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“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?

once-upon-a-time

“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.

There Is Love

I’ve been told i look like Jesus, Satan (when i wore my hair in a ponytail; evidently the only physical difference between Jesus and Satan), Tom Petty, that guitar player from Korn, Marilyn Manson, even a short-lived (dead?) zombie on The Walking Dead before Daryl shot him through the eye.

walking-dead-zombie

Sylvester was the first person to tell me i look like Paul Stookey from Peter, Paul, and Mary.

Sylvester often sits in the 7-Eleven parking lot that doubles as our Outreach “office.” Our first encounter with him was musical, so the Paul Stookey reference didn’t feel strange. Actually, nothing with Sylvester feels strange anymore. We’ve talked often, and he has been in widely varied states of mind. He’s usually pretty agreeable, but until tonight one of my favorite interactions with him had happened when he was yelling at the top of his lungs at everyone who came close to him.

Sylvester: BLAHBLAHBLAHBLAHBLAH!!!

Me: Sylvester! What’s happening?!?

Sylvester: BLAHBLAHBLAH—(Suddenly calm.) You know my name?

Me: Yes, and you know mine. I’m Al. We’re friends.

Sylvester: I like you?

Me: Yes, and i like you.

Sylvester: Oh. (Touches my arm and walks away quietly.)

Tonight after he told me i looked like Paul Stookey, he proceeded to sing, in a surprisingly haunting voice, the first two verses of “There is Love.” Looking first into my eyes, and then Andi’s, he sang, “They shall travel on to where the two shall be as one.” Just when i thought he had finished, he spoke the last verse to us, placing his hand on my chest, then on Andi’s: “Oh, the marriage of your spirits here has caused Him to remain/For whenever two or more of you are gathered in His name/There is love.”

These are just the kinds of things that happen when you place yourself in God’s path in the wee hours of the morning. You get used to it.

Later that night we ran into Sylvester again near the El station. “Do you know the ‘Lemon Tree’ song?”

“No, I don’t think i know that one,” I answered.

He sang it, again with that beautiful voice. At one point he placed his gloved right hand over my left eye, still singing. A few moments later, his left hand over my right eye. Then he reached forward, placing both hands on my ears and holding my head, singing all the time, never looking away.

I won’t lie. This kind of thing would normally freak me out. But i’ve been thinking lately about being mindful and present in my circumstances. And a recent intern, Mary, had just shared a story about noticing beauty while looking into one of our men’s eyes. So i kept my eyes open and i saw Jesus in Sylvester’s eyes. I heard God’s voice in his voice.

There is so very, very much that is deeply disturbing and ugly in this world. How can i afford to miss the beautiful when it is literally singing in my face?

or-peter-01

Striking a Chord

unity

“Hey Caleb!” André cried across the street as he and I walked down the street together one night. I admit that I was shocked because I hadn’t really seen or talked to anyone on the streets in several weeks and that along with the dropping temperatures had put me into a bit of an “outreach funk.”

We walked over to where André was standing on the corner and struck up a lively conversation about the Bears and the Bulls, which I did my best to be a part of despite my dismal knowledge of professional sports. I had never met André before and I was fully prepared to spend the night taking the backseat and riding on the coattails of Caleb’s positive relationship with André. What actually happened was much cooler.

As the conversation moved on, André began branching out and talking about more serious things from his past and what he thought about the current strife that is characterizing racial relations as of late in the city. Much to my surprise, every time I offered a comment, thought, or just restated what he said to make sure I was tracking with him, he resonated deeply with whatever I said.

“I can relate to this girl,” he said.

I never thought that I would hear that sentence uttered by a man I was serving during my time at Emmaus. The differences between me and the men are large and obvious, so I knew that it would take an act of God to create understanding between us. And that is exactly what happened that night—an act of God. Being in tune with the Holy Spirit allowed André and me to understand each other at such a deep level on the first night we met.

