Editor’s note: This year FamilyLife is talking about anniversaries—ours and yours. In 2016 we celebrate our 40th year of God working through us to give help and hope to people like you. But more important, we’re helping couples celebrate another year of marriage. Read more about our Proud Sponsor of Anniversaries campaign.
Not too long after Tazwell and Bonita Thornton married back in 1993, they each began to wonder how their life together would thrive. Although it was the first marriage for both of them, Tazwell had gone through several failed relationships and Bonita was the single mother of a 9-year-old son.
A few weeks after their wedding, their marriage was tested when Tazwell lost his job. And living as a blended family brought its own unique challenges. The Thorntons knew they needed God’s help, but didn’t know where to find it.
Then something happened a few months after their wedding day—something that transformed Tazwell and Bonita into a dynamic duo, passionate about helping others. And in the past 22 years God has worked through them to transform thousands of marriages and families along the East Coast.
Something to do together
It all began when Bonita and Tazwell reconnected more than two decades after they attended high school together. At that time, Bonita was a single mom raising a son. “I know what it’s like to walk out of the will of God,” she says. “Your heart breaks. But more importantly, [because] I turned to God, I know what it is to receive His love, forgiveness, and grace. You fall more in love with God. You want to live for Him.”
After her son was born she began telling everyone she could about Jesus, through church ministry outreaches and to the homeless in her community. When she thought of a future husband she asked God, “Father, please be stretching the arms and legs of my mate, because I want a guy that loves You. One, I can honor and serve You with and grow with.”
At that time Tazwell was serving as a deacon in his church and Bonita was drawn to his faith. But when she invited him to join her evangelistic street outreach, he said, “I’m really not into that.” So she trusted God to lead them to something they could do together, something that would change lives for eternity.
Learning that marriage is a commitment
The Thorntons still remember the speakers at their first Weekend to Remember® marriage getaway, Crawford and Karen Loritts. They talked about some of the difficult adjustments in marriage like selfishness, vocational changes, and even health issues. Through their words, Tazwell and Bonita realized that the challenges they faced were not unique.
They also learned some practical communication skills during the getaway, like how to ask clarifying questions and fight fair. And one of their favorite sessions dealt with sexual intimacy. The Loritts explained that a satisfying sex life is the result of a satisfying relationship. And because the Weekend to Remember messages are filled with Scriptures about God’s plan for marriage, the Thorntons understood why marriage is a lifetime commitment.
But the real change that weekend occurred when Tazwell and Bonita attended a special meeting where couples were introduced to FamilyLife’s small group Bible studies for couples [now called The Art of Marriage® Connect series]. Tazwell looked at Bonita and said, and “We can do this!”
To Tazwell, “this answered a call for us to do something together that we could make a difference.” And to Bonita, this was an answered prayer—an opportunity to work together to help others understand how to build their marriages according to God’s blueprints.
The Thorntons started their marriage ministry by leading a FamilyLife small group study in another couple’s home. Recalls Tazwell, “We talked to some couples that had gotten married, and some who were in the process of getting married, and we told them we were going to be doing this ‘romantic Bible study.'” If someone asked “How romantic is it going to be?” they replied, “Well, we guarantee it’s going to increase your sexual life!”
The study was so successful that they led another … and then another. And a surprising thing happened as Tazwell and Bonita mentored couples. They worked on their own communication skills, learned how to resolve their personal conflicts, and kept romance a priority in their marriage. They also learned the importance of praying together.
But the Thorntons weren’t satisfied with improving their own marriage and leading just one group at a time. So they began to teach others how to lead.
Bonita remembers one couple who was active in church but faced challenges behind closed doors in their marriage. After the couple completed one of the Thorntons’ small group studies, Tazwell and Bonita asked them if they would lead a group of their own. The husband replied, “Oh, you don’t know. We shouldn’t do that. We can’t be a leader.”
Bonita told them they didn’t need to be experts on marriage—they just had to follow the guide for leading discussion. “All you have to do is agree to be the facilitator.” She explained that they would just need to keep the group conversation moving through the study guide … “and what’s going to happen is your marriage is going to be blessed.”
The couple agreed to lead a group. Soon afterward they called the Thorntons and said that without their small group study they would have divorced. “And these were folks that were working steadily in the church, on the outside smiling, but inside walking through some real tough issues,” says Bonita. “HomeBuilders made a real difference to them … because they learned to work together and to communicate. As they guided other couples to apply godly principles, and as they listened to the stories of other people, they too were blessed.”
Looking for others to take over
Bob Richardson, who works for FamilyLife, has known the Thorntons since they attended that first Weekend to Remember getaway in 1993. He says that Tazwell and Bonita are always looking for ways they can multiply themselves. “They get something going and want someone else to take over,” he says. “They have set up marriage ministries in several churches in the Baltimore area.”
Bob says that with their leadership, about 800 couples have gone through Preparing for Marriage, a FamilyLife curriculum for engaged couples, at New Psalmist Baptist Church in Baltimore. “Bonita has a record of each of these couples,” he says, “and there are very few who have not made it.”
Bonita says that she has never seen a marriage tool as effective as this curriculum. “It’s economical and changes lives,” she says. She says countless people have called to say, “We still go back to our book Preparing for Marriage. We get into a fight and we go back and revisit the tools for how to resolve conflict.”
And when FamilyLife released a video series back in 2011 called The Art of Marriage®, the Thorntons immediately began to use it, too. Through six fast-paced sessions, the series weaves together the teaching of respected pastors and marriage experts with real-life testimonies, man-on-the street interviews, and humorous vignettes.
Tazwell and Bonita host special Art of Marriage weekends at churches or hotels. And they continue challenging the couples who attend to lead Art of Marriage gatherings of their own. For example, a couple who came to one of their first Art of Marriage events went on to not only host an Art of Marriage event, but also to speak with the Thorntons at future gatherings.
Stepping out in faith
Dennis Rainey, president of FamilyLife, regards the Thorntons as heroes for families. “They were courageous enough to step out in faith and attempt a ministry on behalf of the hopeless, on behalf of people who don’t have a game plan or a blueprint for their marriage and their family.” He also notes that they use “the truth of Scripture unashamedly, and they love people enough to tell them the truth.”
A humble couple, the Thorntons take no credit for their ministry success. “Taz and I will tell you it’s all about Jesus Christ,” Bonita says. “It’s the power of the Holy Spirit orchestrating a ministry that has empowered individuals who become so grateful, so pierced, so moved that they want to give back.”
The Thorntons are grateful to all of the couples who have followed their lead. “These amazing couples have helped us reach thousands,” Bonita says, “and we pray we will continue to reach thousands more.”
Their success in ministry began with one simple step of faith more than two decades ago—when they trusted God to work through them to change marriages and legacies. “God is the author of the marriage covenant,” Bonita says. “As couples incorporate His biblical blueprint … strong marriages result!”