Illustrated by Ralph Butler
A heavy hand clamped down on Ron Halvorsen’s shoulder from behind. He heard someone growl, “There you are. I’ve been lookin’ for you.”
In spite of the brisk breeze blowing in from the ocean, Ron began to sweat. He knew that voice. It belonged to the leader of one of the local teenage gangs.
Every night gangs of bullies roamed the streets of Coney Island, staging break-ins, hassling store owners, mugging pedestrians, and fighting pitched battles with rival gangs. During the day they amused themselves by patrolling the streets looking for younger, smaller kids to hassle, rob, or beat up.
Ron, who was small for his age, became a favorite target of the bullies. They’d block his pathway, taunting and slapping him if he tried to push his way through. Running only made things worse, because the bullies loved to chase him down like a hunted animal.
Every day Ron planned his route to Public School 100. Using back alleys and side streets, he tried to work his way around the spots where he knew, from painful experience, his tormentors hung out.
Unfortunately, no matter how carefully he planned, Ron knew his enemies would eventually catch him. On those days Ron came home bloodied and bruised, but even more determined to find a way to outsmart the bullies.
Today was one of those days.
• • •
That evening Ron lay in bed, tossing and turning. Cockroaches scurried across the floor of his room. The drunk next door was screaming at his wife. On the street a trash can crashed when a hungry dog knocked it over to get at the rotting food inside. In the distance a police siren mixed with the raucous music from the midway at Coney Island Amusement Park.
Ron heard none of it. The day’s events kept playing over and over in his mind. His face still stung from where he’d been slapped, and he had skipped supper because his stomach hurt.
Something had to change, but what could he do? If only he were older. He’d have his own gang, and then the others wouldn’t dare bother him. A gang was like family—they protected their own.
I have to come up with a better plan, Ron thought. Then it came to him. Tank! That was the answer.
The boy who lived next door was nicknamed Tank—and with good reason. Tank was huge! His shirt stretched tightly over layer upon layer of muscle. Children scattered when they saw him coming down the street. Nobody messed with Tank or his friends. Ron made his decision. It was time to make friends with Tank.
• • •
The next morning Ron tentatively approached Tank as the bigger boy sat staring out his apartment window before school. “H-hey, Tank. Y-ya goin’ to school today?”
“Guess so. Why?”
“Mind if I walk with ya?”
“Sure. Why not?”
As they approached the school, Ron stood straight and tall, sauntering down the street next to his big new friend. The bullies made an appearance, but scattered as soon as they saw whom Ron was with.
“Thanks for letting me walk with you,” Ron said, grinning up at Tank.
“No sweat. See ya after school.”
“Sure thing!” Ron grinned.
Ron couldn’t stop smiling as he headed to class. No more dark alleys or side streets for me, he thought to himself. No more bloody noses or ripped clothes. Life is good!
From then on Ron and Tank were inseparable. They played football together, swam together, and even got in trouble together. And bullies thought twice before taunting Ron, because they knew if they did they’d have to answer to Tank.
Ron knew that with Tank by his side he would always be safe. What he didn’t know was that another Friend was watching over him too, and that when he finally met Him it would change his life forever. Until then Ron lived to survive—no matter what it took.
It had snowed the night before, and for a little while a blanket of fluffy white flakes, sparkling under the street lamps, covered the dirt and grime of the city. The air was crisp and clear and full of hope.
But such moments were rare in the city, and they were soon swept away by the underlying ugliness that permeated life in the slums. Soon the pure white snow turned a dirty gray as countless cars rushed past and factories poured pollutants into the air from slender smokestacks. Thousands of hurrying feet transformed the covering mantle into a filthy slush that soaked through shoes in seconds and seemed to send a chill right to a person’s bones.
It was Christmas, but there was little evidence of the season in the inner city. No bright strands of lights decorated the homes. No cheery wreaths hung on the doors.
The few Christmas trees in evidence were scrawny and dry with only a few homemade paper chains and crumpled-up balls of aluminum foil hanging from their spindly branches. Even the people seemed bent and worn as they sloshed home with heads down, wearily placing one foot in front of the other.
In the Halvorsen home the family huddled around the old barracks stove in the kitchen. The pitiful heat emanating from the stove served only to take the chill out of the air, so Ron and the others wore extra clothing to keep warm.
Suddenly a blast of cold air ripped through the room as Father stumbled through the door. Ron and the other children ran to greet him, shouting questions about his day. Had he found work? Did he bring anything for them?
Laughter filled the room, and for a few moments joy and love seemed to chase away the cold. Then Mother caught a glimpse of Father’s sad eyes.
“No luck, dear?” she asked.
“No, there’s no work anywhere, it seems.” Wearily Father sank onto the threadbare sofa and pulled his youngest child onto his lap.
He gazed at each child in turn, then looked despairingly at Mother. “I’m afraid there’ll be no Christmas for us this year. There’s just no money to spare for gifts.”
A tear trickled down his face as he saw the look of shock and despair in his children’s eyes. Mother excused herself and hurried into the other room, dabbing at her eyes as she left.
No Christmas! Six-year-old Ron struggled to grasp the idea.
Christmas in the Halvorsen household had never been filled with brightly wrapped gifts or mountains of food, but it was still the most anticipated day of the year. It was the one bright spot in a dreary world. And now even that was gone.
