When I was a teenager, I somehow came across a book with the title, “The Cross and the Switchblade.” The true story was about a skinny, young Assemblies of God preacher from Pennsylvania who, in 1958, felt called to go to New York City to attempt to speak to some gang members who had been arrested for murder. He never met those particular gang members but, in 1959, he began a journey that led him to minister among the gangs of New York City.
Wilkerson would, in 1960, establish what would eventually become a world-wide drug and alcohol rehab ministry called “Teen Challenge,” with 414 centers. In 1987, Wilkerson returned to New York to found Times Square Church which grew to over 8,000 members with a congregation that represented over 100 nationalities.
A movie, with the same title as the book, would be produced with Pat Boone playing the part of David Wilkerson and Erik Estrada playing the role of gang leader Nicky Cruz. Since 1963, the book has been released in 30 languages and read by over 15 million people.
For me, a high school student with limited church and spiritual experience, the book was transforming. As I read through the pages I was made aware, for the very first time, that the works of God were not confined to the pages of the Bible and to a long-ago past period in history. God, who had always been real but distant to me, came alive in stunning clarity through the words of Wilkerson.
Nicky Cruz, the gang leader mentioned earlier, had a powerful conversion experience and became an evangelist. Several years after I had read the book, I was home on leave from the Marines and took my young teenage brother to a Nicky Cruz Crusade at Dobyns-Bennett High School in Kingsport, Tenn. As Cruz shared his testimony of a changed life and spoke about the power of God, many people were affected. When the call was given to accept Christ, one of the many people who went to the front was my brother.
Over the years, a number of people from the churches I served had their own problems with drugs and alcohol and made the difficult journey to a new life through the Teen Challenge program.
For 19 years of my life, I was either a layman or a minister in the Assemblies of God. One of the reasons was the example and influence of David Wilkerson. Although I never met him, he helped to shape the early course of my life of faith.
Last week, on April 27, on U.S. Highway 175 in Texas, David Wilkerson, age 79, was killed in a collision with a tractor-trailer when his car unexpectedly veered into the path of the truck. His wife, Gwen, a passenger in the car was injured but was in fair condition in ICU. The truck driver was treated and released.
Among the last words Wilkerson wrote, on the very day of the accident, were these:
“To those going through the valley and shadow of death, hear this word: Weeping will last through some dark, awful nights — and in that darkness you will soon hear the Father whisper, ‘I am with you. I cannot tell you why right now, but one day it will all make sense. You will see it was all part of my plan. It was no accident. It was no failure on your part. Hold fast. Let me embrace you in your hour of pain.’ Beloved, God has never failed to act but in goodness and love. When all means fail — his love prevails. Hold fast to your faith. Stand fast in his Word. There is no other hope in this world.”
[David Epps is the pastor of the Cathedral of Christ the King, 4881 Hwy. 34 E., Sharpsburg, GA 30277. Services are held Sundays at 8:30 and 10 a.m. (www.ctkcec.org) He is the bishop of the Mid-South Diocese (www.midsouthdiocese.org) and is the mission pastor of Christ the King Fellowship in Champaign, IL. He may be contacted at email@example.com.]