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Food and Friendship

“I’m just so lonely!” Craig blurpancake-smileted out as he approached Andrew and me. We were on Outreach on a chilly Sunday evening.

You try not to pick favorites, but Craig has endeared himself to me. Whenever he sees me, he screams “MARY!” and scurries over to give me a hug. He towers over my six-foot frame, but is childlike in his demeanor.

Craig’s loneliness is a frequent conversation topic. That night he said, “All my friends do drugs, and I know it’s bad for me to be around them. I know I should not be out here, but I knew you all would be here and I wanted to hang out with you.”

The next day at the Ministry Center we cooked a meal that included ham and macaroni and cheese. During lunch, I invited Craig to join Andrew and me at a diner during our Outreach shift that night. His face lit up as he agreed.

When we got to our meeting spot, Craig was there, grinning and shouting our names. We entered the diner, chose a booth, took off our layers, and settled in for midnight pancakes, coffee, and conversation.

“What’s your dream?” I asked Craig. “If you could have any job and live in any location in the world, what would it be?”

“I want to be a CTA bus driver in Chicago!” he declared.

Craig talked about his aspirations and his love of driving. Andrew and I shared funny moments from our day. While we were eating and chatting and tossing back late-night coffee, Craig forgot that he would soon call a train seat a bed.

For me, it was just like hanging out with any friends of mine. It was almost a revelation to me later that Craig does have friends who don’t use. He has Andrew. He has me. He has other staff members and volunteers at Emmaus.

Jesus met people where they were, developed friendships, invited them to His table, and saw lives changed. We meet our guys where they are, develop friendships, invite them to share a meal, show them the love of Jesus and, little by little, start to see lives changed.

In my work with Emmaus, sometimes I’m a cook. Other times, I’m a counselor. But my favorite role is being a friend.

The Path through the Pain

tears_of_sadnessI was cooking in the Ministry Center when Emilio burst into the room and snatched his belongings out of the cupboard. “This place is no damn different,” he muttered under his breath. As I reminded him to respect the space (the men agree not to swear in the MC), he exclaimed “I’m gone!” and strode out the door.

Back out on the streets these days, Emilio has been using up the money in his bank account for drugs to escape and to quench his anger. My coworker Andrew had just tried to explain to him that he (Andrew) couldn’t do what Emilio had requested—in this case, contact Emilio’s mom about the debit card she was holding for him. Emilio’s anger choked off all our attempts to reason with him.

Many times at Emmaus, we’re called to love the guys in the ways they need, not necessarily in the ways they ask. It’s difficult, and there’s always a work of discernment in understanding, from knowing their story and situation, what’s most likely to give them a foundation for moving forward.

Emilio reminds me of the title character in the film Good Will Hunting. Will is gifted with a remarkable intellect. He is able to solve a complex theorem that has the students at MIT—where he works as a custodian—scratching their heads. But past abuse haunts him, giving him an uncontrollable anger: a defense mechanism in the harsh street culture of South Boston. He lands himself in jail, losing his job before he is discovered by a math professor who takes him under his wing. As he slowly opens up through the help of a therapist, it becomes clear that past abusive treatment by his foster father is undermining not only his most important relationships, but also his ability to accept and use his gifts.

Like Will Hunting, Emilio’s anger has deep roots in a hard past. It derails his attempts to move forward, even at Emmaus, which is a safe place to grapple with the past.

Sometimes the path forward is messy. We encounter the bitter fruits of a past filled with unimaginable abuse as we point the men towards Christ. But this is the Christ who took on terrible pain and humiliation, and triumphed over the powers of Satan in His cross. With our pain-accepting God, we walk through the hurt, in the hope that by His wounds our guys might be made whole.

The Nasty Things We Step In

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I turn onto Halsted Street and immediately sidestep a chunky puddle of someone’s stomach contents. Half a block down, as we pass two men talking, one of them leans out to caution, “Careful of your step, babe.” I glance down in time to avoid a stream of what seems like urine running across the sidewalk.

A couple of minutes later, we reach the 7-Eleven parking lot, littered with the usual cigarette butts, puddles of unknowns liquids, trash and, yes, more urine running down from where some guy just peed on the brick wall.

We step in a lot of nasty things on Outreach. Thankfully, we wear shoes to keep the filth from touching our feet. But what if that wasn’t the case? What if we walked around the Boystown neighborhood barefoot?

I don’t know how many times I’ve read the passage about Jesus washing the disciples’ feet in John 13 and understood it only as a command to serve others as Christ did. But recently I’ve been challenged to read this passage from the receiving end, not just the giving end. What is Jesus teaching us here?

In first century Jewish culture, foot washing was a task for the lowest of the low. Everyone walked everywhere and, with sandals on, the stuff that collected on their feet was not unlike the stuff I try to avoid on Outreach. And yet, Jesus knelt down to scrub the filth off the feet of these men. Men like Judas, who would betray him, and Peter, who would deny him.

Knowing full well who he was (the King of kings and Lord of lords) and that these men would flee in terror the moment he was arrested, Jesus STILL washed their feet. He didn’t run from their filth, but waded right into it.

I think of myself and the gunk Jesus would have to scrub off my feet if I walked around Boystown barefoot, and I’m ashamed. I’m ashamed of the filth I carry, inside and out. God forbid that the King of kings and Lord of lords should bow down and wash me clean!

