SUZANNE DEGNATS: Can I ask you for your full name? And if you could spell itthat would be great.
FELICIA THOMAS: Felicia Thomas, F-E-L-I-C-I-A T-H-O-M-A-S.
DEGNATS: Okay, and I'm Suzanne Degnats and this is December 4, 2012, and we'reat Georgia State University for a Religious Lives interview. Okay, first we're going to start with your childhood, which is from the earliest you can remember up until puberty, so, probably about 12 or 13. So, what is your earliest memory concerning religion and can you recall a specific moment or event?
THOMAS: Let's see, I had young parents, and so my grandparents were more thespiritual type, so they went to church religiously, they on both sides of my family were part of the AME church, which is the African Methodist Episcopal 00:01:00Church. I had no concept of what that meant then, still a little gray now as an adult, however, memories of going to church were with my grandparents on Sunday and specifically participating in holiday events such as Easter and Christmas; those were mainly the two huge holiday celebrations surrounding church. So, mainly I went to church on Sundays, and we had Sunday school, and then we went to regular, the main service that morning and then that was it. So, let's see, as far as a memory, it would have to be--oh, I have a funny story. My, I was 00:02:00about ten, so my cousin was about eight, and my maternal grandmother said that we had to participate in some sort of candle lighting ceremony at church. I had no concept of what it meant then, and still a little gray now, but I remember practicing on Saturday for this thing, and so we had to march through the isles with the candelabras and we were going to the alter to light these candles. We were supposed to turn opposite of your partner, and I, no, my cousin had another partner and she, the partner turned towards her and so her hair caught on fire (laughs). So, we put it out, she didn't lose that much hair, just a pigtail (laughs). And then the next day was Sunday and we had this candle lighting ceremony and as I look back on it, I think it surrounded some sort of baptism, 00:03:00but with the African Methodist Episcopal church, you know, it's by this large organization that they kind of filter these rules and regulations of how things should operate, and as a kid growing up you don't understand, you just do because the adults say this is what has been done for generations so you just do. So, I was taught to not necessarily question my religious traditions that I was practicing as a child. However, my paternal grandparents were more liberal thinkers and so they taught me to not necessarily not follow all the rules, but if you have some questions, ask and we can see if we can answer those questions for you. Now when I was about 12, my grandparents, my Dad's parents, who were 00:04:00attending church together, my grandfather decided that he no longer wanted to be a part of the AME church and he left to become a Jehovah's Witness. So, that was the great divide in the household, but they were still happily married, but when it came to their religious lifestyle, now I have an AME practicing grandmother, and a Jehovah's Witness grandfather and then my parents who aren't going to church but are respecting their parents wishes as far as what they chose to practice. So that's when I got introduced to the world of Jehovah's Witnesses and tried to understand that school of thought and I respected their way of practicing religion, but I didn't like the fact that they didn't celebrate holidays and birthdays and things like that. Although that was a factor for 00:05:00Jehovah's Witnesses, but because my grandfather had children, and his grandchildren were always anticipating some sort of celebration he just kind of, you know, that was something he didn't let stop him as far as his religion was concerned. That covers my adolescent years.
DEGNATS: Let's talk a little more about your childhood. Where did you grow up?
THOMAS: I grew up in a very segregated rural town in South Carolina calledSummerton, South Carolina. The town was definitely divided, black and white. White on one side and black on the other side and very little interaction with the races together. When there would be, I went to a predominately, we had segregated schools as well, almost.
DEGNATS: Really? What year was this?
THOMAS: This was in the 1980s. I mean segregated in the fact that we just, the00:06:00students never went to school together, now if we were, I went to a public school, and in the town there were, there was a primary school that was from kindergarten to second or third grade and then there was an elementary school that went from four through sixth and then the high school was seventh-grade through 12th-grade. Those were the public schools within this little town, and then you had a private, all white school that covered K through 12. So, all the white kids went to that school, and all the black kids went to the public school.
DEGNATS: All the white kids went to the private school? You don't remember anywhite children?
THOMAS: There was one, but he didn't last long. And I don't knowwhy, if it was, if they moved, cause we never saw him again. He was only there 00:07:00for like a semester. So, yeah.
DEGNATS: Interesting. And was the AME church the main church people attended intown or were there a lot of different churches?
THOMAS: There were a handful of churches there, but there were only-- the AMEchurch dominated the town, there were only maybe, I would say ten churches in the town. There were about six AME churches and about four Baptist. So, but you had more attendants at the AME churches. Now both sets of my grandparents went to two different churches. So there was a smaller church on the outskirts of town that my paternal grandparents went to and there was a larger church in town that my maternal grandmother, my grandparents went to.
DEGNATS: Now, you said that as a child it was really something that you just did00:08:00because everyone else did, did you have any kinds of thoughts or questions about god or the universe or Jesus or something bigger did that ever concern you when you were a child, before adolescence?
THOMAS: Yes, it wasn't until my grandfather became a Jehovah's Witness. Prior tothat I started questioning why are we doing this type thing, I didn't really understand why we were doing the things that we were doing, but I kept that curiosity to myself. And it wasn't until my grandfather became a Jehovah's Witness that I said ok, there are definitely questions about god and Jesus and why there are different practices, why can't, why is there another school of thought that I had never been introduced to before? And that's when I started, um -- I should back up a little bit. Because I didn't grow up, in my adolescent 00:09:00years, intermingling with whites, I assumed that my religion was a black religion, where they went to church was their white religion. And that's what I knew from like zero to 10 or 11. And it wasn't until I turned 12, when my grandfather became a Jehovah's Witness, and I said, oh, so black people practice other forms of religion, other schools of religion. Because of my environment, that was my way of thinking.
DEGNATS: Were you exposed to ideas in the AME church about original sin,baptism, forgiveness of sin, salvation, do you remember any of those ideas kind 00:10:00of hitting you?
THOMAS: No, no.
