Issue: Fall/Winter 2012
Shelley (Smith '93) Noyes
Reverend Dr. Harry L. Thomas Jr. ’65, director of Come Alive Ministries International and co-founder of the nation’s largest Christian music festival, The Creation Festival, walked out on the stage in Morocco and saw 3,000 Muslims in tuxes. “It was like the Grammys,” said Thomas, who was there in 2004 presenting a human rights award to one of the Kingdom of Morocco’s outstanding women. Thomas had been invited to the Muslim nation with several other evangelical Christian leaders from the U.S. to talk with top government officials and religious leaders about democracy and religious freedom.
“When they introduced me as an American Christian clergyman, the place fell silent,” said Thomas as he recounted he story. “I got up there and I said ‘First of all, I wanted to say that I’ve never experienced such wonderful hospitality in all of the world. I mean, it is unbelievable! And the second thing I wanted you to know is that I have been praying for your country. I know some of the hard things that you have gone through in the North Country [recent earthquake off the northern coast of Morocco], and thirdly, I want to let you know that I’m not Kenny Rogers.’ And the place FLIPPED out! – it broke up – they just started laughing – and then I paused and I said – ‘but I am Santa Claus!’ And they just laughed and laughed…It was through a translator, but it still worked!”
“Pastor Harry,” as he is affectionately called by everyone who knows him – including the wait staff at his favorite local restaurant, The Bonefish Grill in Marlton, N.J. – isn’t really Santa Claus, though his snowy white hair and beard, plus his rather twinkling eyes and gentle, yet jolly, demeanor might lead one to believe otherwise. He is a pastor and a pioneer, a bridge-builder and an evangelist. He is peaceful and passionate at the same time – a grand storyteller with a mischievous sense of humor.
When Thomas remembers his Houghton experience, you can hear the fondness in his resonant voice. “The first thing that pops into my mind when I think of Houghton is that is where I met my wife, Margery (McKinney ’67).” Thomas was in the next room when he heard Margery playing the piano in Gaoyadeo Hall. “I didn’t even see her,” he says, warming up to his story. “I didn’t know what she looked like — but I heard her play. So I said to my friend Terry, ‘Who is playing that piano? I gotta meet her!’” The two have been married for 47 years, and each has been the other’s primary ministry partner.
For Thomas, many of the experiences he had as a college student directly impacted his future ministry. Thomas and fellow ’65 grad Terry McLaughlin formed an extension team called ‘Harry and Terry,’ and together they traveled as far as Ohio giving concerts. “We began to have a real evangelistic ministry going to churches and youth group events. This was the beginning of my musical outreach, and it put me in touch with the Christian music world and prepared me for future music ministry and for concert promotion.”
After graduating from Houghton, Thomas attended Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary (now called Palmer Theological Seminary) and was ordained through the American Baptist Church. In 1971, Thomas received a calling to reach young people for Christ while driving through New York City. He tells the story this way: “I felt compelled to pull over to the side of the road and pray. When I did so, I had this split-second vision of thousands of young people sitting on a hillside. I didn’t know what that meant, but I knew at that moment that God was calling me reach thousands of young people.”
Thomas began preaching in churches, leading youth retreats and writing and recording music. In 1973, he and Margery founded Come Alive Ministries Inc. as a way to reach young people with the new styles of music coming out of the Jesus Movement. The musicians were former drug addicts and “converted ‘hippies’ whose lives were radically changed by the Savior,” remembers Thomas.
He launched a radio program called The Come Alive Show featuring “Jesus Rock,” accompanied by a short evangelistic message to get this new music out to the general public. He also brought the “Jesus Musicians” to New Jersey for concerts. “One evening in 1978,” remembers Thomas, “I produced a concert in Haddon Heights, N.J., that had been booked by a young concert promoter named Tim Landis. I invited Tim to my house after the show, and it was at my kitchen table that Tim and I discovered that we had a similar desire to reach youth and that we both had the desire to do a larger event: a Christian music festival. Margery suggested a name for the festival with the word ‘Creation’ in it.” That night the Creation Festival was born, and the next June 5,000 people attended Creation ’79 at Muddy Run Park in Quarryville, Pa.
Now approaching its 35th year, the bi-coastal event has become the largest of its kind, with a combined attendance of 100,000 people coming out to Creation Northeast, held in Mt. Union, Pa. in June, or Creation Northwest in Enumclaw, Wash., held in July. “I had a vision of thousands of kids on a hillside. I felt that was fulfilled really in 1979, and I would have been content then. But the Lord wanted to go beyond that. Each year we would pray and ask if we were going to do the festival again the next year. It has gone beyond anything I ever expected,” says Thomas. The Creation Festival has been featured by many mainstream media outlets including CBS News Sunday Morning, VH1, CNN, FOX News, Details magazine, and the New York Times. In 2004, Thomas received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Gospel Music Association – an honor that recognized the Creation Festival’s major contributions to the gospel music industry.
Next summer, Thomas will be turning 70 – but he has no plans to retire anytime soon. On his plans for the future, Thomas quotes Psalm 71:18: “Even when I am old and gray, O God, do not forsake me, until I declare Thy strength to this generation, Thy power to all who are to come.”
“As long as I can, I’m going to keep on going. I can’t see any reason to sit around,” chuckles Thomas. He has concerts to promote, festivals to run and lots more world traveling to do. “We’re expanding the festivals internationally,” says Thomas. “We bring musicians and medical teams from the United States, and we try to incorporate the local musicians.” Since 2005, Come Alive International has organized events in Morocco, Ghana, and Sri Lanka. “We’re planning one in the Dominican Republic in 2014, as well as heading back to Ghana in 2014.”
And the thing that lights up Pastor Harry the most? “Oh that’s simple. It really is seeing people come to Christ. Whether it is my Moroccan friend wanting to be baptized at the Creation Festival or 3,000 Hindus rushing to the altar in Sri Lanka — that is what it is all about…lives being changed.”