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This is a complete and accurate transcript of the tape of the oral history interview of Tom Skinner (Collection 430, T2) in the Archives of the Billy Graham Center. No spoken words which were recorded is omitted. In a very few cases, the transcribers could not understand what was said, in which case "[unclear]' was inserted. Also, grunts and verbal hesitations such as "ah" or "um" were usually omitted. Readers of this transcript should remember that this is a transcript of spoken English, which follows a different rhythm and even rule than written English.
. . . Three dots indicate an interruption or break in the train of thought within the sentence of the speaker.
. . . . Four dots indicate what the transcriber believes to be the end of an incomplete sentence.
( ) Word in parentheses are asides made by the speaker.
[ ] Words in brackets are comments made by the transcriber.
This transcript was completed by Wayne D. Weber and Paul Ericksen in February 1999.
Collection 430, T2. Interview of Tom Skinner by Robert Shuster, June 13, 1990.
SHUSTER: You were saying the nationalists drew . . . .
SKINNER: The nationalists drew their [pauses] . . . much of the [pauses] origination of the black nationalists came out of the Marcus Garvey movement. Marcus Garvey was a . . . a Jamaican who came to New York in the [pauses] early 1920s early . . . right after World War I and began to mobilize masses of black people in the United States to . . . to think of going back to Africa and establishing an African nation made up of former slaves [pauses], and even built ships, had ships bought and stuff. He was eventually convicted by the U.S. government for fraud. And it's very interesting when you read the case that today the case probably would have been thrown out of court, but given the climate and the times he was disgraced and . . . and exported. But the nationalist movement was very strong in Harlem. And on 122nd Street and 7th Avenue there was a black nationalist bookstore in Harlem [pauses] owned by a man by the name of Mitchell, Mitchell. Now Lee Mitchell was very interesting because he was the . . . he was the brother of Elder Mitchell who was a Pentecostal leader in Washington D.C. and bishop of a group of Pentecostal churches on the eastern seaboard. But his brother Lee was a strong black nationalist and it was . . . it was under . . . it was . . . they were tremendous influences in . . . in my political views as a . . . as a . . . as a teenager. [pauses] You could come by there after school on any day and . . . and Malcolm X would be in there, Louis Farrakhan would be in there, and they were all young men at the time, you know. And [pauses] Adam [Clayton] Powell would come by, be in there and they would have great debates and stuff. So I grew up under that. But my view of Jesus was based on that, that . . . (of course black nationalists argued very strongly that the historical Jesus was black, and, you know, they . . . they . . . they quoted Solomon's [unclear] "I am black." John's vision at Patmos [Revelations 1:14-15] of . . . of . . . of the . . . the Lamb of God whose hair was as lamb's wool, whose feet were though they were burned they had been burned in a furnace and etcetera, etcetera, as all being descriptive of a black man. They were very strong on that. We even had black nationalists who considered themselves completed Jews and that . . . that they believed that black people were the lost Jewish tribes that the Scriptures talked about. So all of that was . . . . [taps table, pauses] So my view of God was I didn't accept that God was there. I accepted that there was a historical figure called Jesus who did some good stuff, but He probably was black and . . . and was for liberation and freedom. And [pauses] that's where I was. I . . . my people got . . . if people came up to me with doubt or passed me a tract or something [pauses] I said, "Well, show me God. Where is God? Will he let me touch Him, see Him, feel Him?" You know what I mean. And . . I had read a enough, you know . . . philosophically I had read a lot of philosophy books by that time. Bertrand Russell was very popular in those days so I knew all his arguments [slaps table] against God and I'd just field them all back, then see they went on their way. But I was mapping out strategy one night for what was to have been the largest gang fight ever take place in New York, would have involved five gangs: the Harlem Lords, the Imperials, the Crowns, the Sportsman, and the Jesters (taken after the court jesters) would unite together to fight a bunch of gangs from