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[COMMENT: This is a newsletter from John Green and one of my all-time
favorite ministries, as someone said, camping just outside the gates of hell.
See Other Emmaus's Page. E. Fox]
“I thought that you guys worked only with male prostitutes, not female,” a volunteer said to me one day as we headed out of the Ministry Center after lunch.
“That’s right,” I said, “we work only with men.”
“Then what’s Natalie doing there?” he asked, pointing towards the closing Ministry Center door.
“He is a guest. His name is Nate.”
The volunteer was one of four students from a college in northern Minnesota who had given up the normal spring break hotspots so that they could come serve at Emmaus in Chicago. We’re thankful for everyone who comes to work alongside us—just like those four students who spent two days cleaning our Ministry Center and organizing our food pantry.
But I wish you could’ve seen those four students talking and laughing, just being real, with a bunch of our guys at lunch. As you know, creating that intentional community—one that’s not full of judgments but one that balances the unconditional love and truth of Christ—is the cornerstone of Emmaus. You probably would’ve smiled, too, when you saw one of the students reach across the table and shake the hand of the guest he was talking to. They were both smiling as they wished each other well.
And then I told the student that he’d been talking to Nate, not Natalie, like he thought. As the realization dawned, the smile dropped from his face and he uttered a breathy “Oh.” I guess he hadn’t met many transgender people in northern Minnesota. I was about to make some witty little comment to help put him at ease, but I stopped as I watched him slowly rub the palms of his hands up and down on the sides of his pants. The smile, gone from his face, was replaced with a look of disgust.
On one hand, I can understand this student’s reaction. He probably felt deceived. Nate looks very much like a woman. His shoulder-length black hair, small frame, high voice, smooth feminine facial features, long nails and mannerisms (not to mention his hormone-induced breasts) all make him appear to be a woman.
But he’s not.
We’ve known Nate for about five years. He is one of a growing number of young men who engage in cross-dressing or transgender street prostitution in Chicago. (Cross-dressers or drag queens are straight or gay men who dress in women’s clothes. Transgender men dress like women and alter their bodies because they desire to be women.) Both groups hustle in the same area and watch each other’s back.
The transgender prostitutes we reach out to grow up looking and feeling different from others in often poor, rough neighborhoods. Their lives are often forged in pain, and they bond to one another because it seems hard for them to bond with anyone else. They connect at a most basic level for survival.
Although Nate is very respectful of the ministry, he and other transgender prostitutes like him are a challenge to reach. To begin with, they lack basic trust in people and often have a particular disdain for Christians. Yet they frequently have the most tender and open spirits toward the gospel. We build trust with them at night on outreach through kindness, perseverance, and time. The first time a trans guy comes by the Center he can dress as a woman, if he chooses. But since it can cause others who’ve come out of that lifestyle to stumble, or it can create other kinds of disruptions among the men, we ask them on subsequent visits to dress as a guy or neutrally.
Some don’t come by again, feeling we don’t accept them as they are. Others, like Nate, comply with our request … sort of. He doesn’t come by in heels, dress, and blouse, but his jeans are awfully tight, his shirt can’t hide the fact that he’s growing breasts, his long hair is a weave, not a wig, and his long nails are permanent. But he makes an effort to comply with our rules, so we cut him some slack.
Up until recently Nate was homeless, and before that, in prison. He was in jail for a
(over, please) length of time for prostituting while being HIV+, a felony in Illinois. He’s trying hard to stay out of hustling, but his prison record, HIV status, and transgender identity all work against him. Nate is looking for a job right now, but he also wants to be hired under his “Natalie” persona.
That’s a challenge for us. By God’s provision through you, we’re able to give quite a bit of assistance to guys looking for work: résumé writing, referrals to job training programs, direct calls to possible employers, and bus passes for the job search. But do we write a letter to a potential employer introducing Nate or “Natalie?”
A great challenge Emmaus faces is swimming against popular culture. Modern thinking is that gender is fluid and can be changed, if desired. Nate, and others like him, see themselves as transgender persons, a label our culture hangs on what we at Emmaus believe is gender identity disorder. It is our belief that a myriad of factors lead to gender confusion, and through our outreach, we can help Nate and others find their way out of that confusion and into the sureness of Christ’s love.
Writing for the journal Ethics and Medics, Dr. Richard Fitzgibbons identifies some of the roots in those seeking a sex change as “… a hatred of their bodies, a deep resentment with a parent or peer, childhood loneliness and sadness, rejection by peers of the same gender, intense fears of being betrayed and hurt ….” Nate believes he can get a “sex change” operation someday, if he wants to, and that will complete this “trans” journey he has been on. He’s so confused with who he is that the only answer seems to become something he’s not.
But gender is not fluid, and you can’t change your sex.
Dr. Fitzgibbons continues, “Each cell of a person’s body contains chromosomes which identify that individual as either male or female. It is not simply a question of different genitals. Before birth prenatal hormones shape the brains of boys to be different than those of girls. Mutilating surgery and hormone treatments can create the appearance of a male or female body, but it cannot change the underlying reality.”
So how do we make Jesus known to Nate and other transgender prostitutes? Recently I’ve been thinking about some of the Gospel parables about seeking the lost.
In Luke 15, we see three parables in a row: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son. There are many layers of meaning in these stories. One thing I love about them is that they show how God is active in seeking out and saving that which is lost. God is the Shepherd who goes after the lost sheep, God is the woman who sweeps her house looking for the lost coin, and God is the father who runs to welcome home his lost son.
This summer we’re going to take that chapter to heart, and we need your help to make the most of this opportunity God has given us. We’re going to start a “come as you are” dinner at the Ministry Center (outside of our regular hours), and see who shows up. There are a couple of ways that you can help. You can pray for that dinner—that guys would come and that we could make Jesus known to them. Also, will you send a gift today so that we can expand our work to the transgender and cross-dressing prostitute community on the streets?
I want these men to know that they are valued and loved. That despite what they have done, what they’re doing, or what they will do in the future, despite what lies they may have bought into, and despite the rejection they have felt from the world—Jesus loves them relentlessly and tenderly.
Thank you for partnering with Emmaus to show those men the beauty of God’s redeeming hope. I know that I can count on friends like you to not just wipe your hands on your pant legs like that college student did. Nate and guys like him are not lepers. They are not people to be feared and shunned because they are so “other.” In fact, these are the types of individuals that Jesus went out of his way to be around. And that’s just what you’re doing by partnering with Emmaus.
In His Grip,
P.S. Our “come as you are” dinners are going to start soon, so we need you to be praying about those. Also, a gift from you today would really help us prepare for this new ministry. Your commitment to reaching men like Nate is so crucial in Emmaus’ ministry—thank you!
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