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Q&A: Authors John and Elizabeth Sherrill on David Wilkerson Print Email
Written by Christine D. Johnson   
Monday, 09 May 2011 11:50 AM America/New_York

The two of you co-authored the 1963 The Cross and the Switchblade. What was David Wilkerson like to work with?

Elizabeth: He was a very gentle and generous man. He never took on the kind of persona business that so many Christian leaders do. He was a humble person and remained that all his life. We’re so grateful about that. Some leaders of ministries that become big—his ministry did become big after the book came out—and we thought, "Oh, if he goes the way of ... ," as many people from humble backgrounds, from simple backgrounds, when they begin to get a little bit of cash flowing through and a little bit of notoriety, of fame, go a very different way from the way David went.

John: The thing that I remember also about David that was so interesting, is, we could, if we wanted to, rank the people that we have worked with according to whether or not they’re good storytellers. If they're good storytellers, and that’s our field—we tell narratives, we tell stories—then we’d just look at each other and say, "Oh boy, we’ve got a wonderful interview here," but if they don’t, if they get abstract or you’re quite clear that they are repeating stories that they’ve told so often that it’s just rote and you’re not really getting an interview at all, you might as well have a recording that was used, then we’d raise our eyebrows and we’d say, "Oh boy, this is not going to work," but David was a good storyteller.

Any stories you could tell us about David Wilkerson that are not so well known?

Elizabeth: He was just beginning his ministry when we met him, and he was working in Brooklyn … a very, very rough area. We were interviewing him for Guideposts. The book grew out of the stories in Guideposts. In fact, we realized that we had more than we could possibly tell in the magazine. It was the first time Guideposts ever did a two- or three-part story. You have to be very careful when you’re telling true stories, you have to be sure that they are true. Some Christians seem to sort of try give God a little boost, improve on God’s performance by exaggerating a little bit, and so we’re very careful when we interview someone, when we first begin to know somebody, to see how they’re strict they’re being with the facts, how trustworthy their statistics are. And so when David told us that he, with a trumpet, a soapbox and an American flag, he had a little meeting on a street corner—as long as you have an American flag, you can stand up and give a speech on the street—and he said that pretty soon about 300—I’ve got the figures wrong because we don’t have the book here with us here on the road, but this is my memory of it. He said 300 people gathered on the street corner to hear him in Brooklyn. We thought, now that is, 300 people on a street corner? The police are going to be there, the police are going to notice it, that’s going to stop traffic and it’s going to create congestion, the sidewalk will be blocked and so on, so after he told us that, we went to the police station, the precinct where this was, and asked them to check it out on their police blotter, if they had a record of any such crowd having gathered on that particular day and they looked it up and they found it. They said, "Yes, yes, there were about 500 people on that street corner." So then we knew that David was being very careful and tending to downplay the story.

David WilkersonJohn: We also did the same thing checking him out with one of the characters in the story who was responsible for being with David at the time of some of the quite miraculous things that were happening to him, so we decided to check that out because it was in the newspapers. One of the people at the office, a real "bulldog" person, didn’t like David Wilkerson because it was too mysterious for her, just didn’t like it at all, so she came storming into our office, “I told you, I told you, this is all a fake. David had said it was on the front page of The Post or whatever newspaper it was, and look, there’s the front page and it’s not on there!” So she was really, really upset and then we said, well, that’s interesting. Let’s look through the paper. We turned to the magazine section of the paper, I think that’s what happened. There it was, the front page of the magazine section, just a full-blast story, and so it was an interesting case also of people’s reactions. … The Pentecostal message was not an easy thing for people to understand.

Elizabeth: The stories were hard to believe and yet as we got to know David, we found him so very, very believable, just a deeply honest person. He was rigorous with his facts. Part of the work of a writer, we feel, is to be a translator, to translate someone’s experience told in his language. He came from a particular religious and cultural background and he had language that would not communicate with people from different backgrounds, and so one of our roles in these situations is to use general English, is to be translators, to think of the reader who will not necessarily know what “Are you saved?” means or “the blood of the Lamb” and phraseology like that. It was deeply meaningful to David, it meant everything to him because he knew what it meant, but (not) for the ordinary noncommitted reader.

Was he communicating that way when he spoke?

Elizabeth: He was, but that was with his personality with it, his eyes, intense love for the people he was talking to and just committing himself … the word love keeps coming to me, and fearless, confronting gang members and other unsavory types with great courage, just reading them the riot act and telling them that God loved them and that he would love them. "You could cut me in a hundred little pieces, but every little piece will still love you." ... There’s nothing quite as cold as print on a page, and so that kind of language would not necessarily communicate. He was very yielded to us in that way and some people are not. … David was very willing to be, I’m sure, taken out of his comfort zone. He wanted to be heard.

John: One thing that might be of interest is that the house where we lived for 50 years was the place where The Cross and the Switchblade was written along with some other books—The Hiding Place and Born Again and so forth—or highly edited. That house has now sold. The real difficulty for us was that the home, the birthing place of The Cross and the Switchblade now belongs in other hands, but the thing about it that was so interesting is that the people who bought the house are very committed Christians. The house itself where all these books were written has, I’m sure that God led us to just not worry about—and we did worry, but that was when we took charge and didn’t let God take charge—until exactly this family was found, and they just love the place.

Did you do other books with him?

Elizabeth: John worked very closely with a then-new writer, Jamie Buckingham, on the Nicky Cruz story (Run Baby Run). Jamie had never done any book before. He was a minister. John just found him, just thought he’d be the right person, and John worked very closely with Jamie on that book. Not only did it produce a book, but it produced a writer. Jamie went on to just do I don’t know how many books, many more than we have done.

Why do you think Wilkerson's book played a big role in the launch of charismatic publishing?

Elizabeth: It certainly wasn’t our doing. It did play a role, but it had to be God’s timing. It’s not something we knew anything about. It was a very different world from our world. When we first heard about David, it was Mrs. Norman Vincent Peale who came to the office one day, the Guideposts office, and said, “I’ve heard about the most astonishing thing.” They’d had a house guest—it wasn’t David, it was someone who knew David—who had described speaking in tongues, and she said, “I just can’t imagine that that’s going on.” And so that was the impetus for us to go and meet David because it was unheard of. It was, at that point, not even generally known that such a thing could happen.

John: David’s story and Brother Andrew’s story (God's Smuggler) and Corrie ten Boom’s story—the same books written today would have an audience, there would be people who (would) love them, but the timing was just exactly right for David’s story because it was at the time when, to use the Christian word for it, the personal witness story was being read all over the Christian world. People wanted to have the narrative, the personal story of people, and that’s what we like to do. That’s what we were trained to do at Guideposts. All of a sudden this all fell into place with a series of books, and I think that the same books written today would not become best-sellers even though everything that went into them would be the same. We were there, by the grace of God, we were there at the time that the things that we like to do was very popular.