"David Wilkerson was a monumental figure among 20th-century evangelicals and Pentecostals. He had a big God and he accomplished things that nobody else could do," said former New York Times reporter John McCandlish Phillips on news of the Pentecostal leader's death in a Texas car accident on April 27. He was 79.
Phillips knew Wilkerson for 53 years and described him in a 1972 article as "an absolute model of simplicity, directness and total non-sophistication-he just went out on the streets and mixed with the kids and reasoned with them face-to-face, often quoting the Bible-and it worked."
Wilkerson traveled to New York from rural Pennsylvania as a young preacher, borrowing cash to cover gas and tolls, and seeking out gang members, drug addicts, and alcoholics with no weapon other than the Bible. It was 1958, one year after West Side Story opened on Broadway, a groundbreaking hit musical that romanticized switchblade-wielding gangs. Wilkerson's account of the work that grew out of those trips, The Cross and the Switchblade, sold millions of copies, and a 1970 film version starring Pat Boone reached an estimated 50 million viewers in 150 countries. The 1958 ministry became Teen Challenge International, and one of his first converts, Nicky Cruz, is still evangelizing.
Wilkerson moved to Texas in 1971, where he founded World Challenge as an international gospel outreach, but in the 1980s he returned to New York City. He rented an auditorium on Times Square and started preaching to a congregation that became the Times Square Church, later purchasing the Mark Hellinger Theater on Broadway (which once housed the hit musical Jesus Christ, Superstar) as a permanent home. Nancy French, writing at National Review, recalled the emotional, almost chaotic worship services there, where Wilkerson would warn ladies not to leave their purses on the seat when they stood to pray or sing, because they might get snatched. "And for those of you who came here expressly to steal, we welcome you," he would say. "You came here thinking you'd leave with a few bucks, but you'll leave knowing the life-changing love of God. Stay as long as you'd like."
Times Square Church today is a congregation of over 5,000 that still connects drug addicts and the homeless with the city's professional classes and visitors. After retiring more recently to Texas, Wilkerson last month was hit by a tractor-trailer when his car veered into oncoming traffic. His wife Gwendolyn was seriously injured but is expected to recover.