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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?

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

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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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