David Wilkerson, pastor from 1954-58

Pastor Dan Winters and the congregation of Gospel Tabernacle paid  tribute to their former pastor, Reverend David Wilkerson, during the 6 PM Service on Sunday, May 15 2011,  showing of the movie, The Cross and The Switchblade. The movie details Wilkerson’s ministry to drug addicts and gang members in New York City during the days immediately after he left Philipsburg.

Reverend Wilkerson, better known as Pastor Davey to many older area residents, was killed in a tragic auto accident in Cuney, Texas on April 27, 2011. He pastored Gospel Tabernacle from 1954-1958, moving the church from  a small building  on the corner of Water and Walton Streets to  Presquisle Street.

In 1955, the church purchased the former Scott’s Field site and constructed new building, the parsonage and another small building, potentially to house a bookstore and television studio. He broadcast weekly church services over an Altoona station.

But Pastor Dave grew restless, sensing that God had something special for him to do. When he saw a sketch of several New York City teenagers on trial for a gang-related murder published in LIFE Magazine in the fall of 1958, it stirred his heart. He knew he had to do something, but wasn’t sure what. Asking his congregation to pray, he packed up his car and travelled to the city to see what could be done. The “skinny preacher from Pennsylvania” preached on the streets and mixed with the addicts and gang members, sharing the simple message that God loved them.

Though his leaving was sad for his Philipsburg congregation, it became a blessing for those suffering from drug and alcohol addiction. Teen Challenge ministries began with one small center in Brooklyn, NY in 1959, growing to over 1000 centers in 80 countries in the 21st century.  It is the most effective of all drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs worldwide, based on the love of Christ and Biblical truths to help addicts establish stable lives, free of dependence on their old habits.

Aside from founding Teen Challenge Ministries and later World Challenge which encompassed his evangelistic preaching and writing ministry, Dave Wilkerson was perhaps best known through his 1963 best-selling book, The Cross And The Switchblade, which he co-authored with John Sherrill. The book which recounts his early days in New York was made into a motion picture in 1970 starring Pat Boone and Eric Estrada.

A decade and a half later, while walking down New York’s 42nd street at midnight, he sensed God telling him to start an international church in Times Square. One year later, the Times Square Church opened its doors, eventually moving to its permanent facilities in the historic Mark Hellinger Theater. The congregation of 8,000 people represents the diversity of New York City with over 100 nationalities worshipping together each week.

This skinny preacher from Pennsylvania will long be remembered for making a difference in so many lives. Not only was he instrumental in helping thousands of former addicts to get free of drugs, many young people from Gospel Tabernacle and across the country dedicated themselves to the ministry because of his example.

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