The Hustler, the Cop, and the Sparrow
A Chicago story
The first time they met, she was arresting him for disorderly conduct. She was black, and he was white. She was a Chicago beat cop. He was a hustler from Memphis.
He didn’t seem distressed as he sat in her car, hands cuffed behind his back. When she turned to look at him, he was grinning a thousand-watt grin. “Honey,” he drawled, “You are too gorgeous to be a cop.” And in spite of herself, she laughed.
From that day on, if Steve saw her car in the street, she didn’t have to go up to him. He came to her. By now, she knew what he was, and he knew that she knew. But he wasn’t doing anything when she saw him. He wasn’t soliciting, or carrying any of the crack she could guess he was using. He was just strolling down the street in his lanky way, turning on that smile, coming over to say hi. She could only smile and say hi back.
In one of these odd little chats, it came out that she was a singer. This discovery delighted Steve, and thenceforth the routine changed. He would no longer just walk up to her car. He would let himself into the back seat and order a command performance: “Sing me a song, Beautiful.” Sometimes, he sang along. Mostly church tunes. Gospel tunes. Tunes like “His Eye is On the Sparrow,” which she sang in a rich, melodious alto.
Days became weeks, weeks months. She worked her beat. He worked the streets. And so, like that, they became friends.
Steve aspired to harmlessness. That was why he hustled. He wasn’t a gangbanger, or a car thief, or a robber. Those things hurt people. Steve didn’t want to hurt people. He had Winnie the Pooh tattooed on his belly, as if to prove it.
Long ago, when he was small, he had a pet baby rabbit. He was strictly charged to take care of it and see that it stayed in its cage. Inevitably, it escaped, leaving its teeth marks around the base of the furniture. When Steve came home from school, he saw a lifeless pile of fur waiting on the front steps for him. “I told you!” his father shouted, towering over him in the doorway. “I told you to take care of that rabbit!”
The police came, sometimes, when the bruises were bad enough for a teacher or a neighbor to notice. But it never lasted. The cycle would always begin again—ruthlessly, randomly. As soon as Steve could get out, he did. He didn’t know what would be waiting for him. But anything would be better than what he left behind.
When John’s father asked him what he wanted for his sixteenth birthday, he said, “I want a sailboat.” So he got one—sixteen feet long.
That was childhood as John remembered it, growing up Catholic in affluent Akron, Ohio. For as long as he could remember, he had wanted for nothing. Not money, not education, not love.
The first time he saw a hustler, he was a freshman at Wheaton College, working as a youth minister in a local parish. When a ministry worker came to speak about her outreach to street women, he took his kids on a field trip to help her renovate a house she used as a base of operations. As they fixed the place up, he watched a stream of characters flow in and out—female prostitutes, pimps, the homeless. Tragic as it was, it fascinated him to watch her work. One day, she invited him to take a walk in the city, down to the intersection of Halston and Madison. Three young men stood on the street corner, blending in. She casually pointed them out. “Those three guys over there are male prostitutes. Nobody cares about them.”
As they watched, a car pulled up to the corner and slowed down for one of the boys to get in. Next moment, it was gone. John didn’t say what he was thinking: Why don’t they just get a job?
Still, the little tableau lurked in the back of his mind, haunting him. Within four years, he had dropped out to do street ministry in New York City. There he saw things that would change him forever. He saw the lifeless body of a homeless man who had jumped to his own death, with a sickening thud that would echo and re-echo in his ears. He saw addicts. He saw men and women younger than he was selling themselves to survive. When he came back to Chicago, he had new eyes, and a new vision.
Resuming his education at Wheaton, the “evangelical Harvard,” he was teased as one of the only Catholics in the student body. He didn’t mind this. For what he was planning, he would need all the help he could get. In 1990, with an ecumenical handful of volunteers, he gave the vision a name: Emmaus.
The following year, he eagerly brought his first draft and timeline for the ministry to one of the first board meetings. He imagined it would take about eighteen months for everything to get up and running. As the single sheet of paper circulated, one member asked him, “Have you shown this to anyone else?” “No,” John said. “Good,” the board member said, and crumpled it up. Then, gently but matter-of-factly, he explained to John that this would not be built in a year, or even two, or even five, most likely. It would be hard to find donors, he warned. It would be hard even to find curiosity. “If you are not in this for the long haul, then we are all wasting our time.”