the other side of the city. My . . . my job was map out the strategy and if I succeeded in leading the guys to victory in this fight I would have . . . I would have emerged as a leader of an alliance of gangs that would have made me the most powerful leader in the area. Had my radio on this night listening to my favorite DJ [disk jockey]. It was a rock program. It came on every night between the hours of eight and ten o'clock. And normally at nine o'clock there's a station break or commercial and then the DJ comes back on the air with the rest of the program. Now this night an unscheduled program came on and . . . and a guy starts speaking from second Corinthians chapter five from the Scriptures, verse seventeen, "If any man be in Christ he is a new creation. Old things are passed away, all things are become new." And, of course, I saw God entering in [?], got to listen to religion again. And . . . and to me that's what it was. I mean, I . . . I went to church because my father was the minister and it was expected, plus I liked the kind of dual . . . dual life I was living. One covered the other, you know, so that . . . that . . . that my parents would never suspect anything because I was going to church and . . . and I was president of the young people's department in the church. And every fourth Sunday the young people were in charge of the church service and parents would tell their kids, "Why can't you be like Tom?" And, you know, so it was really [unclear] I thought. But I . . . I never bought any of the stuff in church. And . . . but the thing that arrested my attention was that he said, "Every person born into the human race is born without the life of God and that it is the absence of God's life in a person that causes a person to be what the Bible defines as a sinner." Now the preachers I have have heard who preached about sin and damnation and judgment and brimstone and fire and stuff have always impressed me that people were sinners because they did bad things. They were sinners because they lied, they cheated, they committed adultery, they stole, they murdered, they whatever. But for the first time the thing that arrested my attention was this guy's definition of sin, that sin was not what you did, sin was what you are and that a sinner is a person whose life is independent from the life of God. Now, I mean, that was the f . . . that was mind blowing because that was the thing that got my attention that I'd not heard that idea before. And what causes a person to be a sinner is that they do not have God's life in them. And that changed a whole lot of stuff, you know, in terms of [unclear] but I still only ignored it all because I had intellectual problems with God. "Show me God. I can't see Him. The Bible contradicts itself. Men wrote the Bible. Men make mistakes. There are mistakes in the Bible, things like . . . ."
SHUSTER: Do you recall who that radio preacher was? Did you . . . .
SKINNER: No. There were . . . to this day I don't know the guy's name . . . to this day. [pauses] So [pauses] I went on mapping out the strategy and he came down to the end of his message. Well, he . . . he went through . . . he . . . he went through the whole story: that God became a man in Christ and that when Jesus Christ walked the earth, this was not another religious leader, but for the first time in human history God put skin on Himself and walked the earth as a man, but at the same time He was God; and that when Jesus was nailed to the cross it was not another religious natic . . . religious fanatic being crucified but that Jesus was literally taking on Himself my independence from God. And it was the constant use of this word "independence" that really got my attention because then it started becoming clear to me that here was somebody who defining sin as independence, not as bad things you did, which now means that . . . that there are lot of good people who are independent, you know. And so I'd always gotten the impression that there were bad people who did bad things and what these folks were saying is that when they die they're going to hell and then there are good people who do good things and they chalk up credit accounts with God and when they die they're going to heaven, see. "Well, it was obvious to me," I always said, "Well, I know where I'm going," you know. But here was a person saying, "No, there are going to be a lot of good people . . . and . . . and the good people are . . . are . . . are there because they are ind . . . [something dropped onto the floor in the background] they are independent, which really has nothing to do with that. You want to . . . ?