The next two days seemed to drag by. During recess at school Ron’s friends chattered excitedly about what they hoped to get for Christmas. He tried to be happy for them, but he couldn’t help feeling a pang of jealousy. Again and again his father’s sad voice echoed in his mind: ”No Christmas.”
A couple of nights later Father came home with a mysterious grin on his face. Without even a hello he strode across the room and started removing the rags stuck in the cracks around the door of a spare room that had been closed off to conserve heat. Then he slipped into the room and closed the door.
A few minutes later Father reappeared with a hammer and a piece of cardboard. Quickly he nailed the cardboard to the door and went back inside.
Ron and his brothers rushed to read the words scrawled on the cardboard sign: “Santa’s Workshop.” Gasps of surprise were quickly followed by shouts of excitement as they realized what the words meant.
Ron just stood to the side staring at the sign, his eyes bulging and his heart pounding. Christmas! he thought excitedly. We’re going to have Christmas!
Every night after that Father came home with a grin on his face and disappeared into the “workshop.” The boys would gather outside the door, listening to the sounds of hammering and sawing coming from within. They speculated among themselves over what treasures were being created behind the closed door.
When Father was out looking for work, the temptation to peek was almost overpowering. But nobody did for fear of ruining the surprise.
Impatiently Ron and his brothers watched the days slowly drag by till December 25. Never before had time seemed to pass so slowly. Their whole world seemed to revolve around that spare room and the mysteries hidden within.
Finally it was Christmas Eve. For once, the boys headed to bed without complaint. Tomorrow was the big day!
Sleep was slow to come for the three boys packed into one cold bed in the unheated bedroom. An accidental elbow in someone’s ribs soon escalated into a full-scale brawl, but peace was restored instantly when Father shouted, “Hey, if you don’t get to sleep right away, there won’t be any Christmas!”
Three heads hit the pillows simultaneously. And before long the three exhausted brothers were happily dreaming of mysterious workshops and brightly wrapped gifts.
A loud banging startled the boys awake Christmas morning. Together they jumped out of bed and raced across the cold bedroom floor to the kitchen.
They found Father shaking the metal chimney of the potbellied stove. In response to their puzzled looks he explained that Santa had gotten stuck in the chimney. The boys roared with laughter at the thought of a chubby man in a red suit trying to slide down the narrow stovepipe.
Mother then ushered her excited clan into the front room. There a bent, scrawny Christmas tree, rescued from the corner grocer’s trash bin, stood guard over five presents crudely wrapped with newspaper and string. Ron was sure he’d never seen such a beautiful sight.
Within seconds the floor was littered with ripped paper as each child rushed to unwrap his present. Cries of delight filled the air as each new treasure was unveiled. Billy proudly displayed a homemade bow-and-arrow set. He rushed outside to shoot the crooked arrows at a paper carton propped against the fence.
Ron’s present was the biggest. He eagerly tore through the newspaper wrapping to discover a little red wagon made from an orange crate and fitted with discarded baby-buggy wheels of different sizes.
Compared to the brightly colored wagons with fancy fittings lining store shelves, it was a poor excuse for a wagon. However, to Ron it was the most beautiful machine in the world because his father had made it just for him.
The neighborhood children laughed at him when he first pulled it down the street, but a few well-timed blows quickly silenced his tormentors, and he proudly pulled his new wagon around the neighborhood the rest of the day.
In the years to come Ron would experience many Christmases filled with magnificent trees and wonderful presents, but to him that Christmas when he was 6 would always be the most special. He learned that day that it’s not the beauty of the tree or the cost of the gift but the love of the giver that makes all the difference.
“Hit him, Halvorsen. Hit him again!”
“Knock his lights out!”
“Halvorsen, you punch like a girl!”
The two teenagers in the center ring at the Ocean Avenue Boxing Club seemed to feed off the crowd’s noise, and their punches fell with even greater fury than before. It had been a hard fought match between Ron Halvorsen’s team from Coney Island and the team from the Bedford-Stuyvesant region of Brooklyn.
Emotions were running high between the opposing groups of fans. And if it hadn’t been for the police officers roaming the aisles, the fighting would have probably spread into the bleachers.
Ron’s team was behind three bouts to one, and he knew they were counting on him to turn things around. Patiently he waited for his chance, expertly fending off his opponent’s punches while keeping him at bay with a few of his own. Sweat poured off both their faces as they warily circled each other, jabbing and probing, waiting for an opening.
Suddenly Ron saw his chance! The other boxer wearily wiped the sweat from his face with his left arm, then lowered the arm just a fraction too far, leaving his chin exposed. Ron’s powerful right fist came crashing in, catching his opponent squarely on the jaw, sending him sprawling against the ropes.
Like a cat Ron was on him, raining heavy blows to his body and head. The only thing that kept him from scoring a knockout was the loud ringing of the bell ending the fight.
Ron raised his arms in triumph as he strutted around the ring. Loud cheers erupted from the Coney Island side of the arena, clashing with the boos and catcalls from the Bedford-Stuyvesant fans.
Meanwhile, the judges had finished their deliberations. A momentary hush fell over the crowd as the ring announcer’s deep voice rolled over the crowd. “Ladies and gentlemen! By unanimous decision, the winner is Ron-n-n-n Halvorsen!”
