Man of faith, founder of ‘Teen Challenge’ dies in car wreck

Published 7:14 pm Friday, May 20, 2011

On April 27th when the devastating tornadoes struck the southern states taking the lives of hundreds of people, there was a car accident in Texas that also claimed a life.

A minister and his wife were driving down a two-lane road, and for some unknown reason the minister swerved into the path of an oncoming truck.  His wife and the truck driver were injured, but the Rev. David Wilkerson died.

The 79-year-old founded the Teen Challenge outreach more than 50 years ago in Brooklyn, N.Y.  In 1958, Wilkerson was a young country preacher pastoring a church in eastern Penn-sylvania. Wilkerson read an article in Life Magazine about seven teenagers who were on trial for beating a young man to death during a gang fight in Manhattan.

“Troubled by what he read in the article, and sensing God wanted him to do something for teens,” Wilkerson went to New York City during the trial and later resigned his church to move there “to work full time with teenage gang members.” The history of Teen Challenge also relates how the ministry began reaching out to help those addicted to drugs and alcohol, obtaining a large home in Brooklyn to start a year-long residential discipleship program.

According to the Teen Challenge website, the program is discipline-oriented and offers a balance of Bible classes, work assignments and recreation. Today there are almost 200 Teen Challenge programs in the U.S. and another 150 in other countries of the world.  Studies have determined this faith-based rehabilitation program has an 86 percent success rate seven years after graduation.

“You can take it from this skinny preacher from the hills of Pennsylvania; the cross is mightier than the switchblade,” Wilkerson once told a gang member. His words became the title of his best-selling book, “The Cross and the Switchblade,” as well as a movie based on the book.

One night in 1986 while walking down 42nd Street in New York, David Wilkerson’s heart broke once again, and he cried out to God to do something “to help the physically destitute and spiritually dead people he saw.” God reminded Wilkerson of his earlier ministry there and he sensed God speaking to him again. And, in October 1987, Times Square Church opened.

The church website states that the congregations now numbers 8,000 with members from more than 100 nationalities. “Many of them are involved in at least one of the over 40 ministries at Times Square Church, from feeding the homeless in New York City to staffing an orphanage in South Africa.”

Ironically, David Wilkerson’s last online Daily Devotion posted the day he died began with these words, “To believe when all means fail is exceedingly pleasing to God and is most acceptable. Jesus said to Thomas, ‘You have believed because you have seen, but blessed are those that do believe and have not seen’ (John 20:29)…To those going through the valley and shadow of death, hear this word: Weeping will last through some dark, awful nights – and in the darkness you will soon hear the Father whisper,

“I am with you.  I cannot tell you why right now, but one day it will all make sense…”

Wilkerson – described by many as a man of faith – concluded, “God has never failed to act but in goodness and love. When all means fail – his love prevails. Hold fast to your faith. Stand fast in his Word. There is no other hope in this world.”