Rev. David Wilkerson
David Wilkerson, the Pennsylvania pastor who famously interrupted a New York City gang murder trial, founded Teen Challenge to reach out to drug addicts, was the main character in “The Cross and the Switchblade,” created Times Square Church and inspired World Challenge Inc., has died as the result of a car crash in Texas.
Ray Comfort, the founder of Living Waters ministry and author of a long list of books on Christian faith and ministry, told WND of the awe with which he observed the life of Willkerson, 79, who was reported killed in a car crash in East Texas late Wednesday.
Comfort told WND that Wilkerson was one of his heroes, for his outreach to New York City gang members, his authorship of the 1963 book “The Cross and the Switchblade” about his ministry to hardened gang members and other work.
“I was deeply saddened when my daughter called and said that he had been killed in a car accident. Of course there was the sweet knowledge that he was with the Lord, but there was also the bitter reality that we no longer had him here on earth,” Comfort said.
“His passing brought back a flood of memories. Back in 1980, I screened the movie that was based on his best-selling book, ‘The Cross and the Switchblade.’ It starred Erik Estrada (from the television series CHiPs) as Nicky Cruz, the hardened gang member who mocked the naive country preacher who had come to his rough neighborhood,” he said.
Comfort continued with his story of how he later met Wilkerson:
I loved the way Wilkerson trusted God and went to New York, gave his shoes to some hoodlum, and ended up walking around the city in his socks. He epitomized the love that each of us should have for the lost. I decided there and then that I had to fly David Wilkerson seven thousand miles to New Zealand for a series of meetings.
New Zealand is about 16 hours ahead of New York, so I climbed out of bed at 2:00 a.m. on a Tuesday morning, and put a long distance call through to the United States. After about 40 minutes of complications, I finally got through to the church and was disappointed to hear a busy signal.
The next morning I got up at the same time, and after another 40 or so minutes I was able to contact his personal secretary. I boldly said, “May I speak to David Wilkerson please?” Any second now and I would be speaking to the man himself. The voice came back, “Mr. Wilkerson is not available.” I said, “But I’m calling from New Zealand!” Once again I heard a stern, “Mr. Wilkerson is not available.” I placed the phone down, and felt a little stupid. David Wilkerson was untouchable.
Fast-forward 13 years to 1993. Sue and I were now living in the U.S. A few years earlier, a pastor had heard a teaching called “Hell’s Best Kept Secret,” had said, “America must hear this message!”and invited us to base our ministry in Southern California.
A woman had called my office and said that David Wilkerson had also heard “Hell’s Best Kept Secret” and wanted to speak with me. He would be calling in a few minutes. When the phone rang, I quickly picked it up, and sure enough it was that famous voice. He wanted to fly me from Los Angeles to New York to share the teaching with his church. I could hardly believe my ears.
A few days later, I was sitting wide-eyed having lunch with David Wilkerson in New York City. Just me and him. It was almost like having lunch with John the Baptist. Seriously. I hardly heard a word he said because I kept thinking, “That is David Wilkerson! It’s him. The man. I could reach out and poke him in the eye. I can’t believe this!”
Texas authorities say the accident happened on a Neches River bridge on Highway 175 when Wilkerson’s vehicle swerved into the path of an 18-wheeler carrying lumber.
Authorities report Wilkerson’s wife, Gwen, was hospitalized with injuries. It was unclear what caused the Wilkerson vehicle to swerve into the other lane.
Wilkerson himself described how God drew him to New York to reach out to gang members:
The whole strange adventure got its start one night as I sat in my study reading Life magazine. I merely turned a page, and at first glance it seemed there was nothing to interest me. The page showed a pen drawing of a trial taking place in New York City, 350 miles away from my home in rural Pennsylvania. I’d never been to New York, and I’d never wanted to go, except perhaps to see the Statue of Liberty.
I started to flip the page over. But as I did, something caught my eye. It was the eyes of a figure in the drawing – a boy. He was one of seven boys on trial for murder. I held the magazine closer to get a better look. The artist had captured a look of bewilderment, hatred and despair in the young boy’s features. Suddenly, I began to cry.
