Tar Heel of the Week

Chapel Hill pastor has a vision that goes beyond his church

CorrespondentMarch 2, 2013 


Rev. Thomas O. Nixon, senior pastor of St. Paul AME Baptist Church in Chapel Hill. Rev. Nixon has been senior pastor at St. Paul's since 2004, and is currently heading up a major growth campaign to raise funds to break ground in fall 2014 for a new larger, more modern church, with senior center, daycare and subsidized housing for seniors on a twenty acre parcel of land at the corner of Purefoy Drive and Rogers Road in NW Chapel Hill.

HARRY LYNCH — hlynch@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

  • Thomas O. Nixon

    Born: Jan 23, 1964, Hampstead

    Residence: Chapel Hill

    Career: Pastor, St. Paul A.M.E. Church

    Education: A.A., Fayetteville Technical Community College, studied philosophy, theology and religion at Methodist College (now Methodist University) and Carolina Bible College

    Affiliations: Member, Advisory Board of Habitat for Humanity of Orange County, Town of Chapel Hill Human Services Advisory Committee, National Board of AME Church

    Fun Fact: The St. Paul Village project has already reaped some historical dividends. An old will found in the farm house on the property led an Atlanta woman to confirm that she is a descendent of slave Harriet Hogan, who likely lived in the basement with other slaves, and her owner’s son, William Johnston Hogan. Plans to destroy the house put preservationists on guard, but Nixon says the church plans to refurbish the building, which may house the historical museum.

— It’s not so unusual for a pastor to take the helm of a church with plans to build a new sanctuary, as the Rev. Thomas Nixon did in 2004.

But the vision Nixon has put forth for the future site of St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church is unusual in both its ambition and its impact, which would reach well beyond one church. “St. Paul Village” will bring a daycare center, basketball court, senior and affordable housing and more to the historically African-American Rogers Road community on the north side of town, about five miles northwest of the center of Chapel Hill.

Nixon, who at 49 has been in ministry for more than 30 years, believes God’s hand led him to the 20-acre plot of land the church has purchased. Plans showing his vision have been approved by the town council, and the church is in the midst of raising the up to $8 million it will need for the first phase of construction. A 5K run and walk this weekend – the church’s first – is taking them a few steps closer.

The slew of planned amenities will help not only the surrounding community, but some of the neediest residents of the town and county, says Moses Carey, who served on the Orange County Board of Commissioners for more than 20 years and planned to participate in Saturday’s event.

“It’s a great project that will serve the community well once it is completed,” says Carey. “And any worthwhile project must have a visionary leader in order to move it forward and to inspire others to assist.”

Nixon’s focus on outreach goes beyond the building project. In nearly a decade with the church, he has increased the church’s involvement with groups such as Habitat for Humanity and the Inter-Faith Council for Social Service.

He has also spearheaded events from community cookouts and church planning retreats to annual “Men of Destiny” and “Women of Destiny” conferences with speakers such as actor Clifton Davis.

In November, his efforts earned him a Lamplighter Award for Community Outreach from the radio station The Light 103.9FM.

“I’ve always been the pastor who wanted the church to be involved in the total life of the community,” says Nixon. “I’ve never believed that church is just a Sunday morning worship or Wednesday Bible study and that’s it till the next week.”

The boy preacher

Nixon grew up in Hampstead, near Wilmington, in a rural community that was just beginning to explode with growth when he left in the early 1980s.

As a child, he remembers learning his numbers by counting the clams, caught by his grandfather to sell, into bags of 100.

“There used to be nothing but farmland, and now there’s nothing but houses there,” he says.

Several of his relatives were preachers, and his grandfather, who Nixon cites as a huge influence on him, was a leader in his church.

In elementary school, his three possible careers included being a preacher, an undertaker or the owner of a seafood restaurant.

He worked for an undertaker during high school – a profession he would continue later in life in addition to his pastoral duties at times.

In high school, he played several sports in addition to driving the bus to and from school. But he earned notoriety mainly as the “boy preacher.”

Nixon had experienced a religious awakening at the age of 16 and discussed his future with his pastor. At 17, he was given a chance to do a trial sermon at his local church. At that sermon, three of his teachers and 11 of his classmates gave themselves to God, Nixon says.

It was the summer before his senior year. Once he finished high school, he left town to preach at various churches across the state, including in Wilmington, Rocky Mount and Fayetteville.

Before moving to Chapel Hill, he headed a church in Lenoir, where he started a building plan for a major addition to the church that is under construction. When he was assigned to St. Paul, part of his mandate was to build a bigger church for a growing congregation that counts about 350 members.

A big idea

Shortly after he arrived at St. Paul, the church celebrated its 140th anniversary. Nixon, by nature a long-term thinker, started praying and planning for a major project to commemorate the 150th anniversary in 2014.

St. Paul Village was a large part of the vision he presented to his congregation, which started working out plans.

The search for land was difficult; the church wanted at least 10 acres of affordable land that was near the interstate. The 20-acre lot near Exit 286 off Interstate 40, where it meets N.C. 87, had another attribute Nixon had personally hoped for – a nearby community where his church could affect positive change.

“That was my prayer without ever going to look at that property,” he says. “And the property was so perfect, even a non-believer would have to say, ‘Wow. That’s either God’s hand or some great luck.’”

The surrounding Rogers Road community has a long history and a litany of challenges. Its relationship with town and county officials has been strained by the presence of a landfill nearby, which many say has hindered its development.

One of Nixon’s plans is to build a museum that will house artifacts from the community’s history, which dates back to the days of slavery.

The first phase of construction, slated to begin next year, will include the daycare, a gymnasium with basketball courts, a memorial park and a multi-purpose banquet hall, where the church will hold its services until the sanctuary is built. The hall, which will boast an industrial kitchen, can also be rented out for small conferences and other functions.

Future phases of the plan include a complete wellness center with fitness equipment and facilities for youth and seniors, a 16-unit apartment complex and, eventually, a clinic. Several parts of the development, such as the apartments and clinic, will be built with the help of community partners, who will then run the facilities.

It will be decades before the entire project is complete, and the fundraising for St. Paul A.M.E. will be intense – though selling the land where the church is currently located, on a prime lot near the border of Chapel Hill and Carrboro, will certainly help. The property was assessed at more than $1 million in 2009. Buildings in the first phase of construction are those that will generate some income, and others will be built with the help of grants and partnerships.

Nixon admits that some of his congregation question parts of the plan. But he is undeterred, noting that big ideas are rarely universally embraced: “People who have a vision and are waiting around to get everyone’s approval will be sitting there waiting,” he says.

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