California Lutheran University's Student Newspaper Since 1961

The Echo

California Lutheran University's Student Newspaper Since 1961

The Echo

California Lutheran University's Student Newspaper Since 1961

The Echo

    Furniture-maker, religion professor and more

    Samuel Thomas did not always think he was going to the be a teacher or the chair of a religion department at California Lutheran University. At one point, he planned on becoming a physician.

    Before moving to California, Thomas lived in Minnesota. where he attended St. John’s University for his undergraduate degree, and went to  Notre Dame University and Yale for graduate school. He majored in biology while attending St. John’s and was planning on attending medical school. However, after a trip to Jerusalem, he realized that he did want to go to medical school.

    “I liked it, but I don’t think I subjected it to critical scrutiny; I thought it was a good profession. I wanted to help people,” Thomas said.

    In a pub at St. John’s his senior year, Thomas encountered a Benedictine monk, who convinced him to go to Jerusalem instead of go forward with his plan to go to South America and help at a hospital there. The monk gave him the contact information of someone who worked at a hospital in Jerusalem for terminally ill patients. Two months later, Thomas was on a plane to Tel Aviv, Jerusalem.

    Thomas’ time there changed his life, helping him realize that he didn’t want to be a physician. Through reflection and talking to others, he said that he realized  he wanted to study the history of religion through theology.

    “It was vexing for a while, and I had anxiety about it. There’s so much social pressure, and sometimes family pressure, to know exactly what you’re doing and turn that degree into something useful,” Thomas said. “Everyone’s asking you, especially when you’re a senior in college, ‘What are you going to do?’”

    Family and mentors of Thomas told him to relax about his decision, and that there were many things he could do with life. Thomas said he felt that these kinds of talks helped lessen the pressure that he put on himself.

    Thomas worked for two years doing undergraduate admissions at St. John’s and met his wife during that time. They then got married before attending graduate school. While at Notre Dame, Thomas applied for a job at Cal Lutheran. Although, he was “ABD” [All But Dissertation], since he had not finished his dissertation, Thomas still received the position.

    When Thomas accepted the job, he and his wife made plans to leave for California. For the first five months while he was at Cal Lutheran, his wife and daughter stayed behind in South Bend, Indiana until they were able to sell the bakery they owned there.

    His passion for food and sustainability was what got him involved with the SEEd Garden, which he has been involed in for nine years now. He said he believes that with every year that passes, the SEEd Garden continues to grow, not only in space but with more people involved and more programs as well.

    Senior Anna Litz, manager at the SEEd Garden, said she first met Thomas when she transferred   to Cal Lutheran last year and took a class with him. She was taking her upper division religion class and while at first nervous, Thomas made it easy for her to become engaged in his course.

    “He passed out cards on the first day of class and I mentioned that I am interested in the outdoors and that’s how I ended up working in the SEEd Garden,” Litz said.

    Junior Lauren Rezak, who volunteered at the SEEd Garden and now works there, described Thomas as very passionate about the garden and anything that he becomes involved in.

    “My favorite part of the SEEd Garden is the people and the sense of community that has come as a result of the project,” Thomas said.

    Rezak said Thomas gets to know the people in the garden and that helps build a sense of community. She said that Thomas is authentic and exuberant, and that it adds to the community environment.  

    “Dr. Thomas is always building in the garden and is excited to start new things and get more people involved with the project,” Rezak said.

    Thomas said he also makes furniture when he finds the time amd enjoys working on pieces.

    Thomas said that he first started making furniture when he and his wife lived in a cabin and needed a bed and a dining room table. Thomas said that his neighbor taught him how to build. From there, he said his passion continued to grow and he learned to make different pieces that range from tables to cheese boards.

    “I would say as much as I’m motivated by intellectual questions and as much as I’m drawn to the life of a scholar and thinker, I’m not sure I would’ve made it through grad school without being able to do this,” Thomas said. “For me it’s a different headspace; it’s meditative and a different kind of intellectual work.”

    Thomas said he sells his work to others and usually has three to four projects lined up.

    If Thomas could leave a legacy behind at Cal Lutheran, he said he would want to leave two. The first would be to engage students in real and meaningful ways with the natural world and the soil; to give them a more holistic and natural connection to the community and the world. The second would be to focus on changing the faculty culture and making faculty life more diverse, equitable and more intellectually robust.

    Vianca Castaneda-Correa