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Excerpt from "From the Rearview Mirror"

Chapter One: I’m Not Going to Make It Without You

by Bill Milliken

The following excerpt is taken from the book From the Rearview Mirror by Bill Milliken. It is published by Hay House (Available Apr. 30, 2012) and available at all bookstores or online at: www.hayhouse.com

Chapter One: I’m Not Going to Make It Without You

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.

I was 20 years old and about to start a journey that would take me from Harlem and the Lower East Side to the centers of power in Washington, D.C., from a street mission to a national movement—a journey that has shown me that life is about relationships and grace.

We were in Harlem to try to do something unique. As members of a youth organization called Young Life, we wanted to reach out to the poorest and most neglected members of society. Our qualifications to do this consisted of exactly one thing: a mutual gift for hanging out. I’m still lobbying to get schools to give a degree in that.

Our friend and mentor Harv Oostdyk was the head of Young Life in New Jersey. I’d met him and Vinnie at a Young Life youth camp in Colorado, but I never dreamed we’d end up on the streets of Harlem together.

The apartment cost $32 a month. It had one bedroom, into which we managed to squeeze two beds. The bathtub was in the kitchen, and there was no hot water. Nor was there any escape from the intense summer heat—air conditioning was the impossible dream in a flat like this one. That first night, sweating in our airless bedroom, we could smell garbage out in the alley and hear a constant scurrying that was either roaches or rats—most likely both.

In the morning, we set our plan in motion. Not much of a plan, but for two guys with a “major” in hanging out, it was all we needed. We grabbed a basketball and walked to the nearest park, looking for a court and some kids we could get a game with.

We had no trouble finding the kids. The park was full of street youth, hard-core drug users and dropouts, most of them either homeless or unwilling to go home. They seemed to be anywhere from 15 to their early 20s, standing around smoking and talking, drinking beer, or playing some serious ball on the beat-up blacktop court. They stared at us, not saying a word.

What did they see? There was Vinnie, a few years older than I was, a former Golden Gloves boxer, a recovered heroin addict, an ex-con with tattoos all over his body, wearing dark sunglasses and looking very “street” himself. And there was me: If Vinnie looked street, I looked the opposite. I was a fresh-faced suburban kid, a Little Lord Fauntleroy who kept grinning at everybody and saying, “Hey, wanna play basketball?” And just to complete the joke, I couldn’t play. The only dribbling I did was on my chin, and you could maybe fit a piece of paper underneath my feet when I went for my jump shot, but I was willing to pass a lot and toss the ball up there when I could.

In short, these kids saw two white idiots trying to get into their game. I didn’t figure this out at the time, but what saved our asses was that these street-smart youth immediately drew the obvious conclusion: we were cops, and very lame cops at that. Two white guys, one tough and one “nice,” walk up and start acting friendly? What else could we be? So instead of beating the shit out of us, they pretended we weren’t there. They knew better than to take out a cop.

That’s my memory of our first attempt to hang out in Harlem. And it probably describes pretty well the next several days, too. After hours of hostile looks and rejection, Vinnie and I would go back to our stifling apartment. We’d have a sandwich for dinner, drink a lot of water, and hit the sack as soon as it got dark. The minute we turned out the lights, out came the cockroaches—they sounded like an army coming to haul us away, mattresses and all.

“Yeah,” Vinnie said, “and they’re so big, and this place is so small, they’re probably hunchbacked roaches.”

The next morning, we’d be back at the park. I’d walk up to a guy on a park bench, and he’d move away to avoid me. If I tried to shake hands, the guy would look away. If I attempted to join a group for basketball, everyone else got chosen before me—which was actually pretty sensible!

I can’t pretend it didn’t hurt, though. It brought up a lot of childhood pain, feelings I’d carried with me for a long time about not fitting in, not being accepted. This silent rejection was worse than overt hostility, because if somebody yelled at me or gave me a hard time, at least there was interaction, dialogue—something could happen. This way, all my fine ideas about “street work” just went down the drain, leaving me feeling like a failure.

But finally, Vinnie started to get in some games, since he could actually play. We began learning the names of the young people, talking to them between games, telling them why we were there. A lot of the kids still thought we were cops—probably narcs, since we didn’t seem to be investigating any particular crime—but then the word got around that Vinnie and I lived in Harlem. As far as I know, no narc in New York City had ever done that (this was long before “community policing”). So, strange as it seemed, it looked as though we might be on the level, and slowly some of these young men started to believe what we were telling them.

So what were we telling them? What did we think we could offer them? To explain that, I need to talk about what happened to me when I was 17 and first met Vinnie and Harv.

