What Led Nicky Cruz from Crime to Ministry?

His mother called him a "son of Satan," and he led a vicious street gang. So how did Nicky Cruz turn his life around to become a world-famous minister?

Updated May 24, 2023
What Led Nicky Cruz from Crime to Ministry?

Few evangelists today have a conversion story as dramatic as Nicky Cruz. Raised in an environment of witchcraft and abuse, he led one of New York City’s most notorious street gangs before he was 18. So how did someone with so much darkness become a respected preacher who has reached millions?

What Was Nicky Cruz’s Life Before He Became a Christian?               

Nicky Cruz was born in Puerto Rico in 1938. He was one of 19 children born to parents who practiced witchcraft. As a child, his parents and his other siblings regularly beat and mentally abused him. At one point, his mother declared him the “Son of Satan” while she was in a spiritual trance. At the age of 9, he attempted suicide.

By age 15, his parents banished him to New York City to live with his older brother. Soon after moving there, he left his brother to live on the streets because of his angry behavior. By 16, he joined one of Brooklyn’s most violent street gangs: the Mau Maus, feared by other gangs and police alike. In less than a year, Cruz climbed the ranks to become their leader, ruling the streets in a life of brutal violence and alcohol. He quickly learned this life was dangerous—his best friend, a fellow Mau Mau named Manny, died in his arms after being stabbed repeatedly.

Cruz was arrested repeatedly, and his violent reputation grew. He incurred frequent, haunting nightmares, and his life seemed hopeless. After a court ruling, one psychiatrist told him he was on a path to prison, the electric chair, and hell. 

No one could reach Cruz until a young preacher, David Wilkerson, entered his life. Wilkerson was from rural Pennsylvania but felt called by God to move to New York City and help the city’s troubled youth. In 1958, Wilkerson moved to the city to minister to gang members and drug addicts. In the bestselling book The Cross and the Switchblade, he detailed his work and his first time meeting Cruz.

Wilkerson softened Cruz’s heart by exhibiting something he had never experienced: God’s unyielding love. When Cruz first met Wilkerson, he spat on him, beat him up, and threatened his life. Wilkerson persisted, saying that even if Cruz cut him to pieces, each piece would say, “God loves you.” Cruz had never encountered anyone like him before. 

Wilkerson led an outreach meeting in Cruz’s neighborhood to convert the Mau Maus. Cruz decided to go with other members of his gang to raise trouble. But when he heard Wilkerson’s message, he felt convicted. He started to pray and asked God to forgive him.

What Happened After Nicky Cruz Became a Christian?

After his conversion, Cruz and some of his fellow Mau Maus went to the local police station and turned in their weapon. Cruz felt Jesus was turning him into a new creation. Cruz then studied at a Bible college, married, and became a preacher. He returned to his old stomping grounds and converted more of the Mau Maus to Christianity, including their new leader.

Cruz worked in New York for several years under Wilkerson’s organization, Teen Challenge. Eventually, he started his own ministry and began traveling the world as an evangelist.

What Is Nicky Cruz’s Ministry Today?

Cruz has traveled the globe ministering to millions for over 50 years. He has written 17 books intending to influence troubled youth whose lives have been plagued by crime, drugs, and gang life.

In 1991, Cruz partnered with his daughter and son-in-law to share the gospel with communities with little-to-no Christian presence. They formed TRUCE (To Reach Urban Communities Everywhere). TRUCE employs urban art forms (including rap, hip hop, R&B, spoken word, theater, and dance) as an avenue to share the good news of Jesus. They connect with local churches to train local Christians to share their faith. Then, they give gospel presentations, followed by a call to give one’s life to Jesus. 

TRUCE recruits youth from across America—most of whom come from troubled environments - to mentor them in the love of Christ and the teachings of the Bible. They try to impart a sense of worth from God and infuse a sense of mission to reach their communities and the rest of the world for Jesus.

