My mother and father were 100% Jewish. They were divorced when I was just one year old. I have no remembrance of my father. I stayed with my father's parents for three years, after the divorce.
My mother moved me to her home after she remarried. My stepfather was a Drill Sergeant in the army for six years during the Korean War period. He was tough as nails. He was from a small town in North Carolina and had a lot of prejudice against Jews, African-Americans and others who were different from his heritage.
My mother was a rebel and the "black sheep" of the
family. Her parents were fairly well off and retired. I remember holidays
at their house when I was young. There was always tension between the Jewish
relatives and my stepfather. When I was about five years old I had an operation
in the hospital. My aunts and uncles all got together to discuss my situation.
They offered my mother a complete education in Yeshiva boarding school for
me. All expenses would be paid by the extended family of doctors, lawyers,
film makers, and other professionals. My stepfather was incensed and threatened
that he would beat up any Jews that came around our house in the future. The
good days were over, I was five years old.
My stepfather would trip me on purpose, just for fun, as I walked by him. Any conflict between my brother and me would end with a big whipping or a blow from a fist. I was frightened all the time by him and tried to stay away. He got progressively worse year by year. My mother and stepfather would fight, scream, yell and throw things at each other all the time. My beating grew worse. He would buy ice cream for my brothers and deliberately leave me out while I watched from the front yard. Out of the corner of my eye, I thought I could see him smirking.
I always had to do chores of all kinds because my stepfather, when he was home, wanted to keep me working. I remember the time I had to sweep our front yard paved over with concrete. Every grain of sand had to be gone. We lived between the ocean and the bay on Long Island, New York. There was always sand blowing in upon the “yard”.
Those years are blurred as I was always crying myself to sleep over the daily turmoil in our home. My mother became increasingly lethargic and depressed. When I was ten, I was washing the dishes, doing the laundry, and cooking for my brothers. In the summertime I would get up about 6:30 A.M. and sneak out to the beach before my stepfather got up for work. I would collect pop bottles to redeem the deposits, two cents for the small and five cents for the large ones. I would use the money to buy candy and small food items. I lived like that most of the summer, roaming the beach and the boardwalk until about 10 P.M. when my stepfather would safely be asleep. If he caught me in the house, there would be big trouble.
Some days there was no food in the house. I scrounged pop bottles to sell but it wasn't enough to buy the food for all of us. I got the idea to deliver newspapers for money. The manager said I had to be twelve years old and have a bike with a big basket to carry the papers. I looked in all the empty lots, the beach and all the trash areas. I found enough parts to make my own bike. I collected enough bottles to get money for two tubes and one tire. I used my stepfather’s tools without his knowledge and put it together. It was the best bike I ever had because it was unique, “one of a kind”. I was there on the newspaper manager’s doorstep the day after my twelfth birthday and got my route. I delivered the Daily News before school and Newsday after school. Sunday was a big day as the papers were about an inch thick. I found out I had to collect all the money for the route too. Some times I would use the money for groceries or cigarettes for my mother.
I must regess some. At eleven years of age, my mother enrolled me in the Roman Catholic Church. I am not aware if the priests knew of my Jewish heritage. I was put in the seven year-old class for two weeks for catechism instruction. They decided to let me go to the convent on the property at catechism time. There about four or five nuns would drill me on the Catholic Church catechism to prepare me for my First Holy Communion at age twelve. I was baptized by sprinkling and given the Christian name of Paul. The Bishop came for the big ceremony and I was confirmed. I was now a Catholic.
I went to confession on Wednesdays, and to Church on Sundays for about an hour for the communion service. It was very solemn and the short message was in Latin. God was very scary to me in those days. I would confess some small sin and have to say the rosary fifty times and ask for forgiveness of the person I offended. I still remember at times the Hail Mary prayer.
During those years, my mother would sneak me away to visit my aunt and cousins in the Queens, a borough of New York City. Their family was devout Orthodox Jews, which meant that they followed the Mosaic law exactly and were very careful in their food preparation (according to the Old Testament mandates). I did attend my cousin’s Bar Mitzvah when he reach his thirteenth birthday. I watched him, while I was in the room we shared, put on phylacteries (small prayer boxes) on his head and arm and begin to pray. They even offered to let me live with them because they were aware of some of the things going on in our home. I was registered in a public school in Queens, and I was one of two white children in class. There were fights every day at the school.
