The Protestant Reformation of the 16th century was never really one movement. Lots of reformations sprouted throughout Europe, and one of the most radical gave the world the Mennonites, who trace their roots to the Netherlands. This tiny Christian sect still embraces a theology that renounces violence, welcomes refugees and shuns materialism. In this latest installment of SACRED STEPS from KALW’S The Spiritual Edge, we’ll meet Al and Andi Tauber, married singer-songwriters who direct music for a congregation of urban Mennonites in Chicago. Like their spiritual cousins, the Amish and Quakers, they favor the simple life, but urban Mennonites see city life as God’s work too. For the Taubers, this means taking their ministry – and their music – to the streets, where they’ve found heartbreak …and a family.
MINISTRY OF PRESENCE
Chicago’s known for great architecture, but the one-story building at the corner of Pratt and Ashland is no landmark. The red brick rectangle used to be a discount store. Inside, there’s a sparse room with a dull navy carpet, and on a recent Monday night, a dozen musicians sit on mismatched chairs.
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, 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,” the ’80s punk rock anthem by The Clash.
Welcome to the Monday night Jam Session at Living Water Community Church. Your hosts: Al and Andi Tauber. Al’s the wild-eyed, long-haired guy in the center with an electric guitar and a striking resemblance to a widely reproduced painting of a white Jesus. His wife Andi’s the one with unobtrusive glasses and a mischievous grin, gliding between the piano and drums. With joy — and optimism — 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. Even if it falls into chaos sometimes. Even if you have to stop and start again.
“There’s this other side of what we do, which is a ministry of presence,” Al says, 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 a lot of mental illness. And some of those men are gonna probably be stuck in this for the rest of their life.”
Al sits close by Andi in one of the ministry’s tiny offices. His long legs stick out from under the desk. This faith-based nonprofit, which is separate from the Taubers’ church, is called Emmaus Ministries. It’s named after a Bible story in the New Testament book of Luke. Its founder, a Catholic, started it more than 30 years ago after noticing 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 lately; it’s always been hard to raise money for this. The ministry’s goal, at heart, is to get the men off the streets and bring them to Jesus. That’s what they tell their donors. Al and Andi believe that Jesus is the son of a loving God, and that each person finds Jesus in their own way. How this happens takes a lot of listening without judgment, and a lot of time. Andi says they play a lot of games with the men: backgammon, card games, foosball. 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, of kind of being caught between being a social service and being a family,” Andi says. “ And one of the things that family does or that friends do is just hang out together.”
All the way to the end.
“I’ve really come to see that God has also called us to just be there with these guys,” Al says. “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 and somebody cares about them, and that’s a harder sell, I think, to donors.”
HOW IT BEGAN
Andi and Al met in the mid-1980s at Illinois Wesleyan University, a small liberal arts college halfway between St. Louis and Chicago.
“Andi was singing on the quad the first day I saw her,” Al says.
So a singing music major from suburban Chicago met a guitar-playing history major from downstate Illinois. Before long, they were making music together. They had their differences: Andi’s introverted, practical, likes to plan and looks on the bright side. Al’s emotional, prone to pessimism, a poet at heart. But they shared a love of music, a sharp wit and a common faith. They came to Christianity through different doors: Al grew up with it; his mom helped lead a college youth group, and he read the Bible as a kid and admired the young missionaries he met at their dinner table. Andi joined a friend’s Presbyterian youth group in high school. She liked the leaders’ hippie vibe, but she says studying Christian feminist theologians in college — Phyllis Trible and Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza — brought her to understand a Jesus who was deep and compassionate toward women. In college, Al and Andi 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.
“The opportunity came along, and I decided to try it,” Andi says.
She’s worked at Emmaus Ministries for about 20 years. Al joined her there 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 says. “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, lonely, and sweet.
“Yes, they struggle with mental illness, they have addiction issues and all those sorts of things,” Andi says. “But a lot of them are extremely tender-hearted and generous people and they’re fun to be around.”
And they have stories.
“There’s so many inappropriate ones,” Al says with a chuckle. “.I have a guy right now who says I’m going to leave Jesus to marry him.”
Many of the stories are hard to hear.
Sill Davis is a pastor at Emmaus; he’s worked with struggling gay men in Chicago since the ‘80s. He met men whose fathers would beat them as children, sending their sons to school with black eyes. Sill remembers when only one funeral home in the city would accept men who’d died of AIDS. Nobody knew what it was or how you got it.
“Early on, even in the hospitals, people were just really afraid,” Davis says. “There was a young man, he was in the hospital, and when they would serve his tray, his meals, they would slide it across the floor. He was too sick to get out of the bed to get it.”
Al and Andi are white, and most of the early clients were too. Nowadays most are Black and Latino men. Many have HIV. Some are crack addicts. Its ministers say it’s always been hard to get other people to notice and care about these men. That’s why Al and Andi 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 says with a smile. “Which is just weird.”
