turning torture into beauty

he speaks in a soft growl, this needlepoint artist from Charlotte, North Carolina. this man who looks like he rides a Harley only instead, spends his days crouched low over canvas threading needle and weaving together $35,000 masterpieces fought over by men in Armani suits and women in ridiculous hats.

i listen and type, fingers flying fast as he tells me stories that make me think he must be lying. wish he were lying. stories of his mother lighting matches and sticking them in his hand as a baby. stories of her locking him in a closet for a summer, forcing him to defecate on the floor, feeding him bread under the door. stories of her buying him and his siblings exactly what they wanted for Christmas, only to make them return it the very next day and give her the money. “why would she do that?” i ask. “to show us we weren’t worth anything,” he replies.

he tells me how she used to leave him and his siblings naked on the floor in winter while she went to work. how she would threaten to kill them in their sleep because they made her life hell. how she scalded his sister with boiling water and put cigarettes out on her babies. “we never had dinner together; we never had a birthday party. she never hugged any of us,” the 40-year-old artist recalls. “it was like a POW camp.”

i cannot handle this. force my mind into a happy place and then wonder, how does he do it? make such beautiful art representing life and God and goodness? this man who went to college to become a psychiatrist so he could help his mother…

“i have a relationship with Jesus Christ, every day,” he says in his bear-voice. “i’m a man, who makes mistakes, but Jesus is my friend.”

the Bible is the only book Nelson Lewis has read, cover to cover. he read one section a night, and after reading Romans, he says Jesus entered his room, and “i could hear a choir of kids singing. i felt the clouds part, and he walked through the centre of that and was standing at my feet.” it was such a good feeling, he continues. “i wish i could have that every minute of my life.”

growing up, Lewis saw religion as mean. vindictive. his mother would force him to walk to Catholic church, and if he couldn’t remember what he’d learned she’d punish him. “when i got done with the Bible i realized religion was a man-made word,” he tells me.

today Lewis strives to love. he gives all of his money away, playing Santa Claus to kids in the projects at Christmas, sending funds to South Africa to assist with AIDS research, and donating to child-abuse agencies. and today, Lewis is friends with his mother, who denies everything.

“i’ve had to forgive her in her entirety,” he says. “to understand God put me in that place, growing up, for a reason.”

and that reason? “to give me a heart for helping other people.”



  1. Teneale said,

    March 1, 2010 at 9:22 pm

    Who could do that to their baby? This man is an example to us all, for being able to forgive his mother. I don’t know if I would have had the strength to do that. When I think about the small things I hold my forgiveness back for sometimes….it makes me ashamed. Thanks for sharing his story. I had never heard of him before. Hugs.

  2. March 2, 2010 at 1:10 am

    >>“i’ve had to forgive her in her entirety,” he says. “to understand God put me in that place, growing up, for a reason.”<<

    Amen and amen and amen. A sovreign God who brings beauty from ashes… this cinderella knows it well and rejoices to see the truth played out in the lives of others who have learned that great suffering brings great strength and the capacity to dream great dreams.

  3. Justina said,

    March 2, 2010 at 3:57 am

    Oh wow. God’s grace is so amazing. I hurt thinking of anyone could want their kids to feel they are worthless. Thank you Em.

  4. Denise said,

    March 10, 2010 at 4:02 am

    What an amazing conversation… it gives me hope that my children will one day forgive me for my faults, though they might seem small compared to hers.

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