We’ve seen the local and national news and, like you, our timelines and newsfeeds are filled with sad videos. However, it is important that we keep in mind that there is indeed light at the end of the tunnel. And even when times get hard, it is important to remember that God is always in control. So, with that being said, our staff has provided some brief words of encouragement that we have found to be helpful during difficult times. Stay strong!
1. Things are never as bad as they seem.
2. Let every challenge make you better, not bitter.
3. Be patient.
3. As long as there’s breath in your body, there’s still hope.
4. God’s got this!
5. It’s o.k. to cry. Just remember that God will wipe away our tears in the midst of our pain.
New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern announced in June 2019 that her country would shift its focus from traditional metrics of national development like GDP to a well-being budget that prioritizes the happiness of citizens over capitalist gain. Although this sort of state-driven pursuit of happiness might appear to be a novel idea, it actually began in the 1970s, with Bhutan’s King Wangchuck proclaiming that “gross national happiness is more important than gross domestic product.”
Humans seem to have always maintained an intense relationship to happiness. Research is converging on the key ingredients to a happy life, and they do not include increased consumption and more money. Other research indicates that we shouldn’t over-focus on happiness, as that can be counter-productive. Yet the more we seek happiness, the more it can elude us. No sooner have we found it than we begin to sense its fragility and certain end.
Since 2012 and the creation of the World Happiness Report, happiness has had a measurement, with Northern and Western Europe, as well as North America, and other democratic and wealthy countries regularly taking the top positions. This has left many of us scratching our heads. Does that mean that people in other regions such as Africa are necessarily depressed, sad or angry?
Chigozie Obioma, a Nigerian writer and professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Nebraska, asked himself this very question. Obioma’s work explores the negotiation between tradition and modernity and the impact on happiness. In his 2019 novel An Orchestra of Minorities the hero of the novel, Nonso, is a poor, uneducated chicken farmer who stops Ndali, a well-educated young woman, from hurling herself from a bridge. The narrator of the story is Nonso’s chi, the equivalent of a “guardian spirit” that inhabits the human in traditional Igbo cosmology. Nonso’s journey from poverty and ignorance to striving for an education and recognition do not, as it turns out, bring more happiness to his life. Could ignorance really mean bliss?
Having recently listened to a radio interview with Obioma, we were intrigued by his idea that happiness is “noisy and communal” in poorer regions of the world like Africa, whereas despair in wealthier countries like the United States is “silent and alone”. WHO research demonstrating lower suicide rates in Africa compared to Europe seems to back him up. We recently had a conversation with him to explore these questions.
How we face adversity
Obioma tells us that he has increasingly pondered hope and happiness while observing how people in the United States face adversity. Having counselled several depressed students and colleagues, and observing that each semester at least one student commits suicide, he wonders what sets us apart in our ability to maintain hope. The death of one of his students particularly shocked him:
“You know, this girl who killed herself had a job, was on a scholarship, had a car, she can take her passport from the US and go anywhere, anytime… she is in the richest country in the world.”
He suspects that the hopelessness comes from focusing on “external miseries”. So Obioma decided to investigate by going back to his native country to interview everyday people about hope, happiness, and thoughts of death. Once there, Obioma found the paradoxical coexistence of hope and deprivation.
He relates his exchanges with a particular street market vendor selling books (we’ll call him Chiso) in Lagos. Chiso is a father of two and his wife found herself unexpectedly pregnant with their third child and therefore unable to work. Obioma estimates the value of Chiso’s entire stock of books at around 200 dollars and his monthly salary around 80 dollars – at best. Yet despite being what Obioma refers to as the “wretched of the earth”, Chiso strongly believes that:
“tomorrow will be better… he believes that someday a miracle will turn his life around. It is an abstract idea; I mean, he has reasons to be sad too, right? He is unhappy with his situation. But he is deeply hopeful and can separate the difficulty of the now from the hope of tomorrow”.
Hope against hope
Obioma roamed Nigeria speaking with everyday people like Chiso on questions of hope and happiness, asking them “Have you ever considered suicide?” to which he received dozens of resounding “No!” responses. Many African countries like Nigeria are rife with grinding poverty, needless mortality, and high rates of violence. Yet for Obioma, hope is not about remaining complacent in in the face of great social ills. His is simply a story about radical hope and its implications for happiness in situations of far-reaching hopelessness.
Why then does Chiso continue to hope against all odds? Obioma notes that among the Igbo of south-eastern Nigeria, there is a belief in radical individuality tied again to the concept of the chi. It translates as “I have divinity in me; therefore, I am very important, and in some ways the centre of the world”. By extension, the Igbo believe that “if I strive, I can achieve this”. The fact that similar people have tried similar things and failed does not dampen this radical individuality.
