Living up to the legacy

Friday, June 14, 2002

Son of murdered father learns about faith and forgiveness

INDIANAPOLIS

His father taught him simple things, like the joy of slipping into the kitchen to make waffles at dawn while the rest of the house was still sleeping, or the thrill of cutting school to head to the speedway or catch a baseball game -- just the two of them.

From his father he inherited a love of tennis, the outdoors, books -- especially the most important book, the Bible.

And from his father, an Army chaplain, he inherited a legacy.

You are the son and grandson of a minister, Allan Streett would tell his son. You are from a line of men who strived to make the world a better place. That is your legacy too, as a Streett, as a minister's son.

On the frigid winter night in 1978 when the father he adored was gunned down before his eyes, Tim Streett was left alone with that legacy. He was 15 years old.

They buried his Dad with military honors in Arlington National Cemetery. In a daze, the son listened to the eulogies and the prayers and the 21-gun salute.

And he wondered: How could he make the world a better place when the man who had made it so good was gone?

A childhood lost

It had been a hard winter: one blizzard rolling into the next. Father and son had gotten used to shoveling snow morning and night in their driveway in the pretty Oak Lawn suburb of Indianapolis.

They would talk as they shoveled, about sports and school and maybe about the sermon that Allan Streett had delivered that Sunday. The message of the Bible always sprinkled his conversations as it shaped his life.

Tim doesn't remember what they were talking about that night, but he remembers the sound -- the single terrifying shot ringing through the night, his father, head bloodied, falling backwards in the snow, the gunman turning on the son.

Tim was sure he was going to die.

But the gunman just grabbed the boy's wallet and ran to a waiting car.

Tim dropped to his knees beside his father's limp body. He cradled his father's head, heard the gurgling sound, knew nothing would ever be the same.

He raced screaming into the house.

As the father died in the hospital that night, the son sat in the police station being grilled about what he had seen. A few days later he picked the killer out of a lineup.

A few months later, he took the witness stand. He felt numb as he told his story -- about his hero, a man who had devoted his life to God, his family, his country.

He was the best dad in the world, the son told the judge.

The shooter was sentenced to death. His accomplice, the man who drove the getaway car, got 90 years.

Finding a way to forgive

For years, Streett says, he didn't feel the bitterness of his sisters, or the anger of his mother. For years, he didn't feel anything at all.

But his personality changed on the night his childhood ended.

For the first time in his life, he didn't feel safe. His mother sent him to live with friends in Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y., after police warned of threats on her son's life.

Far from home, Streett felt lonely and unsure, always watchful, always scared -- especially if he saw a gang of youths, especially if they were black.

Streett knew what his father would have said. He could almost hear his father's voice, soft as always, but tinged with disappointment.

There is no place for prejudice in this world, his father would have said. There is no place for an unforgiving heart. You must find a way to love and forgive.

But how could a son forgive his father's killers? It was hard enough not to hate them.

Streett, once so happy-go-lucky and sure, became withdrawn. He didn't talk to his friends about his father's death. He stopped talking to God.

At Purdue University, he lost himself in a haze of drink and drugs. After graduating with a degree in sociology, he drifted, working as a waiter, winding up as manager of a restaurant in Houston.

He was driving down a Texas highway when he heard the song:

"It's like someone took a knife, baby, edgy and dull, and carved a six-inch valley through the middle of my soul."

The lyrics were Bruce Springsteen's but the ache described Streett's heart.

The memories flooded back, followed by tears. Before it was over, Streett knew exactly what he would do.

He would become a minister like his father. He would return to Indianapolis and live among the poor. He would minister to young people with few hopes and few prospects and no fathers of their own. He would fight to keep them from becoming the kind of youths who had killed his dad.

Struck by his story

Once he made the decision, Streett became his old purposeful self. He enrolled in the Gordon-Conwell seminary in Boston. He started reading everything he could about the urban poor, about racial prejudice, about programs to combat it. He learned to preach.

"For the first time in years," he says, "I was in the right place."

Streett met, and quickly married Stacy Hocker, a woman who shared his convictions. After interning at a Chicago church for a few years, he made his way back to Indianapolis, to the sprawling East 91st Street Christian Church in the city's northern suburbs. There, Streett was given a special ministry -- the urban poor.

