CHICAGO — On a Monday night, a dozen musicians sit on mismatched chairs in a sparse room inside a one-story brick building that used to be a discount store.
If not for the 8-foot pine cross stuck on a chunk of plywood at the front of the room, you might not guess this is a church. The band members — kids as young as 5 up to adults in their 50s — are a mix of native Midwesterners, refugees and immigrants.
They play maracas, ukuleles, guitars, keyboards and a scratched-up drum kit. They work their way through a song you won’t find in a hymnal: “Should I Stay or Should I Go” by The Clash.
It’s the Monday night Jam Session at Living Water Community Church, a member of Illinois Mennonite Conference of Mennonite Church USA. The hosts are Al and Andi Tauber.
Al’s the long-haired guy in the center with an electric guitar. Andi’s the one with a mischievous grin, gliding between the piano and drums.
With joy and generosity, people learn words in new languages, trade instruments, make mistakes and play on. With Al as the pied piper and Andi keeping time, the Taubers manage to lead without grabbing the spotlight.
Everything they do — their work, their music, their marriage — involves a kind of deep listening. An ear for changes in rhythm and key. An ability to respond to others, to have faith the song will find its way.
“There’s this other side of what we do, which is a ministry of presence,” Al said, referring to his and Andi’s day jobs, reaching out to male street prostitutes. “The longer that I’ve worked here the more I’ve realized that some of the men will never get out of what they’re doing. We’ve had a lot of men with mental illness. And some of those men are gonna probably be stuck in this for the rest of their life.”
Together like family
The faith-based nonprofit, which is separate from the Taubers’ church, is called Emmaus Ministries. Its founder, a Catholic, started it more than 30 years ago after noticing there were few resources for sexually exploited men — prostitutes and victims of sex trafficking.
Evangelical and Catholic churches, schools and individuals donate to the ministry, but the budget has been tight.
The ministry’s goal is to get the men off the streets and bring them to Jesus. This takes a lot of listening without judgment, and a lot of time. They don’t focus on the men’s sexuality; they do help the men get into detox, call parole officers and find jobs.
“This is sort of where we lean into the family end of things,” Andi said. “And one of the things that family does or that friends do is just hang out together.”
Al said, “I’ve really come to see that God has also called us to just be there with these guys. When they die, someone needs to grieve for them. When they’re in the middle of their madness, they need to know that somebody loves them.”
How it began
Andi and Al met in the mid-1980s at Illinois Wesleyan University. They belonged to a Southern Baptist student group, and when they read from the Bible, the verses about justice echoed in their ears. They called it the Southern Baptist Church of Jimmy Carter, Al says, but after they got married and felt the denomination too focused on politics over good works, they found their way to a Mennonite church. Andi says they liked how the Mennonites lived simply, reached out to refugees and filled their worship with song.
After Andi performed at a benefit concert in Chicago, a friend recruited her to work for his little nonprofit.
She has worked at Emmaus Ministries for about 20 years. Al joined her about 15 years ago.
“Most of the men that we work with are selling themselves for food, for money, for drugs, often for a place to stay,” Al said. “I met a man once who was out selling himself in order to get diapers for his kid.”
The more the couple worked with the men, the more they considered it a calling. They played various roles at Emmaus: Al ran an internship program for seminary students and renovated the offices; Andi ran the database and wrote the newsletter.
They’ve spent hundreds of nights on the streets, looking for guys to help.
“Our guys,” they call them. Many grew up with abuse. Many are desperate and lonely.
“Yes, they struggle with mental illness, they have addiction issues and all those sorts of things,” Andi said. “But a lot of them are extremely tender-hearted and generous people, and they’re fun to be around.”
Stories in song
The Taubers are white, and most of the early clients were, too. Nowadays most are black and Latino men. Many have HIV. Some are crack addicts.
It’s always been hard to get other people to notice and care about these men. That’s why the Taubers came up with a crazy pitch: What if they interviewed the men about their lives, turned the stories into songs and performed them for live audiences?
“Basically we were doing a musical about male prostitutes,” Al said with a smile.
They had to convince their boss and his board of directors it was a good idea.
The ministry’s founder, John Green, recalls that they gave the Taubers “six months to just go and listen to guys, listen to these stories and then weave it and craft it into something that we could present to churches and to colleges.”
They wrote monologues and original songs. They didn’t want to shame or exploit the men, so they changed the guys’ names to protect their identities and let them read over the drafts to make sure they rang true.
“The musical giftedness that Andi and Al bring, it’s just a beautiful way to communicate our mission,” Green said.
