URBAN YOUTH MINISTRY PIONEERS: In a photo that hangs in Bill Milliken’s office, Vinnie Di Pasquale (center) and friends walk the streets of New York.
A couple weeks ago, I received a book in the mail that was endorsed by music mogul Russell Simmons, Oprah Winfrey beau Stedman Graham, Morehouse College President Robert Franklin, and, among others, the actress Goldie Hawn. The author included this note: “Dear Christine, I thank God for you and your faithfulness!! I loved your mother and father!!”
After the foreword written by Newark Mayor Cory Booker and an introductory letter that the author addresses to his grandchildren, he opens with these words: “Vinnie De Pasquale and I had been waiting for this day for many months. It was June 17, 1960, and we were about to move into a two-room tenement apartment at 117th Street and Lenox Avenue in Harlem, New York. Vinnie had recently gotten out of jail, and I’d just finished the second of what would be my three freshman years of college.”
Vinnie Di Pasquale is my father and the book is From the Rearview Mirror: Reflecting on Connecting the Dots. Urban youth ministry pioneer Bill Millken is the author. His memoir tells the remarkable story of how he, an affluent, but ne’er do-well kid from the suburbs of Pittsburgh had his life transformed at the same Colorado Young Life camp as my father. From there Milliken went on to establish Young Life’s ministry in New York City and later founded the Communities in Schools organization in Atlanta. His book says he has been an advisor to five U.S. presidents, but the highlight, for me, is how he frames the work he did with my father and others in New York City as the foundation of all his future endeavors.
It’s a deeply humbling experience, as the daughter of a high school janitor, to read such a thing. My father died of a heart attack at age 41 in 1975 and the only stories I’ve heard about his work with Young Life come from my mother’s memories. Those years were very difficult ones for her. As I wrote previously for UrbanFaith, she and my father met through Young Life. What I didn’t write is that after my sister was born with significant medical challenges in 1963 and my mother became seriously ill while pregnant with me in 1964, our family left New York City and urban ministry.
I had no idea, for example, that in 1998 a cover story about my father was published in the Young Life Relationships magazine. But last week, long-time Young Life leader Mal McSwain contacted me through UrbanFaith to say he wanted to send me photos and letters from my father that date back to 1957. The Relationships article was included in the package (along with an excerpt from Zondervan’s God in the Garden: The Story of the Billy Graham New York Crusade that tells a bit of my father’s story). In the article, McSwain talks about meeting Vinnie and his fellow Newark, New Jersey, gang members when he was a camp counselor in Colorado. Reflecting on the significance of that summer, he says, “We didn’t know what had hit us in ‘56. These guys were the real thing. This was only the beginning. It opened the door to Young Life’s urban ministry.”
I love reading these stories because my father died before I was old enough to hear them from him. But he never entirely broke free of his past, as all the narratives I’ve read about him suggest. Until the time of his death, he continued to struggle with the pull of behaviors he learned on the streets of Newark. And yet, he also never gave up on his journey of faith, or on his desire to reach out to young people and help them find a better way.
Milliken writes that through his work in schools, he came to learn how important custodians are to those communities. I distinctly remember my father’s mentoring relationships with students at the high school in Manasquan, New Jersey, where he worked. Those relationships were so significant that after he collapsed and died playing basketball there, the senior class dedicated its yearbook to him and honored him at its graduation ceremony.
What I loved best about Milliken’s memoir, apart from being reintroduced to my father through his eyes, is how he talks about his own lifelong need for healing. Mixed in with stories like Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis arranging an internship for her son John Jr. with his organization are stories of his own brokenness and pursuit of healing. The final chapter has Milliken seeking medical treatment for post-traumatic stress symptoms and severe gastrointestinal distress brought on by decades of overwork in urban ministry. “I’ve spent the last three years trying to lead a more balanced life,” he writes, and then explains that the reason he’s confessing these things is that he wants readers to know that “the healing journey is never finished.” “All my hurting places, limitations, and shames aren’t just distant memories. They’re still with me, still clearly visible,” he says.
There’s a penetrating lesson for me in this. While I have wonderful memories of my father’s creativity as a photographer and craftsman, of camping trips on Cape Cod, and raucous get-togethers with his extended family, I also have memories of marital tension related to his struggles. The written story of his life sometimes seems to make him out to be worse than perhaps he was before his conversion and better than he was afterward. It’s a trend in conversion stories that we should rethink. We all live with ongoing brokenness and in perpetual need of God’s healing touch. Bill Milliken makes this clear in his memoir. It is true for him, just as it was true for my late father and my late son, both of whom affirmed their faith in Christ right before they died despite ongoing spiritual struggles. It’s true for me too, in part because of their untimely deaths.