The referee lifted Ron’s left arm high in the air. Soon the ring was filled with his teammates, pounding him on the back and congratulating him. Ron’s face split into a huge grin as he basked in their praise. It felt so good to belong!
When the match finally continued, Ron’s friend Billy also won his fight, tying up the match three to three. Unfortunately, in the final bout the Coney Island fighter lost in a closely fought contest. Still, Ron and his team felt good about their efforts.
• • •
Later that evening, after some refreshments, Ron and Billy headed home. They hadn’t gotten very far, however, before they noticed a gang of teenagers under a lamppost up ahead. They could tell the group was from Bedford-Stuyvesant, and it looked like they had someone trapped in the middle of their circle.
Getting closer, Ron and Billy realized it was their teammate Nick. Without a moment’s hesitation they ran to his aid, only to find themselves also surrounded.
Suddenly a chill ran down Ron’s spine as he heard the metallic click of a switchblade snapping into place. He froze as he felt the point digging into his back. Looking around, he saw that Nick had a blade to his throat and another was pressed against Billy’s stomach.
“Hey, we got the three we really want. You guys thought you were tough tonight, didn’t ya? We gonna see how tough you really are. We gonna cut you up real bad.”
Ron felt himself being herded down the street toward an alley. Every time he tried to resist, he felt sharp steel against his back, prodding him forward.
His mind raced, frantically looking for a way to escape. Sweat poured from his forehead. His knees began to shake, and when he looked across at Billy he saw his own fear reflected in Billy’s eyes. He knew if the gang got them to the alley they were goners.
When the slow-moving group was about halfway to the alley, a police car turned the corner and slowly approached them. Instantly the gang scattered, leaving Ron and his friends standing there alone in the middle of the street. The car pulled over, and two serious-looking police officers climbed out.
“What’s going on here?” one of the officers demanded.
Suddenly all three boys were talking at once, pouring out the story of their close call.
Finally the police officer held up his arms and said, “OK, I get the picture. But since you guys are all right, I guess we’d better get rolling.”
“No, no!” the three boys shouted.
“Officer,” Nick pleaded, “you’d better take us home in the squad car, or the next shift will be picking up our bodies from some alley on your beat.”
The police officer hesitated just a second before nodding in agreement. Eagerly the boys clambered into the back seat.
By the time they were dropped off near their homes, they were beginning to calm down. Still, Ron hoped his mother wouldn’t notice his knees shaking as he made his way up the stairs to his room.
• • •
The next day, while Ron was walking toward the beach, he saw Nick frantically pedaling toward him, casting anxious glances over his shoulder every few seconds. There was something about the way he was moving that didn’t seem right. Something was wrong with his leg. As Nick got closer, Ron realized what it was. There was a knife sticking out of his leg!
“Hey, man,” he yelled, “you gotta knife stickin’ in your leg!”
“I know,” Nick panted, as he skidded to a stop. “They got me.
I got too close to their territory, and they jumped me. When one of them pulled a knife, I kicked at it, but it stuck in my leg. They were so shocked, they froze. I hopped on my bike and got out of there as fast as I could! But man, this thing hurts!”
When both boys had calmed down enough to think, Nick pulled the knife out, and Ron took him to the hospital, where the doctor sewed him up and gave him an injection.
That night Ron’s dreams were filled with images of bloody knives and mysterious police cars. He woke up in a cold sweat, feeling as if he’d been running all night.
As he lay on his bed in his family’s tiny apartment, listening to the sounds of the city waking up, he thought about his dreams and the past two days’ events. What a roller-coaster ride! He’d been so “up” after the fight, but then there had been the street incident. He’d never been so scared in his entire life. Then Nick had gone and got himself knifed.
Shaking his head, Ron thought, I should be dead right now. If those cops hadn’t shown up when they did, we would have been finished. Instead here I am safe in my own bed. I’m so lucky!
But as he lay there staring at the ceiling, Ron couldn’t help wondering, Is it really luck, or is it something more? And if it’s something more, what—or who—is it? And will I live long enough to find out?
With these questions still pounding in his head, Ron swung himself out of bed, ready to face another day in the “concrete jungle.”
Light glinted off steel as Ron examined his switchblade in the glow from the street lamp overhead. Satisfied that the edges were deadly sharp, he folded it back into the handle and slipped it into his pocket. Getting up, he hurried toward the meeting place where his gang was waiting. Tonight’s rumble would be especially important in the battle for supremacy among the gangs of Coney Island, and he didn’t want to be late.
It had been a miserably hot summer, and the gang wars had been more heated than usual. Driven out of their ovenlike tenements by the stifling heat, gangs of teenagers roamed the streets looking for excitement.
More than 200 gangs patrolled the streets of New York City, and Coney Island attracted its fair share during the summer months. The nights were often filled with the sounds of battle as the gangs fought to stake claim to their “turf” along the beaches.
Ron’s gang, the Beachcombers, 75 to 100 strong, claimed Bay 11, near the wooden Cyclone roller-coaster. The Swords had Bay 17, near the Steeplechase Pier, and the Avenue X gang patrolled Bay 13.
With some of the gangs numbering 200 or more, the Beachcombers were one of the smaller groups, but they defended their territory with ferocity and cunning that made up for what they lacked in numbers.
