After 24 years of homelessness and addiction, Yvester Johnson found a Savior he will never doubt again
By Stephanie Morris-Graves
But about halfway through his freshman season at Western Oklahoma State College, his girlfriend summoned him home to Sapulpa, Oklahoma, to see their baby son. Three weeks later Yvester was addicted to crack cocaine and decided to trade dorm life for street life.
Between highs—and the many more lows–he vowed that he’d get it together, thinking basketball would be there when he got back on track. But it never happened. Months turned to years and then decades in a crack-induced cycle of addiction, homelessness, and despair.
It was years later as he slowly started to revisit what he’d learned as a child about Jesus Christ that he began the process of cleaning up and putting his life in order.
Most people who spend decades on the streets as Yvester did end up dying there, but he’s been clean for seven years now and, at 51, he’s dedicated his life to helping the homeless and hopeless find their own way out.
There was no magic wand that delivered Yvester from the streets. He says he did it by hiding himself in the Word of God and using it as his protection when death and destruction were all around him.
“Just like your Daddy”
Yvester didn’t have much of an opportunity to enjoy his childhood. Robert Johnson, Yvester’s biological dad, fathered 36 children, three with Yvester’s mom Pearl. Yvester was their oldest together. Pearl administered passports for the state of Arizona. She worked hard for her children, but she did it mostly alone. Robert would come and go. He loved women and children. She would say he could look at you and get you pregnant.
He hurt her again and again, but she loved him, and he could always woo her. She quit her good job and followed him to California. When she found out about the other women and they split up again, she was left jobless and on welfare. Like many jilted mothers, she took her anger out not on Robert but on her children. Yvester was the oldest. He got the worst of it “You ain’t nothin’ and you ain’t gon’ never be nothin’, just like your daddy,” she’d tell Yvester.
After a while he started to believe it.
But basketball was his escape. He was good at it, driven, motivated. He was a recognized high-school player in California, Arizona, and Oklahoma, where his family eventually settled, winning awards and even getting looks from UCLA and USC.
“I felt good playing basketball. It was a release for me, a place to let out my frustration. All the emotions I had made me want to win, win, win,” he says.
Though he was only about 5’6” as a high-school freshman, Yvester had ups. He could jump higher than the other boys, giving him an edge in rebounding, plus he was left-handed, a priceless gift for a point guard. Top that with solid shooting skills and a summer growth spurt that landed him at 6-foot-2, and Yvester was a complete player.
His senior year at Sapulpa High School, just southwest of Tulsa, his team went to the state championship, beating undefeated powerhouse Muskogee High to get there. But when it was time to choose a college, Yvester only had a few local options. He’d moved around too much to be considered for a top-tier program, so he ended up at a small school, Western Oklahoma State, about three hours from his home.
Though not prestigious, the two-year college has a solid men’s basketball program, and many WOSC players go on to play for reputable four-year university basketball programs, so with his skills and love for the game, Yvester had a real shot.
College wasn’t the first time he’d been exposed to drugs and alcohol. As a young athlete, playing on winning teams, Yvester knew a good party when he saw one. “Drinking beer and smoking weed was just part of it,” he explains. He admits it wasn’t uncommon for alcohol and drugs to accompany post-game celebrations for the young athletes. He readily participated in the revelry. It too was an escape.
Being a winner at basketball was balm for Yvester’s emotional wounds. At home, he felt worthless; his mother drove home that message. On the court, he was somebody. Friends and family esteemed him, and he fed off of their affirmation. Drinking and drugs were the icing on the cake. First, there was weed, then lines of powdered cocaine, then crack rocks.
Yvester’s coach advised him against going home that weekend in 1979, the middle of his first semester at college. “People go and never come back,” he warned. But Yvester thought it was important to go check on his son, and while there he was swiftly lured into a trap that would alter the trajectory of his life for decades to come.
Home was comfortable. His girlfriend and young son were there. His old friends who put him on a pedestal were there. Crack was there–and cheap and easy to obtain in his old neighborhood.
He tried it a few times and was hooked. The high took him away from his circumstances; it provided relief from the way he felt about himself.
“Crack makes you give up and lose motivation,” he says. “I would tell myself basketball can wait. I’ll get myself together in two or three years, but it never happened.”
A destructive, downward spiral ensued.
All or nothing
Yvester describes the street life as a constant hustle for food, shelter, and showers.
“It was really difficult,” he says. “I had to adjust. You have to find places that have all the resources you need like showers and meals, and sometimes it’s discouraging. Sometimes other homeless people don’t share information on where you can eat, just being selfish.”
He lived in warm-weather states, so camping next to the river in Sacramento was preferable to sharing space in a cramped shelter. The people in the tent cities he lived in were like family. They shared food and helped protect each other from predators that lurked in the night.
On the streets, Yvester rubbed shoulders with murders, molesters, and the mentally ill. For 24 years, he drifted among women, family, and homeless shelters. He was a street person addicted to crack, supporting his habit by doing odd jobs and keeping the company of women who collected welfare checks.