TRUCE often travels to other countries. They use free, translated versions of Cruz’s memoir, Run Baby Run, perform musical acts, and display their visual arts to evangelize needy communities worldwide. They partner with local churches and organizations in these communities as well. For instance, Cruz and TRUCE were invited to England for a month-long outreach in various London neighborhoods. The program was coordinated by the Metropolitan Police, Scotland Yard, the UK’s version of the Department of Justice, and the Deputy Prime Minister. TRUCE received many positive responses, including with their other European endeavors. As a result, TRUCE is in the process of creating international TRUCE teams.

State leaders worldwide are seeking solutions to the violence and struggles of their communities. Because of his background and ability to connect with today’s youth, Cruz and his ministries are regularly sought out by leaders across the globe. Folks living in urban communities easily connect with his story, which can establish trust and open their hearts to his message. 

Thought-Provoking Quotes by Nicky Cruz

“My parents were spiritualists. They made their living casting out demons and supposedly contacting dead spirits… Our house was the headquarters for sorts of voodoo, seances, and sorcery. Hundreds of people came from all over the island to participate in seances and meditation sources.” — Run Baby Run

“Here’s another sad truth: Evil is not only out there. It’s also in here. It’s in our hearts. Even though we have been redeemed, our sinful nature is all too ready to cooperate with any scheme the devil might have up his sleeve.” — The Devil Has No Mother

“Long before I was able to comprehend the relentless love of God, I felt it. Though I could never quite assimilate it in my mind or grasp it with my understanding, I could sense it in my heart. Still today I struggle to find it, yet it is as real to me as the air I breathe and the water I drink.” — Soul Obsession

“In the past few years, God has been working in my heart and life in a way I never expected or imagined. He has continued to use experiences and people… to enflame in my soul a passionate hunger for his people, a fresh sense of compassion, a renewed vision for the lost—not just the lost within the inner city, but within our homes, our schools, our churches, and our middle class and wealthy neighborhoods. It’s a burning desire I want desperately to share with others.” — One Holy Fire

“You can argue with someone’s opinion, but you can’t argue with their story.” — The Devil Has No Mother 

“The church today has somehow lost its zeal and desire to release God’s power and Spirit on the world. Somewhere along the way we’ve convinced ourselves that God is content with our devotion, our worship, our acceptance of his grace, our commitment to pray daily and remain faithful in our service to the church. But what we lack, what we’ve lost, is our passion for him and his power in reaching the lost. Where is our belief that he’s truly ‘able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us?’” — One Holy Fire

10 Great Books by Nicky Cruz

1. Run Baby Run; Life Changing Testimony of a New York Gang Leader

2. The Devil Has No Mother: Why He’s Worse Than You Think—But God is Greater. 

3. Soul Obsession: When’s God Primary Pursuit Becomes Your Life’s Driving Mission

4. One Holy Fire: Let The Spirit Ignite Your Soul

5. Satan on the Loose

6. Where Were You When I Was Hurting?

7. How to Fight Back: The Christian Street Warrior’s Guide to Turning the Other Cheek

8. Brothers and Sisters, We Have a Problem

9. Give Me Back My Dignity

10. The Magnificent Three

Cruz’s story has also been dramatized in the play “Run Baby Run” (produced by TRUCE at various venues), told in the documentary Run Baby Run, and dramatized in the 1970 film The Cross and the Switchblade. 

You can learn more about Cruz’s work on his organization’s website.

You can also hear him tell his story in the interview below:

Nicky Cruz Interview - ChristianInterviews.com from christianinterviews on GodTube.

Photo Credit: G. Connor Salter/Unsplash

Nate Van Noord is from Detroit, MI, a graduate of Calvin University, and has taught high school history for many years. He loves to bike, run, and play pickleball, has been to about 30 countries, and is a three time winner of NPR's Moth Detroit StorySlam competitions.

This article is part of our People of Christianity catalog that features the stories, meaning, and significance of well-known people from the Bible and history. Here are some of the most popular articles for knowing important figures in Christianity:

How Did the Apostle Paul Die?
Who are the Nicolaitans in Revelation?
Who Was Deborah in the Bible?
Who Was Moses in the Bible?

King Solomon's Story in the Bible
Who Was Lot's Wife in the Bible?
Who Was Jezebel in the Bible?
Who Was the Prodigal Son?


Christianity / Life / People / What Led Nicky Cruz from Crime to Ministry?