Rocky Thomas, a slender 40-something with short dark hair and piercing blue eyes, drove the winding four-lane highway north from his home through the foothills of the Ozarks. Usually an enjoyable moment of isolation in an otherwise busy life, his commute had become a dull prison. Before, rap lyrics would flow out faster than he could record them on his phone. Now, the well had run dry. And as days became weeks and then months, Thomas worried that a permanent “drought” had set in. He prayed to God for inspiration, but none came.
Photography by Jacob Slayton
Creative his whole life, Thomas started rapping in 1989 and began writing and recording numerous albums. He is conditioned to be resilient, as in trained “third-degree-black-belt” tough and has weathered many storms, both physically and metaphorically. A dedicated husband to wife Mandy and father to sons Blaze and Bryce, he serves as the senior pastor of a local church and spends most of his free time caring for others. But like the rest of us, Thomas is human and not immune to discouragement and disappointment. And life hasn’t gone according to his plans.
Thomas never intended to become a senior pastor. When the head pastor of their church suddenly resigned nearly a decade ago, the community was left confused and without direction. As the youth pastor, Thomas was trusted by the congregation, and several members wanted him to pray about leading the church.
But Thomas is among a growing minority of bi-vocational pastors in the West. Botkinburg, is a tiny yet tightknit community in north-central Arkansas, and tithes can’t sustain fulltime staff. So Thomas also works for the state’s Department of Public Health 30 minutes to the north, in the town of Marshall. Those drives became his time to himself, his rap-writing workshop.
Rocky Thomas records lyrics to a new song with his wife, Mandy.
In the mid-90s, Thomas toured the country, performing in a group before thousands of kids as part of a drug-free campaign. Though it felt thrilling to open for several well-known Christian musical artists, he eventually gave up touring to focus on his family. But he never let music fade away. In the early 2000s Thomas created the moniker Rapid Fire, under which he still records and occasionally performs. A feature in most of his music is the ability to spout lyrics quickly. With titles like “Praise Mode Activated” and “One of His Chosen,” he writes his songs with a singular goal in mind: to creatively encourage Christians in their walk with God.
Like most people in the U.S., Thomas found a lot more time on his hands when the COVID-19 pandemic led to shuttered businesses and institutions. He prayed for inspiration and songs came to him in steady waves. From his home studio, he wrote, recorded, and produced five full-length albums in two years.
One recent Saturday morning, Thomas stood in the fellowship hall of the church. He had traded his usual Sunday suit and tie for a T-shirt and jeans. In front of him sat a dozen or so men of various ages, eating a breakfast made from the potluck options each had brought. Some wore the T-shirt created for the group, which featured crossed swords over a shield bearing the words “Iron Men.”
Thomas exercises on part of a ninja course with his younger son, Bryce.
Opening with the story of Jonathan and the shield-bearer from the book of 1 Samuel, Rocky encouraged the men to continue supporting one another in unity, regardless of the cost (1 Sam. 14:1-23). He shared about a social media post that described a group of people trying to save someone from drowning. With no floatation device or rope in sight, they decided to link arms and form a human chain, anchoring themselves to solid ground while reaching out into the water. Thomas said that since storms will come whether we like it or not, teamwork—a unified reaction—is what we need in the body of Christ. But sometimes, he added, “God brings people into the deep waters—not to drown them, but to cleanse them.” One person knowingly nodded in agreement, and Thomas reminded the group of the man’s story. On that exact day seven years prior, Bob had survived a tornado. The men all listened with a sense of deep understanding: Intense weather patterns are an unfortunate aspect of life in that part of the country.
What Thomas didn’t have to remind them about was the storm. In 2013 a massive twister tore through the community, razing the church to the ground. Thomas and his family were living in the parsonage next door, but thankfully, all four of them were elsewhere at the time—had they been home, it’s questionable whether they would have survived. In an additional act of divine mercy, the Wednesday night service had been cancelled, so no one was in the church at the time, either. But in a matter of minutes, the Thomases lost nearly everything they held dear.
The Thomas family, from left—Blaze, Mandy, Rocky, and Bryce.
The next day, more than 40 people from the community showed up to begin the lengthy task of sifting through and removing debris. One man used his tractor to haul downed trees, and the Thomases went through what physical possessions they had left—fortunately, Mandy’s uncle, who’d shown up soon after the initial devastation, stored the family’s keepsakes and photo albums in the dishwasher and dryer to protect them from the rains that followed the storm.
The Thomases moved in with Mandy’s parents, and attention turned to rebuilding the church from scratch. When that was finished, construction started on a new home for the family, not far from the previous one. The season took an emotional toll, and Thomas turned to the Lord time and again for the strength to lead his family through it all.
About a year after the tornado, as life settled back into some level of normalcy, another hardship struck. Blaze, then in third grade, had trouble breathing in phys ed class and nearly passed out. Tests at the hospital brought back fears from his infancy, when Blaze had been diagnosed with several heart defects. He had avoided surgery then, but doctors warned a procedure might be necessary in the future. Now he needed a new artery.
The Thomas family looks back through photos from Blaze’s open-heart surgery.
Doctors performed the surgery and felt confident Blaze would survive. But in recovery, his body temperature spiked and wouldn’t come down. As Mandy panicked in the waiting room, a stranger came over and started praying for Blaze. “Your boy is not going to die,” she said in faith. Meanwhile, Thomas was constantly on the phone, texting with prayer partners throughout their church. Five days later, Blaze had recovered to the point that he had the stamina to push his father around in a wheelchair as they awaited discharge papers.
Today Thomas regards the challenges they’ve faced as fuel for their endeavors. He encourages creativity in his family, even if his time is more limited than when he was younger. Mandy, who performed in a Southern gospel quartet as a girl, regularly leads worship on Sundays. Blaze, 18, plays drums, raps with his dad, and has become an amateur meteorologist, creating weather reports on a green screen in their home studio. Bryce, 13, shares original songs and dances that he records and posts online. For Thomas, the gifts clearly given to each member of the family are unique opportunities to bring glory to God as they minister to others. Which made his creative drought all the more worrisome. He had to ask himself, Hasn’t God brought me through before? And yet, his frustration persisted.
While he was off from work on Veteran’s Day, lyrics to a new song began to trickle into his mind. And the trickle soon turned into a flood. Before the day was over, he wrote and recorded “We Will Overcome.” As a soaring instrumental background track builds to a crescendo, Thomas raps into the chorus: “No matter what comes my way / tomorrow’s never promised so I’m living for today / from the rising in the morning to the setting of the sun / and the work is done … we will overcome.” Much like Psalm 106:1-48, which recalls the Israelites’ miraculous Red Sea crossing, the song reminds Thomas of how God has led him and his family through every challenge—and will do so again and again without fail.