David Wilkerson: The Cross, the Switchblade, and the Man Who Believed
This book is officially well categorized as “biography and autobiography.” Its main character is represented by its title: David Wilkerson, the diminutive small-town preacher who inexplicably drove to New York City in 1958 to bring the hope, peace, power and love of Christ to the violent gangs ravishing the urban neighborhoods. His story was initially told to a worldwide audience in the memorable first-person account THE CROSS AND THE SWITCHBLADE, published in 1962, when Wilkerson was still a young man. The “autobiography” bent of this current book is the strong but not intrusive first-person voice of David’s son, Gary, who is now president of World Challenge, one of several ministries founded by his dad (such as Teen Challenge and, much later, Times Square Church).
I have not read previously published biographical volumes by other Wilkersons: a 1978 memoir, IN HIS STRENGTH, by David’s wife (Gary’s mother), Gwen, and THE WILKERSON LEGACY, by David’s sister, Ruth Harris (2005). (In his acknowledgments, Gary cites both as helpful background material.) But I can’t imagine that either would have been as engaging or insightful as son Gary’s take, written from a distanced perspective, published now, more than three years after his aged father’s death in an auto accident.
"I read this book in airports and on airplanes, finishing the last page just as the rows ahead of me were deboarding on my return home. I had really engaged with and been inspired by the text."
You see here a driven, possibly stubborn, visionary and reluctant prophet who acted and reacted on the biblical Word and also on the word he felt the Holy Spirit speaking to his heart. Son Gary saw how his dad worked. He draws out intergenerational family dynamics, back to David’s flamboyant evangelist grandfather. He hasn’t sugarcoated a saint but is able to give glimpses of David’s flaws in progressive seasons of life, revealing self-doubts, forays into excessive legalism, his sometimes guilt over his avocational infatuation with specialty automobiles and his spiritual insecurities.
And yet, he writes with the greatest respect for a spiritual giant who spent hours every day in prayer, a man who was aware of the power of showmanship and his own charisma, and yet constantly strove to stay attuned to the Spirit’s voice. The power to effect change in lives was not his own --- through his street ministry, his addiction recovery centers (among the first in the natio), his street meetings and evangelistic crusades, and finally his call to return to pastorate work, which had been his first professional calling.
As I read the pages, my respect grew. Gary notes, “For reasons of his own, he had turned down every invitation from a U.S. president to visit the White House, but he would drive hundreds of miles out of the way during an evangelism tour so he could meet an obscure nun who had written something about Christ that had moved him.” This is a complex man who, on one hand, built an empire, including a worldwide leadership training institute, and on the other hand never lost sight of the individual --- the physical needs, as well as the soulful. As with nearly all public servants who are away from home for long stretches of time, he might have given more to his own family, though by God’s grace they kept the faith and even caught his vision.
I read this book in airports and on airplanes, finishing the last page just as the rows ahead of me were deboarding on my return home. I had really engaged with and been inspired by the text. A surprise afterword brought tears to my eyes. Providentially, perfect timing as a finale to a worthwhile trip.
Reviewed by Evelyn Bence on September 18, 2014