Jim Cymbala

B. Childress
Jun 04 2013

Roma Black is a man in our church who used to be a successful player in New York City’s drug and gambling scenes.  
He grew up under the influence of the street, and when he was old enough to make his own decisions, he gave control
of his life to the evil that surrounded him.

But Roma had a praying mother, and God pursued him through every hellhole he ended up in.  Christians also came
into his life and showed him a love he had never experienced.  Finally, Roma had to make a dramatic choice.  Would he
surrender to the Spirit’s call, or would he let evil ultimately destroy him?  I’ll let him tell you in his own words.


I grew up under the influence of gangsters and drug dealers in the drug-infested streets of Harlem in the 1960s and
‘70s.  I was the seventh of nine kids born to a single mother; I never knew my father.  Most mornings we stepped around
dope addicts passed out in the stairwells of our tenement as we left for school.  We bet money on whether or not they’d
fall over while we watched.  Sometimes I pushed ‘em so I’d win the bet.  Walking outside, it wasn’t unusual to see a dead
body in the backyard where somebody got their brains blown out and they froze during the night.  There was a war going
on in the streets, and death wasn’t hidden from kids who lived there.

Although young, we saw what was going down around us.  Guys would be outside shooting dice, and if the loser was
short on money, the winner might pull out a pistol and shoot him.  The shooter would walk away just like he came in.  No
emotion.  Life meant nothing.  We watched the blood bubbling out of the victim’s head.  We were so used to death that
we’d stand there and count how many breaths the dying man took until he died.  Then we’d scatter before the police got

You never wanted to be a witness.  In Harlem, if you snitched, you died.  If someone wanted you killed, all they had to do
was put out a rumor that you were a snitch.  That’s all it took.  Then you’d get killed.  That’s how dangerous it was during
those times.

In the streets, you grew up fast.  I started running numbers when I was ten.  The number runners (those who ran illegal
lotteries out of their businesses) would give me a bag of money and then give my description to a cop.  I’d take the
money and go play in the street until the cop pulled up and I heard, “Yo!  Come here!”  Then I’d take the bag over to his
car, lean in, and drop the bag on the floor.  I knew better than to hand it to the cop directly.  The cop would then say
something like, “Be a good boy, now.  Go to school.  And remember, respect police officers.”  I earned ten dollars for my
efforts.  But how could I respect someone who took bribes?  Even as a young boy, I knew policemen who were on the
take, crooked politicians, and immoral preachers.  So I obviously didn’t grow up respecting a whole lot of people in

Kids in the suburbs, in affluent areas, wanted to become doctors or lawyers because those careers were respected and
they made money.  But growing up in the ghetto, the only career I wanted was to be a gangster.  Gangsters and hustlers
were my heroes.  I looked up to them and respected them.  They represented wealth, charisma, power, and prestige.  
We watched them ride down the street in fancy cars with beautiful women.  We saw how they could take care of
authorities by paying them off.  So that’s who I wanted to be like.  When we played we imitated those gangsters,
mimicking their walk, talk, and swagger.

I didn’t like school.  I played hooky a lot, but even when I was there, I messed around.  When I got in trouble, my mother
would come to school and beat me.  Back then it wasn’t called abuse; it was discipline.  She showed up at my classroom,
and I’d assume the position – bent over a desk – and wait for the pain.

The first time I ever saw her cry was after I played hooky from school in the seventh or eighth grade.  Instead of going to
school, I’d spent the day with a friend robbing seven cab drivers.  The old people in the neighborhood saw us.  When we
went after our last cab driver, they grabbed us and took us to the precinct and ratted us out.  At the precinct, I still had
all of the money shoved in my pockets.  I asked an officer if I could use the bathroom, and once in there, I stashed the
money behind the toilet so I could get it later.  But when I went back, it was gone.

All of the cab drivers were at the precinct, and they were mad.  I overheard them telling the officer, “We’re going to press
charges on this kid!”

That night at home my brothers and sisters heard what happened, and they taunted me.

“You’re finally going away!”

“When he’s gone, I get the top bunk!”

“They gonna put you in reform school!”

I went into my mother’s room to see her, but when I walked in, she was on her knees praying and crying.  As I watched,
she fell prostrate on the floor, but she kept praying through her sobs.  I ain’t never seen her like that, and I slowly and
quietly backed out of the room.

I was nervous on the day of the hearing.  As I waited in the courtroom, I knew my future was about to change forever.  
But the cab drivers never showed up.  Not one of the seven!  All I could think was,
My mother’s prayer saved me.

The judge, however, was mad.  “Where are these people?  We’re going to postpone this and do it again.”

He set up another date.  Again I sat nervously waiting for the proceedings to start, but once more, none of the cab
drivers showed up!  Although I’d been caught red-handed, the court couldn’t do anything without witnesses, and I was
allowed to go home.

