Rev. Tom Downing: The Journey Continues
December 10, 2016
| By Julianne Harris
So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. – 1 John 4:16
Just when everything seemed to be going Tom’s way, life changed. He’d married an SMU student, was studying astrophysics at University of CA: Berkley, and was a member of the Air Force ROTC when suddenly he divorced, flunked, barely escaped the draft, and lost all faith in God. Moving back to Dallas and in with his parents, bitterness overcame him, as he blamed the God he disavowed for robbing him of every happiness. But as we know, our darkest hours invite God’s greatest healing – His conduit: David Peabody.
Former fraternity brothers, David arrived at Tom’s Christmas party as a student in the seminary, falling prey to Tom’s vehement opinions. Overhearing this, his girlfriend at the time scolded him, saying, “I’ve had it with your atheist crap. You outta go talk to your friend David and this time let him get a word in edgewise.” Tom obliged. Or at least he intended to.
The week between Christmas and New Years, Tom called David to cancel their meeting. A car accident had nearly killed his girlfriend, and Tom was heading to see her in the hospital. “You won’t be able to get in,” David said. “I can get you in with my ministry credentials. I’ll take you.”
Whereas this episode could have fueled Tom’s distrust and defiance of God, thanks to David’s returning kindness for Tom’s disdain, it became the unlikely catalyst of his repentance. In David’s dorm later that night, he asked Tom to describe the God he so strongly opposed. Tom’s bitterness, compounded in light of recent events, illustrated a God who permits death, destruction, war and suffering. “I don’t believe in that God either,” David said. “Do you believe in love?”
“Let’s start there.”
The next thing Tom knew, he was helping teach the College Class at FirstChurch. Carolyn had been a member of this class, whom he credits with keeping him honest anytime he boasted about his spiritual progress. Two years later they were married.
After graduating from Perkins in 1974, Tom’s appointments moved them all over Texas. They never intended to return to FirstChurch, but when a job at Southern Methodist University brought them back to Dallas in 1982, they visited once and never looked back. Friends from the College Class, who had helped start the Covenant Class, embraced them and the class has been a second family to the Downings for the last 34 years. “They’ve been a powerful support system through the raising of our kids and the loss of our parents. They even let me test my Advent studies and curriculum on them,” he said.
In 2005, with help from Jay Cole, Tom came on staff at FirstChurch as computer support for Crossroads and Minister to Seniors. During his first days on the job, he nearly ripped off the bumper of the church bus while filling it with gas. Instead of being fired, Tom was promoted to lead Adult Education, a wise solution from which FirstChurch continues to benefit.
Among a long list of other accomplishments, Tom has created FirstChurch’s first online Bible study, the core curriculum and a 12 unit power point series of Christian education, all of which will continue to serve FirstChurch long after he and Carolyn move to Austin next month. Tom will also be donating his entire comparative religion and religion and science collections to the FirstChurch library.
As Tom and Carolyn look forward to living near their son, daughter and 4 grandchildren in Austin, it is with heavy hearts that they depart from their home at FirstChurch. Fortunately, they’ve never had much luck escaping this church family, and that luck isn’t likely to change any time soon. They intend to visit at least once a month and we look forward to welcoming them home when they do. If we’re lucky, Tom will teach a few Sunday school classes when they visit.
On Sunday, we will honor the Downing’s for their decades of devotion to FirstChurch and celebrate what is sure to be a joyous next chapter. If you’ve never met Tom, please come meet him. To know him, even for just a moment, is to experience the love of God that transformed his life many years ago.