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A Story Within the Story of "The Cross and the Switchblade"

The story of David Wilkerson and Nicky Cruz and their resulting ministries may be well known, but their stories aren't the only ones God was writing.
The Cross and the Switchblade is the true story of how a small-town AG minister, David Wilkerson, felt called by God to New York City to minister to Brooklyn street gangs. This led to encounters with Nicky Cruz, the leader of the Mau Maus gang, and Cruz ultimately giving his life to Christ. It’s a well-known book (and movie) with more than 15 million copies sold and has been translated into at least 30 different languages.

Wilkerson’s and Cruz’s ministries are well documented as God gave them national and international platforms to share the gospel. But did you know that there’s more to the story?

It’s not hard to overlook that the weeklong revival service that led to Cruz’s salvation had others present besides Wilkerson, Cruz, and rival gang members . . . , but one such person was present and on the platform at every service — 14-year-old Mary Arguinzoni.


Prior to Wilkerson holding the weeklong revival at the since-demolished St. Nicholas Arena in Manhattan, he met with the area Hispanic church leaders.

“He invited all the Hispanic churches to one church to have a big rally with the youth groups,” Mary recalls. “At the time, he also asked the Hispanic churches to support the revival. So, we all got together and David spoke — I was asked to sing a solo as part of the rally.”

After the rally, Wilkerson approached the Arguinzonis.

“I was born and raised in a Christian home, my parents were ministers, and I’ve known the Lord since I was very young,” Mary says. “David came up to my parents and asked my mom if I would also sing for the revival. So, I became the soloist for the week, singing a different song each night.”


It is difficult to overstate the danger Wilkerson frequently placed himself in when ministering to gangs. And from the outside looking in having rival gangs in the same confined area of St. Nicholas Arena would seem a disastrous mix.

Mary, who’s now 81, recalls there was little to indicate that trouble wasn’t brewing.

“That first night, the gangs came in — Nicky with all his people — and then the rival gang came,” Mary says. “They were very rowdy, very disrespectful. When I went up to sing, they kept calling out to me, whistling, and asking me to dance.”

Mary says that she could see gang members with chains and wearing their garrison belts — (belts were used as weapons — a portion of the leather belt could be wrapped around hand and wrist with the rest of the belt used like a whip with the heavy buckle at the end), and she felt for sure most had knives and some probably had guns with them.

“When David had the rival gang members collect the offering, I was back behind the curtain and then they all came behind the curtain to count the money,” Mary says. “I was 14 years old at the time. I wasn’t scared; I didn’t know to be scared, but it was something to see.”

Mary says that each night of the revival, the gangs grew steadily quieter and more respectful as God used Wilkerson’s messages to speak into gang members’ lives. One would also have to believe God used a 14-year-old girl’s voice to share His message as well.

“It was the final night and David spoke like usual,” Mary says. “I heard him say, ‘Take over Holy Spirit, I’ve done all I can do,’ and he turned to me and said, ‘Mary, come and sing.’ I started to sing, ‘No One Ever Cared for Me Like Jesus.’ I sang the first verse and when I got to the chorus, suddenly I saw Nicky coming down the aisle, crying like a baby, and throw himself on the altar. He put his cigarettes and everything he had, he put them on the stage, and was crying to God to change him, to be real to him . . . he was asking the Lord to be lord of his life, saying, ‘If you’re real, change my life’ — that was really something!”


God did prove himself to Nicky Cruz and to this day he is sharing the gospel, with a primary focus on reaching young people for Christ. And although David Wilkerson passed away in a tragic automobile accident in 2011, one of his core ministries, now known as Adult & Teen Challenge, continues to thrive as it helps individuals overcome addictions in the United States and around the world.

But what about Mary? Surely God had some kind of plan for her life.

“I started practicing with the Brooklyn Tabernacle choir and I had a solo on their first album,” Mary says. “David had a Teen Challenge TV program on Saturdays that I sang for as well — I stayed around Teen Challenge for quite a while, the music part.”

During that time, Mary felt the Lord was calling her to work with the girls at Teen Challenge.

“In my heart, I knew what God called me to do,” Mary says, “but I was disobedient.”

Sadly, once she graduated from high school, Mary decided to go her own way.

“I didn’t want to go to church anymore, I had enough church,” she says. “I started dating a non-Christian young man, got married when I was 21, and had three children — we didn’t go to church. We were partying a lot, and the marriage was not good — it was very verbally abusive.”


Mary was now living in New Jersey with her husband and children. One day, two women from an AG church in Burlington came by their home and invited the family to church.

“I went and listened to the Word for the first time in years,” Mary says. “I put my oldest girl in with the other 4-year-olds . . . after that visit, one day while I was doing dishes, she came and tugged at my skirt and asked, ‘Mommy, who is Jesus?’ Oh boy, that really got to me, so I kept going to the church.”

A conflict was raging inside of Mary. God was clearly reaching out to her and that desire for relationship with Him kept her coming back to church, but her life outside of church was not reflective of Christ.

“I finally couldn’t take the abuse from my husband anymore, so I left him and moved to Florida with the children,” Mary says. “My sister, who lived in the same community, invited me to church.”

It wasn’t long before the Holy Spirit had Mary’s full attention.

