“I wanted to go forward,” Tom Morris recounts of his Crusade experience, “but my parents told me I didn’t have to because I was Presbyterian.” He laughs.
Not one for flair or pretense, he is affable, plainspoken and constantly in motion. Although he has a Doctor of Ministry degree from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, he simply prefers to be addressed as Tom. As a high school student in his youth group and, later, as a volunteer, I often witnessed him work 15 hour days. Given to Attention Deficit Disorder, he prefers the euphemism, Multi Attention Attribute.
Bearded and sporting shoulder-length hair at 23, he lifted weights, swam, ran -- and did pushups and situps in a sauna to burn off energy. Now clean shaven with a bald dome, at 6' 1" and 225 lbs., the fit and muscular Morris, 63, trains daily, mixing weights and cardio and using a fitness app, My Fitness Pal, to track what he eats.
Thomas Morris was born the son of an electronics engineer and a school teacher in Winston Salem, North Carolina on March 4, 1953. Together with his two sisters, they moved to Denver, Colorado, where they had horses. He participated in the Boy Scouts, raised bees, spent a lot of time at a creek in Colorado near his house catching snakes and frogs, enjoyed horseback riding, shooting guns “and things like that.” Then, his family moved to upstate New York when he was 15.
Morris graduated from Whitesboro Senior High in 1971 in Whitesboro, New York and spent his first two years at Houghton College majoring in Philosophy and the Bible, and then transferred to State University of New York at Buffalo, where he majored in speech communication, studied C.S. Lewis for two years and earned his Bachelor’s degree.
He moved to Illinois -- “and that’s when you met me in 1975,” he says over the phone. “I was a student at Trinity Seminary. You were a freshman in highschool when I met you.” He was a student assistant pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Arlington Heights, Illinois where I attended for several years as a high school student.
My brothers and I didn’t know anyone when my mother dropped us off at First Pres for a large group Thanksgiving dinner the night we met. Sensing our lostness, Morris sat and talked with us, ultimately giving us a ride home. He became a mentor -- a fatherly figure -- of sorts to me in my highschool and college years.
He moved out to California in 1980. “And you went out there in 1982 and went to Cal Poly Pomona,” he adds (I reported to him as a volunteer at Youth For Christ/Youth Guidance as a student and, later, as a professional from 1982-1987).
“I worked with probation kids and high school students. I did that for 35 years,” he says. “ At the same time, I was ordained as a pastor in 1989 with the Evangelical Free Church.”
In 1992, Morris moved to Seoul, Korea and worked at the U.S. Army Garrison Yongsan (a military base for US armed forces there). Then, in 1996, he returned with his family to work with high school kids in the Palm Springs, California area.
He has five grandchildren; his son, Will, is married with children, as is his daughter, Katherine, while the other, Caroline, remains single and is in graduate school.
A bodybuilder and franchise operator, Elijah is looking to get his pro card to compete for contests such as Mr. Olympia, and is planning a trip to Florida with his wife — and Tom Morris in tow.
On his ride in a Hearse and conversion experience
“At a football game in 1968 about a little before we moved to New York, I rode up with a guy in a Hearse for a halftime skit,” Morris recalls. “And he shared the Gospel with me, and that night I accepted the Lord. And then we moved to Upstate New York.”
Why the Hearse?
“It was the halftime show and we were the Bear Creek Bears and we were going to bury the (opposition) and, on the way back, he asked me, ‘Are you a Christian?’,” Morris says. “I realized I’d heard pretty much the same message at the Billy Graham Crusade (but) this time, I had an opportunity to respond.”
On starting Grieving Teens
In 1997, a health teacher friend was scheduled to teach on death and dying, but his alcoholic parents had recently passed and he was unable to present the subject.
“So, I came in and talked about it -- and that’s how I got involved with helping people with grief issues,” Morris says. “And then I went back to school at Trinity and got a doctorate in 2004. I was working with youth as I was studying.”
On What Grieving Teens is About
“Basically it is a different kind of ministry model. I talk with kids in public high schools with grief issues. The school cares about it because during their grief, their minds are preoccupied with things that have happened in their life, whether it’s dads in prison, or the divorce that their family has gone through, or a death or several deaths — or several other things,” Morris summarizes. “It’s complicated. But they’re not focused on school. The school cares about helping them work through it so they can focus again on their school work.
“One of the aspects that grief affects is the mind. It affects things like attention span, being preoccupied — and it not only affects the grades, but sports, as well,” he continues. “I’ve had people that played baseball or football and they weren’t performing like they were before because their minds were not focused on what they were doing.”
As the executive director of Grieving Teens, Morris conducts once a week grief group meetings at various schools in the Coachella Valley area, including Palm Desert High School, La Quinta High School and Desert Springs High School. He provides a safe space for them to discuss their issues. (Yanez)
"Grief is grief and they just need to talk about it," he maintains. (Ibid)
“It’s been 19 years,” Morris says, adding that he has some youth pastors that serve as volunteers, but that Grieving Teens is basically Tom Morris.
The lows and highs with Grieving Teens
“The low point is trying to get some schools to see that there was a need for it. Back in the day, they didn’t see too much of a need issue,” Morris says, adding that it often took a major crisis for schools to see the need. “One school, there was a drowning. And that made them realize that they’re overwhelmed and don’t know how to handle this. And they call me.”
“A high point? Seeing kids work through their issues and change. Sometimes it’s a matter of forgiving people who’ve hurt them,” he continues. “Sometimes it’s a matter of just making it through a bunch of difficult decisions, whether it’s being suicidal or broken — and becoming whole people. Those are the high points that are most meaningful.”
On his unofficially adopted son, Elijah
“I met him at the gym (when he was in high school). He was a football player and a track star,” Morris notes. “He was very quiet; I didn’t really get to know him until he came back after several years of college and we spent some time talking.”
On upcoming plans
Reflecting on his work with Grieving Teens, Tom Morris once wrote, “It has brought richness and meaning in my life to witness young people, broken in grief, hurting, and expressing bitterness, recover and grow to be stronger people with the help of God’s grace.” (Morris)
Nowadays, Morris’ focus is on helping his youngest daughter complete grad school and “continue what I’m doing,” he says. “I don’t have any grandiose plans, but just continue doing what I’m doing.”
Tom Morris has written a handful of books on the topic of grief recovery and his ministry, Grieving Teens, is a nonprofit organization that relies on donations for financial support. For more information, you can go to the following links:
Morris, Thomas. “Helping Teens Deal with Death and Grief.” Culture and Youth Studies. 2016. Web. 29 November 2016.
Yanez, Laura. “Grieving Teens of the Desert.” Kesq.com. Gulf-California Broadcast Company. 3 March 2014. Web. 29 November 2016.