Jesus Hung Out With People Like Me

By Tom Skinner
May/June 1990

I was born and raised in Harlem in New York. Harlem is a two-and-a-half-square-mile area with a population of one million people. Five thousand people lived on my block. It was not uncommon for some mother to wake up in the middle of the night and send a piercing scream through the community as she discovered that her two week-old baby had been gnawed to death by a vicious rat.

There were more than 40,000 drug addicts in Harlem supporting an average habit of more than $100 per person per day. You could set your watch to when the police would drive into the neighborhood and collect their bribes to keep the racketeering going.

It was in the midst of this that I grew up trying to discover who I was and what I was about.

While coming home from school one afternoon I was approached by a member of one of the up-and-coming gangs in the Harlem community named the Harlem Lords. Facetiously, he asked me if I would like to belong to the Harlem Lords. (He knew that I was a preacher’s kid, and   everybody knows that preachers’ kids are nice, soft, innocent people who don’t bother anybody.)

But I took him up on it, and I met the fellas that night. I passed the initiation and became a member of the Harlem Lords. After rumbling around with the guys and rioting, looting, and stealing for several months I thought, It is really stupid to be a member of this gang, when with my intelligence I could be the leader. To be leader you had to challenge whoever the leader was, so I defeated the leader in a knife fight. I was challenged by two other fellows, defeated them and became the undisputed leader of the Harlem Lords.

I had come under the influence of a group in Harlem known as the Black Nationalists. Our science teacher at school was a Nationalist. He knew I was captain of the baseball team, co-captain of the football team, president of the young people’s department in my church, and I had the second highest academic average in school. He said to me, “Tom, it’s wonderful that you’re at the top of your class and that you’re a brilliant student. But if you believe that the system is going to allow you to succeed, forget it. They might let you bounce a basketball, play football, be a jazz player or a rock-and-roll singer, but they’re not going to allow you to compete with them to run their companies. Because of the color of your skin they do not believe you have the wherewithal to be their peers.”

As the Nationalists pointed out to me, “The Christian religion is nothing more than a white man’s religion given to black people to keep them in their place. The same people who believe that Jesus saves will move out of the neighborhood when you move in.”

I became very angry. I got to the point where I could take a bottle, jig the glass in a person’s face, twist it and not bat my eye. I ended up with 22 notches on the handle of my knife, which meant that my blade had gone into the bodies of 22 different people. But all that mattered to me was that Tom Skinner got what he wanted; how I got it made absolutely no difference.

To make a long story short, I began mapping out strategy for what was to be the hugest gang fight ever to take place in New York. The Harlem Lords, the Imperials, the Crowns, the Sportsmen, and the Jesters would unite to fight a bunch of gangs on the other side of the city. If I succeeded in this particular fight I would have emerged as the leader of an alliance of gangs that would have made me the most powerful leader in the city.

I had my radio on that night and was listening to my favorite DJ, when an unscheduled program interrupted the broadcast. A man began to speak from a passage written in 2 Corinthians 5:17 which says, “Therefore if any man is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.”

He went on to say that every person born into the human race is born  without the life of God. And it’s the absence of God’s life in a person that causes that one to be a sinner. That was the first time I’d ever heard that, because I’d always heard from Christians that sinners were the bad people – the crooks and the thieves and the murderers and the adulterers – and that they needed Jesus Christ so they could stop doing bad stuff.

That was the first time I’d heard that separation from God produced a jadedness in me that led to violence and bigotry and prejudice and hate. Then I was told that 1,900 years ago God became a man in Christ, and that Jesus bore in his own body on the cross my separation from God. And when he shed his blood he did so to forgive me, and he rose from the dead to live in me.

I had a problem with Jesus, because all the pictures I ever saw of Jesus didn’t look like he would survive in my neighborhood. He had blonde hair, blue eyes and hands that looked like they’d just been washed in Dove. I thought, if I ever got hooked up with him, I’d have to work full-time saving him from the brothers on the corner. I mean, he wouldn’t survive! But I discovered that the Christ which leaped out of the pages of the New Testament was nobody’s softie. Jesus was a gutsy, contemporary, radical revolutionary with hair on his chest and dirt under his fingernails who hung out with people like me.

I bowed my head next to my radio and prayed a very simple prayer: “Lord, I don’t understand all this. But I do know that I’m separated from you. And if what I’m hearing is true, I now give you the right to take over my life.”

I still had a problem. I was a gang leader. The following night I told my entire gang I had committed my life to Jesus Christ, and I could no longer responsibly lead that gang.

Two nights later the number two man cornered me and told me that when I got up and walked out he was going to put his blade in my back, but he couldn’t move. He said it was like something or somebody glued him to his seat. I shared with him what Jesus Christ had done in my life, and two days after my own commitment to Christ the number-two man made the same decision. Within a year seven other of the leaders of our gang committed themselves to Christ, and we formed a little band that began to study the Word of God together under some people who had been studying the Scriptures in Harlem for 18 years. They took us under their wing and taught us the Word and how to follow Christ

I stand here to tell you that I’m a new person in Jesus Christ. I still have to battle prejudice and bigotry in the world, but the difference is that I am God’s son. I’ll be seated together with Jesus Christ in heavenly places, and if people don’t want to live next door to royalty like me, that’s their problem.

Jesus is now living his life through my redeemed blackness. To follow Jesus I did not have to give up my Africanism. I am proud of my heritage and where I come from. To be accepted and to be one in the body of Christ does not require that I have to become white.

God’s putting together this tremendous choir that the Bible says is going to stand up one day and sing, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain,” and “You have made us of one blood out of every kindred tribe, tongue and nation, hath made us a priest and a kingdom unto our God. You will reign forever and ever.”

That choir is going to put Africans and Asians and Hispanics and African Americans and Chinese together. We will take all of our instruments, languages, and cultures, and we’ll sing together, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain to receive honor and glory and power and majesty forever and ever. Amen.”

This article has been adapted from Tom Skinner’s presentation at Asbury College in February 1990.

Tom Skinner’s legacy is carried on by his widow, Dr. Barbara Williams-Skinner, at the Skinner Leadership Institute.


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