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Wherever the Spirit Leads

Fr. Rick Thomas learned to cooperate with the Holy Spirit.

By: Richard Dunstan

Wherever the Spirit Leads: Fr. Rick Thomas learned to cooperate with the Holy Spirit. by Richard Dunstan

It was 1969. Fr. Rick, a Florida-born Jesuit, had been a priest for eleven years. For the previous five, he had been director of Our Lady’s Youth Center (OLYC), a ramshackle old building in a poor neighborhood of El Paso, Texas, a few hundred yards from the Rio Grande and Mexico.

“I was very successful exteriorly, in that the youth center had all kinds of activities and it looked good,” he recalled. Despite appearances, he considered himself basically a failure. “I knew there wasn’t any significant kind of spiritual fruit.” He had seen only one personal conversion in the whole five years, and none of the young people showed any real enthusiasm for Jesus.

Searching for more spiritual firepower, Fr. Rick became involved in the Catholic charismatic renewal, struggling through a few months of prayer meetings he didn’t really understand. Then one evening, two teenage girls began speaking in tongues, the best known of the charismatic gifts (1 Corinthians 14). Fr. Rick was bewildered. But he decided he could live with his bewilderment when the two not very pious teens started showing up for daily Mass.

“I said ‘God has acted, and I’m going to respect what he did, even though I can’t understand it,’” said Fr. Rick.

Since then, God has never stopped acting. Over the years OLYC has become headquarters for a spiritual community of well over one hundred active volunteers of all ages and from both sides of the border. They feed the poor, preach the gospel in jail cells, run schools and medical clinics, operate the Lord’s Ranch retreat property, and even broadcast Scripture readings worldwide over shortwave radio. While the volunteers work hard, they’re absolutely convinced that it’s the Spirit who does the real work.

A Christmas Miracle. Christmas 1972 is the most spectacular example. One of the first things Fr. Rick learned was that the Spirit does amazing things for Bible readers who are actually willing to do what the Bible says. So about a dozen community members had begun meeting three hours a day to study the Scriptures and act on what they learned. They came across Luke 14:13: “But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.”

At OLYC, the poor are never far away. Ciudad Juarez, across the narrow, concrete-and-chain-link-enclosed ditch called the Rio Grande, is Mexico’s biggest border city (population more than a million). Poor people flock there in hopes of getting a factory job or crossing the border, legally or illegally, to build a better life. Most end up living in ever-expanding squatters’ slums, in housing that ranges from concrete blocks to cardboard. In 1972, the poorest of all lived at the Juarez municipal dump—some in shacks, others simply bedded down on the heaps of discarded trash. Those were the people OLYC decided to invite to a banquet.

Early on the cold, damp Christmas morning, a couple of dozen volunteers set out for the dump with enough ham, burritos, and baloney sandwiches for about 150 people. But more than 300 got wind of the banquet. As they gathered next to the makeshift tables, Fr. Rick apologized for the shortage of food and offered to share it as far as it would go. The people lined up for firsts, then seconds, then bags of food to take home. The food did not run out.

A miracle? Probably, but the OLYC community is more interested in the event as a sign from the Holy Spirit. “God was telling us we couldn’t abandon those people,” said Fr. Rick. “We had to go back.” The group’s ongoing commitment started with food and clothing distribution and grew from there. In 1994, the actual dump was moved to a new location well south of town, but the ministry founded by OLYC is still going strong in the old neighborhood, with a discount food store, school, day care center, children’s meal program, and medical, dental, and optical clinics.

Into the Jails. In 1980, the community was invited into Juarez’s municipal jail, where twenty to forty inmates were crammed into each cell, their only furniture a concrete bench along each wall and a smelly toilet in the corner. They were a hard lot, and the administrator had decided that God was their only hope.

Fr. Rick and his friends had some concerns. What follow-up could they offer to the prisoners? But then one community member felt an overwhelming prompting from the Spirit to go ahead anyhow, and when the group met at the Lord’s Ranch to pray about it, the rustic swimming pool, which had just been partly drained, was found overflowing from no natural or man-made water source. The volunteers took that as a sign from God, and off to the jail they went.

