Children of Light in Dark Places

Back in October, I was doing Outreach with Sean and Sill on the South Side. We sat on our usual park bench with a bag of candy, pretzels, and granola bars, enjoying the fall breeze. A man was about to walk right past us when he changed course abruptly. “Oooh! I feel the presence of God coming off that bench!” he exclaimed as he approached.

He stopped only briefly, not even sharing his name, to chat about the weather and the Cubs’ amazing season, grabbing a little candy as he did. “I’ll catch you later,” he said after a minute or two, “but I want you to know: you guys do amazing work, ‘cause there’s a lot of darkness out here. No one’s out here doing what you do. So God bless you guys!” He beamed as walked away.

That’s not the first time I’ve heard that. Sometimes our Outreach teams are called a beacon of hope, or a light, or people who have the presence of God radiating out from us. In the literally (for our night-time Outreach) and spiritually dark places where we reach out, we are often the only people without ulterior motives that the guys encounter. We listen without judgment, sharing the Lord’s love as He gives us the opportunity.

This past Christmas season reminded me of the darkness of the world that Christ stepped into as Emmanuel, God-with-us. Matthew quotes the prophet Isaiah: “the people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death, a light has dawned” (Matthew 4:16). Jesus came during a time of great darkness, when oppression, persecution, and death at the hands of the rulers were unsurprising, even expected. And still he chose to enter our world, vulnerable as any of us, to be “the true light that gives light to everyone” (John 1:9).

As he was, so each of us is called to be light in a dark world, a living reminder that the Kingdom is coming, that “the night is nearly over; the day is almost here” (Romans 13: 12). Let us imitate Christ in this way, as he proclaims through his coming the dawn of a day when all things are made new.

A Great Adventure or a Terrifying Experience

frozen Doug
This piece was originally written for a March 2014 Emmaus publication.

There are so many things that you can only experience on Outreach. One night I saw a guy juggling fire to the left of me while another guy came up on my right and tried to sell me meat out of a TJ Maxx shopping cart. I have had snowball fights with drug dealers. My beard has frozen solid more than once. On two separate occasions, I have seen someone who was thought for years to be dead, walking around all casual-like. I have seen some crazy stuff, and I count it all as blessings.

The craziest thing I experience happens every night. I see white, middle-class, suburban, nineteen-year-old Moody Bible Institute students talking to drug-addicted, prostituting, homeless ex-cons like they grew up together. Discussing video games, food, books, and TV shows. Laughing so hard that they spit out their coffee. Encouraging each other. Praying for each other.

These moments are the biggest reason that I keep going out, night after night.

Over the years, I have found that when I tell people about volunteering with Emmaus, they think it sounds like either a great adventure or a terrifying experience. If you fall into the “great adventure” category and you have one night a week to spare, let us know. We may have a spot for you out on the streets, where you, too, can buy unrefrigerated meat out of a shopping cart.

The Little Things of Fall Outreach


We bundle up and watch as the crowded streets become sparser, with the temperature dropping fast. Outreach is getting colder, and contacts’ requests for snacks change from sodas and slushies to coffee and hot chocolate. It’s quieter now, and I like it that way. With fewer distractions, our conversations seem to grow longer. The men that are out now are out because they have to be.

Our outreach team spent over an hour listening to Adam rant (gleefully) about the Bears’ mishaps, and praise the success of his favorite sports teams. By the time we had exhausted our sports small talk, the mood was light and positive, and Adam was very open to answering questions. For some of our team it was the first time meeting him. We learned a lot about what he has been going through lately, and the strength he has shown to get through hardships and stay motivated. He misses his twin daughters, who he hasn’t seen in years because their mother didn’t want him around; and his dad died just a few weeks ago. His bipolar disorder is what usually gets him in trouble—when his “evil twin” comes out, the world becomes his enemy. He recently started seeing a psychiatrist and taking meds, both of which have been hard, but helpful.

We listened to Adam float between serious and light-hearted conversation, trying to encourage him as he travels over a particularly bumpy stretch in his life. In return, he blessed us with a night of laughter and wisdom gleaned from his experiences. We asked him how he keeps going; he just shrugged and said that he has God on his side. When we put him on the train he asked us to pray for him. We all huddled up and prayed for as much of his situation as we could remember. He smiled, and we all said our see-you-laters.

I know Chicago winter is crazy, but I love the cold. It brings out the worst… and the best in people. Such a simple night, but so many little blessings. I love the little things, and winter outreach is full of them. Looks like a long winter ahead, full of opportunities—sounds perfect!

Lessons on Locks


Last week, Victor came to our Ministry Center. In the two or so months that I’ve been at Emmaus, he has endeared himself to me. We often see him on Outreach, and he usually says that he’ll come to the Center, then doesn’t. I was glad to see him.

