Saturday, March 22, 2008

FIRST: Mike Timmis

Introducing the new blog alliance devoted to Non~Fiction books,
Non~FIRST a component of Fiction in Rather Short
(FIRST). (Join our alliance! Click the button!) This is our
very first blog tour. Normally we will post every 15th day of every
month, featuring an author and his/her latest book's FIRST chapter!

The special feature author is:

Mike Timmis

and his book:

NavPress (February 2008)


Mike Timmis had it all.

How does a kid from working-class Detroit become an international
ambassador for Christ? And what motivated an evangelical-based ministry to
choose this Catholic as its chairman? Mike Timmis’s inspiring life as a
Catholic and evangelical leader reveals how our unity in Christ
transcends the two worlds’ differences. From him, we learn how Catholics and
evangelicals can go into an alienated world together as ministers of
reconciliation and witnesses to God’s salvation and love.

Mike Timmis is a chairman of both Prison Fellowship in America and
Prison Fellowship International. He was also a practicing lawyer and
businessman. A Roman Catholic, Mike is deeply involved in ministry in his
hometown of Detroit as well as projects in Africa and Central and South
America. He and his wife, Nancey, are parents of two and grandparents of


Chapter One

Taking Life into My Own Hands

On January 18, 1991, I was flying in a small two-engine plane in east-central Africa from Burundi to Kenya. Our party had just come from a wonderful meeting with Burundi’s President Pierre Buyoya where we’d shared
the gospel with him and a number of cabinet ministers. Still, we were somewhat anxious because the Persian Gulf War had started the previous day. Right then, American fighters were in the air against Iraqi positions.

My wife, Nancy, and my son, Michael Jr., were with me, as well as Gene
Dewey, the former second-in-command at the United Nations High
Commissioner for Refugees, and Sam Owen, a fellow believer then living in
Nairobi. This trip was part of the quiet diplomacy I had undertaken as a
member of a group called The Fellowship. We worked on behalf of the poor
by raising up Jesus with world leaders, one means of pursuing the
ministry of reconciliation that Christ entrusted to His followers.

As we flew over northern Tanzania, the pilot was suddenly issued an
order that we were to land immediately. I was sitting close enough to the
cockpit to hear the squawking instructions coming over the radio. I
quickly assured the pilot that we had the requisite permission to fly over
Tanzanian air space. The State Department had issued an order to
American citizens to stay clear of Tanzania, an Iraq ally, so I made sure—or
thought I had—that we had permission to fly over Tanzania en route to
Kenya. The pilot relayed my protest to the Tanzanians.

“No, you do not have permission!” came the reply. “You must land
immediately, or we will force you down.”

We landed at the small city airport of Mwanza. As we stepped down onto
the tarmac, a military jeep pulled up. A cadre of officials and police
officers met us and immediately arrested the pilot and impounded the

Their leader also demanded our passports. I was reluctant to give these
up, because no matter what alternative flight arrangements we might be
able to make, we would be stranded without passports. Because I had
requested—and been granted—permission to fly over Tanzania, our detention
was making me angry. (Later I found out that the flight service we
were using had previously flouted Tanzanian regulations and had again on
this occasion.) Because my family was with me, I restrained my temper.
My jaw clenched, I reluctantly handed over my passport.

We were allowed to find our own accommodations in Mwanza, and we found
a car that took us to the New Hotel Mwanza. I would hate to have seen
the old Hotel Mwanza. We were the hotel’s only guests, and for good
reason. The first thing I did was check under the bed for bugs and rats.

As we caught our breath in our hotel room, I asked Nancy if she was
afraid. “No, I’m not afraid,” she said. “You are with me, our son is with
us, and God is with us.”

Even though we were stranded in an African backwater, I felt the same.
I knew I was where God wanted us to be and felt—as I always have in my
travels to what are now 114 nations—that God was going before me. In my
many years of traveling on various missions, I’ve always felt
protected by the special anointing that comes with God’s commission. Lost
geographically, I was still at home spiritually, and for that reason at

Our party of five met for dinner in the hotel’s restaurant. My family
is Catholic, and Gene Dewey and Sam Owen were evangelicals, but the
unity we knew in the Lord sustained us, even when the dinner turned out to
be rancid.

