Jeff Benedict: Young men's faith, determination made me a believer

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 19 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

It has always amazed me how a weapon in the hand of a thug makes him feel like a man. Jounis, one of the best pure athletes I ever coached, got away. Marco ran into a public transportation stairwell. That's where he died. The gangster stabbed him.

I remember that incident like it was yesterday. It was the first time I had lost a boy in my youth group to street violence. But it wasn't the last.

Shortly after, Levi left on a Mormon mission to Fort Lauderdale, Fla. That was 1998. His neighborhood friends couldn't believe how much he had changed and that he was going away to be a missionary for two years.

A little more than a year later, Levi's younger brother Omar was murdered on a street corner. Omar was on my basketball team. He was in my Bible study class. Everybody loved Omar. He had an electric smile and not an impure bone in his body. One night he was hanging out with friends when a car pulled up and someone pointed a gun out the window.

Bullets sprayed. One hit Omar in the head. He didn't have a prayer.

All of us remember that weekend vividly. But I had never heard Levi's version of events. We were the only ones left in the restaurant by the time he told us how close he came to a life-changing act of revenge.

The night Omar was shot in Boston, Levi got a call at his missionary apartment in Fort Lauderdale. It was his single mother, Jennifer. She had joined the LDS Church with her two sons. She cried with pride when her oldest became a missionary. She wept with heartache when her baby got killed.

Levi punched four holes in the wall. Then he tore off his missionary name tag, removed his white shirt and vowed he was quitting Mormonism. He called his old friends from the neighborhood. They said they knew who killed his brother and they were determined to kill the killer.

Levi left his mission. After the funeral, Levi was ready to get revenge. His mother begged him not to. She begged him to go back and finish his mission. "You know your Heavenly Father loves you, right?" she said.

"No he doesn't," Levi shouted. "And I am done with the church."

"Then the devil has taken both my sons," she said.

Levi is a mountain of a man. But those words drove him to his knees. For the first time since his brother's death, he prayed to God and begged for help, help to get through it.

Henry, Jason and I were silent while Levi talked. Our eyes welled up because we know how this story ends.

Levi doesn't go kill his brother's killer. Instead, he went back to Fort Lauderdale and completed his Mormon mission. He went on to graduate from BYU. He's happily married and raising a daughter and a son named Omar.

Henry and Jason have done the same. They are raising families. They are working. They are happy. They are alive.

At the end of the meal, they thanked me profusely for being their leader when they were young men. But I owe them way more than they owe me.

I went back to my hotel and felt that burning that I get in my nose when I know tears are coming. Playing a small part in their journey from boys to men is one of the highlights of my life. Their faith and determination made me a firm believer.

Jeff Benedict is a magazine writer and the author of 10 books, including "The Mormon Way of Doing Business." His website is www.jeffbenedict.com.

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