On this day, he drove over in a friend’s borrowed car. A few minutes after arriving, he couldn’t find the car keys, and then realized he had locked them in the car. Victor was distressed.

Andrew, who was working with me that day, found a wire coat hanger somewhere in our building, and he, Victor, and I headed out to the car to see if we could get it unlocked.

None of us on staff here would succeed as car thieves. Andrew tried for several minutes to get the door unlocked, but the coat hanger just wasn’t doing the trick. Victor was getting more upset each moment, exclaiming, “Oh man, oh man, I don’t know what to do! How’m I gonna get outta this one? What are we gonna do?!?” His nerves were starting to get on mine. Taking a deep breath, I said, “Victor, you know what you need to do right now? You need to ask God for help.” (In hindsight, this is probably the first thing we should’ve done anyway.)

Victor groaned. “No—ohhh, seriously!?” Like many of us, he can be pretty stubborn when it comes to letting God work in his life.

“Seriously. Just say a short prayer. You might be surprised at what happens.”

Victor hesitated, then sighed. “Okay. Yeah, you’re right.” He looked off into space for a moment and then mumbled these words:

“God, help me.”

I could tell that he meant it from his heart.

Andrew readied himself for one more try with the coat hanger. A diesel engine suddenly roared behind us, and Andrew, Victor, and I turned back to see a tow truck pulling to a stop four feet away. It came out of nowhere.

The driver hopped out, wordlessly popped open the car door, and climbed back into his truck. It was over in a matter of seconds.

“I just saved you 65 bucks!” the driver called out the open truck window as he shifted into gear and drove away.

Andrew and I looked at each other and blinked. Victor’s mouth was open in astonishment. Andrew turned to him.

“Well, I’ve never seen prayer answered that quickly.”

It wasn’t just Victor who was pleasantly surprised at how God answered his prayer. I’ve resisted God many times, too stubborn to always believe that he works everything together for our good. But, lately I’ve been challenged to surrender certain areas of my life that I’ve “locked” God out of, and in this moment I was reminded that when we surrender, he does amazing things.

The guys aren’t the only ones at Emmaus that God teaches. It was a blessing to share this lesson on locks with Victor.

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

The Surprising, Healing Love of Christ


A few weeks ago, I learned that my grandfather had died unexpectedly in his sleep in his home in southwestern Virginia. A few hours after I got the news, I headed over to Emmaus’s Ministry Center for my shift. That afternoon was pretty heavy for me. Memories of my grandfather slipped into my mind unbidden, and I mourned a little bit more with every image or story that played itself out.

As I was preparing dinner in the Ministry Center—hamburgers that day—Greg came up to me. “I’m so sorry for your loss,” he said with the beginnings of tears playing at the corner of his eyes. He told me about how his mom had died within the past year and how that had rocked him to his core. He gave me a hug. “I may tease you all and give you a hard time, but I really love you guys.”

Later, as we were sitting down to dinner, Cliff prayed for the meal. “Oh, Lord, we pray for the Joel Brown family…” he began. He asked for the Lord’s mercy and grace on all of us as we mourned our loss.

I’m really glad I came into the Ministry Center that day, where I was ministered to rather than the one doing the ministering. I learned later that Heather, a fellow Kaio member, had led the guys in a time of prayer for me that morning. The Lord had used that time to give me the gift of Greg and Cliff’s words of comfort.

That day in the Ministry Center let me realize what a gift it is to get to do life with the men of Emmaus. Each of them has experienced very difficult situations and far more death than one person should have to endure. But somehow the Lord is working and shaping them, taking the broken pieces of their grief and pain and slowly but surely making something beautiful. With the comfort that they have received from the Lord, Greg and Cliff reached out to me and offered up that comfort. They shared with me a part of what Christ had ministered to them through Emmaus over the many years of meeting our staff and volunteers on the streets and in our drop-in center: the surprising, healing love of Christ. And that is truly beautiful.

The Noise Inside Your Head

mriThese past few weeks sure have been a doozey. A few weeks ago, I had the unfortunate experience of getting initiated into the “Hit by a Door on a Bike,” Club and my knee has been hurting ever since. My doctor order an MRI scan to figure out what’s going on inside my knee, and when I went to have the scan, they stuck me inside this little tube and told me not to move. Fortunately, though, I got to pick out some music to listen to while I had the 30-minute test. I settled in and prepared to lie there and listen to some tunes. But instead of music, I was startled to hear:


Then silence, with only the faint sound of Gabrielle Aplin playing in the background. “Maybe that was just the beginning part, and now it will be relaxing,” I hoped. Just as I was being lulled by the dulcet tones, once again I heard:



The noise did not stop for 30 minutes. If you know me at all, you know that I deplore loud noises. I couldn’t think about anything else while I was in there because the noise was so overwhelming. But while I was lying there on that cold, hard bed, my head spinning, I realized that perhaps this was something like what people felt when they were in the midst of an addiction.