After a little while, the hotel manager, having no other guests, joined
us at our table. This made way for the night’s entertainment. Four
strapping young men in red overalls—the kind gas station attendants used
to wear—came out, and with lamplight smiles launched into song:

My baaaaah-dy lies over the ocean,

My baaaaah-dy lies over the sea. . . .

Yes, they said “body” not “bonnie,” and since we all felt an ocean away
from home, the song struck us as hilarious. Then the quartet followed
with “Home on the Range,” and we nearly wept from laughing. We clapped
and cheered, showing our appreciation to the young men. They had done
us more good than they could possibly have known.

I spent the next day searching for transportation out of Mwanza. The
others paid special attention to BBC radio reports on the progress of the

Within thirty-six hours, a plane flew in for us from Nairobi. We went
out to the airport to meet it, eager to hightail it out of there. But
when we arrived at the airport, no one seemed inclined to return our
passports. Thankfully, Gene Dewey was already anticipating this. Because of
his time with the United Nations, Gene had the most experience in
dealing with government officials. He had also been a colonel in Vietnam
and had a knack for being cool and fiercely determined at the same time.
I kept asking him when he thought we’d get our passports back—and how.
“Mike, don’t worry about it,” he’d say.

As we were walking out to the plane, bags in hand, with a couple of
Tanzanian officials to the rear in escort, I looked over at Gene and said
as forcefully as I could under my breath, “Gene, our passports!”

“Not now, Mike,” he replied quietly but just as forcefully. “Just don’t
worry about it. Keep walking.”

It wasn’t until we were in the air that Gene unbuttoned his shirt and
fished out all our passports.

“How did you get those?” I asked.

“I came out to the airport last night,” he said. “I broke into the
office and took them. If you had kept talking, they might have found out!”

Gene’s street smarts reminded me of how I’d grown up and made my way. I
asked myself, “How did I get here? How did a kid from the rough and
gritty streets of Detroit end up on a trip to see international
dignitaries? How could a guy born and raised Catholic go on a mission
representing a largely evangelical organization?”

I’ve had many amazing, frightening, and heart-rending experiences as
I’ve traveled the world in service to the King of kings. And one thing I
can say for certain: when you entrust yourself completely to God and
make yourself available to Him, you’re in for an adventure.


“Mike, the only way you can be ensured of success,” my father once told
me, “is if you take it into your own hands and go into the
professions.” I was an Irish Catholic kid from the battling West Side of Detroit,
the youngest of five children, keen on finding my own place in the

My father remains the strongest man I think I’ve ever known, with
enormous hands, a powerful physique, and an energy that stayed with him into
his nineties. I saw him lift a car out of a ditch when he was in his
sixties, although he did injure his back. As young men, he and his
brother Brian went out to western Canada, where they took jobs as real-live
cowboys, breaking horses. Brian stayed, became a Mounty in Regina,
Saskatchewan, and played professional football there. My dad returned to
Ottawa and played wingback for the Ottawa Roughriders.1 There he met an
Irish girl who was both passionate and practical, and he had the good
sense to ask for her hand.

My parents emigrated from Canada to Detroit in 1930, at the beginning
of the Great Depression. My mother’s uncle had moved there earlier from
Ottawa and convinced my parents that the Motor City was one of the last
places in North America where a man could find regular employment. Our
relatives soon moved back to Ottawa, but my father and mother stayed,
and Dad hired on with the city as a bus driver. He eventually worked
his way up through the civil service system and retired as a bus station

Most of his working life turned out to be far different from the
spirited and reckless days as a cowboy and pro football player. I was the
last of five children, separated in age by twelve years from my eldest
sibling, Margaret Claire. My parents were well into their forties when I
was born in 1939, and so I never knew my father as a young man. Or a
particularly happy man—not at least until much later in his life when, in
retirement, he was able to live on a farm and keep horses.

