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Who Deserves Compassion?

social-outcast

Many people don’t “get” the work of Emmaus when they first hear about it. For some, it’s what we call the “ick factor:” a hustling lifestyle can sound too sordid. For others, they’ve never even heard of men being sexually exploited. It is so far out of their experience, they really don’t know what to expect when they see Stories from the Streets, hear an Emmaus presentation, or even walk through Emmaus’s doors themselves.

Larry was just such a person. As he walked up our steps and rang our doorbell last week, he didn’t know what would happen. But he was feeling desperate, so after hearing our name and that we worked with men, he called and set up an appointment. We sat down in my office and he looked at me steadily over the desk.

“I’d better start with telling you about my situation to see … to see if you can work with me.” I’m used to some men feeling shy telling me about sensitive subjects, so I assumed the best re-assuring look I could and encouraged him to continue.

“Last year I was arrested for a no-contact sexual offense—for distribution of child pornography.” He paused and sighed. “This is usually the part where you tell me to leave and that you can’t work with me.”

Did I want to ask him to leave? Whatever I might have expected, this was not it. But I didn’t know anything about his history, so I explained to him that I wasn’t going to kick him out right then; rather, that Emmaus believes that everyone is worth helping, but that we specifically work with men who have been exploited in some way themselves.

Everyone is worth helping. That is what the message of Emmaus boils down to. Emmaus believes it, but did I? What did I really think should happen to someone who was not the victim, but the victimizer? Larry did not fit my expectation of what a predator looks like; the evil, soul-less crime lords depicted on Law & Order did not prepare me to confront this beat-down, ordinary-looking individual who had lost his family, house, and income because of his first offense.

“I take responsibility for what I did. I’ve been going to therapy for depression and addiction, I’m working with a lawyer, I’m looking for housing. I’ve been trying for a year. But when people hear what I did, no one will work with me.” He said wearily. “It’s like, people understand murder, but a sexual offense is just too much to deal with.”

This made me think. Was he right? Did the “ick factor” that affects many of our men hurt him as well? Upon reflection, I’m forced to admit that it does. There are whole TV shows dedicated to the stories of men and women on death row—people who actually ended a life—where they are interviewed and given a back-story, where the viewers are encouraged to understand their lives. Can you imagine such a show for sexual offenses? What if you had one relative convicted of murder and one convicted of a sexual offense—who would you be more ashamed to tell your friends about?

What Larry did was wrong—no question. Should he be held responsible? Yes, absolutely. But, does his offense mean he is ever-after a monster who should be shunned and find no place to turn to for help?

If you’re a Christian, the answer is simple: How does God feel about him? If God loves him, then we should too. The Bible doesn’t have lists of sins that exclude someone from being eligible for God’s grace and love. Rather, despite your sin, God says you are worth saving (Romans 8, 5:8). Our society makes it so easy to hate people like Larry. Our social justice system and culture give reasonable justifications for why he is now an outcast. But does the Church have a pass to agree with these justifications, or a mandate to reach beyond them?

In the end, Larry denied being a part of Emmaus’s client base, and left my office after thanking me for being “enlightened” (his word) enough not to reject him at face value. The thanks may not be fully deserved, but his visit and honesty have challenged me to strive ever more to love the way God does and see people the way he sees them. Emmaus is one of the only organizations that exists to help men like our guys—who is going to help Larry?

Breaking Bad

walter-whiteOne day, one of my fellow interns, Katie, told me she had a present for me. She handed me a shirt featuring the now iconic, mustachioed, scowling face of Walter White—the anti-hero of “Breaking Bad.” The caption read, “I am the danger,” one of White’s more famous, self-aggrandizing lines.

“Breaking Bad” is one of my favorite things and one of the few shows I’ve watched from beginning to end. The basic, now well-known story is introduced in the pilot and keeps snowballing with increased dread and drama for six seasons. The descent of an ordinary man into a world of drugs, murder, and a ruthless lust for power is unrelenting. The structure of the show’s moral order is inflexible. Throughout the series, characters reap what they sow, and in a story bereft of any blameless protagonist, the harvest is almost always destruction.

This was highly intentional on Vince Gilligan’s part, the show’s creator. He once summed up a personal philosophy of his by saying, “I want to believe there’s a heaven, but I can’t not believe there’s a hell.” As Gilligan views the world, he sees evil and the need for judgment as primary and inescapable. With all we hear these days of moral relativism, such staunch commitment to some semblance of justice is refreshing, even challenging, though I would say it’s a tad underdeveloped.

