At 78 years old, with two sons and seven grandchildren, Captain P.J. Thomas hardly sounds like a retired man who is taking life easy. All his life, he has not been afraid of venturing into unfamiliar waters, literally and figuratively.
From registering ships to captaining God's vessels
Born in India, Captain P.J. came to Singapore shortly after World War II in 1948 at the age of six. He later became a professional seaman and captain, and after his sailing days, joined the Singapore Marine Department, working in a few areas, including the Registry of Ships.
Interestingly, this was where Captain P.J. first learnt about OM, as the mission organisation was trying to register its first vessel, Logos, in Singapore in 1970. He helped to process the registration.
After three decades in the Singapore Marine Department, Captain P.J. decided to retire early. And in 1998, in a surprise turn of events, he made the prayerful decision to join OM Ships. Between 1998 and 2010, Captain P.J. served on three OM vessels — Doulos, Logos II and Logos Hope. His wife, Shanti, joined him for four years onboard Doulos.
Collectively, Captian P.J. and his crew have taken the message of the gospel to some of the least-reached peoples and places in the world, all while living and working on a ship. He also served on the Board of OM in Singapore from 2004 till 2019 and remains a faithful intercessor at OM in Singapore's prayer meetings.
The call to OM Ships
What would compel a man to give up the safety of familiar territory to sail to unchartered waters across the globe?
In joining Doulos, Captain P.J. was adamant that he should discern the will of God and not decide out of mere human motivation.
God gave him three very distinct messages.
The first was at his son's Bible school graduation ceremony when the dean told the graduates, “You have been trained to do something, go do it”, which Captain P.J. said, “hit him like a rock.”
Hebrews 12:11-13 says, “No training seems pleasant at the time. In fact, it seems painful. But later on it produces a harvest of godliness and peace. It does this for those who have been trained by it. So put your hands to work. Strengthen your legs for the journey. Make level paths for your feet to walk on. Then those who have trouble walking won't be disabled. Instead, they will be healed” (NIRV).
The second message from God came during an evening prayer service sometime later. A missionary had prayed for Captain P.J. and revealed that “God would take him from port to port, coast to coast to serve Him.”
That revelation would typically be enough to compel most people to action, but being the hard-headed man he was, Captain P.J. again questioned God, asking if it was His will.
Finally, the third message came when another missionary told him, “There is a desire in your heart. It is not of the flesh but of God.”
This time Captain P.J. said jokingly, “Buay sai zao! (Singapore Hokkien slang for 'cannot run') Can't run from God anymore!” in reference to not following the example of Jonah, who had run away from the Lord after being called to preach against the people of Nineveh.
Sailing through a storm with God
Life as a ship's captain was not always smooth sailing. In the early 2000s, Captain P.J. and THE crew were sailing from Shanghai, China, to East Malaysia when they received news of a terrible typhoon with tremendous gale forces blowing across the Philippines just as they reached the north of Taiwan.
Captain P.J. decided to change directions to avoid the typhoon, but it kept following suit and chasing after them. By 12 noon, the engine had broken down. At that point, the ship started to roll violently, and even the refrigerator on the deck — which had been bolted down — was sheared off.
As it was a Sunday morning, Captain P.J. had, by divine wisdom, prepared a sermon from the book of Mark about Jesus being in the boat in the storm, exactly what the ship crew was experiencing.
But deep inside, he was panicking.
After delivering his timely sermon, Captain P.J. issued the grim order for all crew members and passengers to don their life jackets. They had to prepare for the worst.
Without hesitation, Captian P.J. gathered everyone in the main room to pray. Four hours later at 16:00, the ship's engines suddenly roared back to life!
At this point, the typhoon was still furiously squalling only 80 kilometres away, with winds of over 100 kilometres per hour. But then an amazing thing happened.
When Captain P.J. looked back at his navigational readings, he realised that from when the engines broke down to when they were restored, the typhoon had not moved an inch.
He said, “If that was not God's hand being involved, then whose hand was it? If the typhoon had come closer while we had no engine power, I would not be here talking to you today.”
“God is clearly a prayer-answering God.”