From age 6, I was reared to be a gangster. My whole life revolved around the mob. Bookmaking, loansharking, organized gambling—you name it, I was into it. By my early 20s, I was an ex-felon with a long criminal record.
Then a couple of girls that I had grown up with got saved. They invited me to the 1957 New York Billy Graham Crusade. I was there every single night. Really, I was trying to impress the girls. They were twisting my arm to come. I didn’t want to hear what was said. I was a hoodlum–who cared about somebody preaching about Christ?
But one night, Billy Graham really got to me. As a bookmaker, I was a very logical person, because bookmakers deal with odds all day. Mr. Graham preached about Bible prophecies and about the astronomical odds of those prophecies being fulfilled by happenstance. This really struck me and kept my attention. Preachers were always making emotional appeals. But this was an intellectual appeal, and it caught me.
In my mind, the crime family of which I was a part was the most powerful organization in the world. If they decided you were going to die, they just shot you. But on the fourth day of the Crusade, Mr. Graham spoke about the resurrection of Lazarus. When someone died, Jesus could bring him back to life. “Wow!” I thought. “That’s real power. The group I’m with doesn’t have the power. It’s Jesus that has the power.” There was no doubt in my mind that Christ is the Savior, that He is the only way to God.
Still, I was a gambler. My gamble was that I’d get saved later, so I wouldn’t miss out on the mobster life I loved. During the following years, in and out of prison, I knew the truth about the Gospel and always thought, “Someday when I get old, I’ll get saved.”
Later on, I ran a nightclub and a bar. Whenever a Billy Graham Crusade was televised, I watched it on a little TV in the back of my bar. I always wanted to hear what he had to say about Christ. He sowed the seeds for what was about to happen.
In 1976, my wife, Essie, walked into a tent meeting on Coney Island and asked Christ into her heart. At the time I was really doing well, both in legitimate businesses and in gangster businesses. Essie and I ran trips to Las Vegas for high-rolling gamblers. But suddenly, instead of drinking and gambling with me, she was talking to me about Jesus. It really opened my eyes. I purposed that I was going to pursue this further.
I let her take me to church. I would close my after-hours establishment at 6 a.m., pop a couple of breath mints in my mouth and then go to church with Essie at 11 a.m. It was easy. All I had to do was say “amen” at the appropriate moment. In the meantime, I held part-interest in a restaurant–a gangster hangout–across the street from where we lived.
In August 1976, I incurred the wrath of a couple of gangsters. They waylaid me outside the restaurant and left me in a pool of blood. Essie found me and took me to the hospital. My skull was fractured. I had 27 broken bones in my hands. The doctors operated for about six hours.
Afterward, my head and both of my hands were completely wrapped in bandages. I couldn’t do a thing for myself. Essie stood at my bedside, reading the Book of John to me. If I needed something, she’d say, “Just a couple more verses, and I’ll get it for you.” She was spoon-feeding me the Book of John; I had to learn it, or I could not function.
Then, one Sunday morning, I snuck out of the hospital to make a $5,000 bet on a baseball game. After I made the bet, I had no place to go, because I had lost my keys in the attack. So I went to Calvary Baptist Church to catch up with my wife.
Now picture this: I was wrapped in bandages around my head and hands, and the pastor, Donald R. Hubbard, was preaching about Jesus raising Lazarus (who was wrapped in strips of linen for burial) from the dead! The pastor gave an altar call, and I went forward and committed my life to Christ.
God’s hand helped me to walk away from my old lifestyle. The mob knew that I would never turn into an informer, because I had always held such antipathy toward informants. They allowed me to leave organized crime. I became a student of the Word right away. I divested myself of my criminal interests and kept my legitimate businesses while studying for the ministry and teaching Sunday school.
Five years into my Christian walk, I was sentenced to a four-year prison term for a crime committed before I received Christ. But this sentence was different from the others. Two churches commissioned me as a missionary, and I served as an inmate chaplain and continued graduate studies for the ministry. In prison, I was able to lead some of my former associates to Christ.
When I left prison, I worked at my church in an administrative position and then with Prison Fellowship as area director for the New York and New Jersey chapter. I did that for nine years, equipping the Church to minister to inmates, ex-offenders and their families. Because I had a heart for pastoring, I eventually returned to my home church and later accepted an invitation to work at Central Baptist Church, where I teach Bible classes, oversee a Sunday school program and disciple believers.
When I heard that Billy Graham is coming back to New York, it really warmed my heart. My love for Billy Graham’s ministry is based on the fact that that’s where I heard the Gospel. His Gospel message changed everything, and now I’m in my 26th year of ministry. It’s my life.