TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) – Harris County brothers Allen and Gary Levi were inseparable at heart, though their career paths often kept them apart. Allen is a professional singer and songwriter. Gary answered the call to the mission field and spent a lot of time overseas. They lived in their own houses on the family farm outside of Hamilton.
Their brotherly bond became even stronger when Gary was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2011. Allen became Gary’s caregiver during the last year of Gary’s life. Allen felt compelled to write a book about that year-long journey. He called it “The Last Sweet Mile.”
The first step in that journey occurred on July 23rd eleven years ago. Gary drove up the hill to Allen’s house with disturbing news.
“He had just taken a long bike ride that morning,” recalls Allen. “We’ve got to go to the doctor. I don’t know if you would call it a premonition or what, but I think Gary and I both realized this is really serious and might be the end of this part of his story. We hugged each other and cried and prayed right at that moment.”
Gary was diagnosed with a brain tumor that was well advanced.
“That began what was exactly a one year last sweet mile,” says Allen. “I quit my job which for me meant cancelling concerts and an opportunity to go around the country and play music. I was all too happy to do it so I could be home with Gary.”
Allen and Gary were not just brothers but best friends. In Allen’s words, “I think most brothers would like to say that they really love one another. But with my brother Gary, there’s no doubt that we did. I adored by brother Gary.”
The reasons why are beautifully revealed in the pages of Allen’s book.
“He was just a sweet guy. He was bullheaded. He was stubborn. He could be very argumentative. Believe me, he was a mortal with all of the failings of mortal men. But he had such a kindness and a gentleness and a tenderness about him that I think wherever he went he took that (with him). And I have to believe that was probably the strength of all the ministry he ever did in life.”
Gary spent his adult life ministering to people all around the globe as a missionary. He felt the call to missions while on vacation with Allen in Jamaica.
“While we were there, he read a book by Elisabeth Elliot called the ‘Shadow of the Almighty’ about a man named Jim Elliot. When he finished the book, Gary said I’m going to quit working. I’m going to start doing foreign missions,” according to Allen.
Gary gave up his job working with his dad in the timber industry and enrolled at Columbia Bible College in South Carolina. That training prepared him to pursue his passion of telling others about Christ. He became an ambassador for his Lord in places like Afghanistan, Bosnia, Macedonia, and even the jungles of Peru.
Allen says, “Gary loved Christ and he loved people with heart, soul, mind, and strength in a way that was winsome, that was attractive, and from my standpoint was very enviable. Even though he was younger than me, he continues to be the person I most want to grow up to be like.”
One of Gary’s many hobbies was woodworking…just another trait that connected him to Jesus the carpenter. Allen’s dining room table was made by Gary from wood found on the family farm. “He started getting tree trunks and making chalices and cowboy hats and bowls and all sorts of things. He liked the metaphor of making something beautiful out of something broken or something tarnished. But maybe the thing that most connected Gary’s woodwork to the heart of Christ is…whenever Gary made something he always gave it away.”
Allen recalls getting up early on many a morning and gazing down the hill at his brother’s house. The light would be on and Allen knew exactly what Gary was doing. “My brother was devotedly a man of prayer. He would get up early and the first thing he did every day was read scripture and say his prayers.”
“We are commanded to do as Jesus did and Jesus prayed. And so Gary was a man of prayer. It was not at all unusual when we were sitting to pray or kneeling to pray for Gary to get up and there would be a pool of tears under where he had laid his head.”
One of Allen’s most cherished possessions is one of Gary’s prayer books that contains the names, dates, and prayer requests of people he was interceding for. Allen says, “I have one prayer book in particular that I love. I have put it into a shadow box. You can see where he has held the pages and they’ve browned where Gary was holding those pages and putting his thumbs day after day, week after week, year after year.”
Allen recalls, “Gary finished almost all of his prayers the same way…Lord Jesus, I love you. I pray that you will give me grace to love you more. And that was his heartbeat.”
A specific location that also had Gary’s heartbeat was Harris County High School where he served as a substitute teacher from time to time. With the permission of the administration, he was allowed to stand at the back door and greet students as they came to school.
“It was just a matter of hey, good morning. Hope you have a great day. How did you do on your test? You did a great job at the ballgame yesterday. Gary threw himself into the life of the high school,” says Allen.
Every Thursday morning Allen hosts a group of Christian men for an hour of prayer and Bible study at his farm. Gary was part of that weekly gathering.
“The genesis of that group was to pray for the high school,” according to Allen. “It may have been Gary who asked the question some 20 years ago…is it possible that there are high school students whose names have never been prayed before? Somebody had the idea…let’s get the (Harris County High School) annual and let’s just read every name out loud.”
They continue to call out students’ names from the annual and pray for them to this day.
The group normally meets on the front porch of Allen’s home. On this particular morning they met inside the old Levi family chapel that sits at the entrance to the family farm. It dates back to the early 1800’s and was moved to Harris County from Mobile.
“After my father became a follower of Christ, he wanted to have a place for the family to celebrate and gather from time to time. So we’ve got this beautiful, quaint chapel at the edge of the pasture.”
Through the window panes of the chapel you can see Gary’s grave. The burial plot in the shadow of the chapel is hallowed ground for this faithful band of Christian brothers…they actually helped prepare it.
Allen recalls the events from a Saturday morning in late July in 2012. “We gathered shovels in hand, probably 20, 30 of us and we paired up, had a bunch of wheelbarrows, and we worked in teams of two. We spent this unforgettable morning together. We prayed, we laughed, we cried. We had a meal. We reminisced. But there was something that was very therapeutic and faith-building for us because we literally stood in the grave. In a sense, it was like we were driving our shovels into the heart of our fear of dying, and we were able to kind of shake our fist at death and say…we will not be afraid of you. Gary’s not afraid of you.”
Gary’s body may lay beneath the George red clay, but his family by faith believes the grave does not contain the last pages of Gary’s life.
“As a family, for us, cancer was not the end of Gary’s story. It was just a part of it. His story is still being written, and we believe devotedly that he is alive and well.”
Allen’s book “The Last Sweet Mile” documents in heart-gripping detail the special relationship between Allen and Gary. The book was written ten years ago and has recently been reprinted. Copies are available at www.rabbitroom.com.