The Scars That Heal
December 28, 2012
For a long time, I hid my scars, because it took me a long time to figure out that God wanted me to use them."
—Sharon Thompson, Divinity student
Story by Cherry Crayton
Masceline Petitlubin was broken. It was about four years ago, and she was a student at Fayetteville State University. Her sister had just died. Her father was ill. And she didn’t have enough money to buy groceries.
Her roommate, Shalonda Crumity, wasn’t fairing much better. She had an attitude problem. She was angry, bitter, bad at relationships. And she was haunted by a secret: she had been molested when she was a child.
Both hurting, they set out to find a church. They visited dozens.
“None the right fit,” Petitlubin told a classmate at Fayetteville State. “You know,” the classmate said, “Sharon Thompson just moved to Fayetteville. She has a ministry. Call her, and see how it goes.”
The next Sunday, a member of Thompson’s Integrity Ministries Church picked Petitlubin up and drove her to a funeral home, where the church was holding service.
Afterward, Thompson took Petitlubin grocery shopping, prayed with her, counseled her and invited her into her home. Thompson told her: “You don’t have to be a product of where you come from. You are somebody.”
“That was the first time,” Petitlubin says, “I saw a pastor after God’s own heart.”
Within a few weeks, Crumity started fellowshipping with members of Integrity Ministries, too. One night, worn down, she wrote an email to Thompson, explaining her situation and pouring out her feelings of loneliness. Thompson responded: “I’ve been there, too. Let’s talk.”
Today, both Petitlubin and Crumity work full time at Fayetteville State. They’re also best friends, looking at graduate schools and members of and volunteers with Integrity Ministries, which has a variety of outreach arms, including mentoring programs, services to the homeless and pastoral counseling for men and women who have been abused.
“Since I’ve been [at Integrity], the more I see myself growing in the Lord,” Petitlubin says.
Crumity adds, “It wasn’t until I came [to Integrity] that things began to change. I not only began to deal with issues from my childhood, I overcame them.”
Their path to a healthier place, they say, began the first time Thompson saw them, because she saw their brokenness. And Thompson saw that, she says, because she went through her own brokenness.
“I had scars I had to heal from. It was painful, but it was something I had to go through to get me here,” says Thompson, a Master of Divinity student at Campbell University who founded Integrity Ministries in 2005.
“I am an overcomer.”
I jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire
If you grow up with nobody telling you that you can be somebody, you’ll never believe you can be more than your circumstances, Thompson says.
She grew up in a volatile home in Lumberton, where she watched her father regularly beat her mother. Every so often, her mother would move out, but she always came back. Thompson wanted to get out as soon as she could. One way out, she thought, was to find a man.
At 16, she got pregnant and had a son, Brandon, with an older man who had already been through a marriage and a divorce. About a year later, she moved in with him and left her parents to raise Brandon.
She got a job at a Sara Lee Hosiery plant in town. She gave nearly every cent of every paycheck to her older man. He controlled her, bullied her, belittled her. Two years into her job, she met Glenn at the plant. A Vietnam veteran, he seemed full of potential, she says. He worked hard and helped her pay her bills and get her car. They moved in together, sharing a white trailer home.
That’s when her mother’s life became her life. “I jumped out of the frying pan into the fire,” Thompson says.
The beatings started. Glenn busted her lip, broke her nose, blackened her eyes. She went to her mother for advice.
“Just pray,” her mother told her. So Thompson, who grew up going to church, prayed.
The beatings continued. She left him. But when she found out she was pregnant with her second child — wanting to raise the child but not on her own — she moved back in. “Learned behavior,” she says.
During her pregnancy, Glenn was wonderful. A few months after her daughter, Trina, was born in January 1993, the beatings started again.
“I’m going to watch them throw dirt on your face,” Glenn would tell Thompson, referring to groundkeepers burying her.
After a particularly bad beating and not wanting to raise her daughter in such an environment, she made a decision: In January 1994, when her tax refund would come and give her a little extra money, she would leave Glenn. For good.
While Thompson was biding her time, when she was 25, on Nov. 18, 1993, Glenn stormed into the trailer’s bathroom, drunk. She was in there, getting ready for bed. He was angry. Over what? She didn’t know.
They argued. He left and returned with a can of flammable liquid. He dowsed her in fluid, struck the lighter and lit her clothes up. He left again.
She was on fire — burning alive. “Lay down and die,” she told herself.
She began to move about, panicky. She passed the bedroom where her daughter, Trina, was sleeping in a crib. “No, live,” Thompson thought.
She rushed out of the back of the trailer as the fire alarms went off. Glenn came around from the front and knocked her to the ground, extinguishing the flames. Large portions of her skin peeled off. A neighbor called the police. An ambulance arrived. When she got to the hospital, a woman poured a substance on her. Thompson felt like she was burning again. Thompson cried out, “Please don’t pour that on me.”