THOMAS: No, no. They would literally take one scripture and it wouldn't be ascripture, it would be a line from a scripture and you'd be in church for two to three hours that day.
DEGNATS: With that one line?
THOMAS: Yes, they can exaggerate and exacerbate one line from a scripture allday. So I had no concept of what religion or spirituality really meant.
DEGNATS: So, does that mean you kind of didn't put it in the whole context.
THOMAS: No, not at all.
DEGNATS: Okay, like what is this sentence they're talking about I don't get it.Okay. Now at home, and again, this is before you were an adolescent, did you say prayers?
THOMAS: Yes, but they were prayers that were passed down, like 'Our Father'prayer, that was one we said all the time, the blessing of the food, that was 00:11:00something we did before every meal, but not understanding where those prayers came from, but that they were just passed down. So, for me, when I look back, it was more of a cultural thing to me and less of a religious or spiritual thing. Like I kind of tied that all in to one. It was more cultural than it was religion.
DEGNATS: Was there a lot of music?
THOMAS: Oh, yeah, there was tons of music. At the beginning of service you saida prayer, you began Sunday school and then right before the actual minister would speak or preach then we had, I don't know, 30 to 45 minutes of music. So, that was our musical aspect of it.
DEGNATS: Oh, that's cool. Were you ever in the choir?
THOMAS: Not until later on.
DEGNATS: Were there any influential people in your childhood who were00:12:00influential to you in a religious way? And this could be either a real person or it could be an imaginary figure, somebody you read about in a book or something like that.
THOMAS: My grandfather. My paternal grandfather.
DEGNATS: He was the one--?
THOMAS: He was the one for so many reasons. Mainlybecause he was not a religious person in his early adult life. I believe he's 95 years old now, but from stories I remember him telling me that, I don't remember him saying that they went to church often, I think his grandmother did because his mother died in her late 20s or early 30s of TB, and so he was raised by his maternal grandparents. I don't remember hearing stories of him going to church all the time, and definitely in his adult life prior to marrying my grandmother he didn't go to church a lot because he never mentioned it, but my grandmother 00:13:00always mentioned about going to church, that was something she had done as a child and continued throughout her adult life. It wasn't until they got married that my grandfather started attending church with her and then when they retired they were living in New York and then they moved to South Carolina, that's when he started attending church with her on a regular basis.
DEGNATS: Okay. Now, how would you have identified yourself as a child, let's saynine or ten years old, if asked what religion you were, what would you have said?
THOMAS: I would have said I was a part of the AME church.
DEGNATS: Okay, and I'm assuming here, and just want to make sure, did you haveany contact with any people of other religions before your grandfather became a Jehovah's Witness when you were a child?
DEGNATS: Were your teachers black as well in your school?
DEGNATS: Okay, and did they attend your church as well?00:14:00
THOMAS: It was a really, really small, tight-knit community. So you saw the samepeople at the grocery store, at school, at church, so it was a very small community.
DEGNATS: Do you know what happened to your grandfather to make him switch overto a Jehovah's Witness?
THOMAS: He felt that, when we talked about this later on, he felt that there wasdisorganization, like I said, the AME church has a huge church or board of directors if you will, that kind of gives the rules for all the other subsequent churches, the smaller churches didn't necessarily report meetings, the accurate minutes from meetings and things like that that they had to the larger church 00:15:00and so there was a lot of disorganization, there was a lot of deceit when it came to the financials that he didn't agree with and he tried to see if he could bring some sort of structure because he came from a structured background in his work career so he tried to bring that into the AME church. And because he was an outsider in the community he hadn't been there, maybe ten years at this point after moving there with my grandmother. He was almost considered like an outsider. And he said he wanted the spirituality, but he couldn't really find a home any more in the church he was attending with my grandmother and that's when he decided to seek other venues as far a church is concerned or spiritual home.
DEGNATS: Okay. Now, were the Jehovah's Witnesses an integrated situation?00:16:00
THOMAS: Somewhat. There were a few. I never attended the hall with him. One ofmy younger cousins did. We still had discussions surrounding family dinner or over the weekend or when we would spend time with the grandparents where it started to open my eyes to the world of the Jehovah's Witness and how they practiced and what their beliefs were.
DEGNATS: Did anything else happen from your adolescence say going up into yourhigh school years, were there any other changes in you of a religious or a spiritual nature? Did you keep attending church?
THOMAS: I did. It wasn't until after 12 going on 13 that we moved, my corefamily, my mom, dad and my sister and I. We moved from South Carolina to 00:17:00Savannah and then because my grandparents continued to they were the ones who kept us in church, and because my parents were young parents and they didn't go to church, that's when we stopped going to church. So, at the beginning it was a little different for me, it was something else. It was like, okay, it's Sunday morning and I'm not going to church. This is different. So, yeah.
DEGNATS: Did you miss it?
THOMAS: Yeah, I did, then I didn't miss it anymore because I said, well, I cansleep in on Sunday. (Laughter)
DEGNATS: Did your peer group at high school go to church?
THOMAS: Some did, some didn't. And now at this point I went to an integratedschool, but the majority of the students in my school were from all over the world because they had parents who were in the military so they lived in different parts of the world. So, sometimes they weren't living in one place for 00:18:00very long that they continued a specific routine spiritual practice and so some of them attended church and then there were ones who didn't go to church on a consistent basis, but they had spiritual practices such as some of my friends' who were Catholics there were certain things they were accustomed to doing just because they were Catholics practicing Catholicism at home.
DEGNATS: Did you ever go to church with any of them?
THOMAS: I did, in high school I did. I was about sixteen when I attended churchwith one of my friends and she was Catholic. And I said, awe man this is great, we're in here an hour in and out, a couple of Hail Mary's (Laughter) and we're out of here. I was like, okay, and I think I told my mom and dad that I wanted to be Catholic.
DEGNATS: Really, and what did they say?
