By the time he concluded his remarks at the mayor's annual prayer breakfast last Thursday, the Rev. Tom Skinner, born-again black activist and former Washington Redskins chaplain, had some of D.C.'s most influential on their feet, applauding, weeping and pledging to reexamine their professional and personal lives.
The evangelist's 40-minute sermonized speech to 1,600 black and white political, business and civic leaders even prompted long-time political foes Marion Barry and a tearful Walter E. Fauntroy to embrace and pledge to work more closely in the future. w
At 6 feet 3 inches tall and weighing more than 250 pounds, Skinner's appearance was as imposing as his message was moving. In his commanding, resonant voice, he told the audience, "People have forgotten that the struggle of the '60s is continuous . . .
"The tradegy is that those who stood outside fighting to get in have moved from being advocates to being bureaucrats, and now, as bureaucrats, they aren't changing things."
Black leaders lack unity, he said, cautioning, "There will be no healing among black people until black leaders spend time together striving for a commitment to loving and understanding one another."
Barry was particularly moved, according to press secretary Kwame Holman, by Skinner's remark that the mayor is merely a human being who needs prayers, understanding and fellowship.
Barry's and Fauntroy's emotional reunion, City Administrator Elijah Rogers speculated, was born of a commitment they had made a week ago to "get back together with each other and Arrington (Dixon) and Ron (Dellums) and start fellowshipping the way we ought to."
The 37-year-old Skinner was chosen to address the breakfast by a 30-member committee of District department heads, impressed by his church and university work, who felt his dynamic message calling for unity and understanding would be especially crucial to city workers and administrators during the city's budget problems.
Of course, many also knew him as the Redskins chaplain for eight years.
Although he lives in Manhattan, Skinner has been active in D.C. since the mid-60's when he came here to work with a coalition of churches. Tom Skinner Associates, his New York-based company (he has no home church), pays his salary out of fees he receives for his services and coordinates his activities, including his D.C. campus ministries at Gallaudet College and Howard University. These bring him into town three or four times a month.
During an interview last week, Skinner said the audience's emotional response to his breakfast speech probably came from "forcing them to look at themselves without flattery.
"You have to remember that these are people who seldom have anyone say, 'OK, brothers and sisters, this is really what it is.'" He said his purpose was only to "foster a spirit of prayer among the city's leadership."
Skinner says the District fascinates him "because it's the seat of leadership and power in America -- the way D.C. goes is the way the nation goes." And in his opinion, all is not well either in Washington or in the rest of the country.
There are, he says, some particular problems in both America's black leadership and in the way black Americans relate to their political leaders, and the District is not immune to these ills.
"Black leaders do not have an understanding of their needs, so how can they expect to understand the people whom they represent? Whatever black leaders want us to become, they have to first become themselves."
This has yet to be accomplished, Skinner says, noting, "There is very little difference between the way street people and those in the higher echelons operate. There's the same backbiting, mistrust and lack of communication."
In Washington, Skinner observed, "There is a tendency not to see people as people, but to see them by their titles, their offices. It's more of a problem here because Washington is so power and career oriented, and black folks are just waiting to fall into that line of thinking."
A Baptist preacher's son, Skinner's Harlem upbringing was a combination of classics in the home -- where his college-educated father stressed the importance of learning -- and violence in the streets, where he was the leader of the Harlem Lords youth gang. He says even as a young man he "wanted to be a leader."
Between his 13th and 16th years, he led a double life -- the dutiful oldest of five children (three brothers and a sister) by day, the violent street gang leader by night.
Skinner finally decided to leave the gang where he had "done a lot of things that I wasn't proud of then and am still ashamed of today." He was spirtually reborn and "committed to making a difference."
He first came to Washington in 1966, fresh out of Manhattan Bible College, to work with a small group of local black churches, an informal, interdenominational coalition, which was becoming politically active. He aided their work by regularly preaching from the old Music Hall at 14th and U Streets NW. In 1971, Redskins' coach George Allen called on him to deliver a little gridiron gospel.
Skinner has an intensity which makes him look as if he means business when he talks about solving problems -- of the District, of blacks, of the country -- through love, respect and a deeper understanding of Christian teaching. This philosophy is woven through his opinions on almost every subject -- and is a very opinionated man.
Skinner says that the work he takes most seriously is the work he does with young people because "it is the next generation which must learn to love, understand and develop a commitment to each other if we (blacks) are going to survive."
He says young people themselves, their parents and their schools must work harder to achieve this end. And of maligned public school systems, he says, "What's the matter with public education is that it isn't. What I mean is that there is not the commitment to education, to the next generation that there once was. The teachers complain about not being able to uphold standards, but that makes about as much sense as a basketball player whining to the coach because someone is standing in front of him every time he goes up for a shot. That's the game."
Skinner, the man with opinions on everything, is not without a few about himself. The divorced father of two daughters, ages 10 and 15, says that like everyone else, he needs to work harder to live up to the principles he preaches.
"I'm trying," he says with a smile and a sigh. "It's important for me to keep striving to be the kind of person I urge others to be. You really can't do it by yourself -- you need people who live you as you are, and I've been extremely lucky in that regard."