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NavPress (February 2008)
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Mike Timmis had it all.
How does a kid from working-class Detroit become an international ambassador for Christ? And what motivated an evangelical-based ministry to choose this Catholic as its chairman? Mike Timmis’s inspiring life as a Catholic and evangelical leader reveals how our unity in Christ transcends the two worlds’ differences. From him, we learn how Catholics and evangelicals can go into an alienated world together as ministers of reconciliation and witnesses to God’s salvation and love.
Mike Timmis is a chairman of both Prison Fellowship in America and Prison Fellowship International. He was also a practicing lawyer and businessman. A Roman Catholic, Mike is deeply involved in ministry in his hometown of Detroit as well as projects in Africa and Central and South America. He and his wife, Nancey, are parents of two and grandparents of four.
On January 18, 1991, I was flying in a small two-engine plane in east-central Africa from Burundi to Kenya. Our party had just come from a wonderful meeting with Burundi’s President Pierre Buyoya where we’d shared the gospel with him and a number of cabinet ministers. Still, we were somewhat anxious because the Persian Gulf War had started the previous day. Right then, American fighters were in the air against Iraqi positions.
My wife, Nancy, and my son, Michael Jr., were with me, as well as Gene Dewey, the former second-in-command at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and Sam Owen, a fellow believer then living in Nairobi. This trip was part of the quiet diplomacy I had undertaken as a member of a group called The Fellowship. We worked on behalf of the poor by raising up Jesus with world leaders, one means of pursuing the ministry of reconciliation that Christ entrusted to His followers.
As we flew over northern Tanzania, the pilot was suddenly issued an order that we were to land immediately. I was sitting close enough to the cockpit to hear the squawking instructions coming over the radio. I quickly assured the pilot that we had the requisite permission to fly over Tanzanian air space. The State Department had issued an order to American citizens to stay clear of Tanzania, an Iraq ally, so I made sure—or thought I had—that we had permission to fly over Tanzania en route to Kenya. The pilot relayed my protest to the Tanzanians.
“No, you do not have permission!” came the reply. “You must land immediately, or we will force you down.”
We landed at the small city airport of Mwanza. As we stepped down onto the tarmac, a military jeep pulled up. A cadre of officials and police officers met us and immediately arrested the pilot and impounded the plane.
Their leader also demanded our passports. I was reluctant to give these up, because no matter what alternative flight arrangements we might be able to make, we would be stranded without passports. Because I had requested—and been granted—permission to fly over Tanzania, our detention was making me angry. (Later I found out that the flight service we were using had previously flouted Tanzanian regulations and had again on this occasion.) Because my family was with me, I restrained my temper. My jaw clenched, I reluctantly handed over my passport.
We were allowed to find our own accommodations in Mwanza, and we found a car that took us to the New Hotel Mwanza. I would hate to have seen the old Hotel Mwanza. We were the hotel’s only guests, and for good reason. The first thing I did was check under the bed for bugs and rats.
As we caught our breath in our hotel room, I asked Nancy if she was afraid. “No, I’m not afraid,” she said. “You are with me, our son is with us, and God is with us.”
Even though we were stranded in an African backwater, I felt the same. I knew I was where God wanted us to be and felt—as I always have in my travels to what are now 114 nations—that God was going before me. In my many years of traveling on various missions, I’ve always felt protected by the special anointing that comes with God’s commission. Lost geographically, I was still at home spiritually, and for that reason at peace.
Our party of five met for dinner in the hotel’s restaurant. My family is Catholic, and Gene Dewey and Sam Owen were evangelicals, but the unity we knew in the Lord sustained us, even when the dinner turned out to be rancid.
After a little while, the hotel manager, having no other guests, joined us at our table. This made way for the night’s entertainment. Four strapping young men in red overalls—the kind gas station attendants used to wear—came out, and with lamplight smiles launched into song:
My baaaaah-dy lies over the ocean,
My baaaaah-dy lies over the sea. . . .
Yes, they said “body” not “bonnie,” and since we all felt an ocean away from home, the song struck us as hilarious. Then the quartet followed with “Home on the Range,” and we nearly wept from laughing. We clapped and cheered, showing our appreciation to the young men. They had done us more good than they could possibly have known.
I spent the next day searching for transportation out of Mwanza. The others paid special attention to BBC radio reports on the progress of the war.
Within thirty-six hours, a plane flew in for us from Nairobi. We went out to the airport to meet it, eager to hightail it out of there. But when we arrived at the airport, no one seemed inclined to return our passports. Thankfully, Gene Dewey was already anticipating this. Because of his time with the United Nations, Gene had the most experience in dealing with government officials. He had also been a colonel in Vietnam and had a knack for being cool and fiercely determined at the same time. I kept asking him when he thought we’d get our passports back—and how. “Mike, don’t worry about it,” he’d say.
