Jonathan Tremaine Thomas is not originally from Ferguson. He’s not even from the St. Louis region or Missouri. Thomas, a North Carolina native, moved here from Indianapolis in 2014, in the wake of Michael Brown’s killing and the ensuing unrest.
The pastor and entrepreneur says he came to Ferguson not in spite of Ferguson’s troubles, but because of them. Thomas, 38, who has long been involved in activism and community work in other cities, wanted to put his skills and experience to use in the healing process. He didn’t expect that he, his wife and their daughter would find a warm welcome.
“Because we were received the way we were, it really makes you feel like, wow, we could be a part of changing this corner of the world,” Thomas said. “Not that it’s an easy job, but people are open and receptive, and obviously there’s a lot of work to be done.”
Five years after they arrived, that work includes reopening the popular Corner Coffee House in the heart of Ferguson. After it closed a few years ago, the city lost a business that had served as a hub for the community for two decades, Thomas said.
“The coffee house was always a community gathering spot,” Thomas said. “The coffee house was the place where civic leaders would gather. I’ve met several residents of Ferguson who said, ‘My daughter had her baby shower here.’ It was a place of social gathering. It was a place of exchange of business ideas. It was a place for people of pretty much every social economic reality.”
Thomas is also the founder and leader of Civil Righteousness, a faith and restorative justice organization.
The coffee house will reopen in the fall under a new name. Thomas plans to use the space as a training platform for teens and adults in addition to a variety of other activities.
He spoke with St. Louis Public Radio’s Holly Edgell.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
Holly Edgell You’ve become a resident of Ferguson. You’ve bought a home. You’ve put down roots there. What have you found most appealing about Ferguson that maybe you didn’t expect?
Jonathan Tremaine Thomas: When we purchased our house, we received fruit baskets. Welcome baskets from neighbors. It was absolutely shocking to us to be received in that way, to realize that Ferguson really is tight-knit. It’s almost like a small town. Everyone knows each other. To see how welcomed we were? We didn’t expect that. It’s a beautiful little community. Obviously every city has its problems. But compared to almost any other part of St. Louis we found it to be the most affordable. And also a lot of potential, a lot of opportunity.
Edgell: You actually came to Ferguson with the idea of that healing process, change. How is that going from your perspective? What are you seeing in the community?
Thomas: Ferguson, whether the locals like it or not, it has a permanent place in American history. I see a simultaneous willingness to embrace and to look at some hard realities from some in the community, mixed with a real angst and a real frustration and a disappointment with where things haven’t gotten. I think there have been amazing, needed reforms, but the biggest hurdles that we’re facing aren’t necessarily legislative. They’re emotional. People are wounded.
Edgell: You are plugged into people and organizations in other states. What’s your sense of the healing that is happening or not happening on a national level?
Thomas: I look at it this way. We’ve had a history of movements in America — the women’s suffrage movement, the historic black civil rights movement. These movements have brought a measure of healing and a measure of change. But in a sense it’s like, as Americans, we have the mentality, “Well, we’ve done these things. We elected a black president. Everything’s OK.” I think, in effect, what Ferguson did is rip Band-Aids off of infected wounds. Wounds that have never healed.
Edgell: I often think that businesspeople are inherently optimistic, especially entrepreneurs. Tell me about your level of optimism.
Thomas: I see at a local level the enthusiasm when people heard that this coffee shop was purchased. And then to see the emotional connection that people had with the space. At that level alone that’s enough to cause me to say, “OK, this was a good move.” But there is a scripture that says, “Hope that is seen is not hope at all.” So, you can’t fix your eyes on what is seen but what is unseen. When I look at some of those movements throughout history that have been successful, it was because they were rooted in some measure of maybe even a silly hope. That there can be something greater than what we see and what we feel.
Holly Edgell is editor for the public-radio collaborative Sharing America, covering the intersection of race, identity and culture. This initiative, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, includes reporters in Hartford, St. Louis, Kansas City and Portland, Oregon. Follow Holly at @hollyedgell.
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