While I was growing up, I remember my dad collapsing into his chair at
the end of his long days. He’d take up one of Luke Short’s westerns—he
probably read ten times every novel the man had ever written. I can’t
say for certain whether he ever graduated from high school. I know he
served in the Canadian forces in World War I, beginning in 1914 at
seventeen. And since he was born in 1897, so he might have left for the war
before graduating.

We were a serious family, always working or studying or going to St.
Brigid’s, our local Catholic parish. Our faith was a great comfort to
both my father and mother, but it was also a cause of concern as to the
children’s futures. My father felt that Irish Catholics were
discriminated against, so he insisted that my brothers and I become doctors.

At the time, all of Detroit was divided into ethnic neighborhoods of
Poles, Eastern European Jews, Irish, Germans, Italians, and so on. We
lived in an Irish Catholic enclave. The houses stood one against the other
on forty-foot lots, with bay windows to one side of half porches. The
weave of that community was very close-knit. As a ten year-old, I once
cursed on a playground a block from home and received a slap for it
when I came in ten minutes later for supper. A neighbor had heard what I
said and promptly telephoned my mother.

But such strictures helped keep the city a safe and open place where I
was free to roam. Not only did we not lock our front door, but I don’t
remember there being a key. From the age of eight or nine, I could walk
down to the local candy store and then hop busses down to Woodward
Avenue, where Hudson’s, the giant department store, mounted huge Christmas
window displays.

At the same time, the neighborhood had its own pugnacious code: You
stood up to a fight or you simply couldn’t live there. Taking a beating
was far better than being constantly harassed, so I did a lot of fighting
as a kid. I can remember coming home from school one winter day. My
sister had taken the bus home from college, and one of the neighborhood
bullies, whom I’ll call Larry, had thrown an “ice ball” that hit her in
the face.

My dad said to me, “Take care of him.”

Larry’s reputation as a bully was well earned, and I said, “Dad, this
guy is going to kill me!”

“I don’t care,” Dad replied sternly. “You go out and you take care of

Anger with my father for ordering this confrontation drove me out into
the streets. When I caught sight of Larry, I ran after him, yelling at
him vehemently. He hardly knew what hit him! I was so angry with Dad
that I beat the living daylights out of the kid. I had him down on his
back by the curb, where water was running from the snowmelt, and I whaled
on him.

My father may have been so concerned about prejudice against Catholics
because he’d had to overcome that obstacle when he started courting my
mother. My dad’s family was high-church Anglican. He converted when he
married my mother, which wasn’t much of a stretch, since high-church
Anglicans worship in a liturgical style as close to Catholicism as
Protestantism gets. Still, crossing to Rome was always an issue, especially
at a time when Help Wanted signs included the postscript “No Irish Need

My mother’s family, the O’Reillys, originally from County Clare, were
Irish Catholics to the core. My mother was a petite woman, not more than
five feet tall. In appearance, she was what they call dark Irish, with
mahogany and cherry wood strands in her hair and a flame in her
light-blue eyes. The O’Reillys, who owned brickyards, were far more
well-to-do than my dad’s family.

The pictures of my mother that I keep close by are candid shots; they
show her as a young woman with the new bob of short hair that came in
with the 1920s, striking a jaunty attitude. I can imagine this young
Irish lass losing her head over my powerful, handsome father.

She was told never to have children because of a weak heart, and then
she went and had five. Better educated than my dad, she had been to what
was called a “normal school,” or teacher’s college. I would guess that
many of our family’s intellectual and creative gifts came through my
mother. My brother Gerry, who the family called Sonny, would go on to be
a famous cardiologist; Hilary, an outstanding surgeon; and both my
sisters, Margaret Claire and Agnes Cecile, went to college and had
marriages and careers that took them well up the economic ladder.

Once married, my mother never worked outside the home but gave herself
completely and utterly to her husband and children. That didn’t keep
her from having a sharp tongue, or so my sisters claim; I never was cut
deeply enough to remember her that way. It was not so much that I was
the “baby” of the family, but that my mother’s health was in serious
decline by the time I reached early adolescence. She was too exhausted to
protest against much of anything by then.

