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By Gary Wilkerson, R. S. B. Sawyer
ZONDERVAN Copyright © 2014 World Challenge, Inc.
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TWO SIDES OF A HILL
Somewhere in a family member's garage, there is reel-to-reel tape that dates back to 1958. It's a recording of my grandfather preaching at his small Assemblies of God church in Turtle Creek, Pennsylvania, a tiny town in the coal-mining hills southeast of Pittsburgh. When I was a teenager, my father played that tape for me. Through the tinny crackles I heard my grandfather preparing to start his sermon. "Before we begin," he interjects, "I'd like to welcome my son Dave and his family, and their newest addition. I'm very proud to announce my grandson, Gary Randall Wilkerson."
My father took joy in playing that tape for me. It was his way of making a generational connection. I never knew my grandfather, Kenneth, because he died before I was two. And when it came to his own family, my dad wasn't a storyteller. He didn't articulate to us his relationships with his parents or siblings, partly because there were no family stories to speak of — none, that is, that didn't center around church or its obligations.
There was another reason my father didn't talk much about his childhood years. He just didn't look backward very often. In most conversations we had, he was always looking forward. Our talks centered more on his views of things and how he might bring about change. "Have you noticed this happening in the world today?" "What do you think about this movement in the church?" "Here's what we're going to do, what we're believing for."
Whenever Dad did speak of my grandfather Kenneth, it was always with reverence and respect. He described his father — a tall, dark-haired, striking man with a persuasive preaching style — as tenderhearted and soft-spoken. But I know my grandfather was also intense and serious. These traits were partly his temperament, reinforced by his training as a US marine. Yet they also extended to a certain legalism — an emphasis on outward behavior to reflect God's holiness — that was part and parcel of the Pentecostal holiness faith that he and my grandmother adhered to. They weren't unique in this. The 1940s — my father's teenage years — were generally a stricter time for a lot of reasons. Those were the war years, and the mood in society wasn't one of frivolity. That generation had also just endured ten agonizing years of the Great Depression. For a while, my grandparents had to rely on a neighbor's kindness to provide their children with food. Yet beyond this were "spiritual" prohibitions against worldly things — not just movies or sporting events but, to people of my grandparents' persuasion, even owning a washing machine.
"There was joy in church," attests my uncle Don, the baby of the family. This was certainly true for his parents. When they looked into the pews, they saw all five of their children in attendance. Church was where the very reserved Kenneth and Ann Wilkerson channeled all their emotional energies, leading two Sunday services — a morning sermon to build the body of Christ and an evening message geared to evangelism. Once the day ended, there was a discernible release in the household. "Dad and Mother were relaxed and loose, and everyone in the family spoke their minds," Uncle Don says. Those free and easy evenings must have been true Sabbaths. My uncle looks back on them fondly as "the Wilkerson jam sessions."
"We would all gather in Dad's study after a Sunday night service," he remembers. "David would be there with his girlfriend. Jerry would be there with his girlfriend. I was just a kid then, but those were some of the happiest times I can remember in our family. Everyone would just talk. Then they would complain because there was a schedule of who should wash the dishes and who should dry. And they would pay each other off. 'I'll give you a quarter if you do mine.' It was a good family time."
Every son desires his father's approval, and it was no secret that my dad, the oldest brother, wanted his father's. He never would have done anything to disappoint his father, much less get crosswise with him. But my dad's outsized ambitions for a life in ministry would inevitably have to collide with his father's — and they did.
Only once did I get a glimpse into any deeper feelings my dad might have had about his father. I recall him once saying, "He was a denomination man." He offered this as a description, not a judgment; Dad never would have disparaged his father. But I know the exact compartment in my father's heart — a palpitating chamber of burning vision and restlessness — that let slip that comment. All of my dad's dreams had to do with serving God, and those dreams ranged as broadly as his imagination allowed.
What I've written up to here is very nearly the extent of what my father told me about his childhood. The one other thing he disclosed was that he loved basketball and that he thought he was pretty good at it. That was it. The past just wasn't his concern. There were reasons for this, which he kept to himself, and others I don't think he was fully aware of. He just knew that everything ahead of him would be a matter of pleasing God. And he trusted that God would make possible things that the church world could not.
