I’ve been doing a lot of writing lately – though it’s mostly been school assignments. This is one of the feature stories – a profile – that I wrote for my journalism class. Mrs. Thornhill is a librarian at my school, Patrick Henry College.
“I’m not a very interesting person. I think I’m pretty boring, actually. I’m much more interested in other people.” Vickie Thornhill begins our conversation with characteristic humility.
Boring, she says.
But the woman in front of me is far more than PHC’s beloved librarian. She has devoted years of her life to campus ministry, lived in states from Arizona to New Hampshire, and spent seven years as a missionary in Israel. She’s dodged terrorist attacks and hiked through the wilderness of En Gedi. On top of all that, she has a master’s degree in library science.
Thornhill’s life has been centered on ministry. It all started when she became a Christian as a sophomore in college.
“I thought that I was really smart and I could figure out this life thing and make good decisions,” she says, with a wry smile. “I ended up really disillusioned, in hurting relationships…so when I heard the option that God had a good plan for my life, I thought, I’ll try this for as long as it works. And that was 40 years ago.”
Her newfound relationship with God spilled over into her college friendships. She shared the Gospel with her friends, and so many of them became Christians that for a while she thought that everyone who heard the Gospel became saved. Years later, they’re all still Christians, and she keeps in touch with them and shares prayer requests over Facebook.
After college, Thornhill moved to Arizona and joined Campus Crusade for Christ (now called Cru), a Christian ministry focused on campus outreach. After a few years, Campus Crusade sent her to Boston. Life in Arizona and New England was very different from life in her native South Carolina.
“In South Carolina people are very polite, and in Arizona people are very honest, and in Boston people are very rude,” she says with a chuckle. “But they’re all people and people want the same things. They want to love and be loved, and they want to have a life of significance.”
Transitioning to different states with Campus Crusade prepared her for a much bigger transition overseas. In one of her first conversations with Jeff Thornhill, he mentioned that he’d always wanted to serve as a missionary in Israel. Thornhill was stunned. She’d had the same dream for years, and initially thought that one of her friends must have told him.
“It sounds like one of those Christian pickup lines – it’s ‘What’s your favorite verse’, and ‘Tell me about the Bible’, and ‘Do you want to go to the foreign mission field with me?’” she says.
It might have worked – but it wasn’t a pickup line. Thornhill married Dean Jeff Thornhill in 1983, and four years later, they moved to Israel.
Though she was still working with Campus Crusade, Thornhill found that ministry in Israel was very different. But people were still the same – her Israeli friends still wanted to be loved and significant and happy, and her relationships with them became a natural bridge for the Gospel.
“The Lord makes a place for you wherever He leads you, and I absolutely loved Israel. It’s exhausting and wonderful and terrifying all at the same time.”
Because there were so few believers where they worked, the Thornhills taught at local churches, as well as doing campus outreach. Work was slow. Many local churches had few Bible study materials and little training, which often led to doctrinal errors and passages taken out of context. The Thornhills provided and translated Bible study materials for many congregations. Their little living room was often home to a retreat for Christians from their church who were about to go into the Israeli Defense Force. Back then, there were about 30 of them. Now, though the Thornhills are gone, there are more than 300. There’s great joy in Thornhill’s eyes as she tells me that the next generation of believers in the congregations they ministered to has risen up and grown. “The Lord has blessed us tremendously.”
As much as she loved Israel, the Thornhills’ seven years there were fraught with danger. Each day, she had to prepare herself for the very real possibility that her husband or young daughter Ciara might not come home. She made sure that they left each other each day with, “Love you. Goodbye.” She learned to avoid crowded bus stops and scan the streets for dangerous people. “I usually tell people I’m not frightened by much anymore because I’ve been terrified by the professionals,” she jokes. “I learned not to be afraid, because I will be here until God takes me home.”
Once, Dean Thornhill was near the site of a bombing attack. For hours, they waited for a call, not knowing whether he was alive. Another time, Ciara’s best friend was killed when a terrorist blew up a school bus.
Thornhill is matter-of-fact as she tells me these things, but her voice fills with emotion. “They blew up 13 and 14-year-old girls. Who targets a bus full of girl children on their way home from school? I knew it could be Ciara or my husband. But it wasn’t our time yet. You really do learn to take God’s word and say, ‘This is what He promised.’”
The Thornhills’ time in Israel came to an end when their tourist visa ran out. They moved back to the United States. Thornhill says she still dreams of Israel often, and there’s a longing note in her voice when she talks about what it was like to live there. But she’s confident that “when we really do get to heaven, what seems like arbitrary decisions…it’ll all be a straight line.”
The Thornhills were led to PHC, where she became its beloved librarian. To her, the library is just as important a ministry as serving in Israel was. “I think that was my original desire in becoming a librarian – one, I love libraries and books, I love helping people find things, but I also love encouraging young men and women to trust the Lord. I think I’m in a particular position to say, if you entrust yourself to the Lord, He does have a future and a hope.”
Christiana Jorgensen is one of the hundreds of students that Thornhill has impacted. She was having a difficult semester, and Thornhill noticed. One day, when Jorgensen was sitting in the library, “Mrs. Thornhill walked by, and she patted me on the head, and I almost started crying.”
Even the memory makes Jorgensen’s voice falter. “Without words, she cared, and listened, and knew that I was there, and loved me. Without judgement, she met me where I was.”
Thornhill excels at small acts of kindness. “I remember one time, specifically, when she just came and brought me tea that she had made for me one day while I was studying. I know it’s such a small thing, but that little gesture made me feel so special and loved. And the thing is, I know she makes every student feel that way,” says Julia Coniglio.
Emily Roessler agrees. “She takes time out of her day to pray for students, and in my personal experience she has sent me emails explaining that she was thinking and praying for me on that particular day. She is one of the brightest lights at PHC.”
For Jorgensen, who now works with Thornhill in the library, Thornhill is an encouraging example of faithfulness, energy, and humility. “She never shies away from speaking up and speaking the truth, whether it’s someone being too loud in the library or someone being unkind. If I could be anyone when I grow up, I’d be Mrs. Thornhill,” Jorgensen says.
Thornhill closes our conversation by saying again, as she has a few times, that she’s “boring.”
“I’m not an extraordinary person,” she says, shaking her head, almost in wonder. “But I’ve led quite an extraordinary life. I’ve watched the aurora borealis from Lake Champlain in Vermont, I’ve watched sunset over the Mediterranean, I’ve watched sunrise over the Judean hills. I’ve hiked En Gedi, where David wrote the Psalms. I’ve seen God do some amazing things. And I think I can encourage people that if you trust the Lord, there’s an amazing life ahead of you. Life is hard, but God is good.”