Tom Thiets, right, works with inmates at the Stillwater prison.
The newest version of the Tom Thiets story is called "Serving Beyond Bars"--and it's about prison ministry. This story is built off an amazing tale about packing meals. However, this particular part of the story wouldn't exist without years of faithful work and mission trips.
These are the threads that weave the tale of this current seminarian whose journey isn't about where he ends up but about how many different stories he creates for others along the way.
This story began in 1979 with a storyteller who was listening. Sitting with his wife, Lisa, Thiets listened as the new youth pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church in Stillwater, Minn., told his congregation about mission opportunities.
The Thietses were new to the congregation, so when the pastor asked for help and said, "Somebody is out here today, you know who you are. Call me tomorrow," Thiets knew it was his calling.
"I told my wife, 'I think he's talking about me,'" Thiets says. "She said, 'I was thinking the same thing.'"
He made the call.
But Thiets also had a career doing electro-mechanical drafting and design work. "Basically, I did high-tech measuring of anything from wind speed to wave motion," he says. He then got into residential and light commercial construction--giving up a great job with benefits to venture out on his own. But this process taught him something. Project management and sales skills were honed through years of customer contact. As a licensed general contractor he also gained insight into all of the construction trades. Now, this insight proves useful in leading mission construction teams around the world.
After a decade of construction work, Thiets went into the tradeshow business with family-owned Chandler Exhibits, Inc. His main clients were Andersen Windows and Home Depot. "I look back, and what is the connection?" he asks. "It was reaching out and learning to work with a variety of people within a company and the community. I worked with all the people in the company, all the staff. I learned that you have to have project management, relationship development, and all along the way I was doing six- to eight-weeks of international mission work." This was only possible through the openness and support of the Chandler family, who shared a vision of being part of a global community, thus making space in their corporate structure for a missionary.
Instead of seeing his international trips as a burden, his employers found opportunities to make it part of their company mission--providing warehouse space or other support for his 501c3 company called Mano Amiga. "This was their partnership in my ministry, even though it wasn't their specific calling."
About 10 years ago, Thiets was asked if he would leave his full-time job and only focus on mission at Trinity. Thiets took the leap of faith.
"I am the mission department at Trinity, but the number of volunteers is amazing," Thiets says. "Everything is self-funded to do the ministry. I've always been able to utilize the model of Mano Amigo to engage the community and, within that, find volunteers to rise up to be leaders. If you don't have a place for people to lead, why grow leaders? We bring people along that path. And the people of Trinity and greater community have responded."
It was a mission trip to Tanzania that the food packing thread of his story gets unwound. I asked our partner what they needed and he said "find me some food."
Thiets returned home and, unbelievably, a bag of meals had found its way into his office. Thiets had an idea. Trinity would partner with Mano Amigo to pack meals to ship around the world, but also locally to food shelves.
"We ask volunteers for two hours and a financial contribution" he says. "We've packed millions of meals that way. Truly all are welcome to come. We say, bring them young--we've had children that are 10 that came when they were 3. They come back every year."
Thiets had packed meals for many corporate and church events, but it was on a drive to Bayport, Minn., that he passed by the Stillwater prison and thought about the opportunity to pack a meal in the prison.
He was presented with the unique problem of finding his way into jail.
Along came another Holy Spirit encounter when case worker Nicole Mulvehill met him while out for a walk and said "You're Tom, the missions guy!" Mulvehill had packed a meal in Stillwater led by Thiets and had been thinking about how a meal-packing event at the prison could coincide with the maximum security offenders restorative justice program to accept responsibility for their crimes and the need to make restitution to those they hurt.
Would these offenders give up their minimal free time to pack meals?
A sign-up sheet was hung in the cell blocks and all the spots were taken in five minutes.
Serving Beyond the Bars brought together a variety of ages, races and even members of different gangs. "Across the board, they had respect for each other," Thiets says. "They clamored for more, but it costs money to pack a meal. So these guys who make 27 cents an hour offered to help pay for another meal packing."
"Those of us on the outside see these correctional facilities when we drive by and the only thing you hear is bad stuff," Thiets says. "They are on the inside and they look out and think, 'The only thing people on the outside see is the bad stuff.' So we go in, beyond the bars, to serve and they go beyond the bars to serve the local food shelves. We put the meals in those communities."
Serving Beyond the Bars has been invited by the Minnesota Department of Corrections Commissioner to bring its life-changing ministry into all state facilities. To date, teams have served beyond the bars at the Stillwater and Oak Park Heights facilities and are scheduled for the Shakopee facility in December. "There are nine more facilities to serve at in 2015," Thiets says. "We are looking for partners to help sponsor and join the team serving beyond the bars."
Thiets helps the offenders tell a positive story for the community to hear.
The Thiets biography isn't done yet. There are more chapters to write and more lives to touch in order to bring about true transformative work in the world.
"God called me to get people to get up out of the pew," Thiets says. "That's just the Spirit working and I'm just so blessed to be along to hear the stories."
For more information about Mano Amiga, visit www.manoamiga.net.