Based on an interview with the Rev. Thomas Blackmon by Sally Thomas
The Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana clergy directory lists the Rev. Thomas Blackmon as retired – but that has not stopped Tom and his wife, Molly Steele, from launching a new vision for Godly Play ministry in Honduras.
Tom has been a friend of Jerome Berryman and Godly Play for over thirty years; this June in Denver, he will step down from the Godly Play Foundation Board after 18 years of service. I first met Tom in Sewanee in 1997. Many of us remember with deep appreciation Tom’s phone calls as we were traveling to Core trainings beginning in 1999. They would always start, “I have been praying for you and your circle. I want you to know that.” Tom is a visionary and dedicated partner in building Godly Play programs.
Last autumn, the Rev. Tom Blackmon and his wife, Molly Steele, moved back to Dallas after a decade on the north side of Lake Pontchartrain in Covington, LA. They immediately re-engaged with St. Michael’s and All Angels Episcopal Church, with Tom sharing Godly Play stories. He encouraged the parish’s mission planning team to add Godly Play to St. Michael’s annual mission work with the people of Tela, Honduras.
St. Michael’s has sent teams to Honduras since 2005. Over the past 13 years the teams have worked in Tela on the Caribbean coast where there is an Episcopal church and school, Mision Espiritu Santo. In October, 2016, they sent a small advance team to meet with rector and head of school Mother Olga to plan how the team might best serve the community when they returned in February with their team of 21. Initially focused on the church and school, their scope of work has widened to the town and the more impoverished barrios 30 minutes away. In early 2017, the focus was on pouring concrete floors, repairing plumbing, and improving management of flooding and mosquitos in the wake of the Zika epidemic.
“I’ve never met a lazy Honduran,” Tom said. The mission volunteers always work alongside the locals, leaving supplies for their work to continue over many months. While all that construction work is going on, a dedicated team offers a VBS-type experience to the children at the parish bilingual school. Having returned many times, the Dallas volunteers are beloved as are the music leaders.
When Tom approached them about adding Godly Play, it was a bit of a gamble. They already had a plan. However, as many of us can attest, all you need to do is to share a story and invite some wondering and voilà! The team welcomed the addition of Godly Play, and Tom and Molly set their sights on Honduras in February. Though Tom had made around 18 trips, it was Molly’s first.
The circle included children age 5 up to 8th grade. For the most part, these children do not have books or Bibles at home. Some are worshippers or students at Espiritu Santo, while others come from the Roman Catholic or Pentecostal traditions. Tom was blessed to “inherit the trust of the children” by virtue of his relationship with Sissy and Sally, the longtime teachers from St. Michael’s. “That trust was my treasure.”
How did it go? “On the first day, I told the story of Creation after a little introduction about where these stories come from and why we have them. I was blown away by how quickly they allowed this new method to engage them – they surrendered to the stories and materials faster than any of us expected.”
On the second day, Tom shared The Great Flood and found the wondering begin to feel more natural with the middle school girls leading the way. On the third day, he shared the Parable of the Good Shepherd and responded to the group’s hunger for one more story by putting toether the St. Francis Lesson for the final day. Of course, he left the stories there for gifts and to mark the place with the promise of more stories next year.
I spoke with Tom after he had been back for a month and asked, of course, what was his favorite part? “Seeing the increasing openness and engagement with each day.”
Most important? “It was so satisfying to have studied the stories and to be able to get back on the floor – my performance anxiety moved to satisfaction in working beyond my control. I was aware of the power of the sacred text in bringing us into a presence. A child whose uncle was murdered in a drug related situation became very existential. The other children tended to raise those deep wonderings in quiet moments with me or Sissy privately, which is a common cultural pattern.”
As for this deep and abiding gift of Godly Play, Tom reconnected with his early experience and mused: “Remember how powerful and effective the process is, the materials, and the language of the scripts and how ‘high’ our theology of the Holy Spirit is. If we do our part well, there is ample opportunity for newcomers, for anyone to be touched and engaged.”
SALLY THOMAS has been a storyteller since 1997, when Godly Play was introduced at her previous parish in Cohasset, MA. Inspired by the innate theology of her own children, Sally has personally experienced Godly Play as a natural foundation on which to support anyone (including herself!) growing in relationship with God. Accredited as a Godly Play Trainer in 2001, she is also a spiritual director and has masters degrees in nursing and theology. Sally has served on the Godly Play Foundation’s Education Committee and currently lives with her husband in St. Louis.