For two years in college I worked for a Christian organization that ministers exclusively to male prostitutes. The organization is called Emmaus Ministries, and it was founded in Chicago in 1990 and later in Houston, where I worked, in 2002.
The typical man who comes to Emmaus was abused as a child by members of his family. He left home in his early teens and began prostituting to support himself. He’s homeless. He’s an alcoholic or addicted to crack, and he’s got HIV. He doesn’t think of himself as “gay” but keeps “hustling” for the sake of food and drugs. The main goal of Emmaus is to show this man the face of Christ—to remind him of his dignity as a man, to introduce him to the beauty of Christian life, and to direct his gaze to the eternal glory Christ promises.
The practice of the ministry is twofold. First, the volunteers go out in pairs. My partner and I used to go to a Holy Hour of Eucharistic adoration at 9pm. From 10pm to 2am we walked the streets where the men solicit customers. There we would engage them in conversation and invite them to visit the Emmaus house for prayer and a midday meal.
The house was open two or three times per week. The men would arrive at midmorning and join the volunteers in Lauds. Then they could take a shower and look through the collection of used clothing. There was also a time to meet with each man in private to discuss his relationship with God and to develop a plan for getting off the streets. When the table was set, we all enjoyed a family-style meal—a kind of antithesis to the anxiety and manipulation that prevail in the lives of these men. After dinner, everyone helped to clean up, and all who weren’t in a private meeting enjoyed each other’s company into the midafternoon.
One day, “Tony”—an Emmaus regular—came late to the house. We were especially glad to see him because he hadn’t visited in weeks. Cheerily he told us that he had just completed a serious rehabilitation program and had already purchased a bus ticket out of town. Not wanting to see his associates from the streets, Tony took his lunch to go.
A few days later, my ministry partner and I were out walking the streets when we noticed the flashing lights of an ambulance a few blocks away. A small crowd had gathered around someone lying in the street. As we approached, we couldn’t make out who it was or what was wrong. Upon arrival I was surprised to find Tony lying semi-conscious in the midst of the bystanders.
Tony was reluctant to let the paramedics do their work (as a rule, the men hated going to the hospital), so my partner knelt down beside him to give comfort and encouragement. I felt sorry for Tony. Not only had he fallen off the wagon and incurred the hassle of a hospital stay, he had debased himself (again) in front of some of the few “respectable” people who took him for reformed. Yet, I knew that if I had suffered all that he had suffered in life, I myself might have been laid out in that street.
When Tony finally allowed himself to be placed on a stretcher and put into the ambulance, there was something admirable in the act—a humble willingness to be helped for the hundredth time. In fact, the whole scene seemed to me an image of the sacrament of Penance. Yes, hospital stays can be inconvenient, and it’s embarrassing when flashing lights alert bystanders that one has drunk himself into paralysis. But if sin has us lying dazed in the middle of the street, what remains but to get gracefully into the ambulance?
Image: Raphael, The Healing of the Lame Man