I miss him. Now, more than ever, I miss him. In a nation increasingly divided by politics and race, I wish I could visit Tom and call upon his insight and wisdom.
It was the winter of 1990. As a junior at the University of Texas, I flew to Washington D.C. to attended the National Prayer Breakfast, and afterwards, the National Student Leadership Forum. We heard from some familiar speakers and personalities: Vice President Quayle and Tony Campolo among them, but all these years since, it is Tom I remember most. Here was this hulking giant of a man with a warm, disarming smile, a charismatic personality, a rich, resonant voice with a touch of an accent that was hard to place. But most significantly, I remember his fiery, prophet-like intensity. His name was Tom Skinner.
Little did I know that two years after I first heard Tom speak, I would move from our state’s capital to our nation’s capital. Around the same time, Tom and his wife Barbara were moving from New York to Maryland. This would afford me the privilege of hearing his teaching regularly, dine at his table, serve at his leadership center, and share one particularly memorable meal at an IHOP in Lynchburg, Virginia. I count it one of the great graces of God that I was able to benefit from Tom’s godly wisdom, and prophetic passion before he went to be with our Savior after a brief battle with cancer in 1994.
I wonder now why I had never heard of him before that day in 1990. Tom’s story was compelling enough to generate a comic book in a series I used to read as a kid (no DC or Marvel in the Craft house, we were limited to comic versions of The Hiding Place, Through the Gates of Splendor, and The Cross and the Switchblade). Raised in one of New York City’s more notorious boroughs, Tom was a Harlem gang leader when he had a radical conversion experience, committing his life to proclaiming the gospel of Jesus and the Kingdom of God. Not too long after that, he was leading crusades in the Apollo theater. He authored several books and in 1964 founded Tom Skinner Associates (eventually known as Skinner Leadership Institute), which operated out of New York City until he and his wife, Barbara Williams-Skinner, relocated to the DC area in 1992. At 28, he was selected as a plenary speaker for the 1970 Urbana gathering, InterVarsity’s missions conference, where he addressed a crowd of over 11,000 college students. This was quite an accomplishment for a young black preacher and a seminal event in the predominately white evangelical world of parachurch missions. Imagine the scene. This was only five years removed from “Bloody Sunday” and the crossing of the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Our nation was still reeling from the assassination of Martin Luther King only two years before. What did those gathered expect from this ex-gang leader and his message entitled, “The U.S. Racial Crisis and World Evangelism?” You can listen to his address here – it is remarkable how timeless his message is, and with the exception of a few particular references, he could just as easily be speaking to us and addressing our race problem today. Without a doubt, he was one of a kind. And during his life, Tom mentored countless future leaders of the church such as John Perkins and Tony Evans.
They sneak up on me – these moments of overwhelming and profound gratitude that often move me to tears and always prompt a, “Thank you Lord!” And so it was a few weeks ago as I stood in the WDCS chapel recounting my blessings, namely, the privilege and honor of being included in God’s healing and redemption work that is West Dallas Community School. In the midst of this moment of spontaneous praise and thanksgiving, I asked myself, and God, “How did I get here?” I live in a city I never thought I’d call home (I’m a native Houstonian) working in a profession I once abandoned (a long story for another blog.) As I traced God’s movement in my life, from Houston to Austin to Washington D.C. and eventually back to Texas, I realized, perhaps for the first time, or maybe more clearly with the benefit of 20 years of hindsight, how profoundly Tom Skinner had impacted my life.
Here is what Tom taught me. First, he showed me that there are over 3,000 verses in the scripture about the “poor” – the 2nd most common topic in the Bible after “money.” He taught me, in words and in action, the importance of caring for the poor in our discipleship to Jesus.
Second, I remember him clearly proclaiming: “All Truth is God’s Truth.” Though these words were not original to him, Tom Skinner was the first person I heard preach on this concept, and it was liberating, impacting not only my view of God’s kingdom and the world, but also my understanding of vocation, ultimately shaping my view of education.
And then there was that night at an IHOP in Lynchburg. We were white. We were males. We were privileged. We were naïve. There were maybe six of us around the table with Tom. Fresh out of college, and enrolled together in a discipleship program, we were excited to grow spiritually and didn’t know what was about to hit us. Over the course of several cups of coffee, into the wee hours of the morning, Tom challenged, if not dismantled, our tidy, comfortable worldviews and attitudes about race in the U.S. Tom offered a sort of historical survey of race and American history, explaining how the political, economic, and religious systems of the 15th and 16th century upheld slavery that had lasting, negative consequences that reverberated over the next few centuries. Before that evening, we were all fairly naïve to ways in which the color of our skin, along with the social and financial capital accrued by our families over several generations, placed us in a privileged position. These were privileges not enjoyed by all, particularly not young black men. But Tom wasn’t trying to shame or guilt us into anything – he was trying to help us recognize that there was still work to be done by and in the body of Christ to roll back the curse of slavery. Race wasn’t Tom’s central message – his major concern was preaching the kingdom of God and the Lordship of Jesus. But what I began to understand more clearly in that IHOP was the powerful witness of racial reconciliation in a world hostile to the gospel. Tom helped us see that without a deeper understanding of the legacy of slavery, without a greater sensitivity to our African-American brothers and sisters, we would falter in the broader ministry of reconciliation St. Paul writes of in 2 Corinthians 5: 18-21: God reconciling the world to himself in Christ.
Care for the poor, All Truth is God’s Truth, Racial Reconciliation: Tom marked me with his teaching. It was a great joy that my wife, Dorothy, knew Tom as well and later formed a friendship with his widow, Barbara Skinner. Dorothy and I attended his funeral together. She went on to focus on domestic hunger issues for a season and later we felt God calling us to join a small, African-American church in the Anacostia neighborhood of Washington D.C. The seeds Tom sowed in our lives shot down roots and God ultimately brought all three of them together in full flowering at West Dallas Community School.
Tom often said, “The role of God’s people is that we become the live expression on earth of what is happening in heaven.” We should pray “thy Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven” but we should also demonstrate what that looks like for a watching world. I believe that is what we do every day, by God’s grace, at West Dallas Community School.
Shortly after his death, Tom’s image graced the cover of a 1996 edition of Christianity Today under the title, “Movers and Shapers of Modern Evangelicalism” – his photo among only a handful of others including J.I. Packer and John Stott. He clearly shaped me. Yet at that time, I had no idea the manner of man that I was privileged to know. In only the span of only 18 months or so, Tom boldly and incisively spoke into my life, as I later learned he had done for countless others. I only wish I could thank him for the time he invested in me and for impact he had on my life. And I sure wish I could share a cup of coffee at an IHOP and ask him his thoughts on the current state of affairs of the church and race relations in America. But as I think more about it, he wouldn’t say anything different today – his kingdom focused preaching was timeless. I think Tom would encourage me, would encourage all of us, in the ministry of West Dallas Community School as a work of racial reconciliation and an expression of the Lord’s heart and God’s Kingdom here on earth.
Head of School
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