God has a funny way of ministering healing though. Sometimes it comes through strangers who send packages via the U.S. Postal Service. In a letter to Young Life supporters from 1965 that McSwain sent me, my father wrote, “Three years ago I married a fine Christian girl named Carol. We have been richly blessed with two lovely daughters, Connie and Christine. We thank God every day as we see them grow physically, but our greatest hope is that they may grow up with God in their hearts.” Daddy, I’m happy to report that your prayers have been answered.
A small group of protesters took their school worship ban fight to the home of New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.
Two New York City pastors took their ongoing protest of the city’s ban on worship in public schools to the home of New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver on the eve of the Jewish Sabbath last night. They charged that the Jewish lawmaker has disrespected their “Sabbath” by failing to bring a bill to the House floor that would permanently restore public school access to affected houses of worship. A similar bill has already passed the New York Senate and supporters say there are enough votes in the House for Bill #A8800 to pass in the House. More than 60 churches won a temporary reprieve in February when U.S. Chief District Judge Loretta A. Preska issued an injunction against the city’s Board of Education, but a city attorney has said the city will appeal if Preska rules permanently in their favor.
The Rev. Rick Del Rio, senior pastor of Abounding Grace Ministries, organized the Sabbath eve demonstration and lives four blocks from Silver. He has ministered in their Lower East Side neighborhood for two decades.
Members of Rev. Del Rio’s church spoke to UrbanFaith about the school worship ban, saying it represents a threat to their religious freedom. They were joined by the Rev. Dimas Salaberrios, pastor of Infinity Church in the Bronx. Salaberrios said the worship ban inordinately affects economically disadvantaged communities and accused Silver of lying and double-dealing in regard to the bill.
A Security guard at Silver’s building barred UrbanFaith from ringing his buzzer for a response to the demonstration, saying Silver was not at home. Del Rio said the Speaker knew about the protest in advance. He promised to return next week with a larger group if Silver fails to act. The current legislative session ends June 21.
*Note: For more of our exclusive reporting on this story, see the links below. For more video and photos from the protest, go to Explorations Media’s Flickr and YouTube channels.
WORKING HARD: Donna Summer in the recording studio in 1977.
Disco great Donna Summer died yesterday at the age of 63. She was reportedly suffering from lung cancer and believed it to have been caused by exposure to toxins during the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City.
The Sun reported that Summer was in a nearby apartment on September 11, 2001 and quoted her as saying, “I couldn’t go out, I didn’t want to talk to anybody. I had to keep the blinds down and stay in my bedroom. I went to church and light came back into my soul. That heaviness was gone.” It also described Summer as a “devout Christian.”
In a 2008 interview with ABC News’ “Nightline,” Summer recalled discovering her voice in church as a child. “I opened my mouth and … this voice just shot out of me. It shocked me and it shocked everybody in the room. I started crying, and I heard the voice of God say to me, ‘You’re going to be famous, and this is power and you’re never to misuse this power.”
CBN News reported that “Summer’s family said in a statement that they ‘are at peace celebrating her extraordinary life and her continued legacy.'” The network also said her former publicist Michael Levine said Christian faith was increasingly important to her as she got older. “She was very committed to God, spirituality, and religion,” Levine is quoted as saying. “Her passion in her life, besides music, was God, spirituality and religion.”
According to Elev8, Summer was “born again” in 1983 after a number of family tragedies and personal trials. “As her sudden, disco-era fame knocked her sideways Summer, who had already been suffering from headaches, insomnia and ulcers, was prescribed antidepressants, and developed what she described in a 1981 interview as ‘a very heavy’ dependence. In her 2003 autobiography,Ordinary Girl: The Journey, she describes how she almost committed suicide by jumping out of a hotel window,” the article said. It quotes the singer as saying, “I was Christian my whole life, but I didn’t really execute it – I didn’t live it. And I came back to realizing that without it I couldn’t get through this stuff I had to go through. I needed something that grounded me and it had to be really strong.”
Update: Terry Mattingly, editor of the media criticism site Get Religion, says some media sites got the timeline of Summer’s conversion wrong and attempted to link it to a decline in her career. “The actual sequence is more complex and looks like this — disco queen, depression, attempted suicide, reborn faith and then more hits in a variety of musical styles,” Mattingly wrote. It’s unclear from the post, however, when she was “born again.”
Were you a fan of Donna Summer? If so, which of her songs get your feet moving?
A Fiery Debate Breaks Out
CNN’s “Black in America 4: The New Promised Land — Silicon Valley” hasn’t even aired yet and it has already ignited a fierce debate about whether or not tech start-ups succeed based on a pure meritocracy or the culture is tainted by racism like the rest of society. The documentary posits that Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurs are mostly young, white and male and follows eight Black entrepreneurs who live together for a two-month immersion program called the NewMe Accelerator.
