The first time I heard about Tom Skinner was when listening to a Tim Keller sermon while working out at the gym. Keller shared a short story about a sermon he dropped at Urbana Missions Conference in 1970. I automatically wrote his name in my phone to look up when I finished working out.
As I looked up more and more information on him I was enthralled. I listened to his preaching and couldn’t stop. I searched YouTube, podcasts, Google. I sought as many avenues as possible. His preaching was so powerful to me because I saw the capability that this man had to emphasize the tensions I had been frustrated with and he was doing it 14 years before I was even born. Little had I known that he had been preaching these messages for years until his eventual death.
Tom Skinner was born in 1942 to Alester Jerry Skinner and Georgia Skinner. He was born in Harlem during an air raid drill when the city would be blacked out in case of an attack. His mother told him that he was born in darkness and has been in darkness ever since.
Skinner’s mother was a dedicated mother and wife in the home. She worked some outside the home but as well was fully committed to the work in the home. Meanwhile his father was a well-educated minister. He emphasized the need for Tom to develop his mind because of the inequality given to African-American’s in American society.
At a very young age Tom committed himself to reading and expanding his mind as much as possible. Because of his father’s role as a minister, Tom found himself consistently in the church while living a dual life that was developed in the streets.
As well, Tom had been heavily influenced by several black nationalists. He would go and listen to debates between Malcolm X, Louis Farrakhan and several other young leaders at a bookstore in Harlem. He wrestled with the decision of whom he was going to follow and believe in. He had heard some teach that Jesus was black and had only concern over social issues. Others teach that African-American’s were literally Jewish Israel.
He eventually chose to join a gang called the Harlem Lords. He became a prominent leader immediately after initiation by challenging other leaders and eventually having the largest respect of his gang. He then went on to map out the strategy for what was to be the biggest gang-fight New York had ever seen. The night he was putting the strategy together (Oct 1956), he was listening to his favorite rock DJ.
This night abnormally they put on an unscheduled program where a man was preaching from 2 Cor. 5:17. The idea that sin wasn’t something that applied only to “bad” people shook Tom up. When Tom had started to understand the cross and Jesus, he decided to pray a simple prayer knowing only that he needed God and that though he didn’t understand all of this (Jesus and the Cross) he wanted to give God his life to take over.
That night he went to his fellow gang members and told them he had committed to Christ and was leaving the gang. A couple nights later, the 2nd in command (of the gang) confessed to him that he had planned on stabbing him once he told them about what had happened. He said though that he felt glued to his seat. Eventually that young man and several others in the gang became believers in Jesus.
Soon after Tom began preaching and eventually met Martin Luther King Jr. at a young orators conference. Tom went on to be ordained, and became a graduate of Manhattan Bible Institute. He became a sports Chaplin with several professional teams (most known with Washington Redskins). He also published 4 books and many other publications. As well he developed a leadership institute that is still run today by his wife, Barbara Williams-Skinner.
Tom died in 1994 from leukemia at the young age of 52 years old.
There is reason I am writing about Tom’s life. It is not just because of his amazing conversion experience. Tom caught my attention because he was preaching a message different then almost anyone. I felt like Tom was preaching the words that were screaming in my head for years. He talked about the problem with conservatives and liberals and how neither one was right in regards to Jesus and the cross. He called out the blatant racism of the day and tagged it for what no one else would. Because of his doctrinal stances and his elegance of speech, white churches enjoyed him, for a while. But eventually there was tension because he started calling out the wrongs in the society, like Paul calling out Peter for separating Jews and Gentiles, Tom called out the white-conservative churches for their social sins.
My hope as you read this is to hear a quick summary of this man’s life and know of the great things God has been doing. Saving a young man like this to preach messages that call for social and spiritual conversion, it is an encouragement to me. I look forward to talking with Tom about many subjects. Maybe some of the many books he had read. Maybe debate some over sports. Or maybe we’ll just enjoy eternity with God.
I leave you with some words from one of my favorite preachers of our day.
“[He] had a significant impact in shaping my preaching both in style and content. Tom entered my life as a mentor, and later became a dear friend. I was captivated early on, like everyone else, by Tom’s fiery oratory, his biblical commitment, and his contemporary relevance. His preaching mesmerized black and white listeners alike with his passionately delivered evangelistic message rooted in a kingdom emphasis.”
-Dr. Tony Evans