THOMAS: Why? And I said I'm only in church for an hour. Do you really understandwhat that means? Which is the question my dad asked. And I said, no, but you 00:19:00know, it's better than not going, I felt. And so I continued to go with my friend and I was maybe between 17 and 18 when I decided there's something missing in my life and I think it's spirituality and I think it's church. So, at that point, a friend of our family at the time invited my dad to ask his family if the wanted to attend church and my dad declined the invitation but my mom said I will go and so she went by herself and came back and said she had a great time, it was amazing, and I want the family to go together. So we said, ok, so we attended this church, which was predominantly white, and they were 00:20:00considered, I guess you would say Pentecostal, and it was definitely new for me coming from a segregated community where I primarily practiced African Methodist Episcopal and then going to Catholic church for a couple of years and then now I'm in a Pentecostal church and then having a Jehovah Witness grandfather, so, I'm going to this Pentecostal, predominantly white church and I was like, okay, this is different. And we had a female minister, and that was something new as well, because I grew up and there were male ministers only, you never saw anyone of authority in the church who were female growing up, so that was also different for me, and I thought that was way cool. I was thinking, wow, this woman is powerful, is the head of a church- I think this is amazing, I think I like it here. And that's when I joined the church. And we joined the church as a 00:21:00family, and then I joined the choir and I was very active in that church.
DEGNATS: Now did you, there was something you said when you were 16 or 17 youthought there was something missing in your life and you thought that was religion or spirituality can you kind of explain that a little bit, what exactly were you feeling? It seems very young to be feeling something like that, I don't know.
THOMAS: I think there were several things that--my grandparents would often callus on the weekend, it was something that we did, and we'd go visit them every now and then, and one of the questions that was always asked was, oh, are you guys going to church? And the answer would always be no. And then, I think, after still having conversations with my grandfather and then meeting other 00:22:00Jehovah's Witnesses that came to our community on Saturday morning to offer us the Watch Tower and to ask for salvation, there was, what is this all about everyone's asking about salvation, everyone's asking about church and that's the one thing I'm not doing and haven't done for quite some time now, maybe the one thing missing in my life is some sort of spirituality. Because I did have a friend who was a devout Christian strong in her faith even at 60 years old and I said, well, maybe that's something I need in my life, so, I felt that was something that was possibly missing.
DEGNATS: Now did you notice any differences you talked about: there was a femalepreacher, there were a lot of white people sitting in the pews, were there any differences in what they were teaching in the Pentecostal church as opposed to AME?
THOMAS: Yes, I got a great understanding of the scripture for the first time in00:23:00my life. We didn't, as spiritual as my grandparents were, and not so spiritual as my parents were, although my grandparents could articulate what the scriptures were saying, I never fully got an understanding because they never kind of answered those questions. They would read the scriptures and say it could be translated as meaning one thing, but we should follow it simply because the Bible says so. I didn't understand that the Bible was stories with a greater message and I didn't get that until I was older. So, attending and joining that church when I was about 18 or 19 was when I got a greater understanding of what the scripture really meant and at that time I was encouraged to study and not 00:24:00just simply--the person who is in spiritual authority of the church, not just take what they were saying at face value, but to study. And there were other reference manuals that I could use to understand the bible that was the first time it seems like my eyes were opening to what religion and spirituality was at that time.
DEGNATS: Can you articulate as a teenager when you first got into it what yourunderstanding was at that time, what kind of, what part of the Bible was the most important or what the most important lesson was?
THOMAS: I had a really strong mother and the dynamic of her relationship with myfather was something that I was fortunate to witness because they were young 00:25:00teenage lovers and they were married and there was no marital discord as far as infidelity or anything like that. And my mother, when there would be disagreements with my father, she was very strong in her point of view, so, with that, having that background and hearing there was a scripture that said something about the woman should be submissive to her husband, I had issues with that scripture. I thought, oh, I'm not listening to my husband, he's not my father, he's my husband and he should be my life partner and I didn't understand what that scripture actually meant in the context, so how it was explained to me was that the wife should follow her husband who's considered the head of the household as he follows Christ. That Christ will guide the husband and that he 00:26:00would make the best decision collectively for their family and then that scripture meant something totally different. I was like, okay, then I could submit to someone who has my best interest at heart, not necessarily saying, I felt that if I were to submit to a man that I would be not strong as I saw my mother, and so that was something that was very important to me. That was sort of the first lesson I felt like I learned as far as understanding scripture and understanding the bible in that context.
DEGNATS: Were there any significant religious figures when you were a teenager?
THOMAS: There were two men from Africa that my pastor at the time- they were her00:27:00spiritual leaders and we worked in conjunction with their ministries in Ghana, West Africa, doing a lot of outreach, and a lot of mission work and those were two strong spiritual leaders that had the biggest impact on me early on in my late teens and early 20s.
DEGNATS: Why did they, was it because something they said, or what they were doing?
THOMAS: I believe it was because they were from this really small village inWest Africa and they had become these large, spiritual giants so to speak. And 00:28:00they had forged a relationship with this coastal community in Savannah and forged this really strong tie; it had been at least 20 years and it seemed like there was a lifeline between our ministry and their ministry, but they were able to affect so many lives in one area in West Africa. I think that in itself was very powerful to me and something that I respected and I garnered, so, there wasn't anything specifically that they said in particular, but it was just the kind of lifestyle that they led that I held a high regard for at that time.
DEGNATS: Did you go on any mission trips?
THOMAS: No, but I did a lot of community work because at that time I was incollege, so, I was in college in Washington, DC, so, when there were, community 00:29:00work that is what we would do in the summers. We would go to some of the local projects the housing communities and we would do a Saturday from 9:00 am to 12:00 pm where we would have music and fun and games and we were also having a service for people who didn't go to church, so, we would have some sort of, we would divide groups of the children from small adolescents to teenagers and then the adults would, there would be some sort of, not really spiritual counseling, but just some spiritual one on one with different spiritual leaders in the church.
