St. Joseph resident Jake Presnell was in the cafeteria at the University of Kansas Hospital on a recent Thursday night, making a quick food run before returning to the bedside of his fiancee, who was fighting an infection that was just the latest complication in a difficult pregnancy.
As Presnell was paying for his food, Thomas Allen approached the cash register and started talking to him. Then the two of them bowed their heads and prayed for the health of Presnell’s fiancee and the 28-week-old child in her womb and for strength for him and the rest of his family as they support her. Then they hugged.
“I was telling him about what all was going on, and he asked me if I believed in the power of prayer,” Persnell said. “I said, ‘Yes, every little bit helps.’ … Honestly it kind of made me feel a little relieved. It takes some of the stress off my shoulders.”
It’s a scene that plays out regularly late at night in the cafeteria, where Allen works as a cook and kitchen supervisor when he’s not at his other job as an associate minister at Oak Ridge Missionary Baptist Church in Kansas City, Kan.
Since Allen started at KU Hospital in 2015, the facility’s leaders have circulated reports of his impromptu late-night prayer sessions from customers who were touched by them. Hospital administrators presented Allen with an Excellence in Caring award earlier this year, and he’s now enrolled in the hospital’s clinical pastoral education program, training to become a certified chaplain.
Allen, 59, said it has been a long road that started with him needing the prayer and comfort.
He moved to Kansas City in 1991 from the Detroit area, where he was also a hospital cook. He struggled at first to find work that paid enough for him and his family to live comfortably.
Then one day his neighbor asked him to come to church.
“He preached the sermon that day,” Allen said. “I had lived next door to him for six months and never knew he was a minister. And the sermon that he preached was the return of the prodigal son.”
Allen started going to church regularly.
“The more I went to church, the more doors opened up,” Allen said.
He said his own turn to ministry started in 2004, when he had a powerful vision while driving down Interstate 35. He saw his pastor and his loved ones standing around him, holding hands, and then the voice of God called him to be a minister.
“I said, ‘But I haven’t studied your word and I’m not worthy to preach your word,’ ” Allen said. “And he said, ‘I think you’re worthy’ and he asked me again, ‘Will you preach my word?’ ”
Allen said yes and began studying to be a minister.
It’s a job that he said extends far beyond the church doors.
“My wife and my kids, they hate going anywhere with me, because wherever I’m at — the grocery store, the gas station, it doesn’t make me any difference,” Allen said. “If my spirit tells me this person is hurting, then I’m going to try and help that person any way that I can.”
Allen was a cook in the Kansas City, Kan., school district before he was hired by KU Health System. He had wanted to work at the hospital for years and doesn’t mind the 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. shift.
In his supervisor role he changes menu boards, checks temperatures in all the coolers and will step up to the grill or serving line if someone goes on break.
At the same time, Allen keeps an eye out for souls that need comforting. They’re not hard to find. If you’re in the hospital late at night, it’s not usually for happy reasons. When he sees someone who’s distressed, he asks if they’re OK.
“A lot of times they say, ‘Yeah we’re OK,’ but then I keep paying attention and then I ask them, ‘Are you sure you’re OK?’ ” Allen said. “And then they’ll go into what’s going on and then I’ll ask them, ‘Do you mind having a word of prayer?’ ”
He doesn’t tell people in the cafeteria that he’s a minister because he said that makes people look at him differently.
Allen said the stories he hears stick with him. Stories of kids with cancer, husbands having emergency surgeries, friends who were victims of violence. It has given him a greater appreciation for the work of his pastor at Oak Ridge Baptist, Ricky Turner, whom Allen calls a mentor and a “spiritual father.”
“Sometimes you get some where their loved ones are not going to make it and they say prayer doesn’t help,” Allen said. “Even in that, I tell them, prayer always works. Maybe not for a healing, but maybe to give you the strength and comfort and understanding you need to make it through the road you’re going to travel.”