* * *
Albert Street, where my father, David Ray Wilkerson, spent his adolescent years, isn't very long. But it does stretch the length of the plateau that sits atop a steep hill overlooking downtown Turtle Creek. Up on that hill, anchoring the center of Albert Street, was the neighborhood grocery store, a small, narrow building occupying a single corner lot. People weren't allowed to buy a newspaper there on Sundays. But outside was a telephone booth where men made discreet phone calls throughout the day. My uncle Don was just a schoolboy then, but if he happened to be walking by when the phone rang, the store owner would tell him to answer it and to shout out the series of numbers that the caller whispered to him. My uncle had no idea he was relaying illegal bets.
Not far from the grocery store was the Packard garage, where my father and his younger brothers would eye the classy cars as they walked by on their way to the schoolyard basketball court. Their own dad appreciated a good car, but on a pastor's salary Reverend Kenneth Wilkerson could afford only a Hudson. Packards were the Cadillacs of their day.
Down the block from the garage was the neighborhood bar, which my dad and his brothers also would have passed. As preacher's kids, they rarely recognized anyone who came or went through those doors. But they were surprised one afternoon by the sight of their uncle Frank, their mother's brother from Cleveland, emerging from the bar in his navy uniform on his way to visit them.
Up and down the neighborhood streets of Turtle Creek, soot of all kinds gathered on window shades, floating in from the various industries: the Westinghouse factory that employed so many townspeople; the electric plant down at the creek bottom next to the railroad tracks; the coal mines in nearby Forest Hills, a town just down the road.
Like a lot of working-class homes on Albert Street, my grandparents' three-story wood house, humble but spacious, sat on a narrow lot. Its enclosed front porch jutted almost to the street. The driveway led to a backyard garage where my dad and his brothers had set up a hoop so they could spend hours shooting baskets. When the weather was bad, they unleashed their energies playing ping-pong in the basement. And in summers they enjoyed the shade of the back alley, where neighborhood kids gathered to play baseball. One inventive mother improved their games by producing a baseball-sized sphere from yarn, woven tightly so it wouldn't unravel when battered, yet staying soft enough not to break a windowpane. She should have patented it.
In that hilltop neighborhood in Turtle Creek were two spots that occupied my father's imagination for most of his teenage years. They were located on opposite sides of the hill — and opposite ends of my dad's dream life.
* * *
At one end of the hill, perched on a slope overlooking downtown Turtle Creek, is the Assembly of God church my grandfather pastored. It's a modest, simple brick church he had led his small congregation to build, and they all were proud of it. It replaced the cinderblock structure where they used to meet, directly below at the bottom of the hill, beneath a clattery raised railroad track that ran parallel to a flowing Turtle Creek. In those two church buildings, a central part of my dad's imagination was fed and formed. Despite the restrictions of his family's brand of faith — or maybe because of those restrictions — church was the one safe place he could let his imagination run free.
Dad's preacher father may have been soft-spoken in person, but in the pulpit Brother Kenneth Wilkerson didn't flinch from preaching on God's judgment. In my dad's young mind, the flames his father described morphed into fireballs — exploding World War II fighter planes, Japanese Zeroes and German Messerschmitts he imagined crashing into Turtle Creek's hillsides. Yet it was the sermons on Christ's second coming — when a trumpet would sound, lifting the faithful into the air and leaving the world to face destruction — that left the deepest impression on him. The end of all things wasn't hard for my dad to imagine: two of Japan's major cities had been decimated in the twinkling of an eye by atomic bombs. With a single newspaper photo, everything that Christians had believed for two millennia about the earth's sudden destruction became plausible. And though his thoughts of end times would be tempered by his maturing years in ministry, my dad could never dismiss those images of mushroom clouds as imminent possibilities.
At the opposite end of the hill — just three blocks from the Wilkerson house — Albert Street dead-ended at a beautifully impressive overlook. Outstretched below was Turtle Creek High's football stadium, cradled in a natural amphitheater of leafy hills. Football was big in Turtle Creek, so big that if the high school team beat their archrival, Scott Township, all the schools in town got a half day off.
Every other Friday afternoon, my father and his brothers walked the three blocks to sit on the hillside and gaze below at the stadium, a mesmerizing world of daring and stardom. There on that field played Leon Hart, the great end who became a hero at Notre Dame, winning the Heisman Trophy and later starring for the Detroit Lions. But the stadium below was more than that; it was also a world of exhilaration and freedom. My father and his brothers watched as their classmates filed into the massive concrete grandstands on the facing side. Some clasped hands with their dates, others shouted rowdily with friends, all encouraged to go wild with school spirit. These were the kids who ran free in gym class, a class forbidden to the Wilkerson boys, who were pulled from it at their parents' request.
"David-Jerry-Donald. Time for prayer!"
