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The Distant Country

John Green

Sitting in the 24-hour McDonald’s at 1:00 a.m., Johnny looked a mess. His hair sat flat and slicked back on his head; his eyes darted around constantly, looking through the window behind me at each car that drove by. He chain-smoked and devoured his Big Mac before I even opened my Chicken McNuggets. Johnny was a hustler. A male prostitute. He sold his body on the streets to men in passing cars. He is the lost son of Luke 15, trapped in the “distant country” of sexual exploitation.

During the course of our meal Johnny opened up and told me about his life. I sat and listened, watching as he gradually stopped looking for potential “tricks” beyond the window and finally just stared down at his Happy Land placemat. His final few sentences came out in a hushed whisper. “I don’t know what to do. I want to get out, but I don’t know how. For the last three years I’ve gone home with the last trick of the night. I don’t know what to do.”

We sat there quietly as Johnny wept. Then he shook himself, focused on something over my shoulder, stood, and said he had to leave. I watched as he walked out the door, stopped at a waiting car, then got in and drove off with what might be his last trick of the night.

That was ten years ago. In the fall of 1990, through God’s grace and with the help of many friends, I founded an outreach to young adult men like Johnny who are involved in sexual exploitation on the streets of Chicago, Illinois. In November of 1990, Emmaus Ministries was a two-page “concept letter” about a vision to reach out to men like Johnny by providing a daytime drop-in center and a residential home where they could learn to live away from the streets.

Emmaus Ministries has grown in ten years. Our ministry is divided into three areas: evangelization, transformation, and education. Our ministries of evangelization include outreach on the streets every night of the week and several trips each year to a Christian music festival and a camp in the north woods of Wisconsin. Ministries of transformation consist of the work of our Ministry Center drop-in and our eight-bed Emmaus House residence. Ministries of education include “Immersion Night” experiences for interested groups to learn about street ministry and speaking and music engagements by my wife, Carolyn, and I.

Our ministry has nine staff members and 45 volunteers who reach an average of 300 men involved in prostitution annually. Thirty supporting Catholic and Evangelical churches, about 800 donors, and a few corporations and foundations provide our annual budget of $300,000. A ten-member board of directors oversees our work.

Our mission—”making Jesus known on the streets among young men involved in sexual exploitation”—is guided by four key values. Our faith in Jesus Christguides our steps and actions in ministry. We value relationship as the basis of ministry and the only way to share the Good News with these lost young men. We seek to reach those most wounded by the streets; people involved in prostitution are often the most preyed-upon and alienated people in our society. Lastly, we seek to be a ministry in which Evangelicals and Catholics together can reach out and show Christ’s love to the poor.

I am a cradle Catholic, a good little church boy who grew up in a middle-class suburb in Ohio, served six years as an altar boy, never got drunk or high, never smoked, and thought about becoming a priest. At 16, I received the sacrament of Confirmation. It was a powerful, mountaintop experience. The Holy Spirit came alive in my life in a new way. I dove into Scripture study, evangelized at my high school, went on mission trips with a local Protestant church, and gave witness talks at Catholic retreat programs. When my best friend in high school decided to go to Wheaton College near Chicago and told me it was a Christian school, I thought it sounded great. It was the only school I applied to.

At Wheaton, I found I was one of 12 Catholics amid 3,000 smart, dedicated, and very Evangelical Protestant students. Literally every day someone would ask me about being Catholic. Discussions ranged from the innocent—”I’ve never been to a Catholic church. What’s it like?”—to the challenging, such as debates on imputed versus infused righteousness or the legitimacy of apostolic succession. There were times when Jack Chick tracts appeared under my dorm room door or conversations stopped when I came into a room. But I met many “separated brethren” who accepted and embraced me, and I found many professors who encouraged and nurtured my Catholic faith. I worked part-time as a youth minister at a local Catholic church.

In my junior year, 1986, I dropped out of college to live and work in New York City as a member of the Covenant House lay community. For two years I worked with street kids and found that I loved urban street ministry more than suburban youth ministry. It was there I ran into several male prostitutes whose stories and lives left a strong impression on me. Returning to Wheaton in 1989 to finish my bachelor’s degree, I started going to Chicago one night a week to walk the streets. I ran into many guys involved in prostitution. Then I met Johnny. It broke my heart that anyone would sell his body to survive. It also angered me that, in a city with so many resources and a church community so broad and diverse, there weren’t any Christians on the streets reaching out to guys like Johnny.

