Vince Gordon | The Heart of a Father

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by Marilyn Tinnin

Vince Gordon, Area Director for Urban Young Life, really should have been a statistic. At the very least, his life could be a Lifetime movie! He faced all the obstacles that studies tell us plague broken young people who turn to drugs and crime and who end up in prison. He is the oldest of three siblings whose dad deserted the family when Vince was seven years old.

It was a devastating blow for a little boy. Although Vince’s mother worked hard to provide for Vince, his younger brother and sister, he grieved the absence of a dad. Even then he made a vow that he would become the kind of father to his children one day that his father had never been to him.

Fast forward to 2012. Vince kept that vow many times over. Not only has he been, according to his daughter, Tran, an “extraordinary hero” to her and her brother and sister, but he has filled the role of father figure to countless others through his work with Young Life.

As Vince puts it, “My misery became my ministry.”

But in the beginning, who would ever have thought?

Beginnings

Vince’s mother had not finished high school when she became pregnant with Vince and married his father. The young couple left Jackson in 1964, lived in Minneapolis a while, came back to Jackson and eventually moved to Los Angeles hoping for a bright future.

After his father left, his mom, Queen Esther Gordon recognized the need for strong male role models in her sons’ lives. Vince showed promise as an athlete, had an outgoing personality and made good grades in school. She encouraged her son to join Cub Scouts and to play organized sports thinking the adults supervising these activities would help fill the void of an absent father.

As a ten year old, Vince was approached by two adult leaders, who were later found to be child molesters. “I was fortunate,” says Vince, “in that I had a mother I could always talk to. I didn’t hesitate to tell her, and she removed me from those activities.”

However, he says the incident made him question himself, and as he hit the teenage years, he felt a great need to prove to himself that he was not gay. He had an appetite for rebellion, for fast girls, fast cars, and a rough life-style.

It was joining the band and playing high school sports that helped settle him down. Playing the drums in one of the finest high school marching bands in the entire country was a wholesome outlet and also an activity that took him on several amazing trips to places like the Rose Bowl, the Super Bowl, and a competition in Hawaii. Life was coming together for Vince, but his younger brother was starting to get involved with gang activity.

It was at that point his mother said, “Enough.” She packed up her little family and moved back to Jackson, Mississippi. It was 1980, and Jackson was still a sort of sleepy little town with a predominance of strong families, strong churches, and a healthy sense of community.

Vince was crushed. There was not one thing he liked about Jackson. Despite the extended family all around, there was “absolutely nothing to do,” he says.

He enrolled at Lanier High School and got a job at Popeye’s Chicken on Livingston Road where he worked for the remainder of his high school career. He did not want to join the band because Lanier’s band did not begin to compare with the band he had left behind in Los Angeles.

In a half-hearted effort to find his niche in his new school, he went to a dance following a football game that fall. Vince explains that he had some dance moves that caught the attention of his classmates as well as his principal, Mr. L.B. Buckley. Mr. Buckley was so impressed that he bought Vince a brand new “Bulldog” costume and made Vince the first human mascot in the Jackson Public School System. He danced in front of the band at all the football games and parades. Vince began to enjoy school again.

Damascus Road Experience

Vince graduated from Lanier in 1982, enlisted in the Navy and headed off to San Diego for basic training. He spent seven years in Charleston, South Carolina where he was a cook on a submarine. Military pay was good, and he acquired a taste for partying, sports cars, and motorcycles. He also met Leila, who became his wife.

Vince had always had an interest in law enforcement, so he jumped at the chance for a position as a military policeman in Yokosaka, Japan. He and Leila were young, footloose, and fancy free. They also thought they were rather invincible.

It was in Japan that Vince encountered a group of rather “radical Christians,” as he describes them. They weren’t “churchey,” he says, “but they were relational.” They seemed to really care about others and talked about the Lord as though they had an ongoing relationship with Him. On the one hand, Vince was drawn to them and on the other hand, he wanted to get as far away from them as possible. He liked his fast lifestyle. He had a pretty wife who liked to party as much as he did and they had enough money to spend on most anything they wanted. Those Christians made him uncomfortable.

He had gone to church fairly regularly his entire life – at least often enough to have a nodding acquaintance with God. “Fire insurance,” he laughs. “That’s what I had – just enough religion to keep me out of hell, but no real relationship with the Lord.”

When a disgruntled co-worker accused Vince of gross misconduct and brought serious allegations against him, his attorney advised him to accept a plea bargain or risk significant prison time. The charges were completely false, and Vince refused to admit to something that he had not done. Still, it was a situation of his word against the co-worker’s and there were no witnesses.

Suddenly, all Vince could think about was finding those Christians he had thought were such fanatics and asking them to pray for him. He was on his knees day and night begging God to intervene. “God, if you are real,” he prayed, “Please help me and help me turn my life around.”

Vince stood his ground and refused to plea bargain. Chances were slim and none that he would be able to prove his innocence. He needed a miracle, and he got one.

The trial began and a totally unexpected thing happened. His accuser was called to the stand and admitted under oath that the accusations were all lies. Vince was released. But he was not the same party animal he had been before. He knew God had intervened and Vince Gordon planned to spend the rest of his life serving Him.

