“Daddy, why are you going?”
asked George Thomas’ son on the way to the Norfolk airport about a year ago. The globetrotting journalist was making his fourth trip to Ukraine to cover the conflict with Russia. Fifteen minutes from the airport, he squeezed the story into a nutshell for his son.
“Dad, are the Russians involved?”
“As a matter of fact, they are,” he said.
And then it was Thomas’ turn to listen as his son recounted a dream he had the previous night in which Thomas was in a country invaded by the Russians. Three days later, he was in Crimea when “3000 unidentified soldiers” marched in. “Your son told you about it, didn’t he?” his wife said when he called her with the news.
“There have been numerous times when had it not been for the prayers specifically of my children and my wife, I would not have been sitting here today,” says the journalist who has visited more than 100 countries and has been co-hosting Christian World News with Wendy Griffith for 13 years. “This is the call on our lives as a family. This is a family ministry,” he adds. It is a calling he is passionate about. The year 2016 will mark his 20th work anniversary with Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN).
His ID cards from some of these countries hang in a corner of his cubicle at CBN. The lighting is mellow, with a lamp illuminating family photographs; souvenirs from around the world add splashes of color to the space. A selection of ties hangs on another side. Today, the news presenter has picked an orange and blue one to team with his blue shirt and textured navy blue coat. He is working on a story on China and makes a quick call to the graphics team, explaining his vision for the video, before heading into the newsroom to present the Christian World News.
“40 seconds…15 seconds…10, 9, 8…”
Studio Technician John Martin counts down as Thomas and Griffith prepare to face the camera. For the next half-hour you witness one facet of Thomas’ work—the signature cadences of his voice, the teamwork with Griffith, and the easy rapport with floor technicians.
“Aside from the fact that George is the consummate professional and one of the best reporters in the business, I consider his greatest gift to others to be his ability to create joy wherever he goes. It’s one of the reasons I love co-anchoring Christian World News with George, he’s just a lot of fun to be around….George has a zest and a joy for life that is contagious and that’s what I consider to be his biggest attribute,” says Griffith.
“See, that’s how we do it guys” says Thomas with a grin after the presenters pull off a song and click introduction to a surf story. His work is a mosaic. It has taken him to some of the most dangerous corners of the world. For instance, he will tell you how the spot he was reporting from in Gaza was obliterated minutes after he and his colleague left it. “I am not called to the Switzerlands of the world,” says Thomas.
“He has a boldness and he has faith. He takes those and goes to amazing places and countries—places where it is difficult to be a Christian journalist. And he comes back with these amazing stories…He is where he is supposed to be, doing what he’s supposed to be doing,” says Steve Little, senior producer of Christian World News.
Video: “CBN News team’s close call in Gaza” (Courtesy: CBN News, cbn.com)
“Each time I get off a plane, I pinch myself,” says Thomas “for this little Indian boy who grew up in Africa, had a dream to be an international reporter. I need to pinch myself to make sure I’m living my dream.”
Born in Tanzania, he was force fed news by his father, he says. Obviously, a myopic view of the world was not encouraged. His staple diet included The Economist, Newseek, Time, and BBC World News—the last was part of a ritual in which the family would gather around their radio at 7 am everyday.
“I hated him for it” Thomas says, “because I never grew up reading Archie comic books, or the Hardy Boys, or Nancy Drew.” But those rituals were to become the bedrock of his career. He wanted to be a storyteller. Not a doctor or an engineer? He laughs. “My parents very quickly learned some things about their youngest son. One, he was horrible in math. Two, he was horrible in sciences. Three, they were concerned.” But the boy could talk. So communications and journalism climbed to the top of their career options list.
The little boy had a role model. Thomas searches online for a video, drawing the slider through a YouTube memorial of Peter Jennings until he reaches a black and white clip of the famous ABC news anchor surrounded by a group of children in Mumbai, India. All are snapping their fingers. Jennings uses this to illustrate the point that during almost every snap of the fingers, a child is born in India. Thomas identified with him, because like him, Jennings was a foreigner—a Canadian, who later became an American citizen.
