Billy Ray Thomas was summoned to eternal rest on January 15, 2021 and is being held lovingly in the arms of the Lord. He was born on August 28, 1958 to Myrtis Lee Graham and Walter Lee Thomas in North Little Rock, Arkansas. He is preceded in death by his mother Myrtis Lee Graham, his father Walter Lee, brothers Walter, Garry, Jimmy Lee and JB. He was raised in Little Rock until at an early age when he, his mother and four brothers moved to Evanston, Illinois. He attended grammar and middle schools in Evanston.
After many years in and out of prison, primarily for various offenses and minor crimes, Billy came back to Evanston where many of his extended family still live today. Homeless at the time, he slept in Evanston’s alleys and sometimes by the steps of First United Methodist Church and Ebenezer AME Church. He would peddle flowers to passersby. The kindness of others and a vision that God would provide, enabled him to turn his life around.
Billy Ray was an energetic and caring man. He said in a newspaper article written about him, “As I became a victorious person…I wanted to give back.” His journey to find purpose took strength, courage and compassion, as well as help, from the people in Evanston. He found a home at First Church of God Christian Life Center and began ministry training in 2002. He was ordained Reverend Billy Ray Thomas on June 11, 2006. He successfully completed Evanston Citizen Police Academy and was recognized as a Vision Keeper by the Evanston Ecumenical Action Council in 2003 for his tireless outreach in the community. He was the founder and director of Minister’s Mission, an outreach ministry for the poor in Evanston. Billy Ray served the homeless and needy by providing clothing, blankets, bicycles, spiritual counseling and whatever else he could gather, often from the dumpsters or discarded items left in the alleys.
He taught himself to play the piano, composing songs in the soup kitchens’ fellowship halls. He couldn’t read music but loved to play – and others loved to listen. His musical talent was a gift from God and he used it to reach out to others. One of his supporters connected him with the Northwestern School of Music where he worked with a graduate student piano tutor. He released his first album Infancy in 2001, followed by three more albums (CD’s) over the next several years – True Joy, Newly Yvonne and Pieces. He had several piano concerts at First United Methodist Church, whose members encouraged and embraced his giving spirit. He greeted the guests at the First United Methodist soup kitchen on Thursday evenings for several years. He attended Sunday services there in later years.
Billy Ray earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Social Science from Ashford University August, 2010. He hoped to become a Substance and Alcohol Abuse Counselor because of his own struggles with alcohol and drug abuse but the educational demands were difficult.
He enjoyed bringing his keyboard to the Evanston lakefront and would play for passersby. The lakefront brought him peace and relaxation and it was the perfect place for a barbeque. Finding gainful employment was difficult because of his record; therefore, playing music provided satisfaction and some financial support. He was a showman! His music brought joy to anyone who stopped to listen.
Billy Ray will be missed by his Aunts Linda and Rossie, Uncle Sammy, foster sister Eileene Lane, sister-in-law Pauletta Sly Thomas, niece Garalyn Howard, nephew Gary Thomas, cousins, great nephews and nieces, and other family members and friends.
I’m sorry to learn of the passing of Billy Ray Thomas. He was in my Leadership Evanston class in 2001. I saw him through the years mostly at the Thursday soup kitchen at the United Methodist Church, where he would play the piano for the guests. He always offered a hug and conversation. He was curious about everything and it was contagious. May Billy Ray’s memory forever be a blessing.
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