Morgan Ervin is a firm believer that the shortest distance between two people is a good story. Maybe this is because he has quite a story to tell. At nineteen years old, after a week-long drinking and drug binge, Ervin found himself on his knees in an employee bathroom at Starbucks. When his bloodshot and teary eyes looked in the mirror the reflected image showed him a man who had just wrecked two-and-half long years of work in a 12-step recovery program. Truth and disappointment hit him hard. He dropped down, and with a tightened throat, prayed to a God he hardly believed in. The simple prayer he managed is one of the most powerful that has ever been prayed. “God. Help me.”
Even though Ervin was in doubt, God wasn’t. Ervin was given more help than he bargained for. He left that bathroom a changed man. It would be great to say that everything turned around in that exact moment; that Ervin was given an answer. But as most often happens, it took a while to get there, it’s been a journey. After some serious ups and downs, Ervin is successful on many levels. He has a wife and growing family, a solid position with one of the most cutting edge brand development and graphic design firms in the world, and he leads hundreds inside, and outside, of his home church. His story has certainly been a direct line to change for many people. Risen got to catch up with Ervin to talk about his recovery, faith and impacting others.
Interviewed exclusively for Risen Magazine in San Diego, California
Risen Magazine: After becoming rebellious and drug addicted at just 16-years old, you started going to a 12-step recovery program. How did that start your journey to healing?
Morgan Ervin: It was connecting with people that were going through what I was going through, and who were able to show me that I was powerless to change my addiction on my own. Their testimonies of overcoming a lot of different addictions – drugs, alcohol, gambling, pornography or some other type of sex addiction – showed me they knew what they were talking about. They were just like me, but they had somehow been released from what was gripping me. I was able to see how much these things were just a bandage for a deep soul wound. I could see that was actually what I was suffering from and I needed something more than human help to overcome it!
RM: Just going to the recovery programs didn’t end up being the fix you had hoped it to be though. Why was that?
ME: Truth be told, at sixteen I still had a lot of hope in myself. I knew I had to stop doing drugs and drinking, but I didn’t want to. I had run out of friends, we had been in family therapy for four years – with very little result. I fought with my family whenever I was home so I stopped going home. Somebody I really looked up to had gotten sober and had invited me to an AA meeting. I was more interested in having a friend that cared about me than I was about getting sober. There was this two-part problem though; feeling I was somewhat insincere in my desire to be sober, and I was there for someone else and really wasn’t committed to my own freedom. For almost three years I would follow the rules, but then bend the grey areas. I was still hanging out with my drug addict friends, but they liked me being around more because I wasn’t a burden to them as an addict myself.
When I relapsed at ninteen, I just wanted relief. My solution for life at that point was to get as busy as possible and fill my life with as much as possible. My collapse had me drinking handle bottles of vodka and as much cocaine as I could get my hands on. I ruined two-and-a-half years of work in just over a week – I was fired from jobs, kicked out of where I was living, my girlfriend left – and I still blamed circumstances.
The night of May 20, 1995, I had come back from a really rough night. I had been fired from the hottest advertising agency in town and was working at a Starbucks. I went in [to work] physically detoxing. I ended up breaking a coffee brewer and spilling coffee all over myself. I had a complete meltdown. My boss confronted me. She told me that if I didn’t go back to a recovery program I didn’t have a job there anymore.
I was overwhelmed with frustration but also touched by her generosity of giving me another chance – which I wholly didn’t deserve. I went into the employee bathroom in the back because I didn’t want her to see me cry. I looked in the mirror and for the first time in my life, I saw the truth of what I’d become. I saw a drug addict and an alcoholic staring back at me. I knew I was completely consumed. I knew my life had to change immediately and completely. I also knew I had no power in me to affect that change.
I did the only thing that made sense, even though it didn’t make any sense to me at the time. I got down on my knees and I prayed to a God I didn’t totally believe in, and I definitely didn’t understand, and said, “God. Help me.” I immediately broke down. I must have sat there crying for almost an hour. I didn’t know His name. I had no understanding how to start a relationship with Him. But even in that moment, God was faithful even when I wasn’t. That began the real process of change in my life. Where I saw it, genuinely. I was finally willing to give God, wholly, my addiction. But I still thought I needed to hang on to the management of the rest of my life.
I looked in the mirror and for the first time in my life, I saw the truth of what I’d become. I saw a drug addict and an alcoholic staring back at me.