As we were walking out to the plane, bags in hand, with a couple of Tanzanian officials to the rear in escort, I looked over at Gene and said as forcefully as I could under my breath, “Gene, our passports!”
“Not now, Mike,” he replied quietly but just as forcefully. “Just don’t worry about it. Keep walking.”
It wasn’t until we were in the air that Gene unbuttoned his shirt and fished out all our passports.
“How did you get those?” I asked.
“I came out to the airport last night,” he said. “I broke into the office and took them. If you had kept talking, they might have found out!”
Gene’s street smarts reminded me of how I’d grown up and made my way. I asked myself, “How did I get here? How did a kid from the rough and gritty streets of Detroit end up on a trip to see international dignitaries? How could a guy born and raised Catholic go on a mission representing a largely evangelical organization?”
I’ve had many amazing, frightening, and heart-rending experiences as I’ve traveled the world in service to the King of kings. And one thing I can say for certain: when you entrust yourself completely to God and make yourself available to Him, you’re in for an adventure.
“Mike, the only way you can be ensured of success,” my father once told me, “is if you take it into your own hands and go into the professions.” I was an Irish Catholic kid from the battling West Side of Detroit, the youngest of five children, keen on finding my own place in the world.
My father remains the strongest man I think I’ve ever known, with enormous hands, a powerful physique, and an energy that stayed with him into his nineties. I saw him lift a car out of a ditch when he was in his sixties, although he did injure his back. As young men, he and his brother Brian went out to western Canada, where they took jobs as real-live cowboys, breaking horses. Brian stayed, became a Mounty in Regina, Saskatchewan, and played professional football there. My dad returned to Ottawa and played wingback for the Ottawa Roughriders.1 There he met an Irish girl who was both passionate and practical, and he had the good sense to ask for her hand.
My parents emigrated from Canada to Detroit in 1930, at the beginning of the Great Depression. My mother’s uncle had moved there earlier from Ottawa and convinced my parents that the Motor City was one of the last places in North America where a man could find regular employment. Our relatives soon moved back to Ottawa, but my father and mother stayed, and Dad hired on with the city as a bus driver. He eventually worked his way up through the civil service system and retired as a bus station manager.
Most of his working life turned out to be far different from the spirited and reckless days as a cowboy and pro football player. I was the last of five children, separated in age by twelve years from my eldest sibling, Margaret Claire. My parents were well into their forties when I was born in 1939, and so I never knew my father as a young man. Or a particularly happy man—not at least until much later in his life when, in retirement, he was able to live on a farm and keep horses.
While I was growing up, I remember my dad collapsing into his chair at the end of his long days. He’d take up one of Luke Short’s westerns—he probably read ten times every novel the man had ever written. I can’t say for certain whether he ever graduated from high school. I know he served in the Canadian forces in World War I, beginning in 1914 at seventeen. And since he was born in 1897, so he might have left for the war before graduating.
We were a serious family, always working or studying or going to St. Brigid’s, our local Catholic parish. Our faith was a great comfort to both my father and mother, but it was also a cause of concern as to the children’s futures. My father felt that Irish Catholics were discriminated against, so he insisted that my brothers and I become doctors.
At the time, all of Detroit was divided into ethnic neighborhoods of Poles, Eastern European Jews, Irish, Germans, Italians, and so on. We lived in an Irish Catholic enclave. The houses stood one against the other on forty-foot lots, with bay windows to one side of half porches. The weave of that community was very close-knit. As a ten year-old, I once cursed on a playground a block from home and received a slap for it when I came in ten minutes later for supper. A neighbor had heard what I said and promptly telephoned my mother.
But such strictures helped keep the city a safe and open place where I was free to roam. Not only did we not lock our front door, but I don’t remember there being a key. From the age of eight or nine, I could walk down to the local candy store and then hop busses down to Woodward Avenue, where Hudson’s, the giant department store, mounted huge Christmas window displays.
At the same time, the neighborhood had its own pugnacious code: You stood up to a fight or you simply couldn’t live there. Taking a beating was far better than being constantly harassed, so I did a lot of fighting as a kid. I can remember coming home from school one winter day. My sister had taken the bus home from college, and one of the neighborhood bullies, whom I’ll call Larry, had thrown an “ice ball” that hit her in the face.
My dad said to me, “Take care of him.”
Larry’s reputation as a bully was well earned, and I said, “Dad, this guy is going to kill me!”
“I don’t care,” Dad replied sternly. “You go out and you take care of him—now!”
Anger with my father for ordering this confrontation drove me out into the streets. When I caught sight of Larry, I ran after him, yelling at him vehemently. He hardly knew what hit him! I was so angry with Dad that I beat the living daylights out of the kid. I had him down on his back by the curb, where water was running from the snowmelt, and I whaled on him.
