MODEL STUDENT AND CITIZEN: Dajae Coleman, 14, was walking home from a party with friends when he was gunned down. Police say he was not the intended target. (Family photo)
Chicago-area residents were reminded once again of the senselessness of gang violence when 14-year-old high-school freshman Dajae Coleman was shot and killed as he walked home from a party with friends on Saturday night in Evanston, Illinois. It’s an all-too-familiar story: a “model citizen” and “well-mannered” young man’s life needlessly taken. (Police say he was not the shooter’s intended target.)
Making the story even more poignant was news today that Coleman’s school and family released an essay that he had written two days before his murder. Titled “My Belief Statement,” it’s a heartfelt expression of his love for his family and community. “My mom pushes me to do better, she always tells me to never settle,” Coleman wrote. “I think the kids that are on the street not doing anything with their lives don’t get the type of support they need from their family. They probably don’t have anyone to look up to.”
The tragic irony is that Coleman did have positive influences and a bright future. But in a culture of ever-increasing violence and disregard for life, that didn’t matter.
Still, people are finding hope in the life-affirming message that Dajae Coleman left behind. In a Chicago Tribune video, a visitor to the makeshift memorial site for Coleman described the young man’s essay as “prophetic, profound, and part of [Dajae’s] legacy.”
We can only hope that other young people — and adults — will read the essay and be inspired to pursue a more positive direction in life. Just like Dajae.
You can read Dajae’s essay here.
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 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.”
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.”
The conflict over Barack Obama’s former Senate seat heated up this week when Roland Burris was turned away by Capitol Hill leaders. The drama, sparked by embattled Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich’s unexpected appointment of Burris last week, has raised a variety of questions–about race and identity politics, about voter disenfranchisement, and about the pervasive corruption that permeates our state and national politics.
It’s not a great time to be from Illinois. Yesterday a friend of mine, a native Chicagoan who now lives in New Jersey, IM’d me with this: “Geez, what’s wrong with your politicians out there?” She seemed to happily forget that she, too, is from the Land of Lincoln (and Blagojevich).