Mom Wilkerson's shout reached them easily on their hillside perch. Her voice could be heard to either end of Albert Street, and it tolled with authority. I wouldn't be surprised if startled fathers along the block dropped their newspapers and momentarily considered their souls. Mom Wilkerson had the physique of a bird and was quiet and reserved, but when she spoke, it counted. It didn't matter how involved in a game her boys might be when she called them. My dad or uncle Jerry could be up to bat in the ninth inning of the Albert Alley World Series, but they knew not to balk at her summons. If they mumbled something on arrival, they could expect their mother's singular response: "You know where you belong."
To youngest brother Donald, those words contained a mild reassurance. To middle brother Jerry, they added one more brick to a wall slowly being erected between his parents and himself.
"Family altar" in Brother and Sister Wilkerson's household was not meant for spiritual discussion. It was a solemn time for all five Wilkerson kids to gather in their father's study on the second floor of the house and hear their parents' prayers. Other than meals and church, it was the only activity that gathered everyone as a family. And each of the five children came to it with his or her own level of interest or toleration.
Juanita — or Nan, as her younger siblings called her — had chafed at her parents' restrictions. The oldest, she resented being sheltered and overprotected. At seventeen she was still threatened with spankings. She wasn't allowed to style her hair. She had been made to wear unstylish long stockings while her classmates wore ankle socks. She was forbidden to date until she graduated high school. Now she had begun lashing back at her parents without remorse. Her heroes were Hollywood icons, not Bible figures or missionaries, and she resisted every restriction placed on her.
In truth, my grandmother was desperate to bridle Juanita because she reminded her of her own younger self. Mom Wilkerson looked back on her youthful years as wild ones, which may have been somewhat of revisionist history. She was probably as close to normal as any first-generation child in an immigrant family could be, which of course carried its own burdens. In the 1920s my grandmother had been an independent young working woman — a "modern girl," with a job as a secretary, dressing in current styles and spending her evenings in dance halls perfecting the Charleston. If that kind of nightly release carried any guilt, it wasn't because she had a serious faith commitment — she didn't at the time — but more likely because she had hardworking immigrant parents who didn't indulge themselves. For a working girl from an austere home in which English wasn't spoken, the dance floor was a place to cut loose and be free, which happened to be where she met my grandfather. Kenneth Wilkerson was a marine recruiter who at the time was sidestepping his own Pentecostal restrictions and was still a few years away from returning to his roots to become a minister. It took him some time to give up his drinking habit, however, his chosen means of drowning the pain of his own growing-up years.
My grandparents didn't want their oldest child repeating their "mistakes." Aunt Juanita wasn't aware that in a few weeks she would be sent away to Cleveland, to stay with an uncle and his family. After a few months there, Juanita would seem to have changed; she would write her parents that she was interested in going to Bible school to become a missionary. That was the ultimate vocation for any Pentecostal girl, in a hierarchy that held missionaries at the top, followed by evangelists and then pastors. Ultimately, though, Juanita wouldn't recover from the binding legalism she tied inextricably to her parents' faith. After graduating she would marry a Catholic man, which would be a slap in the face to her father. In turn, her father would never talk to her again. In both my grandparents' eyes, their daughter had backslidden, a conclusion that may have been their way of steeling themselves against heartbreak.
In years to follow, Juanita effectively disappeared from her family — calling herself Joan, moving to Arizona, raising two sons, and divorcing. She pursued eastern religions, even traveling to the Far East to study, as many searching souls did in the sixties. She became a cautionary tale to us through our grandmother. "You don't want to end up like Juanita," Grandma would tell us. "She had a call to Africa, but she ran from the Lord." That caution registered with us grandkids the few times we were around our aunt. Juanita's humor was brazenly sarcastic and at times caustic, and she seemed to try to shock her adult siblings with tales of her lifestyle. In retrospect, perhaps she was instead trying to impress them — and maybe, deep down, wanting to endear herself to them again.
When we were growing up, Aunt Juanita was a source of confusion to some of the Wilkerson granddaughters. Some saw her as a glamorous figure — beautiful and smart, worldly and well-traveled, interesting and free. And she was striking, with large, dark-brown eyes, high, pronounced cheekbones, a pointy chin, and olive skin. She had entered the education field and ended up doing stellar work among children with learning disabilities. But ultimately my grandmother's view of Juanita held sway with us. Between the two of them, Grandma was the one who had authority to speak for God. We saw her pray for her daughter with every good intention.
Excerpted from David Wilkerson by Gary Wilkerson, R. S. B. Sawyer. Copyright © 2014 World Challenge, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN.
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