This profile was published as part of Gandhi’s Be Magazine’s #ProfilesofChangemakers series, uplifting the stories, lives, and work of Changemakers who are being the change they wish to see in the world.
Nina Thompson is an author and church administrator who is passionate about reaching the young people of Ferguson, Missouri and inspiring others around the world.
Tell us about your journey. What inspired you to work with young people, to write, to inspire others to live their purpose? What have you learned from the experience? Any unexpected challenges or surprises along the way?
I have always been very sensitive to the needs of others and it seems all of my siblings have the same tendency. As children, we were always taught that we were our brothers/sisters keeper and we all had compassion for people. We are always the ones helping strangers, providing spiritual support, spending our money that we didn’t have to help someone do something or acquiring something – it was our familial gift I guess. A childhood friend recently reminded me that even then, I was always encouraging people, trying to uplift them and making them feel special. I also always had an attraction to a higher power, to God, and I still have grade school and high school journals that are full of letters written to God. The fact that I am now in ministry practically full-time, even when I teach English to college students seems a natural progression.
Writing my first book took a while. Now I have so many titles that I have to be still and pray so that my brain will settle down. I was being prepared to write this first book for a long time – my professional background is journalism and public relations, and I started NICHE Public Relations and Communications in 2004. Developing my spiritual relationship with God refined those skills and gave me direction and guidance. That’s probably why my first book, Church Hurt Ain’t No Joke, centered on healing our relationship to the church, and strengthening our relationships with God. The second book, “Why Yes to God,” was done so that the young adults in my group could share their wordly experiences with church, pain, difficult situations, and hopefully in sharing, release some of the pain and move forward toward greater purpose.
All of the work that I am lead to do, focuses on guiding people through spiritual healing, helping them discover some of their spiritual gifts and talents, and guiding them toward practicing using those gifts and talents in a safe place with me. All of the books will do the same thing; offer paths to spiritual healing and provide practical guidance and support for taping into the great power of God, the Holy Spirit, that lies within us to gain strength, focus and purpose.
I chose to be baptized at the age of 35 and it made a tremendous impact on my life. I immediately started to pursue God in the way that I had as a young person. This time, however, I knew what I needed and I knew how to ask God for it, and follow Him to it. What I needed and so dearly desired was to understand my purpose. It is my belief that that has made my life more peaceful, more satisfying and more complete.
When we know and understand our uniqueness, our spiritual gifts and abilities that God has given to us, and fashioned just for us, our entire perspective on who we are can change; if we allow it to. When we understand that each of us has our own lane, we can stay out of other people’s lane and focus on getting our assignment perfected. I think our being out of alignment with our gifts – when we have not be shown what they are and taught to use them – turmoil, self-destructive behavior and voids in our lives fill the gaps. Our churches, volunteer agencies and other places of worship would be full to the brim if we would concentrate on showing people the beautiful gifts and abilities that they have in them, and then teaching them how to use those gifts and abilities in service to others.
My work with young adults is something that makes sense to me, though it happened quite by chance over time. High school seniors and young adults, at some point, just began to hang out with me and call me “G-momma, or Mama Nina; and I just let them. When I started working in ministry, I remember they us to call me for prayer, and they would have 5, 6, 7 friends waiting for me to pray for them. When they would later tell me how it helped them or made them feel, I knew that was one of the things that God has fashioned me to do in life.
My young adult years were some of the spiritually painful, unfulfilling and troubling for me. I no longer had the strong attraction to God because no one was around to show me how to take that relationship to the next level, so I eventually just gave up. There was nothing, however, to replace that void. My relationships with young men, while not violent, were emotionally and physically destructive and usually left me feeling of little value. I had this habit of pretending not to care, about anyone or anything, and when those feelings were reciprocated, it left me broken and alone. I spent most of the time with my head in a book. Taking all of that into consideration, it would stand to reason that my strongest ministry would focus on helping young adults discover that beauty that lies within them, so that they can love themselves and love others more fully. I never wanted anyone to feel as lost and out of place as I did while growing into an adult. So much time and so many years were spent feeling like I didn’t matter, like I was invisible, like I was unattractive and undesirable; I never want to see anyone else, male or female, go through that at one of the most critical periods of life – the time when we are making important life decisions that could affect us forever.
The biggest thing that I have learned is that people are at their best when they know their worth, and they know what they can accomplish – with our without education, money, the right contacts, criminal pursuits. In addition, when they begin to realize that they truly are connected to a spiritual power and that they can really track that power in their lives daily, it blows their minds and gives them a whole new outlook on life.
When someone first told me that I would prophecy to the nations, I wasn’t buying it. I also didn’t think I’d be preaching or ministering to young adults. And being able to hear from God was a farce as far as I was concerned. But, I had to try and after putting a few principles in place that some wonderful leaders taught me, not simply stressing myself out trying to follow the 10 Commandments, I know that it’s real. I also know many people that I have prayed for, prayed with and led to use their gifts who now know it’s real. Why take a chance, investigate it.
Purpose is a balm for everything.