The woman stopped. Hospital staff took off her clothes. Her family was there. Police officers were there. “What happened?” they asked. “I did it,” she said. “You did it?” they said. “Or he did it?”
“No, it was an accident,” she said. “That was no accident,” her father said.
“If I’ve done anything to you, please forgive me,” Thompson told her family. She thought she was dying.
The next thing she remembers was waking up at the N.C. Jaycee Burn Center in Chapel Hill. She stayed there for two months to recover from second- and third-degree burns that covered more than half of her body: her arms, back, torso, chest, neck. Doctors took skin graphs from her legs. She had to learn to walk again.
One day, during the recovery process, her doctor told her, “You’re going somewhere in life.”
No one had said anything to her like that before. It took her a while to believe it.
That's who I was always meant to be
Healing is a choice; it is a process; and it is often a long journey, Thompson says.
Her journey began as a victim. For several years after the fire, that’s how Thompson defined herself and all she could see were her scars, but she didn’t want anybody else to see them.
Whenever she went out, no matter the heat, she covered herself, with long sleeves, jackets, high neck lines and other clothing.
About a year after the fire, she attended a reunion for burn survivors that the N.C. Jaycee Burn Center hosts each year. She spotted a woman, Charlene, “parading around” without a jacket or long sleeves; all Thompson saw were her scars.
“Can you believe this woman? How can this woman walk around showing her skin?” she thought. She distanced herself from the burn world for the next four or five years.
During that period, she went around constantly crying. She was bitter and angry. She often drove by the trailer where she was burned and where Glenn still lived (she never pressed charges), and wondered: “How can I kill him?” She had a bad attitude, which nearly cost her her job.
“I wasn’t going to let anybody ever hurt me again,” she says. That led to poor decisions and bad relationships — ones that she knew wouldn’t last, such as one with a married man.
As she worked her line at the plant, though, she often thought, “God wants more for me and my daughter than this."
She started taking courses at Robeson Community College on a part-time basis while working the third shift at the plant. Then the plant laid her off. She got enough of a severance to enroll full time at the college and earn an associate’s degree in office technology systems in one year. She began to see herself as a little more than a victim. She became a survivor — she had made it through the worst, the fire no longer consumed her thoughts, and she could get on with living in the now, focusing on taking care of her daughter and her self.
Then, a childhood memory came to her. She was 12 years old and standing in a cornfield near her childhood home. She imagined that the corn stalks were people. She shook their hands, sung to them and preached to them about Jesus. She felt alive, and it felt like this was the thing she was born to do.
When the memory came back to her more than two decades later, she thought, “That’s who I was always meant to be.”
She re-found her calling: to be a pastor. She told her pastor about it. “Ok, then,” her pastor, Joseph Dunham of Missionary Baptist, told her. He set a date for her to preach: Nov. 11, 2001. Her message, centered on Matthew 23:26, was, “What is the motive behind why you do what you do?”
She started preaching; and, as she tells it, God took over. Not entirely planned, she started telling her story — all of it — from childhood to the fire to her healing process. And she took off her coat, for the first time, voluntarily revealing her scars. The feedback that night — and the years to come — was overwhelming and affirming. People began to tell her their stories.
She realized: “We all have scars. Many people have internal scars; my scars happen to be external. When they see my external scars, they may be able to relate and start to talk about their internal scars.”
There was Petitlubin and Crumity, for example, as well as Barbara Lotierzo, one of Thompson’s former supervisors. One day, during the seven years they worked together, Lotierzo confided in Thompson the difficulties she was experiencing with a family member. Thompson cried with her, counseled her, prayed for her and gave her a seashell to remind her of God’s promise. Every once in a while, to this day, Lotierzo pulls out the seashell when she needs a reminder that she’s not alone.
“Sharon has been awfully good for me,” Lotierzo says.
When Thompson reached that point where she started sharing her scars to help others heal from theirs, she became more than a survivor, she says. She became an overcomer. She wouldn’t have reached that point, though, if she hadn’t first forgiven those who had hurt her, including Glenn. “If you don’t forgive, you’ll always be a victim,” she says.
Several months before Thompson delivered her first sermon, Glenn called her. She hadn’t spoken to him in years. “I often think about what went down between us,” Glenn said over the phone. “I want you to forgive me.”
“Glenn,” Thompson said, “I’ve done forgave you. You need to accept Jesus as your savior.”
“I’ll pray about it,” he said. “You have to do more than pray,” she said.
A few weeks later, he died of a heart attack.
I'm just passing on what was given to me
Some of the greatest talents end up in the grave, Thompson says, because people don’t reach their potential. And they don’t reach their potential because, often, something bad happened to them. And when something bad happened to them, there was nobody there to help them through it or they never allowed themselves to be helped.
“That’s a heartbreaking fact,” she says.
So, in 2005, she founded Integrity Ministries on the tenets of faith, love and forgiveness, the three disciplines Thompson says she needed to live out to fully heal from her scars.