Online War of Words
As a largely African-American audience watched a screening of the documentary at the Time-Warner building in New York City October 26, a Twitter feud between two tech entrepreneurs featured in the program broke out. The debate started when an audience member tweeted that she wondered what TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington would think of Duke University scholar and entrepreneur Vivek Wadhwa’s advice to the group that they hire white men to front their companies.
Both in the theater and on the internet, people expressed displeasure with statements Arrington makes in the film. He says, for example, that he doesn’t know a single Black entrepreneur and that he was so eager to promote diversity that he would have put a Black guy onstage at a tech demo event he hosted even if the guy presented a “clown show.”
CNN fanned the flames with an article about the debate on its website Friday and Arrington followed with a response on his blog accusing CNN and journalist Soledad O’Brien of deception and gotcha’ journalism.
“Maybe now some of you can begin to understand why I never wanted to be called a ‘journalist’ at TechCrunch. It is a shameful profession,” Arrington said.
O’Brien fired back today with this measured response:
“I didn’t ambush Arrington and I don’t think he’s a racist. He’s a realist. What has everyone upset is that what he is saying is true — there are not many blacks entrepreneurs succeeding in Silicon Valley. Fewer than 1% of funded tech startups are run by African-Americans.”
In the Time-Warner Theater
While the internet debate raises interesting and important questions, the discussion that O’Brien hosted after the screening is worth recounting.That discussion included one of the entrepreneurs from the documentary, Hank Williams, “digital lifestyle expert” and NPR contributor Mario Armstrong, CNN producer and New York University journalism professor Jason Samuels, and Interactive One Chief Technology Officer Navarrow Wright.
Highlighting a Cross-Section of Black Entrepreneurs
Samuels said he was fascinated by the idea of featuring eight African Americans who represent an economic, social, and educational cross-section of America.
What stuck with Armstrong from the documentary was a statement by tech investor Ron Conway, who said he didn’t know how to recruit Black entrepreneurs. Armstrong wasn’t alone in his response.* The room erupted in indignation and laughter when Conway made this statement on screen.
“I can tell you kids right now that want to be future technologists, but they don’t get the exposure, they don’t have the access, and they don’t have the role models like we’re trying to present. … It’s an inherent problem with the mindset of people holding the purse strings when they say, ‘We can’t recruit; we don’t know how,’ ” said Armstrong.
Helping African Americans Navigate Silicon Valley
Wright was an advisor to the NewMe entrepreneurs and said he focused 60 percent of his time on helping them navigate the race issues they would face in Silicon Valley.
“I had a unique perspective in making them understand the unique challenges they had as African Americans in the valley. Understanding that merit is one thing, but you kind of have to navigate. You have to be ready for the VC [venture capitalist] conversation when the VC brings up, ‘Hey, I’ve watched “Martin,”’ to create a commonality between you in the meeting, because he’s as uncomfortable as you are,” said Wright.
Williams, the oldest and most experienced of the entrepreneurs featured in the documentary, compared his own efforts to those of an nineteen year old Israeli entrepreneur who received $5 million in funding for an undeveloped idea.
“That’s not my experience. I’ve never been able to go and convince somebody to give me money based on a dream. It had to be the train leaving the station,” said Williams.
Consumers, not Creators
The most passionate and vocal member of the panel was Armstrong. He argued that African Americans were early consumers of tech products and made them cool, but said they have generally not been creators.
“It’s not that we don’t want to create. Clearly that’s not the issue. We know how to hustle. We know how to pitch our ideas. We know how to wear multiple hats and be effective in that realm,” said Armstrong.
The technology gap, as he sees it, is because the so-called “digital divide,” focused on everyone gaining access to technology at the expense of asking how it would be used.
The Skill Gap
A budding tech entrepreneur in the audience wanted to know how to make up for a lack of programming skills.
“Get a partner or get a book. Literally, you either have to learn how to do it yourself or have to be the business guy and find a technology guy to partner with to build your company,” said Williams.
Armstrong concurred, advising the young man to learn enough coding to earn the respect of programmers and to gain the knowledge necessary to avoid getting ripped off by them.
“When you hear Michael Arrington talk about the meritocracy and how everything’s equal, they use data and they use those things to keep us shut out, but we have to own the fact that to a certain degree we shut ourselves out,” added Wright. “The reality is if you want to be in this business, you have some onus that there are skills you need to have to gain entry. …Today the barriers are lower than they’ve ever been.”
Armstrong likewise expressed irritation with Arrington, saying, “Out of these eight people, that damn Michael Arrington needs to answer that question and get one out of this so he doesn’t have to say, ‘I don’t know where they are’ anymore.”