When you are in the middle of an addiction, your brain has been hijacked. There is nothing else that is even remotely as important as getting that next fix. Everything else is drowned out by the overwhelming noise in your brain that says, “Do whatever you need to do to get that next high.” Is it really any wonder that it is difficult to talk to people who are struggling with something like that?

I have had my own struggles in the past and to some extent, I can understand what it’s like to feel that all-encompassing desire to pursue something that will, in the end, destroy you. For me, it was so important to have people who cared about me be a consistent presence in my life. At first, it was more like the music in the background, something that I could only hear in those small and infrequent quiet moments in my life. However, as time moved on, I began to hear them more clearly above the noise and finally, Jesus spoke. His voice wasn’t loud, but it cut through the clamor like nothing else had before.

As I work with the men at Emmaus, I truly hope that my presence and that of all the Emmaus staff can be the quiet music that eventually heralds in the voice of Jesus. Please join me in praying that His voice cuts through the cycle of destruction and leads the men to the path that brings eternal life.



Having just moved to Chicago a couple of months ago, I never expected one of my biggest lessons so far to be about Vegas. But it’s surprising sometimes how God works.

Outreach in Boystown has become a place where I expect God to work. One night in early September was no exception. I was walking the streets with Andrew, a fellow Kaio member. Each block we walked we would smell a combination of cigarettes, beer, and pot. One co-worker explained Boystown as an exploitation of sex every place you look. It’s not a place I would go for fun.

That’s why running into Victor surprised me that night. He had been coming to the Ministry Center frequently and seemed to be making progress, but that night we ran into him right in the middle of Boystown. He was in the center of temptations of sins that he had been trying to escape.

Our conversation was short. He apologized for being there. We encouraged him to go home. But before he left, he gave me a little treasure with his response to my last question.

“Hey Victor, why are you out here tonight?” I asked.

“It’s my Vegas. The people, the excitement, the buzz. This is where it’s at,” was his reply.

Suddenly, so much started to make sense. Boystown is Victor’s Vegas. It’s the place where all of his temptations are staring him in the face. He has access to them. He knows it’s wrong but still runs to his temptations.

But don’t we all have our Vegases? We all have places and things in which our temptations are easily accessible. In our weak moments, we run right up to the edge of our temptations because the closeness of temptation can be thrilling.

That night, the Holy Spirit used that little interaction to point out “Vegas moments” in my own life. When I walk those streets now, I’m often humbled and reminded of that conversation with Victor. The Holy Spirit did work in Boystown that night, but it was in me.

My “Vegas” may not be Boystown, but I could see similarities in how Victor and I react to our temptations to sin. The more I’m around our guys, the more I see how similar we really are. Our temptations may be different, but we are all broken people who can only be healed by the blood of Jesus Christ.

God of the Mess


“You know, I want to be a pilot in the military, but no one thinks I can do it. I’m not even sure I think I can do it anymore.” It’s a rainy Thursday night on outreach and we’ve stumbled upon a young man who has taken up residence in a restaurant doorway for the night. The conversation started with a pizza and rapidly morphed into Adrian sharing his story with us.

Shuffled through the foster care system growing up, bullied, and verbally abused—it’s ugly. “I’ve always felt like everyone’s against me,” he explains to us. “I’ve never felt like I really had friends, or someone to just listen.” He’s starving for companionship, but the people of Boystown are only interested in his body, not the person within. His voice is thick with loneliness as he begins to explain how, in desperation, he’s been letting men pick him up at night. Finally, he stops. “Don’t you guys have anything better to do? Or are you just gonna sit here with me all night?”

My outreach partner Warren and I exchange a quick glance. Hesitantly, I begin, “Adrian, we’re out here tonight because we’re part of a group of people who want to help guys like you…” I trail off as Adrian’s expression changes. Oops. Wrong words. He shifts to lie down in the doorway and closes his eyes. “I don’t want to be anyone’s project, and I’m not into programs.”

I rush to correct myself. “No, no that’s not what I meant. Emmaus isn’t a program. It’s just people.” I reach into my bag for a map to our ministry center. “Please, come by some time and you’ll see.” Adrian opens his eyes slightly and takes the map, folding it up and placing it in his pocket. He closes his eyes again, and we recognize that it’s time to leave.

Before getting up to go, I say, “Adrian,” and he opens his eyes just slightly again. “Don’t lose that map. And remember, it’s not a program. Just people.”

Just people. I’ve only been at Emmaus for about a month now, and I’m quickly finding that there is no program here, just people walking with people on a journey of redemption that usually looks less like a set of steps to accomplish and more like sitting on a wet sidewalk in the middle of the night and praying that I don’t say the wrong thing. It’s messy; the men we work with are messy, and the more I learn about their messiness, the more I discover of my own.

