In Memoriam: David Wilkerson

It is perhaps ironic that David Wilkerson was mentioned here last month, just before his untimely death. In our feature article on Tim Dilena’s call back to his roots in New York City, Wilkerson is referred to as Tim’s spiritual advisor. It’s not surprising, since David Wilkerson was the spiritual father to many, a man who taught a generation of evangelicals how to love street people, prostitutes and pimps; how to give hope to the hopeless and life-saving help to those bound by addiction. His passing is a profound loss to the church.

He was first called to the mean streets of New York City in the 50’s to advocate outside a courthouse for seven teenagers on trial for murder. He’d only just read about them in the pages of Life magazine. He decided to preach to whomever he met, passers-by, the media, gang members – many of whom mocked him, called him out and threatened violence.

Among the mockers was Nicky Cruz, the notorious leader of the much-feared Brooklyn gang, the Mau-Maus. Cruz, now an evangelist in his own right, says of Wilkerson “…if it weren’t for David Wilkerson, I’d be in the pit of hell today.” Shocked by Wilkerson’s unflinching and undaunted pursuit, Nicky Cruz remembers a time when he sneered at the skinny street preacher: “He wanted me to receive the Holy Spirit and to speak in tongues. I told him I’d rather learn Italian because I’d just met a pretty Italian girl.”

Though Wilkerson is probably best-known as the author of The Cross and the Switchblade, credited as one of the most influential of the 20th Century for evangelical Christians by Christianity Today, his real impact extends far beyond the best-selling book. Indeed, a chapter in the book describes how Wilkerson explains to a Catholic priest that former drug addicts who receive the baptism in the Holy Spirit have more power to live for God. According to Charisma News, this chapter had a great influence on the popular Catholic author and columnist Bert Ghezzi, and a generation of Catholics who started the Catholic charismatic movement.

Around the Pierson Center, we remember him most as the founder of Teen Challenge. Through this single, pioneering effort and fearless example, he has impacted the lives of thousands “not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power.”

David Wilkerson created the foundation and the framework for our ministry. The success of the Teen Challenge program is well-known. It is the direct result of Wilkerson’s evangelical and Pentecostal theology. Teen Challenge is the oldest, largest and most successful drug recovery program of its kind. It now has over 170 centers in the United States and 250 worldwide. According to Dr. George Wood, General Superintendent of the Assemblies of God, on any given day there are over 24,000 men and women being helped through a Teen Challenge center.

In 2001, when Teen Challenge became a blip on the news-cycle radar as President George W. Bush launched his Faith-Based Initiative, some in the media questioned the credibility of Teen Challenge. Research into its success rate for drug addiction revealed, to the chagrin of the media, that the most distinctive and efficacious part of the program was no miracle drug, no clever psychology, no revolutionary new therapy. Rather, it was something quite simple, straightforward and ages old: a firm conviction in and insistence upon salvation through Jesus Christ and the healing power of the Holy Spirit.

In 1986 Wilkerson founded Times Square Church on Broadway and 51st in New York City. Nancy French, a blogger from the city who attended there and “used to think that if anything deserved contempt in the church, it was ”emotionalism,” remembers being startled the first time she visited. Every week, she says, his sermons caused mobs of weeping people to come forward. “Ladies,” Wilkerson once announced from the pulpit, “when you stand to sing, please don’t leave your pocketbooks on the floor. Some thieves are here in the sanctuary, so keep an eye out. And to those of you who came here to steal, we welcome you.”

“This church” Nancy writes in her blog on April 27, the day of the crash, “did not overlook sin in order to maintain the appearance of godliness. It was after the real thing, challenging you to look deep into your soul and extricate hidden vice. If Jesus was the Great Physician, then this church was the hospital, filled with hurting people staggering under the weight of their problems.”

Carter Conlon worked with David Wilkerson for 17 years at Times Square Church. Searching in his eulogy to find the right words, he finally said, “you can honor a good man because you can recount his good works. But you don’t have to speak of great men. Their works go before them.”


David Wilkerson’s wife, Gwendolyn, 70, survived the crash as did the driver of the tractor trailer truck involved in the accident. At the time of writing Gwen is still in the hospital recovering, according to the Times Square Church web site.

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2 Comments

  1. I got saved by a member of Times Square Church in 1993. When I was looking for a good church to worship, I walked into Times Square Church not knowing what to expect. However, there was something in this church that was like no other church that I have attended. The powerful messages preached by Pastor Wilkerson and the presence of the holy spirit would forever change my life. I became addicted to the word of God, and Pastor Wilkerson’s messages brought the word to life. I also went as far as to get baptized in Times Square Church. I am thankful to God that I was not only a worshipper at the church, but also a student. The values that I had learned via the messages of David Wilkerson forever changed my life. I love him and I thank God for giving me a role model that I can look up to. Pastor David Wilkerson, I will miss you and the messages in your newsletters that I had read faithfully for many years because you always had a message that comforted me. I will do my best and take the message of Christ and win souls. Thank you Jesus for giving me the opportunity to experience life at Times Square Church with Pastor David Wilkerson.

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