It was 1957, and I was just about living at Nobbie’s Pool Hall in Wilkinsburg, a suburb of Pittsburgh, with a bunch of other “losers” called the Green Street Animals. A child of the 1940s and ’50s, I was brought up in an affluent middle-class neighborhood; my father owned a successful brick factory and drove a Mercedes; we had the country club at our disposal.

Yet by the time I was 17, I’d left high school. I had no hopes, no future. I was involved in petty crime and had little to no relationship with my parents. One day, an older guy named Bob started hanging around at the pool hall, trying to overcome our suspicion and get to know us. It turned out he was a Young Life youth worker, and he wanted to start a club for kids in our neighborhood.

I wasn’t interested in that, but when he invited me and five of my pool-hall buddies to spend a week at a Young Life camp in Colorado, we signed up. Frontier Ranch was located at the base of Mount Princeton, southwest of Colorado Springs. It was the most beautiful place I’d ever seen. The scenery was incredible, there were horses and swimming pools, and everybody was friendly. There was even a free pool hall. And yes, there were girls I could impress with my street cool. Young people from all over the country came to Frontier Ranch each summer, brought by various Young Life counselors who were doing the same kind of outreach work that Bob had done with me and my friends. (Harv Oostdyk wasn’t there that first summer. I met him and Vinnie and some of their friends from the streets of Newark on my next trip to the ranch, the following year.)

Then one evening we had a big meeting for all the campers—which I went into feeling hostile because it was starting to remind me of school—and some adult I’d never seen before stood up and starting talking about God and Christ. What a crock! I could hardly admit it to myself, but part of me had been feeling excited about this camp. I’d been sensing some new possibilities, and I was so longing for community, for people to see me and welcome me. Now here was the hidden agenda . . . religion. I’d been conned.

When I attended church with my parents, it was obvious that Christians were complete hypocrites as far as I could see. Not that you could really blame them, because wasn’t the whole God thing crazy? Why would God care about people? Why would he care about me? I was a loser.

When the meeting ended, I went looking for Bob, and when I found him, I called him every name I could think of. I accused him of lying to me, of deliberately concealing what Young Life was about.

Bob didn’t try to weasel out of it. He looked me in the eye and said, “You wouldn’t have come if you’d known what it was, right?”

“You’re damn right I wouldn’t have.”

“Well, I apologize for tricking you, but I’m not sorry that you’re here.”

Angry as I was, I respected him for leveling with me, and I could tell he respected me, too, and wasn’t trying to bullshit me.

“Bill, I think you’re prejudiced,” Bob went on. “You have a preconception of who God is. I challenge you to listen and consider what’s being said about him here. You might find it’s the most important thing you’ve ever heard. And if not, then just enjoy the camp, and no hard feelings.”

I was too confused to reply, so I turned my back on him and walked away.

I surprised myself, though. I was able to put aside my resentments and do what Bob had suggested—just enjoy the camp even if I didn’t want to hear anything about a spiritual life. There was something going on every hour of the day. We rode horses, climbed mountains, put on skits, and had a lot of time to talk to the camp counselors and each other.

I was learning perhaps the most important lesson of my life—not just my life then, but for the next 50 years as well. Personal relationships are the key to change. No program in the world is going to help a young person find his future. And sermons, proselytizing, and guilt trips aren’t going to open anyone up to the Spirit. I needed to find adults I could trust and who trusted me. I needed a reason to hope. Bob and the other counselors saw exactly who I was—an angry, ignorant, unhappy young man—and they loved me anyway. The Young Life people were for real. They loved me unconditionally, whether I believed in God or not. There were no strings attached.

Never in my life had anyone related to me that way. My parents should have given me unconditional love—but they hadn’t. My teachers kept wanting me to be someone I wasn’t. Even the Green Street Animals would have dropped me like a shot if I’d stopped being tough and “cool.” This Colorado experience was a first.

One of the people I liked the best at camp was the cook, Andrew “Goldbrick” Delaney. He and his wife Jerry had been feeding hungry kids at Young Life camps since they first began. He was a warm, good-humored man, always there for me, always concerned about how I was doing.

Jerry, on the other hand, could be a little . . . difficult. She had a notoriously short temper, especially around her kitchen. It became a (somewhat dangerous) game for us campers to see if we could rile her up. One time, I was in the process of disorganizing the kitchen and generally bugging her when she picked up a meat cleaver and started toward me. Would she have used it? I guess not, but I didn’t want to take any chances. I ran out and dove into the swimming pool until she calmed down.

