Pure, simple, and child-like—these were the hearts of those whom 11 Franciscan students ministered to over spring break. These were not the hearts of young children in orphanages or schools. No, these were the hearts of men in their 40s and 50s.
On the Friday that initiated spring break, Chicago mission packed into a large van and departed for the Windy City, arriving there early Saturday morning. They spent their week volunteering for Emmaus Ministries and ministering to men in survival prostitution.
“So often these men are homeless, addicted to drugs and alcoholics,” said Stephanie Cole, senior co-lead of Chicago mission. “If they aren’t involved in one of these areas currently, then they probably have been in the past.”
With the help of Emmaus Ministries, however, these men are offered a life beyond the streets. Cole explained that the men can go to the ministry center “to receive love and receive Christ as well as toiletries or a shower.”
Based on the Gospel story of the road to Emmaus, Emmaus Ministries is an ecumenical center that is all about meeting men in survival prostitution and becoming a part of their journey, said Cole. Additionally, it is centered on the table. Cole said, “Every day that they are open, they serve at least one meal that is family style, and they do this because so many of the men have never had a family dinner before.”
For the week of spring break, the Chicago mission team was brought into this beautiful ministry, beginning with their immersion night on Saturday. “Immersion night,” said Cole, “is something that Emmaus Ministries does to help volunteers see where the men that they serve are coming from.” That night, the team went to a gay bar in Boystown to observe and learn about the environment and culture that the men are surrounded by.
“We weren’t necessarily there to evangelize,” said Amelia Arth, a junior who went on Chicago mission for the first time this year. She said that they were simply there to engage in conversation and do some relational ministry.
After this first night of immersion, the team mainly worked within the Emmaus Ministries center where they helped to complete chores and cook for the men. Arth explained that around 11 a.m. everyday, the men would arrive, and then the team ate and hung out with them. Afterwards, they would take the men on an outing such as bowling, to a museum or even tie-dying.
One of the struggles that team faced was realizing how some of the men regressed in their journey, returning to drugs and drinking. Josh Fera, senior and co-lead of the mission, told a story about one of the men they met at the center who had just come off a weekend of binging on crack. The man returned to the center on Tuesday apologizing and trying to assure the team that he was a good man. On Wednesday, however, he did not return because he was again binging on crack.
“That was hard for our team,” said Fera, “just because we loved him so much. It was so easy to make that initial connection with him and care about him, but then it felt like he took the love that we were offering to him, threw it on the ground and stepped on it.”
Fera said the team was reflecting on this and realized: “Isn’t that how God pursues us and isn’t that what we do? Every time we sin doesn’t God love us all the more?” He said, “I feel like I love this man all the more because I care for him so much.”
The Chicago mission team also experienced many joys and blessings throughout their week. Cole could not help but be moved by the pure hearts and childlike faith of all the men whom they served. She said, “We see so much Christ in them, and they show us a part of Christ’s heart. Even though we were going to serve them, they always wanted to serve us in whatever way they could.”
Fera recalled when they took the men to the Holocaust museum and how impactful it was to see the men empathize with the suffering of all the Holocaust victims. Out of that experience, “the men shared how they thought of life as a gift, and that was really beautiful to hear,” said Fera.
Having returned from mission, the team learned many valuable lessons. Most importantly, they learned that their mission is not over. Fera said, “What we were doing is something that we should be doing everyday with everyone that we encounter.”