Remembering David Wilkerson
David was up late as usual at midnight watching the "Late Show" when he first asked the question: "What would happen, Lord, if I sold the TV set and spent that time—praying?" After David Wilkerson prayed that prayer in 1958, the world would soon find out.
"What would happen, Lord, if I … ?"
After his television was actually sold, Wilkerson began to devote his midnight to 2 a.m. hours to prayer. One night while trying to pray, he found himself unusually drawn to an issue of Life magazine sitting on his desk. At first he suspected his interest in reading to be merely a human diversion pulling him away from the discipline of prayer. Nonetheless he couldn't get away from it and finally asked, "God is there something you want me to see?"
Caught by the eyes
The trailblazing pastor-turned-street-evangelist and founder of Teen Challenge died tragically on Wednesday, April 27, at age 79 in a car accident in Texas. He leaves his wife, Gwen, who survived the accident, and several family members, but he also leaves a church in Times Square and a drug recovery ministry (Teen Challenge) that has resulted in lives changed around the world. His story was first told in the bestselling 1963 book The Cross and the Switchblade.
… my attention was caught by the eyes of one of the figures in the drawing. A boy. One of seven boys on trial for murder. The artist had caught such a look of bewilderment and hatred and despair in his features that I opened the magazine wide again to get a closer look. And as I did, I began to cry.
"What's the matter with me!" I said aloud, impatiently brushing away a tear. I looked at the picture more carefully. The boys were teen-agers. They were members of a gang called the Dragons. Beneath their picture was the story of how they had gone into Highbridge Park in New York and brutally attacked and killed a fifteen-year-old polio victim named Michael Farmer. The seven boys stabbed Michael in the back seven times with their knives, then beat him over the head with garrison belts. They went away wiping blood through their hair, saying, "We messed him good."
The story revolted me. It turned my stomach. In our little mountain town such things seemed mercifully unbelievable.
That's why I was dumbfounded by a thought that sprang suddenly into my head—full-blown, as though it had come into me from somewhere else: Go to New York City and help those boys.
The internal summons Wilkerson felt in that prayer time soon led the skinny 26-year-old Pennsylvania pastor from the mountains of Philipsburg to the streets of New York, from tending a local church to advocating for gang members and drug addicts in a courthouse. His ministry caught fire throughout the New York area and around the world. In the 1960s and '70s it took form as a Christian addiction recovery program called Teen Challenge, a network of social and evangelistic training and work centers.
The Jesus Factor
The success rate of the Teen Challenge program and its proven approach to Christian discipleship emerged amidst Wilkerson's evangelical and Pentecostal worldview and theology. Its effect has been repeatedly researched and documented, and its results proven to be quite astounding. It is, in fact, unparalleled as a recovery program in its efficacy.
In a 1975 survey by the National Institute of Drug Abuse, Teen Challenge was shown as having an 86 percent or higher success rate of recovery from drug addiction among its participants. When Teen Challenge became a political talking point in 2001, as President George W. Bush launched his Faith-Based Initiative, some questioned Teen Challenge's use of the number (for example, it doesn't count the 30 percent or so who start the program but do not finish). But even so, the remarkably low recidivism rate provided more credibility to the program, and the research ultimately isolated the most distinctive aspect of the program as "Jesus" or "God"; thus, it came to be known as the "Jesus Factor."