There was another thing about Goldbrick and Jerry: they were African American. In fact, they were the only blacks at the ranch. It raised some uncomfortable memories and questions for me. Back in Wilkinsburg, I’d become aware of the rigid racial and social divides of my community (which I’ll talk about more later on). Here in Colorado, everyone treated the Delaneys with respect and affection. There wasn’t a trace of prejudice. But . . . why were they the only African Americans there? Why were all the campers white? Even in 1957, I had a strong feeling that this was going to change—it had to, especially if all the “Jesus stuff” I was hearing had any validity.

So I didn’t immediately start trusting Bob, Goldbrick, or anyone else. I liked them all, but there’s a big difference between liking and trusting, and it all came to a head one morning.

Frontier Ranch had work crews as well as fun activities because the counselors wanted us to experience the satisfaction of collaborating on a job well done. We were filling holes in a dirt road, and I was slacking off.

Bob called me on it. “You’re lazy!” he said.

I threw a shovelful of dirt in his face, and then I took off running down the road.

I don’t know where I thought I was going. We were out in the middle of nowhere, at least two hours from Denver. I just knew that I had to leave before I got thrown out. What I’d done was completely against the rules of the camp, and part of what I was coming to respect about the Young Life leaders was that they meant what they said. They were true to their word. Yes, it was tough love—and this is where I first learned the concept. So I knew they weren’t going to make any exceptions for me after I’d done a ridiculous and spiteful thing like that.

I probably didn’t get too far down the road away from the ranch, although it felt like miles, and I was miserable and angry inside. Then I heard a jeep pulling up behind me. It was Goldbrick Delaney. He’d seen me taking off, and he’d come to stop me.

“Come on,” he said. “Come back to my cabin with me. Tell me what happened.”

I went with him and told him the tale. He looked grave; he knew it was a very serious situation. But he said he’d talk to Jim Rayburn, the founder of Young Life, who was there at the camp, and see if I might be allowed to stay on the condition that I’d seek out Bob, own my bad behavior, and ask for his forgiveness.

I stayed in Goldbrick’s cabin while the staff had a special meeting about the incident. Finally, Goldbrick came back and told me that Bob was willing to hear what I had to say. So together we went and found Bob, and I apologized. He accepted my apology and made some wisecrack to lighten the atmosphere. I found that I respected him even more. This was a man who walked his talk. He’d told me that he believed in forgiveness, and now he was living that principle.

So the staff told me they’d try to stick it out with me. Once again, I saw that personal relationships meant more to these folks than anything else—more than rules, more than discipline. They actually cared about me and wanted me to have another chance. As long as I was honest about my behavior and my feelings, their love was inexhaustible.

Each night at camp, we had what the counselors called a “roundup” in an old wooden auditorium. This was where the talk would turn to God, and of course my friends and I would sit in the back and goof off. But as the week went on, I started listening more and more. The whole atmosphere of the place was designed to make us curious. I wasn’t good at school, but I was always very open, always probing and wanting to know more. So I asked a lot of questions and listened carefully to the answers. That was my way of learning.

The Young Life leaders challenged me intellectually to give up my preconceived notions of God. They didn’t talk doctrine and tell me what to believe. Instead, they told stories, using metaphors from Scripture. Young Life’s motto was: “It’s a sin to bore a kid,” and they really brought the whole thing alive for me.

In a small way, I began to see that the God that Bob and the others were talking about was totally different from my own experiences or ideas—the stuff I thought I knew from church. This wasn’t about “clouds of judgment,” or a stern Lord with no time for someone like me. They were talking about an incarnated God who cared, who walked with us, and about how we were created in his image.

They spoke of the price of love. “There’s a real cost to following Christ,” Bob said. This wasn’t sentimental, the nice Hollywood-movie “I love you” kind of thing. It was sacrificial, a love that gives everything. That really appealed to my all-or-nothing personality. Anything I’ve ever done, good or bad, I’ve done 100 percent.

So even though I remained doubtful and skeptical, I wanted to believe what they were talking about. That someone would care about me, with all my screwups—it really was “good news,” if only it were true.

On the final night, we all gathered for the roundup. Jim told us that God cared so much about us that he sent his own son to live and suffer and walk through the valley of the shadow of death with us. God wanted to dwell with us and in us. He was knocking on the door of our lives. We could have a relationship with this God right now. This wasn’t an intellectual challenge anymore—this was a call to action.