At a show at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky., the Taubers sang about a man who said his life has passed him by.
“Balanced was not a word I’d heard to describe my father. Let’s just say he wasn’t fair,” they sang. “Still, he tried to divide his time equally in between beatin’ me and just not bein’ there. Oh, you get used to it. You get used to it.”
They called their program “Stories from the Streets,” and they performed it dozens of times. One show was about a funeral for one of the guys. He was 37 years old when he died. Often when the folks at Emmaus talk about their work, they talk about the guys who died.
A lot of them have, for lots of reasons.
“Maybe they’ve been taking medication and just stopped taking it,” Andi said.
Sill Davis, a pastor at Emmaus, recalls a man who had been strangled; his body was found floating in Lake Michigan. Other men have been victims of serial killers or heroin overdoses.
Others just give up, Andi said, and are filled with desperation and loneliness.
The Taubers and Davis put on a lot of funerals. Once, a police officer showed up in the middle of a service. She was in full uniform, and she walked right down the aisle and told them she’d been friends with the guy.
“He found out that she sings,” Andi said, “and then he would get in her police car and say, ‘Sing me a song, Beautiful.’ ”
Then the cop sang the gospel hymn, “His Eye Is on the Sparrow.”
“God just revealed something in that memorial that was such a comfort,” she said.
Al added: “Many times as I have prayed at a funeral which just seems so senseless, I hear God saying, ‘This is what I want you to do.’ ”
It’s been a few years since the Taubers performed “Stories from the Streets.” The budget couldn’t sustain paying musicians to do a roadshow, and the couple got called back to the office.
Like the Emmaus road
Scott Noble remembers seeing Emmaus outreach teams many times. He just wanted them to go away. Now, he commands the kitchen at the ministry center.
He grew up on the South Side of Chicago; his father wouldn’t accept him, leading him to run away away from home at 16. He eventually started using crack; it took years for the Emmaus folks to coax him off the streets.
“I kept running into them; I kept dodging them,” Noble said. “But then one day, I was just like, look: I keep seeing you people out here. What do you got to offer me? I’m at the end. . . . Then I started coming around.”
He talks about the good he’s seen the Taubers do.
“Going on hospital visits. Care packages. Prayer. They remember your birthday. Jail visits. Just a lot of things that sometimes a person needs,” Scott said. “Just somebody to say everything’s going to be all right.”
Scott cooks a hot lunch twice a week at the ministry center; he sets the food out on a long table in the church basement, beneath a painting of a dark-skinned Jesus breaking bread with his disciples. The meal starts with a reading from Scripture and a prayer.
As Al sees it, that family-style meal is the center of Emmaus’ ministry.
“We model our ministry after the story of Jesus walking on the road to Emmaus,” Al says. Jesus meets two disciples who don’t realize it’s him. They’re “at the worst, lowest point of their life. They’ve basically lost everything,” Al says. “Jesus listens to them. He asks them questions.
“When they sit down together at a table, and they break bread together, that’s when they finally recognize him. We take so much of what we do from that.”
Al says it’s about seeing Jesus in everyone. Noble understands the story is about a difficult road. “One thing my mother told me is she said that God would not have brought you this far to kick you to the curb now,” he said.
A new beginning
One of Al’s songs from “Stories from the Streets” is about one of the guys who loved the Marvel superhero Thor. Thor has a magical hammer that only someone really worthy can lift. Al said they wanted to tell him, “You can do it! You’re worthy!” Isn’t that the whole point? To convince these guys that God loves them, just as they are? So he wrote a song called “Pick it Up.”
Al’s voice cracks as he sings; Andi keeps her voice steady. They’d just learned Emmaus was cutting their hours and health insurance. The Emmaus director needed to trim the budget and wanted staff with clinical expertise. The Taubers don’t have that; their road to Emmaus is ending.
For years now, they’ve dreamed of starting a nonprofit music school for refugee kids, building off the Monday night jam sessions at their church. So, they’ll give this new chapter a go, apply for some grants, get some help from friends.
When Andi sings “Pick it Up,” her voice is filled with hope. “You’ve touched the divine,” she sings. “Take it, use it, love it, choose it. It’s waiting for you.”
An update from Al Tauber: “We have been approved to start a music school under the umbrella of LivingWorks, which also has an after-school program that is hosted and supported by Living Water Community Church. The music school will focus on providing affordable private and group lessons to children and adults, particularly those in the refugee communities of Rogers Park. Due to COVID-19, we’re teaching online and exploring methods for safe in-person teaching. We’ve both found some temporary and part-time work to stay afloat, and we’ve been much supported by God and our wonderful community.”