The Cross and the Switchblade is the dramatic and inspiring true story of a small-town minister called to help inner-city kids everyone else believed were beyond hope.
David Wilkerson was a minister of a small church in Pennsylvania in 1958 when his life would change dramatically. He was brought to tears after looking at a pen drawing of seven New York City teenagers in Life Magazine. The article detailed the court trial of these young boys, all charged with murder. The boys were members of a teenage gang called the Dragons who were accused of brutally attacking and killing a fifteen-year-old who had polio.
Two days later, after hearing a clear call from the Holy Spirit telling him “Go to New York City and help those boys”, Wilkerson arrived at the courthouse in New York City. His plan was to ask the judge for permission to talk to the boys to share God’s love with them. The judge refused his request and Wilkerson was removed from the courtroom. Over the next few months (March – June 1958), Wilkerson returned to New York one day each week, driving over 350 miles from his home in Pennsylvania. He sought God’s direction while walking the streets, preaching, and meeting with gang members and drug addicts. That is when David met Nicky Cruz, leader of a Brooklyn gang called the Mau Maus. The Mau Maus were the most violent teenage gang in New York. Nicky threatened to kill Wilkerson the first day the two met. David told Nicky that “God has the power to change your life.” Nicky cursed, hit Wilkerson, spit in his face, and told him, “I don’t believe in what you say and you get out of here.” Wilkerson replied, “You could cut me up into a 1000 pieces and lay them in the street. Every piece will still love you.” Nicky couldn’t stop thinking about David Wilkerson’s words of love.
In July 1958, Wilkerson scheduled an evangelistic rally for New York gangs, at the St. Nicholas Boxing Arena. Nearly every member of Nicky’s gang, as well as their rival gangs, attended the rally. When he gave an altar call, Nicky and most of his gang surrendered their lives to Jesus. “David Wilkerson came with a message of hope and love,” Cruz said. “I felt the power of Jesus like a rushing wind that took my breath away. I fell on my knees and confessed to Christ.” Nicky went on to say, “He can take a bullet, he can be killed, but he stood because [he was] obedient to Jesus. His story is a powerful lesson of what can be achieved when a young person fully commits his life to God.” This story is the basis for the book and movie The Cross and the Switchblade.
After his conversion, Nicky went to a Bible College in La Puente, CA, where he met his future wife, Gloria. After graduation he became an evangelist, returned to Brooklyn, NY, and led more of the Mau Maus to Christ. He founded Nicky Cruz Outreach and began traveling around the world ministering to hundreds of thousands each year. In a 1998 article, the Wall Street Journal proclaimed Nicky as the “Billy Graham of the streets.”
David also formed Teen Challenge which stands alone as the most effective substance abuse recovery program to date. The success of this ministry is attributed to its foundation in Biblical principles. Many graduates of Teen Challenge are so completely transformed they decide to go to seminary, then into ministry. Many return to Teen Challenge as staff members to help others overcome their addictions and find new life.