The Gaithers’ Biggest Fan enjoys the Cruise of a Lifetime
Gaither Homecoming cruises are always packed with passionate fans. But on their most recent cruise to Alaska, perhaps no passenger was a bigger fan than Thomas Jones of Calgary, Alberta.
“As long as I’ve known Tom, he’s always loved the Gaithers,” says Tom’s friend, Wayne Smele, missions pastor of Centre Street Church in Calgary. “Somehow he got a collection of Gaither tapes on VHS in the ’90s and that’s been his thing ever since. Every Friday night, he listens to Gaither Gospel Hour on the radio. That’s one of his rhythms.”
Tom Jones is 47 years old and has Down syndrome. He is relatively high-functioning and lives with a caretaker in a house his now-deceased parents bought for him. Like many adults with Down syndrome, routine is important to Tom. He works three days a week at the church’s community café, where he busses tables during lunch. He also fills the church’s Pepsi machine on Tuesdays and restocks the comment cards in the 2,300-seat sanctuary every Thursday. And on Friday evenings, Tom settles in with the beloved music of the Gaithers. He’s been doing it for years.
“I like to say Tom is passionate about three things: Jesus, sports, and the Gaithers,” Wayne says. Centre Street Church has a robust ministry for special-needs adults and Tom hosts a regular small group at his home, which is attended by a dozen friends. They eat dinner and talk about the Bible together; and their meetings often end with Gospel songs Tom learned from the Gaithers.
“He knows all the music. He sings along—it’s not exactly in tune, but he sings like crazy,” explains Wayne, who has been friends with Tom for years and even travels with him on missions trips to Mexico, where Tom speaks to families of children with Down syndrome.
As soon as Wayne heard about Gaither Homecoming cruises, he thought of how much Tom would enjoy such an experience. When details of the Alaska cruise were announced in 2016, he introduced the idea to Tom’s caretakers. Wayne, who only grew to love Gospel music over the course of the cruise, insisted on paying for his own ticket as a way of investing in Tom’s life. Tom’s caretakers helped fund Tom’s travel and surprised him with the trip as a Christmas gift.
When it was time for the cruise, the two made the 11-hour drive to Seattle to embark on the vacation of a lifetime. “I downloaded three Gaither Homecoming albums and we listened to them the whole way there,” laughs Wayne.
Tom Meets Bill & Gloria
The cruise was everything Tom expected—and more. Bill and Gloria had heard beforehand that one of their biggest fans was on the cruise and wanted to meet him. At the first artist meet-and-greet, Bill saw Tom in line and brought him immediately to the front so they could meet. “They talked for a little bit and took pictures,” says Wayne. “Bill and Gloria are Tom’s heroes. After that, every time they would see Tom on the ship they would wave and say hi. The different artists would see Tom and give him a high-five. The love and grace they showed him was unbelievable. They made him feel so welcomed.”
Tom loved the meals on the ship and enjoyed panning for gold in Juneau. But, as for all cruisers, the nightly concerts were the highlight of the trip. Tom even got to sit in the front row a couple of evenings.
Though he has difficulties with short-term memory and trouble communicating due to a stutter, we were able to ask Tom a few questions about his experience. Here’s what he told us:
Tom, tell us why you love Gaither Homecoming music so much.
I love it because it makes me dance when I’m in my seat. I like all their songs. My favorite Gaither song is “Because He Lives.”
What was it like to meet Bill Gaither on the cruise?
I was very excited to meet him, I shook his hand and I felt warmth in my heart.
What was your favorite thing about the cruise?
I loved the calm ocean and I liked seeing the sights from my balcony. I loved every concert. I liked the Gospel music so much. I also liked meeting the artists and one of my favorites was Jeff and Sheri Easter.
A Floating Family
Beyond the friendliness and accessibility of the Gaithers and Homecoming artists, Wayne says he was taken aback by the community he and Tom encountered. “Everyone on the cruise was so friendly…the spirit of the people on that boat was unbelievable.”
He explains that Tom has set up his own foundation to help families with Down syndrome in Mexico, contributing his own birthday money each year. Tom brought his business cards with him and handed them out to people he met on the cruise, several of whom made donations.
After the experience with Tom, Wayne hopes to cruise with Inspiration—and the Gaithers—again. “Tom was ecstatic about the trip,” he says. “He was just so emotional. It was life-changing for me, too.”
You too can experience the community and fellowship of the next Gaither Homecoming cruise. We hope to see you there!