Meet Tom O’Neill
What if words were rationed? Not as in the compulsory 500-word essay we’ve all written at one time. But, what if each of us was given a finite number of words to use in our lifetime? Which words would become important to you, and which would you ditch? How would you spend those words? For what critical messages would you reserve them? And for whom?
Tom O’Neill has six words for you. Six powerful words that define, describe, and guide his life and that he shares with anyone who will listen.
BY GRACE, THROUGH FAITH, IN CHRIST
They are the essence of Ephesians 2:8-9, a passage Tom’s dad, a pastor, made sure his confirmands knew from their first moment in Confirmation class. These words, perfectly encapsulating the Christian faith—our path to salvation and everlasting life is by God’s grace and through faith in His Son, Jesus Christ—stuck with Tom and were reinforced by years of dinner table conversations, visits with faith-filled extended family, and summers spent at Lutheran camps.
Tom’s walk with Jesus is a natural part of his life, so much so that he sometimes finds it difficult to accurately share what his faith means to him, since Jesus has always been a constant for him. He readily admits that he’s much better at sharing Jesus with children, youth, and those with some knowledge of Christianity than he is at talking with the unchurched and the unreached. Even with others who have had a dramatic coming-to-Jesus moment, Tom struggles to describe how elemental his own faith is.
He offers this air analogy to explain it. “Can you tell me about a really great breath of air you’ve had? No, we’re never aware of it until we don’t have it. If you’re underwater and you need to breathe, you come up and realize how awesome air is. It’s the best thing ever, and you’re telling other people about how great air is. I feel that’s how a lot of people who have had a really great Jesus moment look at life. ‘You have no idea what it’s like without Jesus.’”
By grace, Tom’s faith has been a constant in his life since his Baptism. He’s thankful for his strong Christian upbringing and the fact that little has come along to shake that faith. To say Tom isn’t passionate about his faith, though, would be inaccurate. He is fervent and animated talking about the two biggest influencers in his Christian walk and shapers of his faith outside of family and the church—the Lutheran camp experience and overseas mission trips.
Tom knows summer camp from the inside out—as a camper, junior counselor, counselor, and director. He maintains sending a child to camp is the single most important thing a parent can do for their child to help their faith life grow. It did that for him, and he can cite hundreds of stories seeing that happen for campers and counselors under his care as a professional camp worker. That’s not to say worship, Sunday School activities, and youth groups at local churches are not valuable; they are much-needed, fundamental aspects of learning and fellowship, explains Tom. But something different happens at camp, something new, something that takes the camper outside their comfort zone. It is singular and special. Lives are forever changed because of what happens at camp. That’s why he’s still going to camp—now with wife, Jen, and boys, Austin (9), Caleb (8), and Trevor (6).
In fact, Tom met Jen at camp when they were counselors. They later married and spent several years living the camp life when Tom was Director of Programs at Wisconsin’s Camp Luther. Together they have that shared experience of being cocooned in a unique, faith-nurturing setting. They have seen firsthand how immersion in a Christian camp can fan sparks of faith into flames and turn lives around. That’s why they are enthusiastic proponents for sending kids to camp as soon as they’re eligible and for making family camping a priority.
Tom counts his mission trips to Peru and Colombia as faith-building opportunities too. For several years, he and Jen led groups of college students on two-week visits to orphanages in these countries. Spending time among children who had endured much tragedy and hardship, he expected to share with them how Jesus loved them and cared for them. He was amazed to find that the children often had stronger faith than he did. At times he felt they had an even better understanding of Jesus and His salvation than their visitors had. These were extraordinary experiences and occasions in which Tom could share his faith to edify the kids’ faith lives—to say to them, “Yes, I believe the same thing you believe”! Now, after a 10-year absence, Tom and Jen will return to Peru this summer. They will spend time in the village and with the family that operates the orphanage, and they will meet a whole new set of children eager to share with the Americans their mutual belief in Jesus’ saving love for them.
Then there are the other days of the year when Tom works for a living, involves himself in his boys’ activities, and nurtures his relationships. Monday – Friday you’ll find him working at Second Harvest Heartland, a Twin Cities non-profit food bank. Evenings this summer you’ll find him cheering for his boys at area baseball fields or participating in community advocacy groups and committees or preparing for an upcoming podcast with pastor friends.
He uses his everyday encounters with others to share his values—a non-threatening form of evangelism. Nothing in-your-face, just natural conversation that provides an open door if others want to step through for a more in-depth talk about faith matters. Tom says he’s most comfortable “preaching to the choir,” and finds working with kids and youth naturally fits his personality. You see that in his Children’s Messages in Beautiful Savior worship, and countless campers have seen that around a pine-scented late-night campfire.
The current challenges facing parents of children and youth are mounting, Tom believes. The environment our children are growing up in makes it very difficult to have Christian morals and values. Living out those principles in our culture’s social media free-for-all presents families opportunities to teach and put into action what it means to be a Christian. Tom recommends doing the foundational things—going to church, being involved in Sunday School and Confirmation, taking kids out into the community to volunteer, and being active in your kids’ faith. Don’t worry if you’re not getting it right every day of the week, Tom encourages. If you’re failing right now, it doesn’t mean you will fail them tomorrow or the next day. Do devotions with them; read the Bible with them before they go to bed; pray with them; ask them questions about their faith; help them apply what they’re learning in worship and Sunday School. Yes, it’s work, admits Tom, but it’s work that will ground them in Jesus and prepare them for life.
Share with them these six powerful words:
BY GRACE, THROUGH FAITH, IN CHRIST
And so long as our words aren’t rationed, Tom has these words to share too:
SEND YOUR KIDS TO CAMP!
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. Ephesians 2:8-9 ESV