Both my father and my mother led our family in practicing our Catholic
faith. In fact, when I think of my religious formation, I remember the
faith as a distinctly family affair. Our devotions as a family made a
great impression on me. We devoted the month of May to praying with
Mary—not to Mary—to her son, Jesus.

Every Sunday night, my whole family knelt down at seven o’clock and
prayed for the conversion of Russia. My brothers Sonny and Hilary began to
protest against the practice when they became busy medical students,
but even then my parents insisted that the time be set aside.

On Tuesday evenings, we went to St. Brigid’s for devotions, praying the
rosary, making novenas, or listening as a “mission” was preached—what
evangelical Protestants know as a revival service. These devotions
largely disappeared from the Catholic Church after Vatican II in the early
sixties and only now are being reinstated. The piety they encouraged
came to be regarded as old-fashioned. Through these devotions, the
Catholics of my parents’ generation—and generations before them—experienced
the Catholic faith as intensely personal. The devotions also encouraged
them to recognize their faith as God’s work in their lives. I
experienced enough of this to clearly understand that my salvation was dependent
on the completed work of Christ—not on my own righteousness. There was
never a time when I was under the misimpression that my “works” would
get me into heaven.

I attended the local parish school, St. Brigid’s, where I was prepared
for First Communion and Confirmation by the sisters who taught us. My
first confession at the age of six saw me truly penitent, if confused.
There were no secrets in our Irish Catholic family, and everyone wanted
to know to what I had confessed. I told my brothers and sisters that I
had admitted to adultery about a hundred times.

“You did?” they asked. “What did you mean?”

“That I picked my nose!”

I’m sure the priest about fell off the chair as he smothered his

Still, my First Communion was a memorable experience at which I
received a child’s prayer book—one that I only recently parted with when I
gave it to my granddaughter on the occasion of her First Communion. It
meant that much to me. Even as a young child, I took the privilege of
being invited into communion with God very seriously. I think most children
do, because they understand intuitively what it means to be God’s

At St. Brigid’s, we were schooled in the Baltimore Catechism, so when I
was confirmed in the Catholic faith in fifth grade, I knew all the
right answers to the classic questions. Who made us? Who is God? Why did
God make us? In retrospect, I wish I had understood and experienced
these rites of passage more in terms of an evolving relationship with
Christ rather than as childhood milestones. Confirmation comes later now,
when a child is about twelve or thirteen, which I think is good; older
children are better equipped to understand Confirmation as a personal
commitment. At the same time, I’ve always been glad that the rudiments of
the faith were drilled into me. This provided me with certainty and
hope at many difficult times in my life, especially in the crises that
crouched around the next corner.


My peaceful, happy childhood was disturbed by illness when I was about
twelve years old. I returned home from a Boy Scout retreat with
pneumonia and what the doctors suspected was rheumatic fever. I was sicker
than I probably knew for a number of months and missed virtually all of
eighth grade. After I regained my strength the first time, I had a
relapse, and our doctor became worried about the condition of my heart. He
ordered that I not participate in any sports. When I entered U of D High
(University of Detroit High School, now called University of Detroit
Jesuit High School and Academy), I was allowed to climb the stairs to the
freshman and sophomore classrooms only once a day.

This was especially frustrating because I’d always had amazing stamina;
I really didn’t pay much attention to the doctors’ orders except when
under the direct supervision of my parents or the school. Still, the
inactivity led to weight gain, and I became a pudgy kid, which I hated.
What’s more, the physical isolation my illness brought with it became an
emotional isolation. Like my father, I took refuge in books, becoming
a voracious reader. I liked history and novels especially, and, as I
often had trouble sleeping, I would grab a book and read long into the

My mother worried over me because of my health, of course, and that
added to my brothers’ and sisters’ complaints that I was being spoiled.
One time, Hilary was especially upset with me. We were arguing, and my
mother admonished him to lay off me.

“He’s turning into a spoiled jerk,” Hilary insisted.

“Look at me,” she replied. “You’ve had a mother. He’s not going to have
a mother. Leave him alone.”

