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Vegas

vegas

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

rex-karin-stoop

“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.

tiara-kiara

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.

What an Honor

libby-j

As I prepare to leave my full-time work at Emmaus, the thought that has been running through my mind continuously is what an honor it has been. To be a small part of the men’s lives—to be allowed in and trusted with supporting them in their journey—has expanded my heart and mind and allowed me to get to know some truly incredible individuals. Time after time I have seen the men that Emmaus serves do the “work” of Emmaus by encouraging, supporting, and loving each other and the staff.

This year I have gotten to work with several men closely through a grant project. As a team, we have worked to help increase people’s understanding of what life is like for men in Chicago involved in survival sex work and what problems they face. I’ve gotten to see Sean step up to co-lead the project, Bobby sit with a young man and encourage him for an hour, and Timothy start to imagine ways to solve the city’s problems. I’ve seen more and more that the men around us are incredible people, and I am so excited to see what they can accomplish in the future.

Though I won’t see them every day, God has been teaching me especially in the past year that the men I have come to know are all part of his family and part of his larger purpose. Even when we aren’t working and serving side by side, we are still working towards the same goals. This gives me much hope about where Emmaus is going in the future!

Simple Ministry

checkers

Is there a story that encapsulates my six years at Emmaus?

Adam’s story comes to mind. Emmaus had known Adam for years on outreach, since well before I started showing up out there. He had developed some pretty cool relationships with various Emmaus staff and volunteers, even referring to the legendary Chuck and Linda as his mom and dad. But in all that time, he had never come to the Ministry Center.

The newer staff and I began forming our own relationships with Adam over a year or so, learning about all of his favorite sports teams he never lost an opportunity to praise or to lament. When Katie Iversen joined our staff, she immediately connected with Adam over their mutual love for the Chicago Bulls. And after a few months, he came to the Ministry Center for the first time.

What was the final catalyst that had eluded us for so long? He wanted to play checkers with Katie. Or rather, he wanted to beat Katie at checkers.

To me this encapsulates a lot of what Emmaus is. We, and other organizations, often spend time trying to develop programs and rehabilitating our space in order to entice clients to come. Yet after years of many conversations and relationships with Adam, he still had not come to us. But rather than some fancy program or material thing Adam wanted from us, God used something much simpler than anything we could dream up: a game of checkers.

This story always reminded me that Emmaus is there to walk alongside the men we encounter. And no matter how long or slow the process seems, we as a community try to move towards Christ every day, and believe that God will take care of the rest.

Decorum is Overrated

elf-i-love-you

When I do outreach on the streets, it’s very common to hear people yelling down the street about everything from ex-boyfriends to the latest hit pop song. I am usually the one casually leaning against a guard rail in the 7-Eleven parking lot, chuckling with my partner about their comical declarations.

One night on outreach a few weeks ago, we were spending some time with Sylvester just before we were about to head in for the night. He tends to slip in and out of reality, so I usually talk whatever he says with a grain of salt. That night, his conversation had been especially hard to follow, but suddenly he became lucid and said to me, “You should be like my brother. Like a family. I LOVE YOU! I … LOVE … YOU!!!”

I have to admit, I was a little bit embarrassed by this sudden outburst. He then proceeded to try to convince me to yell the same thing! Being a normally quiet observer, I was naturally reluctant, but I realized that I was not trying to impress anyone on that street at 2:30 a.m.

“I LOVE YOU! I LOVE YOU!” we yelled together. It was oddly freeing to yell that across the nearly empty streets. He smiled and looked straight into my eyes. “And that needs to include you, too,” he whispered.

That hit me right in the core. How could this man who had recently told me a ludicrous story about a seahorse and a princess see right to the core of my biggest insecurity? I love how God uses the absurd and ridiculous to get through to us. That night on the streets, I received a very valuable reminder about three things: 1) Letting go of the need to appear “together” is extremely freeing. 2) It’s important to say “I love you” to those that you love (even if it’s very loudly!). 3) God often reaches us through the avenues that we expect the least.

I’m so thankful for the opportunity to hang out with men who society rejects. They have a lot to offer if we are open to receiving it. Truly reaching out means joining our men right where they are and caring more about loving them well than about keeping up appearances. When we do that, truly beautiful things happen.

“One good thing about music, when it hits you, you feel no pain.” – Bob Marley

This is not Sylvester. This is Bob Marley. He wasn't from Haiti, and as far as i know, he didn't hang out in the 7-Eleven parking lot, but he DID have some admirably unruly hair.

This is not Sylvester. This is Bob Marley. He wasn’t from Haiti, and as far as i know, he didn’t hang out in the 7-Eleven parking lot, but he DID have some admirably unruly hair.

Sylvester has very dark skin and endearingly unruly hair. Al and i had seen him before, asking for money by the entrance to the 7-Eleven, but we hadn’t talked. Then one night, as we leaned against the railing, watching people come and go, Sylvester approached us.

He stopped about five feet away and, instead of asking for money (which, i confess, is what i expected), Sylvester started singing. His voice was a little raspy, and he sounded good! We didn’t know what he was singing, but because it sounded like French but not quite, i wondered if it was Creole.

When Sylvester finished, he just stood there, grinning. So i figured it was my turn:

J’étais triste et pensif quand je t’ai rencontrée,
Je sens moins aujourd’hui mon obstiné tourment;
Ô dis-moi, serais-tu la femme inespérée,
Et le rêve idéal poursuivi vainement?

