The Rev. David Wilkerson dies at 79; founder of Teen Challenge ministry

The Rev. David Wilkerson, an evangelical pastor who founded the Teen Challenge ministry and wrote the best-selling book “The Cross and the Switchblade,” died Wednesday in a car accident in East Texas. He was 79.

Wilkerson’s car smashed head-on into a tractor-trailer rig after veering into oncoming traffic on U.S. 175 west of Cuney, southeast of Dallas, said Texas Department of Public Safety spokeswoman Tela Mange. Wilkerson was not wearing a seat belt, according to investigators. His wife, Gwendolyn, was also in the car and was wearing a seat belt. She was hospitalized with serious injuries but is expected to recover.

Wilkerson, whose father and grandfather were preachers, was born May 19, 1931, in Hammond, Ind. He attended Central Bible College in Springfield, Mo., and after being ordained in the Assemblies of God Church in 1952, he became pastor of a congregation in Philipsburg, Pa.

In the late 1950s he felt a call to go to New York City and minister to drug addicts and gang members, and he founded Teen Challenge, which offers a Bible-based recovery program for substance abusers.


Wilkerson began expanding the Teen Challenge ministry to other cities, including a rehabilitation center in Los Angeles’ Adams-Normandie neighborhood in 1963.

“The church has failed,” Wilkerson said in a 1963 interview with The Times. “And young people are tired of its social club image. They wants some real and vital answers to give them courage to resist urban pressures and temptations.”

Teen Challenge centers were later established throughout Southern California to work with drug users of all ages in addition to troubled youths. The organization now has a national and international reach.

In “The Cross and the Switchblade,” Wilkerson wrote about his early years in New York. The 1963 book became a best-seller and was made into a 1970 movie starring Pat Boone and Erik Estrada.


Wilkerson moved his ministry headquarters to Texas in the 1970s and launched World Challenge, an international evangelical outreach organization.

In 1987, Wilkerson returned to New York to start Times Square Church, a nondenominational Protestant church in an area of Manhattan that was then riddled with X-rated movie houses, strip clubs, prostitution and drugs. It continues to hold services in a converted Broadway theater.

Besides his wife, Wilkinson’s survivors include four children and 11 grandchildren.