Living a Life of Prayer

Chaplain applies lessons learned in Africa to his own journey

Carl Thomas (left) makes his prayer rounds every weekday in the Campus Crusade headquarters. "When you pray," he says, "you usher in the presence of Jesus that would never happen except through prayer. Photo by Ted Wilcox

At 7:30 a.m., Carl Thomas walks past empty office cubicles, pausing at a few to utter a prayer for the person who would later sit there. For the early birds he does encounter, Carl prays for requests like visa delays and health problems. No one declines his offer to pray.

Though it's early, this is already Carl's second wave of prayer. The 73-year-old woke at 5 a.m., when the morning was still cool and dewy, kneeling and interceding for an hour -- like he does every day. He sleeps in a bit on Sundays, waking at 6 a.m., but still continues his regimen.

Carl serves as prayer chaplain at World Headquarters of Campus Crusade for Christ in Orlando, Fla., where nearly 1,000 people work, though his prayer focus goes far beyond the office.

Carl says the purpose of prayer is to build a relationship with God, that it helps bring a deeper connection with the Lord.

"Prayer really is kingdom language," he says. "It is not just mere words. When you pray, you have stepped into God's dominant, sovereign will to bring about His kingdom on earth."

These are lessons born from years of experience, not classroom theory. As evidenced on this day and many others, prayer has become the driving force of Carl's life.

Yet Carl wasn't always a man of prayer.

Mother's Faithfulness Evident in Son's Life

Growing up on a farm near Milford, Ind., Carl and his family attended church, but Carl didn't have a personal relationship with God. His mother prayed for him daily -- a consistent, but mostly private, act that Carl credits for his life's successes.

Early on, Carl struggled in the classroom. "When I was in school, my mind was always somewhere else," he says.

But one area he always excelled in was mechanics. He even dreamed up an idea for a special jet engine.

Though he didn't attend college, he enrolled in a diesel mechanics school in Miami when he was 22 years old. Then a friend invited him to attend a church service.

"I realized that night that all of my being religious had amounted to a big fat zero," he says. At the end, he committed to follow God.

This was the beginning of his prayer life.

Season in Africa Builds Faith in Prayer

Eventually Carl joined the Navy and served in Vietnam. In the midst of combat in Quang Tree, he prayed with several soldiers who committed their lives to Christ.

After the war, Carl began taking painting lessons. He had been praying specifically that God would provide him a wife; a friend introduced him to Phyllis, an aspiring young teacher. They began dating and married a few months later.

Eventually, Carl and Phyllis became staff members with Campus Crusade and moved to Kenya as missionaries. An opportunity perfectly suited for Carl's talents surfaced: He helped start a mechanics school where they also taught spiritual principles. Besides teaching and fixing cars, Carl often prayed for customers who came to the shop.

"Carl has a great desire to help people," says Phyllis. "He loves to hear their stories and tell stories, and offers help in any way he can."

One day, 2 professionals brought a car to Carl's school. While the students tinkered with the vehicle, he explained to the customers how they could begin a relationship with God. Both prayed and received Christ. Carl's desire to pray for people grew and grew.

A few years later, something accelerated Carl's prayer life even more. While attending a church in Colorado, Carl took a pastor's challenge to pray for 30 minutes each day.

"That was the longest amount of time I had ever prayed before," he says. He stayed consistent each day, though sometimes watching the minutes slowly passing. But the experience helped him develop the discipline.

Big Answers Lead to Bigger Steps

Carl soon realized that prayer was more than just a duty, but a specific gift from God for him to use. His confidence grew when he began to see amazing things happen through his personal prayers.

While on furlough in Indiana with a farmer friend, Carl prayed specifically for the man's soybean field. The field eventually produced a bumper crop, far surpassing that of his neighbors, though they received the same amount of rain.

Another time, Carl was asked to speak at a church service in California for 5 minutes. After he finished speaking about Jesus and His disciples from John 14 and then praying, many people crowded forward to respond to the message.

In 1995 in Kenya, Carl read the book The Coming Revival by Bill Bright. He was inspired to advance his prayer life to the next level. He tried a 40-day fast, meaning he would only drink juice as nourishment, yet continue his normal work routine.

As the weeks passed by, his weight dropped from 180 to 130 pounds, yet he testifies he had immense energy. As he sought God daily, several things happened.

"The Lord impressed upon me that He was raising up people to pray for revival," he says. He also encouraged his director to call together the entire male Kenyan staff team to pray and fast for 3 days.

Years of Lessons Applied to Daily Life

About a year later, Carl's parents were involved in a severe car accident. He sensed God was leading him to return to the United States and care for them. It was also during that time that he became prayer chaplain -- the role he continues in today.

"He is just a simple mechanic -- and Carl would agree with that statement -- yet God has developed all these gifts in him over the years," says Ralph Walls, an associate staff member with Campus Crusade who has known Carl for more than 30 years. "He just shows how powerful God can be in a person's life."

In the past few years, Carl, an ordained pastor, has taken various training on prayer to help sharpen the way he prays.

Later that morning, Carl continues his rounds through the cubicles, pausing at the desk of a new face. "Good morning to you," he says cheerily. "Is there any way that I can pray for you?"

The woman recently started her job and says she is overwhelmed by learning new database systems. He prays for her, quickly, but meaningfully. Tears form in the woman's eyes. "Anytime you need prayer, I'm available," he says.

Carl's life has been a long discovery of prayer, and he says he's currently living the high point of his journey, the culmination of his life's experiences.

Carl moves on, ready to pray for others. There is little space between prayers, as if his life has become one constant prayer.