Cooking up some change: Lenny’s story
Lenny was born in a small town in Mississippi. Everyone there was poora, but no one knew it – they grew their own food and lived simply.
Lenny was the youngest of five kids. He had a different father than his four siblings. To make ends meet, Lenny’s mother sent her four other children to live with their father and raised Lenny on her own. She worked in the cotton fields six days a week; her depression over the long hours and hard work led her to become an alcoholic. As a result, Lenny swore he would never be a drunk like his mother.
When Lenny was 12, he and his mother moved to Chicago.
“That’s when I found out we was poor,” he said.
The kids at school had more money, wore nicer clothes and shoes, and made fun of him because of his accent and his poverty.
Lenny’s mother couldn’t find a job and went on welfare. Not being able to work depressed her further, and her alcoholism became significantly worse. Meanwhile, Lenny tried to fit in with his new classmates by drinking and smoking weed.
When he was 15, he got involved with a group of kids who knew some older gay men down the street.
He and his friends would go to the men’s houses, the men would get them high or drunk, and they would then molest the boys and pay them money. This became Lenny’s means to afford the drugs and nicer clothes that seemed essential to his acceptance.
At 17, Lenny got a fake ID and began hustling in gay bars. He made lots of money, but the lifestyle became a trap.
A couple of years later he got a good job working at a high-end hotel in the Loop, and was eventually promoted to head up the daytime service staff. He found himself unable to stop hustling at night, though, and as a result of his late nights and drug use, he lost his job at the hotel. His behavior also isolated him from his siblings, who knew about what he did and didn’t approve.
When he was 21, Lenny’s mother died. She’d been in a coma for almost a year. This was the first time Lenny remembers praying to God. He asked God to heal his mother. But if God wouldn’t heal her, he asked him to take her quickly and end her suffering. Six hours after he prayed this prayer, his sister contacted him to let him know that their mother had just died.
After his mother’s death, Lenny became extremely depressed. He started smoking crack, and began hustling on the streets. He went in and out of rehab, but it didn’t take. All this time, Lenny had maintained his own apartment, either through legitimate jobs or with his money from hustling. He was never homeless. This fact made him arrogant, and led him to believe that he was better than other hustlers, who “needed help.”
He heard about Emmaus in 2005 from one of his best friends, a guy who used to hustle and who had been coming down to Emmaus for years. Lenny came to the Ministry Center a couple of times that year, but left because he thought he was better than the guys who were there.
Two years later, his life had descended into even more chaos. He realized that he was taking terrible risks by getting into cars with strangers, and his judgment was often impaired by harder and harder drug use. Lenny realized that he was no better than the other men–that he, too, needed help. Lenny came to Emmaus again, and kept coming.
During his intake interview with Lennette, she assigned him cooking duties after he told her he’d worked in catering. The act of cooking meals for the men gave Lenny a sense of dignity and purpose that was central to his recovery. He stopped hustling. He went to rehab and successfully kicked his habits of drinking, using drugs, and promiscuous sex. He’s been clean for over four years.
Lenny found a second family at Emmaus.
“I can come to Lennette or Sill and I can just talk to them. I can vent, and they don’t judge me. They just listen. I can tell them things I wouldn’t tell my family. I trust them and I trust their advice.”
Today Lenny is a chef for a caterer with contracts all over Chicagoland. He loves it, and attributes his success to Emmaus.
“The ministry has done a lot for me. I’ve gotten back to working since I’ve been here. Emmaus gave me inspiration to get up, go to work, and improve myself.”
Today, Lenny is a fixture in the Ministry Center. He is one of the biggest inspirations to men who are still on the streets, or who are in the midst of their own recovery. He has discovered that, having been helped, he now thrives on helping others.
“I enjoy talking with the guys, helping them, and holding them accountable.”