Waiting to See What Happens
We weren’t shown the conclusion of “The New Promised Land — Silicon Valley,” so I’ll be watching when it airs November 13 at 8 pm ET on CNN.
How about you? Will you be watching? If you have any thoughts on the debate, please share them with us in the comments section.
*Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly attributed this statement by Mario Armstrong to Jason Samuels.
Go to page 2 for our bonus interview with Soledad O’Brien.
Entertainer/Producer Mari White
Mari White is not only a beautiful woman, she’s an accomplished entertainer and producer. She got her start in modeling, but won rave reviews this summer in a New York production of “All American Girls,” a play about the first female African American baseball league. Her latest project is a reality show called “Mari White Presents the Newsboys,” which offers a behind-the-scenes look at the popular Christian band that happens to feature her good friend and veteran dc Talk member, Michael Tait, on lead vocals. It’s scheduled to premiere in October on multiple networks, including JCTV, NRB, Total Living Network, Miracle Channel, LegacyTV, Cornerstone Television, and FamilyNet. UrbanFaith talked to White about the show and about how she lives out her faith in the entertainment business. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
UrbanFaith: Your professional credits include film, hosting, theater, TV, and modeling. How did you get into the entertainment business?
Mari White: I started in my late teens to pursue modeling and acting. I grew up very shy and very quiet and I thought that it would be fun to push those boundaries and make myself more outgoing and make myself be comfortable speaking in front of people and around a lot of people. So I did it more as a therapeutic type of thing, but it turned out to be one of the most enjoyable journeys of my life up to this point. I learned a lot about myself and I learned a lot about other people. The modeling seems like it would be fun, but you also have to recognize, it’s just a visual. I was able to recognize the pros and cons of being in the modeling industry as a woman and as a woman of God.
What are some of those pros and cons?
There are always opportunities where, as a woman, you’re booked for jobs that you may not feel completely comfortable with. Along with experience and along with age, you start to realize there are things that you don’t have to do. You don’t have to compromise. Same thing with acting. There are roles that you don’t have to accept. If I feel like it’s a quality project and there’s a bigger meaning behind it, then it’s something that I would pursue. All the work that I’ve done, I’m proud of and I feel like it recognizes different sides of a woman. You can absolutely be a woman of God and still be in the entertainment industry as long as you know who you are.
What kinds of faith challenges have you experienced?
Being in the entertainment industry is a great opportunity to rely on God because you never know what the next week or the next month will be. You may book a lot of work or you may not book any work. When you do book work, it still takes a while for the checks to come in. It’s not consistent. Every day is an exciting opportunity to see what’s going to happen.
Newsboys performing in Ocean Grove, New Jersey, where their reality show trailer was filmed.
How did you come to produce a show about the Newsboys?
I met the group a few years ago with the new lead singer, Michael Tait, and I had the pleasure of attending one of their live shows. I had seen many other groups perform before and always enjoyed this type of music, but I was blown away at how they performed. Without all the bells and whistles and the gadgets and smoke, they were amazing. Then when I did see them with all the bells and whistles, it was just that much more fantastic. The thing that caught my attention the most was the fact that there was so much history behind the Newsboys and also [Michael’s earlier group] dc Talk. Once I started to see these guys, and meet their wives, their families, and their friends, I recognized that they actually practice what they preach off the stage. That was something that I felt really needed to be seen: positive men for young people and for adults. It’s something that you don’t see on television that much.
How did you meet the band?
I used to host a Christian music television show based out of New York and I had the opportunity to meet multiple bands and performers in Contemporary Christian Music. I had the pleasure of meeting Duncan Phillips and Michael Tait of the Newsboys when the change had just happened with the band. While I was interviewing them, I felt bad because I wasn’t that knowledgeable about what was going on. They were sweethearts and they caught me up to speed during the interview. It was at that moment that I thought, “Wow, these guys are different.” In fact, something had happened with our transportation to pick them up from where they were performing, and they said, “No problem, we’re in Manhattan. We’ll just walk it.” They ended up walking like 14 blocks to our studio. That was the first thing that impressed me. I thought that was really down to earth and sweet and nice of them to do so. In the interview we had a blast. We just kept talking and talking. Ever since then, we all became friends. Their wives and I are friends. It’s such a great group of people, from the management to the label to the members, everyone is truly great.
What is your goal for the show?
I want to create a new type of Christian entertainment. I want to create entertainment that’s going to be fun, informational, and spiritual for everyone. Unless I’m mistaken, I don’t feel like there’s a lot of new and fresh family friendly, faith-based programming. The production value of the show is equal to any young adult program on any mainstream secular network. I feel like if you want to reach a faith based audience, a young audience, or even a new audience, you’ve got to be able to be on the same level of everything else that’s out there.
To watch the trailer for “Mari White Presents the Newsboys,” go to Newsboysshow.com.