The planning for tonight’s skirmish had been under way for several days. Tensions had been building between the Beachcombers and another gang all summer, until the leaders decided that a rumble was necessary to settle things once and for all.
The counselor of war from the Beachcombers had met with the counselor from the rival gang to hash out the details. They had argued deep into the night, each vying for some small advantage over the other, before finally agreeing to the time and place for the rumble.
Tensions had continued to build in the ensuing days, and daily fights broke out along the beaches and in back alleys as the gangs tested each other for hidden weaknesses. The “light-up” man checked their weapon arsenal while the leaders discussed strategy. Now the day had finally arrived. All would be decided tonight.
• • •
As Ron entered the gang’s headquarters, he remembered his excitement when he’d been asked to join the Beachcombers. To really be someone in the inner city, you had to be part of a gang.
The younger kids amused themselves by hanging around the corner stores, joking with each other and hassling the customers. At other times they stole bread from the local bakery. As they got older they graduated to stealing cars. But all this was small potatoes compared to belonging to a fighting gang. As part of a gang Ron could walk down the street with pride. He was a “somebody.”
Joining hadn’t been easy. At his initiation he’d been held underwater until he thought he would drown. Then he’d been rolled in the sand before being tied to a piling and beaten with a garrison belt. Every stroke of the belt had sent searing pain throughout his body, but afterward he knew it had been worth it as the other gang members gathered around to congratulate him. It felt great to “belong.”
When everyone had arrived, the “light-up” man, who was in charge of the gang’s arsenal, distributed the brass knuckles, chains, bats, lead pipes, stilettos, and zip guns to the female gang members, or “molls,” who would carry the weapons under their clothes to the battlefield. Some of the gang members argued over the zip guns. Ron stayed out of it. He preferred to stick with his trusty switchblade. The homemade pistols were almost as likely to blow up in the hand of the shooter as they were to hit the person they were aimed at.
When everything was ready the gang split up into smaller groups to avoid attracting the police, and headed toward the vacant lot that had been chosen for the rumble. They joked and shoved each other to hide the tension they felt building up inside. Each knew they might be seriously hurt tonight, even killed, but their loyalty to the gang drove them on. They had to defend their turf!
Finally the two armies faced each other across the vacant lot. At first they seemed content to just scream insults back and forth, but then, seemingly without a signal being given, they advanced at a run across the trash-strewn battleground.
The air was suddenly filled with screams of anger and cries of pain as the two gangs of enraged youth collided in hand-to-hand combat. Chains clanged off trash can lid shields. Baseball bats crashed against skulls with a sickening thud. Switchblades tore into flesh, and the smoke from the zip guns made it hard to breathe. From a nearby building, bricks rained down on the combatants.
Trapped in the center of the madness, Ron fought for his life. He slashed to the right and to the left, seeking a way out. The bitter taste of fear filling his mouth only made him fight harder.
A heavy bat crashed onto Ron’s trash can lid shield, jarring him momentarily. A brick glanced off his shoulder. All around him other youth fought desperately to survive. Only a few minutes had passed since the battle had begun, but to Ron it seemed like an eternity.
Then suddenly it was over. The wail of approaching police sirens penetrated the crazed minds of the fighters, and those who could still walk scattered down nearby alleys. Within moments the lot was empty, except for blowing trash and a few boys who were too badly hurt to move. One boy lay unconscious.
Ron hid in a dark alley behind some trash cans till the police sirens faded into the distance. Leaning against a tenement wall, he examined his bruises and cuts. There weren’t any serious wounds, but still, it had been close. I got lucky again, he thought. If that bat had connected, it would have crushed my skull.
Limping homeward, Ron shivered as he remembered the fear he’d felt a short time before on the battlefield. This is nuts, he thought. What am I doing? I’m going to get killed one of these days, and for what? For the gang? Crazy!
Looking up at the soot-filled sky, he glimpsed a star through the haze. At that moment he felt totally alone, a speck of dust in the universe. Anger mixing with despair, he shook his fist at the sky and shouted, “Where are You, God? Why did You let me be born in a place like this? If You’re so great, how come You don’t care about me?”
But there was no answer, just the distant wail of a siren and the bark of a dog. At that moment a cloud blocked the star from view, and the night seemed even darker than before.
Ron took out his switchblade and pressed the button. The blade sprang into place with a satisfying snap. Staring at the cold steel Ron thought, This is my way out. Who needs God?
Listen, buddy! Religion is strictly for old people. When your hair is gray and you’ve got one foot in the casket and the other on a banana peel, then is the time for church. I’m still young. I’ve got some more livin’ to do.” Ron gave one last disgusted look at his friend Jim Londis and headed off down the sidewalk.
Man! The nerve of that guy! Coming up to me out of the blue and spouting off about prophecies and all that religious junk. Where’s he get off acting all holier-than-thou, anyway? Ron shook his head in disbelief.
Jim had been his friend for a long time. His life had been even rougher than Ron’s, because he came from a single-parent household, and his mother spent every moment just trying to earn enough for them to survive. This had left Jim pretty much on his own, and he’d been as quick to get into trouble as anyone. He’d never passed up a chance to play hooky from school or to hang out on the street corner, hassling the store owners or snitching some candy. Now, all of a sudden, he’d gotten religion. Weird!
