WATCH: Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church Pastor and Phoenix Community Leader, Bishop Alexis Thomas, Dies Unexpectedly at 50

Bishop Alexis Thomas

Bishop Alexis Thomas, a pillar of the African-American community in Phoenix and senior pastor of Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church, has died, parishioners said. He was 50.

Thomas was said to have passed away unexpectedly Thursday night. A cause of death was not immediately available.

Under Thomas’ leadership, the congregation of Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church grew from 200 to more than 4,000 members, a church spokesman said in a statement.

His fervor for sharing the gospel started young. He received his license to preach at the age of 7, and by 16 had been appointed as the senior pastor at Pilgrim Rest.

As founder and general chairman of the African-American Christian Clergy Coalition and co-founder of the African American Strategic Alliance Coalition in Phoenix, Thomas’ leadership and influence stretched well beyond the church walls.

“Bishop Thomas was a true pillar, not only in the African-American community, but across all communities,” Arizona state Rep. Reginald Bolding said. “He really changed the framework of what it means to be a bishop and a pastor who has a pulse on the community.”

Leaders in Arizona and across the nation shared their grief Friday morning along with Thomas’ family and friends

The Rev. Al Sharpton said in a tweet that he was mourning the death of Thomas, who helped him lead a march on the state Capitol to protest Senate Bill 1070 in 2010.

Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton said in a statement Friday morning that Thomas gave him spiritual advice when he needed it most.

“Bishop Thomas was one of the greatest men I ever knew, and in so many ways he was the soul of our city. I am devastated by the news of his passing,” Stanton said.

Parishioners took to social media Friday morning to share their grief and admiration for a man who guided and strengthened them through his words and actions.

“He was always talking about his bigger vision of what the church might be,”  Shareé Hurts-Perry, who arrived at Pilgrim Rest in 2001, told The Arizona Republic.

Sarah Simpson began attending the church in her early 20s in 2004. She said Thomas helped her find herself at a time when she didn’t really know what she wanted out of life or where she fit in.

Thomas leaves behind a wife and five sons.

A homegoing service at Pilgrim Rest for Bishop Thomas is being planned, but there are no further details at this time, a church spokesman said in a statement. [UPDATE: The Home going Celebration of Life service for Bishop Alexis Thomas will reportedly be held on Monday, January 29th at 10:00 a.m. at the Phoenix Civic Center.]

The church has asked that the privacy of the family be honored, and anyone who would like more information can contact Pilgrim Rest at 602-258-0831.

SOURCE: The Arizona Republic – Derek Hall

The official statement released by Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church on the passing of its Bishop, Alexis Thomas:

Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton released the following statement after receiving news of Bishop Thomas’ passing: 

“Bishop Thomas was one of the greatest men I ever knew, and in so many ways he was the soul of our city. I am devastated by the news of his passing.  

Through his faith and passion for helping others, Bishop Thomas built Pilgrim Rest into one of the largest congregations in the city – yet he had a gift to see each person and reach each person as an individual. His sermons were incredible, like a work of art – funny, meaningful and relevant to the experiences we all endure. And his ability to see the good in each person helped create an oasis of love and compassion in the heart of our community.  It is no wonder that his impact was felt far beyond the walls of the church.   

This loss will be felt deeply by so many, including me. Bishop Thomas treated me as a member of the family, and provided me spiritual advice – especially when I needed it most. 

My heart and prayers are with his wife, Michele, his five boys and the entire Pilgrim Rest community.”

Phoenix city councilman Michael Nowakowski also released a statement on Bishop Thomas’ passing: 

“I was deeply saddened by the news of Bishop Thomas’ passing. For more than 33 years, as the pastor of Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church, Bishop Thomas was a powerful force for good in the community. My family and the entire city of Phoenix are praying for his wife Michelle, their children, and all the thousands of members of the church.

Along with his clergy colleagues and other church leaders, Bishop Thomas created the Faith Opportunity Zone aka FOZ in the city’s Historic Eastlake Park Neighborhood. He also was a founder of the city’s African-American clergy coalition. Many people have jobs, many families have housing, many seniors have companions, and many youth have mentors today because Bishop Thomas worked tirelessly and often behind the scenes to make sure that those who went without had some kind of support from the wider church.

Bishop Thomas was also a builder. Under his leadership, Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church became the largest predominantly African-American church in Arizona. He spearheaded the construction of a wellness center, a spa, a charter school, an education building, and even a health-focused restaurant – all on the campus of the church. His work to fully develop the church resulted in an anchor property that lifted up the entire community. Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church now occupies an entire city block and the intersection of 14th and Jefferson Streets is known as a crossroad of faith and service.

Bishop Thomas was a friend of the city and a friend of mine. He was an extremely gifted preacher and an equally skilled community leader. He was a native Phoenician who grew up, as he always said, around the corner of the mini-park in the Park South Neighborhood off of 20th Street and Broadway Road / MLK Boulevard in South Phoenix. His life and achievements are an example to all the youth of South Phoenix and his legacy will live on in the many lives he touched and communities he served as a pastor.”