DEGNATS: So, you graduated high school in Savannah and when you graduatedhigh school, how would you have identified yourself if someone were to ask you what religion you were?
THOMAS: I did not identify myself at that time.
DEGNATS: Not at that time?
THOMAS: I was about 19, I was 17 when I graduated high school, and 18 to 19 when00:30:00I joined the church, so, it was after high school that I had already joined the other church.
DEGNATS: So at the end of high school you were just going to Catholic Churchevery once in a while?
DEGNATS: Okay, so you moved to Washington, DC and that's where you joined thePentecostal Church?
THOMAS: No, I joined the Pentecostal Church during one of the summers I was homein Savannah.
DEGNATS: And then when you went to Washington, DC, what college did you go to?
THOMAS: Howard University.
DEGNATS: Oh, okay, and was there a Pentecostal Church up there?THOMAS: No, therewas a chapel on campus that we often attended.
DEGNATS: So, that's where you wereinvolved in a lot of social service work up there?
THOMAS: Yes, primarily I kept the lifeline between my church in Savannah that Ijoined, while I was away at college. So, I would attend the chapel. And the 00:31:00spiritual leader didn't necessarily identify himself with a specific religion because there were so many people with different backgrounds. So, it was just a way on Sunday mornings for the students who wanted some sort of spirituality that didn't necessarily have a church home within the city. We attended service on Sunday mornings at the chapel that was on campus.
DEGNATS: And did you, during either in your high school or college years haveany associations with people who were not Christians in some form?
THOMAS: Yes, I had a friend in college who, her mother was a chemist; her fatherwas some sort of researcher and her mother, prior to marrying her father, she 00:32:00practiced religion somewhat, not on a consistent basis, so she didn't grow up in a spiritual household, and she did not identify herself with any sort of facet of religion, but because at that time, this is after I had already joined my mother's church, the Pentecostal Church, there were books and things like that prior to me leaving for school that I was given from members of my church as a gift to continue praying and reading scriptures and things like that. So they would often find me in my room reading the bible or scripture book or writing in my journal and she said that she was not practicing anything and that she did not understand religion and didn't necessarily believe in God. And then so, at that point I felt like I needed to explain why I practiced the way I practiced 00:33:00and why I believed the way I believed. She didn't necessarily have to agree with how I, what I believed and how I practiced, but she did have to respect it, that's all I required, so, that was my first interaction with someone who didn't necessarily believe in god, because everyone I was surrounded by even by my family and friends and those who went to church and didn't go to church they still respected some sort of higher power, god or Jesus. So that was the first time I ever come in contact with someone who didn't necessarily believe in some sort of higher power or spiritual being.
DEGNATS: Did that confuse you in any way?
THOMAS: It didn't confuse me because at that time I was very strong in what Ibelieved and how I practiced. Because like I said before, the female minister 00:34:00was such a powerful figure for me at that time, there was nothing that could shake my faith or make me question what I was doing at the time as far as my spirituality was concerned.
DEGNATS: And so you graduated from Howard?
DEGNATS: What did you get your degree in?
THOMAS: Administration of justice, it's a pre-law degree. I thought I'd like togo to law school, but--(Laughs)
DEGNATS: When you graduated from college and someone would have asked you whatyour religion was, what would you have said?
DEGNATS: Pentecostal, okay. So, you graduated from college and that was inWashington, and we're in Atlanta, so how did you, what happened after that, just in your life?
THOMAS: Let's see. In May of 2001 after leaving school, my grandmother, mymaternal grandmother died and I, that had a big impact on my life. And she still 00:35:00lived in that small rural town in South Carolina. And she, my Pentecostal minister from Savannah, she along with other members of the church who were black and white came down to this really small town to support us, you know, to give us some emotional support. That meant a lot. So, early 20s I'm still very active in my church. I moved back to Savannah after my grandmother died. I thought I was going to stay in Washington, I ended up moving back to Savannah and just starting my life there, continuing to go to my church and I think because my grandmother died and having that support from not only the minister but other spiritual leaders as well as members. I wanted to stay close to the 00:36:00church. So, in my early 20s that's when I was very active. I was in the choir, a part of the women's group, the women's ministry, as well as the children's ministry and it wasn't until, my grandmother died in May 2001, December 2001 everything changed. What changed was my minister married her first cousin and made the announcement in church and it was very odd that December, I think it was the last Sunday in December, and I didn't understand why there was some sort of tension in church that Sunday morning. And usually, one difference I remember 00:37:00seeing at the Pentecostal church vs. the AME church, at the AME church you have the alter with the minister's podium and the chairs behind it, so the minister sits in the huge chair that looks like a throne, and then maybe you have your deacons who sit on either side of that. And sometimes other spiritual leaders as well. So you may have three or five chairs. At the Pentecostal church there weren't any chairs, there was just the stage if you will and the minister's podium. And then within the congregation the minister sat with us and that changed a lot of things for me as well because it made me feel like the minister, the leader didn't sit high and didn't look low on us that sat with us and we looked high upon god so that was something very different for me. So this 00:38:00particular day when she made this announcement that she was married there was just an uproar in church and I came home that day and said how could she hurt her children because her children found out the day we did, something I thought should be very personal that you deal with at home. We were living out this drama in church in front of everybody, she had a huge flaw from me on that, that changed the way I felt about my spiritual leader at the time.
DEGNATS: Now was this because this was her first cousin?