“He was really dealing with me,” Mary says. “So, one day, instead of going to work, I went to church to talk to the pastor’s wife. I was there for three hours, pouring my heart out. She led me into the sanctuary, to the altar, and she prayed for me, and I came back to the Lord. It was 1980.”


During the time she had turned her back on God, Mary learned about how the story of David Wilkerson and Nicky Cruz had gone from a book and into a movie.

“People who knew me would tell me someone was portraying me in the movie,” Mary says. “I felt so convicted and embarrassed.”

However, by now, Mary knew she had missed out on God’s calling her to minister to girls at Teen Challenge . . . or so she thought.

“I started going to a church called Evangel Temple in Miami, and they started a Missionettes (now Girls Ministries) program,” Mary says. Perhaps, she figured, if she wouldn’t be able to help young women break addictions through Christ, she’d be able to fill young lives with God’s Word before drugs became a temptation!

Mary went through the training and became a Missionettes sponsor. She then offered to be a van driver for the church as well.

“I wanted to pick up the girls in the neighborhood that otherwise couldn’t come,” Mary says. “I’d pick up the girls for Missionettes, and then the boys started getting on the van for Royal Rangers too — the van would be packed!”

Periodically, Mary would be transferred due to her job, but wherever she went, she found an AG church and immediately got back involved with girls ministries.

And as more people have become aware of the small part she played in Nicky Cruz coming to Christ and how God has used her, despite her initial disobedience, to impact hundreds and hundreds of girls’ lives, Mary has been able to share her testimony — including an opportunity to answer God’s initial call on her life.

“Several years ago, I was invited to go on a 10-day missions trip overseas to a Teen Challenge in Siberia,” Mary says. “While there, the Lord gave me the opportunity to testify to the men and women in Teen Challenge and to work with the real core of Teen Challenge.”


Recently, on a Wednesday evening in March, when Mary arrived at her church, Harvest Church (AG) in Lakeland, Florida, she was surprised to see her pastor, Keith Conley, his wife, Joy, and the whole congregation outside of the church. She also noticed her friend, Peninsular Florida District Council Superintendent Terry Raburn, was in the crowd.

“I was thinking, I wonder what this is all about? And then the Harvest Church Girls Ministries coordinator, Krystal Elliott, came up to me and said, ‘Mary, this is for you, to celebrate your 45 years in girls ministries.’ That was awesome.”

“She is our superstar, that’s what I call her, our overachiever,” says Keith Conley. “Mary has a unique perspective as she’s been serving in the same ministry for so many years — and she is tough. She doesn’t play games — she’s there to disciple young ladies for their future life and she does a phenomenal job.”

According to a post by Mary’s daughter, Lisa Viera Jones, Mary is still an Honor Sponsor and Honor Coordinator for the girls in the Girls Ministries Stars program at the church.

“She has crowned at least 500 girls and has been to 43 Powettes, and just stopped going to Powette a few years ago,” Lisa stated. “Wow, what a legacy she will leave us that come behind her to carry on.”

“She’s amazing that’s for sure, we love that girl,” Conley adds. “Her daughter, Lisa, is our Fine Arts coordinator and both Lisa’s daughter, Katie Jones, and Mary’s granddaughter, Dominique Reyes, went through the program here with Mary . . . and now Dominique’s daughter — Mary’s great-granddaughter — is preparing to enter the program.”

In honoring Mary, Raburn stated, “She has proven herself to be a true, dedicated minister of the Word of God. She has touched more lives, and through them, untold futures, through Girls Ministries . . . we are just so grateful that she has given her ministry, her life, her work to the youth and to the girls of this district and of this state.”

As Mary reflects on her years of ministry, she says she periodically has girls (who are often now women) contact her or even approach her in person and thank her for investing in their lives — sharing what a difference she has made for them.

“I started 45 years ago and I’m still teaching girls to this day,” Mary says warmly.


Even though Wilkerson and Cruz are the most remembered individuals from that July 1958 revival, it’s important to recognize the role that the presence and prayers of the Hispanic churches played in what resulted – God responded to their (and others’) prayers! Of course, there was also the willingness of a young Puerto Rican girl to sing solos for God’s glory night after night, while knowing gang members were going to do their best to disrupt and embarrass her.

However, perhaps what Mary Arguinzoni Viera’s story best portrays is that rarely — if ever — are miracles limited in their impact to the one receiving it. A healing, a deliverance, a salvation, whatever it may be, more than one life is touched when something miraculous takes place. God isn’t only receiving the glory from a miracle; He’s investing in others’ lives through every miracle.

For Mary, even though her journey included a time of shutting God out, He continued to reach out to her. And now her rather miraculous story, which includes someone else’s miraculous salvation, is simply part of the stories of hundreds, if not thousands, of women’s lives that God has used Mary to prepare their hearts, plant His Word, and impact others for Christ through living their own miraculous, God-focused lives.

Dan Van Veen

Dan Van Veen is news editor of AG News. Prior to transitioning to AG News in 2001, Van Veen served as managing editor of AG U.S. Missions American Horizon magazine for five years. He attends Central Assembly of God in Springfield, Missouri, where he and his wife, Lori, teach preschool Sunday School and 4- and 5-year-old Rainbows boys and girls on Wednesdays.