The rejection weighed on Mr. Thomas, but he eventually found his way back into the pews as a staunch conservative. Before his high school graduation, he had his class ring — which he no longer uses — engraved with two Confederate flags.
But academic life at seminary in Texas changed his views, exposing him to debates he’d never encountered in Enterprise. He learned of the differing views on women in the church, and about Gene Robinson, the Kentucky clergyman who became the first openly gay bishop of the Episcopal Church.
“These were the things my Sunday school teacher had never told me,” he said.
By the time he was on the job market, Mr. Thomas could see his politics had changed and told his wife, Sallie, that it might make sense for them to move to the East Coast, where there were liberal Baptist churches. But as a Southerner, he had few connections outside of his home state, and the only church that hired him was back in Alabama.
From the start, it wasn’t a good fit. The racial tensions Mr. Thomas wanted to leave behind seemed always to be simmering there.
On a hot summer day Mr. Thomas was in his office when several African-American children were playing basketball outside, he said. One of them came to ask to use the drinking fountain in the church and Mr. Thomas pointed the child toward the door where the water was.
When a congregant, who was white, saw the black child approaching, Mr. Thomas said he pulled the door shut to not to allow the boy inside. The pastor was upset — it wasn’t the first time he’d seen that behavior.
“It was around that time I said, ‘OK, I need to get the old résumé written up again,’” he said, and decided to leave Alabama for good.