Christian evangelist, David Ray Wilkerson was born May 19 1931 in Hammond, Indiana. He was born into a family of Pentecostal Christian preachers; both his father and paternal grandfather were ministers.
David was baptized with the Holy Spirit at the age of thirteen and began to preach when he was fourteen. After high school he entered the Central Bible College (affiliated with the Assemblies of God) in Springfield, Missouri. In 1952 he was ordained as a minister.
Called by the Holy Spirit, Moved with Compassion
Wilkerson married his wife, Gwen in 1953 and served as a pastor in small churches in Scottdale and Philipsburg, Pennsylvania, during the early years of their marriage.
But his life changed drastically in 1958 when he was brought to tears after looking at a pen drawing of seven New York City teenagers in Life Magazine. The article detailed the court trial of these young boys, charged with murder.
The boys were members of a teenage gang called the Dragons who were accused of brutally attacking and killing Michael Farmer, a fifteen-year-old who had polio.
Two days later, after hearing a clear call from the Holy Spirit telling him “Go to New York City and help those boys”, Wilkerson arrived at the courthouse in New York City. His plan was to ask the judge for permission to talk to the boys to share God’s love with them.
The judge refused his request and Wilkerson was removed from the courtroom. He returned home, but his quiet country life was about to change – forever.
Nicky Cruz: “Jesus loves you, Nicky”
Over the next few months (March – June 1958), Wilkerson returned to New York one day each week, driving over 350 miles from his home in Pennsylvania. He sought God’s direction while walking the streets, preaching, and meeting with gang members and drug addicts.
David soon met Nicky Cruz, warlord of Brooklyn gang – the Mau Maus – the most violent teenage gang in New York. Nicky threatened to kill Wilkerson the first day the two met. David responded to Nicky’s threats by telling him, “God has the power to change your life.” Nicky cursed, hit Wilkerson, spit in his face, and told him, “I don’t believe in what you say and you get out of here.”
Wilkerson replied, “You could cut me up into a 1000 pieces and lay them in the street. Every piece will still love you.” For two weeks Nicky couldn’t stop thinking about David Wilkerson’s words of love – “I love you, Nicky.”
The Power of Jesus’ Love
In July 1958, soon after Wilkerson’s confrontation with Nicky Cruz, Wilkerson scheduled an evangelistic rally for New York gangs, at the St. Nicholas Boxing Arena. Nearly every member of Nicky’s gang, as well as their rival gangs, attended the rally.
The atmosphere was tense until Wilkerson prayed and the power of the Holy Spirit fell. When he gave an altar call, Nicky and most of his gang surrendered their lives to Jesus.
“David Wilkerson came with a message of hope and love,” Cruz said. “I felt the power of Jesus like a rushing wind that took my breath away. I fell on my knees and confessed Christ.”
After his conversion, Nicky went to a Bible College in La Puente, CA, where he met his future wife, Gloria. After graduation he became an evangelist, returned to Brooklyn, NY, and led more of the Mau Maus to Christ. He founded Nicky Cruz Outreach and began traveling around the world ministering to hundreds of thousands each year.
In a 1998 article, the Wall Street Journal proclaimed Nicky as the “Billy Graham of the streets.”
A Ministry is born: Teen Challenge
Although David Wilkerson never met with the seven teenage gang members that first drew him to New York City, he founded Teen-Age Evangelism (later called Adult & Teen Challenge) from his heart cry to reach gang members with God’s love. The first Center in Brooklyn, NY, opened in 1960.
Adult & Teen Challenge is a faith-based, addiction recovery program that teaches Biblical principles as part of a daily program that ministers healing to teenagers, adults, and families. It is affiliated with the Assemblies of God.
Teen Challenge offers a wide range of programs: one to two-year residential recovery programs, re-entry programs to help graduates transition back into independent living, non-residential Community Groups run by seasoned leaders, and prevention programs to educate school-aged students about the destructive consequences of substance abuse.
Teen Challenge students are taught to reject old identities such as, “addict”, “failure”, “hopeless”, and see themselves as new creations in Christ – changed from the inside out.
Teen Challenge stands alone as the most effective substance abuse recovery program to date. The success of this ministry is attributed to its foundation in Biblical principles, prayer for conversion, and baptism with the Holy Spirit.
The Proven Cure for the Drug Epidemic
David Wilkerson’s life’s work still stands as a testament to the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit to bring miraculous healing and new life in Christ, to all. Even to drug-addicted, violent young gang members full of hate and sin.
