Back in 1958, rural Pennsylvania pastor David Wilkerson was stirred by a Life magazine photo of teenage street thugs – and felt compelled by the Holy Spirit to go talk to the young gangsters.
However, he found himself on the dark, dangerous streets of one of Brooklyn’s worst housing projects, facing off with a laughing teenage “warlord” who flashed a switchblade, expecting the country preacher to retreat in fright.
Instead, Wilkerson told Nicky Cruz that even if sliced into little pieces, each one of them would love the kid.
Nicky’s life was never again the same.
Wilkerson died May 27 in a traffic accident at age 79.
Today Cruz is an author and evangelist based in Colorado Springs who spearheads outreaches to street kids. He regularly speaks in crusades worldwide – often with Wilkerson’s son, Gary.
Of Dave’s sudden death, “It’s like somebody who was not only my spiritual father, but much more than that is gone,” says Cruz. This week Nicky begins a series of outreaches in the Ukraine to street gangs and teens. He spoke at Wilkerson’s funeral last week.
“I’ve always felt badly that I wasn’t closer to my own father,” he says. His dad was an occult healer in rural Las Piedras, Puerto Rico, who put Nicky on a plane to New York when he was just a boy, shipping him off to relatives, rather than try to deal with the adolescent’s rebellion.
That story is told in Cruz’s bestselling Run Baby Run as well as in Wilkerson’s The Cross and the Switchblade, which became a Hollywood movie starring Pat Boone as Wilkerson and Erik Estrada as Cruz. Both books have been translated into more than 30 languages and continue to sell worldwide 50 years later.
“Dave became my spiritual father and was like my earthly father, too,” remembers Cruz. “He advised me about little things as well as big ones. He loved my kids. A year ago, we all got together. As he looked around at my children and my grandchildren, his eyes just lighted up. He was so proud of all of them.”
Wilkerson could be tough, remembers Cruz. “Always Dave preached righteousness and he lived it, too. A lot of people thought he was harsh. But he had a tender heart. He was just a Teddy bear. He cared deeply and passionately about people and their relationship with the Lord.
“Dave was a generous, giving person. You know, he was like the angel who stirred the pool in John, chapter 5. He stirred and gave. He started Teen Challenge, then gave it away.” Teen Challenge today is a worldwide network of Christian rehabilitation centers.
“He got World Challenge going down in Texas,” recalls Nicky, “and gave it all away, too, to those who would carry on the work. Then he founded Times Square Church and gave it away when it was time.”
Wilkerson’s death shook him, says Nicky.
“It hurts. It hurts really bad. I miss him. I know I will see him again. I will spend eternity with him.
“But I will be there because he was bold enough in the power of the Holy Spirit to tell a kid holding a switchblade in his face that Jesus loved me.
“I have lost somebody who changed my life forever.”