Asking good questions, being compassionate, and offering a listening ear are all important things in communicating with other people, but the most important thing is to listen to what God is trying to do in a given situation and getting out of his way so that he can bring his Kingdom of unity and peace. So what is my prayerful response?

I can relate to these guys.

Hope

or-mary-08-bw

A couple of months ago, Mary and I ran into Marshall on Outreach. We’ve seen Marshall on Outreach lots of times, but a couple days back he’d finally made it to the Ministry Center.

Marshall was bantering back and forth with several other guys, so we started to walk past to give him his space, supposing he wanted to continue his current conversation. But he called us over and introduced us to the group, then proceeded to expound at length about his recent visit to our Ministry Center.

“It’s a real crib over there!” Marshall marveled: we have a kitchen, TV room, games. He’d played a couple rounds of Scrabble and had really enjoyed the taco lunch.

As he went on and on, the group slowly dispersed, until it was just Marshall, Mary, and me. As the conversation wrapped up, Marshall took both of us by the hand and said, “You guys are really helping us! Thank you for what you do!”

It’s moments like these that I’ve learned about hope. Men are finding hope here. And it’s the Lord who gives hope that sustains each of the guys, and all of us, for the long journey into wholeness.

As we keep on in ministry, all the things that we hope for, ask for, and pray for with the guys in mind are only possible if we hold on to the abiding hope that we have in Christ. As we await Him and His transformation, we have to face that hope takes a long time! As Paul writes, “Hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently” (Romans 8:24-25). We patiently wait for the Lord to do a marvelous thing in the lives of each of our guys.

Even beyond Emmaus, God calls us all to this patient love. Emmaus is just a piece of this picture, just a little snapshot of the kingdom of God. We are a small part of introducing God’s sustaining hope to the streets of Chicago.

Peaceful Eyes

Twice in one day i was told i have peaceful eyes.

al's-eyes

The first was Ricky, sitting across from me at lunch in the Ministry Center, completely out of the blue. “You have the most peaceful eyes.” Followed immediately by, “Has anyone ever told you that you look like Jesus?”

Later that night on Outreach we were approached by a weathered man who asked us if we knew the cheapest place to get alcohol. I told him about a prior conversation wherein one guy told a second guy that one could purchase a single beer at 7-Eleven for a dollar, but i warned that Second Guy had returned from said 7-Eleven threatening all manner of bodily harm to First Guy for lying about the dollar beer, so don’t get your hopes up too high.

Weathered Man looked at me for a moment.

“I like you … has anyone ever told you that you have peaceful eyes?”

We talked with Tony (his name turned out to be Tony) for nearly an hour as he opened up quite a bit about his addictions, his prostitution, his self-loathing, his anger toward God.

All we could offer him (since we’re not allowed to buy beer on Outreach) was a listening ear, a map to our new Ministry Center, a bit of laughter, a bit of theology, and the knowledge that he is not alone—that someone cares about him.

“I just don’t understand why i can’t stop doing these things,” Tony said. “Why is it always such a struggle for me? I look around and other people seem to have it so easy.”

But struggle is good. It’s when you stop struggling that you need to worry. The only folks who don’t struggle are the ones who have given up, don’t care, or don’t see the reality of their situation. Tony struggles because the enemies he’s facing are quite obviously and literally killing him. But we all face more subtle, measured death every day, and often fail to struggle against it.

Maybe i do have “peaceful eyes.” But i too am at war.

I do kind of look like Jesus, though.

al-and-jesus

Bug vs. Broom: Lessons From My Kitchen Floor

broom-and-spiderweb

“Sorry buddy, you’re too big and scary.” I often talk to things that have no ability to speak back. My husband will tell you that I’m often not capable of processing my day unless I pontificate—and if no actual humans are around at the time to hear and understand my words—no problem!

Last weekend while home visiting my parents, I was indeed not speaking to an actual human, but rather to a big, hairy spider encountered while sweeping the floor. He crept around the corner of the kitchen island just as I crouched down with dustpan in hand. In theory, spiders are marvelous intricate creatures. In practice, I prefer to appreciate this intricate beauty from a very safe distance. I reacted in a common enough fashion: I smacked him with the broom.