SHUSTER: Sure. [Stops and then restarts tape recorder]
SKINNER: So what became clear is that sin was independence [background sound] and that every person born into the human race was born independent and therefore they . . . they act independent and it's that independence that is sin. And Jesus came to end the independence and to bring us to dependency on Christ [talking in background] and to qualify us to have a right relationship with God. And . . . well, I said, "Well, yeah, everything the preacher is saying, he's quoting from the Bible. The Bible contradicts itself, men wrote it, there are mistakes in it, it's the white man's attempt to keep us down anyway." But, you know, it started dawning on me that I had to make the same application to these issues and questions I had that I had, that the . . . the same kind of inquiry I made for the other things that I conceived to be more important, and I had . . . I had enough respect for research and the scientific approach that I had been educated into that I began to realize that I had not taken Jesus through the same process, that is my . . . my belief system had not gone through the same process. And the . . . the . . . the preacher said, "The prom . . . that the promise of God is that any person who comes to Christ, He will not reject." Now by this time he had explained why Christ died, the importance of the death of Jesus on the cross, that Jesus was buried, and that Jesus three days later got up out of the grave. And he said that when Christ got up out of the grave He didn't simply rise from the dead to prove He had power over death, but that the He arose from the dead as evidence that He had accomplished the work that He had been sent to accomplish which was to bring us into right [watch alarm rings twice] relationship with God. And that He was now called to the second man. He is now the leader of a new creation. God is recreating the human race in Jesus Christ. That was a powerful statement, you know, to think the human race is being recreated, you know, I mean . . . I mean, it's such an attention-getter [?] for me. Well, the preacher said, "The promise of God is that any person who comes to Christ, He will not reject him." See, now it was show time [unidentified sound in background] because if what Jesus . . . if what was being said about Jesus was true, [pauses] the only way I could prove it wasn't true was that I would have to test it. Now my science teacher ironically had begun the lesson that day by saying, "Today we're going to study the atom, A-T-O-M. The atom cannot be see with the human eye. The atom can't be seen under most microscopes." As teacher of the class he admitted that he had never seen an atom and then he proceeded to say, "This atom which we have never seen was divided into three parts: the proton, a neutron, an electron," Which I thought was kind of ridiculous if he had never seen it, then how did he know it had three parts to it. But I believe it and I began to realize there were things in my everyday life that I believed that I could not see, touch, [something dropping in background] or feel for which I had implicit faith in. I could not . . . I have never seen a vitamin A. I believed it was in carrots. I'd never seen vitamin B and I believe it was in wheat and yeast and I'd never seen vitamin C but I believed it was in citric fru . . . fruits and on and on. And that were thing that I trusted that I did not understand. I didn't fully understand the law of aerodynamics' ability to supercede the law of gravity but I, you know, I believed in flying. I didn't understand the international monetary system but I didn't want to stop spending money until I discovered. [laughs] And I knew that . . . and my science teacher had always [slaps on table] pressed us that you have to take things through the empirical method. You had to find out what you wanted to prove, [unclear] all the information you can get on it, you have to gather that information, systemize it in some sort of logical order. Based on the classification of your information, you venture what science calls a guess or a theory and . . . but science does not accept guesses as laws. If you want to change something from a theory to a law you have to take it through a process called experimentation and observation. And I knew I'd never done that with Jesus. I had never taken anything that Jesus said and put it to the test. And that I . . . I really . . . somehow I came to know . . . I came to understand that night that . . . that there was no real intellectual honesty if I could not test it, meaning that I would have to come to Jesus and He would have to turn me down and then I could tell Him to get off my back. And I found myself praying a very simple prayer that night. I said, "Look, I don't understand all this [pauses] but I do know that I need You. I real . . . I . . . I . . . I know that I'm independent [pauses] and I know that the results in my life show that I'm independent from You. And that I don't understand all this and I'm not even sure that You can hear me, but if these things are true I give You the right to take over my life." And I had no . . . I had no emotional, traumatic experiences so, you know, no blind flashes, no light, no thunder bolt, no mountains cave in. I simply accepted the fact that if God was God, God could only by [unidentified loud sound] God because He doesn't lie. And Jesus Christ who is God says, "A person comes to Me I will not reject." [someone whistles in background] And that . . . that was the beginning of my [pauses] . . . my long romance with the . . . with the living God and my intellectual struggle to come to grips with Him. And that night Jesus Christ did take over my life and [pauses] . . . and somehow I knew it. [pauses] I had to go back the following night, face my entire gang, told them I made this commitment to Christ, I didn't know what it meant, but I knew I could no longer responsibly lead the gang, [laughs] which was a foolish thing to do. [laughs] But I walked out without being touched. But that was the beginning of the end of Tom Skinner.
SHUSTER: What did the other gang members say? What did they . . . ?
