Born MAY 19, 1931
The skinny preacher stood on a sidewalk in the Fort Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn, holding his Bible. He’d just prayed with four young gang members to become Christians. Then, two leaders of the gang known as the Mau Maus stepped forward. One of them, Nicky Cruz, threatened to kill the preacher.
“You could cut me in a thousand pieces,” the preacher responded, “and lay them out in the street and every piece would love you.”
That initial encounter between the Indiana-born Assemblies of God pastor and the Puerto Rican gang member Nicky Cruz helped establish the title of the book The Cross and the Switchblade, which introduced millions of readers to David Wilkerson.
GOING TO THE GANGS
A few months before that, in February of 1958, David thumbed through a copy of Life magazine during an early morning prayer time, and a picture caught his attention. Not a photo, but a sketch of seven gang members, all teens, on trial in New York for murdering another boy. David felt compelled to try to help them. He sensed it as a call from God, instructing him, “Go to New York City and help those boys.”
The pastor shared the burden with his congregation. They took an offering, raising enough money for a round trip to New York. David made it to the courtroom. When he approached the judge’s bench, policemen took him into custody. For all they knew David was one of the callers who’d threatened the judge’s life. A photographer from the New York Daily News took David’s picture. That photo appeared on the front page of the next day’s news-paper. It gave David clout with gang members when he showed up in their neighborhoods.
David couldn’t help the young men whose trial he’d visited, but the burden to reach out to some of America’s neediest youth still burned in his heart. He resigned his church and moved his family to New York. David opened an office out of which to operate what would soon be called Teen Challenge. He held street meetings to help as many drug addicts and gang members as possible. He eventually established a center in Brooklyn to aid addicts in kicking the habit. Among the first to trade their violent lifestyle for the Christian faith were Israel Narveaz and formerly hate-filled Nicky Cruz of the Mau Maus.
EDUCATING THE CHURCH
God was rescuing New York’s youth from destructive lifestyles. David wanted the church world to know. He traveled to churches, promoting the Teen Challenge ministry by letting the former addicts and other converts from the streets share their stories.
Word about Teen Challenge kept spreading. Financial support arrived from other religious groups glad for the ministry’s redemptive work. Those funds permitted needed expansion. The Teen Challenge Training Center opened in Rehrersburg, Pennsylvania. Other Teen Challenge centers sprang up in other cities.
In 1963, the book The Cross and the Switchblade introduced the Teen Challenge story to the rest of the world. That book has now sold at least 15 million copies and been translated into more than 30 languages. In 1970, a film version featured Pat Boone as David Wilker-son and Erik Estrada as Nicky Cruz.
A BIGGER CHALLENGE
David’s speaking, writing, and other ministry opportunities had drastically expanded by 1971. He decided to relocate his headquarters to Lindale, Texas, naming the ministry World Challenge, Inc.
Then, in 1986, while ministering in New York City, David saw something that shocked him. He witnessed an epidemic of pre-teens, addicted to hard drugs. He cried out to God to send someone to make a difference. As clear as the call to go to New York nearly three decades earlier, David sensed God prompting him with, “You know the city, David. You’ve been here. You do it.”
He did. David and his wife Gwen returned to New York where he opened Times Square Church in Manhattan (51st street and Broadway). He continued preaching straightforward sermons like he had for decades on the street, in the pulpit and in print. The church’s diverse congregation, which has grown into almost 8,000, includes at least 100 nation-alities.
David’s most recent outreach to those in need is the feeding program Please Pass the Bread, which feeds children in poverty-stricken areas of the world. The program’s mission is to provide “bread for the hungry stomach, Bread of Life for the starving soul.”
Untold lives around the world have been touched through David’s obedient life. There’s one more piece of his story that matters. Before the early morning prayer time in 1958 that led David to New York, something else happened. He was praying because he’d decided to dedicate the time he normally sat mindlessly in front of his television to being with God. He sold his TV. He began setting those same hours aside to call on God and to listen.
David’s life of service to God and to those who need God came to an abrupt halt in a car accident on April 27, 2011. The programs birthed during his fifty-five years of ministry will continue changing lives for many decades to come.
LET ME KNOW: How has David’s story informed, encouraged, or otherwise helped you? I welcome your comments.
Larsen, Timothy, ed. Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2003.
Wilkerson, David. The Cross and the Switchblade. 13th ed. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Chosen Books, 2000.
Learn more about David Wilkerson from the following resources————-
From this page on the World Challenge website, you can follow David’s life via an interactive timeline, experience his preaching with audio and video sermons and read Pulpit Sermon Newsletters by either David or his son Gary-http://www.worldchallenge.org/en/about_david_wilkerson.
There’s a great YouTube overview of David’s life of ministry here-http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vN003GSowpg as well as other videos.
To find out what happened to Nicki Cruz, check here- http://www.nickycruz.org/.
For more about Please Pass the Bread, check here-http://www.worldchallenge.org/en/missions/2011/please-pass-the-bread.