Even so, it’s easy to see how someone could have this take on the world. Creation decays and has devastating potential for corruption, and if our gaze is exclusively horizontal, it’s tempting to see that decay and evil as primary. True life, goodness, and beauty come only from God, and when we’re cut off from Him, it’s hard to account for any possibility for these things; though seemingly by nature, humans can’t help but long for them, as many Christians have observed before.

When God makes Himself known, though, when He begins to interfere with creation’s decay and the evil in the world, we begin to see something else as primary and inescapable. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.”

In the beginning…there was not evil, decay, or a world of twisted characters deserving retribution. In the beginning there was God with His Word and His Spirit. The fellowship and love of the persons of God with each other is primary.

That is the fundamental reality from which all else flows and to which all creation will be united again, according to God’s plan set forth in Jesus (Ephesians 1:10). It’s a reality whose glory will one day dwarf all the evil in the world, as large as it looms now (Romans 8:18). It is this perspective which makes life more livable, especially for the men we serve at Emmaus. The more we can get this truth in our heart and, by God’s grace, convey it to our men, the more hope we can impart for the otherwise hopeless realities in which we find ourselves.

Transformation Tuesday

Scrubbing the day’s culinary concoction from the stove one Tuesday after I had cooked lunch, I wasn’t expecting any conversations to come my way. It’s interesting, though, isn’t it, how these things rarely come when we expect them?

Craig came into the kitchen and started talking about a recent experience that he had. “Somebody came up to me in a car and offered me money to do stuff. And I was like ‘Nah, man. I don’t do that.’ The old me totally would have taken it, though.”

I admit that I was taken somewhat off-guard. It is not often that the men offer up stories regarding the hustling that they do or have done in the past. It is one of the topics that are still couched in shame, even in the safety of the Ministry Center. Given this rare opportunity, though, I wanted to follow up on it.

“So what changed? What’s different about the new Craig, and how did you get there?” I asked.

He paused for a moment as he thought. I wondered if he had ever thought about it before. “I guess just hanging out with people down here. You know, people who are positive influences on my life.”

Wow. That is the kind of answer that makes me wake up and come to work every morning. Just to think that even one person could be impacted by the work that we are doing is incredible. I know that he is interested in Christianity, but is not completely sold on it yet. Though he didn’t say in his answer, “I can tell that there is something different about you guys and I’m interested in getting it for myself,” I can hear some of that in how he responded and in other conversations I’ve had with him.

We as a staff have been studying evangelism and discipleship together, and one of the techniques we’ve been is taught is using transformation stories to convey the Gospel message to the men. After hearing this story, I can tell that Craig has experienced some transformation already, and I hope to be able to share some of my own transformation with him as well.

I love how much Jesus loves to break peoples’ chains of sin and shame and bring them into the freedom that he offers us. I have found it both motivating and comforting to focus my thoughts my hope for the future when every chain will be broken. Until then, we are living in the “already-not yet” period in which the Kingdom is here on Earth, but hasn’t been fully realized. I pray that Craig will, in his lifetime, be able to both receive the Kingdom for himself and help to break the chains of others using his own transformation story.

already-but-not-yet

The Glass Box

glass-box

I’ll be honest. I’m a young, white, female working a desk job, and sometimes I worry there will come a day when I won’t have anything in common with the men we serve. And now that I’m in an administrative position at Emmaus, I don’t have the same kind of consistent relationship with the men that I did as a Kaio member working daily in the Ministry Center or on Outreach.

The other day, I joined in a conversation with José and another staff member. José was sharing that he really wanted to move out of Chicago and go live with his extended family in Missouri. When I asked him why he wanted to leave Chicago, José said something that I’ve thought about every day since.

“I feel like my time in Chicago has been like I’m sitting in a glass box that’s suffocating and closing in on me. I’m forced to look out and see everyone else’s lives changing around me. Their lives are changing like the seasons of the year. Good things are happening for them, but I’m still here. Nothing has changed by me being in Chicago. I’m the same.”

As I listened to José, my eyes started tearing up. José had just verbalized exactly how I’ve been feeling lately, with the eloquence that so naturally accompanies his speech. In past few years that I’ve been in Chicago, I’ve seen my friends get engaged, married, and have two babies. In the short time I’ve been here, every single friend’s life has drastically changed, and I’m still here. The same. At that moment, I related to José in a way that I’ve never connected with an Emmaus guy before.