THOMAS: Mainly because of that, yes. Now what happened after that is that therewere a lot of people who left our church and were a part of a new ministry. 00:39:00There was a young African-American minister who was living in Atlanta, he was part of Creflo Dollar ministries, which we know is a huge ministry here in Atlanta, and this person came from Creflo Dollar's church, moved to Savannah and started this ministry. It started off very, very small, I think initially nine members and after the controversy at my Pentecostal church, there were a group of people who found out about this man's ministry and started going to his church. I visited this church within about three months of this controversy so let's say around March. I enjoyed the music the ministry and it was not only, it 00:40:00felt like home, it felt like I did when I was younger and where I went to a predominantly African-American church. Now, did I ever feel any prejudice at the Pentecostal church being that I was a minority? No. I didn't, I never felt that way. But at the new ministry, it was predominantly African-American and maybe because I'm more familiar with my own people, so to speak, maybe that's why I felt a sense of home. The music was appealing and I'm not saying I didn't like the music at the Pentecostal church, cause I did, I was a part of the choir, but it was something fresh and new. So, I think I visited the church a couple of times and it was around August the following year maybe 2002 that I decided I wanted to join the new ministry. Now they considered themselves nondenominational. That was a term I had never heard before. What does this 00:41:00mean? So I started trying to figure out what that meant, and I liked what I found out, which basically meant we weren't following any particular school of thought. We weren't Baptist, we weren't Methodists, we weren't Catholic, we weren't Pentecostal we were just all different people, all different ethnicities were welcome to worship god and Jesus and who we believe, so, it wasn't until my mother said, well, I believe you've been a part of this ministry for some time now, and you should speak with the Pentecostal minister to explain to her why you are leaving. And so I had this meeting, and I did not want to bring up the fact that she was marrying her cousin, I felt like I should bow out gracefully saying that I appreciate the foundation I was given and that I felt like with 00:42:00what I had learned from her I wanted to grow in another ministry and that's when everything changed. She, the strong spiritual leader who was comforting in one of the most devastating times of my life, she turned on me like an enemy and she said to me this is all because of who I married, and it wasn't necessarily because who she married, but really how the situation was handled that I did not like. The fact the announcement was made in front of the entire congregation and her children and her grandchildren found out it was just very chaotic and the whole entire church was in an uproar. I was upset and was thinking all because of you and the way it was handled subsequently after that I did not like it anymore and I saw her in a totally different light. And it was after that 00:43:00meeting, and she turned on me and I tried to speak with her and tried to see if we could come to some agreement to disagree and she totally cut me off and ended the meeting abruptly. And I left there thinking, I'm glad I left. This is not how I'm supposed to feel, this person who was my spiritual leader for some time now, now she doesn't love me anymore though she said she did, I felt almost broken at that time. So, later on that same day, she spoke with my mother in tears and said, I spoke with Felicia and she told me she was leaving and I'm just so hurt by that and my mother taking her side I felt at the time, she said, she was very upset when she talked to me, what did you guys talk about, what happened, did you say something disrespectful, and I said, no mom, but right now 00:44:00I can't forgive her. So, it took me about a month after I joined the other church and I met with her again and I said I wanted you to know that I forgive you for our meeting and you know what she said, she said I forgive you as well, but I can't forget and she still was very harsh at that point I felt as if we were dealing with the fact that you're hurt because I left or I questioned if it was a black and white thing.
DEGNATS: Was she white?
THOMAS: Yes. And so I didn't feel comfortable with her anymore and I felt likewell, I'm just going to go, and I said this to myself, I'm going to go to my people where I feel like I'm treated with love all the time regardless if we agree or disagree. I just didn't feel that connection with her anymore because 00:45:00of the way we practiced spirituality and religion at that church it broke down all barriers of gender and race for me, but at that point it brought those concerns back up. That was a very weird time in my life.
DEGNATS: Sounds like it. A lot of upheaval. Now all that happened inSavannah?
DEGNATS: What brought you to Atlanta?
THOMAS: Well, I had been in Savannah, say, five, six, seven years at that point.Six years. And I became very active in my nondenominational church as well. Part of the choir.
DEGNATS: Did it have a name?
THOMAS: Branded Hearts Church International.
THOMAS: Branded. And the logo for the church was an open bible00:46:00with a heart sitting on top. I think the phrase goes, 'We're branding your heart with the word. The word of God.' So, I was very active in the church, part of the choir, the teenage ministry, the children's ministry, the women's ministry and anything after that. Because the relationship the minister had with Creflo Dollar ministries, we had a lot of conferences and things like that we attended while in Savannah and we'd come to Atlanta. Then, there was more controversy in the church. There were a lot of extramarital affairs. There were married leaders of the church -- men -- who were having affairs with women in the choir and other single women in church. Drama. Okay. So, then I said, maybe church is not 00:47:00where it's at, but I felt like, at that point I learned that we are spirit beings housed in a body and that we have this spiritual lifeline between God and our spirit.
DEGNATS: Let me just stop you right there, I usually don't do this. You said youlearned that, was that a new concept to you?
DEGNATS: And the idea you had a lifeline, was that a direct lifeline?
DEGNATS: So you didn't have to go through a minister?
DEGNATS: Was that a new concept? I kind of wanted to get this clarified. Itdefinitely seems like there was a shift here.
THOMAS: Yes, there was definitely a shift. If you think about where I grew up00:48:00and the environment I grew up in and we practiced religion simply because someone said so, and we said these prayers, simply because they were said. I remember them verbatim. They are something that you say all the time like your ABC's, you know the song. So, I was never taught that. I was taught that we say our prayers at night and we were saying our prayers to God. But if there's something you really want, you have to go through the minister to be counseled to say this is what's going on in my life, I need you to pray with me type of thing. I was never taught, early on, that I am a direct, I have direct contact with god or my higher being. I never understood that until my early 20s, so, with the second uproar of drama in the church I decided I'm not going to church anymore, but I'm going to continue to practice my spirituality as I see fit. I 00:49:00come to Atlanta and I said there is so much drama in the church; I'm better off not going to church at all. So, when I started working here in the Religious Studies department, I started learning about the less spiritual side of religion and more about culture and practices and rituals and things like that. Things I was never exposed to or definitely things I wasn't given the liberty to explore. Now, I'm like, I'm open to everything. Then I befriended a grad student that was here that was Muslim, and I learned about orthodox Islam. My concept of Islam 00:50:00was just the Nation of Islam. They were all prejudice and racist that they hated white people that white people were the devil that they prayed to Allah but stayed to themselves within this bubble. I did not understand, had no concept of Orthodox Islam, but it's definitely different from the Nation. So it was through my experience here and being an open book, not going to church necessarily, just opening myself to learn about spirituality, rituals and different facets of religion that my practice now is totally different than it was five years ago.
