On 28 February 1958, a New York court room was disturbed by a lanky Pentecostal preacher from rural Pennsylvania attempting to talk to the judge during a murder trial.
As the judge’s life had been threatened by local gang members the preacher was unceremoniously hustled out of the courtroom by security guards in full glare of the media. News men, hungry for a new line on the murder trial, gathered round with flashbulbs popping, and next day, much to his shame and embarrassment, the preacher’s photograph – holding up his Bible – was all over the newspapers.
What the world didn’t know as it laughed at the preacher’s naivety and humiliation, was that the skinny guy from the sticks was a spiritual giant, an apostolic ministry gift sent by God to rescue the very sort of young people – hoodlums and gang members – that were involved in the murder trial. In fact, the very young people the society of New York had given up on.
The weapon he used would not be the switchblade knife or a gun but the Bible he was carrying. Soon, through his ministry, addicts, gang members and drug dealers, instead of being devoured by the streets, would be consumed by the Word of God.
Telling the story some years later in the best-selling book, ‘The Cross and the Switchblade’, the same skinny preacher, David Wilkerson, recounted how he was moved by a picture in Life Magazine of a group of teenage boys: “They were members of a gang called The Dragons. Beneath their picture was the story of how they had gone to Highbridge Park in New York and brutally attacked and killed a 15-year-old polio victim named Michael Farmer.
“The seven boys stabbed Michael in the back several times with their knives, then beat him over the head with garrison belts. They went away wiping blood through their hair, declaring, ‘We messed him good.”’
David’s ill-fated attempt to attract the judge’s attention in the Farmer trial may have given him a brief period of notoriety with the press in New York – not to mention fellow ministers in his denomination who were most critical of what they saw as a ‘publicity stunt’ – but it also earned him recognition on the city streets with the very gang members he was trying to reach for the Lord.
Amazingly, after his brush with the authorities, Wilkerson was accepted by the gang members as ‘one of them’ and his ministry to the streets of New York was effectively launched in a way neither he nor anyone else could have imagined.