If I stopped writing, this would be a really depressing, self-pitying blog post. But the Lord has been consoling and doing a new work in my heart. He has been displaying His faithfulness and showing me that He is who He says He is. The Lord has been romancing me like crazy and expressing Himself to me in a new way. He is going to fulfill every promise He has made to me over the years. And He wants to do the same for José. The Lord promises us that we will see His goodness.

I wanted to share with José everything the Lord has been revealing to me these past few months. However at that moment, I was called away to take a phone call from one of our men in prison, and by the time I was off the phone, José had left for the day.

The reality with our men is that I do not know if I will see José again. (I guess this is a depressing blog post!) José might have already moved, for all I know, or he’ll show up at the Ministry Center tomorrow. Maybe José didn’t need to hear what I wanted to share with him that day. Perhaps God just wanted to remind me that I wasn’t alone in the glass box. Because as good as God is, it still hurts and at times seems hopeless.

But we are in it together. And the Lord is in the box with us.

“I’ve seen you out here before.”

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“I’ve seen you guys out here before. What are you doing?”

That’s what Lawrence said when he first walked up to where we were standing (dancing is more like it—no one stands still on February nights like these). He’s quiet, looks young, and isn’t really dressed warmly enough for this weather (Ah, youth.) We talk for a while, tell him about Emmaus, give him a card and invite him to the center. Later that night we see him again and help him get on a train to get to where he is staying. A fairly typical first interaction on Outreach.

It’s not until i’m drifting off to sleep later that night that i recognize the significance of those first words.

It’s been another cold winter in Chicago. Maybe not as bad as last year, but still cold enough to keep traffic down in Boystown. Also, a number of the men we usually see there have either moved, are incarcerated, or have just disappeared. So Andi and i have spent more than the usual number of lonely Outreach nights lately, with only each other’s scintillating discourse to keep us warm.

But when you do something unusual, people notice you. And if you keep doing something unusual, like an hour-long, slow, cold-feet dance at 2:00am on a corner in Boystown, week after week, people start to wonder what’s wrong with you. That’s why we stick with it. By the time curiosity gets the best of them, they already know you’re either very committed to what you’re doing, or a bit daft. Maybe both.

But the door is open.

Wins

put-yourself-in-my-placeEnds.
Some people will rob their mother for the ends.
Rat snitch on one another for the ends.
Sometimes kids get murdered for the ends.
So before we go any further, I want my ends.

— from “Ends,” by Everlast

There’s this song by Everlast which I love, called “Ends.” It’s about the ugly things people will do for money (i.e., “ends”), especially when they’re in a bad situation.

 

 

That song came to mind lately because I was thinking about the phenomenon of wins in life—especially in ministry—and what people do to get them. By a win, I mean a positive result that affirms us in the effort we’ve put forth for something. It didn’t take me long to see that you can change the lyrics of Ends just a little bit and it reflects what we’ll do in ministry to get the results we want.

Wins.
Some people will change their mission for the wins.
Jump ship, sell out their vision for the wins.
Drop those hard luck cases for the wins.
So before we go any further, I want some wins.

When you work with people in desperate need, like Emmaus does, wins can be hard to come by. It’s really tempting to focus just on people who are easier to help.

I see some otherwise great organizations doing this. Many homeless shelters in Chicago, for example, won’t serve people who struggle with mental illness, as our men do, because they’re notoriously difficult to help and that lowers the organizations’ overall success rates. In order to get money from foundations and donors, these places need to keep their success rates high. In order to keep their success rates high, they don’t help some truly desperate people.

Now, “truly desperate people” are the only ones we serve at Emmaus, but we’re not immune to this temptation. Even among our men there are the seriously hard luck cases—men who will take years just to achieve basic stability—and then there are the ones who need just a little help to get themselves over the hump. It’s hard not to want to focus just on that latter group.

Some days, all I want is to see some wins. I don’t want to deal with men who are hard to love or who’ll need years of patient, loving care before they make changes in their lives. I just want someone who can go from “zero to hero” in a year. But that’s not real life, and that’s not what Emmaus does. And, most importantly, that’s not how God has loved me.

Mother Teresa once said that God calls us to faithfulness, not success. When I’m weary and looking for an easier path, it’s important to remember that the only win that matters is the one at the end, when the Master says, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.”

