Jesus Hung Out With People Like Me

Jesus Hung Out With People Like Me


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.

Jesus Hung Out With People Like Me

Tom Skinner and Inner City Tech


Tom Skinner and Inner City Tech

May/June 1990
Good News

God has raised up Tom Skinner (1942-1994), former gang leaders of the Harlem Lords, into a dramatic ministry that has reached into the poverty-stricken inner city. His learning center in Newark, New Jersey, is raising up a generation of leaders who are morally and technically excellent.

Good News: Have the mainline churches abandoned the inner city?

Skinner: Yes. The problem is the Church has never viewed the inner city as a mission field. Whenever we’ve said missions it was automatically understood we were saying foreign missons – Africa, Asia, South America, Central America. The assumption has been that we have completed the job here, now we’ve got to get out. But there are whole areas in our own nation where we have not done the job – not even partly. That is crucial now, because our cities are at stake.

Good News: Explain why you say our cities are at stake.

Skinner: Washington D.C. is 72 percent African-American alone. New York City is 25 percent African-American, eight percent Hispanic, five percent Asian. Dallas and Houston are 40 percent Hispanic. San Antonio is 53 percent Hispanic. Minorities dominate the population in Los Angeles, Chicago and in the other 34 major American cities. So what’s happened by not having developed Christian leadership in those cities? We’re stuck with the witness of Christ being of no effect there. By the time we get to the year 2010 whole cities will be 80 percent African-American, Hispanic, and Asian. And the only way to ensure a sound Christian witness is to start developing the leadership now.

Good News: Tell us about your work in the inner city.

Skinner: We started a pilot program four years ago in Newark, New Jersey, by building a high-tech learning center. The object of that project is to help raise up a new generation of Christ-centered leaders that are both technically excellent and spiritually mature.

Our learning center is committed to five types of skills. The first are what we call spiritual and moral skills. We teach the Gospel of John, so our students know who Christ is; and we teach the book of Proverbs, so they learn to think from God’s point of view.

The second skills are basic skills – reading, writing, and functional math. The relationship between poverty and functional illiteracy is overwhelming.

Third are coping skills. That’s the ability to learn how the system functions and who makes the decisions. We take our kids to city council meetings and state legislature meetings. They learn how the banking system functions.

The fourth skills are what we call bread-on-the-table skills. We teach that you will be ultimately responsible for the economic welfare of your own life and your family’s life. We provide our kids with the skills necessary to become income producers, and to take charge of their own economic lives.

The fifth skills are leadership skills. We teach the godly character of leaders and general leadership skills – planning, setting goals, managing time, managing yourself, managing work, etc. We use basic characters in the Bible such as Abraham, Moses, and others.

Good News: Why do you call it a high-tech learning center?

Skinner: The center is high-tech, meaning that we use computer systems, video systems, and audio systems to accelerate the learning process. Seventy percent of all the practice work is done by computers, so that every young person learns at his or her own pace.

Good News: Are you seeing results?

Skinner: For every 20 hours of work in reading and every 25 hours in math we’re seeing a one and a half grade increase. One day the principal and two assistant principals from the 2000-student high school across the street from our learning center came over with a list of names and said, “Do you recognize any of these names?”

We said, “Yes. These kids are part of the learning center. Why?”

The school officials had done a study of the most improved students in their school, and our kids had gone off the graph. They all had one common experience; they had been coming to the learning center. Now the school sends us five classes a day to do the same thing with those kids.

Good News: What age groups do you work with?

Skinner: We deal with three groups of people. The first is students between grades three and 12, eight to 18 years old. They come between three and nine in the evening.

The second group is dropouts from 16 to 25. The third group is adults who are illiterate. We teach them reading, writing, and functional math.

We had a first SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) in the fall, and our students scored 1070, which is 150 points higher than the national average. These kids live in the ghetto, and 95 percent of them live below the poverty level.

Good News: What are the requirements for going to your learning center?

Skinner: First, we want the majority of our kids to come from homes below the poverty level. Second, they have to bring a parent or guardian with them the first time, because we want that parent or guardian to know what we will do, and we make no bones about the fact that we are going to instruct the kids in the Word of God.

Third, they have to bring library cards because we’re going to teach them how to use information. We’ll also teach them how to access information through the library system and card catalog, as well as through computer and electric databases. They learn that part of the way they will overcome poverty is by learning how to use information.

Also, we have made arrangements with three banks in the community to allow our kids to open a bank account with five dollars. We teach them that 10 percent of everything they earn they’ve got to give to helping somebody less fortunate than they.

They learn that they are not recipients only, but givers, and part of whatever they receive, they owe it to God to share it with somebody who’s less fortunate.

If they’re over 18 they also have to come with voter registration cards, because we want them to learn to participate in the leadership of the community.

Good News: How big is your high-tech center?

Skinner: We have 375 kids, and they have to give us a minimum of 12 hours a week. They don’t fight to do the minimum, though, they fight to do the maximum. Sometimes we have to tell the kids that we can’t give them more than 20 hours this week, they’ll have to come back next week. We’re also open all day on Saturday.

Good News: How many staff?

Skinner: We have seven full-time staff people and approximately 20 volunteers that give us four hours a week.

Good News: What about funding?

Skinner: Funding comes from churches and individuals. We do not accept government funds.

Good News: This idea sounds marketable. Is anybody looking at it?

Skinner: Every week, at least one group from some city comes to look at what we’re doing because they want to reproduce it. We are going to put this project in 20 cities. We believe if we do that we’ll multiply it much faster, because more people will see it in their own environments and copy it.

Good News: Have you had the learning center long enough to begin to see results in the lives of the kids?

Skinner: These kids are bringing kids. I’ve been involved in evangelism for 30 years, and I am convinced the most effective evangelists are kids. If you get kids turned on to Christ and train them, they make the most effective evangelists. They are uninhibited. At evangelism seminars the most frequent question adults ask is, “How do you make the approach?” The kids never ask about the approach. They only ask, “What should I say?”

Good News: You have them a pretty good chunk of time. Are they able to establish their own counter-culture?

Skinner: The majority of the adults who are now a part of the program have been brought by their children. The children have been the greatest propagators of our work in their school system. Numbers of employers in Newark, New Jersey, recruit employees at our center, because not only are they the brightest kids the companies can get, but they are also morally responsible. These are employers like Prudential Life, AT&T, and McDonalds.

Good News: Do most of the kids have any kind of a church relationship or does this community become that for them?

Skinner: At the beginning of their development this community is that but we bring them into relationship with local churches.

Good News: Are any of the kids coming back and becoming a second generation of leaders?

Skinner: Eighty percent of our summer interns are people who have graduated from this program. Because we’ve only been at it for five years, we don’t have much of an adult population. But we’ve gotten these kids into the best colleges in the country, and some schools have told us they will give our best students full scholarships.

Good News: How can the UM Church be of help to the Tom Skinner Association?

Skinner: We’re always looking for additional teachers, people who have unique skills in teaching reading, math, and cultural things.

Because we use high-tech, United Methodists may want to buy computers or video systems for us.

We may be able to have a partnership that will allow us to train people from within the church who could go back and establish a similar program in local communities we’d also be willing to partner with some of the Christian colleges, where students could meet some of their credit needs by working at our center. We’re very open to that.

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