The Word Among Us

June 2019 Issue

Conversion by Degrees

The story of Fr. Rick Thomas and his Spirit-filled ministry.

By: Fr. Nathan W. O’Halloran, SJ

Conversion by Degrees: The story of Fr. Rick Thomas and his Spirit-filled ministry. by Fr. Nathan W. O’Halloran, SJ

The city of Juárez, Mexico, is called the sister city of El Paso, Texas. It’s just south of the US border, and the two cities appear to merge on a map. Drive a few miles north, and you’ll hit another boundary line—New Mexico. Right there by the Rio Grande River, a little-known community of Catholic lay missionaries resides in voluntary poverty and service to the poor. The community is called The Lord’s Ranch, and their life’s work is to meet the many spiritual and material needs to be found in neighboring El Paso and Juárez.

The Lord’s Ranch was founded in 1975 by a Jesuit priest named Fr. Rick Thomas. His gospel-centered charismatic faith drew lay missionaries from all over to live together intentionally. My parents were among those early missionaries. They met while milking cows on The Lord’s Ranch, got married, and raised me and my siblings there.

That’s how I came to know Fr. Rick: a priest who rode horses, sported black high-top sneakers, and loved to go camping. Most important, he was a priest who lived like Jesus, modeling an intimately trusting relationship with God.

Asking God for Anything. Fr. Rick was known for asking community members and volunteers, “What is the Lord telling you?” He was not asking rhetorically. He continually tried to follow God’s prompting himself, and he was curious to know what God was saying to other people. Another of his common refrains was “Flexibility!” He boldly asked God for whatever he needed, especially if he was in a tight spot.

In one instance, Fr. Rick and a lay missionary named Michael had set out for a camping vacation. It was a sunny, 90-degree day. As they drove along, Michael told Fr. Rick that they had run out of ice in their coolers. Far from any convenience store, Fr. Rick prayed expectantly, “We need some ice, Lord.”

An hour later, they came over a hill, and at the bottom, the sunbaked pavement was full of hail. Not wet, sloppy snow, but intact knobs of ice. Seeing that there was no other snow or ice nearby, Michael was astonished. Fr. Rick replied matter-of-factly, “Didn’t we pray for ice?”

When I heard stories like this one as I child, I figured Fr. Rick must have been born trusting God for everything. But I’ve since learned that he underwent a series of small “conversions” that steered his life on a course toward deeper and deeper trust.

A Grudging Priest. Rick Thomas was born near Tampa, Florida, on March 1, 1928. By the 1930s, phosphate mining had made his father, Wayne, wealthy. This enabled Rick to own horses and receive a private Jesuit education. Wayne wanted Rick to take over the family business, and Rick was planning to—until God told him to be a priest.

It happened when he was in high school. Rick was sitting under a hickory tree when the words came to him strongly: I want you to be a priest. It was an unexpected calling, but he knew it didn’t come from him. Neither Rick nor his parents were pious, and he realized they would be disappointed, so he didn’t tell them for a while.

In 1945, Rick took a train to Grand Coteau, Louisiana, to join the Jesuits. He found the novitiate dull, especially the spiritual reading. So he prayed, “God, you’d better give me more interest because I don’t have it.” And God did. Rick started to find consolation in prayer and spiritual reading: the first few degrees of his conversion. Grudging obedience slowly gave way to openness.

“Seeing” the Unseen Poor. In 1949, Rick’s superiors sent him to a Jesuit-run college in southern Alabama to study philosophy. On the side, he and his fellow Jesuits taught catechism on the streets of an African American neighborhood. Having grown up under segregation, Rick had unconsciously accepted certain prejudices. But a conversation with a “very refined, very polite, well educated” young lady from the neighborhood caught him by surprise. In a moment of sudden clarity, Rick realized that his assumptions had been wrong.

Rick had learned a valuable lesson: to really see people who live differently, you need to have a face-to-face encounter with them. That has the power to change hearts. So he made a point—first in Dallas, as a high school teacher, and then in New Orleans, following his ordination in 1958—to visit the cities’ poorest neighborhoods and to take students with him. He even brought a class to see how sumptuously racehorses lived in contrast to project-housing dwellers. The more poverty he saw, the more simply he also lived: another degree of his conversion.

Meanwhile, in El Paso, one of Fr. Rick’s former high school teachers, a fellow Jesuit, had been working full-time at Our Lady’s Youth Center. Fr. Rahm was being reassigned, and he wanted Fr. Rick to take over the ministry. The center provided hot meals, English classes, a credit union, and other services to youth in a low-income ward: Fr. Rick’s comfort zone, so to speak. With permission from his order, he moved to El Paso in 1965.

