By KATIE EUBANKS
Donavon & Alice Thigpen
On marriage, therapy and more
Donavon and Alice Thigpen have married each other twice.
At their first wedding, a nine-months-pregnant Alice wore pajamas. Their second wedding happened exactly 10 years later — after a separation, divorce, and reconciliation.
The Thigpens could smooth over the rough parts of their story, and many members of ONE Church in Jackson, where Donavon is pastor, would never know different.
“(But) we want people to know it’s OK not to be OK,” Alice says.
In order to receive help, you’ve got to admit you have a problem.
‘She was our beginning’
Their grandmothers lived one street away from each other in west Jackson. Alice and Donavon even had a mutual best friend. But they didn’t meet until high school.
First, Donavon saw Alice at a Lanier High championship game at the Mississippi Coliseum. He told his brother, “That’s going to be my wife,” but admits, “I was too chicken to say anything to her.”
Then she showed up at a church where Donavon, who hails from a musical family, was playing organ. “Now that she was on my turf, I knew it was going down,” he says. But when he tried talking to her, “she wouldn’t give me no play.”
While Alice ignored Donavon, two of his brothers started dating her two sisters. Donavon would drive his brothers to Alice’s house, and then he’d spend time in the kitchen with her mom. Alice had a boyfriend at the time, who made sure to show up at the house whenever Donavon did.
Eventually, Alice’s mom had her “chaperone” a double date between her sisters and Donavon’s brothers. Donavon was driving. Looking back, Alice says, “I think he had worn (my mom) down.”
Soon Donavon and Alice started dating. After a brief time at Jackson State University, she enlisted in the Air Force, and suggested Donavon join her. He wasn’t interested, noting, “They don’t have a B3 organ on the Air Force base.”
He dropped her off for basic training — and a few hours later, she called and told him to come back.
When he picked her up and asked what was going on, she said, “I’m pregnant.”
At that time, “I wasn’t living a life I was really pleased with,” Donavon says, even though he’d grown up in church. “I didn’t want (our child) to meet me (as I was).”
So he started praying, reading his Bible, and taking Christianity seriously. Around the ninth month of Alice’s pregnancy, “I felt like I really had an encounter with God. He gave me my life’s mission. Then I knew I would become a pastor. I knew I would put out music, and I knew I would have a music school,” he says. (The school is in the planning stages now.)
“It impacted me so much, I had it printed on certificate paper, and I framed it and put it on the wall.”
Meanwhile, his daughter was on her way.
“We thought Genesis was going to be born on July 15, 1998,” Donavon says. “(That night) I was headed to a church conference in New Orleans. So we decided to get married that night.”
Donavon’s father, who was also his pastor, married them in the living room at Donavon’s grandmother’s house, where assorted Thigpens and church members were supposed to meet at midnight to leave for the conference. Folks were late, so “it was about 2 or 3 in the morning,” Alice says.
“We did the whole ceremony, vows, ‘I do,’ and he went to the conference, and I went and got back in the bed,” says Alice, who wore Donavon’s green silk pajamas (she couldn’t fit into her own) for the ceremony.
Their daughter Genesis didn’t arrive for another 15 days, on August 1.
“We named her Genesis, which means ‘the beginning,’ because she was our beginning,” Alice says.
The last thing this editor expected was the following bombshell, dropped by Donavon:
“We stayed together for a year.”
‘You’re trying to change me’
Alice and Donavon got married because they were told that was the right thing to do, because they were pregnant.
“Nobody sat down and had premarital counseling with us, nobody talked to us about expectations. Clearly, he and I were raised totally different from each other,” Alice says.
“She was used to her dad coming home at 5, 6 o’clock (at night) after work, watching TV,” Donavon says. “I typically left the house at 5 or 6, either headed to a recording studio or a band rehearsal, choir rehearsal, and that got old for Alice.
“And I was upset because I felt, ‘You knew who I was before we got married, and you’re trying to change me.’ She wanted me to work a 9 to 5.”
“I wanted him to get serious about life,” she adds.
“And she felt alone with a new baby,” he says.
So they separated after one year of marriage. Over the next two years, Alice had divorce papers drawn up three times. Donavon just tore them up, she says. “’Cause, clearly, I don’t believe in divorce,” Donavon says.