I wasn't well versed in Kosher eating or Sabbath rules. I stayed
about a month before they took me back home and gave up on me, I suppose.
I do remember some services in the Synagogue, especially the feast about Esther,I
think Purim. It was fun because we used loud noise makers each time Hamon's
name was spoken in this story.
My stepfather increasingly would spend days away from us and money would be real short. My mother had fallen into a routine of sleeping and reading about twenty hours out of twenty-four. She came out of her bedroom to use the bathroom, to get some pills and something to eat. It had become my responsibility to go the store to buy food and her cigarettes and to go to the library to get her more books to read. She was an avid reader. One of the best gifts she gave me was that of teaching me to read well when I was very young. I thank her for that.
My youngest brother was born when I was twelve years old. From the day he was brought home I took care of him. I got up in the middle of the night to make a bottle for him, feed him, burp him, and change all the diapers.
In the seventh grade I missed seventy days of school to take care of my brothers, cook, clean, and work at home. The only way I was able to pass the grade in those years was because of the Regents system. The Regents allowed you to be promoted at the end of year if you passed a proctored test. I read the textbooks when I had to stay at home helping to take care of my family and I was able to teach myself the lessons.
One night I couldn't stop “burping”, and the next day my mother took me to the doctor because she had to get her pills renewed. The doctor told my mother I was on the verge of bleeding ulcers and needed some medicine and some rest. I got the medicine but not the rest!
About this time my mother and stepfather were legally separated. We went on welfare assistance from the State of New York. My mother spent most of the money the first two weeks of the month and we ate well the first two weeks. The last two weeks were difficult to survive. We got commodity food vouchers from the government. I rode my bike downtown to get in line with about a thousand people from mostly poor families. One by one they would punch our cards and give us a five pound block of cheese or a big can of chicken, bags of rice and flour. I really hated to get in that line and wait every month, but my family needed it to survive and I learned how to be a good cook.
My mother would send me sometimes to the Rectory to get money
from the priest at Church. Alms for the poor? I often wondered “Where
is God?” during these hard days.
My stepfather would fly in unannounced once in a while. My mother tolerated him to get money from him. These were very unnerving times when he was home. He was like a time bomb and could go off at any minute and often did. I remember one day my stepfather and mother had a violent fight. He had her lying on the floor, almost choking her to death. I was frozen against the wall, powerless. My mother raised her arm towards me and squeaked out my name “Cliiiifffy!” It unfroze me, and I ran for the door one shoe on and one shoe off, dressed in my undershirt and pants. My stepfather leaped after me yelling obscenities. I was running for my life! I got to a neighbor’s house down the street and screamed for them to call the police. I think he knew what I was doing and left before the police came.
Sometimes my mother slept very hard and if I woke her up I would get slapped and yelled at. One day my mother didn't come out of her room for her regular bathroom trips or food. I began to worry and kept calling to her for about an hour. I finally heard nothing and broke in the door. She was laying half off the bed, unconscious, with white foam like substance coming out of her mouth. Lots of pill bottles were opened on the nightstand. I called for an ambulance and the police. They came and loaded her into the ambulance. I was in the front seat with the driver somewhat in a daze myself. I waited a couple of hours in the emergency room before a nurse said I could look at my mother. She had I V's in her arms and was still unconscious. She looked bad to me.
I wept as I caught the bus home, cooked, and cared for the kids. I heard no news from anybody for a few days. A social worker called and said she was coming to get us since my mother was in the hospital. The social worker said she was coming the next morning and that we should be packed and ready to move. I was ready but not “ready” as she meant.
I put all three of my little brothers in the middle room of the house. I put some food, water, and a big pot to use for the bathroom. I put the bed, the dresser, and the crib up against the door and jammed it to the wall. The door could not be opened. I took a hammer and nails and showed my ten year old brother how to nail the windows shut. Then I climbed out of the other window and told him to nail that window shut and not to open the door or the windows for anybody unless I told him it was all right.