The needs there were enormous. One day he came across two boys seeking shelter in the youth center’s dumpster. They refused to go to an orphanage and asked instead to spend the night in the priest’s car. These down-and-out boys represented Jesus for Fr. Rick—and Jesus was suffering in the shadow of church and city alike. So he wrote an impassioned letter to his Jesuit superiors: “May I recommend multiple, prolonged visits to your city’s slums. . . . Until one gets on a first-name basis with more than one family, he won’t begin to absorb their attitudes and comprehend their true needs.”

Newfound Energy from God. Fr. Rick was working hard and feeling the strain of it. In 1969, he told a friend that the demands of the priesthood felt unsustainable. Fortunately, God lifted some of the weight later that year with a new conversion, this time through the Catholic Charismatic Renewal.

That fall, he traveled to New Orleans on business. During the trip, he attended a charismatic prayer meeting. He had arrived late with a terrible headache, so some of the people there prayed with him for healing—and for an experience of the Holy Spirit to revive him. The headache didn’t go away, and he went to bed convinced that nothing had happened. But in the middle of the night, he woke up and began to pray spontaneously. It was such a profound experience that he said it startled him. Even more surprising, perhaps, was the fruit of that experience. He told people, “I’ve never been a lazy person, but now there’s a power and effectiveness that wasn’t there before.”

This “baptism in the Holy Spirit” revived and revolutionized Fr. Rick’s priesthood and his work in El Paso. After a couple of years, he wanted to do even more. Shortly before Christmas, he and some of the volunteers were studying Jesus’ parable about giving a banquet for the poor who cannot repay you (Luke 14:12-14). How could they obey this command of Jesus, they wondered? Together, they decided to bring Christmas dinner to people who were living in the Juárez City dump and scavenging for food in the trash.

They cobbled together baloney sandwiches, a ham, some burritos, tamales, fruit, and candy—enough to feed a hundred people, Fr. Thomas estimated—and they headed to the Juárez City dump. Nobody there knew it was Christmas, so Fr. Rick told the people they had come to share their dinner. They began serving food, but a problem quickly became apparent: the people just kept coming. The volunteers counted two hundred people in line, then three hundred. They kept slicing the ham, handing out tamales, and serving atole—a hot Mexican drink—and no matter how many came, the food never ran out.

It became clear that a miracle was taking place. There was so much left over that on the way back to El Paso, Fr. Thomas distributed it at two different orphanages. This incident made him much more aware of the power of the Holy Spirit—and much more reliant on him.

After this, it did not take long for dozens more Catholic volunteers to join his work. They adopted Fr. Thomas’ lifestyle and decided to share their resources in common. And so was born The Lord’s Ranch Catholic Community, an organization that still exists today.

Carrying On—In Community. Community life over four decades was not without its trials and interpersonal struggles. At some points, the number of volunteers swelled, and at others, it dwindled to the single digits. At one such point in the late 1980s, Fr. Thomas was so distraught that he took a six-week break from ministry and brought his mistakes and his heartaches before God.

During this period of discernment, Fr. Thomas felt that the Spirit was leading The Lord’s Ranch to reorganize with a bigger focus on lay leadership. The community shifted from agricultural food production to providing spiritual nourishment to visitors. Fr. Thomas started offering spiritual counseling, which continued until he died in 2006.

The community carries on his work today. Ministries of The Lord’s Ranch now include food banks, health clinics, a preschool, prison ministry, catechism and soccer programs in Juárez City, and pro-life ministries and a weekly prayer meeting in El Paso.

Conversion by Degrees. Studying the life of Fr. Rick Thomas and his generosity to the poor has shown me the importance of small, ongoing conversion experiences. To “convert” in biblical language means to “turn around.” Most of us don’t turn 180 degrees all at once. Instead, God helps us move a few degrees at a time, until one day, at the moment of our death, our journey of conversion is complete. May each of us become as open to these conversion experiences as Fr. Thomas was—always with the leading of the Holy Spirit.

Fr. Nathan O’Halloran is a Jesuit priest pursuing doctoral studies at the University of Notre Dame. More information about Fr. Rick Thomas is available in Richard Dunstan’s biography, A Poor Priest for the Poor, which aided in the writing of this article, and at thelordsranchcommunity.com.

Comments