I bought this book last fall in Clever. I’ve recently spoken with my wife in the merits of the parish model versus the congregational model, and I talked about a whole genre of books where the parish priest takes on crime in his neighborhood (maybe I’m just fond of Robert Blake’s series Hell Town). The edition of The Cross and the Switchblade is the movie tie-in edition, so I thought it might be the font from which the genre sprung. But the pastor in the book is Pentacostal, affiliated with the Assemblies of God. So his is also a congregational model.
At any rate, the book tells the story of Wilkerson, a pastor from the country, who sees an article in Life about several gang members on trial for murder, and he is moved to go minister to them in New York City. So he hops into his car, essentially, on a day off from his church and goes to try to see them. He tries to approach the judge in the courtroom and makes a nuisance of himself and gets ejected before the cameras of the press, so he becomes a bit notorious in his own right. He can’t see the boys on trial, but he keeps returning to New York without a definite plan and finds that young people, especially gang members, are willing to talk to him because he was in the newspaper.
The first half of the book deals with this fish-out-of-water story as he makes his forays into New York, especially Brooklyn, to minister to the gang members and the drug addicts there. The first half culminates in a revival at an arena where he has an altar call, and several gang members come forward, including one who started out particularly hostile but ends up a minister. From what I can see in the photos included from the movie, the film covers this first half of the book with some dramatic revisions. Confession: Erik Estrada stars in the film, so when I read his bio mention it in TV Superstars ’81, I decided to pick up this book next.
The second half of the book is a little less focused as Wilkerson builds up his ministry and creates a center for at-risk youth. He discovers the dangers of drug addiction, particularly heroin, and that’s about the size of it.
It’s an interesting book for many reasons. It has an interesting and adventuresome narrative in it. It’s an interesting look at the dangers of the bad part of New York City in the late 1950s. It’s also an interesting look at the Pentecostal way of doing things: it’s decentralized to a high degree (certainly compared to the Catholic church and the more conservative Lutheran denominations) and features things like altar calls and speaking in tongues, which is not something you see at my church. So, interesting all around.
Unfortunately, it’s still all-to-timely, as heroin is making its big comeback and violence in our cities is reaching a crescendo even as people become even less interested in the eternal than they were in 1960.