Recommitting to the Church
Shortly after his baptism, Thomas was transferred to Karamürsel, Turkey, where he became known as “the black member of the Church.” “Unless you are blind, it doesn't need to be announced that I'm black,” Thomas says. “That got old really quick.” For the first time at church, Thomas experienced belittling comments and blatant racism.
“I went to the branch president and told him to tear up my membership,” Thomas says. “He said, ‘Isaac, we can't do that.’ I said, ‘Yes you can. It’s mine. I’m telling you, tear it up. The Church is true, but I can't manage all this.’” After debating for a while, Thomas left with his membership records intact, but he swore to himself he would “never, ever go into a [Latter-day Saint] church."
During his next transfer from Turkey to the Laotian border during the Vietnam War, Thomas decided he wanted to learn how to play the piano, and the only piano was at the Air Force base chapel. One evening around 6 p.m., he went into the chapel when he thought all the churches had finished meeting. But a small group of six men were down in front, and Thomas decided to wait until they finished. “A kid gets up and starts bearing his testimony. I had walked into another Mormon meeting!” Thomas recalls. “Not only was this kid bearing his testimony, but he had been at my baptism.”
There were only 13 members of the Church on that Air Force base, and soon all of them knew about Thomas. “I was doing USO shows at the time and they never missed a show that I was in. Ever. They literally loved me back into the Church,” Thomas recalls.
Among the most touching moments Thomas shared with those Church members came the evening his home teacher, Denny, visited. “Denny came and home taught me. He said, ‘You know, Isaac, there will always be people who will see you and love you for who you are. There will be other people who will just like to hang around you because of who you are. And there are other people who don't matter who will say and do things that they shouldn't. Don't let any of those people cause you to cheat yourself out of your own exaltation. Leaving the Church, withholding your testimony, it's only affecting you and your own salvation. It's not affecting them at all.’ Shortly after [sharing that advice], Denny was shot down,” Thomas says. “I have taken that advice . . . throughout the rest of my life.”
Serving a Mission
After returning from military service, Thomas decided he wanted to serve a mission. “I wrote President Kimball a letter, ‘Dear President Kimball, I want to go on a mission. I don't care if I can't baptize people. Other people can do that. All I want to do is teach.’ I got a letter back, ‘Dear Brother Thomas, you can't serve a mission because you don't have the priesthood.’ [I thought,] ‘Wait a minute. Girls go on missions and they don't have the priesthood.’ I wrote him another letter. I got another letter back that said, ‘Yes, but they have to go to the temple and receive their endowment. For you to do that, you would have to have the priesthood,” Thomas recalls. Though Thomas concedes that it was a very kind letter, for the first time as a member of the Church, his inability to hold the priesthood began to irritate and frustrate him.
Faithful and resourceful, however, Thomas didn’t let those letters deter his ambitions. When students returned from BYU during the summer holidays, Thomas learned about a type of missionary he had never heard of before—a BYU Young Ambassador.
In August 1977, Thomas drove from Texas to Provo. “My total intent was to audition for the Young Ambassadors for my mission for two years. But those kids were so talented, I got intimidated. I never had dance lessons, I never had music lessons, so I didn't go,” Thomas recalls. But somehow word reached an old friend of Thomas’s from the Laotian border that he had come to audition. When a dancer dropped out from the Young Ambassadors, Thomas received a personal call to come and audition.
The morning of his audition, Thomas went to the temple for the first time to perform baptisms for the dead. “I was told by a bishop here that I could have a temple recommend, and I thought, ‘This is an apostate bishop,’ cause no one ever told me that before,” Thomas recalls. But after calling trusted friends and family, Thomas learned that he could have a limited-use temple recommend. Thomas arrived at the Provo Utah Temple early in the morning, and he recalls, “I am not a swimmer, so I thought I would do only one set of names. I went at 9 in the morning. I didn't leave until 2:30. It was the most glorious feeling I have ever had in my life.”
On a spiritual high after his first temple trip, Thomas did a whole slew of back handsprings before his audition for the BYU Young Ambassadors.
A short time later, the director of the group, Val Lindsey, called Thomas into his office and said, “We want you to become a member of the Young Ambassadors. But we need for you to understand you are going to be living in a fishbowl. Everybody will be watching everything you do because you are a black man and that's an unusual thing in our Church.” Despite the warning, Thomas wasn’t intimidated. “I said, ‘They can do whatever they want to. This is my mission for two years. I'm not concerned about everybody else.’”
But Thomas quickly learned that the biggest challenges he would face during his mission with the Young Ambassadors would not come from protestors. His most soul-stretching trials came from realizing what a life without the priesthood and temple blessings really meant.
“In January 1978, I started wondering, ‘Who is going to help me raise my kids? My sons won't be able to have the priesthood. What am I gonna do with my daughters who can't be taken to the temple to be sealed for time and all eternity?’” Thomas says. “I asked all the religion professors. I went the rounds and asked everybody that I knew. All said, ‘Isaac, everything will be cleared up in the Millennium.’ That is fine for the Millennium, but what about today? I started having these questions about the priesthood that never affected me for six years.”
And along with the questions came heartbreaking experiences. “We get on tour and one of the girls gets sick. She looks like she is throwing up blood,” Thomas remembers. “I had a bottle of consecrated oil. I couldn’t use it, but I always carried it. They asked her, ‘Cindy, who do you want to give you a blessing?’ She says, ‘Isaac.’ They said, ‘He can't. He doesn't have the priesthood.’ For the first time, that kind of smacked me upside the head.”
Not long after, one of the performers on stage seriously injured her knee, and Thomas was the only one backstage who could help. “I carried her backstage. The director comes and says, ‘Isaac, go get someone who has the priesthood.’ At that moment, you might as well have come and just hit me with one of those wrecking balls. You might as well have taken a machete and gutted me,” Thomas says. “For the first time in my life, I think I did feel inferior.”
At that point in his life, Thomas explains that he was “holding onto [his] testimony by the skin of [his] teeth.”
When the Young Ambassadors reached Canada, the missionaries wanted Thomas to speak with a young black woman who was investigating the Church. “I jump off the stage at the end of the show, and I'm surrounded by all these people that were calling me a traitor to my people and an Oreo—that I'm only black on the outside and white on the inside.” With questions swirling around his head, Thomas went to talk to this young woman, Claudia, and he testified to her what he still knew to be true: “You’ll do more for your family in the Church than you ever could outside of the Church.”
Thomas never expected to see that woman again, and he had no idea the family he counseled her about would one day include him.
When Thomas arrived in Nashville Tennessee, he received a letter from Claudia. The day was June 7, 1978.