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Wilkerson's "The Cross and the Switchblade"

April 11, 2012 - Jodelle Greiner
“The Cross and the Switchblade” was written in 1963, but much of the book could be taken right from the streets of New York City today.

David Wilkerson was a small town pastor in Pennsylvania in 1958 when he heard about a murder trial where seven teen boys had killed a 15-year-old boy because he had polio. He felt compelled to go to New York City to see those seven boys.

In “The Cross and the Switchblade”, Wilkerson recounts his multiple journeys to NYC and the people he met while trying to contact those boys. It didn’t take him long to discover that kids were turning to gangs and drugs. Wilkerson felt led by the Holy Spirit to minister to those kids and to do it in a unique way, using methods no one else had considered.

Even back then, doctors knew a lot about how heroin affects the human body, both when it’s being taken and when a person quits using it, but they couldn’t figure out how to break the addiction.

“Each year, 3,500 addicts are admitted to the United States Public Health Service Hospital in Lexington. More than six hundred doctors and staff members try to help the addict free himself from the habit. Yet, a twenty-year study, carried out between 1935 and 1955, showed that sixty-four percent of the addicts returned! Many more went back on drugs without returning to the hospital. Between eighty-five and ninety per cent of the addicts, says Dr. Murray Diamond, Chief Medical Officer at the hospital, eventually return to their habit,” wrote Wilkerson.

The statistics are out-of-date because the problem is so much worse more than 50 years later, but the stories of the young people, boys and girls, are just as true today.

Wilkerson thought he knew the reasons why these kids turned to such terrible habits: they were lost and needed to find God. With help from others, he started Teen Challenge and went into the heart of the worst areas of the city and ministered to these kids, often at the risk of his own life.

Wilkerson recounts things that can only be described as miraculous: funding that comes in at the last second and kids saved from lives of addiction and danger. And he tells of the kids they couldn’t reach, those that stayed lost. Through it all, he acknowledges that without God, none of it would be possible.

In the Chosen Classics edition printed in 1983 for the 20th anniversary, Wilkerson added an epilogue updating everything that had happened since the original book ended, including “The Cross and the Switchblade” being made into a movie in 1970. It starred Pat Boone as Wilkerson and Erik Estrada as Nicky Cruz, a teen who threatens to kill Wilkerson when they meet.

Wilkerson died just last year on April 27, 2011, at age 79, but Teen Challenge is still running. You can find out more about the organization by looking up “Teen Challenge” on the Internet.


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