Compared to Short-Term Inpatient (STI) drug treatment programs and Narcotics/Alcoholics Anonymous, Teen Challenge graduates have higher abstinence rates, less frequent relapses, significantly higher full-time employment rates, and are much less likely to return to treatment.
“Once an addict, always an addict” is not taught, nor proclaimed at Teen Challenge. Transformed graduates of the program do not need on-going, daily meetings such as Narcotics Anonymous (NA) or Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).
You Shall Receive Power…
Wilkerson attributed Teen Challenge’s unequaled success rate to the power of the Holy Spirit. “The Holy Spirit is in charge. As long as He remains in charge, the program will thrive. The minute we try to do things by our own power we will fail.”
No matter how many years addicted, again and again, the testimony of Teen Challenge students remains the same. They are introduced to the love of God when they are born again, but complete victory/deliverance from addiction doesn’t come until baptism in the Holy Spirit.
One student said, “I wasn’t lonely anymore. I didn’t want any more drugs. I loved everybody. For the first time in my life, I felt clean.”
Many graduates of Teen Challenge are so completely transformed they decide to go to seminary, then into ministry. Many return to Teen Challenge as staff members to help others overcome their addictions and find new life.
Testimonies of Teen Challenge
Harry Davis – “I discovered Teen Challenge in 1989 at age 63. I did every drug in the world for 50 years. I’m 71 now and I work in the kitchen at the Brooklyn Center.”
Canzada Edmonds – “Love is what made the difference for me. When I was ready to give up, they showed me, love. They showed me compassion. They showed me through Christ I could live a victorious life. Then they taught me how to be a lady.”
Steve Hill – “Its greatest impact was in the area of discipline and structure. If it wasn’t for Teen Challenge, I would either be dead or in the penitentiary.”
Expanding God’s Kingdom
Wilkerson went on to found Youth Crusades (1967), CURE Corps, and World Challenge (1971) to propel the Gospel worldwide.
In 1986, Wilkerson’s heart was again broken for the lost. As he walked down 42nd Street, he saw prostitutes, young children (under the age of 12) high on crack cocaine, runaways, and drug addicts. He cried and prayed, “God You’ve got to do something.” Wilkerson’s answer came quickly. In the next hour, the Holy Spirit spoke – “Well, you know the city. You’ve been here. You do it.’”
Wilkerson was obedient and Times Square Church opened its doors in October 1987.
For nine years, from 1999 to 2008, Wilkerson traveled around the world preaching at conferences encouraging Christian ministers and their families, to “renew their passion for Christ.” He challenged them to ask, “What would happen, Lord, if I …?”
A Legacy of Faith
For over forty years, David Wilkerson’s evangelical ministry included preaching, teaching, and writing. He authored over 30 books including, The Cross and the Switchblade (which became a Hollywood film in 1970), Revival on Broadway, It Is Finished, Hungry for More of Jesus, Have You Felt Like Giving Up Lately?, and The Vision.
Wilkerson always challenged his church to commit to obey Jesus’ teachings. He preached Christian beliefs of God’s holiness, righteousness, and love, and delivered powerful messages to encourage righteous living and total dependence on God.
He would say, “holiness may seem to be an antiquated term by our standards, but not by God’s. Followers of Christ are still called to be holy, as God is holy” (1 Pet. 1:16).
Wilkerson never lost his heartache over the devastating effects rampant sin wreaks on a life, home, and family. He preached many fiery sermons about sin; having seen and experienced firsthand, countless lives ravaged by the evils of violence and addiction.
Absent from the Body, Present with the Lord
On April 27, 2011, while driving in Texas, Wilkerson collided head-on with a tractor-trailer. He was pronounced dead at the scene. His wife Gwen was injured but survived.
Wilkerson and his wife had four children (two sons who are ministers, and two daughters who are married to ministers) and eleven grandchildren.
Final words from Nicky Cruz
“He can take a bullet, he can be killed, but he stood because [he was] obedient to Jesus. Jesus sent him there to bring the message to the gangs. I almost killed him then because I really was totally full of hate. That was when he told me that Jesus loved me. Wilkerson never lost his heart for the world’s needy people.”
“David reminded me of Jesus,” Cruz said. “Two precious things that fascinate me about Christ – He had active eyes, and always was there looking at the needs of the people. Dave had this heart of compassion just like Jesus.”