Homeless Detroit man laid to rest, thanks to a friend

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News
Father Tim McCabe begins the funeral mass for Gordon King as he addresses those in attendance Thursday at St. Peter & Paul Jesuit Church in Detroit.

At a corner near Interstate 75 in downtown Detroit, an unlikely friendship developed six years ago between Tiffany Brocker, a mother of six children, and Gordon King, who was homeless.

The two saw each other daily and developed a bond. What happened next was worthy of an O. Henry story: King disappeared. Brocker found out that he'd died. When his family couldn't be found, she gave him a memorial and a final resting spot.

"I don’t know Gordy’s favorite color or favorite childhood memory," Brocker said Thursday during the eulogy she wrote for him. "What I do know is that he was a child of God, and that we were meant to meet."

The story began when Brocker, 47, had moved to the city with her family and drove to the suburbs each day for her retail job. During her first commutes, she noticed King at the corner of Chrysler Drive and Larned Street, and rolled down the window of her car. She gave him a few dollars and said she would pray for him. King thanked her, flashed a smile and told her he would pray for her too.

She brought him breakfast from Tim Hortons and warm gear as the winter approached. He comforted her with a hug and prayers when he saw her sobbing in a gas station on her way to her dying father's bedside.

"He had a really great smile and a little sparkle in his eye," said Brocker, who adopted all of her children from foster care and is raising them with her husband, Blayne.

"There was something about him," Brocker said. "He was really a special guy."

Tiffany Brocker, right, is hugged by Jelani Shakoor, who used to be homeless and had also known Gordon King.

But life is fragile, especially on the streets.

One day last year, Brocker, a devout Catholic, stopped seeing King on the corner. She started asking some of the other homeless people in the area if they'd seen him. Months passed before she found out last spring from another homeless man that King had died a few months earlier, on Dec. 29, at the age of 64.

Brocker was devastated. She couldn't stop thinking about him and wanted to find out if he'd had a proper burial.

She tracked him down in the Wayne County morgue, where officials told her they had yet to find his next of kin. That's when she planned his memorial, reasoning that it was her Catholic duty and that she should set an example for her children.

“Mother Teresa said if you can’t feed 100 people, feed just one," said Brocker. "It is our duty to take care of each other.”

On Thursday morning, a small gathering of King's friends paid their last respects to him during a service at Ss. Peter and Paul Jesuit Church in downtown Detroit. Thanks to Brocker and her network, King's memorial included a formal Catholic service, pallbearers from University of Detroit Jesuit High School; flowers, a volunteer organist and cantor, and a prayer card to remember him. 

Afterward, guests enjoyed soft drinks and cookies in the church courtyard while Verheyden Funeral Home, which donated King's casket, provided a hearse to deliver the man's body to his final resting spot, Our Lady of Hope Cemetery in Brownstown Township.

"This is beautiful," Cason Pointer, a homeless man who said he had been friends with King, said as he fought back tears. "Man, man. It's unspeakable ... It's heart-touching. They didn't have to do this. It came from the heart. Somebody loved him. She loved him." 

Though King was born in poverty and was homeless for many years, he did a lot of things in his life, said Jelani Shakoor, 34, who met King when he was homeless for a few years. 

"He was real," said Shakoor, who attended the service. "(He did) a lot of good. Some things he wasn't proud of but a lot he overcame. He was from a different breed. There aren't too many out there like him anymore, that seen and did what he did and was able to survive."

Before he died, KIng had a place to live and took care of his business every day, added Shakoor, who now lives on the west side of Detroit.

Asked what King might have thought about the memorial, Shakoor said it was such a life-affirming act by Brocker.

"This man would have been stuck in a morgue," Shakoor said. "Nobody would want their bodies to be stuck in a morgue until they burn them all and bury them somewhere. Everybody wants a funeral. I know he's smiling down. I know he's attending this service and know it's bringing a smile to him. He can finally rest in peace."

Tiffany Brocker of Detroit, left, is surrounded by family as she tosses dirt onto the casket of Gordon King.

The number of unclaimed and unidentified bodies changes constantly in Wayne County, said Lisa Croff, a spokeswoman for the coroner's office. Not all unclaimed bodies are unidentified. Sometimes, bodies are identified, but the families do not claim them because of finances or other reasons, Croff said.

When next of kin cannot be identified or a family does not claim a body, the county will cremate the corpse and store the remains at Our Lady of Hope Cemetery. Every year, about 125 unclaimed bodies are cremated, Croff said.

"But the goal is to reunite families," she said.

To raise money and in-kind donations for King's memorial, Brocker reached out to her neighbors, friends and brethren at St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church in St. Clair Shores.

She also launched a GoFundMe page and raised $3,000 to pay for a headstone, flowers and a donation to the Pope Francis Center, a Jesuit ministry for the homeless  inside Ss. Peter and Paul church, where King went regularly.

When Brocker told her one of her sons about the crowdfunding campaign for King's memorial, he wanted to be the first donor. He ran and got his 13th birthday card from his grandmother, and donated his $25 birthday gift.

"Someone who is on the street should have a nice funeral and somebody who has been really nice to our family, we should pay them back," said Jack Brocker.

Other young people tried to help, too.

St. Clair Shores resident Lillian Hass, 9, put up a lemonade stand last weekend and raised $23.42 for King's memorial.

She said she hoped that her contribution would "maybe make him smile."

Tiffany Brocker of Detroit, left, is surrounded by family as she tosses a flower onto the casket of Gordon King.

Meanwhile, Christian Egan of Grosse Pointe heard about the memorial for King and thought it was the perfect opportunity for the pallbearer ministry at U of D Jesuit High School. He, his twin brother, Patrick, and three other young men from the ministry escorted KIng's coffin.

"It was touching to see the amount of love Mr. King received," Egan said.

But the memorial represented something even more profound for the community.

"Detroit doesn't always get the best reputation; people see us in a certain way," said Egan, 17. "This is about the love people have for one another, no matter where you are from or where you came from."

The people who came together to give King a farewell is what church -- and Detroit -- is all about, said the Rev. Tim McCabe, Society of Jesus, who is executive director of the Pope Francis Center, 

 "This is the spirit of Detroit," McCabe said. "It's the city I live in and love. People continue to do so much for one another and recognize our common humanity."

In her eulogy for King, Brocker said she hopes putting King to rest will inspire her children and others to look around to make a difference for someone else

”There are so many people around us who need to be fed, not just physically but also emotionally and spiritually and it truly does not require much effort on our part to feed them," Brocker said. "Every act of kindness, from holding a door open, to making eye contact and smiling at a stranger, to visiting an elderly neighbor or family member, to buying the person in line behind you a coffee, to donating to charity, to burying someone with no family, not only makes a tremendous difference for the receiver of your kindness, but the ripple effect will impact many more."