It is with a heavy heart that I write these words: Mary Elizabeth Thunder has gone home. A true Saint has left us.
I met Thunder back in 2007 when I was managing Woodside Trails. What had formerly been a school for mostly young men in the foster care system, had now become a place where many young men and women came to regroup and see what was next for them in their lives. My friend Bebe Gaines brought Thunder over to meet Melissa, my wife at the time, and me.
We hit it off immediately.
We talked about the 15 or so young men who were living on the property at the time, most of them she knew better than I. They had been out to Thunder Ranch, a spiritual community founded by Thunder some twenty years before, out in the brush between Smithville and La Grange, Texas, to practice Ceremony.
As we talked about “the boys” and the issues we were dealing with, I mentioned Jesus. Thunder exclaimed, with her beautiful childlike enthusiasm: “Oh, I love Jesus.” There was something different about the way she said it from the way I had heard others say it before. She said it as if she were talking about someone she was friends with, and knew intimately, and indeed she did. Jesus for her was not merely a faraway deity she believed in, He was someone she walked and talked with daily. Thunder and I became instant friends.
We talked all afternoon, and as I retold her about my recent re-dedication to the life of a Minister, I told her my story of how I grew up, the things I had gone through, and how, for decades, I had run away from my prior ordination as a minister. I told her about the long journey of forgiveness of those who had hurt me as a child, and especially of my father, who had put us kids through an arduous upbringing. I explained that I had forgiven every single person who had harmed me over the years, but I had still held on to a resentment toward God for the things I had endured growing up. I explained that at some point in the recent past I had made up an empowering story, and in that story I was still in the Spirit World, before I was born, and God and I agreed that I would be born into that exact family and experience those exact experiences so I could more effectively be of service to those I would minister to, in the future, who had also gone through hell in their childhood.
Thunder said: “Oh, that wasn’t a story you made up. That was a Vision.”
Thunder told me much of her story as well, and I had a sense that I had finally met someone who “got” me. I had a spiritual sister who knew who I was. And so began my friendship with Mary Elizabeth Thunder.
A couple of years later, the wheels fell off in my home. My untreated alcoholism was now in its final stages. Here I was, a practicing minister, trying to be of service to all those young men. Melissa and I would work full-time jobs to support the ministry, come home, cook for all those young men and a few women, and I would then drink until I passed out every night. I reasoned at least I was a happy drunk until one night we were sitting by the campfire, as we did every night, and I overheard Jonathan say to another kid sitting next to him: “Oh, I never talk to Benjamin once he starts drinking.” It was then I began to sense that maybe I had a problem.
The day came that I lost the job I was working to pay for the ministry. Several days later, we lost the house I had taken two years to build and were told the property had been leased out to a ministry I had brought into the picture, so I lost the ministry as well. At that point, Melissa had had enough of my drunken rages and announced she was leaving. In a span of nine days, I was reduced to living in the RV, alone, with no place to go.
Thunder found out about my situation and sent word with her warrior Justin that I could move the RV out to Thunder Ranch, and just like that I was living at Thunder Ranch.
Thunder was beautiful with me. Whereas I was now an angry, devastated shoe-top drunk, trying to get sober, and saw myself as a complete failure, Thunder saw me as an unbroken man of God who was needed around the ranch. She put me right to work with the mostly young people who came to live there, helping them get their lives sorted out. This work helped heal my soul.
Thunder and I became very close. I’m sure many of her friends might report the same feeling I had with her. Around her, I felt safe. Spiritually safe. She was my spiritual sister, and we would talk for hours about those matters. I was empowered to be an Elder in her community and lived on the Ranch for the better part of five years. I came to know many wonderful people there and did what I could to be of service.
There are countless stories about Thunder and those special qualities she had. I will tell only one.
One day, Thunder had not been feeling well for some time, and we talked about it. She had had a recent bout of pneumonia and had been complaining about her heart. It was decided I was the one to take her to see her heart doctor in Houston, the renowned Dr. Nishicawa, who also served as her PCP. Even though his usual fee was $900 a visit, he never charged her. You see, Thunder had met Dr. Nishicawa through his son, who had come out to Thunder Ranch for a Vision Quest. He had fallen under her charm like the rest of us. So we loaded up in the trusty Toyota van and headed to Houston. When we arrived, I parked the van, got the wheelchair out of the back, got Thunder wheeled to the elevator and up to the 16th floor on Fannin Street.
When we arrived at the reception, and it was clear Thunder was not their usual patient. Dr. Nishikawa’s entire staff took time to come to the front to meet her. Dr. Nishikawa had said so much about her, and they wanted to meet this woman named Thunder!
Thunder greeted each one, asked about them and their families, drew them in, and soon was involved in the lives of each and every one. I watched the whole event unfold, and it soon became clear that Thunder was the real healer, and was healing each and every one with her words and her love.
It was a beautiful thing to see.
I wheeled her into the exam room, and presently Dr. Nishikawa came in, with two or three assistants in tow, fussing over her and asking her questions. She charmed him with her answers. As he examined her lungs, he asked The Big Question: “Thunder, have you stopped smoking like I told you to?” She gave me a warning glance and holding up two fingers, said in her sweetest voice: “Only two a day.” There was complete silence in the room.
I almost laughed out loud. I knew, as everyone else who knew Thunder knew, that she loved her American Spirits. When at the Ranch, my favorite thing was to sit and hear her tell her stories and smoke her cigarettes.
We finally left the office. There were warm good-byes all around, maybe a few tears, with last minute bits of advice and words of endearment towards the good doctor’s staff, and out the door, we went. Thunder had the entire staff, including the mighty Dr. Nishicawa, wrapped around her elegant little finger.
As soon as we got to the van, she lit her cigarette.
It is difficult to explain my relationship with Thunder, but I will do my best.
Thunder used to say: “I don’t see faces. I see souls.” And so it was. Many of us have had arduous spiritual journeys through our lives. Sometimes that spiritual journey can be very lonely. One at times feels like no one knows, or could possibly know, just how hard-fought those battles were. Most of us who sat at her feet were just happy to be in her presence. When I was with her, I felt known. I felt that she knew each and every battle I had fought. I was as if she saw me as God sees me, and that renewed my soul. We had fought many battles and shared a few as well. I saw her as a mentor, and she called me her minister, The Old Preacher Man.
I will dearly miss my sister and look forward to joining her on the other side.