Up to now, the Igbo individuality sounds a lot to us like the Protestant insistence on transformative individualism and direct access to the divine. Indeed, like much of southern Nigeria, the Igbo are now predominantly Christian. How does this affect how they see themselves? Whether Christian (in the south) or Muslim (in the north), Nigerians are highly religious. The kind of Nigerian Christianity that Chiso practices is a syncretic cocktail of European missionary-spread Christianity and traditional beliefs. In this way, Christianity does not negate the Igbo “divine individual” but seems rather to reinforce it, enabling people to harness a “all-powerful force to engineer the desired destiny”, says Obioma.
Understanding the human experience
In the early 2000s, one of us carried out ethnographic research on West African traditions and aesthetics in Werewere Liking’s pan-African arts cooperative in Côte d’Ivoire. Liking’s Aesthetics of Necessity elaborate on how practical creativity is sparked in highly constrained, resource-strapped environments. For Liking, necessity is what spurs the self into creative action, and for Obioma, it’s what prevents a focus on ‘external miseries’ so prevalent among those living with plenty.
Like Obioma, we are struck by the tension between African “poor yet hopeful” and Western “wealthy yet depressed”. The Western philosophical tradition has always been concerned with the contradictions between wealth and happiness. Aristotle addressed this in his Eudemian Ethics, extolling the importance of “human flourishing”, or eudaimonia. In his Nicomachean Ethics, he establishes the negative relationship between the pursuit of wealth and flourishing, reminding us that the “life of money-making is one undertaken under compulsion, and wealth is evidently not the good we are seeking… ” The relevance of Aristotle’s vision holds well today if we consider the negative impact of modern environments in places where wealth abounds. Wealth and modernity do correlate negatively with flourishing: just consider economist Richard Easterlin’s 1974 formulation of the Easterlin paradox: life satisfaction increases with GDP in poor countries, but grows flat in richer countries. In other words, the richer we are, the less we can buy our way into happiness.
So the examples abound – we are in a new age of inquiry into human happiness, particularly abetted by technology, which also brings into focus global inequalities. Yet the fundamental question about whether life is worth living requires a more direct answer. Hope says yes, life is worth living because the best is yet to come. Striving through adversity means hustling on into the future. Some people, it seems, did not need to spend the past two millennia to figure that out. Just ask Chiso.
LIFE FROM TRAGEDY: Eli Evans, who survived his mother’s horrific murder in 1995, has found healing in his Christian faith and his athletic ambitions. (Photo: Chris Walker/Newscom)
Elijah “Eli” Evans has grown up with the knowledge that his birth was marked by murder. About 16 years ago, Eli’s father, Levern Ward, and two others killed Eli’s mother and two of his siblings in Addison, Illinois.
Eli was cut from the womb with a pair of shears. One of the killers, Jacqueline Annette Williams, had kidnapped him because she couldn’t have children anymore.
The next day, the group that would later be convicted of the crimes was arrested. Miraculously, Eli survived his violent birth and was rescued by authorities. His brother Jordan, 22 months old at the time, also survived.
In December, the Chicago Tribunewrote about the young man Eli has since become: a high school student trying to set an example for his classmates and a varsity basketball and football player with NFL aspirations. Now 16 years old and living with his grandfather in downstate Illinois, he has forgiven his father for killing his family.
“I always think God has a plan for me since he kept me here,” Eli told the Chicago Tribune. “I was put on this earth for a reason, and I’m still trying to figure out what the reason is. I know it’s going to be something good because not many people could have survived what I did.”
But this contentment didn’t come so easily to Eli. As he was growing up, he bottled up his rage, which sometimes exploded into physical fights.
In a phone interview with UrbanFaith, Eli shared how his Christian faith has led him to overcome his anger and forgive his father. UrbanFaith also spoke with Eli’s grandfather, Sam Evans, about how the family learned to trust God after tragedy. Eli’s brother Jordan prefers not to talk to the media, but Eli said his brother is a major role model in his life.
‘Why Would God Do This to Me?’
From a young age, Eli wondered why God had taken his mother and siblings from him. When he was 6 or 7, he lost his great-grandmother, too.
“I was thinking to myself, why would God do this to me?” Eli said. “Why would he take away the one person who was a mother figure to me?”
After his great-grandmother’s death, young Eli started running through his neighborhood and ended up at his church. There were only a couple of cars in the parking lot, and the doors were unlocked, so he went in. He dropped to his knees inside the dark auditorium and finally let everything out.
“I looked up at the cross and just screamed out, and I was crying,” Eli said. “I was just yelling at God and saying, why would you do this to me? Why would you take away my grandma, everything I got?”
But then Eli remembered that he still had his brother Jordan, who could have easily been killed along with the rest of his family, and his grandfather.