The social worker came the next morning and said, “Let’s go. Where are the boys?” I told her that we were not going anywhere, but we are going to stay here together! She tried talking my brothers out of their hiding place, then threatened to call the police. The police came, but couldn't open the door and couldn't make me get them out; nor would my brothers give in. They called the fire department to break the door down.
I got scared then and called the priest at the church. He came
just before the fire department. The priest talked with the social worker,
and it was agreed that if there was adult supervision we did not have to go.
I called my grandmother and begged her to sign some papers for the social
worker saying she would supervise us. With great reluctance she came over
and signed the papers that satisfied the social worker that we would be cared
for properly. The police left, and the fire department departed when the police
told them what happened. Then the priest left. My grandmother looked at me
in disgust, told me I was on my own with my brothers still in the room locked
up and. I think she gave me twenty dollars before she said, “Goodbye”,
and left us alone. I took care of my brothers for about another week till
my mother came home again.
Many other incidents happened and the police was at our house quite a bit. There was constant turmoil of one kind or another, and I decided I had enough. I was fifteen and determined to run away to East Village in New York City and sell drugs and marijuana. Nobody would care and I could get lost easily. I proceeded with this plan by packing my Boy Scout backpack, stole a twenty dollar bill from my mother's purse on a Friday night. I was leaving Saturday morning for good.
A knock on the front door very early the next morning awakened me. I was surprised that it was a social worker. She said, “There is a place you can go to on a voluntary basis. It isn't a large, state institution, just a small foster home that take a few teen age boys.”
I wondered how she had known to come on this important day
in my life. Then I remembered that once I had told my mother I was going to
run away again. I had actually tried it a few years earlier, I think after
my stepfather whipped me one time particularly hard, I believe my mother must
have called the social worker in a sympathetic moment and asked if there was
a place they could put me. I have no other explanation or knowledge of how
she came to be there that day. She drove me to Amityville, Long Island to
a nice subdivision, where. I was introduced to Carl and Gail Anderson .
They explained that this was a Christian foster home for boys set up by Teen Challenge and David Wilkerson from NY City, as an extension of his ministry to try and help some boys before they got on the street and became gang members with police records. The rules were I had to go to school, and to church and clean my room and do some general chores. They had devotions at night for about ten minutes, and attendance was voluntary. Did I think I could fit in and would I want to live in this home?
Did I?! What a piece of cake. The people were so kind in their attitude, I felt at ease with them. I really thought I pulled off the con of all cons--clean your room, go to church, sure I could fit in!!!!
The social worker took me home that day and said she would pick me up early Monday Morning. That Sunday was the longest day of my life. I packed everything I owned in a steam trunk I got from my grandmother. My mother looked at me sitting on the trunk waiting and asked me. " You're not coming back.... are you?" I looked at her straight in the face and said, “Not if I can help it!” She spit in my face. I swallowed hard and managed to hold back my tears.
I got settled in my room at the new foster home on a quiet,
neighborhood street. I attended devotions and I met David Wilkerson when he
came over to visit with us. A Christian social worker came once a month for
counseling. There were so many good things, including the routine of home
and school. One day I unloaded boxes from a truck full of The Cross and The
Switchblade books along with Dallas Holm, a well know Christian songwriter
and singer. On Sunday we went to a small, little white framed church building
used by the Church of God in Farmingdale, New York. There was a man and his
wife who served as the pastors. It was so small I didn't even see the church
the first time we went until they pointed it out. They opened with prayer
and praised God spontaneously and joyfully.
The preaching was pure gospel--messages about Jesus, the parables, Christ’s healings. The compassion of Jesus is what I heard and understood. I was Catholic I knew about sin. I was Jewish also and had some heritage and knew about the Ten Commandments and orthodoxy and the Sabbath. I questioned though if God even really existed. Perhaps, He was just made up by people to get your money and scare you into their way of thinking about religion so you'd do it their way!