SKINNER: The number two man stopped me about two nights later [pauses] and he said, "The other night when you go up and walked out, [pauses] I was going to come with you and put my blade right in your back." But he said, "I couldn't move. It was like something or somebody glued my to my seat." So I [pauses] asked did . . . did he wanted to know what had happened, so I told him what had happened in my life. Well, he eventually gave his life to Christ and we had several other guys within a year that made the same commitment. I was very fortunate that there was a group that had been meeting together in Harlem on the West Side for . . . they had been together for over fifteen years studying the Scriptures together. And just meeting, talking about what the Christian life was and they kind of took me under their wing. And they had been . . . they had been studying Watchman Nee's The Normal Christian Life. And they took me line by line through. So the very first [pauses] understanding of the person of Jesus Christ for me came from Watchman Nee. And I . . . I . . . he was kind of the guy, I mean, his writings kind of discipled me.
SHUSTER: Who were some of the people in the group? Who were some of the people in the group that took you under its wing?
SKINNER: Oh, they were . . . one person was a hair dresser, one person was a plumber, one person was a truck driver, one drove a cab, and just everyday hard working people who were just trying to understand the Christian life.
SHUSTER: How did they hear about you or you hear about them? How did you [?] get together?
SKINNER: I was [pauses] . . . I had gone to a church with my father one Sunday afternoon and I was standing in the back of the church at the end of the service talking with a friend of mine, another guy my age. And I was arguing with him about how irrelevant all this was. [sound of squeezing soda pop can] And . . . and in my overzealousness I was saying, "You know these people . . . the . . . these . . . these people don't know about Jesus. They . . . this is just religion to them." [sound of squeezing soda pop can] Well, it was very interesting. There was this woman who overheard me and she came over and she sensed my frustration as a kid not being able to really articulate what I was trying to say but just mad, you know. [laughs] And so told me about a group of . . . and she said, "If you would really would like to learn about who Jesus is . . . ." And so they kind of took me in. That's how . . . that's how we [?] got it started [?].
SHUSTER: How old were you when you had this experience?
SKINNER: I was fifteen years old.
SHUSTER: When did you tell your family? How did your family react?
SKINNER: My parent's first reaction was [slaps desk or unidentified object] we'll never live this down. You know, 'cause they could only think of the embarrassment of . . . if the story got out about their son. But it really helped them to understand some of the problems and also to work more closely with my younger brothers and sisters, understand kind of like . . . . My father [pauses] gave his life to Christ about three years later. And I had the privilege of seeing him come to the Lord and . . . and he became a very effective . . . effective preacher. He got interested just before he died in helping to develop what we call storefront church preachers that . . . . There are literally thousands of churches in this country in ghetto communities that are storefronts. There is twenty members, twenty-five, thirty members, but they're very powerful because they are a close knit family but many of the pastors of these churches don't have the . . . the tools and resources they need to really develop their people. And my father got very interested in . . . in that and he began to teach storefront churches and stuff to give them the tools they need. But [coughs] that was my parents' immediate reaction, but [pauses] later they came to see what God had done.
SHUSTER: You said their immediate reaction was embarrassment. Embarrassment over what?
SKINNER: Well, this is their son who was leader of the largest gang in Harlem, who hurt people. [laughs] You know, that mean . . . that . . . so they . . . they were not thinking about the part about I'd been changed etcetera. It's like, "Oh, gasp," you know. [laughs] "Our . . . our son did this," you know.
SHUSTER: Well, this might be a good point to break the sequence a little bit and just describe the chronology of the rest of your life up to this point. How would you describe the major events . . . the major events of your life since then?
SKINNER: Well, I . . . I . . . by this time I was in high school. And while I was in high school was when I met . . . shortly after my conversion I met Dr. King. [Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.]. I was the . . . I was in an oratorical . . . national oratorical contest that took me to Omaha, Nebraska. And Dr. King was the featured speaker at this convention where the contest was being held. I was representing New York State.
SHUSTER: This would be in '58 or '59?
