Lowcountry firefighter and ERT member Troy Thomas lives life for Christ in all he does
By Jessica Brodie
SUMMERVILLE—One Lowcountry firefighter and Early Response Team member made a monumental decision to turn his live over to God nine years ago, and now he’s called share his journey so everyone can know his peace.
Troy Thomas, battalion chief for Mount Pleasant Fire Department and a member of Bethany United Methodist Church, Summerville, will never forget June 18, 2007—the night nine of his fellow firefighters died in the Charleston Sofa Super Store fire. The experience began a slow process of self-evaluation about where he, a lifelong churchgoer, fit into the world.
“I grew up in the church, went to church before and after the fire, but the fire was a triggering point,” said Thomas, 40. “I remember sitting in the fire truck thinking, ‘That could have very well been me.’”
He became convicted with the desire to get his life “right.” Soon after, Christian evangelist Franklin Graham was holding a festival in Charleston. Thomas’ wife, Renée, was a strong woman of God and wanted to be one of the counselors at the festival, and Thomas went with her for a three-day training. The training stirred his heart. On day one, he felt a tug of interest. On day two, he felt the Lord pulling at his heart. On day three, when Graham invited anyone who wanted to give his life to Christ to come forward, Thomas jumped in headfirst.
“I prayed the prayer and accepted and became a born-again Christian right then,” Thomas said.
Turning it over to God
But dark times were ahead for the young couple—and a series of experiences that brought Thomas closer to God than he ever imagined. Thomas also owns a custom homebuilding company, and the recession was tough on the company. They had multiple houses for sale and had to pay mortgages on those as well as their own house for two years. It was a test of faith and a time of tremendous hardship.
“As a new believer, I struggled, but I really had to hold firm in my faith,” Thomas said.
Deciding to turn his worries over to God, they sold both the houses within two weeks. While it was a financial loss, it was a huge weight utterly lifted from their shoulders that ultimately helped him build what he calls “a solid foundation on the rock of Jesus Christ.”
But the dark times didn’t stop there. Next, Renée was diagnosed with a rare form of cervical cancer. Instead of considering their experience a terrible ordeal, they chose to look at it as a blessing.
“It’s a horrible way to describe it, but you may never feel as close to God as when you are going through cancer,” Thomas said.
When Renée lost her hair, 72 members of his fire department shaved their heads in her honor—and some also gave their lives to Christ. For as Thomas was deepening his own walk with God, he didn’t keep it inside but rather shared it with all who knew him, praying before meals at the fire station and trying to set an example as a Christian so others could see the Father through him.
Renée recovered, and today the couple has a beautiful adopted daughter, 21-month-old Anabelle Grace, whom the couple calls “a miracle child all by herself.”
‘Trust in me’
Next came a struggle within Thomas’ extended family at the same time he was about to embark on his first-ever mission trip, to Haiti. His sister-in-law was going through kidney failure. Thomas shared it with his Sunday school class, and to his shock, someone from the class felt compelled to get tested to see if she could be a kidney donor match. Inspired, Thomas also decided to get tested, and soon he discovered he was a match—only the timing with his pending mission trip was a little too close for comfort.
He prayed to God to give him some signs about what he should do. When doctors called to inform him the date of the surgery was precisely the time he was scheduled to depart for Haiti, he had his answer. He became a kidney donor.
Shortly after, he was promoted at the fire station to lieutenant. And Thomas realized his promotion signified God’s favor: trust in me, and I’ll shower blessings upon you.
It was an eye-opening moment. Since then, Thomas has risen in the ranks at the fire station. In 2010, he was promoted to captain, with God enabling him to score the highest marks on the promotion test. The day he shared his testimony with the Advocate, he was promoted to battalion chief.
He takes his call to let God use him as a vessel seriously.
“The fire department is a very dark world,” Thomas said. “You see death every day and have to be strong on the outside, but a lot of the guys don't have the strength on the inside. It’s my job to live my life so they can see that strength in Christ.”