Very gradually, seven volunteers became forty, and zero paid staff became a couple dozen. By ten years after that meeting, the ministry had finally accumulated enough capital to renovate an old crack house as a drop-in shelter. John lived close by with his wife, a Baptist preacher’s kid. When she wasn’t raising their own boys, she was feeding and mothering the young men who became like sons to them. One of those men was a certain pale, lanky boy from Tennessee, who laughed so loud and gave so much that you wouldn’t know what had been taken from him.
How? John thought, when he shared his story. How could this happen to such a lovable guy?
Steve was a known quantity to another nearby ministry too. One of their workers would recall asking him to talk about his faith, if he had any. “I love God,” Steve said. “But I don’t think God could love me.”
It was 2006 when Steve got off the streets. He got off the crack too. He had even gotten himself onto Social Security Disability, making enough money that he could rent an apartment next door. But that winter, something had changed in his face when he came around to visit Emmaus House. His thousand-watt smile was gone. His eyes were dark with a secret sadness.
In January, 2007, their ministry director took a call. On the other end of the line, Steve spoke in a rasping husk of his old voice, the words coming out between labored breaths. “I just called to say goodbye. I stopped eating about two weeks ago. I just want to die.” Click.
Steve was carried to the hospital semi-conscious and emaciated, his body destroying itself in a hundred different ways. After a month, he was put on a respirator. The hospital called Emmaus and asked for the assistant ministry director. Steve had put her name down as his emergency contact.
For the last weeks of Steve’s life, hardly a day went by without a volunteer walking to the hospital to visit at his bedside, on one of the hospital’s indigent floors. Sometimes they brought flowers and cards. Sometimes they just brought themselves. Steve could do little more than blink in response. One friend of the ministry, a middle-aged Catholic father, would later recall his own awkward but profoundly affecting visit. He remembered Steve well, but he could only guess whether Steve remembered him. He stumbled through a few comforting words and laid a hand on Steve’s head, the only part of his body that looked like it could be touched without pain. Later, when he had time to gather himself, he understood why he had left so unsettled. It was because in Steve’s suffering, he had glimpsed something of Christ’s suffering.
When John’s wife visited, a nurse pulled her aside. “Who is this guy?” the nurse whispered. “There’s all these people coming to visit, all these flowers and cards…who is he?”
“He’s a friend,” she answered simply. “And he’s precious to God.”
Steve’s lucid moments were few and far between. One came as the ministry director sat with him. Steve had a sudden, simple request: “Find my family.”
They placed a call to Memphis, unaware that phone service had been cut for the number they were trying. In despair, they almost gave up, but when the end was close, they tried it one more time. This time, Steve’s sister picked up. It was the only call she had received in months, she said. With another sister, she traveled up to Chicago, and they said their last goodbyes.
On March 25, 2007, Steve died. Afterwards, a local church hosted his memorial service. The pews filled with ministry workers, homeless people, and male and female prostitutes. Some John recognized, some he didn’t. He knew only that all of them, in their disparate individual ways, had been touched by Steve.
John kept his sermon short so that the mic could be opened up for testimonies. Then the people stood up and shared, one after another, after another. Finally, the neighbor ministry volunteer who had questioned Steve about his faith came forward. She, too, had taken a shift at his bedside. She recalled for them the moment when he looked at her with clear eyes and said, “I know now that God loves me.”
The sanctuary grew quiet. All gathered felt the weight of what they had heard. Soon, John was rising to close the service with a prayer.
Just then, the church door opened. Everyone looked to see the latecomer striding up the aisle—a petite black policewoman in full uniform, gun and handcuffs at her side.
“May I say a few words?” she asked.
It was a rhetorical question, but John said yes anyway.
She took the mic and told her story. How she and Steve had first met, years ago now. How he had turned his smile on her. How, more than anything, he had loved to hear her sing.
“So Steve,” she said, “This one’s for you.”
[Thank you for reading. If you enjoyed this, there are more stories where it came from in John Green’s now out-of-print ministry memoir Streetwalking With Jesus, which is available on OpenLibrary here. John is no longer personally affiliated with Emmaus, but the ministry continues to this day. He recalls this story with a special fondness. When I told him how much I had loved the memorial moment, he grinned a little and said, “Yeah. I always thought that would make a great movie scene.”]