“What’s the matter with me?” I wondered, impatiently brushing away a tear. Then I looked at the picture more carefully. The boys were all teenagers. They were members of a gang called the Dragons. Beneath the picture was the story of how they had been in Highbridge Park in New York when they brutally attacked and killed a fifteen-year-old polio victim named Michael Farmer.
The story revolted me. It literally turned my stomach. In our little mountain town, such things seemed mercifully unbelievable. Yet I was dumbfounded by the next thought that sprang into my head. It came to me full-blown, as if from somewhere else: Go to New York and help those boys.
The thought startled me. “I’d be a fool to do that,” I reasoned. “I know nothing about kids like these. And I don’t want to know anything.”
It was no use. The idea wouldn’t go away. I was to go to New York. And I was to do it at once, while the trial was still in progress.
That was in 1958, and in that famous early encounter with gang members, he was challenged as a wealthy intruder to their turf. He was confronted by a gang member who pointed to his suit and fancy shoes. Wilkerson took off his shoes, handed them to the gang member and walked in his socks down the sidewalk back to his car.
The movie made from “The Cross and the Switchblade,” in which he was portrayed by Pat Boone, remains a powerful message decades later. It starred Erik Estrada as gang member Nicky Cruz, who now runs his own Christian outreach and ministry in Colorado Springs.
Boone, who writes commentary on WND, said Wilkerson was “bold and uncompromising” and pursued what he believed God told him to do “without regard to personal consequences.”
He described Wilkerson as a prophet like those in the Bible.
“He was just so resolute and determined to do what he felt God wanted him to do.”
Boone recalled one time during the making of the movie when he was working with Estrada, then a new actor. In the scene, the Mau Mau gang leader Cruz, played by Estrada, is confronting the Pennsylvania pastor in fear and loathing.
Estrada’s character was reacting to expressions of love by Boone’s character.
“When I said, ‘God loves you,’ he spits on me, and rattled my teeth time after time,” Boone recalled to WND. “David Wilkerson walked into that place and watched me get slammed time after time after time. He said, ‘That’s exactly the way it happened.'”
Then Wilkerson told the crew that the room they were using as the Mau Mau headquarters for the film was the actual tenement basement where that incident had happened years earlier – when it was the headquarters of the Cruz-led Mau Mau gang.
He also recalled when the crew obtained permission to do the filming in Harlem, police granted the request but warned, “You’re fools to film in these streets. We’re not going to risk our men to defend and protect you. You’re on your own.'”
Wilkerson ultimately returned to New York in 1987 to found the Times Square Church. As the ministry developed, he seamlessly reached out through new technology and had been posting daily devotions on the World Challenge website.
His last, posted yesterday, was titled, “When All Means Fail,” and taught trust in God:
Blessed are those who believe when there is no evidence of an answer to prayer—who trust beyond hope when all means have failed.
Someone has come to the place of hopelessness – the end of hope – the end of all means. A loved one is facing death and doctors give no hope. Death seems inevitable. Hope is gone. The miracle prayed for is not happening.
That is when Satan’s hordes come to attack your mind with fear, anger, overwhelming questions: “Where is your God now? You prayed until you had no tears left. You fasted. You stood on promises. You trusted.”
Even questioning God’s existence will be injected into your mind. These have been the devices of Satan for centuries. Some of the godliest men and women who ever lived were under such demonic attacks.
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.”
Pastor Carter Conlon of the Times Square Church said a memorial service at the church will be held at a date yet to be determined and streamed live on the Internet “to give an opportunity for all to participate.”
“Pastor David Wilkerson’s was a life fully given for the glory of God and souls of men,” Conlon said.
He was greatly loved and he will be greatly missed.”
Teen Challenge USA said in a statement, “‘Brother Dave’ was used by God in 1958 to reach out to gang members in New York City. Through that singular act of obedience, tens of thousands of those bound by drug, alcohol and other addictions have found freedom through Jesus Christ – there are 233 centers in the U.S., and 1,187 total worldwide, providing help to as many as 25,000 people needing deliverance through the power of God.”
The Christian Broadcasting Network portrayed his life and impact:
Wilkerson is survived by his wife, four children and 11 grandchildren.