Though we never talked about it at the time, I
knew I was free because of my mother’s prayers.  Until then, my only
experience with God had been going to church on Sunday and getting smacked upside my head when my brother and I
talked during the service.

But I wasn’t ready to give my life to anything but the streets.  By the time I was fourteen, I was selling drugs.  I had my
own crew, and we sold around the block from my junior high school.  Little bags of heroin sold for two dollars; fifteen
bags were bundled and sold for thirty dollars, which was a lot of money at the time.  I’d have two of the largest shopping
bags you can imagine filled to the brim with bundles.  I’d sit on the stoop and hold them for the dealers who’d collect the
money and flash me a signal as to how many bundles to give the buyer.  That way, if the dealer was caught, he didn’t
have any drugs on him.  In those days, they didn’t send kids to jail for dealing; the most we got was a warning or reform

My family moved to 118th Street between Fifth and Madison in Harlem, and I sold drugs a block away on 117th.  They
called it Junkie’s Paradise.  If you came around the block, you’d think you had stumbled upon a parade, because from
one end of the street to the other, people were lined up to buy drugs.  Dealers littered the entire street.  I’d sell two
shopping bags full of bundles in less than an hour while sitting on the stoop talking to girls.  Friends who worked for me
would be lookouts, making sure no one came out of the building behind me to take anything.  We had lookouts

Movies were an escape for me – an escape from the violence of the streets.  I often sat in the theater for hours, longing
for a different life than the one I lived.  Sometimes I even cried.  I knew something was wrong with me – tough guys didn’t
cry.  But movies reminded me that I was human, that I could feel emotion, and that another life was out there somewhere
waiting for me.

I continued to skip classes because I hated school, and finally in the tenth grade, I dropped out for good.  One night
after I had dropped out, we all went back to the junior high school; they used to let us play basketball there at night.  
After the game, we were hanging out with the gangsters, and one of them saw a junkie who owed them money.  Big Zig,
being an enforcer, grabbed the junkie and threw him against a wall.  “Where’s our money?”

“I don’t have it,” the guy said.

So Big Zig took an iron pipe – solid iron – and hit the guy in the head.  He fell to the ground.  All these years later, I can
still hear the sickening thud.  When that pipe hit his head, it hurt something inside of me.  It affected me so badly, I told
the guys I was going home.

“No, let’s go get high.”

“Let’s go to the movies.”

But I said no and left immediately; I didn’t want them to see me crying.  I could be brutal and hurt people, but I also had
something tender inside of me.  When I started to feel something, I thought,
I must be a sissy.  Why am I crying?  You
can’t show that kind of emotion on the street, so I tried to detach myself from feelings of compassion.  

When I was sixteen or so, I graduated from selling drugs near my junior high to a new spot on 116th and Eighth Avenue,
way over on the West Side.  It was a very, very dangerous drug marketplace.  During that time, I remember my mom
saying, “Son, there’s going to come a time when money won’t help you.  If you die in your sin, you’re going to hell.”  But
that didn’t move me.  She was old school.

But I did know I was in a dangerous place for dealing drugs, so I moved to Brooklyn to lay low for a while.  I stayed with
my sister, intending to get paid to babysit her kids while I got out of the street life.  But instead of getting better, I got in
deeper.  My sister was in the numbers racket, so I got into it too.  Her boyfriend controlled whole blocks in Brooklyn,
collecting payoffs from the illegal activities that went down there.  So he got me a store on one of those blocks.  I’d sit in
front of the store with a bottle of champagne and sniff cocaine in broad daylight while I ran numbers in the store.  I’d be
so zooted off cocaine that I’d exude all of this confidence, and that attracted women.  Oh man, I had a woman for every

But I was empty inside.

My partner was a cocaine dealer, but his father was a preacher.  One day I was at my store and Rev. Smith came in.  
You could always tell it was him, because he wore a collar Monday through Sunday.

“Roma Black,” he said, “God’s called you to be a preacher.”

I was stunned.  I thought the man was crazy.  “You know what?” I said.  “I know a little bit about the Bible, and it says that
there is no hope for the devil.”  I literally called myself the devil, because I was under his influence.  I knew I was working
for Satan.  And I knew that if I died, I was going straight to hell.  I knew it.

Rev. Smith wasn’t deterred.  He looked me right in the eye and said “No, God is calling you to preach.”

But he didn’t know what kind of iniquity went on in my store – selling drugs, smoking cocaine, selling stolen goods, all
kinds of illegal activity.  Everything went on in there.  We had a million-dollar-a-year racket business.  No mob.  No Italian

One day I was in the back of my store and a young lady came in.  She had the face of an angel.  She held up a tract and
said, “The Lord told me to give you this.”  She handed it to me, saying, “Jesus loves you.”

