It’s a glitzless Broadway production with free admission, an unpaid choir, a hodgepodge of instruments for a band, and a lead performer who mostly stands in one spot behind a Plexiglas lectern and talks. Not your typical theater fare, yet since David Wilkerson took over the stage of the landmark Mark Hellinger Theater last March, it’s often been SRO in the 103-seat house. Nonetheless, says the minister of the Times Square Church, “We’re not trying to pack seats. We’re trying to pack our hearts with Jesus.”
An evangelist and co-author of The Cross and the Switchblade, a best-seller (15 million copies in 30 languages) about his work with New York gangs in the ’50s, Wilkerson, 57, has received mostly favorable notices since he took over the revered Hellinger. “SRO for Jesus on Broadway,” blared the New York Daily News, and Variety announced, “That old-time religion books Hellinger.” Wilkerson finds the showbiz lingo understandable. The Hellinger has showcased such musical hits as My Fair Lady, Sugar Babies, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever and—appropriately—Jesus Christ Superstar, and its marquee once boasted the names Katharine Hepburn, Mickey Rooney, Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison.
Now the marquee proclaims NONDE-NOMINATIONAL TIMES SQUARE CHURCH. THE REAL REVIVAL ON BROADWAY! And the house attracts a mixed bag of congregants ranging from middle-class families to the homeless, prostitutes, drug addicts and AIDS sufferers, all drawn by four-a-week, 2½-hour services and no-nonsense sermons. “I never considered myself a great preacher—I’m a communicator,” Wilkerson says, and his low-key approach sharply contrasts with that of other evangelists. A few years ago he warned his friend Jimmy Swaggart that he feared God was about to shut Swaggart’s flamboyant act down, and he now says that all the fundamentalist “one-man shows are over. The people won’t have it.”
Taking a $56,000-a-year salary, Wilkerson lives with his wife, Gwen, 57, in a two-bedroom Manhattan apartment, drives a three-year-old Honda, and employs a church staff of 30, paid from $2 million in annual collection monies and gifts from wealthy donors. “People watch the kind of car you drive,” says Wilkerson, whose four children are ministers themselves or are married to ministers. “My wife doesn’t have a fur, and we both dress modestly. We know we are in a glass bowl.” So, often, are his parishioners: Much of his flock is ragtag, and they receive their pastoral counseling on the grubby streets of Times Square.
Wilkerson’s origins never suggested he was headed for Broadway. The second of four children born in Hammond, Ind., to Rev. Kenneth and Ann Wilkerson, he was raised in Barnesboro, Pa., in a home “full of Bibles” and began preaching at 14. He was not allowed to go to movies, and only Christian music filtered through the family’s clapboard house. “They called me Screechin’ Deacon,” he recalls, adding that other children hassled him because he was skinny. “Later that did something for me in feeling for the oppressed.” After high school, Wilkerson tried Bible college but dropped out because “it was boring. None of the other students were serious about the ministry.” In 1953 he married Gwen and took Pentecostal pastorates in Scottdale and Philipsburg, Pa. Then a 1957 LIFE story about a polio-stricken boy who was killed by gang members in New York changed his life. “I heard an inner voice say, ‘Go and try to reach those boys.’ ”
Moving to New York, Wilkerson started Teen Challenge, a drug, alcohol and evangelism outreach program that he ran for 14 years and which now has 110 centers nationwide. In search of a wider ministry, he moved to Tyler, Texas, and founded a similar organization, called World Challenge (he is still its president), doing street ministries in New York in the summers. The sudden explosion of crack use brought him back to Manhattan full-time in 1987.
After moving his church in and out of several New York buildings, including Town Hall, Wilkerson spotted his current pulpit about the time bad reviews and attendance were threatening the theater’s then occupant, the superbomb musical Legs Diamond. Hoping it would fold, he even mingled with theatergoers on the street, savoring their grumbles, and when Legs closed after three months, he got the house. So far, the new bill has been a big hit to a growing congregation, and Wilkerson hopes his home is permanent. “We have in our hands one of the prime theaters in America,” he says, “and I think God says, ‘If I can trust you with the poor, I can trust you with the Mark Hellinger.’ ”
—Ron Arias, Gavin Moses in New York