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  • July 11, 2014 - Reflections

    By Jean S. Horner
    The other day while walking down a corridor in a public building, I saw what appeared to be someone walking toward me. On coming closer, I found it was my own reflection in a huge mirror. For a moment it frightened me. Somehow a full-length reflection of one’s self is a startling thing. ...

The Cross and the Switchblade

“Hey, Davie. Preacher!”

This time I did turn around. A group of six teenage boys were leaning against the side of a building beneath a sign saying, “No Loitering. Police Take Notice.” They were dressed in tapered trousers and zippered jackets. All but one of them were smoking, and all of them were bored.

A seventh boy had separated himself from the group and walked after me. I liked his smile as he spoke.

“Aren’t you the preacher they kicked out of the Michael Farmer trial?”

“Yes. How’d you know?”

“Your picture was all over the place. Your face is kind of easy to remember.”

“Well, thank you.”

“It’s no compliment.”

“You know my name, but I don’t know yours.”

“I’m Tommy. I’m the president of the Rebels.”

I asked Tommy, president of the Rebels, if those were his friends leaning against the “No Loitering” sign, and he offered to introduce me. They kept their studiously bored expressions until Tommy revealed that I had had a run-in with the police. That was magic with these boys. It was my carte blanche with them. Tommy introduced me with great pride.

“Hey fellows,” he said, “here’s the preacher who was kicked out of the Farmer trial.”

One by one, the boys unglued themselves from the side of the building and came up to inspect me. Only one boy did not budge. He flicked open a knife and began to carve an unprintable word in the metal frame of the “No Loitering” sign. While the rest of us talked, two or three girls joined us.

Tommy asked me about the trial, and I told him I was interested in helping teenagers, especially those in the gangs. The boys, all but the carver, listened attentively, and several of them mentioned that I was “one of us.”

“What do you mean, I’m one of you?” I asked.

Their logic was simple. The cops didn’t like me; the cops didn’t like them. We were in the same boat, and I was one of them. This was the first time but by no means the last time that I heard this logic. Suddenly I caught a glimpse of myself being hauled up that courtroom aisle, and it had a different light on it. I felt the little shiver I always experience in the presence of God’s perfect planning.

I didn’t have time to think more about it just then, because the boy with the knife at last stepped up to me. His words, although they were phrased in the language of a lonesome boy on the streets, cut my heart more surely than his knife would have been able to do.

“Davie,” the boy said. He hiked his shoulders up to settle his jacket more firmly on his back. When he did, I noticed that the other boys moved back a fraction of a step. Very deliberately, this boy closed and then opened his knife again. He held it out and casually ran the blade down the buttons of my coat, flicking them one by one. Until he had finished this little ritual, he did not speak again.

“Davie,” he said at last, looking me in the eye for the first time, “you’re all right. But Davie, if you ever turn on boys in this town … ” I felt the knifepoint press my belly lightly.

“What’s your name, young man?” His name was Willie, but it was another boy who told me.

“Willie, I don’t know why God brought me to this town. But let me tell you one thing. He is on your side. That I can promise you.”

Willie’s eyes hadn’t left mine. But gradually I felt the pressure of the knifepoint lessen. And then his eyes broke away. He turned aside.

Tommy adroitly turned the subject. “Davie, if you want to meet the gangs, why don’t you start right here? These guys are all Rebels, and I can show you some GGIs too.”


“Grand Gangsters, Incorporated.”

I hadn’t been in New York half an hour and already I was being introduced to my second street gang. Tommy gave me street directions, but I couldn’t follow them. “Boy, you are a rube aren’t you! Nancy!” he called one of the girls standing nearby. “Take the preacher down to the GGIs, will you?”

The GGIs met in a basement on 134th Street. To reach their “clubroom” Nancy and I walked down a flight of cement stairs, weaving our way past garbage pails that were chained to the building, past thin cats with stiff filthy fur, past a pile of vodka bottles, until finally Nancy stopped and rapped, two-quick, four-slow, on a door.

A girl opened it. I thought at first that she was playing a joke. She was the perfect clichéd stereotype of a tramp. She had no shoes on, she held a can of beer, a cigarette hung sideways from her lips, her hair was unkempt and the shoulder of her dress was pulled down in a deliberately revealing way. Two things kept me from laughing. This girl’s face showed no signs of amusement. And she was a child, a little girl in her teens.

“Maria?” said Nancy. “Can we come in? I want you to meet a friend.”

Maria shrugged one shoulder — the one holding her dress up — and opened the door wider. The room inside was dark, and it took me a while to realize that it was filled with couples. Boys and girls of high-school age sat together in this cold and ill-smelling room, and I realized with a jolt — Tommy was right: I was a rube — that Maria had probably not taken off her own shoes, nor pulled down her own dress. Someone switched on a wan overhead lightbulb. The kids slowly untangled themselves and looked up with the same bored eyes I’d seen in the faces of the Rebels.

“This is that preacher that was kicked out of the Farmer trial,” said Nancy.

Immediately, I had their attention. More important, I had their sympathy. That afternoon I had a chance to preach my first sermon to a New York gang. I didn’t try to get a complicated message over to them, just that they were loved. They were loved as they were, there, amid the vodka bottles and the weary, searching sex. God understood what they were looking for when they drank and played with sex, and He yearned for them to have what they were looking for: stimulation and exhilaration and a sense of being sought after. But not out of a cheap bottle in a cold tenement basement. God had so much higher hopes for them.

Once, when I paused, a boy said, “Keep it up, Preach. You’re coming through.”

It was the first time I heard the expression. It meant that I was reaching their hearts, and it was the highest compliment they could have paid my preaching.

I would have left that basement hideout, half an hour later, with a feeling of great encouragement, except for one thing. There, among the GGIs, I had my first encounter with narcotics. Maria — she turned out to be president of the GGI Debs, the girl-gang attached to the GGIs — interrupted me when I said that God could help them toward a new life.

“Not me, Davie. Not me.”

Maria had put down her glass, and she had pulled her dress back up over her shoulder.

“Why not you, Maria?”

In answer, she simply pulled up her sleeve and showed me her inner arm at the elbow.

I didn’t understand. “I don’t follow you, Maria.”

“Come here.” Maria walked over beneath the lightbulb and held out her arm. I could see little wounds on it like festered mosquito bites. Some were old and blue. Some were fresh and livid. I suddenly knew what this teenage girl was trying to say to me. She was a dope addict.

“I’m a mainliner, Davie. There’s no hope for me, not even from God.”

From The Cross and the Switchblade by David Wilkerson with John and Elizabeth Sherrill (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Chosen Books, © 1963, 2000, 2008). Excerpted with permission.

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