But it’s also amazing, because God is in it! He’s in Adrian’s messy story, and he’s in mine as I stumble over my words. No matter how filthy we are, God doesn’t give up on us. Instead, he gives grace.

So, if there’s one thing that I’ve learned so far, it’s that Emmaus is people, and people are messy. But God is God even in the mess, and he doesn’t give up on us.

Chicago Youth Gain Job Skills at Monarch

This past summer, Monarch Thrift Shop participated in Heartland Alliance’s Family Works Program, employing two high school students, Tiara and Kiara, who happened to be twin sisters! In the following post, Monarch’s assistant manager Mireya Fouchè interviews Tiara and Kiara about their experiences working at Monarch.


Eight weeks have come and gone too quickly for the Monarch family as our summer youth employment program has come to an end. We were blessed with the presence of Tiara and Kiara, high school twin sisters from the west side of Chicago. Through their time here they played a huge part in the daily tasks of the store—from inventory, to merchandising, to sales. We will miss their always-early attendance, organizational skills, high level of productivity, and laughter due to poking jokes at each other throughout the day…as siblings would do.

Thank you Heartland Alliance – Family Works Program for including us in this program. We thought there would be no better way to see these amazing young girls off than by having you hear from them directly. Ladies, we love you and are grateful for you!

Tiara shares her Monarch experience

What are your goals after high school?
My goals for after high school are to join the Army or Navy, finish college, and help move my family out of Chicago.

What has been your favorite part about working at Monarch Thrift Shop?
My favorite part about working here is the customer service. At first I didn’t like talking to people, but after Christa showed me and taught me how to speak to people I’m good at speaking and helping to make people feel welcomed to the shop.

Can you share with us some things you’ve learned while working here?
So much, but the main things were customer service, organization and responsibility.

Any final thoughts you’d like to share with your fans?
I’m hoping to come back in while I’m in school so that I wouldn’t have to go home and do nothing. I love this store; I’ve learned so many things and have met so many people!

Kiara shares her Monarch experience

What are your goals after high school?
My goals for after high school is to join the Navy for a few years then complete college in the field of Physical Therapy.

What has been your favorite part about working at Monarch Thrift Shop?
My favorite part about working here was sorting the clothes, price tagging the different items, and merchandising. I loved meeting new people like Robert, Mireya, Christa, Andrew, Caroline, Dave, and Josie. So many great volunteers that helped us walk through this good journey in learning things. There were many things I didn’t know before that now I do, like how to merchandise in a retail store, how to steam products, and a lot of other things in inventory!

Any final thoughts you’d like to share with your fans?
I want to share that working here was a great experience. I really appreciate the staff for taking time out of their day to teach me about retailing. I’m going to really miss this great staff I’ve worked with these past eight weeks. I’m going to visit a few times to buy clothes. I also really loved hearing Caroline’s stories and enjoying her meals. It was a great working experience in working with people older than me.

Whitewashed Tombs

“I really hope I go to heaven,” Luther told me recently in the center. We were having a conversation about “doing Christian things” versus actually following Jesus. Leading up to that question, he brought up the fact that people try to judge others’ salvation based on what they’re doing, and he wondered aloud as to whether or not people go to heaven if they’re still doing unholy things.

That conversation was incredibly engaging for me because it brought up a lot of really important questions that many people who grew up in the church and consider themselves to be solid Christians have never thought of. The verse that immediately popped into my mind was John 17:3 which says, “This is the way to have eternal life—to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, the one you sent to earth” (NLT). To me, that means that if you know God the Father and his son, Jesus, then you are a Christian and are going to heaven.

Grace is such a difficult concept to understand. I took me a very long time to get it, and I’m still working on it. Jesus speaks about it all the time in the Gospels. He repeatedly called out the Pharisees for having great outward signs of religion, when in fact they were like whitewashed tombs (looking good on the outside, but being dirty and rotten on the inside). The most important thing is the focus of the heart, and I hope that hearing that message will alleviate some of the guilt and shame that the men of Emmaus live with constantly.

Having an assurance of faith is difficult when you’re carrying around a lot of baggage from the past. I struggled with this a lot, wondering how God could choose me despite all the things that I had done wrong. Then I realized that Christ is renewing my mind daily and he doesn’t expect me to be perfect in everything right now. One indication that someone is living in the Spirit is the “fruit of the Spirit” described in Ephesians 6. But it isn’t really our business to judge the state of someone’s heart. My deepest desire for the men is to see them be assured of God’s love for them and start to act out of that assurance to help themselves and others.

I love listening to the questions the men ask about Jesus, and Luther is especially good at asking them. I’m looking forward to talking with him more and learning more about it myself. Those reciprocal relationships are the most amazing things about the Ministry Center; they bring us together as one body of Christ.

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