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Mobtown Beat

Our Lady of the Flowers

A former massage-parlor operator brings roses and prayer to the Block

Photo: Josh Sisk, License: N/A

Josh Sisk

Melinda Stecker ministers to women who work on the block.

Melinda Stecker cradles a couple dozen pink roses in the crook of her arm as she walks the section of East Baltimore Street known as the Block. A hold-over from another era, the Block is a stone’s throw from police headquarters and a slew of other municipal buildings. The competing neon signage of nearly 20 strip joints lights up the night here.

A short woman with sunburst-red hair, Stecker bears a slight resemblance to Blaze Starr, the famous dancer of the Block’s 1950s glory days. But Stecker, 48, doesn’t work on the Block. Instead, she says, she is “stationed” there. Her mission: “to love the hell out of the girls” who work on the street. “I bring them flowers and pray over them so they know that somebody loves them,” she says. For the past year and a half, Stecker has run a ministry that focuses on the Block. She organizes events for the women and visits at least twice a week.

Stecker is not a complete stranger to their lifestyle. From the time she was a teenager until she was in her early 30s, the Baltimore native says she was into drinking and drugs; she tended bar at a strip club and managed an erotic massage parlor. “When I served the devil, I really served the devil,” she says. She got pregnant and had a daughter, whom she raised alone.

Then, about 15 years ago, she heard a voice. “It was telling me to give my heart to God,” she says. She knew nothing about the Bible, but she opened it and started reading. The effect was like sticking a fork into an electrical socket, she says: “I started shaking, I fell down, and I started talking in tongues.”

Stecker says that experience changed her life, but it didn’t necessarily make her more respectable in other people’s eyes. “I got kicked out of [a mainstream Protestant] church,” she explains. “I was too radical, and they said I had the devil in me.” Stecker grins. “I give up the men and the booze and the drugs and now I have the devil in me?” She believes there is a stark distinction between religion and being a good Christian. “People don’t need to be in churches,” she says. “They need to be out on the street.”

Stecker is a member of the Harvest Church in Hampstead, which has formed a street ministry group called the Alliance with other small churches. But she first came to the street alone, volunteering in homeless shelters. Then, in February 2010, she lost her job as a consultant at a mortgage bank and felt she was being called to the Block. She named her new ministry Awaken Aurora, after a vision she had of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale. “It’s probably because of my past that God called me there,” she says. “I feel a special connection with the single mothers.”

Though she found work as a mortgage consultant last April, Stecker still goes to the Block twice a week between 7 and 8:30 p.m., when the shifts change and the sidewalks are full of dancers, hawkers, and hangers-around. She greets everyone—most by name—and asks about babies, boyfriends, health problems. She occasionally goes into the clubs, but is careful not to interfere with business. “They need to make their money,” she says.

Still, not everyone is fond of her. Some customers visibly wince when they come out of a club and see Stecker standing there. “I’m not really welcome in front of the clubs on that side of the street,” she says, pointing at the north side of Baltimore Street, where only a couple of strip clubs remain open and there’s less foot traffic to blend into. Many of the dancers also hurry past Stecker and her flowers with no more than a sideways glance. She just smiles and turns to the next woman.

“Hi honey,” she says. “You want a flower?”

“They free?” asks the woman, who is tall and African-American.

“For a hug,” Stecker says. She embraces the woman, and then asks if she wants to be prayed over. When a shy nod signals assent, Stecker puts her hand on the woman’s shoulder and begins praying, softly. When she finishes, the woman draws on a cigarette and walks off, clutching her flower.

Stecker believes prayer accomplishes miracles. At least one recipient agrees. Sue Wilson, a diminutive, sometimes-homeless woman who hangs out around the Block, says she had a brain tumor and was having seizures. “Then Melinda prayed over me and I haven’t had a seizure, or taken any medication, in six months. She prayed that the tumor be gone.”

Is it?

“I don’t know. Since I haven’t had a seizure, I haven’t been back to the hospital.”

Later that night, Stecker prays over a man with a tallboy in a black plastic bag. Afterward, he apologizes for drinking. “Oh, I don’t care,” she says, patting his arm. And she doesn’t: “I’m the alien in their culture. I can’t judge them.” Still, she says some aspects of that culture have been hard to get used to. “Some of these girls pretty much have sex right in front of me. I’ll be talking to one girl and right beside us another one will be like. . . .” Stecker bounces up and down, mimicking the act.

Stecker was still unemployed when a five-alarm fire shut down much of the Block last December, so she knew only too well that the women would need more than flowers and prayer. She collected donations from several churches and hosted a Christmas party for the out-of-work women and their families at a local church. “Melinda’s good people,” says Kevin Slayton, the mayor’s liaison to the city’s faith institutions, who helped Stecker find a location for the party. “She’s doing what we’re all called to do, but not enough of us are.”

About 100 people (including 20 volunteers) attended, so Stecker began to plan more events. In early August she hosted “A Day for a Princess” in a defunct Catholic school building in Southwest Baltimore. Thirteen dancers came out for the spa day, which included massages, haircuts, manicures, and pedicures. Women on the Block still come up to Stecker to thank her. “It was great,” says a dancer named Dawn, hugging Stecker in front of Crazy John’s restaurant.

Stecker isn’t the only one trying to make life on the Block easier. A mobile STD testing and treatment center and a needle-exchange van run by the city are both parked at the curb. Around the corner, the Grace and Hope Mission has been offering sandwiches—after a church service—since 1914. Stecker sees these entities as allies. But she’s more interested in the panorama of life on the Block. “These are the people Jesus hung out with,” she says, almost giddy, neon reflecting off her hair. As she walks by the Harem, she stops to talk to the doorman. “I admire you,” he says. “You’ve got a lot of balls to be out doing this.”

Stecker is planning an October spa day and a series of monthly dinners. The first dinner was scheduled for Aug. 28, the day after Hurricane Irene blew through Baltimore; a van was to provide rides from the Block to the dinner and back. But when much of the city awoke without power that morning, Stecker knew turnout would be low. She sent the volunteer driver of the borrowed van to pick up people from homeless shelters and went down to the Block herself. None of the dancers showed up, but she wasn’t disappointed. “We still fed about 57 people by candlelight,” she says.

And the next Thursday, she is back on Baltimore Street, brassy as ever. She stalks the Block, like so many others, looking for someone who wants to be loved.

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