Weird, maybe. 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 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 says.
At a show at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky, Andi and Al stood up front by the pulpit, singing a song about a man who said his life has passed him by. They faced the polished wood pews, wearing matching outfits- black shirts, khaki pants; Andi’s light brown hair was long and in dreadlocks back then.
“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 over the years. 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 says.
Sill Davis 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 says, and are filled with desparation and loneliness.
Al and Andi and Sill put on a lot of funerals. Sometimes amazing things happen: once, a Chicago police officer showed up in the middle of a service. She was in full uniform, and she walked right down the aisle and them she’d been friends with the guy.
“He found out that she sings,” Andi says, “and then he would get in her police car and say, ‘Sing me a song, Beautiful.’”
Then the cop faced everyone in the church, and she sang the gospel hymn “His Eye is on the Sparrow.”
“God just revealed something in that memorial that was such a comfort. It was just beautiful,” she says.
Al adds: “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 Al and Andi performed Stories from the Streets. The ministry budget couldn’t sustain paying musicians to do a roadshow, and the couple got called back to the office. The performances worked for awhile: some of those college kids who saw it became interns or staff members and later, donors. Al and Andi admit it took time to hit the right note.
“It was such a wrist-slitter program. I mean, it was so heavy and depressing and the first couple times we did it,” he says, chuckling. “We’ve been doing music for years, we were looking at the audiences and going, ‘Oh my gosh, what have we done?’ ”
They lightened the mood with a song called “I’m a Pimp, not a Cowboy.” The title is a quote from one of the guys, from the time the ministry took its clients horseback riding in Wisconsin. The song always got a good laugh. Al and Andi may be soft-hearted do-gooders, but they’re also quirky, and very funny. One of my favorite Al songs is called “Duct Tape My Heart.” I heard them play it at a backyard concert last summer. It’s about a guy whose girlfriend breaks up with him at Home Depot. It made me smile and tear up at the same time. That pretty much sums up what it’s like to spend a lot of time with Al and Andi.
Andi’s favorite movie is Galaxy Quest, the one about a cast of TV actors from a show like Star Trek. Real aliens show up, and it turns out they’ve been watching the show and use it as a model for their technology. They bring the cast up to their spaceship and expect them to fly it.
“There’s just this painfully slow scene where everybody watching them, ready to cheer them on, just starts tilting their heads a little to the side, and the ship just starts going a little askew, and it starts scraping against the side of the docking bay,” Andi says. “I die all through that scene. I love that scene.”
Al and Andi take long bike rides, walk along Lake Michigan, and play lots of gigs together in Chicago. But their ministry can be heart-breaking work, and I think the silly movies and silly songs help them recharge.
Al waits beneath the elevated tracks at the Belmont station, a brightly-lit hub on Chicago’s north side. It’s almost midnight on a January Wednesday, and Al wears a black knit cap, jeans and a black winter coat. He greets Daniel Howard, a young seminary student who’s joining him on a night of outreach, and he hands him a couple packets of disposable hand-warmers to slip in his pockets. It’s 33 degrees and snow is on the way. Al asks Daniel to start off with a prayer, and they close their eyes and stand with bowed heads beneath the train tracks.
“Lord, just bless our time,” Daniel says. “We pray that you would just bring people to us tonight.”
The people they want God to bring are prostitutes. Daniel and Al leave the brightly-lit station and head east, past comedy clubs, and late-night restaurants. Clusters of smooth-faced, fashionably-dressed men and women pass by on the sidewalk. An icy wind blows down the street, and the air smells like hot dogs and pot and Lake Michigan, looming out there in the dark a few blocks away. They head to Halsted Street and a line of popular bars in “Boystown,” the hub of Chicago’s historic gay community. Al’s been doing outreach here almost every week for 15 years. The men he’s looking for aren’t in the bars; they’re lingering on street corners, alleys, and convenience store parking lots.
Outside a club known for strong drinks and show-tune singalongs, Al sees a familiar face, a young man with apple cheeks and a shy grin stands with his hands in his pockets. He’s not an Emmaus regular, but they’re pretty sure he’s hustling. Al steps beside him and smokes a pipe as he chats with the young man. A sweet tobacco aroma rises around them.
Al offers him handwarmers, asks after his job and family, asks if he’s seen any other guys out here tonight. When a man nearby announces he’s selling coke, Al hands him some hand warmers too, along with a few business. He explains his ministry works with male prostitutes, and he asks him to pass them along to anyone who might need them.
In time, Al and Daniel move along, toward the parking lot of a 7-11, looking for more guys. They don’t carry Bibles or religious tracts. In his backpack, Al’s got granola bars, warm knit caps, and a dose of Narcan, in case he meets anyone who’s OD’ed. He hasn’t had to use it yet, he said. He’s also got more of those business cards, with the ministry’s address and phone number.
