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Published: Saturday, 11/12/2005

Reaching out with music and more

BY DAVID YONKE
BLADE RELIGION EDITOR
Christian singer-songwriter Eli chats with Raymond Whitley of Detroit,  a resident at the Toledo Restoration Church home, before picking up his guitar and performing. Eli s 1998 debut disc included a No. 1 hit song,  King of the Hill. 
Christian singer-songwriter Eli chats with Raymond Whitley of Detroit, a resident at the Toledo Restoration Church home, before picking up his guitar and performing. Eli s 1998 debut disc included a No. 1 hit song, King of the Hill.
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I don t mind falling, if I m falling on my knees. Eli

It was showtime, but the star was in no hurry to take the stage.

Eli, the Christian singer-songwriter who goes by a single name, was mingling with the crowd inside Toledo Restoration Church, chatting with people eye to eye and heart to heart, listening earnestly, laughing often, and hugging them and giving brotherly handshakes.

I don t know why every artist doesn t do this, Eli said before the concert. You get to see people who have gratitude. There s so much love in here.

A crowd of about 50 had gathered in the nondescript storefront church on a dark stretch of Main Street in East Toledo. It s a clean, well-lighted place, with Jesus Is Lord painted boldly on a back wall and plastic plants hanging from the side walls.

From left, Cheryl Sherman, Peggy Hydlebeerd, 2-year-old Alexia Handy, and Linda Jones clap along with the music. From left, Cheryl Sherman, Peggy Hydlebeerd, 2-year-old Alexia Handy, and Linda Jones clap along with the music.
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The church offers free housing and food to people who are desperate for a second chance. Or a third, fourth, fifth, or more chance. Most of the people who come to Toledo Restoration Church are drug addicts, alcoholics, prostitutes, and others who have taken a left turn in life.

We give them Jesus Christ and beans and rice, said Ken Ivory, 48, the church s home director and a former client. He came through the door three years ago as a self-described functioning addict, able to hold a job but spending his paychecks on cocaine, marijuana, and alcohol.

He kicked his addictions and now supervises the 30-odd beds provided by Toledo Restoration Church.

This is no country club, Eli told the reporter. It s a hospital. You re going to get blood on the floor. People come in here broken and battered and abused. The carpet is going to get dirty. Some people don t want that. But buildings don t go to heaven; people do.

The 34-year-old singer, whose 1998 debut disc included a No. 1 song on the Christian Hit Radio chart, King of the Hill, has a musical style that some compare to Cat Stevens, and he sings about God with a bold and earnest approach that is often likened to Rich Mullins and Keith Green.

He has experienced success in the music world, but he s also known what it s like to lose one s grip on life and take a hard fall like many of the folks who come to places like Toledo Restoration Church.

I know what it s like to be hungry, and I know what it s like to brush your teeth in a public water fountain, Eli said. I know what it s like to make your your bed in the street.

He started drinking alcohol in kindergarten, began using drugs in elementary school, and ran away from home at 14, he said, because I wanted to become a full-time drug addict.

After he cleaned up his life and turned it over to God, a friend s mother gave him a guitar when he was 20. She urged him to write his own songs, and he soon discovered a musical talent that he wanted to use to express his love for Jesus.

He became so good that record labels recruited him, but Eli wrestled with whether he should sign a recording contract. He accepted the offer from ForeFront, he said, because I felt a CD can go places I couldn t go, so it was an opportunity to reach people I could never reach otherwise.

He said he never was starry-eyed about the music business, and, in fact, never felt like he fit in with the crowd. I probably sabotaged my career because I was too outspoken, he said. I wanted to make every decision integrity-driven, ministry-driven, and not self-centered or self-serving.

In the front row for Eli s concert at Toledo Restoration Church are, from left, Raymond Whitley, Orlando Corbin, and Cruz Hernandez.
In the front row for Eli s concert at Toledo Restoration Church are, from left, Raymond Whitley, Orlando Corbin, and Cruz Hernandez.
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Now, whenever he s to perform a concert, he tries to arrive early and stay a few extra days to visit people in jails, prisons, homeless centers, and the like.

In Toledo, for example, his most public performance was a concert at Epworth United Methodist Church on Sunday night, with ticket prices set at a modest $10. (The show ended up being moved to Westside Community Church when Epworth s power was knocked out by an overnight storm. Eli said he was blown away by everyone s help in making the switch.)

Before the Epworth/Westside show, however, Eli had played for people in Toledo s Youth Treatment Center, the Cherry Street Mission, and YES-FM radio (89.3), and on Monday performed at the Juvenile Detention Center and Toledo Restoration Church.

The juvenile center those kids are rough. They were really stand-offish at first, Eli said, his light-brown eyes opened wide. About once a month, I go to a maximum security prison and those guys are pushovers by comparison. Give me a room full of murderers any day.

Eli slowly made his way toward the stage, but stopped for a 10-minute chat with Raymond Whitley of Detroit, a resident at Toledo Restoration Church who was sitting in the front row.

A half-hour after the concert s scheduled starting time, Eli picked up a guitar, smiled brightly, and stepped to the microphone.

I forgot I was here to do music, he said. I was fellowshipping too much.

He said he wanted to start out with a word of prayer, and, eyes closed, spoke a spontaneous offering that included these words: Lord, there s no other place I d rather be tonight than here, worshipping with my brothers and sisters.

Randy Garcia, 39, a resident at Toledo Restoration Church who plays guitar and leads worship at services, said Eli s message hits home with this audience.

We re glad to have him here, Mr. Garcia said. I came here over four years ago. Truthfully, I didn t expect to be here two weeks. I was a heroin addict 15 years. I tried rehab. Jail. For my kid, for my Mom. It never worked. But the people here were loving me. Now I help other people. I show them love like they showed me.

Eli paused before each song to tell a little story. He said, for example, that he bought a jacket for $4 at a thrift store.

Someone threw it away. Discarded it. But for me, it has value, he said. Look at this, I can t believe someone threw this away!

Everybody here knows what it s like to be discarded. But Jesus looks at us and says we have value. He tells his Father, Look at this this, I can t believe someone discarded this!

The crowd clapped and shouted Amen as he began singing his song, Second Hand Clothing, rich with metaphors following the theme of the introduction.

Eli s music and his message resonate deeply with those at Toledo Restoration Church, Mr. Garcia said.

Sad to say, but I m not gonna listen to someone who s never been there, he said. What are you guys gonna tell me about being on the streets or on drugs? I m not gonna listen. But Eli, he s been there. He s one of us.

Information on Eli and his Help in Action ministry is available online at www.elinews.com. Contact David Yonke at:dyonke@theblade.com or 419-724-6154.



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