David Wilkerson and the reporter

Today is my birthday. Today is – or was – also David Wilkerson’s birthday, he being the world-famous author of “The Cross and the Switchblade,” founder of Times Square Church, Teen Challenge, you-name-it. He would have been 80 years old today had he not died in a car accident in east Texas three weeks ago.
I was born 25 years after Wilkerson, so do the math. I had two fateful encounters with this man, one in 1989 when I was interviewing him for The Houston Chronicle. Here is a snipped from the chapter “Annunciation” about our meeting:
That same month I was back in New York, on my way to catch the flight to Israel that landed me in that meadow overlooking the Sea of Galilee. I snagged an interview with David Wilkerson in his 2-year-old Times Square Church in the former Mark Hellinger Theater at 51st and Broadway. He was definitely not the showbiz type. He did not like being interviewed, he was uncomfortable posing for photos and low on media savvy. This artlessness made him easier to talk with, especially about his warnings to Jimmy Swaggart before the evangelist’s well-publicized fall in 1988.
“I don’t think sex brings any man down,” he mused. “I think it’s pride.” I asked him what had kept him out of sexual sin. Suffering, he replied. He looked a bit gaunt and obviously tired from having been up since early that morning leading Sunday services. I tried to pry something out of him about Redeemer and Graham. I had heard rumors that he was most unhappy with the turn that events had taken, especially since he was so publicly linked with Graham’s spiritual baptism. Wilkerson was very vague, as if he had long since lost touch with both. As I was packing away my notes, he looked at me,.
“Graham came to me with a problem, you know,” he said. “He didn’t only come for power.” And as far as he knew, Wilkerson added, Graham had had victory over it.
“The only way to stay righteous,” he then said, “is to expose your heart to God every day.”
What is he hinting at? I wondered. It’s either money or sex.

The next time I met Wilkerson was in December 1998 when everyone was worrying about Y2K and I was in New York doing a story for The Washington Times. By then, the news about Graham had long since come out. I went to lunch with David and his wife, Gwen and it was there that David told me more about his fateful – that word again – meeting with Graham in 1963 when he prayed over Graham to be baptized in the Spirit. Graham, David told me, was so tortured by homosexual longings that he was stopping in every rest area between North Carolina (where he was on vacation) and New York. As a former police reporter, I knew exactly what he was talking about; before the Internet, rest areas were where gay men solicited sex. In fact, there was a certain rest area just inside the Texas state line along Interstate 10 where, it was said, one dared not hang out after dark.
I sent a copy of “Days of Fire and Glory” to David’s office a long time ago but never got any indication that he had received it, much less read it. A shame, because he played a crucial role in my narrative. I am on the mailing list for David’s once-every-3-weeks pulpit series and I just got the latest one, penned by him no doubt several months in advance, encouraging Christians not to despair during hard times. He was one of the few well-known preachers out there who got it in terms of how crazed many of us feel. I, for instance, have been out of work almost one year.
His last words to people were to tell them to persevere during these dark nights of the soul, even when you physically don’t feel you have the strength to do so. I can understand that; I often don’t have the heart to sing the hymns I used to but I am still able to play worship music on the harp. That is the best I can do at this point. Discouragement does deaden things. Hope deferred – and deferred and deferred – makes the heart sick, as Scripture says.
At the end of my days whenever they may be, if I have even a portion of the good influence that this great man had on this troubled world, I shall be glad.

4 thoughts on “David Wilkerson and the reporter

  1. netbids

    A belated "Happy Birthday" to you, Julia! How interesting that you and David Wilkerson shared the same birthday. I, too, was saddened to hear of David's untimely—and unnatural—death. He was one of the few "big-name" preachers who made a huge impression on me during the early years of my walk with the Lord. In particular, his book and message entitled, "The Vision" is what I remember the most about David since I first heard heard of him in 1973 or 74. I still have my original copies of both the book and a tape recording of his message. Despite some of its inaccuracies (which I only recently learned about from some critiques of The Vision that I read online), God used it to awaken many to the coming perilous days we are now living in. I'm glad you had the opportunity to meet and interview David for your new book.

    Speaking of which, I just found out yesterday that you had recently written a book about the role that Church of the Redeemer played in the Jesus Movement. Considering the fact that I had some involvement myself in the JM (and, like you, still have many fond memories of those days), I was surprised to learn that CotR in Houston was at the forefront of the JM because I had never heard of CotR prior to reading a review of your book yesterday. I always had the impression that the epicenter of the JM was Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa, CA. Ironically, one of the more "famous" and influential hippie preachers at CC was also struggling with homosexuality. His name was Lonnie Frisbee, and he died from AIDS in the 90s. A movie was made about him 5-10 years ago. Someone should use your new book to make a movie about Graham and CotR. I'll have to read your new book myself, of course, so that I'll have a more accurate and more complete understanding of the JM's origins and history.

    I might not have found out about your new book, however, if I hadn't read and enjoyed your previous book, "Quitting Church," which I've owned for about two years now. In fact, it was from reading your previous book that I first learned about you and all the articles you've written for the Washington Times since the late 90s when you became their "Religion Journalist." So, I was also saddened (and shocked) to learn yesterday that you are no longer working for the WT because I was going to ask you to write an article about a new ministry I recently started that addresses many (if not most) of the problems with the church that you wrote about in "Quitting Church." I'm planning to launch the website for this new ministry in the next few weeks, and I was hoping you would be interested in telling your WT readers about it. But this is not possible now that you are no longer there. Nevertheless, I still want you to know about this new ministry and its website because your book "Quitting Church" is featured on the website's book page along with seven other books on leaving the church. I also think that the Lord may have some other ideas up His sleeve that we could discuss. If you are interested in knowing more, please email me. I would be delighted to talk to you.


  2. netbids


    I'm not sure if my email address got linked to my post, so I'm posting this followup.


  3. R. Eric Sawyer

    Julia, thank you for this. I have long wondered what any of the leaders from the early days make of the way things have worked out.
    For me, that has meant folks principally like Graham, Dennis Bennett or Terry Fulgham, but every drop helps. “Fire and Glory” helped me a great bit in that regard, probably as close as I will get to what I want.

    Sorry this year has been so hard for you, as you know, that is something I share. Hope this is the worst year of all the rest for both of us!
    Since the installation of the Rev. Dr. Israel Ahimbisibwe as vicar, I have been a long-term visitor with what is left of the congregation of Redeemer, now meeting at the ELCA Church of the Redeemer (Houston) I think you would like him, Smart guy, Uganda to Princeton, Harvard, Univ. of Jerusalem and finally Rice, Ph.D. (Hebrew), Dissertation on the Rwandan gonocide. But the whole period has been very healing of all the old wounds. Gone for good.

    I have just finished reading Betty Pulkingham’s new book, “This is My Story, This is my Song” and found it very, very pleasent. Didn’t answer deeply my questions, but I found the spirit of the book helpful. I was a bit on pins and needles as we headed to your final conversations with Graham, but she skated past that with southern charm. After I posted a review on my blog, I was feeling a bit nostalgic at searched arournd for what others might be saying, and googled my way here.

    You have always been very helpful!

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