Nekohl Johnson wasn’t saved and born again in a church.
She had a difficult relationship with the church growing up. Her father was a traveling evangelist. She was sexually abused in and out of churches when she was young. When she could, she left the church and spent four years studying Islam. She looked at Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Catholic Church. “I was looking for someone practicing what they preached. A lot of people preached perfect, but they weren’t perfect. Ultimately, no one was perfect.”
Nekohl spent several years in the Army, where she experienced more abuse and the trauma of war. As a woman in a medical unit overseas, she returned with a lot to sort out in her mind and heart. She ultimately found her way to a program called DE-CRUIT, which uses Shakespeare to engage veterans to heal from trauma and PTSD. It was a life-changer for Nekohl and helped her begin to deal with her military experience and the trauma she experienced as a child in church.
“What motivated me was how healing this was and how close to God,” she said. “When I found God again and realized that God is everywhere, I wanted to share this with the community.”
It was through theater that she felt saved and born again.
“What motivated me was how healing this was and how close to God. When I found God again and realized that God is everywhere, I wanted to share this with the community.”
Nekohl decided that she needed to be a part of bringing theater and therapy to people, especially veterans of color. She finds them through churches, community centers, and veterans’ organizations. She joined forces with Alex Mallory, one of the DE-CRUIT facilitators, and began holding workshops. Nekohl started an organization called “Where We Meet, Inc.” The idea behind the name is that many people must cross boundaries and barriers to get the help they need. Instead, Nekohl would help people where they are, creating a comfortable and close physical and mental space.
I asked Nehohl what it is about Shakespeare that she thinks speaks to veterans of color today. She said it’s a fair question, “Speaking as a Black woman who had only read it in school and then only enough to take the test. It’s music; it flows according to a cadence, the same cadence we have in the military.” She also says that many of the stories relate to military pain, trauma, and war. “There’s healing in it, too.”
I had a chance to observe (via Zoom) part of a session sponsored by Where We Meet, Inc. This one focused on getting participants to write their stories. Nekohl is a writer with a forthcoming book, The Queen Was Born Again: Memoir for Kings & Queens Facing the Pain of My Past and Healing Myself to Make the Most of My Future.
There were six people in person and seven online, all women veterans from various ages and backgrounds. Nekohl set the tone for the meeting with a reading from Shakespeare’s Othello from the character Emilia.
Let husbands know
Their wives have senses like them: they see and smell
And have their palates both for sweet and sour,
As husbands have
And have not we affections,
Desires for sport and frailty, as men have?
Zina Dawson, a co-facilitator, introduces herself: “Chilly Z on the mic!” She is a combat medic veteran and self-professed “DE-CRUIT-a-holic.” She says she just finished co-authorizing a piece with a Ph.D. student about the benefits of DE-CRUIT and the process of healing trauma using the arts as a medium for expression. She began to recite a poem that she had written, including this line: “I happen to love my complicated, unpredictable, inconsistent, diversified self.” Zina’s mission is about sparking self-love in others and, hopefully, among some veterans attending the session that day.
Nekohl creates safe spaces for people healing from trauma because she knows how it’s led to healing in her own life. Nekohl understands that force in religious terms, although she realizes not everybody does. “I don’t want to put Jesus on them, nor do I want to put medicine on them,” she says, knowing that people must make their own choices about the institutions that can help them heal.
She takes inspiration from an image from the prophetic vision in the book of Ezekiel – the wheel in the middle of a revolution. She’s out to help people find the inner wheel. The sacred self still radiates despite the emotional wounds of war and abuse that are the experience of many women, trauma survivors, and veterans of color.
For the past two decades, Jeff Pinzino has helped to make visionary social change projects real. Whether developing a mobile market to bring fresh produce to food deserts or co-founding a housing co-op for activists, he has brought creativity, expertise, and resourcefulness to bear in creating social change. Jeff has professional experience in community organizing, social entrepreneurship, philanthropy, fundraising, management and training. He has a passion for projects committed to economic justice and racial equity, especially those that engage human creativity and connectedness to transform communities. Some of his previous titles include Sr. Director of Development, External Relations of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, Development Director of New Orleans Works Center for Racial Justice, and Chief Operating Officer of Resilience Force.