The Gangs of New York

In an effort to keep up on all things historical–and especially Charismatic/Pentecostal–I’ve been reading the 1963 classic The Cross and the Switchblade.  It is the autobiographical work of minister David Wilkerson (1931-2011), and details his efforts representing the love of Christ to the gangs of New York in the late 1950s and early 1960s.  The book is powerful in its depiction of the utter despair of street life and the difference that the power of Christ brought in the midst of a hopeless cycle of poverty, drug abuse, violence, and true “lostness.”

As the pastor of a small country church in Pennsylvania, Wilkerson first traveled to New York City in 1958.  Feeling inspired of God to minister to the gangs active there, his journey makes for powerful reading.  His stories of the heroin use, brutal violence, the various sexual acts prevalent amongst the young people to whom he ministered is gripping.  It simultaneously dispels the popular myth that the 1950s and 1960s were idyllic times in the United States even as it underlines the prevalence of the societal sin that has been present since the Fall.

The Cross and the Switchblade also has a place as one of the books involved in the burgeoning Charismatic Movement of the early 1960s.  Wilkerson was a Pentecostal pastor, and his successful and dramatic ministry in New York was both impelled and empowered by his dependence on the Holy Spirit.  Though traditional Pentecostal distinctives remain subdued throughout and take a backseat to the miraculous work of God, Wilkerson’s referent is always dependence upon the “move of God.”  A Pentecostal spirituality remains present throughout, and points to the very power of God Pentecostals had long claimed.  For a Christian world looking for a deeper and more relevant Christianity than that which they had previously experienced, Wilkerson’s model was appealing.

More appealing than anything, however, was the model of love Wilkerson carried with him and the results that followed his ministry.  It long been setpiece in Christian theology to distinguish between the “social” gospel and the “evangelical” gospel.  We ask, therefore, which is more important: the body or the soul?  Wilkerson, concerned for both, simply acts:

Jo-Jo had on a pair of old canvas shoes.  His toe was sticking out on the right foot and he had a dirty black shirt on and a t00-big pair of khaki trousers.  He looked down at my shoes.  They were brand new and right then I was remembering Grandpap’s muddy boots and kicking myself for being a fool.

Jo-Jo said, “Look, rich man, it’s all right for you to come here to New York and talk big about God changing lives.  You’ve got new shoes and you’ve got a suit of clothes that match.  Look at me!  I’m a bum.  There are ten kids in my family.  We’re on relief.  They kicked me out–there wasn’t enough food to go around.”

Jo-Jo was right.  Then and there, on the public park bench, I took off my shoes and asked him to try them on.

“What’s the gimmick?  What are you trying to prove?  That you got heart, or something?  I’m not going to put your stinking shoes on.”

“You’ve been griping about shoes.  Put them on.”

Jo-Jo said, ‘I ain’t never had new shoes.’

“Put them on.”

So, sullenly, Jo-Jo put on the shoes.

Then I got up and walked away.  I walked down the street in my stocking feet, about two blocks, to the car.  It was quite a circus, people looking and laughing, and just as I got to the car, Jo-Jo came up behind me and said, ‘You forgot your shoes.’

“They’re your shoes.”  I got into the car.

If this is Pentecost, let’s have some more.  And let’s have it NOW.


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