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 Tribune wrote 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.”
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.
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 school we 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.
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.
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.
This week, Amy Winehouse’s official cause of death was finally announced, three months after the singer was discovered dead in her London home on July 23. After initial autopsy results came back inconclusive, the coroner determined that Winehouse died from consuming an extreme amount of alcohol. According to test results, the 27-year-old singer’s blood alcohol level was five times the drunk-driving limit. Her doctor said the troubled star had resumed drinking in the days prior to her death, after a short-lived period of sobriety.
Besides being a talented artist, Winehouse was emblematic of the numerous celebrities today whose public battles with substance abuse are regularly in the headlines. By the end of her life, Winehouse’s struggles had stretched to the point of becoming fodder for jokes and riddles (“Q: What was Amy Winehouse’s biggest hit? A: Her last one!”). Sadly, our society has grown so accustom to addiction that we now laugh it off. But for those in its grips, it’s no joke.
We asked LaTonya Mason Summers, a Charlotte, North Carolina-based mental health therapist, to comment on the realities of drug and alcohol addiction and what we can do to help those affected by it.
UrbanFaith: After Amy Winehouse’s death, the Huffington Post featured a commentary by Rabbi Shais Taub which asked the question, “Was the World Powerless to Stop Amy Winehouse?” In other words, are there addictions so strong and pervasive that they’re beyond human understanding and control? How would you answer that?
LaTonya Mason Summers: The word choice is interesting here, and I agree: the “world” was powerless to stop Amy Winehouse. But it was the “world” that fueled Winehouse’s addictions. Not “world” in the sense of the “earth,” but “world” as defined by Winehouse’s frame of reference — the background, culture, and lifestyle out of which she lived. Addictions are strong, pervasive and hard to understand and control, but it’s even more difficult when one tries to stop addiction by their own strength and understanding. It is reported that Winehouse died from alcohol poisoning. Drug and alcohol abuse is a byproduct of something far deeper. Oftentimes, it’s a symptom of low self-esteem, unresolved trauma and abuse, rejection and abandonment, and mostly fear. We do a great disservice to addicted persons when we focus on their addictions and ignore the underlying problems.
We see so many celebrity drug and alcohol addicts today that our culture has almost grown cold and callous to it. For instance, before her death there was a website devoted solely to the question of “When will Amy Winehouse die?” We see celebrities such as Winehouse, Lindsay Lohan, Whitney Houston, and Charlie Sheen, and we make jokes about them. How does this affect our culture’s understanding of addiction?
When we have a culture entertained by reality TV shows, court and crime TV, and sensationalized Web broadcasting — not to mention today’s popular music — we can’t help but have a desensitized society. We are no longer afraid of or empathetic toward anyone or anything because we’ve been there and done that through TV and the media. So, why wouldn’t we have a “When will Amy Winehouse Die?” website?
Unfortunately, we live in a society that “dumbs down” addictions but tacitly gives a “thumbs up” to its portrayals. Remember when there used to be cautionary documentaries on drugs and alcohol, and on people who struggled with them? Now, we have reality shows that glorify dysfunctional behavior. No wonder we are ignorant. Understanding addictions is no longer newsworthy.
How do you counsel a person with a serious drug addiction? Where do you begin, and what kinds of things should family and friends understand as they’re trying to help that person?
I used to set up and run treatment programs for adolescent and adult substance abusers. I absolutely loved that line of work, but it was emotionally tough. After 11 years of doing it, I stepped away to work solely with mentally ill people. The public sees addicted persons as weak people who lack self-control and deserve every consequence they face. But can you imagine the level of shame, guilt, frustration, and hopelessness that those substance abusers felt by the time they got to me? Imagine having failed everyone, including yourself, family, friends, employers, and the legal system — not to mention God. I always started treatment by instilling hope and restoring the addicted person’s sense of worth. It was much easier to establish rapport, trust, and motivation that way.
God forbid I say this, but oftentimes the families were more sick than the addicts. In fact, family members would wind up on my couch before the addict would. Family work is important in substance-abuse treatment, because the family members can make recovery hard. They help too much. Their helping sometimes hurts the addict. When my patients had toxic families, I’d send my patient to a treatment program in another city or state so they could get better.
Over the summer, former NBA star Jalen Rose was sentenced to 20 days in jail for drunk driving. Some wondered if the treatment was overly harsh because he was a black celebrity, since others have gotten off easier. Do you think jail time is an effective way to steer people clear of destructive behavior involving alcohol and drugs?
In my experience working in the court system as an advocate for my clients, the courts made it worse. The punishment given rarely fit the crime. The probation officers were inconsistent. The judges sent mixed messages by punishing minor crimes with maximum sentences and vice versa. Jail time is punitive, and punishment does not work when the drug or alcohol use is secondary to something else. Addicts don’t mind punishment because they typically feel useless and worthless anyway. That kind of punishment affirms what they believe about themselves. However, I am not saying they should not suffer consequences for drunk driving, drug use, etc. I am saying that offering them rehab while they’re incarcerated might yield greater results.
What kinds of miracles have you seen in your work with people battling addictions?
Goodness, the stories I can tell. I’ve had a hand in imparting into the lives of addicted persons who are now pastors, business owners, and even addictions counselors. I had a 15-year-old girl whose parents brought her to me as a last resort. She had refused other counselors, and I assumed she would do the same with me. After I asked her parents to leave, the girl opened up to me like a book. (It wasn’t because of anything special that I said to her, but other professionals simply had failed to remove the parents.) The girl was a cocaine user and held me by her confidentiality rights, so I could not tell her parents. We made a pact that if she stopped using I would keep her secret. I cannot tell you the anxiety I had for weeks thinking something would go wrong. I collaborated with her physician to drug test her weekly to ensure the girl’s abstinence. After three months, her parents called thanking me for my help. The girl had returned to a healthy weight, her appetite had been restored, and her mood had improved. Today (four years later) she is a successful college student studying psychology.