Male prostitution is on the rise. In 1970, according to the FBI Uniformed Crime Report, 20.7 percent of those arrested for prostitution were male. By 1997, that had risen to 42 percent. The Chicago police report that the majority of the 2,963 men arrested for prostitution in the city in 1997 were between the ages of 25 and 44. It is estimated that men enter prostitution between the ages of 11 and 25. Many of the young hustlers get picked up by “sugar daddies” or escort services; after a few years, when they are no longer young and attractive, they end up in the bars or on the streets.

About three quarters of men involved in homosexual prostitution consider themselves heterosexual. This means most of them will do a few shots of alcohol, snort some cocaine, or smoke some pot—anything to numb themselves—before they work the streets. This tends to create a substance addiction. To feed the addiction they prostitute more, which means they use more. A cycle of addiction and prostitution takes over and can consume a man’s life for years.

James first learned about prostitution while in the soup kitchen line at my parish church. St. Thomas of Canterbury serves a meal twice a week to over 600 street people. Fr. Richard Simon, the pastor, has a great love for the poor and a commitment to excellent preaching and teaching. Our K-8 Catholic school has 270 kids speaking 30 different languages. Mass on Sundays is said in five languages. It is a poor parish but a generous one.

James didn’t know about all that, though. He was homeless and hungry, so he went to Canterbury for a meal. “I was standing in the soup kitchen line, you know,” he said. “This friend of mine comes up to me. He has this stupid grin on his face, and I ask him what’s up. He told me he went down to Halsted Street and made 50 bucks for taking off his shirt!”

To James, $50 meant a two-night stay in a flophouse where he didn’t have to watch his back. He went down to Halsted, and an older man in a nice car drove up beside him. James got in. So began a five-year tumble into prostitution.

James came by our Ministry Center after having been met by one of our outreach teams. For four months he dropped by and talked. Finally he agreed to go to an alcohol recovery program. We sent him to one in Kansas. He finished his program, joined the staff of that ministry, and still lives there. James just completed a program in lay ministry at the Catholic Church he attends. He now works at a retail store and sends us encouraging letters every so often, usually with a small donation to our ministry.

But it is not the guys like James who keep me going. It’s the Johnnys. When he got into that car outside the McDonald’s, it was the last time I saw Johnny. He had been a regular on the Chicago streets for years. I don’t know what happened to him. He might have quit the streets, gotten a job, and gone to college, but that’s not likely. He is probably in prison, in a long-term mental health facility, or dead. Those are the three options for our guys unless they get off the streets. It is the guys I lose to the streets or to killers or to prison who motivate me to reach out even harder. Francis of Assisi once said, “We have been called to heal wounds, to unite what has fallen apart, and to bring home those who have lost their way.” That’s what we do.

It has taken a lot of work to get our ministry off the ground. Through the years, I’ve found some key principles that will help any evangelizing effort:

• Clarify your vision, mission, and plan. These are the three legs the table of ministry stands upon. Take one away and your work will crumble. Your vision is the horizon you can’t make out through the distant haze but you know is there. Your mission is the car or vehicle you will use to get to that vision. Your plan is the road you can see before you. 

• Find mentors. There are four people I meet with who help guide me spiritually and professionally. I listen intently to what they say and allow the Lord to speak to my life through them.

• Be fireable. As Emmaus Ministries’ executive director, I have a board of directors that I report to monthly. Its job is to set and monitor policy, find resources, and evaluate—and, if need be, fire—me. Ministries in which the founder or leader is accountable to no one are disasters waiting to happen. We all need accountability. Everyone should be in a position to be fired.

• Don’t be a ministry junkie. Too many people sacrifice their faith, families, and health for “ministry.” This does not honor God. We think that if we work hard enough, pray enough, and minister enough that this vision in our heads will become real. For people who think this way, “enough” does not exist. Order your priorities: God, family, health, and then ministry. This is my hardest ongoing area of struggle.

There are thousands of Johnnys on the streets of this country. Our ministry reaches out to them and calls these prodigal sons home. It is what the Lord has called us to do.

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