I took the tract from her, balled it up, and threw it at her, hitting her in the face.  “Get out of my store.  I don’t need no
God.  I make my own money.  Church is for wimps and cowards, and I don’t need God.”

A few days later, another young lady came in and said, “I want you to read this.”

So I did the same thing to her.  “Get outta my store!”  I said and hit her in the face with her own tract.

But after that, I started to think about those two ladies.  They fascinated me.  They both reacted the same way when I
took their tracts and hit them in the face – they both looked at me with love.  I was from the street.  I lived a violent life.  I
was used to an eye for an eye.  But even when I disrespected and cursed them, they looked at me with love.  I was
intrigued by their response.

Rev. Smith would come back occasionally, and I got to the point where I liked to see him.  I’d see him coming and yell at
my crew to put the drugs away.  They begged me not to talk long, but sometimes I’d stay in the store for hours talking to
Rev. Smith.  My crew would get mad at me, but what could they do?  I was tough, and I’d beat them if they complained.

But then things got very dangerous.  I was in the store one day when an old gangster came in to play the numbers.  
When I learned his name, I said, “Hey, I knew a guy in Harlem with that name.  He’s a hit man, a gangster.”

“Yeah, he’s my son,” the old gangster said, and we started talking.  

About a month later, a brand-new black Mercedes pulled up in front of my store, and who got out?  His son.  He came
into the store, and we started talking.  “I know your dad,” I told him.

We kicked it around, and then he said, “Come outside.”  So we went out to sit in his Mercedes and sniff cocaine.  Sitting
there, I could see his gun tucked in the right side of his pants.

A few weeks later, I was at another store and the black Mercedes showed up there.  I knew this gangster was a very
dangerous guy.  He was a freelance contract killer for gangsters and the mafia.  All of a sudden, he was coming around
a lot.  I also heard that he was asking about me.  I’d tell the guys at my store, “Don’t tell anybody where I am at.”  I was
getting worried.

But this guy kept showing up.  Every week I’d sit in his car and we’d talk and sniff cocaine, but I knew that he was one
dangerous cat.  I knew what he did.  One day he and his dad came into the club we had in the back of the store.  I told
the bartender to set them up.  “Give them a bottle of champagne.”  They just sat there, and I got a chill.  All night long, I
felt them watching me.  They weren’t there to enjoy themselves; they were there to
case me.

I snuck out of the club because I was afraid and I didn’t know what they wanted from me.  The whole walk home, all I
could think was,
What is going on?  I felt fear.  And I felt death.  But it was still a mystery.  I knew who they were, and I
knew they were casing me.  
Am I a target?  Is he clocking me because somebody wants me dead?

In the Bible, Job said, “Lord, what I feared the most has come upon me.”  A few days later, I had my own Job experience.  
The black Mercedes pulled up to the store, and the hit man called me outside.  By now I was frustrated.  So I said, “What
do you want from me?”

As I was sitting in his car, he turned to me, making sure he revealed the gun in his waistband.  “You got a lovely
girlfriend.  You got a nice, cute little baby girl.  Real cute.  How’s your mama doing?”  My hand started shaking as I
realized how much he knew about me.  “I’ve seen your place over on Ocean Avenue.  And your business.  I’m
impressed.  You’re doing what?  About a million dollars a year?  I’m surprised.  No mob connection; it’s all brother-
owned.  That’s impressive.”

He knew everything about me, because that’s what hitters do.  Contract killers, they clock you.  As he told me all that he
knew, my hand shook so hard I was afraid he’d notice.  I tried to be cool and not let him see he had me, so I put my hand
underneath my thigh.  But he knew.

“I kicked your name around in Harlem, and everybody said you’re a stand-up guy.  You know how to keep your mouth
shut.  So this is what we’re going to do…”

Whatever came next was an order not a request.  Talking about my family was a threat.  He would kill them, take them
out one by one, and then kill me.  He knew where I lived; he knew where my mother lived; he knew everything.  Whatever
he said next, I’d have to do.  I swallowed hard and tried not to let my fear show.

“We’re going to create a hit team.  Like Murder Incorporated back in the ‘30s,” he said, referring to an organized crime
group responsible for hundreds of mafia killings.  “But we’re going to be bigger than them.  I want you to recruit young
men, and we’re going to train them to be contract killers.  You’re going to be my man in Brooklyn.  I got a guy for
Harlem.  I got a guy for the Bronx.  We’re going to make millions.”

When he said that, everything flashed in front of me.  Rev. Smith saying, “You’re going to be a preacher.”  Those young
girls giving me tracts.  People walking down the street saying, “God’s calling you.”

But there was no way out.  I was mean, violent, brutal, whatever words you wanted to use, but I had never killed
anybody.  Now that he’d told me his plan, I didn’t have a choice; I had to become a hit man.