In the next second, when my superior human strength and size had decisively reduced the arachnid in question to a pile of legs, my more rational mind kicked in. Clearly he had not been the threat—the one capable of inflicting harm. The harm-causer was me. In fact, my mom’s a biology teacher, and I know which common spiders in the Midwest are potentially poisonous. This little guy was not one. Having smashed many spiders in the past without a second thought, I was about to go along with the day. However, speaking to even unintelligent things forms a sort of connection, and God used it to grab my attention with a little thought that nudged its way into my mind.

“‘Sorry?’ Why did I feel the need to apologize?” Even as my gut reaction was to smash, something in my mind was telling me that this behavior was something to be apologized for. Perhaps it’s because, when you take time to think about it, destroying something because it looks “big and scary” is not an accepted or adequate reason to do something. Nor is it defensible based on my conviction for a God-imitating loving world. Can you name one time Jesus smashed something because he thought it was scary? Neither can I; in fact the Bible is full of stories where Jesus and early Christian leaders stand up in humility and bravery in the face of “real” scary situations (like when someone was about to be crucified, for example).

Ironically, it’s often when fear is the least justifiable that it can do the most damage. I was not actually in any physical danger from the spider, but my second of fright cost it its life because I was immeasurably more powerful. By contrast, when my sister thinks it’s funny to jump around the corner and scare me, I might react in a similar way, but at most she will get a bruise. Instinct might kick in, but somewhere in my mind as my arm shoots out in surprise, I also know that it’s my sister and we love each other. Not only is she big enough to survive the encounter, but my instinctive blow will be softened by my bias towards her.

For the men that often come through Emmaus’ doors, this instinctive benefit of the doubt that comes from love and trust is almost always absent in their lives. Rather than looking at them and reacting to them through a lens of love and trust, people everywhere most often react to them out of fear and suspicion. This instinctive mistrust and fear wears a number of faces—maybe someone mistrusts men, or jobless folks, or urban folks, or the homeless, or someone with a different color of skin or from a certain side of town. Maybe the homeless guy panhandling makes them a little uncomfortable on the way to work, or the thought that someone has been incarcerated makes him seem a little dangerous or crazy. Maybe people with tattoos seem too edgy or someone who wears different clothes seems too different.

Fear can also strike a number of chords and we all experience it in some way. Maybe we’re physically afraid, or maybe we’re afraid the economy might be on a downturn, the job market is too lean, or that our neighborhood is attracting the “wrong crowd.” Whatever the fears may be, they tend to be manifested in the people who are different in some way. And this is often the men of Emmaus. But as in the case of my spider, the people we feel these instinctive fears towards are often not the ones who can actually cause us harm—usually it’s the other way around.

I bet a lot of people could explain why some of our guys “appear” to be scary, but if you look at the life circumstances of these men compared to people who complain about or fear them the most, who has actually experienced the most hardship? Who has been hurt? Who has experienced the most physical violence? Who has experienced more job insecurity? Who has been held back, demeaned and bullied the most? In short, who is actually being smashed and whose fear might be causing the smashing?

The great evil of fear is that it can turn reality on its head. It can convince people, society, even the church, that the ones experiencing the most hardship are somehow the ones most to be feared. It can help us justify hurting or even simply ignoring the hardship of others for no other reason (when it boils down to it) than that they “seem” scary, or delinquent, or just … different. Fear is a liar, and it is the opposite of love. It is one of the greatest tools of evil in any society. Because if the Church can be convinced that it’s justifiable for such-and-such person to be smashed or ignored, the Kingdom of God is not winning, the message of love spelled out in the Bible is not being communicated effectively, and true community cannot happen. In the case of my spider, fear caused me to hurt a tiny creature and passed quickly, but afterwards I found myself wondering: how often has my fear been used to justify hurting another human being?