Anyone could see by her pallor that her health was in decline. Indeed,
her heart condition was growing rapidly worse. I vividly remember the
night she died, April 11, 1955. It was Easter night. Sonny, a senior,
and Hilary, a junior in medical school, were attending to her. They were
talking on the phone to her doctor, their voices rising and becoming
more strained as they followed his instructions with little effect. I
came into her room while this was going on and heard Sonny yell into the
phone, “I’ve already given her a shot of adrenaline and it’s not

I looked at her, propped up on two pillows. I asked her, “Mama, what’s

She was always a very prayerful woman, and she chose to answer in the
only way she could. She took out her rosary from between the pillows and
with her thumb held up the crucifix to me. That was the last thing she
did. I was fifteen years old.

My father had always revered and worshiped my mother. He mourned her
loss terribly. It so happened, as well, that her death came as the nest
was about to empty. Long before my mother’s final illness, Margaret
Claire and Sonny each had been planning their weddings. Both were married
and gone within two months of my mother’s death. Hilary left for the
University of Pennsylvania to begin his residency in surgery. The
following year, Agnes Cecile, married as well.

My father never had many friends. He didn’t go out with the boys, and
he drank hardly at all. For many years, he had lived a life of heroic,
if quiet, sacrifice as he devoted himself to his wife and children. Our
at-home family of seven had quickly dwindled to two.

Within a year after my mother’s death, my father and I fell into a grim
Sunday regimen. We would go to Mass at ten o’clock, then drive to the
cemetery, where my father would weep so uncontrollably that I would
have to drive us home.

I was very lonely, but also very religious. We had Mass every day at U
of D High, and that was important to me. I thought long and hard about
becoming a priest.

Every day, when school let out at 2:35, I would stop by the chapel once
more. I’d sit there and talk to my mother and pray, then hitchhike or
take the bus home to an empty house, which was difficult.

I was fortunate to have my sisters and brothers and good friends to
lean on. They made up much of what was lacking at home. Margaret Claire
became like a second mom; as the eldest she had always nurtured me. When
she married two months after my mother died, she and her husband, Russ
Hastings, rented a small apartment only two or three miles from where
we lived. She was extremely good to me, providing a desperately needed
last dose of mothering.

I would often ride over to their apartment on my bike. Margaret Claire
taught me manners, particularly how to behave around young women—a
subject of increasing interest. She also taught me how to dance. She would
put “Peg of My Heart” and the other romantic ballads of the mid-fifties
on her old phonograph and show me how to glide with my partner around
the dance floor. She’d let me cadge a cigarette from her pack now and
again, but “only one,” she’d say, keeping to a motherly moderation.

Margaret Claire had worked as an executive secretary before marriage
and would later raise seven children of her own. Russ was a CPA and
became comptroller of Dodge Truck. They were the first among my family
members to enter a whole new socioeconomic class.

Within eighteen months of my mother’s death, I underwent a
transformation that was partly physical, certainly emotional, and had unexpected
spiritual extensions. I began to realize that my brothers and sisters
were off making their own lives. I felt that I was completely on my own
and that I would rise or fall on my own strength. My father’s admonition
that I take my success into my own hands became an implacable
necessity. At the deepest level, I decided that I was going to live my life and
not be a victim. I wasn’t going to feel sorry for myself. I was going
to carve out my own life, whatever it took. I began hardening myself and
maturing swiftly.

Between my junior and senior years of high school, I determined not to
be fat anymore. I fasted, eating sparingly, all summer while working as
a house painter in the sticky Detroit heat. My last growth spurt hit
at the same time, taking me over the six-foot mark. I lost thirty pounds
and grew about four inches. When I came back to school for my senior
year, people hardly recognized me. The following summer, when I was
working as a scaffold painter with a crew of older men, they took to
calling me “Six O’clock,” because I was as thin and straight as clock hands
at six o’clock.

Losing so much weight renewed my confidence and helped me reconnect
with the tremendous stamina and energy I’d known as a child. I felt
powerful and ready to meet life’s demands—on my own terms.

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