The Cross and The Switchblade, the autobiography of urban missionary and pastor David Wilkerson, made its way from paperback to film screens in 1970, and most recently last month, to the stage at the former Mark Hellinger Theatre now Times Square church in New York City.
Every Friday night since it opened on January 18, Times Square Church has been overflowing with teens and young adults eager to witness the theatrical production of a long time Christian favorite.
Jonathan Hudson served as the play's narrator.
The production begins with a black and white short movie about Michael Farmer, a white teen, who was ambushed and killed by several members of the infamous Egyptian Dragon Gang in Washington Heights in the 1950s.
The 15 year old suffered from polio from the age of 10, causing him to limp on his left leg. He was mistaken for a member of rival gang, the Jesters. Whether or not he was part of the gang was never confirmed.
This was the reason David Wilkerson left his home in
Pennsylvania to begin his ministry in New York City. He desired to reach out to
the boys who were standing trial about salvation and transformation through
On a larger scale, he had a plan to uproot the structured gangs that controlled the streets of New York City.
Like the Biblical character of Jonah, Wilkerson was hesitant to
go to New York when he first heard from God. Nonetheless, he went, placing all
his trust in the Lord. Wilkerson longed to see God shower his mercy upon these
misguided young adults. He would face multiple rejections, threats on his life
and alienation from community leaders.
Yakimiyah Binyamin, 25, played the character Kills of the Bishops gang in the play.
"My character [didn't want to] drop the gang life because that would mean letting go of what gave him security, acceptance, and identity, which I've struggled with in a major way," he said. "Seeing the response to this play has given me hope that even the hardest of hearts can be made like flesh when they encounter the true and living God. I believe that more so now for my older brother(s)."
The production value of The Cross and The Switchblade was extremely high, showcasing a fight scene with strobe-lighting effects and emotionally intense musical scoring by Brooklyn-based JahRock'n Productions.
Additionally, even though a bit anachronistic, there was spoken
word and rap interwoven as a form of battle between gang members.
Wilkerson, a country-bred Pentecostal preacher, risked it all,
as the play portrayed.
To the gangs like the Bishops, the Mau Maus and others, he was the coolest preacher they'd ever met.
He treated them so much kinder than the police did and wasn't afraid to enter their world, to even have his life taken. He gave them the shoes off of his feet, literally. They saw his sincerity and respected him for not backing down.
Nicky Cruz, former leader of the Mau Maus of Brooklyn, was a
central figure in the play. Played by Moses Ruperto, Cruz gave Wilkerson a
"... I almost killed him then because I really was totally full of hate," said the real Cruz in a 2011 interview with Christianity Today. "That was when he told me that Jesus loved me."
native of Puerto Rico, Cruz was mentally and physically abused by his
parents. They were followers of Spiritism and practiced witchcraft.
"David reminded me of Jesus," said Cruz. "Two precious things that fascinate me about Christ: That he had active eyes, and always was there, looking at the needs of the people. Dave had this heart of compassion just like Jesus."
As portrayed by actor Mario Eusedio, 33, Wilkerson was always
looking out for the gang members. He was probably the most persistent outsider
they had ever met. His hope was that all the gangs would start to love one
Wilkerson invited them all to a rally he was putting on one evening. They accepted because of their fondness for Wilkerson and with hopes that they would meet up with their rivals and start a fight with them afterwards.
At the rally, Cruz was moved just enough to collect the offering.
Wilkerson preached. He taught them about the blood of
Jesus and the hearts of each gang member slowly softened.
The most poignant message in the entire play was the message
that the blood shed on the cross is filled with love and mercy but the blood
shed on a switchblade is filled with the opposite.
It was the turning point of the play. Wilkerson claimed that "Jesus
was the only one who needed to die and that nobody else has to."
Gang member after gang member came to the altar to accept
Christ, leaving only Cruz. Finally, he -
in turn - relinquishes his switchblade.
After the closing scene, the narrator shares that thereafter the former gang members all visited the police officers in their neighborhood and asked them to autograph their Bibles.
Cruz, now 74, has since founded the Nicky Cruz Outreach, an evangelistic Christian Ministry and even served under Wilkerson in Teen Challenge, a 501(c)3 nonprofit, faith-based drug and alcohol recovery program. He is the author of 17 books including an autobiography, Run Baby Run.
Rebekah Misir, 19, is a Lehman College student who believes that church leaders should continue to be as relevant and proactive as they can be in the lives of the youth of today.
"If there are church leaders who have given up hope on the future generations then I would question their belief that God can change anyone. There may just be great unbelief in their hearts," said Misir. "[They] don't know about Christ's compassionate heart for each soul and because of that they lack compassion."
The play concluded with an altar call for attendees to accept Christ. Many young people went up to become new
Christians while others rededicated their lives to Jesus.
Times Square Church's production of The Cross and The Switchblade will be featured every Friday night for the month of February. Curtain time is 7 p.m. and admission is free.