My grandfather died when my father was 6 years old. After that, my father earned some money for the family by working at a fruit stand every day after school. After serving in the Navy during World War II, he began working for his uncle as a plumber and later bought the business from him. When I turned 13, I began helping my father with a whole range of plumbing jobs. Without me realizing it, my dad was grooming me to take over the family business. My passion, however, was football.
Every Friday night throughout my elementary years, my dad and I went to the high school football games. We spent most Sundays watching football on TV. Football continued to be my favorite pastime in middle school. I went out for the middle school squad and made the team. Dad would never take time off from work. But he took time off to come watch our games. He encouraged, criticized, and cheered me on in my hopes to use football to get a college education.
In high school, football became all consuming. I played offensive lineman for the Palmetto Tigers and I was named to the all-county and all-conference offensive dream team my junior and senior seasons. In my senior season, we won every game. But while my two best friends and teammates were offered college scholarships, I never got a look.
What Does God Want?
My dreams and hopes were shattered. Dad shared in my disappointment but, as I was the oldest of 5, he was unable to support me financially in trying to “walk on” with a program out of state. Years earlier, in the summer after 4th grade, I became a Christian at a Vacation Bible School. But since then, football had become my god. And without a scholarship, my god was dead. In my despair, I began to turn to the God of gods for the first time.
Three weeks after my high school graduation, I was attending church with my girlfriend and her parents. The clear teaching in the sermon that day changed my focus. Instead of thinking about what I wanted to do with my life, I started thinking about what God would want to do with my life. At the end of the sermon, I raised my hand to receive prayer and began turning my life over to Jesus. I began naming my sin and receiving God’s grace and forgiveness. God was back in my life and I felt peace!
As I was trying to figure out what to do next without football, Dad suggested I get a degree in mechanical engineering. I enrolled in the pre-engineering track at the local community college that fall, but it quickly became clear I wasn’t gifted in that field of study. I dropped out after the first semester.
It was the middle of Vietnam and I was no longer in school. The draft was a real possibility and Dad encouraged me to join the Army National Guard so I could continue with my plumbing career. For the next year and a half I attended apprentice school and prepared for the Journeyman’s eight-hour exam while doing plumbing work for my dad. When I took the exam, even though I had studied hard, I didn’t pass.
Also during this time, I was actively attending church, Bible studies, and engaged in discussions about following God weekly with my peers. I began to feel that a plumbing career wasn’t what God wanted for me. But what did he want for me? And what was the right next step?
Which Father to Follow?
As I talked with friends during their breaks from college, I started to think that attending a Christian college would be the way to go. I sort of mentioned the idea to my parents on a couple occasions but the push back was strong. The sentiment seemed to be: Why waste all that time and money going to a Christian college when Dad’s plumbing business was right here waiting for me? I knew that I had a choice to make. I could attend a college that would prepare me to be a small business owner, or I could choose to go to a college that would prepare me for some kind of ministry. I was torn.
As we were closing up the shop for the day, late in the spring of 1971, I told my dad I had decided to attend Trinity College of Florida in the fall to study the Bible. The conversation did not go well.
He asked if I would major in business.
I told him they didn’t offer any business courses.
He told me I’d have to pay my own way since it wouldn’t be helping the business.
I told him that was fine by me because this is what God wanted me to do. I would just work my way through with a plumbing job.
He was happy that I’d at least have a trade to fall back on. But I was so sure of God’s will I replied, “I don’t expect God to fail me and I don’t need plumbing to fall back on!”
The next day, I apologized to my dad for my disrespect. We embraced, but he reminded me that this was my decision. He would not be able to fund my college education.
I knew I had deeply hurt my dad but I also knew I had to go to Trinity College. I left for college that fall under the burden of a strained relationship with my parents. I knew I wasn’t honoring my parents’ wishes for my life, but at the same time I felt confident I was following God’s will by going to college. I got a plumbing job close to campus and worked there until I became a youth pastor a couple years later.