Why the name Integrity? Because “integra” means to be made whole, and the ministry’s purpose is “to be a place where people could come to be healed and to be made whole,” says Thompson, who earned a second associate’s degree, in theology, in 2006.
In addition to corporate worship and ministerial counseling, Integrity Ministries operates a range of outreach arms. That includes a mentoring program for young men, a modeling program for young women to help them build a healthy self-esteem, tutoring and professional development support, mother-daughter bonding activities and seminars on family leadership for men. Integrity also visits homeless communities to deliver food and to listen, helps immigrants navigate paperwork and agencies, and works to promote entrepreneurship in the African American community. They’re even in the planning stages of launching a women’s clothing design line.
Though the 7-year-old Integrity Ministries draws just a couple dozen people regularly to their Sunday services, the organization has reached hundreds and hundreds of people in the Fayetteville area. Among them is a single father raising an infant daughter whose mother died shortly after her birth. During a recent children's dedication ceremony, the father named Integrity his daughter’s God parents. “We’re a small church with a big church mindset,” Crumity says.
On top of this, Thompson is the chaplain for the Cumberland County Ministerial Council; the pastor of Sisters Uplifting Sisters, a membership-based national organization that encourages women to lead greater moral, cultural and social lives; and a SOAR (Survivors Offering Assistance in Recovery) counselor at the N.C. Jaycee Burn Center.
“People ask me all the time how I was able to heal and why I started Integrity. Well, first, it was God,” Thompson says. “And, second, I’m just passing on what was given to me.”
What was given to her, she says, were people who came alongside her during her healing process. When she was in the burn center, for example, there were the doctors and the nurses; Chaplain Shirley Massey, who said prayers of blessings and healing over her; Cynthia Hart, a SOAR volunteer who visited Thompson to listen and wash her hair; and an anonymous donor who paid off her hospital bills.
And over the past two decades, since she left the burn center, there have been a slew of individuals who have helped her realize her calling to be a pastor and to establish Integrity Ministries. Her former pastor, Thurman Everette of Bryan Swamps Missionary Baptist Church, for example, commissioned her to start her ministry, telling her that “God has a platform for you.”
Among the others, in 2003, when Thompson got laid off at a law firm in Lumberton, there was Crystal Plummer, a former co-worker who asked Thompson to interview for a position at Single Source Real Estate Services in Fayetteville. There was also the firm’s founder, Linda Lee Allen, who hired Thompson on the day of their interview and who loaned her $2,000 to help her move from Lumberton to Fayetteville and another $3,000 to $4,000 to help cover the rent for a chapel at a funeral home for several years. When the rent became too high for Integrity to continue to meet at the funeral home, in 2009, K.B. Matthews, founding pastor of Well of Living Waters Ministry, invited Thompson to use her church’s facilities. Matthews also mentored Thompson, who shadowed her, learned from her, and peppered her with questions about leadership, ministry and theology.
"There's an eagerness to learn in Sharon," Matthews says. "She's a good student in every aspect of life. She's always seeking to know more."
In 2010, when Thompson completed her bachelor’s in social work from Shaw University, she quit her job at Single Source to turn her full attention to her ministry. She also started looking at divinity schools. She chose Campbell’s because it was diverse; because it was Christ-centered, Bible-based and ministry-focused (the same as Integrity); and because she believed it would best help her help others.
In August 2012, when she sat in her first class at Campbell as a Master of Divinity student, she caught herself getting choked up. She said a silent prayer, which she has said over and over again since that day: “Thank you, Jesus, for giving me this opportunity. Teach me so I can teach others. Equip me so I can help others. Prepare me for the influx of people who will be coming to our ministry. Let me be mindful and humble to always remember it’s not about me, it’s about you. I’m only the instrument by which you do your work.”
Today, her daughter, Trina, 19, works at a LifeWay Christian Bookstore in Fayetteville and is in cosmetology school. Her son, Brandon, 27, whom she has worked to repair her relationship with, is a minister in Georgia. Thompson also married Hubert Journigan, whom she met through her daughter, in 2008.
“For a long time I hid my scars because it took me a long time to figure out that God wanted me to use them,” Thompson says. “I had to go through the process of being delivered and being made whole myself.”
You are an overcomer
On a Wednesday in early October, nearly 19 years to the day she was burned, Thompson found out she had a fibroid tumor. The doctor ordered a biopsy to see if it was cancerous. The next day Thompson drove from Fayetteville to Buies Creek for divinity classes. In a parking lot, a woman backed into her car, causing minor but inconvenient damage. “God,” Thompson thought, “do I have to experience everything in life in order to be empathetic with everyone?”
She was close to tears when she entered her Hebrew class, which Barry Jones, an associate professor of Old Testament and Hebrew, teaches. She told Jones about the tumor and the fender-bender. She started to cry.
“I just can’t do it today, professor,” she told him. “I’m sorry. I’ve got to go home.”
“Whatever happens,” Jones responded, “you’ll be fine. You are an overcomer.”