This is perhaps the church’s biggest but most difficult mission—to spread hope through truth, love, and community, to banish fear (2 Timothy 1:7). Because if fear wins, the people that God most wants to love—the poor, the down-trodden, the ones society leaves out—are the ones being most ignored. If fear wins, it not only turns reality on its head, but the gospel message as well! If God is your God and Christ is your Savior like he is mine, we simply cannot allow this to happen. It’s our greatest mission. In fact, it’s so important that God is willing to use anything—even tiny, safe, spiders and a tendency to talk to dumb animals—to remind us.

Spoiler Alert: It’s Not About the Lemonade

lemonade-pitcherJoey stormed out of the Ministry Center, seething, and assuring me that he would never be back again. The reason: lemonade. Joey wanted to make a pitcher of lemonade on a day when the Ministry Center wasn’t open, and I asked him to have water instead.

Working at Emmaus, I learned fairly quickly that whatever trivial matter seems to be the problem at the time is probably not the actual problem. Very likely, there is something else going on in the angered individual’s life, and that particular detail (in this case, the lemonade) is the thing that they choose as the object of their anger. They are trying to gain control over something, perhaps due to the helplessness they feel in many other areas of their lives.

During these occasions of misplaced anger, it’s important to keep emotional boundaries. It’s easy for me to feel like the problem was my fault and that I was personally responsible for the pain that Joey was feeling. But that’s not true. One of the ways that we love the men of Emmaus is by setting boundaries and sticking with them. It teaches the men that emotional manipulation and power plays are both inappropriate and ineffective relational tools.

Joey visited the Ministry Center a few weeks later for Christmas, and we got the chance to talk one-on-one. For a while, we talked about his goals for the coming year, but the conversation turned back to that fateful afternoon with the lemonade. “I apologize for my actions,” he admitted to me. “I don’t have anyone to blame but myself. And you were so cool about it. You didn’t even get mad. You were just like, ‘I’m sorry you feel that way, Joey.’” We shared a laugh and parted with a hug.

It doesn’t always happen that people come back and apologize after an outburst, but when they do, it’s one of the most rewarding things about working at Emmaus. Healthy boundaries create healthy relationships—relationships that can weather the storm of a pitcher of lemonade.

Emergency Contact

emergencycontact

Mark was always playing. His quick wit and endless appetite for debate meant he talked with nearly everyone who ever came to Emmaus, smiling and laughing the whole time. At his funeral last year, we heard story after story affirming this. “On a form at the hospital,” his foster brother told us, “where it asked who to contact in case of emergency, Mark wrote ‘911.’”

I know he was joking. He was always joking. But his jokes were often tinged with sadness. That emergency contact should have been a family member or close friend. Someone he deeply trusted. But so many of the men we work with don’t have relationships like that.

His death was hard for all of us at Emmaus. When i heard his body had been found in Lake Michigan, i holed up in my office and wept, and had trouble functioning for days. One of our guys, Sean, took it really hard, and in the month before we were able to hold a memorial, i never once saw him smile.

Sill, our ministry director, worked hard to track down Mark’s family, and another coworker, Libby, worked with his sister to plan the memorial. This was the first one in our new building, and it was a blessing to be able to offer his family a beautiful sanctuary space.

We’ve held too many memorials and funerals at Emmaus. But of all of them, Mark’s may have been the best attended. His birth family, foster family, and the family of the aunt he had lived with were all represented. For once, Emmaus was outnumbered! The stories we heard from his other families filled in the picture of the man we had known and loved.

After the service, the repast, and cleaning up, i was talking with Sean and a few of the other guys who had worked tirelessly through that long day. We were still sharing stories about Mark, but there was a lightness now. We were all happy that so many of his family had made it to the service, and aware how rare this was at Emmaus.

“It wouldn’t have happened if Sill hadn’t been able to track down his family,” I said. “Make sure he has current info for your family in case something happens to you. And for God’s sake, don’t put ‘911’ as your emergency contact.”

Sean laughed, shaking his head. I can’t express how good it felt to hear him laugh. “I’ve been putting Emmaus down as my emergency contact for years.”

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