His first action was to move, with his wife, into a small house in the heart of one of the poorest neighborhoods in town -- a move that stunned local black ministers, skeptical at first about this tall serious white man who strode into their midst. It didn't take long before they were won over by Streett's commitment, and by his story.

Streett won over business leaders too, persuading one to transform a huge vacant warehouse into an urban sports center, next to his house. Jehovah Jireh Sports it is called -- meaning God Provides.

"Tim Streett came here with a mission," said Paul Canada, the charismatic young black minister who runs Jehovah Jireh Sports, which has proved so successful it is planning an expansion. "And I think that mission started on the day his father died."

But, for all Streett's faith and vision, memories still haunted the minister's son.

He was preaching about forgiveness and racial reconciliation -- thoughtful, scholarly interpretations of the Bible's message.

Love your enemies.

It would have been easier if his father's killers had shown remorse. But the man who pulled the trigger was still on death row, defiantly proclaiming his innocence, his constant appeals cruel reminders of all that Streett had lost.

Streett knew what his father would have done. Streett could still picture him, thin and tired, in Army fatigues, returning home on crutches after Vietnam. And he could picture him a few months later, opening his home to a family of Vietnamese refugees.

True forgiveness, his father would have said, is from the heart. It doesn't demand anything in return.

Streett wrestled with his heart, his memories, his faith.

And one night, nearly two decades after his father's murder, he sat down and wrote two of the most difficult letters of his life.

"I am the son of Chaplain Allan Streett, the man who was killed in the robbery of Jan. 16, 1978," he began.

He went on to describe his life, his mission, his belief in forgiveness.

But Streett didn't truly believe in the power of his words until after he mailed the letters.

"I forgive you for the death of my father."

Miracle of forgiveness

In prison, Don Cox had never forgotten the night he drove the getaway car for the robbery that turned into murder. And he had never forgotten the boy whose testimony had put him away for life.

Young and poor and bored, Cox had fallen in with a gang of youths who had spent the night drinking and looking for trouble. They'd rob a few people, have a few laughs, spend their takings on booze and drugs. Murder wasn't on their minds, nor hatred in their hearts. Ninety years. The brash young man with the handsome smile couldn't believe the sentence. He'd never been in serious trouble before, never meant to hurt anyone, hadn't held the gun.

"I was sorry for Tim, losing his dad," said Cox, now 44. "But by sending me to prison for nearly my whole life -- it meant my two young sons lost their father, too."

For the first few years in prison Cox was always picking fights, always in trouble. He didn't care if he lived or died.

And then a few old-timers took him under their wing. You're smart, they said. Get an education. Get some sense. Don't wind up like us, nothing to show for our lives but cynicism and idleness and an endless cycle of violence and crime.

Cox earned his GED, and a bachelor's degree in history. He learned several trades. He started going to services organized by a Christian ministry whose volunteers came to prison once a week.

And he found something he had never felt before, a sense of belonging to a world beyond prison, a world that cared for him as a person as well as for his soul.

When the letter from Streett arrived out of the blue, Cox wept.

"It was a miracle," he says.

Cox wrote back immediately, begging Streett to visit.

A week later, in the waiting room of Pendleton maximum security prison, the two men embraced. It was 19 years since they had last faced each other.

"I'm sorry for everything that happened," Cox said.

"I forgive you," Streett replied.

Still hoping

Michael Daniels, the man convicted of the killing, is on death row, still appealing his sentence. He never answered Streett's letter although Streett hasn't given up hope that someday he might.

Streett has a warm and easy friendship with Cox: The men joke they are like relatives, seeing each other for special family occasions, bonded to each other for life.

After meeting Cox in prison, Streett wrote to the judge, he met with the former prosecutor, he testified at a sentencing reduction hearing on behalf of Cox.

When Cox's sentence was reduced and he was released from prison in 2001, Streett did more than rejoice with him. He helped him find a job as a car mechanic.

And when Cox gets married next October, to a woman he met at church, the guest of honor at his wedding will be Streett.

Streett now has a son of his own, a precocious little 3-year-old named Gabriel. Already he is teaching the child to make waffles for the family at breakfast. Someday he will teach his son tennis.

And someday, when Gabriel is old enough, Streett will talk to him about the life and death of the grandfather he never knew. And he will tell Gabriel of his legacy, as the son and grandson and great-grandson of a minister.

You are from a line of men who strived to make the world a better place, the father will tell the son. That is your legacy too, as a Streett, as a minister's son.

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