We're tempted to be more impressed by the changes David Wilkerson's ministry effected in the New York gangs than by the way it affected Wilkerson himself. It's an easy mistake—Wilkerson was a country preacher from Pennsylvania, a man who threw away his TV so he could pray more, a family man committed to supporting missions and studying God's Word. The 1950s inner city gang kids were brutal, addicted to drugs, enslaved by prostitution and illicit sex, ready and willing and often guilty of murder.
There are other distractions from the real story. Most of us don't even realize New York City was just as bad (if not worse, in many ways) in the '50s as it is today, that violence and drug abuse were rampant and threatened gang members and innocent citizens alike. Sometimes we're tempted to spend too much time imagining the squalor Wilkerson pays testament to (though he is never graphic, and certainly not gratuitous). Or we get caught up in the noir-ish elements of the story and forget it's not a crime novel but a missionary story set in America instead of Papua New Guinea or Senegal.
Certainly, Wilkerson intends for us to focus on the lives of the kids who turned from self-destruction to Christ, particularly the Mau Mau leader Nicky Cruz with whom Wilkerson formed a deep friendship that eventually matured into Christian brotherhood. He wants us to see how God moves in the unlikeliest places and in the unlikeliest ways, against all expectation, the way He calls the most broken and savage humans and makes them His sons and daughters, despite our frequent (usually unconscious) attempts to subvert His will.
And we do see all those things. But we also see the changes in Wilkerson, the way God takes a willing servant and makes him strong, brave and faithful in the shadow of unleashed sin and the darkest violence imaginable. We see a country pastor moved to tears by a magazine article about boys on trial for murder, and we see him leave the safe confines of his congregation to walk unaided into the chaos of Gotham with nothing but a Bible and the fear of the Lord. Scary, revealing and ultimately joyful, this is one of the great missionary stories of all time.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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