Still, Ron had to admit that Jim did look happy. There was a calm aura about him that Ron had never noticed before. Jim
usually had as quick a temper as Ron, but this time, when Ron teased him about “getting religion,” he hadn’t even reacted. He’d just smiled and again asked Ron to give his heart to Christ. He’d said that he’d been invited to a Bible study and had “found the Lord,” whatever that meant. He was all excited about some prophecies in the Bible he said predicted that the world was going to end soon.
Well, he can have it, Ron decided. I ain’t no religious nut. The world might be going to end, but I’m going to have fun while it lasts. But as hard as he tried, he couldn’t stop thinking about the things Jim had told him about God. It all seemed so strange, but at the same time interesting. He couldn’t help wondering if Jim might have stumbled onto something worth looking into. A few days later, when Jim asked him to come to a Bible study, Ron surprised even himself by accepting.
The study wasn’t as bad as Ron had expected. The leader was a young pastor and very enthusiastic. Ron did his best to look bored and ignore the speaker, but he couldn’t help absorbing small portions of what was presented. Still, he was glad when it was over and quickly excused himself. The whole experience had made him strangely uneasy. When Jim asked him to come again the next day Ron was ready with a definite “No!”
After that Ron made a point of avoiding Jim. That got a lot easier when Jim transferred to a religious school called Greater New York Academy. That was fine with Ron. At least he wouldn’t have to deal with being bugged about religion anymore. Besides, there were plenty of fun things to do, such as hanging out with his friends or going fishing.
One beautiful spring day Ron and a couple of friends decided the weather was just too nice to waste being stuck in a stuffy classroom. It had been a hard, cold winter, and they felt they deserved a break.
“Borrowing” a small rowboat, without the owner’s knowledge, they headed out on Gravesend Bay for a day of fishing. The warmth of the sun seemed to drive the last chill of winter from their bones. Casting their lines over the side, they talked and joked while they waited for the fish to bite.
The combination of warm sunlight, the gentle rocking of the boat, and pleasant conversation caused them to lose track of time. It wasn’t till they felt a sudden chill in the air that they noticed the change in the weather.
The sun had slipped behind a wall of dark clouds, and a cold breeze was blowing across the bay. Small whitecaps were beginning to form on the surface, and it was getting harder to control the boat. To make matters worse, the tide was going out.
At first the guys weren’t too concerned. They weren’t that far from shore, and with two of them pulling at the oars they figured they should reach the shoreline in no time. But suddenly the wind started to gust, whipping salt spray into their eyes. Cold, driving rain poured down on them, soaking through their thin T-shirts within seconds. Soon their teeth were chattering and their hands were so cold they could barely grip the oars. At the same time they could feel the tide, like a giant underwater hand, dragging them toward the ocean.
Now waves were sloshing over the sides of the low rowboat, threatening to swamp them. The wind had reached gale force, and the rain was coming down almost horizontally. When the rain struck their faces, it felt like thousands of needles driving into their skin. The salt spray stung their eyes and made it hard to breathe. Desperately they pulled at the oars, but it was no use. It was only a matter of time before the bitter cold waters sank their boat and claimed their lives.
Suddenly Ron found himself kneeling in the water-filled bottom of the boat. He wasn’t sure how he got there or what made him do it. All he knew was that he needed to pray.
The only prayer he could remember was the one his mother had taught him as a child, “Now I lay me down to sleep.” It didn’t seem adequate for his present situation.
As the rain beat against his face, Ron shouted into the wind, “God, I don’t know who You are. But just get me back to shore safely and I’ll be good.”
It wasn’t the most eloquent prayer ever prayed, but Ron had never been so sincere in all his life. He’d barely opened his eyes when the clouds parted and a beam of sunlight played across the faces of the three frightened youth. Suddenly Ron knew that God did care and that He had a plan for his life. Moments later a powerful motorboat pulled up next to them and offered to tow them in to shore.
But soon after they’d made it safely to shore, Ron forgot about his rowboat prayer. His friends never reminded him either, likely for fear of getting punched in the nose. But even though Ron returned to his old ways, a tiny spark of faith had been struck in that rowboat when he prayed. God would do whatever it took to fan it into a flame. Ron thought he was through with religion and God, but God wasn’t through with him. In fact, He’d only begun.
The principal’s hawklike eyes darted back and forth between Ron and his mother, finally settling on Mrs. Halvorsen. Glaring down his thin pointed nose, he cleared his throat and said, “Mrs. Halvorsen, your boy is no good. He will never amount to anything. He’s a bum.”
Hot anger flowed like fire through Ron’s chest, and his fingers curled into fists. How dare the man talk that way about him! But then he caught a glimpse of his mother out of the corner of his eye. Tears flowed unrestrained down her cheeks, and her dismayed expression reminded him of all the pain he’d caused her over the years.
This incident was only the latest in a long series of clashes with authority. Hardly a week went by when his mother wasn’t dragged into school for another meeting with the principal or a teacher about Ron’s fighting or playing hooky. He spent so much time in the principal’s office that he was beginning to think he should just get a cot and sleep there.
