The ministries of David Wilkerson, one of Christianity’s great servants – Teen Challenge, The Cross and the Switchblade, Times Square Church, “Prayer in the Square” – suggest that his accomplishments could be traced, as the saying goes, to who he knew.
Since nothing about David Wilkerson’s life was normal (like the rest of us would mean “conventional” or “predictable”) it probably is appropriate that his death was not normal either. Enough people die every week from highway collisions with big tractor trailers, but this man spent years going into drug hangouts and gang hideouts, and preached on street corners of violent neighborhoods, and had bodyguards as he established urban churches, and never was harmed. A car crash in rural Texas seems an ironic way to die.
David was shy of his 80th birthday when he was killed on April 27. It is possible that some Americans, even some Christians, have forgotten his name. If that is true, it is not just; his works have been branded on the American culture, all for the good. He was a founder of Teen Challenge, the youth counseling and substance-abuse recovery program that has an 80 per cent success rate versus scratch in secular programs. There are now almost 1200 Teen Challenge centers around the world. He wrote the book The Cross and the Switchblade, about his inner-city ministry among gangs. It was a best-seller, and the movie starring Pat Boone and Eric Estrada has gone on to be one of the most-watched motion pictures of all time. Nicky Cruz, the former gang leader at the center of the book, has established his own far-flung ministry, as have countless other people touched by David.
Not everyone, of course, whose lives were transformed through David’s service are Christian celebrities today. Most of them merely live cleaned-up, straightened-out, redeemed, and productive lives, if you can use the word “merely” about momentous changes in the lives of drunks, drug addicts, prostitutes, and everyday sinners like us all. David was a founder of Times Square Church, right in the center of Manhattan and “at the crossroads of the world.” And Times Square Church, with the Salvation Army, has hosted “Prayer in the Square” events -– 15,000+ people gathering annually in Times Square to sing, praise Jesus, and pray for city, nation, and world.
A remarkable life. I did not know David Wilkerson, but have a couple connections that led me to realize a spiritual lesson when I heard of his death. I once edited the autobiography of the widow of Hobart Grazier, professor and early leader of Valley Forge Christian College. She was the mother of a friend, and I was amused that the amateur writer’s manuscript made big deals of minor events, and treated more interesting matters casually. Like when Grazier, a Pennsylvania minister, took his family to Springfield MO, to his denomination’s headquarters. At the last minute a young local guy asked to ride along; after the trip he became involved in ministry. I read the passage, which contained no other information about the fellow other than his name, and I asked my friend, “Bev, is your mom writing about THAT David Wilkerson?”
She was. Now, God would have led David in some way, somehow, some time, to ministry, I suppose; but I was reminded of the verse in Ecclesiastes: “time and chance happeneth to them all.” The New Living Translation has it: “It is all decided by chance, by being in the right place at the right time.”
A couple years later, my son and I attended a technology show in New York with a couple of friends and their sons on a Sunday afternoon. With Sunday morning free, we wanted to worship at Times Square Church. Despite the fact that it is housed in a cavernous, elegant old Broadway theater (the former Mark Hellinger Theatre), it was filled to capacity. We were invited to check out the overflow-rooms with their TV screens. Also SRO, out into the hallways. Imagine – a Pentecostal church in midtown Manhattan, this crowded. But in a back stairwell, we encountered David Wilkerson, on his way to open the service. One of my friends had never met him, but introduced himself. He was a graduate of Oral Roberts University, and his father, Michael Cardone, had endowed buildings there and at Evangel College in Springfield, the place where David had hitched a ride so many years earlier. In several minutes we had seats -– better than front-row seats, right behind the pulpit, facing the “house.”
I tell this story to remind readers that when you have no juice, choose your friends carefully. No, seriously, it is to explain the vantage-point we had: looking out over thousands of worshipers in the audience and in tier after tier of balconies. The service was as Pentecostal as you might expect at a small Southern church, or in the Upper Room in the Book of Acts. But the astonishing aspect I was privileged to see was the composition of the congregation. Kids in T-shirts and homeless people overdue for baths and shaves -– side-by-side with upscale society women and suburban men in expensive suits. Every age, every color, every accent. Serious in worship, ecstatic in prayer. All one, as in the Upper Room, or, indeed, as Heaven will be. All under the inspiring preaching of David Wilkerson. “Hard preaching”: none of this “gentle message” to coax people in and afraid to give offense.
