From Black and Free, 1968, by Tom Skinner (1942-1994), as told by Ruth Tucker in Stories of Faith, 1989.
Tom Skinner was raised in Harlem, the son of a preacher, and he grew up learning how to behave as a preacher’s kid. But while he outwardly conformed, he inwardly rebelled. By his own testimony, he was an extraordinary success: “I was president of the student body at school. I was a member of the Arista Society, made up of the cream of the intellectual crop. I was president of the Shakespearean Club. And I was a member of the baseball team. I was also president of the young people’s department in my own church. By the time I was fourteen years of age, I’d acted out full length plays of Shakespeare, Hamlet and Macbeth, playing the title roles.”
Such was the young man who was confronted one night by a street gang member and asked facetiously if he wanted to be a member of the Harlem Lords. The gang member was taken aback when the preacher’s kid said yes. “In order to be a member of the Harlem Lords you gotta pass the initiation test,” he warned. “We’ll see if you’re tough enough to be in the gang.”
He was tough enough, as he later recalled. “After six weeks of fighting with the Harlem Lords, getting involved in several rumbles, breaking into a few stores and doing some other stealing, I sized up the leader of our gang. I decided, ‘Why should I be just a member of the gang when I can be the leader?`” He challenged the leader to a fight and won. For the next two years he “would reign as undisputed leader of the gang” and would earn twenty-two notches on the handle of his knife— one for each time he used his knife on someone. And all the while he continued his active involvement in church and school activities— his parents not realizing he was a gang leader.
One night while he was listening to his radio and planning his strategy for a massive attack by a coalition of gangs against gangs on the other side of the city, an unscheduled gospel program came on. He was annoyed— especially by the preacher’s obvious lack of education and his emotional, uncouth manner. But somehow he could not force himself to get up and change the station. The more he listened, the more he was convicted, and by the end of the program he turned his life over to God.
That was the turning point in Tom Skinner’s life. After that decision, he boldly began sharing the gospel and led many members of his own gang and rival gangs to the Lord. He later went on to become America’s leading black evangelist…
Evangelism seems to come naturally to some people— people to whom grace has been apportioned to be evangelists. After he was converted, Tom Skinner became such an individual. Immediately after his conversion, he began sharing his faith with others.
The decision to go public with his newfound faith was not easy, as he testified: “You don’t just walk up to a gang of fellows that you’ve been leading around for two years in rioting, looting, fighting and lawbreaking and say, ‘Well, guys, it’s been nice knowing you. So long.’ No one quits a gang. In fact, just two weeks before I had personally broken the arms and legs of two fellows who told me they were going to quit. And these fellows got off easy.”
But whether or not to tell his gang members about his conversion was not an option for Tom. He had made a promise to God, and he decided to make the announcement in front of the entire gang. “I moved into the smoky room and walked to the front,” he later recalled. “There were 129 fellows in that room. Every one of them carried a knife. I made my announcement and gave my testimony. You could have heard a pin drop. No one spoke. No one even moved. I walked down the aisle and out into the night air, half expecting a knife to come tearing into my back or a bullet to dig into my flesh. But nothing! I walked out without one person raising a hand against me.”
Two nights later, Tom led “The Mop”—the “number two man in the gang” to the Lord, and in the weeks that followed several more of his old gang members were converted. Besides personal witnessing, he began preaching on the streets to passers-by. It was on one such occasion that members of the rival “Diablo” gang spotted him. Within minutes they surrounded him, threatening his life. He calmly explained what had happened in his life, and before the encounter was over, he writes, “We led at least twenty-five members of that gang to Jesus Christ. Many of them prayed openly on the street.”
Tom’s ministry of evangelism was also effective in the local churches— indeed, so effective that some local pastors feared his ministry would be a threat to their own. His goal, however, was not to start a rival movement, but simply to reach out with the gospel and bring people to Christ.
I Timothy 1:14-16 — The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners— of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life.
Matthew 10:28 — (Jesus said), “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”
Isaiah 51:7 — (The Lord says), “Hear me, you who know what is right, you people who have taken my instruction to heart: Do not fear the reproach of mere mortals or be terrified by their insults. For the moth will eat them up like a garment; the worm will devour them like wool. But my righteousness will last forever, my salvation through all generations.”
When hard pressed, I cried to the Lord;
he brought me into a spacious place.
The Lord is with me; I will not be afraid.
What can mere mortals do to me?
The Lord is with me; he is my helper.
I look in triumph on my enemies.