In 1958, a Pennsylvania preacher interrupts a high-profile court case in the heart of New York City… fast forward over fifty years and here I write how grateful I am for that man’s brash, yet courageous act of obedience to God.
The young preacher saw a picture in Life magazine of convicted gang members that brutally murdered a young polio victim named Michael Farmer. Instead of the reaction of anger and disgust, Pastor Wilkerson had a desire to reach out and help those boys facing life sentences. He left the safety and comfort of the four walls of his church, barged into that courtroom and well, the rest is history…
If you are a child of the 70’s, like me or younger, you might not know the story of David Wilkerson as told in the best-selling book “The Cross and the Switchblade.” You may not know that he started Teen Challenge; a rehabilitation ministry that has grown world-wide to reach those with life-controlling addictions bringing them the gospel of Jesus Christ. Perhaps, you don’t know that he was a well-known evangelist, the founder of the ministry World Challenge, the founding pastor of a large church in the heart of New York City called Times Square Church, and the author of numerous books. Quite a resume for a skinny preacher who once barged into a courtroom on February, 1958.
David Wilkerson’s life story is told in a biography written by his son Gary Wilkerson titled, “The Cross, The Switchblade, and The Man Who believed.” It tells the story of that pivotal day in the life of Pastor Wilkerson and it tells the story of my family. David Wilkerson was my uncle.
My uncle passed away several years ago. His biography tells a story I am very familiar with but my emotional reaction to the book was a bit of a surprise to me.
I didn’t know my uncle very well. We weren’t the kind of family that spent holidays together or really spent much time with each other. He would often forget my name as I met him in the elevator of the same high-rise building in New York City that our families lived in. My uncle wasn’t the most relational man but that’s just who he was. If you read chapter one in the book, my family line reads a bit like a dysfunctional clan but whose family doesn’t.
My emotions surprised me after I finished the book. I couldn’t stop crying. Why would the life of a man I really didn’t know very well have such a heart reaction for me?
I realized my emotions were not about my uncle directly but were about the indirect result of his courage to follow God’s leading. That calling proved lasting results in the faith of a young girl who grew up in the shadows of the ministries my uncle began from his compassionate and obedient heart.
My faith and belief in God has been shaped through the ministry of Teen Challenge that my uncle started and then my own father directed for all of my life. My testimony has been shaped by the testimonies of others. I have witnessed the saving power of Christ all my life. I grew up witnessing men and women who were delivered from a life of addiction, crime, or prostitution. I watched families that were once torn apart by alcohol and drugs, mended because they put their belief and trust in God. I played with children who would have never been my childhood friends had their parents not found God and their lives forever changed through the ministry of Teen Challenge.
Growing up in the shadows of my uncle’s ministries taught me that Christianity is more than about a religion or the activities inside the four walls of a church. I learned that faith is about living out the call of obedience to follow Christ and his Word even amidst the complete messiness and ugliness of life. It’s about reaching out to those who seem unlovable or unreachable and witnessing what God can do when we simply love the “least of these.”
My emotional reaction to the book is really about the power of grace. The story outlines the struggle my uncle had, at times, with understanding the grace of God in his own life. Yet, here I am to attest that God’s grace, sparked by my uncle’s own obedience, is why I choose to follow Christ today. The grace of God has a wave effect. I am so thankful that God gave me the privilege of growing up in a ministry where I have witnessed the immeasurable expanse of the wave of God’s grace in my own life and in the lives of others.
“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.” Ephesians 2:8-9
To buy the book or learn more about the life of my uncle go to: http://www.worldchallenge.org
To learn more about the Michael Farmer story and murder trial go to: http://michaelfarmer.org/