Not too long ago, President Donald Trump referred to the MS-13 gangs plaguing the United States and most of central America as animals. At least in my feed, I heard a great deal of righteous indignation with his use of the term, especially because he is referring to those who, while marred, are still created in the image of God. At the time, I had no clue who MS-13 was. That was until The Gospel Coalition shared a basic article titled “9 Things You Should Know about MS-13.” I’ll admit the bare bones of MS-13’s actions were horrifying and repulsive to me. I felt almost sympathetic to Trump’s derogatory term.
Ironically, as God would have it, I then came across the book The Cross and the Switchblade by David Wilkerson. This is the true story of how David Wilkerson started the Teen Challenge ministry back in the 1960s. This ministry focuses on teens similar to these MS-13 gang members. The opening paragraphs of this book hooked me right away.
Wilkerson describes how his journey started first with a call to prayer and was followed by an emotional reaction to a Life magazine article showing a drawing of seven gang member boys on trial for murdering a disabled boy. For some reason, this picture moved him to tears and was followed by an impression from the Lord to go help these boys. Wilkerson, a pastor at the time, tried to explain this encounter to his church: “My parishioners looked at me stonily. I was not getting through to them at all, and I could understand why. Anyone’s natural instinct would be aversion to those boys, not sympathy. I could not understand my own reaction.”
Nevertheless, the church, poor as they were, provided the money needed for him to take the trip to New York to somehow reach these boys. The rest of the book is littered with miraculous moments as Wilkerson begins a ministry to these gang members, including gang leaders saved, a facility provided, and godly volunteers to serve these broken youths. My first reaction to reading this amazing story was, embarrassingly, skepticism.
I doubted Wilkerson’s claims to hear direct instructions from the Lord. I doubted the veracity of these gang leader’s transformed lives. I even doubted the miraculous provision of a facility. And, yet, I know this ministry, still operational and now global, and have seen firsthand the work that is done there through the changed life of a good friend. Even more importantly, I see the evidence of God’s transforming work throughout the Bible, throughout history, and throughout my own story (when I’m not too blind to see it).
My doubt is like a stench to me, one that clouds the air and stings the eyes. Have I forgotten whom I serve? Having been a high school teacher and wife to a youth pastor over the last 17 years, I have seen both the miraculous and the discouraging in the lives of troubled teens. In Wilkerson’s book, there is little talk of those who went back to their lifestyles. To me, this rang false. Perhaps it’s the agonizingly slow work of sanctification in my own life that fuels my doubt. But then, maybe I am forgetting the power of the gospel.
At one point in the story, Wilkerson talks to his Pentecostal grandfather, looking for guidance. His grandfather asks him what the central heart of the gospel is. Wilkerson replies,“The heart of the gospel is change. It is transformation. It is being born again to a new life.”
His grandfather said, “You rattle that off pretty smooth, David. Wait until you watch the Lord do it. Then you’ll get even more excitement in your voice. But that’s the theory. The heart of Christ’s message is extremely simple; an encounter with God—a real one—means change.”
The lines “Wait until you watch the Lord do it” resounded in my own ear—an invitation to view life with more hope and expectation that God is doing something. It’s no small thing, either. He is doing the huge work of changing us creatures of the dark into creatures of the light, fit to bear his name.
I wanted a fresh perspective—to believe in the magic of God’s intervention in the affairs of man, waiting expectantly for what comes next. Isn’t this the beauty of the Prodigal Son? How difficult those many long years of waiting for the prodigal son to return must have been for the father, though the actual transformation only took a moment. God may choose to work quickly, or he may work slowly, digging deep into the crusty layers of our hearts, but he truly is at work.
It may be foolish to love and pursue the prodigals of this world, but it is this truth that echoes throughout Scripture. He came to save that which is lost at his own expense. Let us be like him, the lover of prodigals.