It’s a poem that Gabriel Fauré set to music. So, yes, now that you mention it, with years of Outreach experience behind me, i determined in that moment that the best response to this possibly Creole-singing homeless man was to hit him with a 140-year-old French art song.

And Sylvester’s face lit up! As soon as i stopped singing (after just those four lines, understand, because i learned that song almost 30 years ago and haven’t sung it since), he started rapidly talking to me in French/Creole—i don’t know which!—and i had to stop him to explain that i only know how to sing a little French, i don’t speak it.

“Ah…” Sylvester’s face fell a little, and i felt bad for disappointing him. But his English is great, and we spent some time talking and getting to know one another. Sylvester seemed happy to have company for a little while.

As we parted ways, i told Sylvester that, because of the many languages spoken in my church, i could confidently say one thing in French. Shaking his hand, i said, “La paix de Dieu soit avec toi.”

“Aha!” he said, “Toi aussi!”

We have talked to Sylvester many times since that night (go here to read about another musical interaction that Al wrote about), but i love that the first exchange we ever had were words sung to one another.

Holding On Tight

holding-on-tight

I’ve lived most of my life in what you might call the “fast lane.” I am always going from one place to the next, whether it’s dance class, church, work, or time with friends. I also like to do everything myself.

Sound familiar? I know that it’s pretty common among millennials in my generation; we want to squeeze every second of time for all its worth. It makes us feel like we’re accomplishing something, like we’re worthwhile, like doing these things will make us more lovable. So what happens when you stop?

I found out exactly what happens last month when I had elbow surgery to repair some torn ligaments and muscles. Time stopped. Then, after the first few extremely difficult days, it started moving again, but at a snail’s pace. I couldn’t do anything on my own. I had to ask for help to open a jar of salsa and put my hair in a ponytail. It took me an hour to take a bath because I couldn’t get my cast wet. I felt completely helpless, like a child again … and I didn’t like it, not one little bit.

I think the reason this process has been so difficult is that I am in love with control. When I couldn’t do normal household and work tasks without help, I had to depend on other people. What if they did things differently (read: WRONG) than me?

This chance to slow my life down has really given me the opportunity to do some self-evaluation that I haven’t had much time for recently. Control is exactly what God wants us to give up when we offer ourselves as living sacrifices (Romans 12).

The thing about control is that when we clench our fists around it, we are acting and making decisions based on our own extremely time- and space-limited vantage points. When we give the control to God, we can be confident that he who can see everything and is fair and just will piece everything together according to his will.

As I’m learning this lesson, I’m hoping to also share it with the men at Emmaus. Giving up control can be so difficult, especially when our men have so little of it already. I hope that showing them how faithful God has been in my life when I loosen my grip will be a living testament to the fact that we can trust him, that he actually has our best interest in mind.

That’s one of the things that I love about Emmaus: we can live our lives together, encouraging each other to trust God more and more.

What’s His Story?

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“What’s his story?” my Outreach partner asked me, as the man I had introduced her to walked away. I responded, as I often do, in vague terms wanting to respect his privacy.

Often I go home feeling guilty in some way that actually I don’t know. Surely the Outreach Coordinator, of all people, should know how the men we serve got where they are. Upon reflection, I suppose I do know bits and pieces of many of our contacts’ pasts. It’s usually shared in a rather disconnected way, random pieces here and there that were relevant to the current conversation. But not something I can always connect together in a way that might answer a question like, “What’s his story?”

This time, as I wondered how it could be that I care about these people I meet, yet cannot always answer this question in a satisfactory way, I started to think about it a little bit differently. What is it that I do know about my friends, and why is it that we first want to know where someone came from?

The first question was easy. I know who these men are now and, in some cases, I know who they want to be. But the vast majority of people we spend time with do not tell me about their past; they tell me about their present situation, and sometimes the future they hope for. Sometimes a person’s past is buried due to guilt, or shame, or unresolved traumas. Certainly it would be healthy, at some point, for them to process and relieve these burdens through the blood of Christ and receive medical or therapeutic assistance.

I also believe that people want to be known for who they are now and for who God wants them to be. It seems to me that most people are more interested in discovering the person that God created, rather than being known (judged? possibly … or probably) for the person they used to be. On Outreach, it is therefore our mandate to assist someone in that discovery, to journey with him in together seeking out who we are (rather than who we were) in Christ.

But I don’t have the answer to the second question. Why do we seem so interested in people’s pasts? The optimist in me says we want to be in awe of the amazing ways we know God can and does change lives. It is true that our past is important, and no less a part of our story than the future. But is it healthy for us to be so focused on this? Sometimes, yes; our history can be incredibly helpful in understanding our patterns and tendencies. But the pessimist in me is concerned that we are too focused on a person’s past; that the past becomes the lens through which we see their present, which would naturally then impact where we think they can go in their future. Does it really benefit me to know a person’s past, or who they used to be? If not, then what use is it to me? My fear is that too much of me desires to explain or justify a person’s present through the rigid lens of their past.

I do not think the question, “What’s your story?” is a bad one. But I do think it is worth continually asking ourselves what our motivations are. Do I want to know this person so that God is glorified? Do I want to see this person purely as God sees them, without being tainted by judgments or presumptions due to past behaviors? Is it just to elicit shock and awe to impress friends, family, or donors with a story that neither of us can even imagine experiencing?

I might not be able to tell you who all of the men of Emmaus were or what they went through. But I promise I can tell you who they are, and that together we are seeking out who we can be with Christ.

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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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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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