SKINNER: This is '57 . . . '58 . . . '58. And the first time that I hear and then had a chance to spend time with Dr. King he preached a sermon that night from Deuteronomy, chapter one, verse six, "We have dwelt long enough in this mountain." And he talked about the mountains we have dwelt in, you know. He . . . he build the story of Israel's wandering around in the wilderness and the quagmire of confusion for thirty-eight years and then the challenge of Moses that they needed to move from this mountain and to go to the place that God had prepared for them. And he talked about the mountains that we had been in too long. And it was very clear to me that there was something very unique about this man and . . . and I wanted to know him. But anyway, a group of us were able to meet with him and stuff and talk to . . . and he began to share with us his philosophy of nonviolence. And so I got involved in the Freedom Rides in those days and [pauses] . . . and became . . . began to become a very avid student of nonviolence to . . . and . . . and . . . and to see very clearly a certain behavior that was based on the Scriptures for resolving social conflict. I graduated from [taps on desk] high school in 1959 and I went to Wagner College on Staten Island, where I did my undergraduate work as a history and philosophy major. Played baseball and football and basketball, was on the debate team and while I was [pauses] . . . while I was in college began to spend all my summers and holidays relating to guys I used to run with and . . . and got interested in the fact that there were the Harlems of America where . . . . And so it was while I was in college that I began actually doing ministry. [sound of soda pop can] I graduated in 1963 and I went to Manhattan Bible Institute, which was a very effective African American run Bible institute in New York [pauses] led by Dr. Edward H. Boice. Dr. Boice is dead but . . . [pauses] (that's something that needs to be archived), but he was the most effective Bible teacher and teacher of theology and homiletics that I've ever [taps on desk] . . . to this day had ever been exposed to.
SHUSTER: What made him effective?
SKINNER: He was . . . Dr. Boice was by [pauses] . . . was by experience and background a Pentecostal who approached the scholarship of Scripture in the tradition of those old Dutch Reformed theologians. You know, he was just . . . like they lived in him, you know. And who was born in Barbados, a black man who came to America in the nineteen . . . 1930s, was an entertainer, was converted, gave his life to Christ and became a life-long student of the Scriptures and theology. And so he built essentially a kind of Bible seminary that [pauses] . . . that was the most effective [pauses] . . . most effective school among African Americans in the East at the time. When I graduated there were three of us who graduated in top of our class.
SHUSTER: What year was that?
SKINNER: This was in 1966. [pauses] Tom Skinner, Effie Whittle who became Effie Soles, (there is in Chicago a brother by the name of Henry Soles)
SHUSTER: He . . . yeah, he lives about four doors from me.
SKINNER: Well, his wife and I graduated from there. And the third person graduated in the top three of the class was a man Dwight D. Eikerenkoetter III, who later became known as Reverend Ike. [Shuster and Skinner laugh] And . . . .
SHUSTER: Distinguished class.
SKINNER: That's a famous class. [laughs, clears throat] In 1962, when I was in my last year in college, a group of us got together and formed what was known as the Harlem Evangelistic Association. There was a man by the name of Walter Whittingham. [pauses] Now that . . . that's an interesting story, which I probably need to come back to. But Walter Whittingham was a member of a soul-saving station in Harlem, which was founded by a man by the name of Billy Roberts in 1939, who was converted on a Mississippi gambling boat from drugs and came to Harlem in 1940 preaching about how God saved him from drugs. Heroin was relatively unknown at the street level in those days. There were some entertainers and middle class people who were into it a little bit, but it was not commonly on the street as it would be common in the 60s. And he formed this soul-saving station and . . . and so Walter Whittingham was part of that. Walter Whittingham had a sister by the named Louise Whittingham who ran a . . . kind of a . . . a . . . a ministry on the Low . . . on the East Side on 125th Street, mostly with children, built a whole church just raising children. But they had a . . . Walter had a vision of the gospel of Christ being preached in Harlem and . . . and so a group of us got together. There were twelve of us, Walter Whittingham, [pauses] Louis Brathway, Larry Thomas, Rupert Bingham, George Perry assembled together and worked for almost a year and began block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood to do evangelistic campaigns up and down Harlem. And we climaxed it in the summer of 1962 with the largest evangelistic campaign ever held in New York . . . I mean ever held in Harlem, in the history of Harlem. It was held at the Apollo Theater, which was the number one entertainment spot in Harlem. Apollo was where Sammy Davis, Jr., Ray Charles and all of them got started. And the . . . the gospel became front page news in Harlem. And it was the most extraordinary pouring forth of the Spirit of God that . . . that had been seen. I mean, it was . . . it . . . it was just . . . it was just unbelievable [pauses] the response. And [pauses] it was that crusade that kind of launched the . . . my evangelistic ministry around the world over the next twenty-some odd years.
