CAROL GALLIGAN PHOTO | The Reverend Tom and Lois Charls in the doorway of their Brander Parkway home. Their several cats and one dog declined to pose.
From New Jersey to Colorado to the Philippine Islands to Sag Harbor and the Bible Church on Noyack Road and on to Shelter Island, with ministries all along the way, Tom and Lois Charls and several cats and dogs (all but one rescued from a shelter) are now happily settled in their home on Silver Beach.
Tom leads a small ministry here on the Island, the Grace Evangelical Church, which meets in the Senior Activity Center, and he also issues a monthly newsletter, “The Island Intercessors,” a summary of Islanders with specific needs for help or prayers, in which every Island church is represented. The publication comes out on the first Thursday of every month and is hand-delivered to about 45 families (and occasionally mailed to Florida). But to begin at the beginning …
Tom and Lois both grew up in New Jersey, he in Bloomfield, she in Irvington. Lois, just graduated from nursing school, was, according to Tom, “church hopping.” Carrying on the story, she said, “I heard about it, the church he was going to, that it had a good college-age group so I decided to check it out, see what was going on and he was president of the group at the time. So that was what was going on.”
Tom continued, “I started taking her home and finally I said why don’t I pick you up and we’ll go together and so that began a dating relationship that ended up with our getting married. That was the middle 60s.”
“After we were married, I went to seminary in Denver, a school that interested me. There were several on the east coast, but,” laughing, “John Denver was singing then, and Colorado sounded so wonderful.”
“And he was offered a tuition-free scholarship,” Lois added, with a slightly more practical bent. It was a Baptist school and the Illif School of Theology was on the same campus, so in fact he went to both, pretty much at the same time.
Illif offered courses in pastoral counseling and “I took every one of them that I could get.” The need for expertise in counseling was evident in his work as a chaplain at a home for mentally disabled children. “There was a woman who told me that her daughter was there because she was a sinner. And I said, ‘Could you explain what you mean by that?’ My counseling courses had been very few at that point and I could see that this woman was identifying some problem that she had with that of her daughter.”
So Tom took as many courses as he could, attending two seminaries at the same time. “I graduated from Denver Seminary but was better equipped to deal with counseling issues because of the additional training” at Illif. In his last year in seminary, he heard about the mission field — an experience that would look good to future employers. He was interested, and so was Lois.
That July, they found themselves in Manila at the Faith Academy, and overnight the number of their children grew from two — a daughter in kindergarten and a son in first grade — to 20, as they began work as the dorm parents of 18 boys, 7th, 8th and 9th graders. They enjoyed the place, the boys and the work and stayed a second year. Tom began a teaching assignment then at a local college for Filipinos, preparing them for the ministry.
After four years, they returned to New Jersey and he was ordained by his home church, Brookdale Baptist Church. Later, working as a visiting pastor in Central Islip, a man attending there knew Tom was looking for a permanent ministry and recommended him to the small Community Bible Church on Noyack Road. He got that job and moved his family to Sag Harbor, but as he explained it, “Not always is the pastor and his congregation of the same mind, and this congregation at the time was going in about six different directions.
“If the goal is to unify the congregation, and they’re split down the middle, you can’t pastor a church that’s divided like that. It just doesn’t work.” But resigning from the position didn’t resolve everything — his children were involved in their schooling and their life in Sag Harbor and he didn’t want to uproot them.
He knew Peter Needham, who had attended that church, and Peter offered him a job in his boatyard. “I had mechanical skills, and in college I worked as a machinist. So I decided to stay until the kids were out of school and then I’d look for another pulpit. I went to work for the Needhams for about 12 years, living in Sag Harbor.
“Then one morning on the ferry, thinking, ‘Lord do something, I don’t want to spend my life working in a boatyard, I trained for ministry,’ a man on the ferry asked if I’d heard about that new group forming in the library that needed a pastor. I said no, and that Sunday morning he called. It was not yet a church, just a little group meeting for Bible study on Sunday afternoons. But their goal was to form a church. Eventually the Grace Evangelical Church came into being, and meets here weekly Sunday afternoons in the Senior Activity Center downstairs in the Medical Building.
He and Lois are also active in other ways. He works with the state-funded Senior Citizens Home Repair Program. When daylight savings time begins, he’ll change all the batteries in all the alarms donated to seniors by the Shelter Island Fire Department. Then when daylight savings time ends, he’ll do it again. The days in between are the times of highest humidity here on the Island, causing the batteries to corrode. Lois directs the Silver Circle Program, for the frail elderly.
Their son is in the Air Force, stationed in North Dakota; their daughter lives in East Hampton, where she’s the dispatcher in the police department. They have five grandchildren, four step-grandchildren, two great-grandchildren and six step-great grandchildren. As Tom put it, “The family has grown.”