How many times I got “saved” under the ministry of David Wilkerson is anyone’s guess. I got saved a lot as a child. I had a lot of guilt. The guilt was always temporarily relieved by saying the sinner’s prayer. I encountered David Wilkerson in person, through multiple readings of The Cross and The Switchblade, his magazine or a tract. It seems from his bursting on the scene in Brooklyn in the late 50’s, he was always part of my life.
I don’t remember when I first heard of him. I remember watching him on our old black and white TV as a small child. His choir had familiar faces including those of my brother and my soon to be sister-in-law. Teen Challenge invaded our little Norwegian church. It was one of the rare times there was color in that church. These were true sinners, the first I ever encountered.
I now view my adolescent rebellion through the lens of grace and understanding. Absent is the guilt that drove me to be repeatedly saved. Absent is the need for attention. Yes, I was a troubled youth. But now I understand the trouble stemmed from the abuse of my childhood. It was a different time. Not only did people not understand the impact of abuse, they didn’t even know my story.
I’m reminded of those days as I ponder the death of David Wilkerson. My spiritual life was so impact by this giant of the faith. I remember his mother. I remember his brother Don. They went to church with me at my second childhood church, Calvary Tabernacle. I remember rows of men from the “boys” home and rows of women from the “girls” home. I remember rice and bean suppers on Clinton Avenue. I remember Sister Benton and her warm embrace.
It is hard to shake the pietistic attitudes of my Norwegian youth. Judgment was common. My mother and father lacked understanding. They only saw my meager attempts at rebellion and never my cry for help. They viewed the cardinal sin of wearing make-up as a ticket to damnation. Because of this it is a story I don’t often repeat. It’s a story of encountering the steely blue stare of the prophet.
In my impressionable youth, there was no prophet like David Wilkerson. He had a reputation for seeing right through you. He would expose your sin with his stare. He saw right through religious smiles and attempts at hiding your sin under the cloak of righteous appearances.
I had given Marji Benton a note. I had a plan. Like my brothers before me, I planned to run away. I planned to go to Port Authority and take the bus to Bridgeport CT. I chose Bridgeport because I knew someone there. A Polish guy I had met at Word of Life Camp one summer. We had been pen-pals for a while. I thought he might help me find a place to live. I was 14 years of age.
My parents were thoroughly convinced I was headed for damnation. I always was a good actress. They believed my tales of sin and mayhem. Everyone did. Everyone thought I was a make-up wearing, cigarette smoking, glue sniffing, sex experimenting teen headed for hell. I needed saving often. In spite of all my trips to the altar, it seemed it never took. Most of my stories had little or no truth to them. I was a good liar. I was desperate for attention. One got attention by being saved through Teen Challenge. It seemed a good route for me.
Marji, daughter of the leaders of the Walter Hooving Home for Girls, now just a “girls” ministry of Teen Challenge, gave the note to her mother. Written on a deconstructed offering envelop it said I was thankful for their help and that I was running away on Tuesday.
Monday afternoon as I walked the block from the bus stop to our home on 6th Avenue, I saw the familiar red station wagon driven by Sister Benton. I had taken trips in that wagon before. I had been treated like part of the family. As I walked to the steps she met me. She said, you’re coming home with me tonight. Your mother knows and we agreed you’d come with me.
Before the rice and bean supper that night – Before the prayer time as they agonized for my soul, we took a trip to Brother Benton’s office. After a short conversation we went into David Wilkerson’s office. I was terrified. He looked at me with those eyes. His face was stern. He mentioned my plan to run away. With that piercing stare, he said: “How old are you young lady?” With a disgusted shake of the head, he dismissed me.
I saw him again many times as he graced the pulpit of my church or those around me. I saw him when I was in a neighborhood youth choir at 52nd Street church. All my Norwegian friends were there. He looked at us and told the choir we still needed to repent. Many did. Our parents prayed for revival. Most of those repenting were far more righteous than I.
David Wilkerson is now home with the Lord. I can only imagine the welcome home he got. And yet, as I ponder his greatness in the Kingdom, I am reminded that all of us are loved by our Father. He loved me when I was a confused teen-ager. He loves me in the frustration of today. Last night, rather than worrying about my soul and repenting of the days sins as I read a Teen Challenge publication, I thanked God for David Wilkerson and prayed for his family.