SHUSTER: Was that the first time that you'd preached before a large group?
SKINNER: Uh-huh. Yeah. The . . . .
SHUSTER: What does . . . what does preaching feel like for you? I mean, what's it like to be up front of a group and preaching?
SKINNER: One of the things that growing up in the black church did was that you were used to talking to people, so that was not the . . . that was not the phenomenon. But the . . . the great struggle for me was always being aware of where the people were and what their needs were, what the striking issues of people were and how the gospel of Jesus Christ would speak to that. And [pauses] the . . . the fact of the matter is that [pauses] I have a [pauses] . . . . It's interesting that you should ask that. I have an absolute passion about preaching and at the same time it scares me to death. It . . . the old folks used to pray a prayer that went like this. When they were praying for the preacher on Sunday morning, the old folks would pray, "Lord, bless the man who is going to stand in John's shoes, the man who is going to stand between the living and the dead, and break unto us the bread of life." So my formative years in preaching were shaped with the idea that every time you stood up to preach the Word of God, you were standing between the living and the dead and that the issues of life and death were at stake, and that was the frightening part, I mean. The exhilarating part was that you could offer people life, you know. And so I'm . . . I'm enthralled with preaching. I don't mean with the mechanics of preaching. I'm enthralled with the . . . with the . . . with the idea that God has chosen through the foolishness of preaching to change people's lives. I mean it's just a . . . it's . . . you can get drunk off of that, you know what I mean? And . . . and yet at the same time . . .
SHUSTER: "Be drunk not with wine but with the Spirit." [Ephesians 5:18]
SKINNER: Yeah, yeah. And at the same time, frightened about the responsibility, you know. True preaching is . . . is a sacred trust to me. It's like I am a different person. And I don't mean in a schizophrenic sense like, you know, I take on another personality or, you know, I am a sinner who suddenly becomes holier when I preach . But I mean I . . . preaching is serious business to me. See, I've never been able to understand and I guess I have a different . . .different view. [pauses] It was . . . it was a cultural shock when I discovered that . . . that . . . that white folks could after service have a session where they critiqued the pastor's sermon. I mean, that was . . . look for me, you don't critique a sermon! You critique a lecture, you critique a . . . a monologue of a play, you critique the opening act of a . . . of a . . . of a theater production, you . . . you critique a concert. You do not critique preaching! [laughs] You know what I mean? It's like . . . I mean . . . I mean . . . I mean . . . not that I don't need for that [unclear] . . . . It's just that . . . that preaching, if it's . . . if . . . if . . . if it is . . . if it's legal and right, is the anointing of the Spirit of God on the Word of God through a vehicle that God chooses to use and you don't critique that. You listen to it, receive it, and obey it, you know. [laughs] It's . . . and so that the thought that people could sit around [laughs] and take it apart was just a whole different . . . . And . . . and . . . and . . . and in spite of the fact that I consider myself a . . . a very sophisticated, mature person today, I still find it difficult. Because that's for me, preaching is: the preacher allows himself or herself to be . . . to become submissive to the Spirit of God and that it is through the Holy Spirit working through the preacher and the preaching of the Word of God that attracts people to Jesus Christ. And that to me is what the act is, that's what the whole thing is . . . you know, is about. And I guess the second problem is that I view it as an evangelist, because the majority of my life, of my Christian ministry has been spent talking to nonbelievers. And so [pauses] my whole mindset is geared towards . . . towards the person who does not know Christ and how you continue to find ways to communicate to people who . . . who don't know . . . who don't know the Lord. And so I have to work hard at talking to Christians. Now when you ask about what it's like to stand in front of lots of people. Now where I really have trouble is when I have to stand up [slaps table] in front of a lot of Christians. I mean, I really have to work to be at ease. I am . . . I'm a total . . . I'm totally at ease and at home with pagans, totally at home.
SHUSTER: Because Christians have defenses against your . . . ?
SKINNER: Yes, yes. And they bring all this cultural garbage with them and . . . that you have to work through and all these conflicting theologies you have to come through. You know what I mean? And . . . but . . . but . . . but . . . but I love ministering to nonbelievers. I love it.
SHUSTER: Well, that might be a good point to stop.
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