Written By: Renee Heemskerk – Partnership Manager
The first time I met P.J. Thomas I was a complete wreck. I was weary from three weeks of non-stop travel through south India and contracted strep throat days earlier. Then I had an allergic reaction to the detergent on my bedding during the ten hour overnight train ride from Kolkata to Samsi. To top it off, a serious tap malfunction in one of the dirtiest bathrooms I’ve set foot in, left me sprayed with raw sewage and of course an inaccessible suitcase. I stepped onto the station platform, more than disheveled, and with eyes nearly swollen shut, barely making out the tall, slender, unassuming man walking towards me. He warmly approached and took my hand, introducing himself. I was instantly struck by the peacefulness that seemed to exude him. “I’m not feeling very well.” I stammered, as I opened the car window to circulate the smell rising from my clothes. “You can take a little rest when we arrive.” He assured me. I wondered if I could pull myself together for the full day ahead.
We arrived at the Emmanuel Ministries (EM) property driving through a stately gate where a six story school towered above us. I made introductions as quickly as I could before changing my clothes and barrelling into the big bed in the guest room. Feverish chills ran through my body. My throat and head ached. I curled up in a ball and slept until a persistent knock on my door broke through my dreams and lurched me awake. I would usually push through anything to go out to the villages and see the work being done. However, today it was impossible. I could barely raise my head up from the pillow. I thought, “I’ll have to postpone until tomorrow.” I pulled myself up to give the bad news to P.J. Thomas, who was sitting in the living room, exactly where I had left him two hours earlier. He jumped up as I entered the room. “Great, Renée, you are finally ready. Let’s go. The car is waiting.” Before I could interject, his wife, Tripti, handed me a bright turquoise toque. “For your cold.” She said with a sincere smile. Swallowing my request to cancel, I followed him out the door.
Four hours later, the bumpy pot-holed road came to an end and we arrived in a small Indian village. We walked past cracked mud houses with thatched roofs and scattered farm animals, until a small church emerged on the edge of town. Over 120 people had gathered, eagerly anticipating our arrival with nearly 50 EM pastors and evangelists coming from miles away.
P.J. Thomas greeted everyone, shaking hands, asking how families were, exuding the same warmth I came to know him by. It was plain to see the love that he had for his friends and the appreciation and respect they had for him. His quiet disposition melted away as he stood at the front of the church and preached passionately giving words of encouragement to the group. Afterwards, I met with the pastors individually, taking in their incredible testimonies and learning about the ministry they were engaged in. Many were illiterate and landless, yet God raised them up as his front line workers to share the joy and peace they found in Jesus. They were reaching villages and neighbours, praying for the sick and planting churches. They traveled miles by foot and bicycle with dedicated steps. P.J. Thomas mentored them, provided Bible training for them, helped them to start businesses and sent their children to school. He also advocated on behalf of their communities and provided clean water and latrines to improve sanitation. Only decades earlier this region was completely unreached. Now they estimate there are 7,000 believers because of Emmanuel’s work. I was so inspired by these incredible Christians and all that they were doing. And to think, I almost missed it. Later after much rest and care by Tripti, I recovered and continued on my journey.
Today, four years later, I reflect on this cherished memory as I grieve over the loss of P.J. Thomas. I am so, so sad at his passing. I was praying for him consistently, reminded by the scars on my husband’s side from his own kidney transplant. I am grateful that I had the chance to know him and be a small part of his work. He leaves behind an incredible legacy that inspires me, as a faithful servant and friend of God.