“I felt that God was saying, ‘Hey, your brother is still here and you’ve got your grandfather,’” Eli said. “They’re my family, I love them and I don’t know what I’d do without them.”
The Evans family had recently started coming to church based on Jordan’s lead, and Eli noticed that his grandfather was happier. Sam Evans had been raised by a preacher, but after his daughter died, he had stopped going to church regularly.
“If it wasn’t for God, I’d never be able to get through the funerals,” Sam Evans said. “Picture walking into a church and seeing three caskets, not one: your oldest daughter, your granddaughter and grandson. I wrestled with God about that.”
Overcoming Pent-Up Anger
When the family started coming to church, Sam Evans started doing Bible studies with his grandsons and showed them verses about handling anger.
For years, Eli got into rough fistfights because he couldn’t control his pent-up anger. Kids at school knew his family’s history and would sometimes use it to taunt him.
“I had a couple of kids who I fought who said they’d kill my family like that, like my mom was killed,” Eli said. “I always told myself, if I could go back in the past, I could stop it all by fighting them off. But when someone threatens my family like that, it brings up stuff.”
Over the years, Sam Evans helped Eli work through his anger, and he realized his grandson was bottling everything up. “He just wouldn’t talk about things,” Sam Evans said. “You could just see it building up in him.”
Together, they turned to Scripture, and Sam Evans showed him how Jesus was violently abused but chose to model love and forgiveness.
“If someone hit me, my grandpa would always tell me, ‘You’ve got to turn the other cheek, just like Jesus did,’” Eli said.
As he matured, Eli found another outlet for his anger: prayer. He poured his anger out to God instead. By high school, he had grown spiritually and stopped fighting.
“That was my new way of letting it out,” Eli said. “Fighting wasn’t working, because it still made me angry in the end.”
FAMILY TIES: Eli was raised by his grandfather, Sam Evans (left), a part-time preacher who grounded his grandson in the faith. (Photo: Chris Walker/Newscom)
Sam Evans said he has enjoyed watching Eli grow into a mature young man.
“It’s kind of cool when I get a call from a teacher saying, ‘He doesn’t let people pick on the underdogs,’” he said. “There is a sense of pride there. It’s like, ‘Wow, he’s taking a stance.’”
Eli harbored anger against his father for years, but around age 11, he decided to forgive. Now, he can talk about the tragedy without getting angry.
“It was a hard thing, a long process,” Eli said. “But as I got older and more spiritually developed, it got easier for me.”
Eli’s father, Levern Ward, was sentenced to life in prison; the other two convicted killers, Jacqueline Annette Williams and Fedell Caffey, received death sentences that were later commuted. Williams has sought release from prison, and Caffey has been hoping for a new trial. The Evans family hopes they’ll stay locked up, but Eli said he’s not going to allow the outcome to affect him.
“I’m not going to lose sleep at night, and my family shouldn’t lose sleep either,” Eli said. “I let that stuff go a long time ago. I put it in God’s hands and that’s what I want to do again. Whatever happens, it’s in his hands, not mine.”
Eli believes it would have been right for the killers to be put to death for their crimes. But since they’re still alive, Eli has thought about eventually meeting his father.
“I wouldn’t go see him at this age,” Eli said. “If I did go see him, it would be with my brother, we’d both be older, and it would be a decision we both made.”
Sam Evans is interested in ministering to people coping with tragedy, who sometimes reach out to him after hearing about what the Evans family has been through. He’s ordained and preaches occasionally.
“I want to encourage people to look to the Lord for comfort,” he said. “If I can do that for somebody, I’m willing and able.”
Twins are undoubtedly cut from the same cloth, and it’s not uncommon for twins to be genetically predisposed with similar inclinations. But creativity is a subjective thing. So, how possible is it for twins to duplicate their creativity occupationally?
Aaron and Alan Hicks, identical twins from Chicago, have found a way to use their dual passion for art to honor God and celebrate their African American heritage. With virtually identical styles, the Hicks brothers create unique and inspiring images of favorite and lesser-known Bible characters, as well as wholesome, true-to-life depictions of African Americans of all ages. Through their company, Twin Hicks, the brothers provide illustrations for several of the Sunday school publications produced by UrbanFaith’s parent company, Urban Ministries Inc. (UMI).
UrbanFaith caught up with the talented brothers as they launched their newest art offering — the 2012 Faith and Hope calendars from UMI.
UF: What inspired you to become artists?
AARON HICKS: Our uncle Warren Hicks inspired us. I saw my uncle draw a picture of Muhammad Ali on a paper bag when I was in the 4th grade. I liked what he did and tried to recapture that. So I started drawing on paper bags, too. I did a little drawing in school, too.
