My brother in Christ, follower of Jesus, faithful witness, bold spokesman full of compassion, my friend and co-laborer is now in heaven. He died in a terrible car wreck Wednesday afternoon near Tyler, Texas. His wife Gwen is in serious condition. Please pray for the family.
I first heard of David Wilkerson more than 40 years ago when he opened a Teen Challenge Center in Houston. They took care of my alcoholic father for a few days before he disappeared into the night. I preached there to drug addicts so high on heroin they sat before me in a literal stupor, heads hanging down or thrown back over the chair. I did my best to keep their attention and to tell them about the love of God that inspired David to first minister effectively on the streets of New York, and then to open a safe haven for them. This was truly God’s love expressed freely to gang members, to the downtrodden and those considered hopeless. David inspired the 20th century church to reach beyond their walls to respond like the good Samaritan. No program has a higher success rate working with drug addicts than Teen Challenge.
I remember spending many hours on my knees praying with those addicts. How could I forget Joe Lee and Bobby? I prayed with them what many call “The Sinner’s Prayer,” but these two sinners received the fullness of the transforming power of the resurrected Jesus. Joe Lee graduated from Baylor. Bobby became an evangelist and I watched him lead thousands of people to Christ. They were only two examples among many similar to Nicky Cruz, who along with David, became great expressions of the power of love in action and were the main characters in the book The Cross and the Switchblade and also the subsequent movie. Other than “The Ten Commandments” and “The Passion of Christ,” it may very well have been the most powerful faith-based film ever shown in the theaters around the world. The book sold tens of millions and was published in over 30 languages.
David and I became close. We truly loved one another. Think of it – a Baptist with deep convictions and obvious boldness walking alongside a strong, outspoken, classic Pentecostal and telling the world that we are family. The love that bound us together knows no limits. No sectarian divide could keep us from holy, healthy heart-harmony.
When I was a young evangelist, David told me, “When you preach, I tremble. I have never heard a more powerful voice for God.” Even after David said he would not appear on other television programs, he came on LIFE Today and shared his heartfelt concerns with a viewing audience he believed was serious about the will of God.
David preached in our Bible conference years ago. He defended me when some church leaders were, as he put it, “throwing Saul’s spear” at me. He deflected them and stood for me. He said, “You need never defend yourself, James. Just love anyone who misunderstands, misrepresents or accuses you.” Many times David and I prayed about our mutual concerns for the church and for the nation. When he watched God stretch the wineskin of my life to new limits and set my sails to catch the wind of the Spirit in new-found freedom and began encouraging everyone to be carried by the river of God’s love, he told me how it impacted him.
It seems like yesterday when watching our outreaches around the world to the poor, the starving and the thirsty, he called to say, “James, hear this: the greatest manifestation of Holy Spirit power in the book of Acts is not tongues or a prayer language, but it is a bold witness and what the New Testament Christians practiced in the last verses of chapter two. ‘Many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. But all who believed were together and had all things in common. They were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all as any had need… And God added to their number daily those who were being saved.’” David said, “James, the church today must experience this supernatural generosity expressing compassion not only in our community, but to the ends of the earth. What I’m watching you do on television and encouraging viewers and churches to do is a practice that must be demonstrated through the church.” He made it very clear that the sharing and generosity demonstrated in Acts by the believers was the result of charity, compassion and love that God put in the heart of those believers. What they gave was not taken from them to be distributed by some earthly power or government. They were freely giving and sharing because they overflowed with the love of God. He said, “James, this is the needed demonstration of Holy Spirit power.” David’s ministry — World Challenge and Times Square Church — has continually ministered to those often overlooked.
He boldly emphasized the coming calamity and crisis in our nation because, as a people and even as Christians, the Word and will of God had been too often disregarded. He warned of horrible events coming to America including his own dear city of New York where he pastored. He predicted the panic of the stock market crashes because of an unhealthy dependence upon money, material gain and wealth.
During a time of serious searching of his own heart, he said, “James, I’ve sometimes been harsh and mean-spirited. God has revealed to me more clearly than ever His love and His grace. I am becoming a different preacher.” If anyone he ever talked to could understand harshness and perhaps misplaced anger, it was surely me. I was once known as “God’s angry man.” It was true, then as now, there is plenty for us as believers to be righteously indignant about. But the problem so often is failing to recognize that “the wrath of man does not work the righteousness of God.” (James 1:20) I was convicted as was David that with all of our boldness, we must live with the heart of the Good Shepherd Jesus praying over Jerusalem prior to the predicted desolation, “Oh Jerusalem, Jerusalem, come like chicks to the hen, to the shelter of the Almighty.” Somehow we both saw that invitation as grace and hope freely offered. While issuing stern and much-needed warnings, David was continually growing in love, grace and Christlikeness. Many times I have wept as I read his articles.
Wednesday evening when I called his son Greg, who was at the hospital where his dad and mom had been taken, I assured them of our love, concern and prayers. I asked Greg if he had read what his father posted on the internet earlier in the day. He had not and I asked if I could read it to him. Somehow even before I began to read, I felt that it was a message from God to all the families who lost loved ones in the current catastrophic tornadoes and storms that ripped across our nation and to those in our own state who have lost homes, possessions and family in the raging fires. I began to read this to Greg:
To those going through the valley and shadow of death, hear this word:
Weeping will last through some dark, awful nights—and in that 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. You will see it was all part of my plan. It was no accident. It was no failure on your part. Hold fast. Let me embrace you in your hour of pain.
Beloved, 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.
I can assure all of you that David is now standing in the very presence of Jesus as part of that great cloud of witnesses, looking down at us in perfect harmony with Christ saying, “Joy does come in the morning! We want it for you and we want the world to see that we really are His followers because we love one another and we care about those who suffer.”
To God be the glory for the great things He accomplished through David and let me go on public record and say that this love David so well understood is big enough to help a Baptist and a Pentecostal understand clearly we are family, we are friends, and we are one in Christ. God help us all as Christians to experience true spiritual unity and, above all, never compromise the clear expression of God’s great love.
Please join us praying for Gwen and the Wilkerson family. I miss you, my friend, David, and cherish the memories.