God Opens New Doors

Vince left the Navy with an honorable discharge and moved back to Jackson in 1992. Choosing Jackson was really not his idea…it was God’s. He had spent a lot of time praying about what God wanted him to do next, and he says it was only after a great inner struggle that he gave in to God’s clear call. There was something God had for him to do right here, but God was not in a big hurry to show him what it was!

Vince and Leila were expecting their first child when they arrived with no job prospects and no place to live. They moved in with Vince’s mother who lived in a tiny two bedroom house, but Vince vowed that he would have a job and a house before their baby girl was born.

Vince and Tran

“I’ve always been of the mindset that you do what you have to do, and I knew I had to work hard to provide for my wife and baby.” He got two jobs – one at Church’s Fried Chicken and one at a gas station.

Vince bought his first house before Tranquility Gordon arrived on August 4, 1992. That house, Vince believes, was quite a God ordained gift in more ways than one.

The house just happened to be down the street from Dr. John Perkins’ property. Dr. Perkins was often out walking in the early hours of the morning just about the time Vince was starting his prayer time. When Vince found out who that elderly gentleman was, he introduced himself and boldly asked Dr. Perkins if he might consider mentoring him because he was hungry to know God and the scriptures better.

A relationship began that continues to this day. Vince meets Dr. Perkins at 5:30 a.m. one morning a week. “He is definitely a spiritual father to me,” Vince says. God brought other spiritual fathers his way in the next days and years. Bishop Ronnie Crudup of New Horizon Church has also taken Vince under his wing.

Finding enough work was always a challenge, but Vince continued to believe that God had brought him back to Jackson with a specific job in mind. When a neighbor who ran an after school program approached Vince about driving a bus and picking up the children from school, he was glad for the opportunity. He was quickly attached to the children, many of whom reminded him of himself. Many did not have fathers, and he understood why they were so hungry for the attention he could give them. He found himself volunteering to do more than drive the bus. Vince discovered a real passion for working with kids and others recognized how the children responded to him.

When his church, Abundant Life and Bible Fellowship, partnered with Parkway Baptist to do a Summer School Spectacular that year, they asked Vince to head it up. That job led to an interview with Jackson Public Schools as they were hiring instructors and liaisons in their Work Experience Training project, a grant-funded program assisting special needs juniors and seniors with job related skills and employment opportunities. Vince was in his best form. He loved the interaction with the students, and he loved watching the positive transformations that occurred through relationship and through matching a youth with a job that fit their interest and skill level. “It was a beautiful thing,” Vince says.

Three years later Vince was put in charge of the entire project.

Discovering Young Life

One Sunday as he was scouring the classifieds for potential employment opportunities for his JPS students, he noticed a notice for a “Youth Director.” On a whim, he circled it thinking he might be interested in checking it out for himself. He knew by then that working with kids was his passion and his calling. He shoved the paper in the back of his desk drawer and did not think about it again until he was cleaning out that drawer…a year later.

Out of curiosity, he dialed the number. The voice on the other end answered, “Young Life.”

“What is Young Life?” Vince asked and then mentioned the classified. “Is that job still open?”

The cheery voice at the other end of the line connected Vince with Winston Ford who was, at that time, Director over the urban arm of Young Life in the metro area. He encouraged Vince to come volunteer at Lanier where they were in the beginning stages of a new club.

Vince accepted the invitation. Again he was thrown with young people who reminded him of himself. The kids without fathers gravitated to him, and he to them. He wanted to make a difference in the lives of these kids, and Young Life provided the perfect platform. When it came time to attend camp at Windy Gap, North Carolina that summer, Vince went along as a chaperone.

It just happened (a God-thing?) that the Jim Dyson, Vice President of the Southern Division of Young Life was in attendance that week. One afternoon mid-week, he took Vince aside, told him he had been watching the way he got along with the boys in his group, how they respected him and listened to whatever he said to them. He offered him a position and the chance to go to Young Life training in Colorado Springs.

Fifteen years have passed, and Vince’s enthusiasm for working with youth has not dimmed. If anything, he is more passionate than ever because he has grown rich in the experiences and the relationships and has story after story of kids who, like Vince, defied the odds largely because of the impact of Young Life.

Father and Friend

Vince, who is “Dad” to Tranquility, 19, Gabriel, 17, and Joy, 13, delights in that role. But he delights, also, in being able to be a father figure to other people’s kids, too. “Not until I had a personal relationship with my heavenly father, did I understand what I was supposed to be like. I’m supposed to reflect him. I’m supposed to be a giver, a nurturer, help with dreams. As long as I stay focused on my heavenly father, I am a good earthly father to my own children and to the others God entrusts to me.”

And he has gone the extra mile on numerous occasions to help a struggling kid who needed a dad. He has taught them to drive, helped raise funds to bury a family member, opened his home to the homeless, helped them find jobs…but mostly he has given them the foundation of knowing Christ and their heavenly father who is never going to leave them or forsake them.

“When I first gave my life to Christ, it was easy for me to call him Master…Lord…Savior…but it was hard for me to call God, Father,” he says. As he continued to pray, continued to grow in his faith journey, he began to understand how vastly different this heavenly Father was from the earthly father he had known. And God’s grace provided other fathers – those mentors like Dr. Perkins and Bishop Crudup, who have modeled for him the attributes of “father.”

“After all,” he points out. “When the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray, what was the first thing he said? When you pray, say, ‘Our Father.’

It’s a whole different relationship.