The couple spent 42 years in the Congo -- and long to return.
By GAIL WHITE
VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER
LORDSTOWN -- When Sandy Thomas was a child in Wisconsin, she had no idea that her grandmother was praying for her to be a missionary in Africa.
It was what her grandmother had always wanted to do herself, but the opportunity was not available to her. Sandy remembers, at age 5, telling her mother that she was going to be a missionary in a far-away country.
Eugene Thomas did not find out until after his mother's death that when she was pregnant with him during the Depression, she dedicated his life to serving the Lord.
With a house full of children already in their Canton home, his parents considered aborting him. Instead, his mother made a promise to God.
Eugene was shy and timid when he met the pretty, outgoing Sandy at a church camp in Michigan. He was 21 years old; she was 17.
"It was love at first sight," Sandy said.
Early in their relationship, Sandy informed her new love that she was going to be a missionary in Africa. Eugene, who suffered from horrific nightmares about snakes, spiders and wild animals attacking him, wasn't so sure that Africa was in his plans.
After the couple graduated from Columbia International University and married, they settled into a comfortable life in Canton. Eugene worked as a press operator at the Ford Motor Co. and was on the fast track to management.
"We had everything," he said about the ease of their early married life.
Tragedy struck the couple when their house burned to the ground. Then, a son was born and died within four days.
Looking back, the couple views those events as life lessons they would draw upon later. They also believe it was during those tragedies that their hearts were turning toward missions.
A lifelong journey
In 1954, the Thomases left their life in Canton and headed for the northern territory of the Republic of the Congo in Africa. It was a mission trip that would last 42 years.
Eugene said he was one of the only white men to ever set foot in the jungles of this remote region of the Congo. Sandy said she was the first white woman to travel that area, and still the only one to have ventured into some parts of the jungle.
"They call it 'punishment post,'" Sandy said about the native's view of these jungles of the northern Congo.
The missionary post that Eugene and Sandy established was 650 miles from Brazzaville, the capital city of this region of the Congo. To travel by boat, which was the only way to get there, took five or six days.
The couple lived in a mud hut for several years. Eugene created a brick-making machine and taught the natives how to work it. They made 1,000 bricks a day, which enabled Eugene to eventually build a house, a church with seating for 1,100 and a hospital for Sandy to serve the sick.
A trained Red Cross nurse, Sandy performed the simple tasks of stitching the wounds of the natives as well as more complicated medical procedures, such as embalming and amputating diseased limbs.
"She healed them physically," Eugene said. "I healed them spiritually."
Eugene, an ordained minister, traveled the jungle on bicycle bringing the Gospel to the natives. He would make river trips and be gone for a month at a time.
The couple had three children while in the Congo. The family endured bouts with malaria and filariasis (white worms in the blood), survived snake bites from vipers and cobras, killed pythons in the back yard, watched leopards cross their paths and captured crocodiles and tarantulas.
"There were lot of things that happened over there that put us on our knees," Eugene said.
While the jungles of the Congo kept the couple looking upward for guidance and protection, their work of healing and spreading the Gospel was raising them up across the globe.
They have stayed at the homes of ambassadors, dined with heads of state and ridden in the limousines of generals with chauffeurs and bodyguards. They even received a present from Queen Elizabeth II.
One evening, at the home of a wealthy oil tycoon, Sandy looked at the prominent people around the table and asked the hostess, "Why do you invite me and my husband to your dinner parties? We are poor missionaries."
Sandy never forgot what the woman told her, "We are all artificial. You two are real."
A job finished
In 1997, with Eugene approaching 70 and Sandy in her mid-60s, the couple knew it was time to return to the United States.
"If we were younger, we would be there today," Sandy said with more than a hint of sadness as she sat in her comfortable living room in Lordstown. "Our hearts are still in the Congo."
"We dream about the Congo," Eugene said with longing in his voice. It's a sharp contrast to the young man who used to have nightmares about the very animals he faced for 42 years in the jungles of Africa.
"The goal of every mission is to go into an area, spread the Gospel and leave the indigenous people in charge," Eugene said.
Today, the church he established in the jungles of the Congo is in the hands of the Congolese. The building he erected with bricks made in the jungle is home to the first all-Congolese Bible College.
Much like the prayers that were sent up on behalf of Sandy and Eugene when they were young, they prayed for a couple to continue Sandy's work in the hospital.
Eugene tells of a child they met in New York many years before when they were home on furlough. "This little boy would sit on my lap when he was 7 or 8 and beg me to tell him stories about Africa.'"
Eugene would share story after story of their jungle life with the small child. That little boy grew up to be the answer to the couple's prayers. Today, Dr. Joseph Harvey, his wife, Rebecca, and their four children live in Brazzaville. The doctor runs the hospital established by the Thomases.
A continuing legacy
In August, the hospital will be dedicated as the first Christian hospital in the northern Congo, called Pioneer Christian Hospital.
Knowing that their spiritual and medical work is continuing pleases the Thomases. Only one thing would please them more.
"We feel there is such a need for young people to reassess their lives and do something that will really make a difference," Eugene said.
With the hope of inspiring young people to the mission field, Sandy has written a book of the couple's life in the Congo entitled, "Beyond Jungle Walls: Bringing Hope to the Forgotten Congo."
"We gave up everything -- left it all behind," Sandy said. "And we gained a life of incredible experiences."
Eugene looks at his bride of 55 years, "We sure have been blessed by God."