrophe. Then stop. So…the teamsters’ concerns, the politicians’ duplicity.

Here’s a summary—and really, there are only two rules. How nice is that?
To form the possessive of a singular noun, whether it ends in S or not, and a plural noun that doesn’t end in S, simply add an apostrophe and an S.
To form the possessive of a plural noun that ends in S, simply add an apostrophe.

And here’s the payoff—how this relates to Emmaus Ministries:
The volunteer training sessions that Emmaus provides = Emmaus’s volunteer training.
The mission of Emmaus Ministries = Emmaus Ministries’ mission.

Easy, right?! You’re welcome!


*An appropriate receptacle.**

**I stole that little witticism. I don’t know from where or whom.

Outreach Last Wednesday

It was cold and nearing 2:00 am, and I was tired and chilled enough to be seduced by the promise of two glazed doughnuts for 99 cents. I took my time in the convenience store, pretending to not know what I wanted while my toes thawed. A couple of loud young women came in, shopping the liquor aisle. One of the employees stopped by and told them it was too late to buy alcohol. “What?!” “Too late?!” they cried. Then one of their voices grew softer: “Can’t you make an exception, just this one time?” The employee said, “Sorry,” suggested another store, and walked away.

doughnutsI finally bagged my doughnuts and went to the counter. The man who was about to take my dollar pointed outside and asked, “Are you still walking around?” Surprised, I said yes, and he said, “Take all the doughnuts from the bottom shelf for the other people.”

I double-checked to make sure I understood him correctly. When I tried to thank him, he waved me off.

Gentle people, I want you to know that I did not take all the doughnuts from the bottom shelf. It was late; I didn’t think we’d run into any more guys. So I took five day-olds—one cake kind, a horribly sprinklified one, and more glazeds. As I made my way back to the counter, the employee intercepted me and handed me a serving of nachos with all the toppings. On the house. I paid my dollar, thanked the man again, got waved off again, and joined Al outside.

Al was most reasonably shocked at my fistfuls of food. I explained, and we set off to find whomever we could.

We didn’t find any more guys that night, but we found the other Outreach team. After the explanation (because I do not make a practice of walking around with nachos and bags of doughnuts), we found ourselves a wind-free spot alongside a building, spoke warmly of our benefactor, inhaled the scent of melted cheese, and tucked into our nacho-and-doughnut picnic.

Optimism vs. Hope

A good reminder for us today…

“Optimism is a matter of optics, of seeing what you want to see and not seeing what you don’t want to see. Hope, on the other hand, is a Christian virtue. It is the unblinking acknowledgment of all that militates against hope, and the unrelenting refusal to despair. We have not the right to despair, and, finally, we have not the reason to despair.” —Richard John Neuhaus

Grammar Lesson: The Backstory

grammar-lessonThe alarm bells went off in the fall of 2011. I was jarred by the realization that we work for an organization whose name is made of two words that end in the letter S. Worse, one is singular and one is plural. Emmaus Ministries. Oh. My. Gosh.* How could we have survived so long without providing a lesson on forming possessives in each of those cases?** Why was this not in our volunteer training curriculum?!? I nearly choked with panic.

At the next weekly staff meeting, I strode to the whiteboard and explained how to form possessives. I started with some “regular” possessives, then moved on to the possessives of ordinary words that end in S. Finally, I brought in the “real world application”: How to Form the Possessive of Emmaus—then, gently, tenderly, but tenaciously, of Emmaus Ministries. I instructed, I corrected, I cajoled—oh, yes—but even more, I inspired. Wiping the sweat from my brow, I went back to my seat, spent but victorious, the cheers of my appreciative coworkers ringing in my ears.

I’ve been doing a (loosely themed) grammar lesson at almost every staff meeting since.

Stay tuned.


*This may be the first time I have used that particular technique. Jury’s out.

**If you have already dozed off with visions of your high school language arts teacher droning on about the subjunctive, this post ain’t for you. (That’s right; I used ain’t. Come get me. I have my Webster’s*** by my side.)

***Only because I can’t afford a complete OED.

Looking into the mirror

man-looking-in-mirrorMany moons ago, my wife Aubrey and I met while working at Emmaus. Or, more accurately, I was working at Emmaus. She was a volunteer. But she had just finished working there (completing her year of service in Emmaus’s Kaio Community) when we met. Emmaus was one of the things that we shared, and our experiences there were part of what drew us together.

Reflecting on our time there one night a few years back, Aubrey said something profound: Working at Emmaus is like looking into a mirror.

She was right.

If you’re at all introspective, it doesn’t take much time working at Emmaus to realize that what the men we serve here are on the outside, most of us are on the inside. Those dark parts of your personality, the parts you hide and are ashamed of? The guys we serve often have those parts of themselves on display. They live in the midst of them. They can’t often hide them like I can. I can try to forget that those parts of me exist. I have the luxury of pretending that I really am, 100% of the time, that good, loving, generous person people say they love me for being. The guys at Emmaus don’t have that luxury. What I’ve found in my life (and what I suspect is true for most people) is that what often seems most repulsive in the lives of our guys is the reflection of my own darkness that I see in them.

But even working with the guys, I can usually avoid confronting myself as reflected in them. They’re usually grateful, and some of them are even relatively eager to do what they need to in order to change. It’s easier to ignore their “mirror” effect then.

Jack doesn’t allow me to do that, though. I have to look in the mirror with him. Jack is one of the surliest men we serve. He never learned “people skills” growing up. While he accepts that he has mental illness (like a lot of the men we serve), he refuses to get treatment for it. His ADHD makes him impulsive, and the abuse he suffered as a child made him embittered. He often says exactly what’s on his mind, and what’s on his mind is often ungracious and caustic. He has a violent temper. He can also be charming, funny, and sometimes genuinely vulnerable (if you get him in a reflective mood at 1 or 2 in the morning).

But usually, Jack just isn’t very easy to love.

When I’m around him, though, I feel God looking back at me through him, challenging me. Do you really love these men? God seems to ask. Do you really love them when they just aren’t loveable?

I want to answer that I do… but the truth is, I don’t know. The truth is that I’m as broken as Jack is — just in more socially acceptable ways, so it’s a lot harder to tell. The truth is that I just don’t have it in me to love Jack some days.

And that’s okay. Because God does. Because I’m not the source of hope for Jack, or the rest of our guys. I’m not the force motivating and sustaining Emmaus Ministries. Jesus is. He is the source of both Jack’s hope, and mine.

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