Taking the Exam Again
During my first year of college I met Bonnie, the woman who would become my wife. We spent the summer after our first year in Haiti doing a missionary internship. The summer after our second year we got married. By our fourth year, Bonnie and I were experiencing success in our youth ministry but I kept being bothered by the thought that I hadn’t honored my father and mother. I still felt distant from my dad.
A wise mentor counseled me to prepare for and take my Journeyman plumbing exam again even if I had no intention of becoming a plumber. Perhaps the gesture would begin to mend the rift between me and my dad. When I asked him to enroll me in the first exam offered after I graduated, my dad was really happy. I studied about an hour a day for a month, but when the day came, it was God’s presence with me that powered me through that 8-hour exam. I was able to answer the questions just like I had never been out of the trade and I achieved a passing grade!
My relationship with my parents was much better after that. Dad and I began to share more openly again like we had in my football days. Bonnie and I received an invitation to join the family in a camping trip. It felt good to be included again.
Bonnie and I had been in the process of applying to serve with Africa Inland Mission (AIM) as career missionaries. We were very interested in opportunities in Africa that were in the less popular and more remote parts of the continent. While in training we met a family who lived in in a very remote part of the Central African Republic (C.A.R.). We met several times and heard about their difficulties and successes. We prayed and ended up asking AIM if there was an opening in the C.A.R. for people with our training.
When we told my parents that we were thinking about leaving the ministry we had been doing to go to Africa, Dad just didn’t get it. He had heard we were doing a great job in our work with youth on campus and in the church in Florida. He said, “The needs and opportunities are really big in the U.S. for a man with your abilities. Don’t you think you’ll have more success here at home?”
This time, with more respect in my voice, I replied, “Dad, we believe that God has called us to serve him in youth ministry in Africa.”
The room fell quiet.
It wasn’t until about two years into our first term that they fully came on board with our decision, supporting us in many tangible ways. As they worked through their disappointment, they eventually came to a place where they were proud that we were following our sense of call.
The Final Two Years
My dad worked hard to offer 24/7 emergency service. He worked Saturdays. Sundays were only off if he didn’t get a call. But when we got back home after our first 4-year term and I walked into Palmetto Plumbing to see Dad, he told me he had my Journeyman Plumbing License there in the safe and offered to give me work while we were home whenever I had the time. Over that furlough, Dad gave me hours even when it meant he’d have to find work for me to do. Some days, he was content to pay me to just sit and talk to him in the shop. Dad loved hearing my stories about driving across the Sahara, language learning, our life in Africa and the people we were getting to know. He told me he was proud of me and the success he could see I was experiencing.
I never saw my father again after that first furlough year. Dad had emphysema and his health wasn’t great. When Bonnie and I and our kids returned home to Africa, we said our good-byes knowing that we might not see each other again this side of death. We discussed whether I would be able to come back if Dad died.
About a year into our second term, on my way home from a four-day fuel run, the rains forced me to wait at the mission station west of us. In those days, the mission stations in the area communicated by radio at the same time each day. We’d all tune in and listen and share anything we needed to. We had just finished lunch and were gathered around the radio when the news was broadcast that Dad had passed away. Over the radio, I was informed my dad had had a bad cold and had stopped breathing earlier that week. Through the generosity of my mentor who happened to be with me around the radio, I was able to arrive back in Florida just a week after the funeral.
I stayed for a month and helped Mom with stuff around the house. I spent time with my brothers and sisters and helped take care of all the things you have to do when someone dies. My brothers got their own Journeyman licenses and took over Dad’s business.
One day not too long ago my brothers and I were talking and the idea of me coming back to work for them came up. I inherited certain gifts from Dad that would round out what my brothers bring to the business. But something moved the conversation on to a different topic and I guess we never needed to come back to it. We’re at peace where we are.
Sam Thomas has served with his wife Bonnie and their four children in several countries of Africa with Africa Inland Mission. They have lived in both remote rural and urban settings of Africa beginning in 1978. Sam and Bonnie have mentored, coached, and discipled developing church leaders in the United States, Central Africa Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo (Zaire), Kenya and Canada. They served as AIM’s International Short-Term Coordinators while based in Kenya from 1997-2004. Sam has served as the Personnel Director for AIM Canada.