My Tribute to Tommy Weathersbee: 1949 – 2020
By Charles D. Kelley
PHILOMATH, Oregon – What do you call someone who is friendly, adventurous, energetic, gentle, demonstrative, loud, visionary, enthusiastic, generous, musical, hard-working, endowed with endearing intonations from West Texas, committed to family, driven by faith, devoted to his Lord, and passionate about world missions?
There can be only one answer: Tommy Weathersbee.
It has been my privilege to call Tommy a dear friend since we first met in 1998. He had just agreed to manage a huge summer mission project – Dallas-Riga 2000 – involving his own First Baptist Church of Richardson, Texas and Vilandes Baptist Church in Riga, Latvia. The two congregations had been sister churches for a year and desired to combine their strengths for mission and ministry.
I will describe this project in-depth because it demonstrates the many ways Tommy’s heart and talents were expressed over a 20-year period. Mission trips like this are impossible apart from skilled and dedicated leaders… like Tommy.
The actual ten-day event was but the tip of the iceberg; the two years of organizational complexities below the surface required extraordinary planning. Tommy joked that this mission trip made government projects look elementary. It was the largest partnership trip to Latvia that I know of.
When Tommy called to ask if Bridge Builders could help, I immediately replied, “yes.” We had already brought these congregations together, so assisting them in making the most of their partnership was a privilege. So, BBI’s entire team, from the US and Latvia, came alongside Tommy’s team to help with critical behind-the-scene needs: logistics, transportation, translation, communication, publicity, and more.
Components of Dallas-Riga 2000 included a massive choir and orchestra from the Lone Star State bringing the European premiere of “Savior,” the acclaimed oratorio by Greg Nelson and Bob Farrel. When the Texans were joined by the Latvian orchestra, “Crescendo,” the message reverberated with double impact.
In addition to musicians, dozens of volunteers offered their services and expertise focusing on: children, youth, business professionals, athletes, seniors, language students, church leaders, and women in ministry. For two years I flew back and forth from Oregon to Texas to help Tommy and the team strategize and plan.
Tommy first went to Latvia in May 1999.
It was a planning trip designed to get to know his Latvian counterparts face-to-face. Our Latvian director, Almers Ludviks, and I met him at the airport and introduced him to a wide variety of people, including the pastor of his sister church, Girts Asnevics. Good times ensued.
We frequently grinned when the eyes of bashful Latvians bulged in reaction to Tommy’s gregarious greetings and overwhelming friendliness. Adding a bit more fun to the process was Tommy’s propensity to speak his juicy dialect rapidly. Heads spun. More than once I whispered, “Hey Tommy, they are having trouble understanding you…slow down…enunciate.”
“Ok, I will,” he replied. But after a few minutes, his enthusiasm took over and he resumed his fine form. More importantly, he was loved by his Latvian friends from day one.
Tommy returned to Richardson with a new motto: “I’ve got Latvia on my mind” (pronounced ‘mahnd’).
I don’t know how many times I heard him exclaim that phrase as he recruited people… 156 people. When they all arrived in Riga in July 2000, Tommy’s leadership style changed from planner to executor. It was time to manage all the moving parts.
There were sports camps, language tutoring, vacation Bible schools, and visits to prisons. Business executives offered much-needed seminars on “Marketing in a Free Market Economy.” The sanctuary floor of the 19th century Vilandes Church was completely reconstructed from the crawlspace up. The choir and orchestra performed in the Philharmonic Hall, two churches, and at a major Latvian Baptist Song Festival. Small musical groups did street music throughout Riga’s Old Town. Some team members ministered to orphans while others met with former President Guntis Ulmanis.
In short, God’s love of Christ was expressed in multiple ways.
Years later, Tommy reflected back on that trip: “We realized that this was a lot more than concerts. We got to meet the Latvian people, see the Latvian soul, and love the Latvian hearts.”
There’s an old Latvian saying about friendship that applies. “We don’t say someone is a friend unless we go through something difficult together.”
Tommy and I emerged fast friends. Neither of us expected that we would have the desire to do more together in the future.
A few months after Dallas-Riga 2000, Tommy expressed his deep appreciation to me for BBI’s partnership and asked if there was anything he could do to help BBI. I hesitated… then carefully shared that BBI was in great need of consistent financial support; would Tommy be willing to organize a BBI banquet in Dallas? I was elated when he happily agreed. And so, for several years, Tommy organized annual banquets for BBI which surfaced many financial partners, some of whom continue to support BBI today. I have told Tommy many times that his help in this area literally saved us from financial ruin several times.
Around the same time, I asked Tommy to join BBI’s Board of Directors. Because of his ministry passion and executive experience, he was a perfect fit. We had no idea he would serve for most of the rest of his life, leading as chair for 12 years. Board service is not for the faint of heart. It can sap time, resources, energy, and sacrifice. But Tommy served with distinction…and satisfaction. When Tommy spoke at BBI’s Silver Anniversary Banquet in Oregon last September, he said, “I owe BBI a great deal. It has changed my life more than any other thing that I have done in my Christian walk.”
A few years ago, at one of our Texas Banquets, it was my joy to present Tommy and Coleta BBI’s Lifetime of Service Award.
A plaque is never adequate to express how deep is the gratitude but I am glad we could say ‘thank you’ in that tangible way.
Several days before Tommy died, I visited him and Coleta in Galveston. We discussed illness, life, faith, and very special memories. I asked him to recount some of his highlights of ministering in Latvia and with BBI. We read Scripture, pondered heaven, prayed, and even laughed together.
In that final conversation, Tommy explained how he seriously committed his life to Christ as a young man. Soon he went on his first international mission trip in 1973… and loved it. For the rest of his life, he invested enormous portions of his discretionary time, efforts, and finances to further the Gospel in numerous countries including Sri Lanka, Singapore, South Korea, England, Romania, Kenya, and, of course, Latvia.
Tommy told me that Latvia was his favorite because the overall purpose was always greater than the goals of a trip. He explained that other mission trips were good but nonstrategic. “It was like ‘here’s a nice town to go to, here’s an opportunity we can take to serve the Lord’ but there was a thing about Latvia that was… “much deeper, much more involved, much more reasoned, and with much more purpose.”
He attributed this to the power of partnerships with Latvians which made it possible for him and his church’s influence to grow over time. In the context of partnerships, he led more missions to Latvia, professionals, pastoral students, deacons, and seniors. He also preached in more than a dozen churches around the country. How many engineers have done that?
During Jesus’ last sermon in the Upper Room, He told his disciples, “You did not choose Me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should remain…”
My guess is that more than 300 from Richardson have served in Latvia in one way or another. There are people still in Richardson who were kids when Tommy started this journey. They may not know anything about the huge early projects or Tommy’s hard work, but they are now adults who have served. Their lives have been changed in the process; and so have the lives of many others whom they touched. You see, fruit has remained.
Tommy’s life is one of the best examples of 2 Timothy 2:2 at work. Paul wrote, “And what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also.”
Tommy Weathersbee was a faithful man. And I already miss that man.
Before Tommy passed away, he and Coleta informed me that they wanted Bridge Builders International to form a Memorial Fund in his name. They request that in lieu of flowers, gifts be given to:
Bridge Builders International
Tommy Weathersbee Memorial Fund
P.O. Box 1472
Wheaton, IL 60187