RM: So, miraculously, your addiction was under control, but you alluded to other areas that weren’t surrendered. How did this end up playing out for you?
ME: At nineteen years old I still had a lot of hope in money, property, sex, prestige, security and society. When I get the house, wife, job, title, then my shoulders will drop; then I’ll be able to breath. All of those things are praiseworthy and the things you should want.
I went from trying to stay away from drugs and alcohol to really going after this vision. By twenty-eight years old, I had achieved all the check boxes of all the things I had hope in. Those were supposed to result in a feeling of self-worth and contentment. But what really happened was that I had just became a slave to everything I had put my hope in and almost literally came to the end of hope. I was totally hopeless, so I played the one ace I still had up my sleeve and went and became a monk. But I wasn’t interested in becoming a Christian monk. I went to live in this Essene Jewish, vegan, raw food, spiritual community out in the middle of nowhere thinking that if I could just perfect my physical body through self-initiated yoga, meditation and pure eating, then I could find my peace. Four months into being out there, the novelty of it completely wore off and I was left with me. I learned the wonderful, horrible truth. No matter where you go, that’s where you are.
So now the final thing I had hope in was gone. I put all of my eggs in that basket. I didn’t have a plan B. I spent the next couple of months trying to come back to San Diego. Finally, a crazy business opportunity came up, which I jumped at.
RM: You had already been through so much and tried so many things! What did you find this time around that was different?
ME: I ended up meeting a mentor who really challenged the things I had come to believe in. I had all of this religion that was built up around intellectual and practical solutions in my life that were ultimately about me. He would listen. Then as I would get to the end of my philosophizing he would just look at me and ask, “How’s that workin’ for ya?” And it wasn’t, at all. It was a mess. I was a mess. I had no idea what I was doing. My feet were fully-planted in mid-air and my head was fully-planted somewhere else.
He also encouraged me to take inventory of the people that I had respected in my life. As it turns out, almost all of them had been Christian. They had been consistent, amazing and free. I had liked to look at them and tell them they were dumb and believed in fairy tales. So I finally broke down and went to a church. I heard the gospel preached and it was completely different than what I thought. I thought Christians believed in the same theology as Santa Claus. You get presents if you’re good and coal if you’re bad. I finally found a mental acceptance that God, through Jesus, could be a Father who would work this out with me. If I fell, He’d be there to pick me back up and help me to keep going, not scold me and cut me off.
Easter Service, 2010, I felt like God spoke to me in the same way He spoke to Job in the end of that book [in the Bible]. He just used all my knowledge against me. I felt as if He said to me, “If you’re so smart, then tell me this.” And I didn’t have answers for it. Then He asked me, “Is it possible you don’t know everything?” I remember answering, “Yeah, it’s probable I don’t really know that much at all.” As soon as I was able to get that level of humility into me, He revealed Christ’s sacrifice to me in a way that completely changed my life.
RM: After years of resistance and being really committed in almost the opposite direction, you decided to make that change. Where did you go from there?
ME: I got baptized immediately. I know some people say that baptism is just an outward expression and it’s just something you do for others; well that’s not what happened to me. I was inwardly changed. People noticed.
There was a chiropractor that had been working on me for a year and he would not let me out of his office without finding out what happened to me the previous weekend. He was a scientologist and I really didn’t want to talk to him about it, but he kept pressing the issue. He finally cornered me in a side office and asked me again what had happened to me. I asked him why he wanted to know and he said, “Because I don’t recognize your body. Everything about you is different.” I finally told him that I got baptized and he didn’t know what to say.
Also, around that time I was being groomed for a big corporate job – lots of money and awesome travel – it was everything I thought I could have wanted at that time. But what became apparent to me was that I really needed to be discipled. There was also this opportunity to go to this year-long, committed, five-day away discipleship school. I ended up turning down the job and I went to the school. It was like the Holy Spirit got to me. “You can take that job, and you will die, but your life will mean nothing.” And I was so convicted. I know it’s not everybody’s conviction, but it was mine. I needed to get the Word of God into me, and I needed to get the world’s thinking out of me.
Literally the night before I was supposed to start the school, I ended up hooking up with a girl I didn’t even know. We were up until around four in the morning. My alarm was set for seven because I had to be there at nine. The alarm went off and I hit snooze three or four times before I just turned it off. And I remember thinking, “It’s stupid for me to go. What are they going to do with me? These are Christians. These are good people. They’re not going to understand what I’ve been through.” But somehow God convicted me and I got there that morning. It took a while to open up. My story was so different from the other students. But in the context of that school, I was really changed and set free. I finally found that even if I was born a certain way, in Christ, I was reborn. It put this incredible belief in me. So many people in church think they have to be good before they come in. The whole purpose of church is to transform you from the mess that you are into something remarkably different to where you came from. It changed me completely. It will change anyone who will let it.
