A crack cocaine addiction held Odell Wilmer Jr. bound for 22 years. He has a simple explanation on how he survived.
"To tell you the God-honest truth, I felt like I had angels watching over me," Wilmer said.
The 49-year-old said he also had others praying for his deliverance, which finally came five years ago after several relapses and stints in jail.
"I have five years of being sober. While I was on it for 22 years, I got clean, but I couldn't stay clean," he said. "I believe in prayer, and I believe I had a praying grandmother and a praying mother. And I also knew I had a praying father."
Wilmer admitted he had doubts about his recovery.
"I never thought I'd be where I am today. Never," he said. "I would have never bet on myself. … Once I lost the faith that I had when I was a little child and got introduced to crack cocaine, I didn't know if I was going to make it."
Wilmer said he believes he has a story that could help others battling with drugs and alcohol find that same kind of deliverance through the power of God.
For the past two years, Wilmer has been working on a documentary about his personal journey from drug addict to minister. The one-hour documentary, "Thummim and URIM," which means light and perfection, will make its debut at 3 p.m. Saturday at the old Gloryland Baptist Church, 2575 Michelli Drive. The event is free, and refreshments will be served.
"Whatever challenges we have in our life and we overcome them, that's our ministry," said Wilmer, a member of Gloryland. "The two challenges I've had in my life was drugs and alcohol (addiction) and prison. I've overcome both of them. There's somebody out there in this world whose life won't change until they hear my story."
His story began in a stable home. His father taught at Southern University, and his mother also was a teacher. His caring grandparents also were a part of his life.
In his neighborhood, Wilmer said he was deemed "the most likely to succeed" as he excelled in football, basketball and baseball.
At 18, Wilmer sensed he was being called into a life of ministry.
"My life wasn't normal," he said. "I couldn't do things that normal people did, smoking weed, going out and partying. I realized what my calling was — to be a minister of God's word. Yet, I ran."
Upon graduating from high school in 1986, Wilmer earned a baseball scholarship to a school in Maryland but decided instead to enroll at Southern and major in agricultural business.
"It was too far away and didn't want to be that far away from my parents," he said of the out-of-state offer.
But staying home also kept him around some bad influences. He started drinking and smoking marijuana with friends and getting in trouble, leading to frequent time in jail.
In 1989, while serving a five-month sentence for parole violation in a Port Allen jail, he remembers calling out to God as a massive storm approached.
"I told God, 'If you protect this building and protect me and everyone that's in this building, I would know for sure that my calling is to be a minister and that you trust me and believe in me and that you can help me get to where I'm supposed to be in life,'" he said. "Five minutes after I said that prayer, the winds ceased."
He returned to Southern that year but dropped out again. In 1991, he was back at the university and made the baseball team. But in spring 1992, he discovered he was no longer eligible to play baseball and left school again. He was 22.
"Not being able to play my first love, I didn't care anymore. I basically gave up," he said. "Four months later, I was introduced to crack cocaine."
A week later, friends got him to try it again.
"After I tried it the second time, I was battling with that spirit for 22 years," he said.
On April 1, 2008, Wilmer was involved in a manhunt that made local and national news. He and another man were involved in the burglary of a Zachary home. The men led police on a chase through East Feliciana Parish, dodging bullets from law enforcement and escaping into the woods for more than six hours before being captured.
"We both made it out safe," he said. "No one got hurt."
Wilmer was sentenced to two years and two months in prison for simple burglary and battery of a police officer. It was there that he rededicated his life to God. He answered his call to ministry in 2009.
"I'm not ordained by man, but I am ordained by God," he said.
After his release, Wilmer went back around his old friends and was able to stay clean for another 1½ years.
"I didn't realize being around them influenced me negatively to want to go back to doing that," he said. "Then one day, I went out with them and I was like, 'Pass the blunt; let me drink some beer. And that cycle started all over again."
He tried several treatment programs to no avail.
The death of his grandfather in October 2012 gave him a more determined desire to get clean. Wilmer was incarcerated again during that time but was able to attend the funeral.
"Once you start smoking crack, something drastic has to happen in your life for you to stop," he said. "That's how it was with me."
Assistance from his parents helped lead Wilmer to the Bridge House residential substance treatment program in New Orleans.
"I needed to hear something I hadn't heard before," he said.
At the end of his time at Bridge House, a visiting speaker got through to Wilmer like no one ever had.
"He said, 'Nobody in this room has the capability of keeping themselves clean for the rest of their lives. You may be able to stop, but you won't stay stopped. … You have to come to a power that is greater than yourself,'" Wilmer recalled. "He said, 'When you get up every morning, you say, 'God, I can't do it but you can; you can keep me clean. I need you to help me stay clean.'"
That was what Wilmer needed to hear.
"When he said that, it was like bells went off in my head, and I've been clean every since," he said.
Looking to God wasn't any advice Wilmer hadn't heard before.
"I always had a base of knowing who God was," said Wilmer, a delivery driver for a local restaurant and a clinical faith-based counselor for substance abuse. "My mom and dad told me about God. As I got older, I began to find out who God was for myself. And whenever I found myself in a situation that I didn't know how to deal with, I would call upon him."
Another day. Another blessing.
We have a choice every morning: We can choose to walk in the blessings and promises of God, or we can choose to wallow in dead situations and negativity. It's basically a choice each day between life and death. You would think that's an easy choice, but so many people choose to live a life that's likened to a slow death march.
God presented the Children of Israel with a choice. Deuteronomy 30:19-20 says, "This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live, and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life, and he will give you many years in the land he swore to give to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob."
Oh, what a promise. The choice is really up to us, even though there are people — like the hateful young school shooter in Florida — who think they have the power to chose death for other people. But Jesus assured us that when we choose him and the life that he offers, then we will have eternal life.