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John Cornish was a mean, abusive alcoholic who wouldn’t seek employment. The family of 10, which didn’t have indoor plumbing, lived on $320 monthly welfare checks. John beat up Bertha two or three times a week, undeterred by the children screaming and pleading for him to stop. Even in his drunken state, John lined up his children on the property and shot objects out of their hands — or off their heads — with guns.
Through all the ordeals, Bertha faithfully took the children to Family Worship Center in El Dorado, Kansas. At night, Bertha sang hymns with her children.
“My mom was such a godly, praying woman under those horrible conditions,” remembers the 70-year-old Sharon, who sometimes retreated to the yard and recited memorized Scripture during her father’s drunken rampages. “She loved Jesus more than her own life.”
At church, Sharon met Tim L. Thomas, and the two went to Central Bible College in Springfield, Missouri. They have been married almost half a century.
Bertha Cornish died of cancer when her youngest child was 3. Even with his wife bedridden, John continued to pummel her. John suffered a fatal heart attack eight months after his wife died. Only later did the children discover he had been married twice before. Despite being embittered toward their father, all but one of the eight Cornish children went into ministry.
Tim and Sharon pastored churches in Kansas and Nebraska for 15 years. For the past 29 years, they have served as Assemblies of God U.S. missionaries, primarily planting inner-city churches in Chicago. Since 2010, the Thomases have served as U.S. missionaries with Missionary Church Planters & Developers. They work with 40 urban missionary families as national liaison. They stay in touch via phone calls, texting, Facebook, and personal visits to missionaries in 25 cities, from Los Angeles to Boston.
“We counsel, we coach, we mentor, we pray with them,” says Tim, who turns 68 this month. “A lot are young enough to be our children. Our role is to affirm and to encourage them. Many young people come to the city with a lot of zeal, only to leave defeated a couple of years later.”
On visits, the couple may minister at the church, help with an outreach, or connect missionaries to resources. Tim, a former carpenter, also leads work teams to build or repair facilities. A challenge for many urban missionaries is finding long-term supporters.
“People aren’t lining up to go into tough and dangerous inner-city neighborhoods,” Tim says. “Those who do are specifically called.”
David P. Robinson has known Tim and Sharon Thomas since their days at CBC half a century ago. Robinson convinced them to move to Chicago, where Robinson conducted inner-city outreaches. Robinson says the Thomases remained steadfast in urban ministry for a quarter century when many others gave up.
“They really understand serving, so they seldom get weary inwardly,” says Robinson, 72. “They are passionate servers and lovers of people.”
Tim’s immigrant great-grandmother Hannah Thomas settled in the Windy City. Tim planted a church in 1994, ultimately learning the site was just three blocks from where his grandmother lived a century earlier. All three Thomas children helped their parents in ministry in Chicago.
Robinson, who now is a leadership coach based in Elgin, Illinois, believes Tim and Sharon’s current role is a perfect fit.
“They’re very much a mom and dad to the next generation,” Robinson says. “They’re really shepherds to urban missionaries. If I was in a jam and I could only call one person, it would be Tim — regardless of the problem.”
One couple that has benefited from knowing the Thomases is David and Shirrie Dominguez, who pastor Philly Dream Center Church.
“They come around us and make us feel so much more empowered, encouraged, and equipped to do what God called us to do,” says David, a U.S. missionary associate with Church Planters & Developers.
Tim arranged to provide a donated 16-passenger bus to Philly Dream Center just as the church prepared to move into a facility of its own.
Tim and Sharon now live in Altoona, Iowa, to be near their children and grandchildren. Older son Corey is executive director of the Des Moines Dream Center, meeting unique needs in Iowa’s capital. Younger son Nathan is worship and arts pastor at Berean Assembly of God in Pleasant Hill. Daughter Andrea also lives in the area.
From June 22-26, Tim and Sharon, with help from Nathan and the Berean worship team, will host a worship workshop for a dozen kids of urban missionaries. The Thomases are covering the travel, food, and lodging expenses of all attendees, many of whom help their parents with worship at church. The experience will provide voice and instrumental instruction for the participants, as well as help them build relationships with other MKs.
David and Shirrie Dominguez have four teenage children who assist in ministry. Yazmeen, Jésus, Andrea, and Christian all will attend the worship retreat to hone their singing skills.
“The Thomases have been a huge encouragement in our lives,” Dominguez says. “We’re better because of them.”