I didn’t let on to my friends, but I was really moved. Afterward, we spilled out of the auditorium into the cool Colorado night where a big bonfire was crackling. The counselors called us to gather around the fire and said, “If any of you discovered God this week, ask God to take over your life.”

I was blown away that a lot of kids did stand up and talk about what had happened to them. I just stayed in the back and didn’t say anything. But before the meeting broke up, I walked off into the darkness, away from the others, with the bright full moon lighting my way. At the foot of Mount Princeton, I stopped.

“God,” I said, “I don’t know if you’re real, but I need this very much. I’m not going to make it without you. If you can take someone who isn’t sure about you but is hungry for meaning and hope, then please enter my life.” The tears were rolling down my face, and suddenly, something happened. It’s hard to explain exactly what. I felt a calm, a peace I’d never known before. It was mysterious and real; I knew I wasn’t making it up.

When I returned, I told Bob about it, but I asked him not to tell everybody else and make a big example of me. I was still a little skeptical of the people who stood up and “gave their lives to Jesus” in public. To me, it was very personal. Besides, I had my reputation to protect, so I didn’t go around talking about it.

But privately, I decided I was betting my whole life on this. I had nothing to lose. And I also had no idea how radical and difficult this kind of love is, no idea what an incredible journey I was about to embark upon. I didn’t become another person all at once. It was a beginning, an opening up. I knew I’d never be the same again, and I was right. This was the start of a process that has never stopped. The transformation is still at work as I enter my 70s.

In every age and every culture, people have had personal encounters with God that changed their lives. This was mine. But please don’t imagine I went from lost to found in one week. Maybe that happened to Saint Paul, but it sure didn’t happen to me. If it had, there’d be no need for me to write this book.

So when Vinnie and I—both of us committed members of Young Life by this point—started to hang out in Harlem, we were trying to do for others the same thing that had been done for us. Someone had cared about us, valued us, and loved us unconditionally. They felt we were worth something. They wanted us to have a spiritual life. We wanted to share this with the youth we met on the streets.

Was this naïve? To this day, I don’t think so. Sure, it took longer than we thought it would to be accepted and trusted. But once that happened, our basic beliefs about personal relationships were confirmed. The minute young people realized that we cared about them, wanted to know them, wanted to be there for them, they reacted just the way I’d responded to Bob and the other Young Life counselors.

Vinnie and I began to build relationships with a number of kids who desperately wanted a better way of life and were willing to consider making a spiritual change for the better. We tried many different ways to connect with them and quickly figured out that fun, physical activities worked best. A lot of these young men had skipped the enjoyable parts of childhood.

For that matter, I was only a couple of years older than some of them myself. I couldn’t tell the difference between us sometimes. I didn’t know how to be “the adult” and didn’t really want to—I wanted to have fun, too.

Vinnie and I got some used mattresses, and we’d throw them down in the park or at a church gym and teach wrestling. I’d gone out for the sport in high school and during the first of my three freshman years in college. My nickname was “Canvasback,” which isn’t good, since it meant I spent a lot of time on my back looking up at the ceiling. But I learned the moves and could teach them.

My first pupil, I remember, was a guy called Snake. He was 20 pounds heavier than I was, a little shorter but a lot stockier. He was all muscle. Snake didn’t quite get the rules at first. He picked me up, bear-hugged me, then slammed me to the floor, missing the mattress and knocking me out. He felt bad about it, though, and it actually helped to build our relationship.

So-called tough kids need a chance to show caring and concern. A year or two later, when we took some New York street guys out to the Colorado ranch, we were riding horses when my horse tripped and rolled over, and I got knocked out. When I came to, they were all gathered around me, their faces full of fear. Up until then, they’d been sort of hard and not into sharing their feelings. Now they had an excuse to show they cared about me.

Anyway, I wouldn’t recommend either of these ways to build relationships—much too hard on the skull.

Vinnie and I took the guys on day trips to Coney Island, to the amusement park and the beach. A lot of these kids had never seen the ocean, never been out of their housing project. This was a way to do stuff with no resources. We’d just ride the subway or get in a beat-up van and head to New Jersey, where Harv Oostdyk’s father had a barn. We’d go on overnight trips there and see some nature. We hiked, played touch football—anything to get them to experience life outside of their little world.

The streets could be exciting at times, but a life of tenements, subways, and housing projects, full of violence and poverty, is so limited and dangerous. We wanted them to become curious about what else was out there, just as I did when I went to the Colorado camp.

There were opportunities to talk on these trips, but we never pressed anyone. If a young person was interested in knowing about us, what we were all about, then we’d tell him. Building relationships always came first.

