“Hey, Greg, this is your old, old, old, old, old, friend calling…..” So began the voicemail from Dick Thomassian on my cell phone at 12:44 p.m. on July 9, 2020. Later that day, I called him back and we had a long, encouraging talk. Little did I know that would be the last time I talked with Dick Thomassian – one of the great encouragers in my life and in the lives of so many others. The picture above was taken here in Birmingham in 2015. Dick and Lois were in town and we met them for a meal. Every time I talked with him after that day, Dick never failed to mention it and say that we had to do it again. I will always treasure that day and that picture.
As I sat down to type this post, I couldn’t help but think back to the first time I met Dick Thomassian. Growing up in Northeast Alabama, I had seen him many times on television leading worship at Whitesburg Baptist Church. However, I first met him in New Orleans in June 1996 as a seminary student taking an evangelism class during the Crossover New Orleans evangelistic effort prior to the Southern Baptist Convention. I arrived on the campus of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary to get my assignment for the week, having no idea where or with whom I would be working. It was a blessing to learn I had been assigned to do block parties and street evangelism with Whitesburg Baptist Church.
The first day of Crossover New Orleans we did an evangelistic block party in one of the most crime ridden housing projects in the city. I didn’t have to wonder what to do – Dick told me! Everyone had a job and everyone worked hard. No one went harder than Dick. When it came time to share the gospel and call people to be saved, he shifted into another gear! After a tiring day, I was looking forward to resting that night. That is when I found out that some of us were doing more evangelistic work that evening and Dick had assigned me to go. To my amazement, Dick took several of us to Jackson Square in the heart of the French Quarter at night. He had a puppet team set up on the square and he gave me a handful of gospel tracts. “Here, pass these out and witness to people who stop and listen,” Dick said. Then he started preaching right there on the street corner in Jackson Square and calling for people to place their faith in Jesus on the spot. Needless to say, Dick Thomassian made a giant first impression on me.
Dick Thomassian was not giant in stature, but he was larger than life. He absolutely took over any room he entered with his boundless energy, his passion for Jesus and seeing people saved, his love for people, his leadership and organizational skills, his stubborn determination, his sense of humor, his ever present smile, and that laugh. Oh, that laugh. His ministry was invested in people. For thirty years he served as Minister of Music at Whitesburg and then ten more years as Minister of Missions – forty years total at that church. Once while speaking in chapel at Whitesburg Christian Academy, he brought an old worn out pair of shoes into chapel and told the students that these shoes had preached the gospel on every continent except Antarctica. He then told them he was getting old and asked who would step into those shoes and preach the gospel all over the world. That was Dick. Always investing. Always looking to the work of the gospel.
In 1999, I was the pastor of First Baptist Church of Remlap and held revival services with a different preacher each night. I invited Dick to preach and he eagerly accepted. Unsurprisingly, he challenged our church to boldly share the gospel and win people to Jesus. He was kind, gracious, and encouraging to a young pastor – even remembering me from that New Orleans trip three years before. From then on whenever I would run into Dick at a state convention function, he would always talk to me and ask about my church and the ministry. We were friends.
In 2007, I was called to serve on staff at Whitesburg Baptist Church. On the Sunday morning I was introduced to the church, one of the first people to greet me was Dick Thomassian. Beside him (as always) was Lois. She didn’t say as many words, but her love and grace were just as apparent. Dick could not have done what he did without Lois. She was the perfect complement to him, and, occasionally, the only one he would listen to!
After coming to Whitesburg, I saw Dick all the time and grew close to him. He came to love my family – always wanting to see Becky and the boys. He was always asking the boys about their ball games and telling them stories from his childhood in New York City. We often met for lunch at one of his favorite places – Newk’s. Over lunch he would tell me stories of the 70s & 80s at Whitesburg and the Southern Baptist Convention. He would share about mission trips and times when they saw huge numbers of people come to Christ. Without fail, he would always ask me how I was doing and how Becky and the boys were doing. He was my friend.
It’s really impossible to remember all of the times that Dick Thomassian spoke life into me. Almost every time I preached at Whitesburg, Dick was there. He was always the first to encourage and affirm me afterward. A handful of moments stand out. During a tough, down season of my time at Whitesburg, I looked up and Dick was standing in my office door. He closed the door behind him, sat down, and talked to me like a father to a son. I will never forget those words of encouragement and steadfastness. Those few minutes were life giving to me. When I was leaving there to move to Birmingham, Dick’s words of affirmation and encouragement were just what I needed in that moment. He was my friend.
Since leaving Huntsville, I could count on hearing from Dick regularly. Several times per year, my cell phone would ring and he would say he “needed to hear my voice and lay eyeballs on me.” Then he would proceed to ask about Becky and the boys! He always wanted to know how the church was doing, but really he wanted to know how I was doing. He was my friend.
The truth is there are hundreds (more likely thousands) of people who could share very similar experiences with Dick Thomassian. He loved people and people loved him. He was a friend to so many all over the world. On every continent there are people who know Christ through the mission efforts of Dick Thomassian. Think about that. He was an innovator in his day and his legacy at Whitesburg Baptist Church is apparent in countless ways. He meant so much to so many. He did so much for our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. He accomplished so much in church work. He was a mighty gospel warrior if I have ever known one.
I am forever grateful that he became my friend.
I wish I would eat at Newk’s with him one more time. I wish I could talk to him on the phone one more time. I wish I could laugh out loud at one of his stories one more time. I wish I could hear him share the gospel and give an invitation one more time.
A mighty warrior and a special friend has gone home.