Outreach ministry on the streets, says Deacon John Green, is sort like being a lazy man fishing. 

“You just go and sit on a bench and take your time,” said Green, who founded Emmaus Ministries to reach out to male prostitutes in Chicago 20 years ago. “Eventually, people get to know who you are, and they will approach you.” 

“Hope is a commodity that just seems important to have,” he said. “We tell them: ‘There’s something more. There’s something better. God has a place for you that goes far beyond these streets.’” 

Forms of ministry 

Green started Emmaus after he graduated from Wheaton College, an evangelical Christian institution in the suburbs west of Chicago. He had dropped out for a time, and worked at Covenant House in New York, and on the streets of Guatemala City and Mexico City. When he returned to Wheaton College, he began spending a night or two a week in the city, trying to help the men and boys he found trying to sell themselves. By 1990, he had graduated and incorporated Emmaus Ministries as a not-for-profit. 

He began considering the diaconate in the mid-1990s, but wasn’t old enough to be ordained. But he started the four-year formation process in 1998, and was ordained in 2002 at the age of 37. 

“Diaconal ministry was really a very comfortable set of shoes for me to step into,” Green said. The formation process was valuable for the relationships it created and for the experience he got in other kinds of ministry, in hospitals and prisons. “I had been doing full-time Christian ministry for a decade,” he said. 

The role of the deacon at Mass has helped him connect to the liturgy in new ways, he said. 

While more deacons have become involved, Emmaus remains true to its ecumenical roots, with about 45 volunteers and staff from a variety of Christian traditions. Volunteers who do street outreach travel in pairs: men with women, Catholics with Protestants, whites with minorities, those older than 30 with those younger than 30. 

Others work in the ministry center in the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago. “We describe it as a place of hospitality, prayer, discipleship, and a place where they can take a shower, get a meal and wash their clothes.” 

Bolstered by prayer 

More than 200 men a year pass through the doors of Emmaus, and another 150 or so make contact with Emmaus volunteers on the street, said Paul Goodell, Emmaus’ director of development. 

Goodell spent more than a year as a full-time volunteer at Emmaus after graduating from Wheaton College in 2003, and returned to take his current position a year and a half ago. Goodell, who was raised Presbyterian and became Catholic, said that the ministry remains committed to its core value of “bringing together the body of Christ through ministry.” 

As Green put it, “Catholics and evangelicals have a lot in common; we’ve been bumping into each other at abortion clinics for 50 years.” 

Green still works with the ministry, although he has stepped back from his former role as executive director. Last year, he moved with his wife, Carolyn, and their four children to his hometown of Stow, Ohio, to spend time with and care for his ailing parents. Four months after they moved, his father died, but the family is staying in Ohio to be with his mother. He now is ministering as a deacon at his home parish, Holy Family, doing support work for Emmaus Ministries part time and writing. 

Family ties, or lack thereof 

Living in Stow, Green is reminded of his youth. A cradle Catholic, his father gave him a 16-foot sailboat to use on the lake in their town for his confirmation. 

“I thought that’s what every kid’s life was like,” he said. “I grew up in real comfortable suburban bubble.” The life of the street hustlers Emmaus reaches out to was foreign to him at the beginning. 

“My initial reaction was, ‘Why don’t these guys just get a job?’” Green said. “But these guys didn’t have the safety net a lot of us have: parents, family, values, resources. It’s not that easy for them to go get a job.” 

Many of the men who are selling sex — “hustling” — were sexually abused as children. “It’s usually mom’s boyfriend, an uncle, a neighbor,” he said. “It’s one of the things that sets them up.” 

They often have substance-abuse problems, drop out of school by eighth or ninth grade and end up in the correctional system, either as juveniles or in adult jail. 

“No one ever says I want to grow up and be a prostitute,” Green said. 

Some of the people Emmaus helped never had the chance to grow up. The youngest was a 12-year-old boy who was being sold for sex by his mother and her boyfriend. 

“There’s an incredible amount of darkness in this world,” Green said. “But we are a people of light who are made for the darkness. We are called to be lights for the darkness, not sparks in the bonfire.” 

Unexpected path 

None of this was in Green’s plan. While he has always had a vibrant faith life — he called his confirmation at age 16 “a mountaintop experience” — he ended up as one of about a dozen Catholics among the 3,000 students at Wheaton College because a friend went there. His wife, Carolyn, is the daughter of a Baptist minister who never thought she would meet a Catholic boy at Wheaton College. 

The environment was a bit anti-Catholic when he first arrived in 1983, but it’s changed, with a greater emphasis on sacramental theology. In any case, he calls it the best Catholic college in the Chicago area because “every single day someone challenged me, and I had to learn about my faith to defend it.” 

“God laughs at our strategic plans,” Green said. 

He thought ministry might be a good thing to get into. Then he started doing outreach. 

“Seeing the guys on the streets really touched my soul,” he said, and he started the process of finding partners to create Emmaus Ministries. 

With his outgoing personality and big spirit, Goodell said, it’s clear that Green was meant to have an impact. 

“When God created John, he said you are going to start something,” Goodell said. 

Goodell said there are times when the darkness seems to crowd in on Green, but a consistent, disciplined prayer life seems to keep him steady. 

“Part of it is just his personality,” Goodell said. “That’s his, by God’s grace.” 

He shares that grace with people like Joseph, a 28-year-old man who sat on the couch one evening while Carolyn Green and others were preparing the Wednesday evening meal, a family-style dinner where all sat around the table, passing the food and serving him while they talked about whatever was on their mind. 

Green was sitting with Joseph, who leaned over and whispered, “I’m a little nervous. I’ve never done this before.” 

Green turned his mind upside down, trying to understand what Joseph meant, hoping Joseph knew the meal came with no strings attached. Then Joseph said: “I never had a family dinner before. But I’ve seen them on TV. I think I know what to do.” 

Michelle Martin writes from Illinois. Visit streets.org for more information about Emmaus Ministries.