“Hey Thomas!” I called.
“Hey Pastor Chris!, he responded as he crossed the street in front of me. I had a feeling of deja vu… I’d been in this exact situation many, many times over the last twenty years. Sometimes we’d chat and pass the day, sometimes I’d give him a ride to where he was going… work, school, a basketball game, sometimes we’d just wave at each other and go our separate ways, but always the warm greeting and fond memories and close connection it signified.
Last week Thomas was almost killed. He was robbed at gunpoint here in the neighborhood by a group of youth on his way home from work. They took everything he had, and beat him with a pistol as well. They took everything he had, but they didn’t take his peace of mind as he calmly complied with their demands. Everytime I see or think of him I thank God for His grace for being with Thomas that night.
I remember when I first met Thomas… he was nine years old and coming to my afterschool boys program–always friendly and engaging, ready to have fun. In later years he began playing basketball on my team. At one point he moved to Texas for a year, but he called me regularly so I wouldn’t forget him. I couldn’t believe this little kid was calling me long distance on the phone. So basketball, camp, boy’s club… we spent a lot of time together. Through mentoring and discipleship we walked with him through the growing pains of life in the city for a black boy. He became a pretty good basketball player and played for elite AAU teams in the city, but he surprised me by still coming to play for my little park and rec team every year. Thomas was a hood kid, but he would surprise you with his generosity, wisdom and compassion. He never became hardened or disillusioned by life’s circumstances. He always treats people well.
Although academics were never his strong suit, he graduated high school through a lot of determination and hard work. Encounters like the one described before happened with some regularity. One week after church we were playing basketball out back when we heard some gunshots nearby. We looked around to account for everyone but Thomas had already left. Soon we got a call. “Pastor Chris”, he said. “Are they still shooting out there?” “Where are you?” I replied. He was on his way home but ran over to the park building as soon as he heard the shooting.
Thomas was quick to stand against injustice. He’d defiantly argue or stand up to teachers, principals, even the police if he felt he was being disrespected. Always in a respectable manner, but because he was young, black and male, he often suffered unfair consequences. It never dampened his spirit though. He has always been a loyal and faithful friend. He’s always called us family, and our boys his brothers.
Thomas went to various junior colleges to play basketball, then he came to a pivotal point which many of our young men face…. what to do when it becomes obvious that your dream of becoming an NBA star doesn’t pan out? Thomas passed the test. He gave it his best shot, went as far as he could, then he took assessment of his life and options and regrouped. He chose to go to school (a choice that astounded those of us close to him) and get a college degree. He is weeks away from achieving that goal. We are so proud of him.
Upon graduation he has the opportunity to go to North Carolina and take a job there in the criminal justice system. His family is moving as well. It is the end of an era. We’ve literally watched him grow from a child to a man. His house on the corner up the block from us, his always welcome pop-in visits, the levity and joy he brings to every gathering… he will be sorely missed. Here in this inner city neighborhood often beset by violence, turmoil and dysfunction, he has brought a richness to our lives that we wouldn’t have found anyplace else. Go with God, Thomas. We love you!