A HARLEM PROPHET'S LESSONS ON RACIAL HEALING
June is the month in which urban prophet Tom Skinner was born, 75 years ago, and died, 23 years ago. At a time of declining civility and rising racial terror in our nation, his passionate teaching and practice of racial healing provide invaluable lessons today.
I met Harlem-born, gang leader turned evangelist, Tom Skinner, in the late 1970’s. At that time, his was a household name among evangelicals of all backgrounds. He was a spellbinding gospel preacher, often called, “a prophet out of Harlem.” He had been radically transformed from an angry black urban youth, to a sought-after preacher and author of four books, including a life-changing best-seller, Black and Free. Tom spoke regularly to countless individuals, groups, and organizations outside the church, ranging from members of Congress, to officials at IBM Corporation; from prisoners, to the New York Yankees, while serving as chaplain for the Washington Redskins of the National Football League.
At the time I met Tom, I had only recently moved from an agnostic to a Jesus-follower. I was still a strong black power advocate from my roots in California’s Berkeley/Oakland Bay Area region of California. Enraged about systemic racial injustice and poverty in which I grew up, I was one mother’s prayer away from joining the Black Panther Party. Only God could have connected me and Tom!
The greatest tension of our marriage was Tom’s heightened popularity as a preacher and teacher to white evangelicals. Tom fully shared my passion for justice and equality. Yet, he felt compelled by God to preach to people of every race, even many whose views of black people helped to prop up system injustice. In contrast, I believed that our collective energy and ministry resources were better used to spiritually and politically uplift African Americans. It anguished me that White evangelicals were drawn to Tom’s charismatic, soul-stirring, preaching, but seldom to his efforts to ensure access to jobs, quality education, housing, health care, and justice for the poor and vulnerable, as mandated by the gospel. Still, in the 16 years of our friendship and marriage, I simply could not deny that millions of people of all races and political persuasions had their lives spiritually transformed through Tom’s teaching, preaching and love for all people.
Over the 25 years since Tom Skinner’s transition, the unconditional love of God for all people has taken deep roots into my heart and life. As my life partner and spiritual mentor, Tom impacted my life as he did millions of others across five continents he traveled in his rather short life. Hardly a day passes when I do not receive a letter, email, twitter hit, or personal contact from white strangers, even on the road in my travels. They speak with great emotion and passion of how Tom’s writing and teaching transformed their lives. Many share their engagement in racial reconciliation and social justice ministry today as a result of hearing Tom speak or reading his books.
I remain a passionate advocate for justice and equality for all people, and especially for African Americans. The work of Skinner Leadership Institute, the organization Tom and I co-founded in 1991, focuses on spiritual growth, leadership excellence, and bridge building among people of all races, political persuasions, and stations in life.
Reflecting on Tom’s June birth and death caused me to focus on one of his greatest messages, “The Liberator Has Come”. Given 47 years ago at an Urbana student leadership conference, this message could have easily been given in today’s racially charged America. Escalating white terror against Americans of color, Jews, immigrants, and Muslims, leads me to share five lessons on racial healing through a prophet from Harlem that will hopefully move Jesus’ followers from talk to action.
1. Racism is America’s original sin. Everyone who loves Jesus should hate the sin of racism and speak out against it. Racism denies that every person is created in God’s image. Silence in the face of racial terror is dangerous. It makes possible the continuation growth of hate.
2. Failure of Americans to apologize and make restitution for the enslavement sustains racial tension. At the same time, African Americans must follow Jesus’ message of forgiveness, even while working for justice and equality. The core message of Jesus to “love your neighbor as yourself”, is a command for all believers.
3. Love in action trumps fear that increasingly separates people across race and culture. The wealthy exploit racial division to keep poor and working class people of diverse backgrounds from building alliances for the betterment of all. Spending non-agenda time with those outside of your comfort zone is the best way to build trust and collaboration. God’s perfect love “casts out fear.”
4. The Good News of Jesus is that saving the soul and creating just human conditions are inseparable. There is no such thing as personal piety separate from also bearing the burdens of fellow believers facing injustice, as Jesus taught.
5. Following Jesus means following the most radical leader who ever lived. Following Jesus puts you in line to become a radical for your generation. Tom Skinner put it this way:
“You will never be radical until you become part of that new order and then go into a world that’s enslaved, a world that’s filled with hunger and poverty and racism and all those things of the work of the devil. Proclaim liberation to the captives, preach sight to the blind, set at liberty them that are bruised, go into the world and tell men who are bound mentally, spiritually and physically,...The LIBERATOR has come!”
Originally featured on huffpost.com