It wasn’t that Ron intended to be bad. School just didn’t appeal to him, especially on a beautiful sunny day when he could be making better use of his time fishing or playing ball. Besides, the environment at William E. Grady Vocational High School was not all that conducive to learning anyhow. There were always fights going on somewhere, and police patrolled the halls to break up the worst incidents. Sometimes the marijuana smoke was so heavy in the bathrooms that a person could almost get high just walking past the door.
The teachers referred to the school as “the blackboard jungle.” Only the most courageous men worked there. One time the students hung a teacher out a fifth-story window for assigning too much homework. A woman employee was attacked three times in the first three weeks on the job. Sometimes a teacher would have to barricade himself in the tool shed, where there was a telephone he could use to call for help.
Of course, Ron wasn’t in school all that much anyway. He found going to the movies or hanging out at the boardwalk much more rewarding than sitting in a stuffy classroom. He played hooky so often the truant officer soon knew his favorite haunts and would often catch him and drag him back to school.
• • •
One morning Ron saw his friend Richard McCarty shuffling down the other side of the street. He looked as excited about going to school that day as Ron felt. Why waste such a beautiful day in school? Ron yelled across the street to his friend, “Hey, Rich, come here a second!”
Rich darted between fast-moving cars to Ron’s side of the street. “What’s up?” he asked as he stepped onto the safety of the sidewalk.
“I don’t feel like no education today. Let’s play hooky.”
“Man, you know I can’t play no hooky,” Rich exploded. “You know I been in reform school. If I play hooky and they catch me, they’ll send me back and throw away the key.”
“Come on. It’s too hot to be in class today. We’ll play it careful.”
“Whaddaya mean ‘careful’? We either go to the boardwalk or the movies. The truant officer sure knows enough to look both of those places. He’d have us before noon.”
Ron thought about this for a moment. He knew Rich had a point. Then suddenly he thought of something. “Man, I know a place where they’d never catch up with us. Let’s go to that school called Greater New York Academy and see ol’ Jim. They’d never think to look for us in a Christian school.”
Rich thought about it for a moment and finally agreed. Anything was better than spending the day at the vocational high school.
Sneaking onto the subway without paying, Ron and Rich made their way into the city. It took a couple of hours to find the academy, but finally they located it. Dressed in black leather jackets, with cigarettes dangling from their lips, they sauntered in as if they owned the place. Their tough appearance caused anyone they met in the quiet halls to stop and stare, then hurry away.
“This can’t be no school, Rich,” Ron asserted. “It’s too quiet. Must be a morgue.”
“Yeah, you’re right. It’s kinda spooky.”
Spotting a pleasant-appearing woman coming down the hall, Ron called out, “Hey, lady. We’re looking for Jim Londis. He go to school here?”
Though obviously frightened, the woman smiled and said, “Why, yes; he’s up in chapel right now.”
“Chapel? What’s that?”
“It’s like assembly in public school. Would you like to go up?”
“Yeah, sure. Why not?”
Following the woman’s directions, the two gang members found the hall and slipped in the back. They saw Jim halfway up, and he hurried back as soon as he saw them, a huge smile splitting his face.
It turned out this was Greater New York Academy’s Week of Prayer. Pastor Charles Keymer was leading out. Ron slouched in his seat and tried to tune the preacher out, but parts of the message filtered through his defenses. For the first time he heard about a God who loved him personally and had a plan for his life. For most of his life Ron had heard the name of Jesus used only as a swearword. Now he heard about how this man Jesus had died for him. The thought shook him up.
That night Ron tossed and turned, the preacher’s words playing over and over in his mind. The next day he and Rich played hooky again so they could go to the meetings at the academy. All that week Ron sat spellbound in the back of the chapel as Pastor Keymer told how the gentle touch of Jesus’ hand had raised the dead, healed the crippled, and restored sight to the blind.
Ron didn’t know what to think. How could God be so powerful and yet be so loving and kind? Nothing in his previous experiences had prepared him for this. Could there really be something to this religion stuff? he wondered.
At the end of the week Pastor Keymer ended the meetings by asking, “Is there one young man here willing to give his heart to Jesus Christ?”
Ron sat there thinking about all he’d heard that week about God’s love. Could it be true? Had God been working in his life all along, preparing him for this moment?
Ron remembered some of the close scrapes he’d had during his life, such as the night he’d almost been knifed, only to have the police show up at the last moment to save him, or the day he had almost drowned on the bay but was rescued after he prayed.
Just last week he had almost been caught by the police for stealing, but had somehow escaped. Instead of being in jail, he sat in this quiet room surrounded by Christian young people. It was almost too hard to believe, but somehow he knew in his heart it was all true.
At that moment Ron felt his life hanging in the balance. The speaker’s words had struck home, clearly describing the two roads set before him. The struggle in his mind was intense, but suddenly Ron knew what he must do. On trembling legs he stood and stepped into the aisle, taking his first small steps on the road to eternal life.
I still can’t believe I’m here, Ron thought as he walked through the well-maintained corridors of Greater New York Academy. Just a few months ago I was ready to drop out of school and run with the gang. I’d probably be in jail right now if I had made that choice. Instead, here I am, going to a Christian school and loving every minute of it. Amazing!
A shout in the quiet hall startled Ron from his musings. Turning around, he saw his friend Jim Londis hurrying toward him. As he waited to see what Jim wanted, Ron thought about the past few months. Soon after his conversion, he had decided to transfer to the academy for the rest of the school year. The transition had not been easy, as old ways died hard. Too often his temper had still gotten the best of him and he had tried to settle disagreements with his fists. But slowly, with patient guidance from his teachers, things had begun to improve.
