Musical artist, actor and Disciples minister Bill Thomas has had his share of big moments, whether it was acting on stage or in front of the television camera, but none have been bigger to him than those special times he has enjoyed at the General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).
Thomas, an associate minister at Church of the Valley, a Disciples congregation in Van Nuys, Calif., will be the director of music and worship band leader at the 2009 Indianapolis General Assembly, July 29 – Aug. 2 at the Indiana Convention Center.
Thomas is best known for his role as Vanessa Huxtable’s fiancé, Dabnis Brickney, on the highly acclaimed NBC sitcom The Cosby Show. He portrayed the character from 1991 to 1992 during the show’s eighth and final season. In addition to Cosby, he has appeared in several other TV shows, including Star Trek, Frank’s Place, 7th Heaven, Home Improvement and The West Wing. "The music that we are producing now for the General Assembly is so exciting to me because we have a chance to bring together all of our cultures," said Thomas.
Thomas was born William Thomas Jr. A fifth-generation Disciple, he grew up in Columbus, Ohio, where he attended Woodland Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). He left Ohio and moved to New York City, where he performed on Broadway for 13 years. His next stop was California, where he landed parts in several television series, made numerous guest appearances on TV shows, and was cast in a few movies.
"For me, my other temple besides the church has always been the stage and the screen," Thomas revealed during a recent visit to Indianapolis, "because the narrative continues in both places, and there’s truth to be had. The church and good writing and good performing inform each other, which allow me to continue to grow." Thomas was also music director for the 2007 General Assembly in Fort Worth, Texas.
Four years ago Thomas entered seminary at the Claremont School of Theology, where he completed his master’s of divinity degree. He decided to study theology, he revealed, because "I needed to be able to put together into words the thoughts and feelings I was having. I am an African American man. It would be easy for me to only speak out of my culture, or speak out of my experience. But that doesn’t embrace everybody. I wanted to find the words to embrace everybody when I spoke. Because that’s what life is; life is not only my experience as an African American or as a male. Life is all of us talking together.
"By having this particular General Assembly in Indianapolis, in a sense, in my mind, we are coming back to Mecca," he said. "We are coming home. We are coming to the place where the bottom line stops. This is our Jerusalem. For those of us who don’t live here, this is the place we look to for leadership. Having the convention here in Indianapolis, there’s a sense of flowing back to Eden."
Thomas is excited about the performers who will be joining him to lead worship at the 2009 Assembly as he is about going there himself. They will come from all over the country and many of them are stars in their own right. Most are Disciples, who will be sharing their considerable musical talents at the Assembly for little or no payment.
Referring to the theme of President Obama’s historic first days in office, Thomas said, "I think that everything at this point is about building coalitions and knocking down walls." Thomas felt a similar hope for the world when he viewed the tearing down of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. "I thought, my God, the world is coming together. Now we are still trying to do consensus building over a larger world. We are looking at the Middle East, South America and Africa; it is about us being ‘a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world.’ Our ministers, Rev. Dr. Sharon Watkins and so many of our regional and local ministers have gone to Africa to try to build that consensus. This particular General Assembly is about modeling that wholeness."
The stage band that will perform under Thomas’ direction represents that wholeness. The musicians will include Disciples of all ethnic backgrounds. "They are coming to bring witness to the work they do in their congregations as well as in their careers," Thomas said. Among them are Andra Moran, a singer songwriter and guitarist who has a national ministry with young people and will lead the youth choir at the Assembly; Luke Hannington, who will play bass; Laura Hall, a pianist and vocalist who works with entertainer Drew Carey; Drew Powell, a guitarist and vocalist who just finished recording a TV series in Australia. Powell also has produced a movie and is the son of Jim Powell, president of Church Extension. Also performing at the Assembly will be Disciples vocalist Carmen Bond, Phil Kwan, a teen-age guitarist and vocalist who is a member of the North American Pacific/Asian Disciples, and drummer Geoff Moran, a Disciples minister, author, and the father of Andra Moran, among others.
The All-Assembly Concert and Closing Communion on Sunday, Aug. 2, will also feature several acclaimed performers. Among them will be folk singer, songwriter and national recording artist Carrie Newcomer.
"All of these folk are Disciples," said Thomas. "It’s not about them being so famous. It’s about them working hard to combine their witness in their profession with their witness in their church. You don’t want to miss this General Assembly because this is a time when we are getting to touch each other, when the whole church will come together."
By James Patterson