By the time Donavon finally signed the papers, Alice had met a new man who was financially stable, loved her, and loved Genesis as his own. In fact, part of the reason Donavon did sign the divorce papers is because he recognized that Alice’s new fiancé was “maybe not so bad.”
Donavon made a deal with God: “If you’re not going to give Alice back to me, then I just pray You just send me the person that You want me to have.” He stopped pursuing Alice, and sought the Lord instead.
Also, the other man had a big house with a four-car garage, a pool and a lake, plus a 9 to 5 job. Donavon was still a musician without a 9 to 5, and he lived in an apartment.
“I felt like I couldn’t compete,” he says. “I felt like I loved Alice enough to let her be happy.”
‘That’s not your husband.’
During the Thigpens’ separation and divorce, “Donavon started traveling (for music). He was in Mississippi once or twice a month,” Alice says. But as she was planning her wedding, Donavon moved back home.
He explains: “I was in San Diego for three weeks. … I was playing for an itinerant preacher, I was making more money than I’d ever made in my life, but Genesis learned how to ride a bike while I was in San Diego. (That) messed me up.”
A Jackson church, then called Word of Faith, had tried to hire Donavon twice. When they approached him a third time, he said yes.
“And guess what,” Alice says. “That’s where me and my (fiancé went) to church.” Soon they were seeing Donavon every Sunday morning.
“He makes sure he’s at the door when we get there, walks (Genesis) out every Sunday, he sits her up on the organ,” Alice says.
“That’s my child,” Donavon says.
“Yep, he’s staking his claim,” Alice says. “So now he’s here in town, he’s going to all the school functions, he’s picking her up on his days and weekends — he’s being the responsible adult I wanted him to be before we divorced.”
Meanwhile, Alice was in prayer about her impending marriage, and she and her fiancé had started premarital counseling. One night, a voice woke her up:
“That’s not your husband.”
She looked around, “trying to see who’s playing with me, who’s whispering in my ear, and nobody was there. The next day, I’m spooked.”
She called her best friend and her sisters, who said the voice must’ve been the devil, and that she was just getting cold feet.
Alice believed them. Until she heard the voice again, clearly stating the same words, within about a month. “I think I had been praying more,” she says.
Her fiancé glossed over the incident as a mere nightmare, and didn’t understand why she was freaking out. The next day, he bought her a new car. “So it was like … life is good,” she says.
But she still needed to talk to someone.
“I couldn’t go back to my sisters and my best friend,” she says, “so who do I call to have this discussion, this spiritual encounter, with? My baby daddy.”
By this time, she and Donavon were “good friends and co-parenting great,” she says.
When she told him what the voice had said, he responded, “I’ve been knowing that, but I’ve just been waiting on you to figure that out.”
Within a month, she broke off her engagement.
An eternal contract
Alice and Donavon started dating again — and then got pregnant with their second daughter, Zoë, while Donavon was still music minister at Word of Faith.
Donavon expected to be fired when he told the pastor. Instead, the pastor said, “‘As far as I’m concerned, marriage is forever, (and) you guys have an eternal contract,’” Donavon recalls. “(The church) kind of walked us through, they loved on us.”
“We were getting the premarital counseling that we should’ve gotten when we were 20 and 21,” Alice says.
Finally, the Thigpens got married again on their 10-year anniversary, July 15, 2008 — in the church office, Donavon says with a laugh. “But we had a nice reception (at) the Fairview Inn.”
They’d named their daughter Zoë because it means “the God kind of life,” Alice says, “because we feel like we were where we needed to be. God was in the midst of everything.”
In 2012, Eden was born. “She was the only child we planned,” Donavon says. He and Alice thought maybe they’d have a boy this time, but no dice. Now, both parents are grateful they have three daughters.
“They are easy,” Alice says. “God gives you exactly what you’re supposed to have.”
As for Eden’s name, it means “the paradise of God,” or “God’s resting place,” Alice says. “And I thought, ‘Yeah, that’s perfect, ’cause after this one, we’re resting.’”
