CINCINNATI - Zach Whittle wants to be "the light to a dark world," he said.
T.H.U.G.: Truth, Hope, Unity, Grace. That's what the word "thug" means to Pastor Zach Whittle these days. Not long ago, that word could have easily described him in a different way.
The now-35-year-old father of eight grew up in New Orleans and joined a gang when he was 13. He didn't leave the gang until he was 22. For him, it was not the Big Easy.
"[It was] chaos, a lot of violence, a lot of drugs, a lot of things happening at 100 miles per hour," Whittle said. "You're never safe from rival gang members or police, or even your own friends at times."
It was fast money and a sense of family that he so desperately sought, he said.
Keeping his real family safe, however, was a struggle for the J. Gumbo's employee.
Going out and doing what needed to be done and "still being there to make breakfast in the morning and tuck kids in at night before you did the things that the gang required of you," wasn't easy over time, he said.
His last year in the gang, he knew it was time to leave, because many of his friends were killed. The only reason he said that he wasn't killed?
"The grace of God."
Nearly 15 years after he first joined his street family, and just before Hurricane Katrina hit, he moved to Cincinnati— choosing gospel, God and gumbo over the gang. Three years ago, he started looking for what he called "salvation."
"I wanted to be forgiven for all the things I'd seen and done. I no longer wanted to live with the nightmares and struggles."
He is now the pastor for T.H.U.G. Ministries, which was conceived about a year and a half ago, and started its force on the streets and in the community in November.
"A thug is anyone who struggled, is struggling and no long wants to struggle," said Whittle, quoting the late Tupac Shakur.
He looked around his community and saw young people heading down the road that he did, and that, he said, is a slippery slope.
"They are looking for a sense of family," he said, "and that is enticing. There [are] struggling families, and definitely struggling teenagers who are possibly headed to the path that I once chose."
So he started to reach out to the community, especially the youth, with Bible study and activities to show them, that there is another family with T.H.U.G. Ministries.
"We keep it 100. We keep it real," said the young pastor who can relate to all the temptations and heartaches that the teens in the area are facing.
T.H.U.G. Ministries uses the gospel, as well as a helping hand with a newly opened thrift store, Nu 2 U, to make a difference to those who need it.
His 15-year-old daughter, Jackie, works at the store as a volunteer. She said that she is glad to have her dad in this new light, out of the ‘dark world' in which he used to dwell.
"As a child you expect everything to be perfect … " but it was nowhere near perfect while her dad was a gang member in Louisiana. Things were uncertain, especially money and safety. But her dad was committed to her and her family.
"Dad was always there. He did the best he could," she said. "I'm proud of [my dad]. It was a big change."
The ministry that she and her dad are a part of focuses on single families and teens. The proceeds of the thrift store go to the families of North College Hill and Finneytown.
Once a month, the ministry hopes to give a hand up.
"We want to knock on the door and hand them a check and leave, no strings attached, no Bible in hand, just a check and God's grace," Whittle said.
The biggest change from his former life to his faith-based life in Cincinnati, he said, is "happiness." He said that he likes doing good things for people instead of doing something for the personal gain like he used to.
"Life now is a lot of fun," he said. "Life now is seeing differences in people's lives in a positive way instead of making differences in a negative way."
They have already started a community Bible study which has grown to more than 20 young people attending. The ministry has done several things in the community already, such as an Easter egg hunt, a Memorial Day parade, painting projects and are currently organizing a back-to-school drive.
Whittle said that anyone wishing to help can do so with donations to the thrift store, by volunteering your time and with a prayer.
You can donate to Nu 2 U by calling the store at (513) 510-4235 or (513) 739-5263; or stopping by at the corner of Daly and Galbraith roads. The store is open Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., and Sunday, from noon to 5 p.m.
T.H.U.G. Ministries hopes to open a coffee shop in North College Hill by the end of the year with the same mission as its thrift store.