The news was stunning, almost impossible to believe.
An amazing man, author, humanitarian and powerful evangelist, David Wilkerson, was killed in a head-on collision with a 16-wheel semi on a bridge near Tyler, Texas. With him was his dear wife, Gwen, who was critically hurt but expected to survive.
But David Wilkerson, who has been instrumental in the saving and salvation of countless young lives (they’re not necessarily the same thing) was instantly taken from this earthly life.
Literally, several million of us were knocked for a loop. This should not have happened, and it’s still hard to accept that it did. And it’s still hard for me, since for a number of years now I’ve been David Wilkerson.
I played him in one of the most successful independently produced films ever, “The Cross and the Switchblade.” It’s the true, unvarnished story of a very brave and dedicated young man, a Pennsylvania rural preacher, who felt directed by God to go into the mean streets of Harlem, Brooklyn and the Bronx in the 1960s and to try to convince the rampant gang kids who were killing each other in the parks, streets and alleys that there was a better life possible for them.
It was a suicide mission. What chance did a skinny, intense but decidedly “unhip” country preacher have in his efforts to teach gang kids that there was a Jesus who loved them and wanted to lead them to productive, wholesome, drug-free lives? Didn’t he realize they were so crazed, high and alienated that they’d actually get a kick out of killing him and leaving him in a dumpster?
No, he really didn’t.
Young David was “high” in a different way. He had so committed his life to God, in a deep and personal way, that having received “marching orders” from Him, by His Spirit, he was almost irrationally fearless. He marched into a New York City courtroom and interrupted the trial of several young gang kids charged with mercilessly killing a homeless man in Central Park and told the judge he wanted to “help them.” The judge had him thrown out.
The next day, he supernaturally found his way into the basement “headquarters” of the most feared, deadly gang in New York, the “Mau Maus.” As he tried to reach out to these drug-addled killers, the leader, Nicky Cruz, confronted him. When Dave earnestly tried to befriend him, Cruz slapped his face. Hard. Even then, Dave tried again and Cruz, known as the “Garbage Can Killer,” grabbed Wilkerson by the throat, saying he might just cut him up, right then and there.
And Dave looked him in the eye, earnestly uttering a now famous statement, “You can do that, Nicky. You can cut me into a thousand pieces and throw ‘em in the street – and every piece will still be saying ‘God loves you.’” As corny as that may sound to some, it pierced through the violent, angry shell that made Nicky Cruz such a cold-hearted gang leader. It would be weeks later, in a Christian rally that Dave organized in St. Nick’s arena, after he preached one of the most dynamic, heart-rending sermons I ever heard, that Nicky Cruz came forward and gave his tortured, lonely heart to the Lord.
Today, and for many years, Nicky Cruz has been an incredibly effective evangelist to street kids, druggies, lost and alienated young people all over this country and internationally. He’s written several big best-selling books, beginning with “Run, Baby, Run,” which was eventually made into a movie.
That, in microcosm, is the story of David Wilkerson. His whole adult life was spent in changing the lives of others. He founded Teen Challenge, the most effective drug rehabilitation program in history. All across urban America, and in some other countries as well, strung-out, hopelessly ruined addicts find their way to a Teen Challenge center – and in days, sometimes hours, they leave free and clean and with an inner power that connects them to their loving Creator. The cure rate is almost 80 percent, unapproached by any other program.
I read “The Cross and the Switchblade” on a flight to Mexico City. I was intrigued by the title and wondered what connection there could be between the two. I got my first serious “goose bumps” on Page 33, reading about the miracle that led David to the basement gang room in Harlem. By the time I got to Mexico City, I felt I was supposed to get a movie made of that story.
When I contacted David on a phone call to New York, he let me know he had no desire to see his story on a movie screen. But he invited me to another of his rallies in the Anaheim Convention Center, and it was there I saw a miracle right before my eyes. When the preacher issued an invitation for the lost, alienated young people to come forward and receive their Savior, I watched a man who stumbled up, obviously hopelessly high and “out of it” on some drug. I wondered silently what Wilkerson or his counselors could do for this guy. Before my eyes, I saw two volunteers put their hands on his shoulders, and pray silently for him. And in two minutes, this man was clear headed and tearfully committing his life to Jesus!
I told David how surprised I was, and he simply said, “God does this kind of thing in our ministry all the time. If He didn’t, I’d have been dead long ago.”
Well, I and others got the movie made. I portrayed this brave man the best I could, praying every day for the same miraculous power and saving grace in the role that David had depended on as he lived the story. We filmed in the same streets and basements of Harlem and Ft. Green (doing the face-slapping scene in the very room where it had happened), without the protection of New York City police, who said we were crazy to risk doing it.
That film, the story of David Wilkerson, is still circulating around the globe, in more than 20 languages. Every time it screens, people’s lives are changed. David has entered heaven now, but his ministry goes on and on.
I’m grateful to have portrayed him for a while.