On the practical side, the way it worked back then was that Young Life would officially sponsor someone to do street work and eventually start a new club. But part of the arrangement was that the person in question had to raise funds to pay all his own expenses—including money to live on. So right from the start, we had to make connections with local churches and other nonprofit, youth-serving groups who might be willing to donate space, goods, and hopefully a little cash.

Our work got considerably easier when Dr. Eugene Callender offered us a base of operations at his Church of the Master on Morningside Avenue, within walking distance of our apartment. Dr. Callender had been hearing a lot about us—most of it positive, fortunately—and made a pretty bold decision to support these young white guys. The Church of the Master was one of the oldest and most renowned African American congregations in Harlem, with a reputation for activism and outreach to the often-struggling community. There was an indoor basketball court and a place where we could start a regular Young Life club, with weekly meetings to help young people get on course and have some fun along the way.

Before very many months passed, though, we came to a tough realization: our new friends needed more than a club and more than a spiritual path. I remember Vinnie saying it perfectly: “How can we claim to love our neighbors and let them sleep in alleyways? We go out there and tell them how much we care, and then we leave them without a roof over their heads.”

What was missing was community. Somehow we had to find a way to create a community for young people that would offer them the basics—food, shelter, safety, and education—without which, frankly, it’s pretty hard to care much about your spiritual life.

And man, did that ever press some buttons inside me. I knew it wasn’t just about community for them. All my life, I’d been longing for the same thing. Once again, let me go back and focus on my upbringing in Pittsburgh. It will explain a lot about what happened in New York over the next ten years.

Being raised in a middle-class suburban family gives you a lot of advantages—and puts a lot of pressure on you as well. My parents expected me to behave myself and do well in school. And through third grade, I was a good kid, a good student. But then it all changed, and looking back, I know it must have had a lot to do with the way I learned—or didn’t learn.

I understand now that I learn differently from others. My brain doesn’t “imprint” words in the typical way. So when was I reading in school, it just didn’t sink in. I literally couldn’t make sense of it and wouldn’t remember what I’d just seen on the page.

One learning specialist I talked to as an adult called it “disappearing ink,” and that’s exactly what it feels like. To this day, if I’m giving a speech and I look down at my notes, it can interrupt my flow completely because I’m suddenly switching into a different mode of cognition. And sometimes I remember that awful phrase that every kid like me thinks: If they only knew. . . . It felt as if I were constantly covering up a terrible secret, and any minute someone could come along and expose it.

No one was informed about that stuff back then, though. It wasn’t called “learning differently.” Teachers just thought I was dumb and uncooperative, and my parents weren’t involved enough to set them straight—if they even knew. I was one of those hyperactive, wisecracking kids who couldn’t sit still and pay attention. And even when I told the truth, it sounded like I was smarting off.

Once, my fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Grundy, made me come up to the front of the class and read. Then she asked me to talk about what the passage meant. I was humiliated and embarrassed.

I said, “I can’t remember what I read,” which was absolutely true, but she assumed I was trying to be funny.

“You weren’t raised right,” she scolded me.

“Well, you weren’t raised right either,” I retorted.

Once again, I was on my way to the principal’s office to learn more about the back side of my lap. Paddling was a legitimate part of the school experience back then.

Somehow I kept getting promoted, but I have no doubt it was what we call social promotion today. The school just didn’t know what to do with me. And frankly, I was a good hustler. My verbal skills were always strong. I was already starting to develop some alternative abilities that would help me find my place and my calling.

I had the family credentials to belong to the upper middle class. My father owned a brick company, and the Millikens were country-club members. I looked as though I could fit in anywhere, but inside I didn’t feel it, and in fact it wasn’t true. I couldn’t find anything in common with children from my neighborhood, and I couldn’t keep up with them in school.

My only friend from near where I lived was a kid named Frankie. He was a small, slight guy like me who got teased a lot, so I didn’t feel as if we were competing. We walked home from school together, and sometimes we’d play at his house, where his parents had polka music on the record player all the time. (I guess they were Polish, or maybe they just liked to polka.) I didn’t feel inferior to Frankie—in fact, I felt a little protective of him and tried to defend him from some of the bigger kids.

Then one day I saw an ambulance pull up in front his house. After years of constant bullying, Frankie had gone home from school and hanged himself. He was maybe 11 or so.

Whatever I felt about that, I pushed it way down inside. No one talked to me about Frankie or asked me how I was doing. But I’m pretty sure his suicide planted a seed that later grew into a powerful conviction: There’s no excuse for turning your back on a defenseless child. Every kid needs someone to care about him.

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