The last time I saw Tom alive was in mid-November, 2016, at his home in Oklahoma City. I opened the front door, walked down a familiar hallway lined with books, and there was Tom sitting in his favorite chair in the living room. His eyes lit up when he saw me. Chris, how ya doing?”, a question he had asked me hundreds of times over the past twenty-nine years.

Tom had been growing increasingly weak, and he couldn’t rise when I walked up; I bent down and gave him a big hug, part of our regular routine. This time the hug was prolonged. 

I had come to Oklahoma City for a board meeting of the Center for Early African Christianity, one of the many projects Tom had initiated and led. Soon the board meeting began. We were all close friends of Tom. As the meeting progressed, I think we all sensed an era was soon to end. 

Tom let us know that he probably wouldn’t be saying much, and as I watched him from across the room for the next few hours, I noted a distant look in his eyes. Oh my,” I said to myself. He’s already left us.” What was he seeing? What was he hearing? When will he be leaving us?” I wondered. It would not be long before my question was answered. 

Unfortunately, I had to leave the meeting early. There was a plane to catch and it would not wait for me. I walked across the room. One last hug. One last time to whisper in his ear, I love you, Tom.” I love you, too, Chris.” As I started to rise he held on tightly; one last, long hug from my frail friend. I think we both knew that we wouldn’t be seeing each other for a good while. 

Tom seemed to shrink before our eyes as over the last year he lost more and more weight. Then the shock of his oldest son’s stroke and death in September had laid into him. No one should have to bury their kids, and after Clark’s death I sensed Tom withdrawing, less engaged in his work. A shift of focus was occurring. 

Yet what a life he had led. God had blessed Tom’s vocation and his work. Indeed, a prayer Tom had prayed when he was thirty-five had been graciously answered: 

This costly gift of life is now half spent.
Thou hast entrusted me with breath and flesh.
Enable me, if time still shall remain.
To plunge my muscle, bone, and heart and brain
To honor thee by serving neighbors near at hand
Whose suffering only thou canst understand”
(35th birthday, 1966)