DEGNATS: Can you describe what your practice is now?00:51:00
THOMAS: Every morning I say a prayer and I'm not praying to a masculine godonly, I pray to a feminine god, I pray to a masculine god, and I pray to the universe and it's very simple and simplistic. It's not something that gets me emotional in tears, but it definitely quiets the world around me and I center myself and I just, I listen now rather than speak, to whatever spirit, the universe, the female god, the male god is telling me that I need to do for that 00:52:00day or just to have that quiet voice within myself just to get me grounded and get me going for the day. And that's what I do everyday. I do a daily prayer everyday. I do follow what I would consider nontraditional ministers, like I follow schools of thought like Deepak Chopra, Iyanla Vanzant, those are people I follow as far as having, learning spirituality from universal aspects and not from any particular religion, Pentecostal, nondenominational, Baptist or anything like that. I'm definitely following that type of spiritual practice, not really identifying myself with any particular religion. Every now and then when I feel like I want to congregate with people, there's a particular church that I often visit and it brings me back to my early to mid 20s and I had a 00:53:00structured church setting and that's comforting right now, but on a spiritual level, I feel like I'm more spiritual than I am religious right now and that's all based on the cycle of what I went through while growing up.
DEGNATS: Do youmiss having a congregation?
THOMAS: At times. And that's why I visit a church I feel like, to me, this ishow I feel now, that I feel like if I join a church it's when all the other drama is going to come. (Laughter) So, I feel like I'm better off at home practicing my spirituality, saying my daily prayers and going about my day and thanking god and the universe for bringing me back safely.
DEGNATS: That's sweet. I like that. It's like someone from one of those baseball00:54:00teams who thinks they'll lose if they wear their shirt wrong. (Laughter)
You now say some prayers and sometimes go to church, have you talked to yourparents about this? Have you talked to your mom and dad?
THOMAS: Yes, let me back up. When I moved to Atlanta, my mom, well, my dad hadissues with some of the people at church, he dropped off the roster as well, he stopped going, but my mother continued. My mother was upset that I wasn't going to church. My mother was upset initially that I left the church. And my dad told my mother, your daughter is a grown person now, and she can make her own decisions as how she wants to worship and that although you don't agree with it, you still should respect it. And it's a good thing the fact that she's going to 00:55:00church. Now because I was so involved in my churches in the past, it was frowned upon initially that when I moved to Atlanta that I was not going to church and my mother felt that the person I was dating at the time had some sort of influence on that because he was not going to church, but I had to explain to her that we had different spiritual walks and that we are two different individuals. And his background was he was going to church like me from zero to 13, when he hit 13 he was teaching his peers Sunday school and someone asked him a question he could not answer and for him, that opened doors for him, I don't understand what I'm teaching, I'm just teaching what I've been taught to teach and I explained to her his experience was not my experience that wasn't the 00:56:00reason why I wasn't going to church. Now because of that when I would go back home to visit, a lot of my mother's and father's friends were asking, oh, what church do you attend? And I would often give the excuse I haven't found any church yet. And I said to myself, I don't want to disappoint these people. And then it hit me one day, are you going to church for people? Are you practicing religion for people? But you have to understand that you are practicing this for yourself. And so, the cloak of shame I took off and I did not care what people thought anymore what they said didn't affect me like it did before because it really hurt to say I'm disappointed in someone because I'm not apart of a church 00:57:00I didn't want to feel that no. No, spirituality and church, they're two different things. And that's how I believe right now. So, yeah, in the beginning my dad didn't give me such a hard time about it, but my mom did because I was so involved and now I'm not anymore.
DEGNATS: Is she still involved?
THOMAS: Yeah, she's still a part of the church.
DEGNATS: Does she still give you a hard time about it?
THOMAS: No, she respects where I'm at right now.
DEGNATS: Have you had any kinds of important, powerful, metaphysical,meaningful, spiritual, religious experiences that we haven't touched upon?
THOMAS: Let's see. My great-grandmother died in 2002, my great-grandmother, and00:58:00I remember not believing in ghosts and all that other stuff. I remember lying in my bed shortly after she died, maybe two weeks or so, and remember opening my eyes and I felt as though I could see her. And I remember someone in church, or I heard this from a spiritual person say, if a spirit being comes to you and you're afraid, that's not a good spirit. Or that god would not place something before you that would give you fear because god is love, and I remember seeing this thing that looked like my great-grandmother and I closed my eyes and said 00:59:00god I know this is not you because I'm scared, and I should not fear my loved one. I opened my eyes and that thing was gone and that was something that affected me a while after that because I didn't understand why this happened and then that's when I felt like I couldn't get those questions from church necessarily because what would people think. Back then I really thought about a lot of external things as far as what was the reflection I was giving back, the way I carried myself, the way I practiced, the way I spoke, the way I prayed things like that I was always concerned about what other people were thinking. That was one instance. There was another instance within the Pentecostal church 01:00:00where they believe in the power of speaking in tongues. I was in my early 20s and I remember they had an alter call, and they said if you would like the power to speak in tongues, utter the other language to god that only he understands, come to the alter and get this power, so, me, being very involved at the time, I thought to myself, I want that and I went and I said I don't know what to do, and I remember this spiritual leader at the time spoke into my ear and said just open your mouth, it will come, it will come, so I said okay, so she placed her hand on my belly and then she said open your mouth and for a moment there was nothing, and then there was this blah, blah, blah that came out and I thought, I 01:01:00don't understand what I'm saying, then I practiced that for a very long time.
DEGNATS: Like, when you would go home you would practice?