You shared with us at Thanksgiving that you had been working with the young people in Ferguson to help them learn more about their spiritual gifts and their value in God’s eyes, and that armed with this knowledge they could be empowered to turn from conflict and violence and embrace a new way of life.. Tell us more about this and some of the stories of transformation you have seen as a result…
Our young adult group, Yes to God, was actually birthed well before Ferguson. The concept that I had, which formed the basis of my project for my Doctor of Ministry degree, was that if you brought young people to the table and offered to show them their spiritual gifts and talents – what God had put in them to make the world a better place – they would come to the table and eventually decide to join church and give their lives to God. We started with about 15 young adults in 2012. Most of these young people were not currently attending any church or conducting any ritual of prayer or meditation, or reading the Bible. A few were. Many came from the urban core while about four of them lived in Ferguson. I was teaching college English at the time and many of these in-class relationships resulted in students who wanted to learn more about their gifting. Others were friends of friends and many of the young women, brought along the men that they were dating as well. We worked on discovering their gifts, learning how to pray and mediate, learning how to teach biblical and leadership principles, and peer-to-peer mentoring.
While our numbers are not as great as when we started, those who have consistently attended, about 10, have established both mime and dance ministries, are operating in their gifts, have been speakers at our annual Yes to God Healing service, have learned to minister to youth and peers, and are shedding all of the hurt and pain of their past lives. The looks in the eyes of parents, siblings, fathers, cousins, aunts and uncles, tells me that these young people have become more mature, more focused and more discipline. They are blossoming into these wonderful adults who care about people, care about making a positive contribution to the world, and most importantly, care about understanding the God who created them.
Several of the young men have shared with me that they would be in jail or selling drugs if they were not involved with the ministry. Two of our members traveled to Washington, D.C. to visit the White House and speak to students at Howard University. To see the tears in their eyes as they expressed the surprise that any of those people in Washington D. C. or at Howard University would actually ever want to hear what they had to say was amazing. Last summer, we all traveled to Millington Tennessee and ministered to about 30 youth. I started the session off and sat down. How beautiful it was to watch them pray with these young people, offer sisterly and brotherly advice on life issues and challenges, and take ministry seriously. They have also begun to volunteer to help with church events. They are excited about life, about learning and most importantly about discovering who they are and how they fit into this world. Several have brought friends and family members to church to hear them speak, mime or dance and each team I have preached a sermon, they have turned out to support me. Collectively, group members have been literally devouring the Bible and anything related to God, have started ministering to their peers, family members and friends, and have become members of Wellspring Church – a decision that they made on their own. We are beginning work on our second book, hope to host a healing and open forum event for St. Louis area high schoolers and young adults, and to launch a discussion series online in the very near future.
How has your Ferguson experience and working with the youth there changed your life, your outlook, your interactions with others? And what do you hope others can learn from your experience?
About half of our participants are from Ferguson; two young women and two young men. During the time when activities were at their height, many of them struggled with whether they should be out on the picket lines. We discussed this as a group, and decided that they should respond through prayer, and fasting, and by hosting conversations with their peers. There was also the concern that if they did engage in the picketing, their anger would surface and they could possibly end up in a situation that could ruin their lives forever. The opposite side to that coin was that they did not want to sit out what was a watershed event for their generation. Many of them did visit and participate; they simply were mature enough to leave the areas before they became dangerous our it got too late at night. As future ministers, I suggested that everyone had a role, and that theirs was to speak out, pray for and provide ministry to their peers who were angry and hurting. Many of them participated in local and national interviews, sharing their deepest feelings of pain and hurt and their experiences with being singled out as young African American men and women. We held many, many discussion groups among ourselves to grapple with these issues and to come up with positive, effective ways to turn these events into something positive and worthwhile. In addition, they all showed up for several of the many, many events hosted at Wellspring Church to volunteer and to speak out.
Tell us a little more about your book and what inspired it…
The first book, “Church Hurt Ain’t No Joke,” came from the pain that I felt being affiliated with a church and church people. Throughout my life, I had attended church off and one. I had always felt judged, put down because I didn’t know scripture as well as others, disliked because I often served as a true friend to the pastor and other leaders, and preyed upon to give money and support anything and everything. I was sick and tired of church folks, and sick and tired of church and sick and tired of a God that seemed only to want perfection from me; or so I had been taught.. I found myself drifting away from church attendance yet again, and after I left the ministry that started me on the path to understanding my spiritual gifts and talents, the book was birthed. I believe that book came about to help me, but also was a reflection of those we would be ministering to in the Ferguson community. Many of our parishioners had either stopped attending church, never belonged to a church or had been very wounded by church. So that book prepared me for ministry and relationships with both the adults and the young adults. The first thing that the pastor asked me to do was to teach a class on Sunday mornings. Of course, it was about Discipleship and getting in position to understand what God wanted you to do and how to do it.
