Sharing grace and mercy: Bill’s story
Bill grew up on Chicago’s West Side, one of six sons born to parents who struggled with serious addictions. His parents fought a lot, and both verbally abused their children. His father was an alcoholic who would beat Bill—and sometimes even molest him—when he was drunk. When Bill was 13, his parents both became hooked on crack-cocaine. To support their addiction, they began pimping out their sons to older men.
The family soon lost everything to crack. Bill and his brothers all became wards of the state. While Bill was sent to a foster home on the South Side, his brothers were sent to various group and foster homes all over Illinois. His parents moved to Wisconsin, but this was insignificant compared to the loss of his brothers, whom Bill considered to be his true, and only, family.
Bill soon ran away from the foster home and gravitated to Belmont Avenue in Boystown, Chicago’s main gay neighborhood. Before long, he himself became hooked on crack. When he was high, he was in paradise; he could forget the troubles in his life, he didn’t dwell on the pain of his past or worry about his future. But when he wasn’t high, he was in misery, and his main focus became how to get money in order to get high again. Bill started prostituting himself. He was 16 years old.
“Walking the streets, instant gratification … I was just out there in my madness,” Bill says, shaking his head as he looks back at those years.
Several of the drag queens on Belmont took him under their wings and taught him about hustling. Bill alternated between hanging out with them and being relatively solitary. It was during one of these times of being on his own that he learned about Emmaus.
In 1995, a couple of Emmaus’s Outreach volunteers introduced themselves to Bill. Expecting condemnation, Bill was surprised that they were kind; they told him there was a better way to live, and invited him to the Ministry Center. The idea of a safe place where he would be welcomed and treated with care beckoned to him, and while he didn’t trust that what Emmaus was offering was real, he decided to check it out.
He started coming to the Ministry Center—hesitantly at first, but then more regularly. After a couple of years, he says, “I started seeing the hands of God on my life. But I still wasn’t ready to change.” Bill continued to hustle on the streets, as well as pursue other illegal activities to feed his addiction. He went to prison six times: three times for retail theft and three times for armed robbery. Throughout it all, Emmaus stayed in contact with him, encouraging him and offering hope.
During his final time in prison, Bill realized he needed to change for good.
“I knew I needed something else,” he reflects. “What I had in my life wasn’t working.”
So one night he knelt in his prison cell and prayed to God for forgiveness. He opened his heart to Jesus, because he realized that only God could change his life.
Since that time, Bill has continued to grow. He finished an intensive year-long drug rehab and job training program through the Salvation Army. His life isn’t perfect. His recovery has sometimes been erratic, and he recognizes his own personal and spiritual shortcomings, but he has real hope that things can change for him in the long run. That vision includes a conviction that God is calling him to ministry work.
Bill has received grace and mercy, and he wants to share these with others who are living in pain and despair.