Yet that’s exactly what he does. That’s how great his love is. He doesn’t run from the mess. All the urine, all the puke, and whatever grime I am holding in my heart…it’s not enough to deter God’s love. He comes into the mess, whether I want him to or not.

Heather has noticed that “God of the mess” seems to be a theme in her life since coming to Emmaus. To read more of her reflections along these lines, go to this blog post.

Silence

aldridge_february_blog_silence_imageA wood-burning stove, cozy blankets, snow that is actually white instead of greyish-brown, and my favorite thing in the world: SILENCE. This was the experience I was blessed with last year as the Kaio Community went on retreat at Plow Creek. I love the city—the activities, the diversity, being able to walk to the grocery store—but being in the country refreshes my soul.

I was once talking to Timothy as he was whipping up some hot soup to offset the frigid weather. He’s been to Plow Creek a few times over the years. When I asked him what his favorite part of those visits was, he said, “I love the quiet and the lack of distractions there.”

Wow, I thought, this lifelong city-dweller and I have that in common.

Something important happens when we are able to quiet the distractions in our lives: we make room for God to show himself.

There is a spiritual exercise that really exemplifies that for me. You find a peaceful place, spend a few minutes quieting your thoughts, then slowly read this well-known Bible verse, removing a word with each repetition until you are left with the most simple (and also most difficult) way to hear God:

Be still and know that I am God.
Be still and know that I am.
Be still and know.
Be still.
Be.

During this Lenten season, please consider, along with me, ways in which you can remove distractions to focus on your relationship with God and how much he loves you. Be still and know. Be.

Go God!

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“You know how you guys always pray for me before I leave? I am really looking forward to that prayer today. I need it!” Franklin said when he arrived at the Ministry Center.

“We can pray whenever you want. Let’s pray now,” I said. Andrew, Sill, Franklin, and I gathered in a circle. “Franklin, why don’t you lead us today?” Andrew asked.

As Franklin prayed, his voice rose to a shout.

“God, crack is killing me! I can taste it and smell it and I want it so badly. But I know it’s killing me! God! Help me escape this!”

By the time he finished praying, tears were streaming down Franklin’s face. It was evident that God had moved in his life. Andrew, Sill, and I had nothing to do with it—we merely witnessed it. Go God!

“Go God!”

It’s become common for us to hear this on the streets. A short, animated, and typically drunk man yells it when he sees Emmaus Outreach teams. It’s always funny to hear, but it’s also become a great reminder. God is working through me, yes; but any successes, like Franklin’s prayer, are because of Him. Go God!

It’s always a temptation to put pressure on myself to make our guys change. But it ultimately has nothing to do with me. I have to be available to be used by God, and it requires surrendering and trusting God with our guys, but He’s got this! He is more than enough. He is hope. He is greater than drugs, depression, loneliness, and even fear.

When the men come face to face with temptation and have even just one victorious battle in that war, go God! When Payton tells me that prayer works, go God! When Victor retells the gospel story that he heard at the church he recently visited, go God! When Franklin prays for his addiction, go God! When God uses me to point the guys to Him, go God!

He deserves all the glory!

Sprinting for the Train

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Remember the 70s? Everything was blurry back then!

On a recent night, I was watching my phone tick away precious minutes as my Amtrak train crawled into Union Station. With seven minutes to catch my Metra train, I shot out the Amtrak doors as soon as the conductor stepped off. I sprinted through the bowels of Union Station, up the escalator to the street, down the two and a half blocks to Ogilvie Transportation Center, through the revolving door, up another escalator, down to the last track, and onto my train—with two minutes to spare!

As I sat in my seat shedding layers of clothing, I wondered why I felt so bad after such a short run. Three to four miles is usually a comfortable distance for me. I looked at the overstuffed weekend bag I had carried over my shoulder with a new appreciation for the ROTC students I had seen running with huge packs on earlier that day.

I also understand so much better the words that one of our men, Bill, said to me in a recent phone conversation:

“I am bearing down. I have a race to run, and I don’t want to run it with the baggage I have been carrying for so much of my life. God is liberating me. I don’t need to carry that baggage anymore.”

Amen, brother!

Toothbrush, Toothpaste, Deodorant…

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I was working in the Ministry Center when I saw Franklin sitting by himself, writing on a piece of paper. Grabbing a cup of coffee, I sat down nearby and peeked at the paper.

It was a list. It looked a lot like my shopping lists:

Toothbrush
Toothpaste
Deodorant
Mouthwash
A pair of blue jeans
Shaving cream
Vitamins

“Is that your shopping list?” I asked.

“Not exactly,” he replied. “I made this list to encourage me to not buy drugs with my next paycheck. The drugs are killing me, and I need the things on this list to make my life better. If I buy drugs, I can’t have these things.”

Jesus works through small, ordinary things to do big, wonderful things. He used water to perform his first recorded miracle. He used two fish and five loaves to feed thousands. And that day, in the Ministry Center, he inspired Franklin to make a list so that he won’t buy drugs.

I’m waiting for a big, wonderful miracle.

The Vine & the Branches

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

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

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

Oh wait. Maybe that’s because I am.

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

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

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

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

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

Men in Capes

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

But sometimes we meet a man in a cape.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And it was hot. Sweltering.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Emmaus Ministries
4201 N Troy St
Chicago IL 60618

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Wheaton IL 60187-0431

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emmaus@streets.org

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