Farewell to JUSTembrace

Guest post by Payton Zemke

On a snowy, winter day in Chicago, I went out to shovel the snow before I headed to school. I had recently moved in to the JUSTembrace house in Uptown, Chicago and it had been the first place in the city I lived in that had a yard. So in some ways, it was exciting.


“Well, hey, how’s it going?!” I heard Steve yell to me from across the street. He was an active member in the JUSTembrace community who lived in the SRO just a few steps from the house, and was a joyful face I always loved to see.

“Hey, Steve!” I smiled and waved with my glove-covered hand. Snow was falling from the sky slowly and beautifully as it sometimes does in the winter, and it fell on the road and the cars between us.

After telling each other to have a good day, Steve walked towards the main street with his usual quick, bouncy step. And I continued shoveling.


For some reason, this brief interaction still sticks with me, even after a year and a half has passed. We were two neighbors taking a moment out of our very different, daily lives to greet each other. But it meant so much more to me than that. It was the first time I experienced what JUSTembrace would teach me over the next year.

I first came to JE through a Christian campus organization I was involved with my sophomore year at DePaul University. My previous service experiences in the city involved serving food or making coffee for people experiencing homelessness and poverty. Going into my experience with JE, I had this mindset of service and needing to help others.


So you can imagine that most of us in my small group were confused when we were told our first task with JE was to eat in the soup kitchen. Especially me. But as soon as Sher explained to us why it’s important to develop relationships in the community and to humble ourselves and change our mindsets of having more power over others, I understood it completely. Then when I moved into the house a year later, I felt the importance of relationships and restoration at an even greater magnitude.

It was more healing for me than I could have imagined.


baby3This healing came from greeting Steve while shoveling snow in the morning, eating soup silently among my neighbors in the soup kitchen every Friday, and having deep conversations with people I otherwise would have only asked how they liked their coffee. These interactions healed me in many ways.

Growing up, I was the oldest of three girls being raised by my single mother. Being so, I had many responsibilities and served as a second parental figure and adult for my much younger sisters. After my mother had had enough of her abusive husband, she dragged us out of our house and into the basement of her parents’ home where we stayed for several months until we recovered.

This rough time of our lives has been a part of my suffering and who I am. And during my years away from home, I needed to process many of the moments and difficult struggles we went through, and didn’t know how to exactly do so.

10703722_10152736069173279_2068356962311116940_nBut then one day at JUSTembrace, I am dancing and singing songs with Steve, the same man I greeted that snowy morning. We are both very into the music. As Sher says, we have music in our bones. I have learned much of Steve’s story from Sher. He grew up as a foster child and had more family issues than I could have imagined. I’ve never talked about Steve’s childhood with him, and neither have I told him anything about mine. But somehow, dancing and singing songs with Steve has helped me share my suffering and experience joy.

Because of this experience, I have learned how sharing suffering is the best way to heal. The community at JUSTembrace is so special and important to me because it is the only group of people where I have openly seen and felt suffering, and then reflected on my own. It may sound depressing, but it is actually very joyful. It is restoration. It is where God heals us and also draws us closer together.

This is living the gospel to me because Jesus came down and experienced the greatest human, bodily suffering on earth when he died on the cross. And the Bible tells us that when we suffer, we share the sufferings of Christ (see verses below). We then see the joy because his death led to resurrection, just as our sufferings lead to something beautiful.

“But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.” – 1 Peter 4:13

 “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.” – 2 Corinthians 4: 8-10


A few months ago, I went to see Steve to say goodbye since I was studying abroad and then moving to Memphis. It was not only hard because I was saying goodbye to my friend, but also because I hadn’t seen him in a while, and he wasn’t his usual bouncy, joyful self. I knew because of his current circumstances, his life would be different from now on.

And mine would be to.

PDT.Melvin's 61st Birthday.2014 small files-110I was saying goodbye to this community and to Steve. I was saying goodbye to our singing and dancing, to our spontaneous talks when we ran into each other in the neighborhood, to playing the card game of war every Sunday. I was saying goodbye to my many other friends that had become like a family to me.


Transitions happen and they help us grow and change when it is necessary and when God calls us to. They are painful, but beauty waits around the corner.

I have been changed because of JUSTembrace and by its community members such as Steve. I leave to teach Spanish in a low-income, public school in Memphis in this Summer. I was hired by a principal that was really impressed with JUSTembrace and my involvement there. And I told him how I planned to work hard to develop relationships with my students like the ones I had in Uptown. I want to run into my students on the street, possibly on a snowy morning (but who knows, it’s Memphis), and tell them to have a good day.

I know I will often visit JUSTembrace for their yearly festivals and moments of community gathering such as when Melvin passed away. This community will be a part of me forever. I know that the joy and love that I experienced there will be what the kingdom of God will feel like. Dancing. Singing. Experiencing endless joy and love after experiencing a world of suffering and pain. There are no social barriers or fears. We are all united. There is nothing more beautiful.