Just a Closer Walk

After more than $250 million in wins, Ray Thomas found he was missing something—and it wasn’t success

Published in 2009 Texas Super Lawyers — October 2009

There was a time, Ray Thomas acknowledges, when he was all about the “super successful lawyer” thing.

What he was looking for—and what he achieved—was money, fame and access to the most challenging and lucrative cases. Over the years, Thomas, a partner at Kittleman, Thomas & Gonzales, has obtained more than $250 million in verdicts, judgments and settlements. He’s been named by his peers to the list of this magazine every year since 2006.

Yet something, he admits, was missing. When he finally put his finger on it, everything fell into place.

Thomas, 46, is wrapping up his third year of study to become an ordained permanent deacon in the Roman Catholic Church. It is a path that leads him to more meaningful relationships in his own life, and to helping others find their faith.

“As a lawyer, you can become intoxicated with power and money,” he says. “This, now, is really about attempting to live a sacramental life that glorifies God, recognizing and acknowledging that I will fall short time and time again.”

Thomas has always been active in his community. He is a past president of the Boys & Girls Club of McAllen and the one-time chairman of the club’s $5 million capital campaign. And he’s been a frequent volunteer for numerous charitable and educational organizations.

Gradually, however, he began to reflect on his motivations for service to the community. “If you find yourself serving everybody and every organization except your family, the chances are, you are probably serving for the wrong reasons,” he says.

“I have spent much of my life serving for the wrong reasons and, honestly, I struggle with it every day,” he says. “I was so busy building up my own self-image, and admiring what I saw in the mirror, I had little time left for God.

“The image I was trying to create was a hard-working, successful trial lawyer who gave back to the community; a legacy I thought would be the best example for my children. But the most important part of the legacy was missing, that of being a loving husband and a nurturing father whose family came to know and love God, and not just on Sundays.”

 

Genesis of a Journey

He was born a self-described “cradle Catholic,” baptized into the church of his family, but with little insight into its teachings or history or how he fit into it. His parents’ divorce when he was 6—he has two older sisters—helped fuel his desire to overachieve. He became a top student, graduating with honors from St. Mary’s University in 1985 and earning his J.D. from the University of Texas School of Law in 1988.

Mark Carrigan, a Houston attorney, has been Thomas’ friend since the late 1980s. They have worked many cases together over the years and Thomas says that Carrigan “has seen the good, the bad and the ugly in me.” Carrigan says Thomas’ skill as an attorney was clear in those early years. “He has a tremendous knowledge of the facts in all his cases,” Carrigan says. “He also has a true compassion for his clients. I don’t see in Ray any ugly.”

As young attorneys, Carrigan and Thomas enjoyed life and were known to celebrate the ups and downs of practice in less than healthy ways. It was nothing really crazy, Carrigan says. But Carrigan notes the irony of their different chosen paths: he grew up in a deeply religious family and found himself pulled away over the years, while Thomas started at the other end and has been growing closer to his faith. “I just think that this is Ray’s path to becoming a great man,” Carrigan said. “He is always trying to do that, to be a complete person.”

The turning point, Thomas says, was the death of his daughter in 1996. She was born premature and was the second child born to him and his wife, Sandra Gonzalez. She lived just 30 days, Thomas says, but her short life pulled him, Sandra and their family—Laura Alejandra, who is in high school, and their son, Raymond Luis, an elementary-schooler—closer together.

Thomas says a life of service, without a focus on your family, is misled.

“When we serve family, there is no quid pro quo,” he says. “There is no special prestige or recognition we receive from others. When we serve our family, we are serving out of unconditional love. And that is precisely the kind of service God calls us to provide.

“One day, I know that I will be held to account for all I did and all that I failed to do, especially for my children,” he told a gathering of attorneys in 2007. “When that fateful day comes, I can guarantee you that the title of Super Lawyer will do me no good. I would gladly trade every title on my résumé for just one—Super Dad.”

 

Step Two: Forming Faith

It was a fundamental Baptist that pushed Thomas toward becoming a deacon. Thomas was in his late 30s, and worked with another lawyer, a debate partner back in high school who decided to leave his career in the law and go to Liberty University to study arts and theology, and divinity.

“When he came back, he was challenging my faith,” Thomas says. “And I was unable to defend my faith.” Finding himself woefully short on answers when the tenets of Catholicism were challenged, he turned to a friend and law partner, Scott Walsh, for help. This went on for a few years, until, he says, “Scott got tired of me bothering him. He handed me a catechism and said ‘Look it up yourself.’ The more I learned, the more I fell in love with the Catholic Church.”

Then, in 2004, Thomas says “I was pushed into one of those [religious] retreats.” There, he says, the notion of God and faith became more than information in his head. It became a feeling in his heart. “It was just a different focus. Instead of my ego at the center of the universe, our Lord Jesus Christ is the center of the universe.”

And so began his journey to becoming an ordained permanent deacon. He is a year away from completing the four-year program. Where and how he serves will be up to his bishop and pastor.

“Our priests desperately need our help,” he says. The national average is one priest for every 1,500 Catholics, Thomas says, but the Roman Catholic Brownsville Diocese has one priest for every 10,000 Catholics.

In the Catholic Church, there are three levels of holy orders. Deacons are at the first level, priests and bishops are the next two. All deacons can baptize, witness marriages and preside at funerals. They may serve as the homilist, delivering the sermon, at mass. Priests are ordained deacons prior to becoming priests. But, unlike priests, deacons can be married men.

The church, Thomas says, also doesn’t want deacons to give up their day jobs. While it may be challenging to continue work as a high-profile lawyer while also serving as a deacon to one million Catholics in the Diocese of Brownsville, Texas, Thomas says that balance is important.

“We need to stay in the community, to live our faith among everybody every day,” he says. “How to balance both probably worries my wife. But my pastor is understanding. He says, ‘Don’t ever forget that your family comes first.’”

Thomas adds: “The truth is, there is no compartmentalization between faith and life. It involves all facets together.”

The Rev. Joe Villalon, Thomas’ spiritual director, praises Thomas as “a wonderful man, a spiritual man. He loves his family. He’s very devout.”

Thomas has found an inspired way to spread the word beyond his parish in McAllen. He’s an active partner in Gospa Records, a Catholic recording studio, record label and music publisher that is committed to helping young artists spread the Gospel. Thomas is also a principal for GospaTV, a nonprofit Texas company that will provide Catholic programming through a single multicast channel 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Eric Galton, an Austin attorney, mediator and arbitrator, has been Thomas’ friend for years. He says he is impressed, but not surprised, by his friend’s journey. “He always had this deep-seated sense of social justice,” Galton says. “He is just as good and caring a human being as you’re ever going to find.”

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