ERT: Christian love in action
In 2011 came a another turning point in Thomas’ life: he met Billy Robinson, a fire department captain and chaplain who lives in North and is the coordinator of the South Carolina United Methodist Volunteers in Mission Early Response Team.
Robinson, whom Thomas called a true man of God and a personal inspiration, introduced Thomas to the ERT, and Thomas decided to form a regional ERT for his four-county area around Charleston. The ERT does immediate relief in the aftermath of a disaster, mucking out homes, cutting away downed trees and doing all they can to live out their mission of “Christian love in action.”
On their very first call, after tornadoes in Bowman, Thomas encountered a man who could not read, but he pointed to the cross on their ERT trailer and told them he knew God was reaching out through them to help.
“That man saw Christian love in action in middle of nowhere—that was our first ‘aha!’ moment,” Thomas said.
Call after call, the message hit home: through their efforts, God is glorified.
Nowhere did Thomas see that as strongly as the weekend of the October 2015 floods, when his area received 25 inches of rain.
“Of my 21 years in the fire department, nothing prepared me for the magnitude of that disaster, physically and emotionally. They showed a lot on the news, but they could not capture what we saw,” Thomas said.
The wreckage was overwhelming: people cutting their houses apart, taking everything they owned out into the street, going from everything to nothing. ERT members normally do two or three calls a year; after the floods, they spent seven weeks doing nonstop disaster relief.
They saw Christ in all of it, and were able to be His earthly witness.
One Friday afternoon when they were finishing up for the day, a 280-pound man saw Thomas and shouted out, “Hey, are you Troy?”
“He looked like the stereotypical biker dude, and I felt like saying ‘My name’s Mike,’ but I said, ‘Yes, sir, my name’s Troy,’” Thomas said.
The man, Peter, pointed to his house, with a water line straight across the windows and water down to the porch.
“He said, ‘This is my house. I lost everything. I don't have anything anymore. I need help,’” Thomas said.
Thomas’ team was finished for the day, but he put a call out for assistance. Help arrived in the unexpected form of 45 men, women and young adults who pitched in and got Peter’s house entirely cleaned out.
“He comes out to the street and was just crying, this 280-pound-man, and we all hold hands there in the street, and he just says, ‘I did it!’” Thomas said.
It turns out Peter had gone to his knees for the first time in his life and begged God to send help—which God sent in the form of the 45 unexpected volunteers.
“That was one of the biggest ERT miracles we witnessed, just absolutely beautiful, and it just solidifies what ERT teams do,” Thomas said, then let out a laugh. “We always say when you’re tired and weary, you need to be on your guard, ’cause that’s when the Lord’s going to do something big.”
‘I might be the only Bible someone reads’
Today, Thomas keeps his focus on living his life for Christ in everything he does.
“I’ve always been a decent guy, but decent doesn’t get you into heaven; it’s giving your life fully over to him,” Thomas said.
Every day, he wakes up and reminds himself that he might be the only Bible someone reads, so he needs to live his life so others can see God through him.
“I can’t walk in fire station and start reading John 3:16 and expect them to get anything out of it, but when they see me going through life, I want them to know where I draw my strength from,” Thomas said.
That’s something everyone can do, he said, and you don’t need to fight fires to make a difference. Anyone can be a hero for God, whether they are a schoolteacher or an office worker.
He hopes people will consider becoming an ERT member like him. Young, old, man or woman, he said there is a place for everyone aged 18 and older. Usually, he said, it’s two calls a year, and the blessings they receive are far more than the work they do. (To learn more, email [email protected] or call 803-247-5737 or 803-539-8429.)
Thomas also said he is willing to share his testimony with any church in the state.
“I feel the Lord has given me the ability to speak my message and inspire people, and that’s what I want to do,” he said.
To arrange for Thomas to talk to your church, email [email protected] or call him at 843-670-2023.