That little boy in awe of Jennings still lives in the seasoned journalist. “Experiential journalism” is Thomas’ mantra, a leaf he took out of Jennings’ book. He believes in filling the canvas of his stories with brushstrokes that bring them to life. And he walks the extra mile for it, even when it takes him to Siberia’s Yamal Peninsula. Yamal, located above the Arctic Circle, means “the end of the land”.
The story’s central character, tribal evangelist Peter Khudi, invited Thomas to visit during summer. He declined. Thomas wanted to visit him in winter instead, to experience the reality of the conditions in which Khudi ministered. The reality was a jaw-freezing minus 60 degree Fahrenheit. And the video on YouTube shows Thomas’ brushstrokes. You can hear the shuffling of fabric as he puts on his fifth layer of clothing. You see the frozen patches on the glass as he goes down the elevator. And you hear, once again, the sound of the motor as Khudi struggles to bring his snow mobile to life. Thomas’ transportation? Reindeer skin thrown over a sleigh, tugged by the mobile.
Video: Firey faith in Siberia (Courtesy: Christian World News, cbn.com)
This is just one example of the spectrum of experiences the journalist has explored. Ask the man who has covered everything from the Ebola epidemic to the Iraq war what the biggest turning point in his life has been and he responds: “Many years ago I had quite a dramatic encounter with this man called Jesus Christ who took me from a culture of death to a culture of life.” The encounter took place when he was 12 years old, during a crusade in Lusaka, Zambia. “I was a rotten scoundrel. It’s difficult to believe, but it’s true. This face right here,” he says, circling his face with his fingers, “we had some issues”. As he speaks, you glimpse the spontaneous wit and humor that his colleagues talk about.
Fast forward a few years, and we find Thomas coming to the United States of America for his undergraduate studies. Each semester, he interned with local news organizations while raking in 18 credit hours at school. He bagged an internship at the cable news giant CNN after graduating. Thereafter, He believes he was called to Regent University and CBN.
Today, he is a master of his arena. He has seen waves of change in his industry—and chosen to ride them. The time between an event occurring and being reported has contracted from hours to minutes. The number of platforms has grown from print and television to the social media web. “It’s happening by the nanosecond” says Thomas about news. “The news business is like a monster that has to be fed.”
Ten to 15 years ago when Thomas first went to Afghanistan or Iraq, he went with an audioman, cameraman, editor, satellite technician, and equipment worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Today, he has one travelling companion—his backpack, which contains his laptop, phone, mouse, a hard drive, and camera. The static of the family radio has been replaced by the iPhone Thomas holds in the palm of his hand.
He has walked into sensitive places, filming with his iPhone instead of his camera. Take for instance, the Ebola crisis. When he got off the plane in Monrovia, Liberia, he found people being lined up to wash their hands with chlorine and have their temperatures checked. He and his colleague used his iPhone to do a quick standup even as a guard looked on incredulously. By the time the guard told him he could not film, the deed had been done.
Video: “Panic, fear in Ebola-plagued Liberia is tangible” (Courtesy: CBN News, cbn.com)
Why is he considered a master of his field of work? Because when the need arises, he can report, shoot, edit, get under a blanket to do his voiceover, and send the package to the newsroom within two hours. Thomas has covered a wide variety of stories—political, economic, foreign policy, wars, famines, social issues—but the subject matter he enjoys the most is the spiritual revival taking place across the globe. He is out to tell the stories of the “no-name folks”, nameless heroes of the faith around the globe, because tied to the stories of revival are those of persecution.
Does the person who is living his dream have a personal prayer? “I ask to be put on the watchtower of places around the world where God is moving” says Thomas. Drawing on the story of Nehemiah, he repeats, “a watchman on the walls”.
Thanks to Thomas for all the photos!
Shreya Shukla is a Contributor to the Daily Runner