“When they get paid on the first, they’d give you a little money, and you’d go get high off of however much you could buy,” he says. “In between, you’d try to pull yourself together a little bit until you got some more money to get high again.” He wanted to be free from drugs, but getting off the drugs was infinitely more difficult than getting on.
He was beset with feelings of hopelessness, not able to understand how he’d ended up in his situation. Every time he’d get himself cleaned up, the voices that told him he was worthless would pipe up again and drugs would lure him back, and he’d have to start from square one trying to pull himself together.
As a young boy, Yvester had been introduced to Christ through a basketball mentor, but nothing much came of it until he decided to turn to his Bible to seek help for his addictions.
He began to involve himself with ministries through homeless shelters in Oklahoma, Arizona, and Texas, all the while battling drugs.
Yvester believes being weaned from drugs is a long, difficult process. “I told God, ‘I’m not going to give you my all until I’m done with this addiction,’” he says. Yvester says the first hit of crack is the most potent. “You gotta have it,” he says. “It takes you to a state of instant gratification, and you keep trying to get it.” Nothing else in his life provided the high that he got from drugs, so he kept going back for more.
And his thinking was that in order for him to be fully changed, he’d need to be completely sober. He considered it an all-or-nothing deal. “I didn’t understand it was a process. I thought if I didn’t get it right the first time, the addiction would come back worse.”
But in 2001, he was fed up with himself. “I was tired of being tired,” he says. “I’d lost everything. I lost my family, and I lost their trust.”
Finding the Father
Yvester landed in Austin after a chance encounter with his father. The cycle of connecting with family members until they got tired of his good-for-nothingness started again, and he ended up in a homeless shelter where he eventually met the now-deceased Duane Severance, a well-known minister with a heart for Austin street ministry. Under Severance’s guidance, Yvester found a more solid footing in ministry and found sobriety through the Salvation Army’s Adult Rehabilitation Center. By 2004, he was completely clean.
“Duane would say, ‘Yvester, you’re reeking! Let’s go get a shower,’ and then he’d pray with me and read Scriptures about how God had brought people out, and I began to see that the more I could get of Jesus then the addiction would break,” he recalls.
Yvester spent the next six years working in ministry with Austin’s homeless and working to stay drug-free. “When you have an addiction, sometimes the sickness tries to develop again, but then I would go to the Word of God. It isn’t easy, but I get on my knees and pray,” he says. And he found strength by going back to his favorite Scripture, Romans 8:28: “All things work together for the good of those who love the Lord and are called according to his purpose.”
He realized that everything he’d been through was for a reason—so that God could mold him into what He wanted him to be. Yvester once told Duane that if he could kick his addiction, they could change the world together. But Duane told him, “Yvester, you can’t change the world until you change yourself.”
For Yvester, that meant dealing with the demons that had haunted him for years, the verbal abuse from his mom, how his dad had treated his mom, the disappointment from how he’d been looking forward to playing ball at the University of Oklahoma but ended up back home, drug-addicted. He started to view the let-downs as the tools God used to shape him.
Last year, Yvester came to Dallas to pursue more ministry opportunities. He found them through Raphael Adebayo, senior pastor of The Winner’s Assembly, a 7-year-old church and outreach that targets South Dallas’ homeless and drug-addicted.
“He’s addicted to reading his Bible,” Adebayo says about Yvester, “And he’s not faking it.”
Adebayo saw potential in Yvester from their first encounter. And his belief in him gave Yvester the motivation and drive to be the success that crack had taken from him. Ministering with Yvester brought a level of insight and understanding of addiction and associated behaviors that Pastor Raphael couldn’t have grasped otherwise, having never been a user.
He tells the story of a man who visited their ministry pretending to be there for worship but was actually there to hustle the pastor for drug money. Yvester, however, smelled a rat. The $20 the man claimed to need to pay for a place to stay was intended to buy crack.
Yvester is now a full-time staff member and pastor at The Winner’s Assembly. He’s excited about his new identity in Christ. He’s driven to encourage others who live the life he once lived. He spends his days ministering and evangelizing in shelters around town.
“What you’re going through is a process,” he tells those trying to break free from crack’s hold. “The Lord will bring you out and show you that He was with you all the time.”
Seven years sober, Yvester says there are still things that happen that can be discouraging, and in the past drugs would have brought temporary solace. But he draws from what made him a successful athlete: training and working hard to get better. Today, that also requires staying rooted in Scripture.
It also means that the father of six children and two grandchildren, who he’s managed to maintain a relationship with through the years, knows he’s got people watching him who love him, and he doesn’t intend to let them down this time.
“The addiction took everything–my life, my family, and career,” Yvester says. “He took me through the fire so that now I’m in a position to never go back, to never doubt Him again. If people can get the concept that He can change anyone, and if you follow the narrow path, not the wide path, the Lord will bless you. You just have to have faith and believe in that.”
Stephanie Morris-Graves is a publicist, freelance writer, and graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary. She lives in the Dallas area with her husband and their two children.