Preacher whose crusade to bring the Word to New York’s gang members
became a global mission
David Wilkerson was an energetic Pentecostal preacher who abandoned a
quiet Pennsylvania parish to live among teenage hoodlums in Brooklyn.
The Cross and the Switchblade, the resulting account of
Wilkerson’s mission to evangelise young New York gangsters, soon became
a classic in Christian circles. More than 15 million copies of the book,
which Wilkerson co-wrote with John and Elizabeth Sherrill, have been
sold worldwide; it was also published in comic-strip form, adapted as a
feature film, and it has been printed in more than 30 languages since
its first appearance in 1963.
Wilkerson’s involvement began late one night when, flicking through the
pages of a copy of Life magazine,
he chanced upon a sketch of a teenage gangster, one of seven members of
the Egyptian Dragons gang on trial in New York for murdering a
15-year-old boy who had had polio.
Struck by the gangster’s expression — which he described as a mixture of
“bewilderment, hatred and despair” — Wilkerson began to weep, and feel
an urge to travel the 250 miles from his parish in Philipsburg,
Pennsylvania, to the courtroom in New York.
His attempt to interrupt court proceedings and tell the Egyptian Dragons
about salvation failed. Wilkerson was thrown out by the judge. But the
following year, 1959, he moved his young family to the
Bedford-Stuyvesant neighbourhood in Brooklyn, and began, with his
brother Donald, a courageous attempt to reconcile warring gangs of black
and white youths, and convince them that “the Cross” was mightier than
the switchblade (flick knife).
One of his converts, Nicky Cruz, went on to write his own successful
account of abandoning crime for godliness, Run,
Baby, Run, and Cruz was
played by Erik Estrada in the 1970 film of The
Cross and the Switchblade. Pat Boone took the part of Wilkerson, who
by then was greatly in demand across the US, as a speaker at youth
crusades that attempted to evangelise “goodniks”, restless middle-class
youths thought at risk of being seduced into a life of drugs, and crime.
Wilkerson explained at the time: “I don’t harangue them with Hell and
Judgment, because many of them are living in all kinds of Hell right
now. I tell them Jesus understands their problems, and that a personal
relationship with him will fill the gap in their lives.”
In 1967 Wilkerson founded Cure (Collegiate Urban Renewal Effort) Corps,
a programme offering Christian college graduates the chance to work for
two years in the drug-plagued Bronx. He had also founded Teenage
Evangelism — an initiative now known as Teen Challenge that offers a
Bible-based residential rehabilitation programme for young drug addicts
and alcoholics. This was launched in 1958 from a small office in Staten
Island, New York, with Wilkerson holding rallies on gang turf — meetings
through which many gang leaders and members were converted. In 1960 the
headquarters of Teen Challenge moved to a large Georgian house in
Brooklyn, which provided protection for drug addicts and gang members as
well as beds and shelter for troubled and homeless youths.
Teen Challenge has since grown to include 173 residential programmes and
numerous evangelism outreach centres in the US, and 241 centres in 77
other countries. Many of its “graduates” (including former drug addicts,
alcoholics, gang members and prostitutes) now serve as Christian
ministers and missionaries throughout the world.
David Wilkerson was born in Indiana in 1931, the son and grandson of
Pentecostal preachers. He first felt the call to ministry at the age of
8 and, after studying at Springfield Central Bible College in Montana,
was ordained in 1952. The same year he was married to Gwendolyn Carosso,
whose father had been pastor of the church that Wilkerson had attended
while growing up.
After 11 years in New York they abandoned the capital for Texas, where
in 1971 Wilkerson set up the headquarters of his ministry, World
Challenge Inc. But he would return regularly to New York to lead prayer
meetings in the Bronx, and in 1987 set up a church in Times Square, an
area notorious for its sex shows, streetwalkers and drug addicts.
Wilkerson claimed that God had asked him to found the church, explaining
that one night in 1986, finding himself in the area near Times Square,
he had been horrified to see children as young as 9 or 10 high on crack.
“I’ve got the drug that killed Len,” one dealer cried, referring to Len
Bias, the star basketball player who had just died after taking an
overdose of crack.
In despair, Wilkerson begged God for help, saying: “You’ve got to raise
up a testimony in this hellish place.” God, he said, replied to him:
“Well, you know the city. You’ve been here. You do it.” And so in
October 1987, Wilkerson opened the Times Square Church, renting theatres
around the square for the initial meetings.
Eventually, two years later, he bought the ornate Mark Hellinger
Theatre, where to this day a congregation of nearly 8,000, ranging from
well-heeled New Yorkers to the homeless, gather regularly for
non-denominational Protestant services, with an emphasis on healing
prayer and a style of worship drawing on the Pentecostal tradition. More
than 100 nationalities are represented in the congregation.
Wilkerson was greatly in demand internationally as a preacher, latterly
preaching to pastors and their wives in an attempt to help them to
rediscover their “passion” for Jesus. He was also an author of nearly 40
works, many of which had prophetic overtones. They included The
Vision (1974), which
relayed a series of divine apparitions that Wilkerson had allegedly
Other books included I’m
not Mad at God (1967), Sipping
Saints — Do Christianity and Drinking Mix? (1978), Set
the Trumpet to Thy Mouth (1985), Revival
on Broadway (1996) and America’s
Until the end of his life Wilkerson would regularly give warnings of
future race riots and natural disasters. Writing on his blog “David
Wilkerson Today” in 2009, he warned that “an earth-shattering calamity
is about to happen . . . we are all going to tremble — even the godliest
Wilkerson died in a car crash in Texas. He is survived by his wife,
Gwendolyn, who was seriously injured in the accident, and by two
daughters and two sons, the latter both Christian ministers.
David Wilkerson, preacher and author, was born on May 19, 1931. He
died on April 27, 2011, aged 79