In the past several years, I have actually started doing workshops on the Church Hurt book, after publishing the study guide and it is part of an overall healing ministry that God has led me to establish. I am also in the process of training the young adults to oversee workshops on “Why Yes to God” booklet. So many of us are walking around wounded and damaged. That cuts us off from our blessings, stunts the growth of our relationships and can cause us to destroy things that are fruitful in our lives, before they even have the chance to blossom and bless us and others.
It’s been almost a year since the Ferguson events… Reflecting on then and now, how have things changed, where do you feel the community is today and looking on how they come together? What work needs to be done?
Unfortunately, I’m not sure that a lot has changed. Many, many people have focused on using the events of Ferguson as a platform to launch their own initiatives, acquire grant money and establish programs that are supposed to make things magically be better. Even those provided funds through the state and through funding entities are not community people. Few, if any of them live in Ferguson. We have had countless individuals ask me if Wellspring’s young adults would participate in their job training, education or other programs. If the need is so great and this is the solution, why are there so few young people interested in taking these routes? Why hasn’t anyone yet asked me if, as a resident of Ferguson and a business owner, I would like to participate in the rebuilding? Why hasn’t anyone offered some of the young people of Ferguson jobs that make a portion of the 6 and 7 figures that those charged with finding a solution are making – with state funds?
What I see us doing is the same things that have not worked in the past – employment, training, educational assistance. We call in the experts who have no better solutions to offer than anyone else. The issues are on the radar for about a year or so, then they die down until something else like Ferguson explodes.
While economics do play a factor in making the “American Dream” more accessible to people, history has already proven that no amount of money or education can stop a bullet or beating by those in authority if all they see is your skin color. In addition, it is difficult to move forward from painful situations that have basically destroyed your trust in a fair and just society unless concrete improvements are made, coupled with reconciliation.
While I may not have all of the answers, I do believe that it is futile to keep trying the same things over and over. Why not try to allow some people in the community who are most affected – not merely the most well-known or well-connected – to outline possible remedies that don’t merely speak to them, but are partially led by them? Why do we keep choosing “so-called experts” to develop programs while people who know the problems intimately could possibly offer better solutions, since they are closest to the problem? Why has there not been healing programs put in place that go beyond merely painting buildings? I will not be healed and made whole simply because you provide me with a minimum wage job, or training that leads to a minimum wage job. People need to be healed and reaffirmed, treated as equal partners in the activities within their communities and provided a means to not only make their voices heard, but have some of their suggestions and concerns acted upon.
We should also be searching for signs that indicate progress is being made on curtailing the out-of-control use of force within our society and communities that leaves the lives of young people so devalued, the unchecked railroading of young men and women, mostly African American and Hispanic, continuously charged with crimes that they did not commit, and the assumption that because a system is identified to be prejudicial and proprietary, there is something wrong with those who feel that way. For example, I don’t understand the I Love Ferguson shirts. I bought one but I can’t yet bring myself to wear it. I almost made one that said, “I love Ferguson, too but Ferguson doesn’t seem to love me.” I have used Yes to God and Rose of Sharon Ministries to try to love people back to wholeness, one person at a time. Maybe that is not making a large impact; it definitely isn’t making the public noise that all of the these other solutions are. But, possibly we are making more real progress. That’s where the real change will occur; people living in Ferguson being provided with the wherewithal to develop programs and initiatives that break down barriers to understanding and getting to know each other on a personal level, and that HEAL the community, not ignore the pain.
With all of that said, though, I am still hopeful that something good will come out of this that will change at least how some of us relate to and interact with each other.
What’s the next part of the journey for you?
Not sure. I just graduated from seminary in May, earning a Doctor of Ministry degree, I’ve established a healing ministry called “Rose of Sharon Ministry, Inc. and I am working on a new book. I am also focused on growing and increasing the territory for the Yes to God ministry; I see these young people ministering on a national scale. I have run into so many young people in my work as a college English instructor and I plan to reconnect with them to strengthen the ministry. We also have reached out to youth and young adult groups in Tennessee and hope to establish ministry partners throughout the country. I am really focused on the young adult ministry and the healing ministry at this time. We are working with someone to see if a trip to African to minister can be in our future within the next year.
I guess my primary focus at this time is expanding both Yes to God young adult ministry, and establishing more fully Rose of Sharon healing ministry. There also are a couple of books on the horizon, specifically one that outlines my curriculum for dong effective, gift-based young adult ministry.
Those are some of the things that God has given me; only He knows how we will get there. One step at a time and one day at a time.
Do you have anything else to share with us?
Just that the one thing I leave people with in every contact and encounter that they have with me is that they lose so much of the adventure and joy of being on this planet if they don’t learn how to discover what they were created to do. The greatest gift that God gave me was an ability to identify people’s spiritual gift, and to help them to learn to walk in those gifts. I’m sure I am not the only one with that ability. Each time I am able to help guide someone through the process of becoming whole and working in their gifts for the first time, they are so full of joy.
There is nothing like operating from your sweet spot; it cures depression, disappointment, loneliness and a host of other illnesses. More importantly, it helps you understand who you are and your purpose, and allows you to give love and support to others freely and unconditionally.