After marrying, divorcing, remarrying, and having three daughters in the midst of all that, the Thigpens were in a stable place. Donavon was still a music minister, and Alice was a loan closing specialist at Hope Federal Credit Union in Jackson, with a decorating business on the side.
Then a white pastor named Matt McGue approached Donavon about planting a church.
“We had never even heard about church planting,” Alice says.
But a church like the one Matt was proposing — one that would deliberately pursue people of all races and ethnicities — made sense for the Thigpens. They already lived and worked in diverse environments; the girls attended diverse schools; and both Donavon and Alice had experience being around all kinds of people.
Donavon grew up in the Virden Addition in Jackson, i.e., “the hood,” he says, but his dad sent him to daycare at the predominantly white Briarwood daycare. In elementary, he attended St. Andrew’s Episcopal School and, later, Casey Elementary, another predominantly white school at the time.
“(My dad) wanted us to get along with all ethnicities,” Donavon says. “By third grade, my two best friends were white and Chinese.”
When Donavon arrived at the predominantly black Lanier High School in Jackson, “I felt like Carlton (the preppy, sweater-vest-wearing cousin from ‘The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’) going to Philly,” he says. But he loved it.
Alice got her own culture shock when she transferred from Jim Hill to Forest Hill High School in Jackson for her senior year. At that time, Forest Hill was racially diverse, and she had never attended school with white students.
“We do the same things, we act the same, we just look different, and it was a real shock to me,” Alice says. “To see blacks and whites riding to school together, eating lunch together, hanging out.
“And stuff you hear on TV, ‘Mississippi is this, Mississippi is that,’ I’ve never experienced any of that.”
Ultimately, Donavon agreed to help Matt plant ONE Church as co-pastors. The church’s diversity emphasis is important because “when you go to separate silos on Sunday mornings, it undermines the credibility of the gospel,” Donavon says.
“There’s not going to be a black side of heaven or a white side of heaven, or a Chinatown. In Revelation you see all races worshipping Christ together. The last thing Jesus prayed (in John 17, before His arrest) was for unity.”
“We’re supposed to have heaven on earth,” Alice adds. “Why not now?”
They know this past year hasn’t exactly helped race relations in America.
“You know how the media is playing out what’s happening in the country,” Donavon says. “If people haven’t been exposed to a different culture, they (put people in boxes).”
“The stereotypes of all black people being criminals, and you’ve got to clutch your purse a little tighter when you pass by … well now it’s reversed,” Alice says, and Donavon adds: “Not every Republican is a racist.”
‘Authenticity breeds diversity’
After several years at ONE Church, Matt McGue was called elsewhere, and Donavon became lead pastor in 2018.
He says he’s experienced more spiritual attack as a co-pastor and pastor than any other time in his life.
On the first Sunday of January 2020, he added “building families” to the church’s mission, “because I knew (Alice and I) have a unique story, and I know how the devil continues to try to attack us.” ONE Church has held the EmbRACE Conference promoting racial diversity in churches, and now Donavon sees a marriage conference in the future as well.
Naturally, that modified mission didn’t please the enemy.
“As a result of us making that declaration at the beginning of the year, I feel like the devil has fought me and Alice this (past) year more than ever,” Donavon says. “We’re seeing a counselor right now, a therapist, Lee Smith, and he’s walking us through some stuff.”
If you can’t believe this pastor and his wife just admitted to seeing a therapist, well, they don’t really care.
“(People think) you see a therapist (and) something’s wrong with you, or you’re crazy, what’s going on?” Alice says. “But I look at it as insurance.”
Plus, therapy teaches you things, she notes. After 25 years, she and Donavon are still learning about each other, through therapy and honest communication. For Christmas 2020, they exchanged two of the most meaningful gifts they’d ever received (see box), after years of gifts that were more sparkle than substance. They remain committed to their marriage.
They want other couples to know there’s hope, and that it’s OK to seek help.
At the time of this interview, ONE Church was in the middle of a sermon series called De-Mask-Us, a play on the word Damascus, the place where Saul became Paul after encountering Jesus on the road.
“Paul wore a religious mask, but once Jesus stripped him of that, Paul is the reason for Gentile inclusion in the New Testament,” Donavon says.
“That’s why we’re transparent. Authenticity breeds diversity.”