My father may have been so concerned about prejudice against Catholics because he’d had to overcome that obstacle when he started courting my mother. My dad’s family was high-church Anglican. He converted when he married my mother, which wasn’t much of a stretch, since high-church Anglicans worship in a liturgical style as close to Catholicism as Protestantism gets. Still, crossing to Rome was always an issue, especially at a time when Help Wanted signs included the postscript “No Irish Need Apply.”
My mother’s family, the O’Reillys, originally from County Clare, were Irish Catholics to the core. My mother was a petite woman, not more than five feet tall. In appearance, she was what they call dark Irish, with mahogany and cherry wood strands in her hair and a flame in her light-blue eyes. The O’Reillys, who owned brickyards, were far more well-to-do than my dad’s family.
The pictures of my mother that I keep close by are candid shots; they show her as a young woman with the new bob of short hair that came in with the 1920s, striking a jaunty attitude. I can imagine this young Irish lass losing her head over my powerful, handsome father.
She was told never to have children because of a weak heart, and then she went and had five. Better educated than my dad, she had been to what was called a “normal school,” or teacher’s college. I would guess that many of our family’s intellectual and creative gifts came through my mother. My brother Gerry, who the family called Sonny, would go on to be a famous cardiologist; Hilary, an outstanding surgeon; and both my sisters, Margaret Claire and Agnes Cecile, went to college and had marriages and careers that took them well up the economic ladder.
Once married, my mother never worked outside the home but gave herself completely and utterly to her husband and children. That didn’t keep her from having a sharp tongue, or so my sisters claim; I never was cut deeply enough to remember her that way. It was not so much that I was the “baby” of the family, but that my mother’s health was in serious decline by the time I reached early adolescence. She was too exhausted to protest against much of anything by then.
Both my father and my mother led our family in practicing our Catholic faith. In fact, when I think of my religious formation, I remember the faith as a distinctly family affair. Our devotions as a family made a great impression on me. We devoted the month of May to praying with Mary—not to Mary—to her son, Jesus.
Every Sunday night, my whole family knelt down at seven o’clock and prayed for the conversion of Russia. My brothers Sonny and Hilary began to protest against the practice when they became busy medical students, but even then my parents insisted that the time be set aside.
On Tuesday evenings, we went to St. Brigid’s for devotions, praying the rosary, making novenas, or listening as a “mission” was preached—what evangelical Protestants know as a revival service. These devotions largely disappeared from the Catholic Church after Vatican II in the early sixties and only now are being reinstated. The piety they encouraged came to be regarded as old-fashioned. Through these devotions, the Catholics of my parents’ generation—and generations before them—experienced the Catholic faith as intensely personal. The devotions also encouraged them to recognize their faith as God’s work in their lives. I experienced enough of this to clearly understand that my salvation was dependent on the completed work of Christ—not on my own righteousness. There was never a time when I was under the misimpression that my “works” would get me into heaven.
I attended the local parish school, St. Brigid’s, where I was prepared for First Communion and Confirmation by the sisters who taught us. My first confession at the age of six saw me truly penitent, if confused. There were no secrets in our Irish Catholic family, and everyone wanted to know to what I had confessed. I told my brothers and sisters that I had admitted to adultery about a hundred times.
“You did?” they asked. “What did you mean?”
“That I picked my nose!”
I’m sure the priest about fell off the chair as he smothered his laughter.
Still, my First Communion was a memorable experience at which I received a child’s prayer book—one that I only recently parted with when I gave it to my granddaughter on the occasion of her First Communion. It meant that much to me. Even as a young child, I took the privilege of being invited into communion with God very seriously. I think most children do, because they understand intuitively what it means to be God’s child.
At St. Brigid’s, we were schooled in the Baltimore Catechism, so when I was confirmed in the Catholic faith in fifth grade, I knew all the right answers to the classic questions. Who made us? Who is God? Why did God make us? In retrospect, I wish I had understood and experienced these rites of passage more in terms of an evolving relationship with Christ rather than as childhood milestones. Confirmation comes later now, when a child is about twelve or thirteen, which I think is good; older children are better equipped to understand Confirmation as a personal commitment. At the same time, I’ve always been glad that the rudiments of the faith were drilled into me. This provided me with certainty and hope at many difficult times in my life, especially in the crises that crouched around the next corner.
My peaceful, happy childhood was disturbed by illness when I was about twelve years old. I returned home from a Boy Scout retreat with pneumonia and what the doctors suspected was rheumatic fever. I was sicker than I probably knew for a number of months and missed virtually all of eighth grade. After I regained my strength the first time, I had a relapse, and our doctor became worried about the condition of my heart. He ordered that I not participate in any sports. When I entered U of D High (University of Detroit High School, now called University of Detroit Jesuit High School and Academy), I was allowed to climb the stairs to the freshman and sophomore classrooms only once a day.
