Hope for the journey: Leon’s story
Leon grew up on Chicago’s South Side, the eldest of 13 children of a strict Christian preacher. His family had trouble finding landlords who would take a family of 15, so Leon’s father would often send eight or nine of the children to live with different relatives for a couple months whenever they moved into a new apartment. He’d tell the landlord that he only had four or five kids in order to get an apartment, and after his family was allowed to move in, he’d quietly bring his other children into the home. Their landlords were never happy about that, and often asked them to move out. Leon remembers moving frequently when he was very young.
When Leon was about 12, his family finally found a house they could afford on the south side of Chicago, and they stopped moving. Leon enjoyed the stability of a single home and excelled in athletics and music at school. He also assumed the role of family protector, and watched out for his eight sisters and four younger brothers.
To avoid joining the local gangs, who constantly tried to recruit him because of his size and athletic skills, Leon began working odd jobs in the community to make some money. The one job he did most often was carrying groceries for elderly people.
When he was 13, an older boy in the neighborhood told him that there was an old lady who needed help carrying her groceries in one of the apartment buildings. Leon followed the boy into the “old lady’s” apartment, but no one was there. It turned out that the other boy had been following Leon for several days, looking for an opportunity to get him alone. He was bigger and stronger than Leon; he trapped him in the room and raped him. Leon felt tremendous shame and guilt over being raped. He also felt rage and powerlessness at not being able to stop it. He didn’t tell anyone in his family about it, but the memory would haunt him for decades.
He continued to excel at sports in school as a star on the football, swimming, track, and wrestling teams. He continued to grow as a singer and musician. He joined an all-male singing group in high school, and also formed a traveling gospel choir with two of his sisters. Still, the shame and guilt he lived with continued to torment him. The other guys in his singing group introduced him to alcohol, and he started drinking heavily. After graduation, he left Chicago and joined the Marine Corps.
He traveled around the world in the Marine Corps, and after he left the Marines he returned to Chicago with a Hawaiian wife and an infant son. Leaving the Marine Corps hadn’t been his idea, though. He’d been dishonorably discharged after getting into a fight with another soldier. He continued his drinking, and worked several low-paying jobs to make ends meet and support his family. After a year, his wife left him and returned to Hawaii. Six months later, she called him to tell him that their son had died in a tragic accident. Leon wasn’t able to attend the funeral. He was devastated.
He started smoking crack/cocaine, and developed a career as a male stripper in an attempt to continue his life as a performer and entertainer. At the strip club, he quickly turned to exchanging sex for favors and drugs. He married another woman during this time and they had two children.
In his mid-30s, he was arrested for cocaine possession, and went to prison. When he was released, he had few prospects. He started hustling to survive, and then started dancing at a gay club in Boystown. That was where he met Outreach ministers from Emmaus.
Leon started coming down the MC soon after he met people on Outreach. He was attracted to the Christian atmosphere, which reminded him of growing up with his family in church. He was also attracted to the love and acceptance they offered him. He continued coming down for several years, going in and out of rehab, but didn’t really fully committing to getting clean until, at the age of 51, he realized he truly needed to get clean. Through Emmaus, he found a long-term rehab program that worked for him, and he finally stopped drinking and smoking crack. That was when his healing could begin.
Today Leon is a more humble man, who readily admits he’s still in recovery. He’s been clean for almost five years, and has reconnected with his son and daughter and his grandchildren. He has his own apartment, and he works as a licensed street performer, singing the gospel songs he grew up with. His journey to wholeness is still ongoing, but he’s facing it with more hope today than he’s had in 40 years.