Three words hung in the air like a thick fog. The hardest words Tony Evans had ever had to hear from his bride, Lois.
“Let me go,” she said softly, turning to look at him.
All he could do was cry, as he sat beside her hospice bed last December. There were 49½ years of love between them. Four children, 13 grandchildren, three great-grandchildren. Five decades of shared ministry.
And plans for the next phase of their lives together.
“It wasn’t going to be a retirement,” he says from his home in Dallas, two blocks from Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship, which he and Lois started 44 years ago. “It was going to be a cutting back.”
But a rare form of gallbladder cancer had crept in two years earlier, and despite fervent prayer and modern medicine, it had become increasingly clear that the time of “Sister Evans’” departure was nearing.
Lois’ fingerprints were on every part of Tony Evans’ life. She typed and proofread his college papers. When they started the church in 1976, she was the secretary, hospitality person and pianist. When the Urban Alternative broadcast ministry began, she made the tapes of Tony’s sermons and duplicated and mailed them. She was by his side in everything, while also making sure their children were nurtured, fed and clothed, and looked and acted their best.
Her death last Dec. 30 ended a 17-month period that saw the loss of Tony’s brother, his sister and her husband, the sudden death of a close niece at age 38, and his hero—his beloved father—who died just weeks before Lois.
Tony knew how to love his family and provide for them in part because of his dad. He knew how to withstand racism during his youth because of his dad.
“Son, you’re a child of the King,” Arthur Evans would tell him when he couldn’t go inside a white restaurant in Baltimore. “If they don’t want royal blood in their restaurant, then don’t go in there.”
But the death of his wife, especially on the cusp of scaling back in ministry, is a blow he couldn’t truly brace for.
Martin Hawkins, a longtime close friend of Tony’s and a former assistant pastor at Oak Cliff, has been a presence in Tony’s life for four decades, observing the fruit of the man and his ministry, iron sharpening iron as good friends should do for each other.
A few days after Lois’ death, Martin had a simple, pointed question for Tony that only the closest of friends could ask. He knew the answer, but he wanted to hear it from Tony’s mouth.
“I just said, ‘Is God real?’ He didn’t hesitate at all. ‘Yeah, God’s real’ … And we cried together.”
At 71, Tony has cast significant evangelical influence for four decades, his relentless expounding of God’s Word a clarion call for his members to live out their faith before the world. His church, in a predominantly African American community of south Dallas, has grown to 10,000 members. His radio broadcast is heard on more than 1,400 outlets in 130 countries. He was the first black student to earn a doctorate from Dallas Theological Seminary, and last year he became the first African American to publish a full Bible commentary and a study Bible.
The Evans children are well-known in their own rights. The eldest, Chrystal Evans Hurst, is a worship leader, Christian speaker and writer. Priscilla Shirer is an author, actor, Bible teacher and conference leader; Anthony is a singer-songwriter; and Jonathan is a former NFL player with the Buffalo Bills and currently a chaplain for the Dallas Cowboys—a ministry Tony once led.
Tony first saw God’s transforming power in the lives of his parents. The oldest of Arthur and Evelyn Evans’ four children, he was keenly aware of the arguing and fighting between them, even at age 10.
“There was a lot of bickering in my family,” he says. Then a friend invited his mom to church, and his dad went with her. After church, Arthur Evans came home and got on his knees in the family’s basement and received Christ as his Lord and Savior. Several months later, Evelyn came downstairs to the basement where her husband was working one night and said, “Whatever you have must be real. How can I have it too?”
Arthur knelt and prayed with his wife as she received Christ, and soon after he prayed with all four children.
“The change was drastic,” Tony says. “The studying of the Bible, devotions, going to church. Everything was Christ. My father said all during those years and until the day he died at 90 years old: ‘Everything has to be according to the Scriptures.’”
Like his dad, Tony fell in love with the Bible, reading it profusely and walking several miles to hear it preached on Sundays if his dad had to work.