Catching Up With Old Friends

For quite awhile, Jimmy spent nearly every night hanging out with us on Outreach.

“It’s about time for you guys to head back to the van tonight, isn’t it?” he would remind us.

“Oh yeah…thanks man, I guess it is!”

It got to the point where Jimmy knew my schedule better than I did. The majority of our time was spent discussing TV shows and trying to convince him to go to bed before 8:00 am so that he could get up in the morning to go to appointments and other social engagements. But Jimmy was lonely, he craved companionship, and he knew that he could count on us every night.

Emmaus.Outreach. small for web-23

I hadn’t seen Jimmy for over a year, until last night. We had just begun our night when I looked up to see a smiling figure looming just down the street from us. His hair would have made Einstein proud, and I would recognize it anywhere.

“Jimmy! It’s been a long time, my friend!”

Hugs and greetings were exchanged.

TV shows were discussed.

And as we kept talking, Jimmy shared a lot of good news. He told us how he was still in the same apartment, which at well over a year was longer than he’s maintained housing since I’ve known him. He’d found a new church that is closer to his place so he could be more involved with services and Bible studies. He even makes it out on retreats with them, here and there. Then he dropped the biggest news of all.

“I made my goal.” He said proudly, “I’ve stayed out of the hospital for an entire year.” One of Jimmy’s constant struggles was being in and out of the hospital for his depression. And it’s pretty tough to get all of life’s tasks done when you sleep until 3:00 pm every day and are continually hospitalized for depression.

We responded with congratulations, and continued to converse on our favorite stoop. Then 11:45 pm rolled around and Jimmy bid us farewell to go home, because he had some stuff he wanted to get done in the morning. My jaw slowly dropped as we watched him board the bus. Was this even the same guy, going home “early” and having planned engagements or events every day of the week (even if it was just a one- or two-hour adventure to at least get out of the house)?

It’s usually either very good or very bad when we don’t see somebody for a long time. Gotta love it when it’s one of the good times.

The Day I Left the Tomb

A Dramatic Re-Imagining of the Story of Lazarus

“It’s dark!” I yell. “I can’t see anything and I’m scared.” How am I supposed to live like this – stumbling around in the pitch-black night? Everyone will expect me to smile, to put on a brave face, and exclaim that I’m back, alive. But it’s dark. I’m alive, it’s true, but who is here to see it? I gaze through the darkness and wonder if this is all there is for me on this earth. Maybe other people, more worthy people, are meant to live in the light with joyful hearts and sun-kissed faces. But for me, just being alive is enough. I’m grateful and living, but am I really alive?

“Come out!” a strong, clear voice bellows through the silence.

Is he talking to me? Is he sure that I belong out there, after all this time in the dark? The truth is that I’m not even sure I know my way out anymore.

“Come out!” the voice calls out again, steady and insistent.

I wonder what it’s like out there, and the voice sounds inviting, but I’m fine, really. Who knows what trials await outside? It’s safer here; I know this darkness well.

“Come out!”

That voice—that infuriating, lovely voice. It’s awakened something within me that has been hibernating deep in my soul, something that beckons me closer to that distant pin prick of light. Could it be that the light is meant for me, too?

“Come out!”

I take a tentative breath and step forward, shuffling the rags on my feet that have been there so long that I’d almost forgotten they were there. I want to know what’s out there—I want to see again. This could hurt, but I have to believe that it will be worth it, that joy will come of these little shuffling steps.

“Here I am,” I utter meekly.

The sun almost blinds me, though it’s only peeking through the clouds. There are people all around, watching my squinty eyes. At first they stare in amazement, then they smile and I realize that I’m smiling, too. I look around, happy to be back among these sun-kissed faces, then I lock eyes with him and nothing else matters. I tear up because his face is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. It’s positively radiant; I know he is the owner of the strong, clear, steady, insistent, infuriating, lovely voice. What can I possibly say to the one who not only gave me a second animating breath, but the unquenchable feeling of being fully alive? As I rack my brain, I hear that glorious voice again, this time soft and compassionate.

“Take off those grave clothes, they have no place here. You once were dead, but now you live! Besides, I have something much better for you.”

I slowly shuck off the layers of dingy bandages and feel the grass beneath my feet, the wind blowing gently across my face and hands. He walks over slowly and carefully slips something over my head. The material is soft as silk, light and airy. I look down and see a stunning array of light purple violets cascading across the front of a simple and elegant white shift. I look up again and all I can muster is a simple “Thank you, it’s perfect.”