THOMAS: I would practice at home, at church, when I felt the spirit move me, butthen now I don't do that anymore because I don't understand what it means, and I feel like that if I'm praying for something, and I'm praying to god, and I don't understand the meaning but he's supposed to understand, I can't do it anymore. (Laughter) So I don't, but what was funny is that my paternal grandmother, who they don't do that in her church, they are very traditional and kind of everything is done methodically, she says you speak in tongues now? And I said, yes grandmother, I do, so, she said, what are you saying? And I said, that's for me and god. Then later on when she realized that I wasn't attending church anymore and she said well what happened to speaking in tongues, did you just 01:02:00forget the language? And I said I guess I did because I don't do it anymore. (Laughter) So, those were two things that happened that I'll never forget.
DEGNATS: Now, you said when the spirit overcomes you, moves you, is that anemotional experience to you?
DEGNATS: Can you describe it?
THOMAS: I'll describe it and then I'll tell you what's changed about it. Ijoined the nondenominational church when I really started to practice that it was it could be the music, mainly it was surrounding music when that would happen. Usually there would be music playing, usually a very slow, spiritual 01:03:00song, not one of the upbeat ones, it would be one of those songs that last forever, but the minister would start speaking about various things that maybe someone was going through, whether it be someone lost a job, loved one not being around or something that you felt you'd been praying for, it could be anything, healing from a disease, something like that and it literally feels as if you have knots in your stomach, you're so upset that you have knots in your stomach that you're overcome with emotion and they all come rushing from like the bottom of your belly up and then you're crying profusely, you're so overcome with emotion and it's not necessarily a sorrowful emotion, it feels as if that you 01:04:00feel as if you the room fills with what feels like this spiritual wave of love of god that you are yearning for because you feel like only he knows your innermost deep secrets, so, it feels like you have this wave, pit in your stomach, and all this stuff is coming up from the pit of your stomach up through your chest out and then you cry profusely, and when you open your mouth and then this muttering or battering comes out and then the room around you feels like this wave, huge arms and you want them to hug you so bad. Now, like I said, the room is filled with music and sometimes you have your minister kind of guiding 01:05:00this atmosphere, if you will, and then after this kind of wave dies down, and there's like this calm that's coming over, you are tired, you're physically tired, physically drained because of all this emotion that's come out of you. You almost have to sit still for a moment to collect yourself and regroup. You do feel this wave of change like you're unstoppable. Whatever that thing is that you want to happen that's good for you, you want that to happen, you believe it's going to happen at that time, and it's almost like when the residue wears off a day or two after that, sometimes if you don't kind of continue to believe 01:06:00as if you were in that moment and if you're met with any adversity you just forget you were in that moment and your faith is kind of questioned or shaken or something like that and you don't see the change come you're almost waiting for that wave of emotion to happen again to believe again. Now, what's changed for me is that my dad said that's great, that's great that you had those spiritual, you know, wave of emotion, and you feel really good about this particular thing, and you feel like you're gonna change this about yourself, that something you were doing that was not favorable to god, or to anyone that didn't honor yourself, but are you really changed after this wave of emotion? After this experience, are you really changed? And it wasn't until the latter part of my tenure at the nondenominational church that that question would always come up 01:07:00in the back of my mind after that experience my dad's question of are you really changed. And if I felt like I was going back to something that really didn't honor myself, and I was waiting for the next wave of emotion to ask for forgiveness, to be forgiven by god, and to get a fresh start, I felt like I was in this really bad routine, and I said I couldn't do that anymore, just couldn't do that anymore.
DEGNATS: Wow. So does anything like that happen now?
DEGNATS: Did anything happen to you when you were a child in church?
THOMAS: No,definitely not. Absolutely not. There were times within the AME church where there were key people you could set your watch by them at this time where they 01:08:00are going to either shout, dance, run around the church, have this really long prayer, they were going to say this in that particular prayer, you could set your clock and your calendar by these people, the same people, every Sunday. I didn't understand, some people just have these waves of emotion, I just thought god picks one from each church and that's what happens. (Laughter) That's what happens, those are the ones that get to shout every Sunday in this particular church, they are the representatives for us. So, that's what I believed.
DEGNATS: So what do you, that's really an amazing story, and you articulatedthat very, very well; it's interesting to me that it was your father who kind of asked you about that and made you think about it. What do you think about it now; do you think that these people are being touched by god? Do you have an explanation for it? 01:09:00
THOMAS: Understanding that I'm a spiritual being and that you know, god and theuniverse, that's something spiritual, that's not physical, something we can actually touch, I do believe people have these experiences, but I also think it's just a wave of emotion, simply just a wave of emotion, they're just overcome by their own spiritual guilt, if you will, or this is just my personal belief that although they have these waves of emotion I feel like if you're just going back to your sins and old ways, not saying that you can't be forgiven, but why go through the task, what do I want to say, it's just physically draining to go through all that, only to relive it every time because you feel guilty about something you have done or haven't done, and I felt like I couldn't do that 01:10:00anymore, and like I said, I believe that people had those experiences, and there are some that are changed, and they had that spiritual awakening, that experience, and it changes some for life. And then there are others where it becomes routine. So, to me, it's almost like 50/50. Some are changed, some are not. I respect them for what they do because I understand because I've been there before. I choose not to do it anymore.
DEGNATS: Where you're at right now, what are the top three or four things,tenets is probably a bad word, about your personal spirituality? Things that you believe?
THOMAS: I don't believe in a masculine god necessarily. I believe that my01:11:00spiritual religious experience from childhood to my early 20s taught me that god was masculine only, and that leaders of the church are masculine only and they should be regarded more than women. So, I do pray to a female and male god. I also believe in universal law, I didn't believe that before. I do believe more so than I ever did before about the laws of attraction. And that putting things, you want to attract those things, there are certain things I must practice in daily life because every small thing I don't realize affects the universe, it does, and that I'm attracting back to me, so I try to be conscious always of how 01:12:00I speak and how I behave to other people because I want the universe to attract those good things back to me. I understand now that more so than anything that I don't need an outside source to communicate with the universe and god and that I guess the third thing would be that I don't necessarily have to wait for a spiritual wave of emotion to happen that I can be a doer and that those things, I can make things happen for me rather than wait for them to happen, I can make it happen by doing something physically for myself.
