By Janis Fontaine
Deacon and soon-to-be priest Ben Thomas is the new assistant rector at St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church in Boca Raton. He sees himself as a reconciler in his new role, and he’ll be involved in building bridges between adversarial groups — within the church, within the community and in the world.
“We’re called to the difficult work of reconciliation,” Thomas said. “Meaning, we’re here to fix what’s broken, bring peace to discord and mend relationships, within ourselves and with others, with the way we treat the Earth, this beautiful gift, and especially our broken relationships with God. The starting point is self-awareness. ‘Mindfulness’ is the big word for it now.”
Reconciliation demands both patience and diplomacy, and Thomas brings a distinctly diplomatic perspective to the church. He lived a life of service since long before he started seminary. After earning a bachelor’s degree in literature and philosophy and a master’s in humanities and social thought from New York University, Thomas worked in social entrepreneurship, international economic and community development, and investment and finance for more than a decade, what Thomas describes as “helping wealthy people spend their money.”
He didn’t help them buy rare art or gold bricks; he helped them invest in programs that seek to eradicate poverty from the globe. “I’ve always worked for the ultra-wealthy, but I didn’t grow up privileged,” Thomas said.
Born in Roanoke, Va., in 1977, the middle child of an insurance agent and a homemaker, he and his family had a barely middle-class existence. It was a devout Christian home where the family sacrificed greatly so the kids could attend a private Christian school.
After high school, Thomas was chosen to attend a cutting-edge college consortium in Washington, D.C. That program introduced the small-town boy to the world. After that, every chance he got to travel or study abroad, he took. He’s been to 35 countries so far.
Thomas said his ah-ha moment came on a rooftop in Morocco after a 14-hour cab ride in a ’79 Mercedes diesel — six people making their way across the Sahara Desert with no air conditioning, windows rolled up tight to keep the sandstorms out.
They were there to visit midwives, American women who came to help deliver the babies of the local women.
“We were hanging out on the roof in Morocco, and it’s so dark you don’t even have to look up to see stars. They’re right out in front of you on the horizon. It’s like you’re in a big cup. I felt the inner nudge at the sheer beauty of it. We have so much, but we don’t incorporate our faith into the daily operation of our lives,” Thomas said.
The way the women’s spirituality was interwoven in their lives, that was what Thomas wanted for himself. He decided the best way to satisfy his spiritual needs was to enter the seminary, and then to help others fulfill theirs.
Thomas graduated in May from the School of Theology at the University of the South, Sewanee. He’ll become ordained a priest on Nov. 18 at Trinity Cathedral in Miami.
In August, he moved his family — wife Anna, whom the Rev. Andrew J. Sherman of St. Gregory’s called a “grace-filled partner,” and their five kids, ages 3-10 — into a church-owned house on Northeast Second Street, just in time for his first hurricane. Six days without power didn’t dampen his enthusiasm.
“Cultivating a deepening of your spiritual life, that’s what I’m all about,” Thomas said. “Helping others reach their faith on a deeper level, I’m charged with that. The future lies in the hands and hearts of the church’s lay people.”
To do this, Thomas started a new “sort of graduate-level class” in September that uses the detailed chronology of the church calendar as a map to talk about spiritual life. The class will use only two books: the Book of Common Prayer and the Bible. “We’ll be stripping it down,” Thomas said, “with a goal of really helping people.”
Some of Thomas’ time is spent helping Sherman, the rector of St. Gregory’s, shoulder his many responsibilities, and one of Thomas’ primary duties is serving on the Boca Raton Interfaith Clergy Association, a group representing the Jewish, Christian and Islamic traditions in the Boca area. The group meets to support and serve the community and to discuss issues of importance to all faiths.
One of the first activities Thomas helped plan and execute was an Aug. 21 candlelight vigil in Boca’s Sanborn Square to condemn the violent acts and speech of Neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klansmen, white supremacists and white nationalists in Charlottesville, Va. About 350 people and two dozen clergy attended the event.
In its official statement, the BRICA wrote: “As religious leaders of Boca Raton representing churches, synagogues and mosques, we come together with respect for each other: for the values we share and for the differences we honor. We recognize that this is a challenging time in the life of our nation.”
Peace-making. Compromise. Win-win. Agreement. These are the words that pepper Thomas’ vocabulary. He believes it’s possible to find solutions where both sides get some of what they want. He wants to teach others that our differences don’t need to divide us. He knows that there are problems that we can solve only by working together.
“At the vigil, we were called to do the difficult work of reconciliation,” Thomas said. “At the vigil, we said ‘yes’ to solidarity.”
Janis Fontaine writes about people of faith, their congregations, causes and community events. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.