Times Square Church began, I think in 2007, to hold “Prayer in the Square” events. A video summary can be clicked on below. A similar video clip has gone viral, showing Muslims on their knees in prayer in uptown Manhattan, e-forwarded with the critical message that this is a weekly event that clogs traffic. But that, in fact, is an occasional celebration, not regular; with fewer participants -– in other words, the report is exaggerated. But how many of us have seen the annual Wilkerson prayer session in Times Square itself, 15,000-strong? TV, radio, newspapers, internet -– where are you?
This astonishing event is but one of the many, many ministries for which David Wilkerson was responsible. But he was also a prophet of God, an old-fashioned, Old-Testament prophet. Wikipedia lists some of the prophecies David made in his 1973 book The Vision.
Worldwide recession caused by economic confusion:
“An economic recession that’s going to affect the life style of every wage-earner in the world. The world economists are going to be at loss to explain what’s happening. It’s going to start in Europe, spread to Japan and finally to the United States.”
“There will be a move toward a worldwide, unified monetary system. The US dollar will be hit bad and it will take years for it to recover.”
Nature having labor pains:
“There will be major earthquakes… Floods, hurricanes and tornadoes will increase in frequency.”
“A new kind of cosmic storm appearing as a raging fire in the sky leaving a kind of vapor trail.”
A flood of filth and a baptism of dirt in America:
“Topless women will appear on television, followed by full nudity… Sex and the occult will be mixed.”
“There will be an acceptance of homosexuality, and the church will even say that it is a God-given gift.”
A persecution madness against truly Spirit-filled Christians who love Jesus Christ:
“There will arise a world church consisting of a union between liberal ecumenical Protestants and the Roman Catholic Church, using Christ in name only.”
“There will be a hate-Christ movement.”
“Homosexual and lesbian ministers will be ordained and this will be heralded as a new breed of pioneer.”
“There will be a spiritual awakening behind the Iron and Bamboo Curtains.”
So, the legacy of David Wilkerson is not only the countless lives that have been helped, but also countless lives that have been warned.
I titled this message after the parlor-game Six Degrees of Separation (how, with the right friends-of-friends, most of us can know anyone). Mrs Grazier and Mr Cardone gave me near-associations with David Wilkerson. Well, the day I heard about his death, I read a sports column about the New York Mets catcher Mike Nickeas: “He is teammates with Jason Isringhausen, who played with Bobby Bonilla, who played with Carlton Fisk, who played with Carl Yastrzemski, who played with Jackie Jensen, who played with Joe DiMaggio, who played with Lou Gehrig, who was Babe Ruth’s teammate.” Connections.
And I transferred the thought to David Wilkerson. Let’s see: David Wilkerson knew Jesus… And that’s it. He was an obedient servant, a doer of the Word and not a hearer only. He surely had a special anointing, but we all can know Jesus just as intimately. The Holy Spirit makes special endowments, but we may all seek, and receive, spiritual gifts. What do we do with them? That answer -– David Wilkerson’s example -– might be his greatest legacy.
Rick Marschall is the author of more than 60 books and hundreds of magazine articles in many fields, from popular culture (Bostonia Magazine called him “perhaps America’s foremost authority on popular culture”) to history and criticism; country music, television history, biography and children’s books. He is a former political cartoonist, editor of Marvel Comics, and writer for Disney comics. For 10 years he has been active in the Christian field, writing devotionals; co-authoring The Secret Revealed with Dr Jim Garlow; and writing a biography of Johann Sebastian Bach for the “Christian Encounters” series to be published by Thomas Nelson (2011). Rick is a former Director of Product Development for Youth Specialties. He is recipient of the 2008 “Christian Writer of the Year” award from the Greater Philadelphia Writer’s Conference, and produces a weekly e-mail devotional, “Monday Morning Music Ministry.” His e-mail address is: AmericaCiv@aol.com.