Tony felt the call to ministry at age 17 during a crusade by the Rev. B. Sam Hart that his church had helped bring to town. Hart took an interest in Tony, encouraging him to go to Bible school and inviting him to travel to Guyana, South America, to work on his crusade. It was there that Tony met Lois Cannings. Her father was over the local committee that was hosting the crusade. He invited Tony over for dinner, and Lois was the cook. After getting to know her during his stay, he knew he wanted to spend the rest of his life with her.
Back in the U.S., he wrote to her almost every day—letters that she kept, under lock and key, for the rest of her days. They were married when Tony was a junior at Carver College in Atlanta.
Tony and Lois started Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship with 10 people in their home while he was pursuing his doctorate degree—and his passion for preaching was becoming known. Erwin Lutzer, former pastor at Moody Church in Chicago, still remembers the first time he heard Tony preach, in 1976. He had gotten a call from Dallas Theological Seminary asking if one of their doctoral students could preach at the small church he was pastoring.
“It was Tony Evans,” Lutzer says. “And to this day I still recall his moving sermon on Romans chapter 12; how we must yield ourselves to God, a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable. Now that shows the passion and the clarity with which he preached.”
Tony preaches the “Kingdom Agenda,” which he defines as the Biblical manifestation of the comprehensive rule of God over every area of life. “The goal is to build Kingdom disciples who make a Kingdom impact,” he says. “That is, to show how our commitment to Christ informs all of life—our personal lives, our family, and our engagement with the family of God across racial, culture and class lines.” When Christians start to live this way, they will see a change in the society and culture, he says.
By all accounts, this general of the faith lives out what he preaches. Joe Stowell, president of Cornerstone University, has known Tony for 30 years.
“Tony’s gifted preaching that is solidly Biblical, combined with applications that are both convicting and inspiring, is a rare gift to the Body of Christ,” Stowell says. “His preaching is matched by a life that lives up to what he teaches. He has been a model of integrity and loyalty to family, flock and Jesus.”
His marriage to Lois was like an ongoing love story unfolding before their eyes, church elders say. And his devotion to his children is something fathers in the church seek to emulate.
“He has been very patient and very present,” says his youngest son, Jonathan. “Even though he traveled a lot and spoke a lot, I never felt like I was second place, which is something I’m working on with my kids.”
Tony has been like a father to award-winning gospel music artist Kirk Franklin, who came to Oak Cliff in 1998, when he was at a dark point.
“Tony allowed me to invade his life,” Kirk says. “He would let me call him at 3 or 4 in the morning. My being discipled by him really put gravity to my Christian faith. He helped me through the trauma of being adopted, the issue of trying to learn how to be a husband and a father when I had never seen one modeled.”
The year 2020 has been one of great trial for Tony. Lois’ death had thrust him into his own personal pandemic, then the coronavirus hit.
“You’re going from a personal pandemic to a public pandemic, a cultural pandemic, a racial pandemic and a political pandemic,” he says. “And my phone’s ringing off the hook with people asking me to speak to all of these different things.”
He could feel the tension.
“I’m having to be in a home without her, so there’s an empty space,” he says. “And at the same time, trying to minister to the needs that are present right before me in light of the cultural conditions. It’s been somewhat of a conundrum.”
As his congregation, family and friends have rallied around him—his oldest son Anthony even bought a house back in Dallas to be near his dad—Tony has wrestled with God. Not only asking why He took Lois, but why the disease wasn’t caught earlier when it could have been arrested. But he has been carried by the Lord for 61 years, and if nothing else, he knows that God is indeed real.
“I am pursuing a deeper experience of His reality in my life and my circumstances,” he says. “Job 42 says, ‘I’ve heard Him with the hearing of the ear, but now I’ve seen Him with my own eyes,’ and so it is a request for a clear view of Him in the midst of trial.”
And he will continue to carry on the ministry the Lord has entrusted to him, while trying his best to honor Lois’ final request—those three chilling words: “Let me go.”
As in football, when a team member retires or is sidelined, the team doesn’t stop playing, he says.
“My teammate is gone,” he said with deep emotion at the close of his tribute to Lois last January. “But I’m gonna keep blocking and tackling. I’ll miss my teammate, but the game of God’s Kingdom must go on.”
Photo: Courtesy of Tony Evans