In my heart, I prayed to God,
If you’re real, I need you now.

As soon as I said it, the presence of the Lord came into the car.  I felt it.  It was like some incredible presence filled up
the Mercedes.  The hair on my neck stood up.  My fear instantly vanished, and I suddenly felt bold.  I turned to the hit
man and pointed my finger at him and said, “I don’t want no part of you or your plan.  Besides, I am giving my life to
Jesus Christ.”

And when I said that, the entire atmosphere in the car changed.  Suddenly this big thug became a little wimp, and in this
strange, little-girl voice, he said “Okay.”

I opened the door to the car, and as I got out and walked back to my store, I braced myself because I knew he was going
to shoot me.  He had to.  He’d just told me his plan in detail.  But when I went into the store and turned to look out the
door, the Mercedes was gone.

I’ve never seen him since.

I went inside and called my mother.  “I had an experience with Jesus, and I don’t know how to tell you about it, but I’m
coming to church.”  I sat down in the store, while everyone around me played numbers, I was lost in a zone.  I
remembered my mother’s prayer, and tears rolled down my face. I wiped them away and said to myself,
God is real.

But the devil wasn’t done with me.  He tried to pull me back in all kinds of ways.  I tried to clean up my life on my own and
failed.  I prayed,
God, take away from life anything that’s sinful or anything that would lead me back to my old ways.

God answered my prayer.  All of a sudden, people would no longer deal with me.  And my sisters with money – none of
them would talk to me.  Even Mom wouldn’t talk to me when I called to tell her I was broke.

There was nothing I could do to save myself.  The next Sunday I went to church.  It was raining outside, but inside the
place was on fire.  I felt like the pastor was preaching my life.  He called out sins of mine that only God and I knew I’d
committed.  Though I was sitting in the back and no one was around me, I felt like the pastor spoke right to me.

He made an altar call and asked those who wanted to accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior to come forward.  There
was movement at the front of the church as people accepted the pastor’s invitation.

The last person came forward, and then there was an awkward pause.  The pastor finally said, “I can’t continue.  I don’t
know what it is, but the Holy Spirit brought someone special here today.  I don’t know why, but he won’t let me continue.  
This is your last chance.”  And then he made the invitation to receive Christ again.

With God as my witness, I lie not.  I felt an invisible hand touch me on the shoulder.  When that hand touched me, I felt
such a spirit of love – an indescribable love.  Tears rolled down my face, and I felt weak.

I couldn’t fight it anymore.  I got up and walked down the aisle, and when the pastor came over to me, I dropped to my
knees.  The pastor prayed over me, and I literally saw my life pass in front of my eyes – every dangerous scene, from
that first day when I robbed those cab drivers, through every bad thing I did that could’ve cost me my life.  With each
scene that flashed through my mind, I heard a whisper:

“I saved you from that.”

“I kept you from that.”

“I watched over you there.”

As the most recent scenes in my life played out, the store in Brooklyn, the gangsters I hung out with, and the
conversations with the hit man, it felt like God was saying to me, “The very people you ran with wanted to kill you, and I
saved you from that.”  I became aware that this was the day of salvation for me, and I better not miss it.

And as I prayed the sinner’s prayer, I felt my sins being lifted.  When I was able to open my eyes and look around, I saw
my mother in the choir.  She was sobbing, watching her black sheep give his life to Christ.  Other people in the choir
were fanning her to calm her down.  She had been convinced that I was going to wind up in jail or the graveyard, but
God flipped it.  Isn’t he amazing?

When I jumped up, I said to the pastor, “I feel so light!”

“Son, that’s your sins.  God has taken them and thrown them into the sea of forgetfulness, and he doesn’t remember
them anymore.”

A month later, my girlfriend came to church to watch me get baptized.  Ever since that day, I’d told everyone I knew that
Jesus saves.  Well, the day I got baptized, my girlfriend became a Christian too.  We have been married for twenty-eight
years, and Gladys has become an amazing prayer warrior.

A couple of years later, I went to visit Rev. Smith at his church.  When I walked in wearing a suit and he looked up and
saw me, he was stunned.  He hadn’t seen me for several years, and I’m sure he thought I was dead or in prison.

It blew his mind.

Most of the people I grew up with are gone.  They’re dead.  But I’m no longer serving Satan.  I’m under the control of the
Lord.  He has used even what I experienced on the streets for his glory.  Now when I am preaching in the streets and in
prisons, I rely on his Spirit to guide me in what to say and when to say it.  I’ll preach wherever the Lord gives me an
opportunity.  When God saved me, he put me under new management.

I work for him now.


SPIRIT RISING, by Jim Cymbala with Jennifer Schuchmann, Copyright 2012, Zondervan.