Something was different about David Wilkerson, the Christian
social worker, the preacher, Carl and Gail and the few other family type people
in that small church. I knew they believed something I didn't have. I had
lots of questions, and I listened and observed how I was treated by Carl and
Gail. I wanted to believe in a God, Jesus that loved me and could forgive
me just the way I was, but I had such bitterness towards my mother, my father,
my stepfather, my brothers and even some of my extended family for not helping
me or rescuing me. This bitterness was just like a brick wall in front of
me when I was confronted about salvation by the preaching at that small church.
Carl and Gail never pushed me about it, just always very patiently answered my questions and treated me fairly. The struggle inside me was slowly boiling away.
One Sunday just about one or two weeks before Christmas on a Sunday night the preacher had a particularly compelling sermon about Jesus. I felt uncomfortable and when they had an altar call, I wanted to go up front but somehow felt stuck in my pew. I grabbed the pew in front of me and bowed my head while the music was playing. I think the song was “Just As I Am....”
So many thoughts were running through my head. I needed the love and forgiveness Jesus offered, but I was a baptized Catholic; Jewish too, ceremonially circumcised by the rabbi my grandfather proudly told me. I had been in the confession booth and had taken holy communion many times. I couldn’t forget the raw deal from my stepfather. I wondered again if Jesus was the Son of God and did He really exist?
I began to pray, “God, please if you are real, let me know. I know I am a sinner. Please forgive me, but I just don't know if you are real like the preacher says. If so, how could my life have been so messed up? Please help me, show me something, tell me something, do something. I want to believe and I need the Love of Jesus.” I felt great anxiety and a heaviness all during this time I was praying. I don't know how long I was praying. All at once, it felt like warm molasses was being slowly poured from the top of my head and coming down engulfing my entire body. When the warm feeling got to my chest, it felt like someone cut me open and a bucket full of bitterness and anger just fell right out of my chest. I have tears, even now remembering this every time I tell it, thirty three years later. I felt such relief, such comfort, the warmth went all the way down to the bottom of my feet. I couldn't hold back the tears of joy, a sense of Jesus' arms seem to wrap around me. God gave me a new heart and I knew Jesus was real that moment!!! Thank God He plucked a firebrand out of the burning! (Amos 4:11)
I began to find out more about how the foster home had been started. David Wilkerson had a burden to start a foster home but had no experience with this type of setting at the time. His usual work was with hardened gang members and drug addicts. This was a different calling. Therefore, he put a fleece before the Lord for that reason and as money and resources were also scarce, he asked the Lord that if this was His will, that He provide a source of money which they would never have expected to get in this amount and from a source unknown. The amount of $40,000 was the projected need to cover the expenses needed to justify the project. A few months later he got a letter from H. A. Baker, a retired missionary in Taiwan, China. Reverend Baker had just finished reading the book " The Cross and The Switchblade" and was moved by the Lord to send a letter and a donation. He wrote something like this, " I just finished your book and felt the need to send you my retirement money. My wife has passed away ... I am 80 yrs old and all my needs are met. So here is a check for Forty thousand Dollars ($ 40,000.00) to do with as the Lord leads you... God Bless you." That was the summer of 1968.
David took this as the confirmation of the fleece he had put before the Lord. He bought a split foyer house in Amityville on Long Island, New York . Carl, a student at Lee University and an ordained minister and his wife, Gail and two year old son moved to Long Island from Cleveland, Tennessee to open this teen-age home.
Carl and the Social Work Director, Paul Duncan, initiated a Foster Family Home application and Carl and Gail were quickly accepted as a Foster Family.
There were already three other boys there before I arrived there at the foster home. I won't take the space to go into their stories but they would make you laugh and cry at all the things that happened the year we all lived together. In any case, the county had given a license for one year. The goal of David Wilkerson was to take children being abandoned to the streets and provide them a Christian home in which to grow and thrive in spiritually. The other residents in the home were state wards and assigned to the home by the Nassau County Social Service Department. State regulations were preventing the program from performing its chosen mission. A decision was reached in February that the home would close at the end of the school year.
Carl proceeded to look for a job. He accepted a social worker position at the Church of God Home for Children in Sevierville, TN. Gail was hired in a social service position for the State of Tennessee. The three other boys found placements within the State system responsible for their care. Nassau County found a place for all of them except me. I was only there on a fluke it seemed. I was outside the system but a caring caseworker had arranged for this temporary placement. She understood that I was a high-risk child in a deteriorating home. Once again it appeared a home that had cared for me was breaking-up.
