The word on the Brooklyn streets in 1959 was that a crazy preacher from Pennsylvania was helping addicts find the power to kick heroin and gang members to trade their weapons for Bibles.
Reporter John McCandlish Phillips heard the talk in local churches and took the tip to his metro editors at The New York Times. This was more than a religion story, he argued. This was something truly new in urban ministry in a rough corner of the city.
The editors just didn’t get it.
“The New York Times could not see … validity of this approach to any issue as serious as addiction. Editors said, ‘You can’t put a few religious ideas up against something as real as addiction and expect any results,’ ” said Phillips, in a 2000 interview in Riverside Park.
The young preacher was David Wilkerson, whose story would eventually be told in the bestseller “The Cross and the Switchblade.” Phillips kept bringing this editors detailed reports about Teen Challenge’s work, which would eventually expand worldwide.
Again, Phillips stressed this was not a story full of mumbo-jumbo. As a veteran reporter, he knew he needed a foundation of hard facts about subjects — drug addiction and gang warfare — that were clearly newsworthy. After a decade, his editors surrendered and let him write the story.
“The results were there,” he said. “Lives were being changed. … It was news. We miss too many stories like that and that’s a shame.”
Phillips died on April 9 at the age of 85. His brilliant two-decade Times career ended when he left the newsroom in 1973, at the peak of his journalistic powers, to become a Pentecostal preacher on Manhattan’s upper West Side. His flock was small, but included some Christians in major newsrooms who considered him a discreet and invaluable mentor.
No one questioned the man’s journalism skills. In a 1997 profile in The New Yorker — “The Man Who Disappeared” — writer Gay Talese was quoted calling him the “Ted Williams of the young reporters,” even on a legendary staff that included David Halberstam, Richard Reeves and J. Anthony Lukas.
On the management side, the Times obituary noted that former managing editor Arthur Gelb once called Phillips “the most original stylist I’d ever edited.”
The reporter’s death also fired online discussions of a controversial issue in mainstream journalism: Whether many newsrooms are hostile environments for religious believers. A provocative piece at The Week ran under a headline stating, “Why newspapers need to hire more Christians: For starters, it would help rebut conservative concerns about media bias.”
Decades before today’s “culture wars,” Phillips noted that he was the one born-again, evangelical Protestant in a Times newsroom in which — literally — there were more bookies than people with Bibles on their desks. With a tired cackle, he told me, “God must love journalists, because everyone knows He loves sinners.”
Yes, it would help if there were more religious believers at The Times, he said, but only if they had the skills to work there. He couldn’t understand why so many young believers simply assume they could never work in real newsrooms, thus increasing the cultural and intellectual diversity in modern journalism.
“We live in a world that is, in fact, rife with evils, is rife with excessive ambition, is rife with a willingness, by far too many people, to cut any corner or to practice any deception in order to advance their purposes. They will hide, if they can, their practices from the public eye,” he said.
“Journalism at its best pursues the facts about certain situations in which evildoers are at work and assembles those facts and judges them fairly. It’s not a crusade, so much as it’s a responsible gathering of a body of evidence that, when it’s finally presented, is so persuasive that evil must skulk, retreat or be subjected to strong public remedy.”
Phillips looked out across the Hudson River, into a setting sun.
“Why,” he said, “wouldn’t Christian believers want to be part of that?”