David Wilkerson: Obituary in The Times

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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 experienced.

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 Last Call(1998).

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 among us”.

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 ©2011. Click site map to navigate
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