Scott Noble remembers seeing those Emmaus outreach teams many times. He just wanted them to go away. Now, he commands the spotless kitchen at the ministry center, frying up a pan of ground beef. Scott is 53, has a thin mustache and dimples. Wears a black apron and plaid shirt on over his trim frame. Scott 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,” Scott says. “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. You know? So that’s the beginning. Then I started coming around.”
He stood by the stove, slicing up a potato, and told me about the good he’s seen Al and Andi 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 says. “Just somebody to say everything’s going to be all right. Or somebody saying, you taught me a lot.”
God’s still working on him, Scott says. Many of Emmaus’ staff and supporters take what they’d call a traditional, biblical view of sexuality: that marriage is between one man and one woman, for life. They’re not out to convert anyone – this isn’t a place to “pray the gay away.” To appease their Catholic supporters, including the Archdiocese of Chicago, Emmaus staff don’t hand out condoms as part of their street ministry. They don’t fly a rainbow flag out front. But as much as they can, they try to steer clear of the culture war within Christianity – that battle over sexuality and sin that’s splitting the United Methodist Church. Al says there’s space here for different views; they just want everyone to feel loved.
Scott identifies as gay. As he cooked lunch that day, I asked him what his faith says about it. He told me some of the Emmaus guys end up marrying women. He wonders if they’re happy. He stared at the spaghetti sauce for a while.
“Would I want to be straight? Probably. I don’t know,” he says.
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.
A client named Enrique read from the Bible that day. He’s known Al and Andi for years.
“They’ve seen me at my best and at my worst,” he says. “ They’ve always helped out as much as they could.”
I asked Enrique what Al, Andi and the ministry mean to him. He answers first in Spanish: “Amor,” he says.“Love. A place where you can come and actually talk to someone and express an idea. Or maybe that day you go and somebody gives you a handshake, and you feel good about somebody giving you a handshake or a hug.”
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,” a town outside Jerusalem, Al says. Historians aren’t quite sure where exactly. In the story, which takes place right after the crucifixion, 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 meets them on the road. He listens to them. He asks them questions.”
“They eventually get where they’re going,” Al continues, “and he acts as if he’s going further in order to get an invitation into their home, which is so sneaky and lovely, and 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. Just that story.”
Al says it’s about seeing Jesus in everyone. Scott, in the kitchen, told me he understands the story is about a difficult road, one he’s come a long way on.
“And there’s still more to travel on the road,” Scott says. “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. It’s very encouraging. I do need to hear that every now and then.”
A NEW BEGINNING
The Bible is full of roads: winding, dangerous and forgotten roads. And also wilderness – where people wander and must find their own way. I found my way to Al and Andi’s second floor walk-up in a sturdy old brick apartment building a block from their church. In the foyer, there’s a portrait of a smiling young man, painted in vibrant colors on a pane of glass. He was one of “the guys.” He’s dead now.
Andi cradles a black and brown-speckled cat on her shoulder as we talk. The cat belonged to another one of the guys. They’re not sure where he is now.
Since Al and Andi haven’t performed “Stories from the Streets” in a few years, I ask Al to play me his favorite song from the program. So he gets his guitar and sits on a piano bench near Andi. The song’s about one of the guys who loved Thor, the Marvel superhero. Thor’s handsome and strong and 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 is cutting their hours and health insurance. The Emmaus director needed to trim the budget, and he wants staff with clinical expertise. Al and Andi don’t have that; their road to Emmaus is ending.
“There’s just a lot of pain. And there’s some anger. A lot of anxiety. Just a lot of negative feelings swarming around,” Al says.
We talked about what’s next. 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, and test out Al’s theology.
“I think God is a god of compost,” Al says. “and is usually, is always, growing beautiful and nourishing things out of steaming piles of crap.”
One thing I realized about Al and Andi is that they don’t interrupt each other. I’m not sure if it’s a sign of a good marriage or just something musicians know, but they speak in each other’s pauses. So I notice here when Andi interrupts Al: “Which is not to say this is a steaming pile of…”
“No, it’s not,” Al continues, “but I think there’s a tendency among, especially evangelical Christians, to say God is in control, and all of these things are happening for a purpose, and this is the way it’s supposed to be, and I’ve just, for years anyway, have just felt like, I don’t think I believe that.”
Andi snuggles the cat on her shoulder. Beyond her, by the door, I can see the bright splotches of paint on the portrait, the one of the guy who died.
Al writes a lot of sad songs. But he writes them for Andi to sing with him, and 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.”
Andi carries the tune all the way to the end.
Since the Coronavirus outbreak, Al and Andi’s church hasn’t been able to meet in person. Their plans for a music school are on hold. So are the jam sessions. They’ve been checking in with some of the guys, and with family, and offering some music lessons on Facetime. They miss the men a lot, Al says.
Click here to listen to the radio documentary on spiritualedge.org.
Another version of this story also ran on Religion News Service in two parts:
Monique Parsons is a journalist fellow with the Spiritual Exemplars Project.