Among the verdant green woods of East Texas yesterday, the man who pioneered a harrowing ministry to New York's street gangs died when he drove his luxury car into the path of an 18-wheeler.
The Cross and the Switchblade has proven to be a seminal account of conviction, insight, and tenacity against the odds. David Wilkerson, its author, was an ordinary, WASPish young preacher from small-town Pennsylvania. Yet, in the late 1950's, he felt God calling him to begin an outreach ministry to none other than the gang members and drug addicts of New York City's increasingly violent slums.
Meanwhile, the unprecedented phenomenon of white flight had gripped urban America, as post-war Caucasians scrambled for the pristine suburbs. In the vacuum created by the mass exodus of its employment base and middle class taxpayers, the Big Apple found itself reeling from an epic surge in crime, drug abuse, and acute social dysfunction.
David Wilkerson's Impact
For a white guy who didn't know Spanish, attempting evangelism in Gotham's hardened streets and lethal alleys struck many people as foolhardy. Even in the evangelical church. Most people of faith were fleeing the inner city as fast as everyone else. To them, it was like rushing from a burning building, and then seeing a lone, naiive figure dash back into the inferno to try and rescue others.
Fast forward a couple of decades, and Wilkerson hadn't only evangelized one of Brooklyn's most ruthless thugs, Nicky Cruz, but he had charted a stark new course for how the church can minister cross-culturally. He'd begun one of the country's first urban-based youth outreach programs, Teen Challenge, in Brooklyn. He'd founded an improbable congregation targeted towards the Broadway theater industry and boldly named it Times Square Church. And he'd launched his own Christian leadership ministry, World Challenge, which, among other things, had him scheduled to preach in Haiti and Ireland later this year.
Oddly enough, I'd referenced Wilkerson myself only a few days ago in this very blog while discussing the early years of modern inner-city ministry in New York. If he wasn't the very first to do so, Wilkerson was among the very first to labor for the Kingdom when our modern-day inner city was not a popular place to do so.
Now that Manhattan has defied the odds and become more glamorous than ever, it almost seems like evangelists are swarming over it like it's some sort of lark, doing church with a hip grunge vibe. Back in Wilkerson's early days, it literally was life and death, especially in Brooklyn, where even today, fashionable 'hoods for the newly-arriving Gen-Xers remain few and very far between. When Wilkerson stepped out into Brooklyn's gang-choked avenues, there were no trendy trinkets to salvage from the urban culture, like cigar bars, for helping Christianity fit in and claim credibility. Preaching Christ was all that worked.
Back when I was in high school, I read a yellowed paperback copy of The Cross and the Switchblade that my father, himself a Brooklyn native, owned. Native New Yorkers of faith who stayed in the city had marveled - albeit with a dose of New York skepticism - that somebody from out of town wanted to help them reach their city. My father's family had remained in Brooklyn, even as the rest of the city seemed to be coming apart at the seams.
What struck me about the ministry God gave Wilkerson wasn't its more sensationally charismatic elements. And yes, he claimed to be a pentecostal. Even when I lived in Manhattan after college, my friends at the city's venerable Calvary Baptist Church never really credited Wilkerson as being completely orthodox, although Times Square Church was considered one of the three major evangelical churches in Manhattan at the time, including Redeemer Presbyterian.
No, it was Wilkerson's willingness to be used of God for something few others would embrace or celebrate, or even understand, that challenged me all those years ago. I've never been a risk-taker, and maybe I didn't understand that what God was inviting Wilkerson to do involved considerably more risk than I would think was wise, even today. But it didn't seem so much like risk as it did simple faith and trust in a sovereign Lord. After all, how much risk is really involved if the One Who's leading us has already guaranteed ultimate success?
Which, as I contemplate the sudden passing of Wilkerson, returns to haunt me afresh as I look at where I am in this journey of life. What is risk? What's guaranteed in this journey, and what isn't?
Switchblades and Seatbelts
Unfortunately, a foolhardy element of risk shrouds Wilkerson's death in Texas' Cherokee County. Police officials discovered that he wasn't wearing his seatbelt at the time of the crash. Wilkerson died at the scene, while his wife, a passenger in their white 2008 Infiniti, was airlifted to a hospital in nearby Tyler. The driver of the truck Wilkerson hit head-on was also hospitalized after his truck plunged over the bridge they were both crossing.
The Wilkerson's split their time between New York City and the tiny East Texas town of Lindale. In his late 70's, he'd given up the pulpit ministry at Times Square Church and had been living somewhat under the radar, roving the globe giving seminars and preaching. A small, private family funeral has been tentatively planned in Lindale, with a grander public memorial service in New York later in May.
But good grief - what's up with famous evangelicals not wearing their seatbelts? In 1997, you'll recall that Rich Mullins, driving without his seatbelt on, accidentally flipped his Jeep on a highway. Although being flung from his vehicle didn't kill him, being run-over by a passing tractor-trailer truck did. I'm being blunt to make an ancillary point: 65% of all people killed in car accidents died not wearing their seatbelts. And it's not like buckling up takes a lot of time or is terribly difficult. There aren't many good reasons for not wearing them. Especially for those who should be setting a good example.
Obviously, when it's your time to go, it's your time to go, and nothing can change that. God's sovereignty is perfectly synchronized between our mortality and His eternity. So, although death can come in tragic ways, people of faith have hope in believing His summons to Heaven won't be early or late. But, sheesh - for a man with Wilkerson's ministry pedigree to be killed while not wearing his seatbelt? That's just so sad.
Still, at least as a native Brooklynite, I would be shamefully negligent if I didn't emphasize the extent to which God honored Wilkerson - and the faithfulness with which he served Jesus - among some of the most unloveable people in the world's greatest city. Few people have ministered to New York's unloved in such a Christ-honoring and groundbreaking way. While I'm wary of some of Wilkerson's pentecostal proclivities, I can't help but be grateful for his overall legacy.
Despite all of the success God gave Wilkerson, however, New York in many ways has deeper poverty, darker crime, and more blatant licentiousness than ever before. Indeed, the back-to-the-city ethos Wilkerson helped start can't claim victory anytime soon. But Wilkerson himself, on his blog yesterday sometime before going out on his fateful drive, posted these words:
"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."
And all God's people said, "Amen."