In Front Porch Interviews I interview down-to-earth people who are making unique and meaningful contributions to urban spirituality and leadership. Got anyone in mind, let me know!
This month we're hitting the streets with an old college friend of mine, Doug Van Ramshorst. Doug and I both attended Lincoln Christian University, and we both followed paths to urban ministry in Chicago. Doug has been working at Emmaus Ministries since 2005 where he is now their street outreach coordinator helping men overcome a life of male prostitution.
TE: How did you get connected to Emmaus?
DVR: In November of 1998 I packed a bag and headed to Chicago, to stay with a Christian Community in Uptown for the weekend to get a feel for the life that I thought God was calling me into.
I was shown my bed, dropped off my stuff and headed out to the streets to get my hands dirty. Within an hour I was solicited by a 60 year old woman at Burger King, I got lost and I was conned out of some of my belongings. Defeated, I found myself sitting on a skateboard ramp, crying. One of the Christian community members came out and sat next to me. He was in a band that I really looked up to, so I was nervous. He asked me what was wrong, I blubbered on for about 20 minutes about God's will this and God's will that. He listened and then offered me this advice: "Don't worry about God's will. Just try things. If it fits, stick with it."
After that weekend, I went back home and continued to co-lead a Bible study for punk rock kids and work in the heating and air conditioning field. At the Bible study, we started dealing with kids taking hard drugs, kids getting abused at home and kids that were... well, having kids. These were real problems and technical school didn't prepare me to offer any solutions.
So I went to Bible college
I visited Emmaus my junior year in college as a part of an urban ministry class. We showed up, unannounced. We couldn't find the place because there was no sign. When we finally found it, we buzzed up and asked if we could check out their drop-in center and the voice on the other end of the buzzer said, "Absolutely not.” The guy let us into the office and explained that we would have to go through training and commit to a year of service in order to meet any of the guys in the center. Some of the students I was with were kind of miffed that they had that attitude, but for me a light turned on. I liked that they respected their clients enough to not have obvious signage and gawking college students dropping in whenever they wanted. He sat us down and showed us a terrible promo video before sending us back to Wilson Avenue to fend for ourselves.
By my senior year, I was so sick of Christians that I planned on taking my ministry degree back to the ‘burbs and opening up a bulk coffee and tea store. But then, much to my chagrin, I realized that I had to complete a full-time, semester-long internship with an approved ministry. After trying to weasel out of it twice and failing, I remembered Emmaus and thought, "I could deal with that for four months.”
My internship ended, but I stayed on, because they needed some help. At the end of the summer, the then Outreach Coordinator, Larry Hope, was gearing up to take on a new role at the ministry, so I asked for his old job.
Time and space tell a funny little joke in that long-winded story. Remember the skateboard ramp, where I was blubbering on about not wanting to do urban ministry? I can see it from our office window. It just took me seven years to travel from 920 West Wilson to 921 West Wilson.
TE: You’re like the post office of street outreach –“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds” (Herodotus). In fact I heard that you were out on the street on the night of that crazy blizzard back in February. First, why in the world would you do that, and second, what was it like for you on that night?
DVR: Yeah... that blizzard was a trip! I have done well over 1,200 nights of outreach and I have yet to cancel due to weather. New volunteers often ask, "What do you do when it rains?" and I say, "You get wet.” Those crappy nights are important. The guys see us out there on those negative 12 degree nights and they know that we aren't kidding around.
On the holidays I literally pray that we don't see anyone. I hope to God that our guys aren't out, selling themselves for a place to stay on Christmas. But, I almost always see at least one. I can't tell you what it feels like to have a guy smile despite those circumstances, but that is why we do it... just in case.
TE: As you know, there are lots of misconceptions about the poor and about urban problems. For instance, working with the homeless at Breakthrough, I find that a lot of people just assume that “all these guys have to do is stop being lazy and get a job.” What kind of misconceptions have you encountered about the streets as it relates to your work?
DVR: I guess the biggest surprise for me was realizing how many of our guys, and the homeless population at large for that matter, suffer from severe mental illnesses. I have a client that suffers from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. How is he supposed to just go apply at Target and live a normal life?
I have also realized that it is really cool to be boring. I always thought you had to have some torrid testimony in order to be effective. But the plain truth is that no matter who you work with, just being genuine is all that matters. I don't pretend that I lived some rough life before I came to Jesus or something crazy like that, I just live my life with them as I do with my friends and family.
TE: Christian sociologist, Jacques Ellul, in describing the unfortunate reality of city life said that “the city must, in order to stay alive, have its night shifts, the accumulation of a proletariat, alcohol, prostitution, [etc.] . . . And it is simply false to say that we can do away with all this and still keep the city.” What are your thoughts about that, and how might a statement like this square with people like you and me (pastors, social workers, and volunteers) who flock to cities like Chicago with a vision for transforming (saving?) the city?
DVR: Wow, Jacques Ellul... I haven't heard that name in a while. I guess I am not looking to save the city. That seems like a nice thought, but the plain truth is that Babylon will be Babylon. I just want to buy someone a cup of coffee and find out how his weekend was.
TE: How can people get involved with Emmaus? Or, for those in other places, how might they engage locally in a similar ministry or address similar issues that Emmaus faces?
DVR: We are pretty open to volunteers. You have to apply, go through a couple of days of training and commit to a regular shift with us on outreach, in our drop-in center or in the office. Al Tauber is the best guy to talk to about that. He is our Educational Ministries guy.
As for those in other areas…get educated. I hung out in the same area that I work in now since I was 16, but I had no idea what was going on there.
TE: Tell us about your band. And, as a fellow drummer, I’m curious - What kind of a kit do you play, and what kind of sticks do you use?
DVR: I have basically been playing with the same guys for the past decade. We just change names and play different types of punk music. The current amalgamation is our attempt at pop music... I say "our attempt" because it still ended up being a punk rock band, but a little more palatable. We are now called "The New Brunette" and I am having more fun with them than ever.
As for equipment, I play a tiny 3-piece Premier kit: 18 inch kick, floor tom, snare, a big ride cymbal and some hats. I buy the big brick of no name sticks and keep everything held together with stuff I buy at ACE hardware. The little kit pushes me to be more creative and it all fits in my [Chevy] Cavalier. My wife is my roadie, so she appreciates the smaller dimensions.
TE: Rahm Emmanuel is now the new mayor of Chicago. If he instituted one restaurant that all city residents had to eat in, which one would you hope it would be?