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Bug vs. Broom: Lessons From My Kitchen Floor

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“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

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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.”

Facing Adversity

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Ryan’s positive attitude always seems to work its way into my system. When I learned of his plan to send his daughter to school by collecting aluminum cans, he quickly overcame my skepticism as he explained how he had already raised hundreds of dollars through friends, neighbors, and various organizations. So I was surprised to hear that he had put his plan on hold. As the story unfolded, it turns out that Ryan was carrying his cans when he was confronted by the police. Even though he obtains his cans by donation, they gave him a ticket for dumpster diving.

This incident caused me to reflect, once again, about the unfair challenges faced by the men we serve. I feel pretty certain that I wouldn’t be given a ticket for dumpster diving, even if I was caught in the act. And why is it that men who have recently been released from prison frequently ask me why, now that they are trying to do things the right way, life has become so much more difficult? Why do they share with frustration that it was often easier to take care of themselves, and those they care about, when following their old, destructive patterns and habits?

Sadly, this disparity happens all too often to the men we serve. Yet this is another reason that I’m glad Emmaus is here. I hope that when difficulties inevitably arise, the men will remember they can find encouragement and love at Emmaus. I hope that they will use Emmaus as a place to recharge and find respite from the storms of life.

Please pray that the men will find courage to press on, to fix their eyes upon Jesus, and to run the race marked out for them (Hebrews 12:1-2).

Those Steubs

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This morning, José came by after not seeing him for two weeks—a very long time to not hear from or see him. We caught up and had a really lovely conversation. Please pray for him!

A week or so ago, the cops came by the viaduct he’d been sleeping under and trashed his tent and all his earthly belongings. I asked José how being stripped of everything he owned made him feel. José said that at first he kept asking God, “Why me?” because the cops didn’t take his neighbor’s tent. He said it was like the wind was knocked out of him. But then, he realized that he was too attached to his stuff and it was materialistic to think that way.

Our guys never cease to amaze me and teach me life lessons. José has no clue, but his words pierced me. Here is a man who was dispossessed of every single thing he owned, while I’ve been struggling with the desire to make more money, own nicer clothes, and have things that “normal” people have like a car. (This was probably fueled by riding my bike home in a hail storm this week!) But, that is an unholy desire, and we have the better part. José literally has nothing but the clothes on his back, and while he’s heartbroken about what happened, he also knows that “moth and rust destroys.” We have everything we need, and our God is a God who provides for and takes care of His children.

I also asked José about his drinking. José has had a drinking problem from the time he was very young, and I wanted to gauge if the reason we haven’t seen him in two weeks was because he had been on a drinking binge. This should teach me to not always expect the worse of our men and allow myself to be surprised!

José said that since the students from Franciscan University of Steubenville came to Emmaus during their spring break, he hasn’t had a single sip of alcohol and doesn’t plan on it. The students led a retreat one day that convicted José to quit the bottle. Praise God!

José shared that his friends and the other guys under the viaduct don’t understand what’s wrong with him, and keep pressuring him to drink. When I asked José what stops him from having one drink, he responded, “the hospital.” The week before Steubenville came to Emmaus, José was found passed out drunk on a city sidewalk freezing to death. If the police did not find him, he would have most likely died from hypothermia and an alcohol blackout/poisoning. But thankfully, José is alive and has not had a drink in almost a month and a half. That is the longest he has gone without drinking.

These are the stories that keep me going.

Before José left my office, I happened to sneeze, and he looked at me very intently. After the requisite “God bless you,” he exclaimed, “Katie, you know what that means, right? Your sneeze?” I laughed and said that I didn’t. José exhorted, “Every time you sneeze, Katie, it means that someone has you on their mind.” Ha! So if you sneeze today…

For Those Who Feel Broken

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“Can I just tell you guys something?” the man at the Circle K asked gruffly. I braced myself for whatever might come next; it was 1 am, I was exhausted, and I wasn’t sure I had the energy for something emotionally or spiritually draining. “I just broke up with my girl and I’m mad about it, but I’m not sure I did the right thing…” he went on.

I breathed a sigh of relief because it appeared that this conversation would be relatively superficial, with this gentleman venting to us about his ex-girlfriend. As he was talking, though, things quickly went deeper. He started talking about his childhood and growing up as a pastor’s son. We talked about his spiritual life, prayer, his views on Jesus, and much more. I was still completely exhausted, but somehow, I was finding words that seemed to resonate deeply with this man. I felt like my brain was barely functioning well enough to keep me upright. How was it that I was able to speak into this man’s life when, honestly, I felt more like the one who needed help and encouragement?

As I was preparing to wrap up our conversation, which seemed to have been very fruitful, “Joey” and another man who seemed like he might be hustling walked up to us and joined the conversation. We talked more about Jesus and what it means to receive grace and love others. After we had been talking for about 20 minutes as a group, someone suggested that we all pray together. I felt so honored to lead the prayer that night, after which we parted with handshakes and hugs.

