The Angel of Skid Row

Image "The Angel of Skid Row" Colorful Lettering

Captain Tom Crocker, (1894-1959)

Ever finished an older series on Netflix, or thought back to a show you watched when you were younger, and wondered what the stars of the show have been up to since then?

It’s always a shock to find out an actor you looked up to or “grew-up” with is struggling in a major way. You want to see them get their life back on track again. Somehow we grow attached to these people we’ve never met; we feel a connection to them and want them to succeed.

Captain Tom Crocker wasn’t directly in the spotlight. But he was someone people instantly felt connected to when they met him. He was smart and well-educated, charismatic and friendly, extremely kind and very social.

Besides being well-liked by all who knew him, he was highly respected. Crocker served in the Navy during World War I, and later ventured into politics, accepting a position at the Municipal Court of Detroit.

But his glory days quickly faded. Crocker’s tendencies didn’t always serve him well; he was a heavy social drinker, and this vice would become his downfall. Without Crocker even realizing it, he became an alcoholic, and his grand personality did a 180. He was now known for being a liar, a cheat, a thief, and a perpetual drunk. He lost job after job, became institutionalized and jailed more times than he could count, dabbled with drugs, lost his friends, became dirt broke, and ended up living on the streets of Detroit’s Skid Row.

A HOPELESS CASE

Deemed by the courts as “hopeless, incurable, and a menace to society,” Crocker didn’t seem to have a glimmer of hope for a new life. Even missionary shelters that were set up to help those in his situation weren’t providing him results of any great magnitude. They temporarily provided food and clothing, but he was still stuck in a destructive cycle.

At one of these shelters though, he did take a liking to The Salvation Army. Crocker liked the freebies they handed out and one officer in particular—a guy he described as wearing a “monkey suit”—said beautiful things about God that would eventually influence him. Though he continued drinking, having some foundation of who God was became a valuable seed planted in his life.

As with most things though, change didn’t happen overnight. In reality, things became far worse for Crocker physically and spiritually. He drank so much that he reached zombie-like status. Swollen, sore-covered, and unable to even walk, even the dirtiest of *flophouses rejected him. He slept on the streets using old newspapers for a bed. Now at his lowest of lows, Crocker prayed.

Crocker knew he was dying, but as he prayed for forgiveness and mercy, a “great strength” came over him. As if miraculously, he hobbled over to The Salvation Army corps in the heart of Detroit’s Skid Row seven blocks away. The church was empty, but he kneeled down at the place of prayer and beseeched God for more help and mercy.

LOST AND FOUND

The Salvation Army officer from the shelter found him, and Crocker found a new life in Christ. Never again would he have another drink or take any more drugs. Slowly but surely he returned to the loveable person he once was, only now he lived to serve Christ by helping those who were hurting in the same way he once was.

He became a captain in The Salvation Army and was appointed as the Commanding Officer of the Detroit Bowery Corps (now Harbor Light) in 1941—the same corps where he dedicated his life to Christ two years prior.

SPREADING THE HARBOR LIGHT

Since his turning point, he was wildly influential in serving and saving those who were at desperate lows. Here’s a snapshot of his influence:

  • Crocker helped create and establish the Army’s Harbor Light program in the United States, which is geared toward helping rehabilitate those on Skid Row. He helped establish these in many cities, including San Francisco, Los Angeles, Indianapolis, Minneapolis, and Washington, D.C. He also:
  • Created more than 60 clubs for the older men of the streets, as well as clubs for young men and veterans to prevent them from falling back into old habits.
  • Provided social services and ensured job placements for those working toward rehabilitation.
  • Led countless open-air meetings to spread the Good News. (He was known for his resounding war cry of “Jesus Never Fails!”)
  • Converted thousands of people to Christianity by meeting people at their level and reminding them that there is a way out from their troubles and vices.
  • Counseled new converts.
  • Became a regular consultant with the Municipal Court Judges.
  • Tracked down those who had gone missing and went looking for the lost.

LIVING THE DREAM

Everything about Crocker—from his gestures to his tone of voice—reflected his great compassion for others. Having been in their shoes, he understood them, as well as the redemption that was waiting for them in Christ. His former charisma was now transformed as a tool for good works and human connection. He also received great honors and regained respect from others, including civic groups, the military, the government, and from society in general.

In January 1952, Captain Crocker was named “Chicagoan of the Year” for rehabilitating more than 5,000 people on Skid Row via the Chicago Harbor Light program (which he took command of in 1947). Also in 1952, he received The Salvation Army’s highest honor, the Order of the Founder. “I just did the job that somehow God has given me to do,” Captain Crocker said when asked about his calling. “It is our dream to establish on the Skid Row of every large city in this country a Harbor Light—penetrating into the dreary darkness of the squalid flophouses, the sordid saloons, the littered alleys—a light penetrating into the darkness in the souls of those unhappy and desolate human beings who so desperately need our help.”

*Flophouse: a cheap rooming house providing only minimal services

Image of Captain Crocker Preaching at Chicago Harbor Light circa 1940

Photo Credit: The Salvation Army National Archives and Research Center.

ROCK BOTTOM

Captain Crocker had a tragic downfall and recovered from it dramatically.
As a result, he was able to help thousands of people who had also reached rock bottom.
Life may not be filled only with what we’d traditionally consider “blessings,” but God can transform despairing times into something beautiful if we rely on Him.

Be encouraged. “God never abandons those who fight in His armies,
although at times He lets them suffer wounds.”
Unseen Warfare: The Spiritual Combat and Path to Paradise of Lorenzo Scupoli

OUR PAST, HIS PURPOSE

You may relate to Tom Crocker. Perhaps you, too, feel your life has been marked with more mistakes than victories. However, don’t lose hope! As Crocker’s testimony reveals, God can redeem our past, our failures, and even our struggles for His purpose.

“Do not say: ‘I have sinned much, and therefore I am not bold enough to fall down before God.’ Do not despair. Simply do not increase your sins in despair and, with the help of the All-merciful One, you will not be put to shame. For He said, ‘he who comes to Me I will not cast out’ (John 6:37). And so, be bold and believe that He is pure and cleanses those who draw near to Him.”
— St. Gennadius of Constantinople

—Mariam Aberdeineh, Editorial Assistant