He smiles because he knows. I stretch out both my arms, lift my face, and laugh for the pure joy of it. Another breeze comes and it dances around me and my violets. I breathe it in and let it fill me; I breathe it out and I am ALIVE.

Resurrection

Little Breakthroughs

“I didn’t know you could have fun and be sober!”

What holds us back from change? It can be a lot of things. For most, change represents a lot of unknowns: Will I be good at it? Can I make it stick? Will it make me happy? It’s scary because usually no matter how bad our current circumstances are, they’re familiar. We’ve learned to cope with them, and we have no guarantee that change will make it any better.

It never occurred to me that Victor was worried about this particular aspect of sober living—simply having fun—until he made this happy pronouncement to me after spending some time with a sobriety support group. But it really makes sense. Even positive change requires a lot of unknowns. Fortunately God understands this and cares immensely about the little breakthroughs that re-assure our fears, even if it’s just about having a good time.

Keep praying with us for the rest of the little breakthroughs that Victor will see as he walks with God down the road to wholeness.

soberfun

The Mission

amandaEmmaus is not a place you get involved with and leave untouched. It is a place where you find beauty in brokenness. Throughout my time at Emmaus, even while I witnessed the slow process of progress with the men that Emmaus serves, I found constant hints of hope in the lives of the men.

I left the mission field of Emmaus Ministries over a year ago. After my four-month internship, I graduated from college and headed back home to the south suburbs of Chicago. Although I was excited to see what the future would hold, I felt sad to leave behind this ministry that had grabbed hold of my heart, and a bit nervous starting a new job as a fresh college graduate.

A full year after leaving Emmaus, I am no longer the “new person” at the mental health care facility where I work now. And I’m starting to become disenchanted and burned out with my job. Like at Emmaus, I’m in a position here to reach out to the broken, but mental health care can be a really taxing field to navigate.

I am not a morning person, and I was particularly grouchy this morning, but I managed to make it to work with a mug filled to the brim with coffee. My plan for the day was to slip into work, do what I needed to do for my eight hour shift, and slip out, with as little interaction as possible.

Apparently, God had different plans—actually, his were the exact opposite of mine! God is funny like that, isn’t he?

I came into work with a forced smile on my face to make it look like I’m at least trying. One of the clients made a point to thank me for my smile, and said that it meant a lot to see someone smile at him. This interaction got me thinking about the little things, and how sometimes the smallest things can mean the most. To me, it was no big deal, but to him that smile made his morning. I walked up to him, introduced myself, and our conversation quickly took off. We chatted about coffee, birds, and God, and we laughed a lot.

After some time, I got up, shook his hand, and told him that it was nice to meet him. As I walked away he stopped me, and with tears in his eyes, he said, “Thank you so much for laughing and talking with me.” I replied, “Of course! I enjoyed meeting you and chatting with you. Thank you for the laughs!”

With tears still in his eyes, he said, “No, you don’t understand. You see, I’m a prostitute. Not many people are kind to me. You don’t know how much this means to me.”

Emmaus’s mission suddenly became familiar to me again. I walked over to him and gave him a hug—an action which I’m sure is breaking some work rule or policy. I told him that he was loved. My work day ended in smiles.

The familiarity I felt wasn’t just about this man’s story, but a reminder of how we never actually leave the mission field. This entire planet is a mission field, and although I left Emmaus, the mission did not leave me. The mission field is sometimes a specific place, but we carry on the mission no matter where we go.

I rarely think about how God used me at Emmaus, but instead how God used the men to impact my life and teach me how to be a more loving and compassionate person. The men taught me how to carry out the mission beyond the walls of Emmaus and the city streets. Emmaus will always have a special place in my heart, and I’ll always look forward to returning for a hangout and some good food with the guys!

Maybe your mission field is a classroom, an office, or a coffee shop. Maybe your mission is smiling, high-fiving, acts of kindness, or telling someone they’re loved. Never underestimate the smallest thing, and certainly never underestimate your mission.

The mission is alive and well! Will you choose to accept it?

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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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Offices & Ministry Center:
Emmaus Ministries
4201 N Troy St
Chicago IL 60618

Financial Contributions:
Emmaus Ministries
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PO Box 431
Wheaton IL 60187-0431

773-334-6063
emmaus@streets.org

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