His biggest struggle had been with his classwork. For the first time in his life Ron actually cared about his grades, but he had learned so little in public school that every class was a challenge. English was especially difficult, because the language he spoke on the streets of Brooklyn held very little resemblance to what was being taught at the academy!
The one class Ron did enjoy was Bible. Like a thirsty man at a desert oasis, he had eagerly drunk of the Water of Life. God’s Word had become his constant companion, and he spent every moment he could studying its pages.
Out of breath, Jim finally caught up to him. “Man, I ran all the way from the gym! I’ve been looking all over for you.”
“Why? What’s up?”
“Pastor Vine wants to talk to us. Says he’s got an idea about the Bible studies.”
Soon after Ron’s baptism into the Seventh-day Adventist Church in December, Ron and Jim had started giving Bible studies. They were so excited about what Jesus had done for them, they couldn’t keep it to themselves.
Now they had so many studies going that they were finding it hard to fit in time for their schoolwork. They had mentioned it to their Bible teacher, Pastor Kenneth Vine, and he’d told them he would think about their situation.
Together the two friends hurried down the hall toward the teacher’s office, talking as they walked. “So how’s work going?” Jim asked.
“Not bad. Pastor Fagal told me the other day he might want me to play the part of a gang member in one of the show’s skits. Wouldn’t that be something? Me, an actor! The gang would never believe it!”
To pay for his tuition at the academy, Ron had taken a job doing janitorial work at the Faith for Today TV studios after school. This made for a very long day, because he had to take a two-hour subway ride from Coney Island to the academy in Queens each morning. Then after attending classes till 3:30 in the afternoon, he worked at the studio for two hours before catching the subway home again. He had to do most of his studying on the noisy, bumpy subway, because it was too late to study by the time he got home.
In spite of the long hours, Ron had received a blessing from his work at Faith for Today. It was there he first felt God calling him to preach.
He got to know the speaker, Pastor William Fagal, and sometimes would imagine himself in front of the television cameras, sharing God’s Word with the viewers.
Arriving outside Pastor Vine’s office, the boys knocked on the door. “Come in,” came the cheery reply from within. When they entered the office Pastor Vine greeted them warmly and asked them to take a seat.
“I’ve been thinking about your dilemma, boys, and I’ve got an idea.” The Bible teacher’s enthusiasm was infectious, and Ron and Jim leaned forward eagerly in their chairs as he spoke.
“Why don’t you bring all your Bible study interests together at one time by holding an evangelistic series?”
The boys drew back as if they’d been shot. Them preach? No way! This must be a joke.
“That’s a funny one, Pastor!” Ron laughed.
“No, really. I think you could do it. At least think about it. I’m sure the church headquarters would lend you some chairs, and you could use the Twentieth Century filmstrips for the studies.”
The two boys left the teacher’s office shaking their heads. The poor man must have gone crazy, they thought. But as they talked about it at lunch, they began to warm to the idea. Finally they decided to give it a try. After all, what was there to lose, except a little pride?
• • •
Over the next few days the boys scoured the neighborhood looking for a decent location. Finally they found a little place on the corner of Robbin Street and Neptune Avenue. Dirt and empty beer cans covered the floor. The air reeked of alcohol and sweat. A sign outside read “Men’s Sportsman Club,” but most days the only “sports” that went on there were drinking, gambling, and fighting.
Surveying the filthy room, Ron and Jim realized it was going to take a lot of elbow grease to transform the place into an evangelistic center for one night a week, but they were too excited to be discouraged.
Jim’s grandparents agreed to pay for the rent one night a week, and soon the evangelistic series was in full swing. After school they’d rush over to the club and clean up the trash left from the previous week’s customers. They took turns leading out, and in spite of Ron’s poor command of proper English, the people seemed to enjoy what he had to say. Other students from the academy helped by handing out the programs or leading the song services.
In spite of the surroundings, the meetings were well attended, and even some of their old friends from the streets showed up a few times. One evening the Faith for Today quartet came and sang. That night the place was packed, and more than 60 non-Adventists heard the night’s message.
One night an unruly crowd of youth from a rival gang showed up and stood outside the building shouting insults at the boys. Finally they left, but not before sticking a pipe through the door handles, locking the people inside. Ron ended up having to climb through the window over the door to remove the pipe so they could get out.
In spite of little setbacks and the boys’ inexperience, the meetings went well, and one person was eventually baptized. But more important than the number of baptisms was the growing realization in Ron’s mind that he’d found his place in life. He was going to be a preacher.
Ron, we need you in New York City.” The voice of the church official was cheerful yet serious.
Ron felt like he’d been hit by a brick. He sat stunned for a moment, the receiver still held to his ear.
“Ron, did you hear me?”
Startled, Ron hurried to reply. “New York City? Are you sure you’ve got the right man? I mean, you know my background and all. Are you sure it’s me you want?”
“It’s precisely because of your background that we want you. Other evangelists have had limited success, but they don’t understand the streets the way you do. They do OK with middle-class listeners, but we need someone who can relate to the men and women struggling to survive in the inner city. That’s where the biggest mission field is.”