ALAN HICKS:My uncle inspired me too, but when I saw what my brother did, I started copying him. I’d draw cartoons, comic book art—like what we saw in Marvel comics.
Jesus loves the little children.
UF: Having been raised in Chicago it would seem likely that you’d grow up seeing a lot of art around the city, with all the museums and such. So what kind of art did you experience as you grew up?
AARON: We grew up in the South Suburbs and didn’t really see a whole lot of art growing up. Our uncle was our mentor. He had posters, and some of the black light posters. Nobody talked about art history and such.
ALAN: We weren’t really aware of other types of art until we went to high school.
UF: It’s fascinating that you had limited exposure to art back in the early days, and yet you both developed a talent for art. How did that happen?
AARON: I never realized that I had a talent for art or that I was getting better at it until friends and other students mentioned it. They’d tell us that our work was really good. Even our teachers in grammar school mentioned it. We just picked it up really fast.
UF: Tell us about another great influence that has affected your art.
ALAN: I would have to say that John Cash, our high school art teacher, was a great influence as well. He really opened my understanding and enlightened us to other things. He took us to the next level and got us to create, instead of copying. We also got into art competitions because of Mr. Cash and developed accountability. Because of him, we took a class at the Art Institute [of Chicago] and eventually went on to win some art competitions.
AARON: I once did a portrait piece against 20,000 other entries and won 1st Place. It was a scholastic art contest and it really made me push to improve my skills as an artist.
UF: So things really started to take off for you in high school. How did you decide to study Biocommunications/Medical Illustrations in college?
AARON: I thought, what kind of job can I get with this talent? Mr. Cash told us about the program at the University of Illinois and it seemed right.
ALAN: Coming out of high schoolwe got a lot of negative feedback, but we wanted to continue creating art. Biocommunications was a growing field at the time and we believed we could find work in the field and still do art. Our training showed us that what some people think is not important, it really is important. After we got our bachelor’s degrees in 1985, we worked at Richard Rush Studios. And then we created art in health halls at the Field Museum where we worked on large 3-D exhibits of the heart — painting, sculpting and doing touch ups. It’s a joy to see our art go all across the U.S. in exhibits that teach children, in trade shows, and in murals. We also teach and that inspires children to pursue art.
Moses parting the Red Sea.
UF: You went from creating medical art to biblical and more personal, everyday images. Tell us how your faith moved you into this type of artwork.
ALAN: Faith is our base on everything we’ve done. We’ve been in church all our lives and came to Christ at age 13. I thought it was exciting to get visual images of what I read in Bible storybooks. When some commercial art companies started downsizing in 1998 we decided to freelance. God was in it and steering us from the beginning and we believe that God does everything well. In all our ways we acknowledge Him and He’ll direct us.
AARON: We’ve been in church all our lives and have never really seen many biblical images depicted at this level (from an African American perspective). Then people started approaching us about doing images from the Bible.
UF: Your art is unique and the depictions are so life-like. In your new calendars for 2012, we get to see images that may not have been done before, such as the woman with the issue of blood, found in the Gospels from Luke, Matthew and Mark.
AARON: We’re very excited about putting on canvas the stories that people talk about, but never have seen. Like Jesus walking on water, and Daniel in the lion’s den. The woman with the issue of blood is on the cover of the Faith calendar. We had been selling our prints to a company years ago and they put them into calendars. They liked them so much because they said our art looks more photo-realistic.
Hearts of worship.
ALAN: We’ve always wanted to portray images that inspire, uplift, and images that are positive. This is why we chose children as the subject in the Hope calendar. We created art that shows children pretending and playing dress-up in positive ways. We’re all about family. You can put these calendars up in a child’s room or anywhere. It reminds you of when you were young. We like artists such as Vermeer, Van Gogh, Salvador Dali, Thomas Blackshear and others that influence how we capture images of real people.
UF: What’s in the future for Twin Hicks art?
AARON: Teaching art to children and maybe do a one-man show in a gallery. I’d like to paint more anatomy and fantasy, surrealism—using real bright colors— and some realism. I have to do some soul searching first!
ALAN: We’ll continue painting for the market’s needs to make a living, especially because there’s greater flexibility in airbrushing. But I’d like to get back to drawing with pencil, oil painting with brushes and creating more classic art.
UF: And as we close, what would you say to other aspiring artists?
ALAN: Continue doing what you’re doing. Don’t stop and practice every day. LeBron James and Michael Jordan practiced every day so you should, too. Keep cultivating your art and explore other mediums. It’s important to stay open.
AARON: I would say keep after your passion and don’t let anyone deter you. The more you do, the better you become. And remember, it’s good to experiment with different things to find your strengths and weaknesses. That’s why we did 3-D art; because we never really had experience with sculpting and shaping, so we learned.