As I drove home, completely exhausted, I reflected on my surprise at the events of the night. I had been sure that God would not choose to use me for anything spiritual that night because I was not feeling present enough or strong enough to handle it. However, even in those moments of weakness, God chose to use me for his Kingdom’s work. He gave me strength and wisdom for the moment and orchestrated everything so that we could share his love with three people instead of just one and have a deep, spiritual conversation instead of a superficial one. Sometimes I believe that God can only use me when I’m on the top of my game, but I have been seeing more and more that he loves to use imperfect, tired, and weak people to show his strength.

So, take heart! Even if you feel like a broken vessel, God can still use you to pour out his love.

Settling For Hell

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“If you were to die tonight, do you know where you would go?”

I don’t usually start conversations this way. But Philip was in the hospital after relapsing, his body ravaged by crack, and I felt the Spirit leading me to probe him deeply about his spiritual state.

“I think I’d go to hell,” Philip replied.

“Why?”

“Because I don’t have a personal relationship with Christ.”

“What do you think hell will be like?” I probed.

“I’ve heard it’s hot,” Philip replied. “But I think I’d get used to it.”

Philip has gotten used to a lot of “hell” in his life: his father’s absence, gang banging, an alcohol addiction that he thought would mask his feelings of worthlessness but that landed him on the streets instead. Not to mention heavier drugs, homelessness, and prostitution.

As I drove away from the hospital and reflected on our conversation, the Holy Spirit turned the question around on me. “Christ came to give you life. But what hell are you settling for instead?”

The Bible says that hell is not just a hot place, but eternal separation from God; the absence of God. It also says that heaven is not just a destination after death; Christ shares eternal life with us now as we abide in him.

I thought of our men and the “hells” they often settle for: addictions, abusive relationships, homelessness. Sometimes they really are nearly powerless to get out of their situations—there is a severe shortage of good treatment, mental health care, and affordable housing options in Chicago. But often, after a lifetime of discouragement and hopelessness, people choose to settle for the “hell” they know rather than forging the unknown path to seek life.

“But what about you?” the Spirit asked. “Are you really abiding in Christ’s eternal life, or are you settling for a kind of hell? What habits and practices separate you from God instead of drawing you nearer to him?”

Our supporters are awesome!

I love the men we work with, the staff i get to labor alongside, and our board. But i also love our supporters. Because besides being Jesus-loving people with hearts for the men we serve, they are also the kind of people who, instead of lying on a hammock on a beautiful spring day in April, may come to Emmaus’s Open House, ooh and aah at our new building and the renovations we’ve done, then sit in a darkened room to see Stories from the Streets: Going Home.

And later, we may find a message on our whiteboard:

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Emmaus has some wonderful people in its corner. We are blessed.

Is it worth it?

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Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to [Jesus]. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. – Luke 15:107

As Educational Ministries Director, a big part of my job is sharing about Emmaus at churches, colleges, and universities. Last month I visited Christian Life College and spoke during chapel. Although I do this kind of thing fairly often, I have never gotten the kind of response I did that day.

After my presentation, a student raised his hand and said that he had a word of encouragement for our staff. One of his friends recently ended up on the streets after his parents had kicked him out of the house. This friend had been caught up in the wrong crowd, and his parents couldn’t take his behavior anymore. When he landed on the streets, he was broke and needed money. He was introduced to prostitution and had been hustling for about two months when he met an Emmaus Outreach volunteer. I don’t know whom he spoke with and probably never will, but this Outreach volunteer was filled with the Spirit and spoke a word into this young man’s heart. He later told his friend at Christian Life that something powerful stirred within him. He went home that night and reconciled with his parents. He’s now living back at home, no longer drugs using or hanging with the wrong people, and he hasn’t prostituted since that night.

Since I was standing in front of twenty or so students, I tried to control my expression, but in that moment I wanted to start crying or leaping for joy. Praise God!

Honestly, I haven’t heard a story like that in too long. Day in and day out, I ask myself if I’m doing enough and if this ministry is “worth it.” But I know that if I work at Emmaus for another decade without a success like that one, it will be enough, because one man is no longer selling his body to survive.

Thank you, Jesus. Thank you, Emmaus volunteer, whoever you are. That one sheep was lost and is now found.

The Best Medicine

I was recently thinking about what it was like when I first showed up at Emmaus, wide-eyed and not sure what to expect. One fear I had early on was that I wouldn’t have anything in common with these men. Would I be able to hold their interest, discuss serious things, have casual conversatons? How could I build these relationships?

The answer was much simpler than I expected it to be. In fact, it was within the first week that this doubt was banished from my mind.

I still remember sitting around the table with the men and other staff. Or rather, I remember because it happens every single day. We share food, stories, opinions, jokes … anything you would expect a family to discuss over a meal.

I share passions and hobbies with some of the men I have met at Emmaus. Some I click with quickly and naturally; relationships with others have different dynamics. But as I observed the community around me that very first week, I saw that there was something so simple, and so powerful, that connected everyone in the room: laughter.

No matter who a person is or where they’re from, they love to laugh. We love to sit around with the people we love and immerse ourselves in joy. Whether it’s sharing stories, exchanging one-liners, or telling good old-fashioned knock-knock jokes, everybody’s heart is lightened in the way that only laughter can accomplish. If we can laugh, we can hope.

Laughter truly is the best medicine.

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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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4201 N Troy St
Chicago IL 60618

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emmaus@streets.org

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