A Prophet Out of Harlem

Willing to tell the hard truth, evangelist Tom Skinner inspired a generation of leaders.

"The Liberator has come!" With that declaration, African-American evangelist Tom Skinner concluded his keynote address at Urbana '70, InterVarsity's missions conference in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. The gathering of more than 11,000 college students leaped to its feet, exploding in applause and cheers.

Jesus Christ was the "radical" Liberator whom Skinner proclaimed. But for the hundreds of young African-American evangelicals scattered across that assembly hall, Skinner himself was a liberator-their ambassador to the white evangelical church. At last, their struggles and concerns had the chance for a legitimate hearing.

There had been a buzz in the air at Urbana even before Tom Skinner took the stage. College students from all over the U.S. had descended on the campus during the last five days of 1970 to study their Bibles, sing hymns, and hear such speakers as John Stott and Leighton Ford talk about discipleship and world evangelization. But on the second evening of the event, with Skinner at the helm, the student missions conference made a significant departure from its usual program.

In its ninth triennial offering, the Urbana convention had become an influential and highly anticipated occasion, where countless young adults made decisions to enter full-time Christian service. InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (Urbana's sponsor) was known as one of the evangelical movement's premier campus ministries. And the Urbana conference was its prime laboratory for mobilization and renewal.

But there had also been controversy surrounding the event. Three years earlier at Urbana '67, about 60 African-American students, all InterVarsity members, had come to the conference with idealistic notions of finding a connecting point for their ...

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