It's past 8 o'clock on a Wednesday night and Randy Gambony of Chicago's Emmaus Ministries hoists a sack full of paperback Bibles and free personal hygiene kits onto his shoulder.
For the next six hours, until 2 a.m., he and his Emmaus partner will cruise the city's mean streets and bars reaching out to male prostitutes. As he walks through the River North area, Gambony wears a name badge, T-shirt, and a baseball cap stamped with the Emmaus name and logo. His goal is to build relationships, meet a need, and—somewhere in the process—share his own story about how Jesus turned his life around.
Gambony was in prison when Emmaus was launched in 1990, the brainchild of John Green, who was attending Wheaton College when exposure to Chicago's inner city broke his heart. Green eventually relocated to New York, working with teenage runaways. But he could not forget Chicago's young male hustlers. He returned to Wheaton for graduate school and later started Emmaus.
Green says, "Some Christians tell me, 'Those guys on the street make choices.' But I say: They don't have the same choices as you and I. Many are school dropouts. They come from broken homes and are often homeless.
"The majority of them still consider themselves heterosexual, even though their tricks or clients are homosexual." Many are also drug abusers working to feed their addiction. "The drug habit keeps them hustling. It's a vicious cycle. Our goal is to make Jesus known to them and to give them a way out."
Emmaus methods are threefold: First, ministry teams make contact and build relationships with male hustlers. Next, a second team, also walking the streets, focuses on prayer. Third, a nearby drop-in center offers a meal, laundry facilities, showers, a clothes closet, a telephone, and Bible discussions.
Gambony says maybe his life would have turned around more quickly if Emmaus had been around when he lived in the same neighborhood Emmaus serves.
After his father deserted the family, Gambony was on his own at 16, unable to read or write, surviving by his wits. "I didn't hustle my body, but that's about the only thing I didn't sell. I was a mess."
After halting his own downward spiral with the intervention of Christian friends, Gambony earned a college degree and now attends seminary near Chicago.
Four nights a week, he reaches out to young men who walk on the wild side. "They know me by name," Gambony says of the men on his beat. "They know I'll always be around at the same time in the same place. It takes a long time to build trust."
On the corner of one sidestreet, a tall, handsome man approaches Gambony, who says, "What's happening? Can you use a dop kit? It's got toothpaste, toothbrush, deodorant, shaving cream, disposable razor, aspirin, and a comb."
The man takes the kit. "Thanks. Who are you guys with?"
Gambony replies, "Emmaus Ministries. Our number is printed right there on the side of the bag."
"Oh, yeah!" The man's eyes light up. "I've got your card." He reaches into a pocket and pulls out a well-worn Emmaus business card with the center's address and 800 number. "I keep it with me, just in case."
"Why not come by our drop-in center tomorrow for lunch? Then you can tell me what we can do to help you get off the street." The young man mumbles a noncommittal answer and moves on.
Gambony spots another man sitting on the steps of a dimly lit entryway in hospital scrubs. He sits down alongside him and strikes up a conversation. The act of sitting down beside the man is intentional—assuming the attitude of a peer.
"I need help getting my state id card," the man says. Without the photo id card, which serves as substitute identification in the absence of a driver's license, he cannot apply for a job, access food pantries, or even get some housing.
Gambony explains how he can help and how the young man can use Emmaus's address for mailing purposes or use their phone number for call-backs on job interviews.
The man eagerly accepts a dop kit and the Bible offered, saying poignantly, "I know it's not right to sell my body. My mother was a God-fearing woman. But I've got aids, and I can't get a job."
Gambony doesn't debate the man's logic or question the truthfulness of his story. He shares a brief testimony and offers to pray for the man, which the man eagerly accepts.
Emmaus ministers know that leaving the street is harder than it looks to outsiders looking in. Progress comes very slowly. George, 38, is one of the ministry's success stories. He says, "My heart could feel the compassion the Emmaus folks showed me, but my mind kept following the demands of my body."
George had several relapses before he finally accepted Christ and left the street for good. He now lives with John Green and his wife in the Emmaus six-flat building above the drop-in center.
Emmaus helped George get into a detox program. He has been "clean" for 14 months.
"I was helping people go to hell when I was on the street," George says. "Now I help them go to heaven. I would still be on crack or probably dead if God hadn't put Emmaus people in my life."
John Green says learning to extend Christian love to male prostitutes requires a paradigm shift for most Christians. So Emmaus offers carefully structured Immersion Nights for Christian adults.
The groups gather at the drop-in center for an hour-long briefing. Then they are sent into the areas where Emmaus ministers. One particular night, a group of 15 Christian postcollege students from a Presbyterian church in Seattle are about to get a look at Chicago's dark side. They are spending a full week in Chicago getting hands-on experience in different urban ministries.
Green urges them to have the attitude of learners and to sit on their opinions. "This is not a night for evangelism," he tells them. "This is a night for conversation. You're on their turf. Respect that. Sit in one bar for at least an hour to get a truer sense of their world. Pay attention to what you are seeing and feeling, and come back with five observations."
He issues a special caution about the pornography they will encounter. "Guard your mind. Many of the bars show pornographic homosexual videos on the tvs. Sit under the tv sets so you won't have to look at them."
The group is broken down into male-female pairs, given a map of the neighborhood, and told to return in four hours for a debriefing session.
When the group reassembles around midnight, their feedback tells Green the immersion has had the desired effect.
A clean-cut man in his mid-20s chimes in, "The guy I spoke with was a guy like me in many ways. I enjoyed talking with him. He asked if we knew we were in a gay bar—since we stuck out—but everyone was very friendly to us."
Another participant said, "It struck me, as I was sitting in the bar, that this was where Jesus would have hung out if he were here. And he was there, in me."
Green says, "Christians come here hoping to evangelize the street. But night ministry evangelizes them. It challenges their preconceived notions. The church has a tough time dealing with homosexuals. But when you sit down and have a conversation with an actual person, it's no longer a dictionary term. The issue suddenly has a name and a face."
Today, 30 churches support Emmaus. Alfred Coleman, Emmaus coordinator, says, "The biggest myth about this ministry is that it's difficult. It's no different than taking food to the elderly or leading a Bible study. We're all doing God's business."
Copyright © 1999 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.