DEGNATS: Well, this is great,this is really good. We're gonna segue and talk a little bit about Georgia 01:13:00State. Okay. You came here to Georgia State and started working in?
DEGNATS: Okay, so that's five years. What is your strongest memory of religionor spirituality related to Georgia State?
THOMAS: I think I said it early when I met the Muslim graduate student andlearned more about orthodox Islam than I ever learned in my life and taking that friendship and I chose to understand that for this particular student in particular, their spirituality was cultural for them to the point that they said that certain middle eastern Muslims don't treat her necessarily well because 01:14:00she's a black Muslim and I didn't realize that there's some sort of prejudice within that particular religion. I did not realize that at all, and then I started noticing that. So, I didn't realize it was more of a, looking at Islam from that aspect, she made it more cultural, so I attended a couple of functions and had a great respect for orthodox Islam and what that means; I did not understand what that meant before. It was very taboo in my community and how I grew up, something you just steered away from, I understand it better now and it's something I hold a high respect for now, so, I don't believe I would have gotten that, those doors would not have been open had I not been working here at 01:15:00Georgia State.
DEGNATS: Interesting. How do you see yourself in comparison at GSU in terms ofreligion? What similarities and differences?
THOMAS: I believe there are, I've met a couple of people that definitely thinkthe way I thought when I was attending the nondenominational church. So, I know their way of thinking and understand their practices. But it is nice and refreshing to me to meet people who believe in a female deity as well as universal law, so, I'm befriending people who have that school of thought as well. So, I have very little interaction with people, especially at Georgia State, who make it known that they attend church on a regular basis, but I like the fact that I'm surrounded by people with open minds and other schools of 01:16:00thought and understand religion and spirituality and rituals and things like that. I'm glad that I have that interaction.
DEGNATS: This is not about Georgia State, but I'm just really curious becauseyou talked about the female deity, is this a particular, do you actually, when you're saying your prayers, is there a female somebody, does she have an actual face?
DEGNATS: I was just curious about that. Just more of a feminine energy?
THOMAS: Yes. Cause like I said before, god was always given to me as a masculinebeing and it wasn't until I decided to get away from church and understand 01:17:00spirituality vs. not necessarily religion, but that's when I realized, okay, there were schools of thought, especially in African culture, that they believed in a female god and not necessarily a masculine god. It wasn't until, my research says it wasn't until Christianity started infiltrating certain pockets of Africa that the masculine form of god was introduced to them.
DEGNATS: If someone were to ask you to describe the religious environment atGeorgia State, what would you say?
THOMAS: As far as I know, there are a lot of Christians since we are in the01:18:00Bible belt, and so I would say it's heavily Christian more than anything. There's definitely a large Islamic community here, and those are the two I can pick out, just from my experience of what I've seen. I've come in contact with what seems to me like Christians as well as -- (interruption) sorry!
DEGNATS: Oh, no problem. Have you had any association with Buddhists are anyEastern religions maybe other than Islam?
THOMAS: No, no. I mean, I know they're here on Georgia State's campus, but I'vehad very few interactions with them. Maybe one, but that's it. One Hindu. 01:19:00
DEGNATS: Now, when you applied for the job here was it specifically for thereligion department?
THOMAS: No. I actually started working in the psychology department and then Iinterviewed for the religious studies department and I got the call back from psychology before I started working here and I like this environment better.
DEGNATS: Do you?
THOMAS: I do. (Laughter)
DEGNATS: And so, just being here at Georgia State, so you feel it's definitelykind of changed some of your attitudes toward spirituality and religion?
THOMAS: Oh definitely. I think specifically being in this department has changeda lot. It's opened my eyes to so much, it's exposed me to things that within my 01:20:00community I probably would not have necessarily explored. Just being in this department has done that.
DEGNATS: And you feel okay about exploring everything?
THOMAS: Absolutely. Absolutely. Now, before in growing up, no. Before I wastaught not to this is what we believe, this is what we practice, everything outside of that is outside of god, not everything, but most things, which is totally ignorant. And I'm comfortable in my own skin, so I understand and respect other schools of thought.
DEGNATS: You don't have children do you?
DEGNATS: If you were to have children, do ever think about how you would raise01:21:00them? I just thought about that because you were talking about your childhood.
THOMAS: Most definitely. Do I have an answer to that? No. I think that will comewhen they arrive, but to me now, that's something because I'm getting older that's something that I should think about, what do I want my family legacy to be as far as spirituality is concerned. That's something that I've thought about, but I'm still exploring. I haven't come up with a concrete answer yet.
DEGNATS: Are there any questions I left out that would be important to myunderstanding of your spirituality? Anything else you would like to say?
THOMAS:No, none that I can think of. I think we covered everything. No.
DEGNATS: Yeah, this is really good. Well, to end, I just have some finaldemographic information. What is your occupation?
THOMAS: Administrative Coordinator here at Georgia State in the Religion andPhilosophy department.
DEGNATS: Where and when were you born?01:22:00
THOMAS: September 22, 1979, in Manning, South Carolina.
DEGNATS: And how do you describe your ethnicity?
THOMAS: As my dad would say, human, but I had to check other, it would be African-American.
DEGNATS: And what is your educational background?
THOMAS: High School and I graduated from Howard University in May 2001.
DEGNATS: What is your marital/partner status?
THOMAS: Single. Non-married.
DEGNATS: And you do not have any children?
THOMAS: No children.
DEGNATS: And your current GSU affiliation?
THOMAS: Staff. (Laughter)
DEGNATS: And what is your current religious affiliation?
THOMAS: I can't label it.
DEGNATS: Well thank you, this was really, really good. I really enjoyed it.