Strolling through the Crystal Mall Food Court in Waterford, Connecticut on any given Friday, Saturday or Sunday you can buy custom hand-made jewelry from the girls of Teen Challenge New England. The girls of Teen Challenge aren’t necessarily teens, and are as likely to be forty as eighteen. They are all residents, or staff comprised primarily of past residents, of Teen Challenge New England, and all the profits from jewelry sales support the ministry of Teen Challenge in New England.
Teen Challenge is a faith-based drug, alcohol and life controlling issues residential program being described as the “oldest, largest, most successful program of its kind in the world.” Today it boasts 195 centers in the states and 550 around the world. According to a study by the U.S. Department of Health’s National Institute on Drug Abuse, Teen Challenge has an unprecedented cure rate of 86% seven years after completing the program.
Teen Challenge began when David Wilkerson, a young Pentecostal preacher from rural Pennsylvania, was following the story of the trial of seven gang members in New York City charged with murder. Burdened by a desire to help them and lead them to faith in Christ, Wilkerson headed to the New York courtroom and pleaded with the judge to let him talk to the gang members. The judge refused, Wilkerson was almost arrested, but continued to feel like there was something he should do. He would return to New York frequently over the next few years.
In 1958, at 26 year old Wilkerson started Teen Challenge in an attempt to get New York youth off of drugs, out of addiction and transforming them through the power of Christ into men and women who would be assets to society. One of his first converts was Nicky Cruz, a leader of the Mau Maus in Brooklyn. When Wilkerson first preached to Cruz on the streets, rather than converting Cruz publicly slapped Wilkerson. When Wilkerson returned for another preaching engagement in a boxing arena, Cruz showed up with some of the Mau Maus seeking to teach Wilkerson a lesson. Rather than disturbing the meeting , Cruz and some of the gang members converted and the Teen Challenge story began. Cruz has since gone on to be Teen Challenge staff, a youth evangelist and popular author.
Wilkerson wrote a book, “The Cross and the Switchblade” in 1963 that recounts the story of Cruz, the gangs and Teen Challenge. The book continues to sell briskly and according to Amazon has sold over 14 million copies. On April 27th, David Wilkerson at age 71 died when his car ran head on with a truck in Texas. His wife sitting next to him in the car survived.
Teen Challenge is not without local stories and local alumni. John Harris of Lyme, a Teen Challenge graduate and later staff at Teen Challenge New Haven says, “Most would think that growing up in Lyme, CT is a blessing, and it was for the most part. But the influence of small town parties and the access to any kind of drug imaginable almost killed me. I only met Pastor Dave a few times, but each time was a memory I will never forget. After over 20 years of drug use and addiction, the world had all but given up on me, but this ministry that was birthed from his passion to reach out to people that society threw away saved my life. In just 12 months I went from a broken soul facing time in prison to a man with a life time ahead of him. Because of Dave I have been sober for 13 years, served in full time ministry for seven years, got ordained, restored my relationship with my family, and married the most beautiful woman in the world. All because Pastor David Wilkerson cared about people.” Quite a legacy!
This blogpost was originally writte for and appeared in New London Patch