Among the celebrity success stories that stand out are Robert Downey Jr.’s eventual victory over substance abuse. It only came after several stints in jail and a long, public battle. What kinds of things contribute to a successful road to recovery, and when do you know that someone is legitimately recovered?
My biggest weapon is instilling hope. I do this by challenging the addicted person’s mentality and perspective. I am a cognitive behaviorist, which means I help change the way people think. I do not know what works, as I have often thrown up my hands on clients who later recovered. Then I have lost clients whom I thought had arrived. All I really know is, pray hard in each session. I ask for God’s help. I ask Him to give me the words to say, and I hold on to Isaiah 50:1-7, believing I am called as a therapist.
I honestly don’t know when a person is legitimately recovered, as I believe it’s a lifelong process. Like those of us who are not addicted, we have our own lifelong battles — we try to stop lying, cheating, stealing, yelling, cursing, overeating — everyone has a Goliath they must face. And can any of us say we’ll ever arrive in this world? From my perspective, messing up is just as much part of the recovery process as getting it right is. And, if you get it right all the time, how do you know you’re recovered?
Is it possible to effectively treat addiction without addressing the spiritual aspects of the problem?
Absolutely not! I’ve had to learn how to minister without saying “God” and “Jesus,” so that I can reach everyone. However, I know how to make others want what I have. I was mentored by a man who told me, “I may not be able to make a horse drink the water, but I should be able to make him thirsty.” And that’s the approach I take in therapy. I see myself as sowing seeds, believing someone will come behind me and water them, and eventually increase will come.
Addiction is spiritual. I believe an addict’s zealousness can be indicative of the great calling on his life. He just needs to move that zealousness away from destructive behavior to purposeful, life-giving behavior.
LaTonya Mason Summers is the founder and executive director of Life Skills Counseling and Consulting in Charlotte, North Carolina, and the cofounder of the NC Black Mental Health Professionals Alliance, which aims to educate African Americans about mental health issues and wellness.
As one of my Facebook friends posted last night, “President Obama has got his swag back.” And right on time, too. Although President Obama has been criticized in recent months for being long on compromise and short on muscle, he combined both in his jobs speech to Congress last night. Like the refrain in a treasured hymn, Obama repeatedly charged Congress to “pass this jobs plan right away” as he laid out the “American Jobs Act.”
In his characteristic commonsensical approach, Obama also told Congress and the country that nothing in his bill was controversial or had not been passed by some of these very Democrats and Republicans in the past. Some of the perks in the bill include: payroll taxes cut in half next year for small business owners, the repair and modernization of at least 35,000 schools, rehiring of laid off teachers, tax credits for companies that hire veterans and people who have been looking for a job for more than six months and a $1,500 tax cut for a typical working family. So what’s not to love in this bill?
After touting some of the benefits that everyone could agree on, Obama got into the nitty-gritty, attacking the sacred cows of the opposing sides. To the Dems, he said that Medicare needed to be reformed point blank and that “we are spending too fast to sustain the program.” And to the Repubs, he said “a few of the most affluent citizens and corporations enjoy tax breaks and loopholes that nobody else gets.” To drive home his point of irony, he mentioned that Warren Buffet has a lower tax rate than his secretary. Can we say a collective and prolonged, “Ouch?!” I’ll wait …
And Obama had a word for the rabble-rousing Tea Partiers too: government, in and of itself, is not evil. He reminded us how government built the transcontinental railroad, launched the National Academy of Sciences, set up the first land grant colleges, passed the GI Bill, and funded research leading to the creation of our beloved Internet.
And all of this hope and change comes with a price tag of reportedly $447 billion in tax cuts and government spending.
Although Obama attempted to steer the conversation away from an election still over a year away, I can’t help but wonder if his “Clint Eastwood-esque” speech, a speech reminiscent of his best election speeches, is just the bullet he needed to have a fighting chance in the 2012 election. After the debt ceiling fiasco, I’m thinking Congress better act in a balanced way toward this bill (i.e., putting the welfare of Americans first and their political careers last). If not, they will face the biblical principle of what is first being made last. For the GOP presidential candidates, their refrain is the same: spending bad, Obama bad. No surprise there.
The president’s speech may be a good start, but you know what they say about action versus words. In other words, faith without works is dead (James 2:14-26). If a person needs a job, and we shout, “This person needs a job,” but then no job is offered, what good is shouting? Good deeds must follow faith. Abraham followed up his faith by his willingness to sacrifice his son. Rahab the prostitute followed up her faith by hiding the Hebrew spies and leading them to a safe path.
What got Obama elected in the first place was not just his impassioned speeches but the fact that he was not a member of the commanding party that failed to act for the people (instead the corporate elite) as the economy tanked. While Obama will always be remembered as a great orator and even the president that passed health-care reform and took down bin Laden, if he does not inspire Congress to act in a way that produces tangible economic results — i.e., jobs — that can be listed 14 months from now, Obama’s reelection campaign might be dead on arrival.
Of course, the reality is that neither Congress nor the president really controls jobs or the economy. But as Obama’s renewed urgency suggests, that fact doesn’t mean anything to the American voters come Election Day. Likely, the only thing that will matter then is whether they — and their laid-off neighbors and their kids who just graduated from college and their friends from church whose companies went out of business — are working.