“I don’t know,” Ron replied. “I worked so hard to get out of that place. We like it here in the Carolinas. I’m not sure I want to go back to the city.”
“I understand, and I realize you’ll need some time to pray about it and talk to Carroll. We’ll be praying at this end too. Let us know what you decide.”
With a final “God bless” the man hung up, leaving Ron shaking his head at this strange turn of events. He had thought he had finally figured out God’s will for him, and now this.
But that’s the way it’s been ever since I gave my heart to Him at Greater New York Academy all those years ago, Ron thought. God always seems to have a new surprise up His sleeve for me.
The first surprise had been ending up at Atlantic Union College in Massachusetts after graduating from Greater New York Academy. For a city boy, the rolling, tree-covered hills and the peaceful woodland meadows of New England had been quite a shock, but he’d loved every minute of it.
Not that it had been easy. Ron had thrown himself into his studies, but he had still struggled, especially with English. Sometimes the words just didn’t seem to want to come. He was glad that the other classes had been easier, and he’d especially enjoyed history and religion.
God had another surprise awaiting Ron at Atlantic Union College. In his freshman year he had met and married a beautiful woman named Carroll LaMountain, who gave him priceless support during the next five difficult years of college and seminary.
The surprises kept coming. After graduating from the SDA Theological Seminary at Andrews University, Ron finally realized his dream of becoming a minister with his first assignment to the Willimantic district in Connecticut and Massachusetts.
Soon after he arrived there, Ron did an evangelistic series at the local armory. He approached this first evange listic effort since graduating with his typical bravado and optimism, setting out 500 chairs on opening night. Unfortunately, by the end of the meetings only 50 chairs remained occupied.
But Ron wasn’t discouraged. When a church leader called and asked, “Well, Ron, how did the meetings go?” he responded, “Tremendous! We baptized 50 percent of the interests! Two non-Adventists attended, and one of them has now been baptized.”
In spite of this rather unglamorous start, God blessed Ron’s work in the years to come, eventually surprising him with a position as the head evangelist for the Carolina Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. Each day as he drove through the beautiful Carolina countryside Ron thanked God for all the wonderful surprises through the years. He was happy and content. But then came the phone call.
New York City! Could God really want me back there? Ron kept shaking his head in wonder as he went in search of his wife.
When he told Carroll about the call, she didn’t hesitate for a minute. “Ron, you have to take this position. It’s what God’s been preparing you for since you were a child. I’ll start packing.”
So a few weeks later, Ron found himself standing in front of the Ocean Avenue Community Center, where he used to box. A chill ran down his spine as he remembered the night his life had nearly ended when a rival gang caught him and his friends
on the street. Only the timely arrival of a police car had kept Ron from ending up dead in some dark alley with a switchblade sticking out of his ribs.
Looking around, Ron realized that not much had changed. Graffiti still covered the walls, gangs still roamed the streets, and hopelessness still filled the eyes of people passing by.
“How can I reach them? How can I make a difference, Carroll?”
Reaching up, Carroll gently turned his face toward hers. Looking into his eyes, she replied, “You can’t. Only God can. But He’ll use you—one person at a time.”
In the weeks and months to come, Carroll’s words proved true again and again. In his first three years heading up Metro Evangelism, his team conducted 21 series of meetings, and almost 700 people were baptized. Ron even got
to preach at Greater New York Academy, where Christ-centered messages had so stirred his soul. Sixteen young people gave their hearts to God in the same room where Ron had accepted Jesus as his Savior.
When not busy speaking, Ron traveled around the city visiting interested people in their homes. This presented its own set of challenges, and Ron often found himself in uncomfortable and even dangerous positions. One night he drove to a person’s apartment, arriving just as five police cars roared up to the entrance of the building. As the police stormed the building, Ron decided he would have to come back another day.
Another time, as he stepped into the filthy lobby of a building, a wave of nausea swept over Ron. In one corner a large rat stared defiantly at him from the top of a rotting garbage heap. The stench of urine filled the air from the countless drunkards that had used the lobby as a convenient rest stop from the cold winter nights. The floor was buried under a thick layer of dirt and grime.
Holding his breath, Ron headed across the lobby and up the rickety stairs. Coming around a corner, he found a man with a switchblade blocking his way. His eyes, staring out of a bloated, dust-covered face, were filled with hatred. Waving the razor-sharp blade under Ron’s nose, he hissed, “Whadda you want?”
Ron’s heart raced in his chest as he sent up a silent prayer for protection. Then he replied, with a calmness he didn’t feel, “I’m a preacher.”
The man jumped back as if he’d been shocked and, mumbling under his breath, stepped aside. Ron breathed a prayer of thanks for God’s protection as he continued to his appointment.
• • •
During Ron’s years with Metro Evangelism, God protected him many more times and used him to touch the lives of thousands. As he travels the country today, Ron tells his audiences that if God can take a switchblade-carrying gang member from Coney Island and turn him into a preacher of the gospel, He can surely make a difference in their lives too. All they have to do is say “Yes” when Jesus calls. Ron is living proof.
Today Ron Halvorsen continues to preach and baptize people around the world. He and his wife, Carroll, are thrilled that their son and daughter are also involved in ministry.
1 thought on “Bad Boy From Coney Island: The Ron Halverson Story”
Ron died near where I live!