RALEIGH — William Thurston knows what it's like to suffer. His father abandoned him at birth, and Thurston carried the pain of that betrayal for decades.
"But my passion was born in my pain," Thurston said to his class of 12 at Mount Peace Community Center in southeast Raleigh on Sunday.
That passion is to help the disadvantaged help themselves and each other. Thurston, 67, chairman of the Shaw University Department of Religion and Philosophy, hosts a series of free community conversations about achieving wellness in "health, finance and fun" three days a week.
During the sessions, he encourages participants to evaluate their life experiences to use them as fuel for positive change.
The classes start with a lecture from Thurston highlighting his principles for success in all three areas, but quickly become highly interactive.
"I want you to turn to somebody and look them in the eye and say, 'Your sufferings are over,' " Thurston said to the class on Sunday. "Go on, don't be afraid. 'Your sufferings are over.' "
Thurston's fifth annual "Enhancing Wellness" conversation series meets Sundays at Mount Peace, Mondays at Wells Fargo Capitol Center and Wednesdays by teleconference until April 8.
Raleigh resident Ishiyah Yisrael attended Sunday's session because of his belief in the importance of the subject matter.
"A lot of times, we have a little too much fun and leave the rest out of it," he said. "We need to talk about this - it is essential to our community, to our families and to our future."
His fiancee, Abeegahyil Yisrael, agreed.
"We all need to be aware of these things so we can change," she said.
Thurston chose the series' theme of health, finance and fun based on recent life events - he and his wife, Gayle, have both had heart bypass surgeries - as well as the economic events that have led to the Occupy protests worldwide.
"The middle class is vanishing. You are either rich or poor," Thurston said. "We have to help people find solutions now."
Thurston has always been interested in the intersection of the global and the personal. While studying architecture at the University of Illinois in the mid-1960s, he got involved in the civil rights movement. The Rev. Jesse Jackson recruited Thurston as coordinator of Preachers United to Save Housing, then invited him to national director for expansion of Operation PUSH.
During his work with that group, Thurston grew concerned about the spiritual lives of the people he was working to help.
That led Thurston to divinity school, earning a doctorate in ethics and society from Emory University before he came to Shaw in 1994.
"My interest went from being about the physical buildings to the people inside those buildings to the quality of each person's inner self," Thurston said.
Thurston hopes this initial series of conversations will spark something bigger. First he wants to take the series on the road to 12 community colleges around North Carolina. His long-term goal is for an international tour of 40 cities, though that has not yet been scheduled.
"I believe the people who come into this conversation will determine where that journey goes," Thurston said.