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There is a murder in New York. The Cross & the Switchblade tells the story of the dream of a country preacher, David Wilkerson, to provide the members of teenage gangs in New York a way of escape from the cycle of destruction that they have found themselves in.
The dream begins as Davie (as he is called by the gangs) is in his study one night. He reads a copy of Life Magazine which reports on a trial being conducted to convict seven teenage boys for the cold-blooded murder of a young polio victim, Michael Farmer.
Davie attends this trial and on trying to gain an audience with the judge, during the proceedings, he is evicted and photographed by the local press.
Now that he is somewhat of a celebrity, especially because of his run in with the police, Davie finds himself somewhat accepted by the gangs except for Nicky Cruz, Vice President of the Mau Maus.
The conflict surrounds three main characters; Davie, Nicky and his girlfriend, Lydia, who is a heroin addict. Lydia ultimately reacts strongly against Davie as Nicky’s attention is stolen from her because of his focus of hatred towards Davie. Davie’s influence on Israel, President of the Mau Maus, creates further conflict with Nicky.
After a successful street meeting Davie comes in contact with a Spanish congregation who encourage him to hold a mass rally where he can invite all the gangs. The final night of these meetings culminates in a surprising turn of heart by Nicky and the gang members. It is the start of something very special amongst the gangs in New York City.