Keeping the Faith: Man restores church, says God restored his health

What would you do if you were told you had two weeks to live? For one Minnesota resident, this became his reality.

Greg Thomas sits with his dog Maggie near his RV. Thomas came to North Dakota to reflect on a medical diagnosis. (Photo by Cole Benz/The Herald)
Greg Thomas sits with his dog Maggie near his RV. Thomas came to North Dakota to reflect on a medical diagnosis. (Photo by Cole Benz/The Herald)

By COLE BENZ | Herald Editor |

What would you do if you were told you had two weeks to live? For one Minnesota resident, this became his reality.

“They told my family to plan my funeral,” Greg Thomas said.

Thomas, of Montgomery, Minn., was diagnosed with Stage 4 head and neck cancer in May of 2009. The doctors deemed the disease inoperable and told his family that he might have as little as two weeks left to live.

Thomas frequently took walks with his dogs down the gravel road near his home, and after his diagnosis he meandered down his usual path to gather his thoughts and process the news. He made a stop, as he usually did, at the broken steps of an old Czech Catholic church that dates back to the mid 1800s. Though he had been stopping at this church for many years, this time was different.

He sat on the steps and prayed.

“When I found out I had cancer, those steps took on a whole new meaning to me,” Thomas said.

He turned and just stared at the old building. The paint was chipping, it needed a new roof and the foundation was crumbling, among other things; it was in dire need of some tender loving care. It was at this moment that he prayed “Lord, before I leave this world I want to do something for you.” Thomas found out that God will take you at your word.

He walked to the nearest house and knocked on the door to find out who he would need to contact for more information on the church; he wanted to restore it.

He told the church association that he would do the restoration, free of charge, as long as he was given a key to worship inside as he pleased.

They agreed to the terms.

He told The Herald that when he first embarked on this task it was “purely for a selfish reason,” and that he just “wanted a quiet place to pray” because he believed that he was entering the final days of his life on earth.

But when he stuck the key in the lock and opened up the doors he quickly realized that God was opening up something much more special in his life.

So as his treatment was finishing up, he began to restore the church.

His treatment was extensive and involved three rounds of chemotherapy and 40 sessions of radiation, but he still found the strength deep down to finish a job he had set out to do. A job he promised God he would finish.

For Thomas, the work was therapeutic. And he said every hour he put in at the church he became stronger.

“While I was working and restoring the church, God was restoring me,” Thomas said. “Everyday that I worked on it the better I felt.”

Throughout his journey Thomas began defying odds.

Thomas had his teeth removed and epiglottis destroyed by the radiation. He was forced to feed himself through a feeding tube and doctors said he would never eat solid foods again. Beating their prognosis, Thomas had the tube removed a few years later and can now eat normally.

What was more stunning, though, was that his aggressive cancer had shrunk. It shrank to the point that doctors couldn’t find a trace of the disease. He had been working on the church for about a year and a half when the doctors gave him a good bill of health, though he wouldn’t be declared cancer free until after five years of remission (which he has since surpassed).

Thomas said that in the years before his diagnosis and his work at the church, he could sit on the steps for hours and not see a single car drive by. But he noticed his work was garnering attention, and people didn’t just drive by slowly, they stopped.

The attention grew.

“The more I worked on it the more people showed up,” Thomas said.

Word of Thomas’ story spread like the gospel on a Sunday morning. It went viral.

Thomas’ story ended up on the national news scene, appearing in publications like Guide Posts and Reader’s Digest. His story even won a television reporter an Emmy. That’s when the help started to come.

With so many people reading about the church and Thomas’ miraculous healing, anybody who could, would stop and help. Whether it was a phone call, a little note, or a donation towards the church renovation, people wanted to be a part of the story. And for Thomas it seemed liked any time the church project needed assistance, the help was there. ‘Divine intervention,’ Thomas said.

Thomas’ work even landed him a shot at Hollywood stardom.

A movie crew searching for a church and cemetery for a scene stumbled upon the church in Montgomery, and they liked the look so much that they used it as one of their locations. The director got Thomas in as an extra, and the scene made the final cut. The film is “Memorial Day” and stars Academy Award nominee James Cromwell.

The general consensus was that the church would have just rotted away had Thomas not stepped in and restored it.

“I found out that what God wants out of any of us in our lives…He’s looking for those who are willing to step up to the plate, and He honors that big time.”

A few weeks ago, though, Thomas went to the doctor because he felt a tender lump on the side of his neck.

His cancer had returned.

The disease has invaded his voice box and metastasized to a lymph node in his neck. Doctors want to aggressively treat it by removing his voice box and taking a muscle from his chest and put it in his neck where they will cut out the tumor. The treatment will rob him of his two passions, hunting and preaching. With an inability to speak or hold a rifle, it would be a difficult task to do either of those, but he has beaten the odds before.

Now he must decide what the next course of medical treatment to follow, and he wanted a quiet place to think. So he traveled to southwest North Dakota to hunt, and to pray.

On Thomas’ birthday 15 years ago he buried his long time hunting buddy, his father. So when he needed a quiet place for reflection and prayer, he traveled to Mott. And he hasn’t been back since, until now.

Whichever path he chooses, he knows that he’ll be saved one way or another.

Thomas carries a positive attitude with every step of his life, and even after the latest, heartbreaking diagnosis, he still was as exuberant as ever.

“This is just another opportunity for God to show his glory,” Thomas said. “So that is how I look at it.”

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