Nicky Cruz remembers the David Wilkerson he met on the streets of New York in the 1950s—the "skinny preacher" who walked a message of Jesus' love into gang-owned neighborhoods that police were afraid to enter and faced, without flinching, people most gangs didn't dare mess with; people like Cruz, who back then led the feared Mau Maus of Brooklyn.

He remembers the forceful pastor who led ministries with worldwide influence like Teen Challenge and Times Square Church, a "straight shooter" who "never danced around anything. He was very straight, and always you said, 'Wow, Dave, he's hard.'"

But over the last 15 years, the man who counted Wilkerson as a close friend and spiritual father for half a century says what he gradually came to understand: "All these years … Dave Wilkerson was a teddy bear."

"Always when I see him and I hug him … I say, 'I love you.' Even on the telephone, 'I love you.' And Dave is not expressive, [but] whenever we were alone, always he told me 'I love you, son,'" Cruz told Christianity Today in an interview Thursday.

The last time Cruz saw Wilkerson, some weeks ago, they spoke for three hours. Cruz told him about Thousand Pieces, a film in the works about Cruz's life, including the encounter with Wilkerson that led to his transformation. Wilkerson related his side of that story in the classic book The Cross and the Switchblade (which later became a film starring Pat Boone as Wilkerson and Erik Estrada as Cruz). The new film's name comes from something that Wilkerson said to Cruz after the gang leader threatened to kill him: "You could cut me in a thousand pieces and lay them out in the street and every piece would love you."

"New York in that time was bombarded by gangs, and we were ...

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