RM: So much more has turned around for you as you changed too. What have some of those changes been?
ME: Well after all I had been through, I was unsure if I would ever be married. A friend from the discipleship school I attended introduced me to a friend of hers. We actually went to church on our second date. Five-and-a-half months later we got engaged and about five months after that we got married. We did this completely right. We made the decision we were going to practice the fear of God in our lives instead of conforming to the world’s standards. We stayed celibate before marriage and actually got pregnant about a month after we were married. We now have a beautiful daughter, Ella. [And a day before this interview, their second child, Jack, was born.]
I also have been able to overcome a huge fear of being out in front of people. I was able to act in our church’s Easter rock musical in the role of Jesus. With all the stuff I came into church with, you can’t get much more vulnerable than up on stage, in your underwear, singing a rock ballad with a spotlight on you.
RM: All eyes would certainly be on you in that scenario! You haven’t been a stranger to people watching you and following you in the last few years though. What’s it been like to be leading others?
EM: I think that actually came out of me really coming to terms with my own faith. I thought leadership was really about theory. I would give others something that I intellectually believed in, but hadn’t necessarily experienced. I hadn’t been successful that way. When I actually started to realize the fruit that was coming out of my own life – that relationships were clean, work was successful, fulfillment was real – people started to notice my life. People who had known me, or known of me, before and had their own opinions of how I’d been living, started to look at me and the change God had affected in my life. They saw it wasn’t a flash in the pan. It was actually real, long term and tangible. So, people started asking and I just kept living.
That sprouted while I was in discipleship school, and continued. Our church men’s conference called, Emerge, has been an incredible example of this. My own father wasn’t the greatest example to me so being an example to other men was honestly, intimidating. I’ve been a team captain now for the past two years. I just see that sharing my story gives other guys license to embrace and transform their lives. Because I have been so rooted in communities of recovery, this has been a natural place of influence for me. This past year, eighteen guys from a local program called Genesis Recovery came through. They were incredibly impacted and it was so awesome and humbling to lead them. Most of them ended up getting baptized.
I got down on my knees and I prayed to a God I didn’t totally believe in, and I definitely didn’t understand, and said, “God. Help me.”
RM: You’re also a gifted artist and designer. How has that helped you to share your story?
ME: One of my favorite distinctions is that an artist really sets out to solve their own problem. A designer sets out to solve someone else’s. Graphic, brand and logo design has been one of my favorite ways to help others communicate and offer solutions to the world. My personal company, Morgan Ervin Creative has been an incredible platform to do that. Being an artist has been impactful too. One show in particular I did titled, “Too Late For Goodbyes” almost came together miraculously. I had literally pulled three all-nighters and created it in a week. The inspiration came around people that were cultural icons and died young. I wanted to explore that there’s a huge difference between our public persona, how we see ourselves, and how God sees us. Each piece contains a picture of how
the world saw these people, then them as a child. Then there’s a quote that runs across each piece that reveals something more about who they are. I created all of this shortly after I became Christian and it spoke so deeply to people. One guy who had been really wary of the change in me ended up softening because of this art showing. He told me that anyone who could create art this sensitive couldn’t be the monster he had made me out to be.
RM: You have amazing impact combining your story with what you do. You now also have been given the opportunity to speak at 12-step recovery organizations all over the world. How has that been?
ME: It’s a place where I’m uniquely qualified to serve, and because of the testimony I have, getting sober at 19, and my length of sobriety [22 years], I have a platform to speak into one of the ripest mission fields in the world and testify to the miracle that God pulled off in my life when I surrendered. I get to say, “This is what I was like, this is what happened when I believed, and here’s the fruit.” Through that I’ve gotten to lead a lot of people to Christ. It’s also a constant reinforcement and reminder that I wouldn’t have anything I now have in my own self-effort. That’s the first tenet in a lot of these programs. None of this can be gained through self-improvement. The change needs to come through the power and empowerment of God. I love being able to share my testimony. Revelation 12:11 says that we overcome with what Jesus did for us, and speaking our testimony. It certainly has helped me to overcome a lot and it’s been an honor to help others unlock the power of that in their own life.
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