This was especially frustrating because I’d always had amazing stamina; I really didn’t pay much attention to the doctors’ orders except when under the direct supervision of my parents or the school. Still, the inactivity led to weight gain, and I became a pudgy kid, which I hated. What’s more, the physical isolation my illness brought with it became an emotional isolation. Like my father, I took refuge in books, becoming a voracious reader. I liked history and novels especially, and, as I often had trouble sleeping, I would grab a book and read long into the night.
My mother worried over me because of my health, of course, and that added to my brothers’ and sisters’ complaints that I was being spoiled. One time, Hilary was especially upset with me. We were arguing, and my mother admonished him to lay off me.
“He’s turning into a spoiled jerk,” Hilary insisted.
“Look at me,” she replied. “You’ve had a mother. He’s not going to have a mother. Leave him alone.”
Anyone could see by her pallor that her health was in decline. Indeed, her heart condition was growing rapidly worse. I vividly remember the night she died, April 11, 1955. It was Easter night. Sonny, a senior, and Hilary, a junior in medical school, were attending to her. They were talking on the phone to her doctor, their voices rising and becoming more strained as they followed his instructions with little effect. I came into her room while this was going on and heard Sonny yell into the phone, “I’ve already given her a shot of adrenaline and it’s not working!”
I looked at her, propped up on two pillows. I asked her, “Mama, what’s wrong?”
She was always a very prayerful woman, and she chose to answer in the only way she could. She took out her rosary from between the pillows and with her thumb held up the crucifix to me. That was the last thing she did. I was fifteen years old.
My father had always revered and worshiped my mother. He mourned her loss terribly. It so happened, as well, that her death came as the nest was about to empty. Long before my mother’s final illness, Margaret Claire and Sonny each had been planning their weddings. Both were married and gone within two months of my mother’s death. Hilary left for the University of Pennsylvania to begin his residency in surgery. The following year, Agnes Cecile, married as well.
My father never had many friends. He didn’t go out with the boys, and he drank hardly at all. For many years, he had lived a life of heroic, if quiet, sacrifice as he devoted himself to his wife and children. Our at-home family of seven had quickly dwindled to two.
Within a year after my mother’s death, my father and I fell into a grim Sunday regimen. We would go to Mass at ten o’clock, then drive to the cemetery, where my father would weep so uncontrollably that I would have to drive us home.
I was very lonely, but also very religious. We had Mass every day at U of D High, and that was important to me. I thought long and hard about becoming a priest.
Every day, when school let out at 2:35, I would stop by the chapel once more. I’d sit there and talk to my mother and pray, then hitchhike or take the bus home to an empty house, which was difficult.
I was fortunate to have my sisters and brothers and good friends to lean on. They made up much of what was lacking at home. Margaret Claire became like a second mom; as the eldest she had always nurtured me. When she married two months after my mother died, she and her husband, Russ Hastings, rented a small apartment only two or three miles from where we lived. She was extremely good to me, providing a desperately needed last dose of mothering.
I would often ride over to their apartment on my bike. Margaret Claire taught me manners, particularly how to behave around young women—a subject of increasing interest. She also taught me how to dance. She would put “Peg of My Heart” and the other romantic ballads of the mid-fifties on her old phonograph and show me how to glide with my partner around the dance floor. She’d let me cadge a cigarette from her pack now and again, but “only one,” she’d say, keeping to a motherly moderation.
Margaret Claire had worked as an executive secretary before marriage and would later raise seven children of her own. Russ was a CPA and became comptroller of Dodge Truck. They were the first among my family members to enter a whole new socioeconomic class.
Within eighteen months of my mother’s death, I underwent a transformation that was partly physical, certainly emotional, and had unexpected spiritual extensions. I began to realize that my brothers and sisters were off making their own lives. I felt that I was completely on my own and that I would rise or fall on my own strength. My father’s admonition that I take my success into my own hands became an implacable necessity. At the deepest level, I decided that I was going to live my life and not be a victim. I wasn’t going to feel sorry for myself. I was going to carve out my own life, whatever it took. I began hardening myself and maturing swiftly.
Between my junior and senior years of high school, I determined not to be fat anymore. I fasted, eating sparingly, all summer while working as a house painter in the sticky Detroit heat. My last growth spurt hit at the same time, taking me over the six-foot mark. I lost thirty pounds and grew about four inches. When I came back to school for my senior year, people hardly recognized me. The following summer, when I was working as a scaffold painter with a crew of older men, they took to calling me “Six O’clock,” because I was as thin and straight as clock hands at six o’clock.
Losing so much weight renewed my confidence and helped me reconnect with the tremendous stamina and energy I’d known as a child. I felt powerful and ready to meet life’s demands—on my own terms.