March and April went by and there was no care plan for me was
in sight. The people at church were praying for me. So was I praying, a newborn
babe in Christ. The month of May came and the end of the school year approached.
My mother and father were officially divorced. I couldn't go back home. Turmoil
still reigned there. Carl and Gail had chosen on faith to take me with them
to Tennessee. The State concurred and made it possible for me to go to Tennessee.
My mother also had to give permission. Money would be very tight at her house
without my share of her assistance grant. We were packing the last box in
the huge U-Haul truck when the phone rang. The message was that my mother
had signed the papers for the caseworker giving me permission to go to Tennessee.
Nassau County approved foster care money to be sent directly to Carl and Gail
in Sevierville, Tennessee for my care. Wow! Thank you, Jesus for that decision
that has changed my life so drastically.
Since homes were hard to rent during the high tourist months of the year in the Smoky Mountains, we had difficulty finding a home to rent. . A mom and her seven kids reportedly built the first house in which we lived. It was bought by the Federal Government to make way for the Smoky Mountains Foothills Parkway. It was cut in half, front to rear, brought down the mountain to rest on an old farm. It was nailed back together and we developed an appreciation of the life the previous family experienced in that house. On winter days, you could see your breath in the morning, ice often coated the inside of the windows, and there were lots of funny memories about mice. The next year they bought a nicer home in a subdivision. I enrolled in Sevier County High School in the fall of 1970, and graduated in the class of ‘72. I still can't believe the class voted me "Most Likely to Succeed”. I really enjoyed my two years there and had some good friends from the Church of God Home who went to the public school.
Upon graduation from High School, Carl and Gail arranged for Nassau County to continue my grant to pay for my tuition and room and board at North Georgia Technical College. I enrolled in Medical Laboratory Technician Course. One day the instructor had to partner up all the students so we could learn how to draw blood from each other! Well my partner was a girl named Shirley, a preachers kid.
Before our relationship had become serious in 1973, Shirley and I heard of a youth rally in Macon, Georgia, and we went to hear David Wilkerson speak. We went up to him before the service began and I introduced myself. Of course, he was surprised to see me there, but asked if Shirley and I would go into the back room with him. He prayed for us and asked God to Bless our marriage. I hadn't even asked her “THE Question” yet! We talked a bit about the old days and he gave me several books and tapes before going to preach that evening. Soon, Shirley and I will be life partners for 30 yrs!
A few years ago, having found David Wilkerson on the internet, I e-mailed him to tell him the Lord was leading me to some full time ministry and was active in a church. Some time later a friend e-mailed me a copy of a sermon he preached at his Times Square Church and mentioned my e-mail saying he had thought all that time the foster home was the one failure of his ministry. He now knows why God led him that way and preached on the Love of God and that nothing we do in the Lord's will is wasted even though we don't understand at that time what happened.
My real father called me once in my life the day before I went into basic training in the army, somehow he found out I was leaving for the military. At that time, I had been married about two years. He called and said he was coming into some money and everything would be roses. I never heard from him again.
One day I got a call from my aunt in California where my father lived that he was in the hospital on his deathbed. My stepbrother, Seth in California called and asked if I would sign some papers for my father to get a small settlement from an accident my father had a year before. We talked and I found he was pretty angry at my father for the life he had with him. He wasn't even going to go to see our father on his deathbed. I told him my Christian testimony, which was different for him to hear since he is also 100% Jewish. I think it must have had some effect on him because he did go see our father at the hospital. He was not able to speak but could understand and hear what was going on. My stepbrother held up a cell phone to his ear and I told my father that I forgave him of everything in the past and that I was a Christian and doing fine. My stepbrother told me my father was crying so I think he understood. I later found out he had been attending a Seventh Day Adventist church the last few years of his life. Maybe the gospel got through to him in some form. It's possible he was saved, I hope he was.
Because of Christ’s love, I have a wonderful wife and two sons today and am seeking to serve Him daily.
In Christ’s Love, Cliff Cinamon
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