Only the administrator wanted them there—not the guards or police, and especially not the prisoners. From behind their cell bars, the inmates greeted the thirty visitors assembled in the inner courtyard with a chorus of obscenity and blasphemy so loud it drowned out the bullhorn the group had brought for preaching. So with no one listening but God, the visitors began singing, praying, and reading Scripture—especially Philippians 2:10-11: “At the name of Jesus every knee should bend.” For an hour and a half, they prayed. And suddenly, the words came true right there in the jail.

“There was total silence,” said Fr. Rick. “The ones we could see were on their knees. The administrator let them out in the courtyard, and every one of them received prayer.”

More than two decades later, OLYC volunteers still visit the jail every Wednesday. The prisoners are friendlier now, and the men from the community are locked right in the cells to preach, pray, and hand out sandwiches and sacramentals such as holy water. (The women stay in a safer part of the jail, praying and preparing food.) The guards, too, are friendlier toward both the volunteers and the inmates.

Wherever the Spirit Leads. Other ministries have come and gone over the years, always in keeping with God’s will as best the community can discern it. In 1974, OLYC, which is organized as a nonprofit society, bought a ranch thirty miles north of El Paso, after Fr. Rick’s Jesuit superior rejected another proposed site. The superior’s order was a frustrating one for the community, but the second location turned out to have a far better water supply than the first one. Obedience to the Church is part of discerning God’s will, Fr. Rick said. That means faithfully obeying not only the Jesuit superior, but also the bishops of four dioceses—two US and two Mexican—where the community has ministries.

For a number of years, the 480-acre “Lord’s Ranch” was used to grow produce for food banks the group operates in Juarez. Then the Lord began indicating that he had other plans. Crop disease hit, volunteer farm workers started leaving, and farming became impossible. The ranch now serves as a residence for a few community members, a summer camp for poor children from El Paso, and a retreat center for visitors from all over the world who come seeking God’s will for their own lives. Meanwhile, the community buys the food for the food banks—which has turned out to be cheaper than growing it.

Other ministries have dropped off the program altogether. In the mid-1980s, the community worked with juvenile delinquents from Juarez. A group of fifteen young offenders, some of them killers, were taken to live at a remote ranch west of the city; thirteen of them became law-abiding citizens. But a change of municipal government brought an end to the project, and OLYC walked away without a backward glance.

“God speaks through circumstances,” Fr. Rick said. “When he makes something possible, he wants you to do it; and when he makes it impossible, he wants you to quit.”

God in the Ordinary. Financially, God has continued to make many things possible. One example was the 1996 purchase of the new OLYC headquarters. Thanks to a series of unexpected administrative foul-ups, the community’s “pitiful” offer for the modern building beat out bids from the state of Texas and two other deep-pocketed agencies.

The community doesn’t fundraise, other than to include a donation envelope in a monthly newsletter that only goes out to people who ask for it, and it doesn’t borrow. Even so, donations always seem to cover the bills. “We don’t hold back on projects because we don’t have money,” Fr. Rick said. “If God wants us to do something, we start doing it and trust in him. It’s God’s business to raise the money. It’s our business to do the service he asks us to do.”

And while the community works at that service in ordinary ways, God still works in extraordinary ways from time to time. In late 2001, a worker at a food bank clinic made twenty-six sandwiches for volunteers—and gave one each to thirty-seven people. In early 2002, a man was healed of severe urinary tract pain while listening to the community’s shortwave radio broadcast.

Young in the Spirit. In mid-2002, an initiative was started. Called Young Shepherds, the project drew teenagers from both sides of the border. The program arose because “a number of young people were having extraordinary spiritual experiences and sincere desires to serve God in an outstanding way,” said Fr. Rick. He began training them to provide pastoral care to other young people, from sacramental preparation to prayer for inner healing.

“I ask them to talk to other young people who are having the normal difficulties that teenagers experience in the public schools. They bring . . . young people and adults to get spiritual help. One of the girls brought a father of a teenage girl. This man was addicted to gambling. After one prayer session, the man was totally free from his addiction.”

On May 8, 2006, Fr. Rick Thomas died at the Lord’s Ranch in Vado, New Mexico. He was seventy-eight years old. Ever ready to walk through any door God opened for him, always eager to listen to the Spirit and willing to act on what the Spirit told him, he looked forward to hearing the Lord say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

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