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The Northern Echo
The Gangster Gunning For God
By ANDREW WHITE
May 5, 2004
He was the leader of one of New York's most feared gangs, notorious for their brutality, and when a preacher came calling, his first reaction was to beat him up. But then he underwent his own revelation. ANDREW WHITE meets gang leader-turned evangelist, Nicky Cruz
HE had a hate-filled childhood with witchcraft-practising parents and became the ruthless leader of a notoriously bloodthirsty New York street gang. It sounds like the plot for a Hollywood movie, but it is in fact the early life story of Nicky Cruz.
Cruz is now an evangelist, converted to Christianity by a scrawny preacher who braved the tough Brooklyn ghettos to conduct street rallies on the gangs' own turf.
More than 45 years later, Cruz has gained worldwide fame through the ministry he developed as a direct result of that meeting. He has written several books and the story of his conversion was made into a film, titled The Cross and The Switchblade, in 1969.
Cruz has been telling the story of his remarkable journey on his first tour of the country for nine years, which included two nights at the Christian Life Centre in Newton Aycliffe, County Durham. He speaks matter of factly about his traumatic early years as a boy growing up in Puerto Rico, which he says were "full of complexities".
"You see, I found out that my father was a Satanic priest and my mother was a witch, " he says, without batting an eyelid as if they were everyday professions.
But the physical and mental abuse he suffered at their hands, especially his mother, was far from everyday.
His mother used to beat him until he was unconscious, telling him that she wished he were dead and once declared him the "Son of Satan". He even tells how he once saw his parents carry out the ritual sacrifice of a goat and drink its blood.
Cruz could not play with other children, mainly because they were afraid of his family, leading to feelings of rejection and loneliness which were to haunt his early life.
"That was the most depressing pill you could take as a child, " he says. "The children were afraid of me, but really they were more afraid of my mother and my dad.
"I describe loneliness as a seductive lady that grows inside your chest and hurts you deep inside. From there you take actions that can cost your life because that empty hole and those questions you cannot answer can lead you to anything - drugs, crime, suicide."
But like everything else in his life, Cruz looks at his experiences in a positive way.
On the loneliness he felt as a boy, for example, he says: "I do believe that loneliness is the force that drove me into the arms of somebody that I used to hate, and I never knew him.
"It drove me into the arms of God and Jesus Christ and that was a good pay off.
I stopped running and I began to feel those areas of seduction, serenity, love and respect for life and for myself."
Cruz was sent to visit an older brother in New York when he was 15, but he soon struck out on his own.
A year later he joined a street gang known as the Mau Maus and his life spiralled into a world of drugs, alcohol and brutal violence. He soon became the gang's President, a warlord feared by the police and authorities.
"New York City was a jungle. There's no law, there's no restrictions, " he says.
"In the jungle you behave like an animal, that's a fact. An animal has to kill other animals for survival because that's the name of the game.
"What I'm trying to say is, if it's your life or my life, you better believe I'm going to take your life as soon as I can because that's survival."
But Cruz says he continued to be stalked by terrible nightmares of his childhood. "I was a savage in the gang, I was there participating in every evil that you can imagine. I was so cold-blooded and calculated and insecure" he says.
"But all the time I was struggling with these terrible feelings and nightmares of my mother. I hated her, she destroyed me emotionally and psychologically. She destroyed my childhood."
The turning point of his life came when he met Pastor David Wilkerson, who had gone to New York after reading about the horror of the gang wars. But initially he got little respect from Cruz.
He says: "Dave Wilkerson was insignificant, he was a country guy who'd never been in a big city like New York. He was a hillbilly and a hick.
"We didn't know what Wilkerson was doing, he was naive, but he walked in and joined the war zone, the inner cities, which were burning with crime and death and drugs.
"The police warned this guy not to go, but Wilkerson had come into a place as if he was dumb or stupid or naive. The fact is this guy wasn't that - it was the passion, it was a moment that he spent with God and God spoke into his heart."
Cruz was unwilling to listen to Wilkerson's message, beat him up and abused him.
"The police was right, " he says. "I hurt him physically, I spat on him, I called him every name in the book and called God four-letter words."
But Wilkerson was relentless and Cruz was unable to forget what he had been told.
It was at a church rally two weeks later that Cruz was taken completely by surprise.
He says: "It was the power of three words - Jesus loves you. In my madness and anger, he disarmed me in telling me that Jesus loved me. Two weeks later I gave my life and collapsed in the arms of Christ and I let him love me."
Leaving the gang life was tough - four days after his conversion, Cruz was shot at as he left hospital.
"It wasn't easy, it was tougher than being in the gang because your life has changed and then you have to prove to yourself that you've changed. I wish I hadn't committed those crimes, but I couldn't torture myself because I knew they had been forgiven.
"They shot at me coming out from the church, but I was determined to never go back to that terrible lifestyle and I did it.
I did it because Jesus helped me and because he was my friend.
"He came into my life when everybody else left me and made me a man. I forgave my mother, I forgave my father and we became a healthy family."
Cruz has been telling his story and spreading his message ever since then, but he fears for the future of Christianity. He prophesies that the Muslim religion will be the strongest in England "in 19 years" and is calling on young Christians to stand up and be counted.
"Things have changed. I'm a little worried and concerned for Europe and England, a beautiful country, " he says. "But I do believe that the churches in this country are sleeping giants.
"I do call on the Church of England and every born again person to take a stand and come out of the closet. I do believe that the best way to tackle these problems is for Christians and the Christian people of Europe to stand up. The young people are going to rise and it's already happening."
The mission: Nicky Cruz at the Christian Life Centre in Newton Aycliffe.