The people in desperate fear of losing Pastor Thomas Lawrence Gallashaw filled his phone with get-well texts during the month he was on a ventilator fighting the coronavirus.
He died on May 31 in Einstein Medical Center Philadelphia, likely never absorbing the accumulation of love and sorrow dispatched by Spring Garden’s teenagers, homeless people, and longtime clergy who were imploring Pastor Tom not to leave this Earth and the work he’d yet to do.
Gallashaw, 70, re-made his life through the years — from Quran-quoting Muslim to Bible-toting Christian; from drug-dealing gang member to mesmerizing nondenominational preacher and SEPTA bus minister who’d talk Jesus to lonely riders taking the long way home.
What never changed was his core toughness. Marked for execution by a rival dealer in his youth, Gallashaw grabbed the gun that was jammed against his temple and got shot in his left hand, according to the story he told so many people. Later in life, he met and forgave the gunman.
Gallashaw’s hard-bark demeanor gave him a street authenticity that everyone recognized and respected when he exhorted them to do better, be better.
“Mostly, this dude just exuded love,” said Adam Bruckner, a minister who worked with Gallashaw at the Helping Hand Rescue Mission on North Sixth Street. “And he loved people in the best way — by giving them his time. Within people, he didn’t see errors; he saw equals.”
Had he lived, Gallashaw would have been perfect for these difficult days, those who knew him say. “The Black Lives Matter movement is for the greater good of mankind,” said Garrett Marsh, co-pastor with Gallashaw at Christ Community Bible Church, part of the Rescue Mission. “Tom would have taken the stance of advocating both protest and peace.
“He would have been in the forefront of that. And people would have listened.”
The Spring Garden Apartments sit in the shadow of Edgar Allan Poe’s raven statue, its wings spread in dark perpetuity at the national historic site on North Seventh Street.
The Philadelphia Housing Authority, which runs the development, does not call the apartments a housing project. But the people who live there do.
They sit on the border between those who have and those who don’t, a block from the gentrifying geography of Northern Liberties, where houses run $600,000 or more.
The mission and church where Gallashaw worked in his trademark three-piece suit is just steps away from the apartments.
Gallashaw, who most recently lived in Germantown with Carolyn Gallashaw, his wife of 24 years, was born farther uptown in North Philadelphia. He was one of 12 children of a mother who was an English teacher and a father who was a carpenter, according to Dominique Gallashaw, 34, of Cheltenham, a daughter of Gallashaw’s.
She and her sister Tracey, 50, of Mount Airy, only recently agreed to speak about their father after his death.
“He had a difficult childhood as a Black man growing up in Philadelphia,” said Dominique, a mental health behavioral counselor. “He was part of Junior Black Mafia, the gang. He was a pretty bad guy, but he never hurt anybody.”
Tracey, also a counselor, agreed: “You didn’t have a choice but to be in a gang and deal drugs in those days. Our dad was raised around violence.”
Soon enough, for reasons no one in the family was able to explain, the Muslim religion became a central part of Gallashaw’s life.
A high school dropout, he went through a series of jobs running a fast-food place, hawking the Daily News, then selling trash bags, giant O’Henry bars, and other supermarket items off a truck. For a while, he sang Jackson 5 songs in a neighborhood band. He’d later work in maintenance in a retirement community, and he learned how to be a plumber.
When his brother Matthew, a pastor at the Helping Hand Rescue Mission, suggested Gallashaw embrace Christianity, he didn’t fight it. “His greatest accomplishment,” Matthew said, “was giving his life to Christ.”
The natural father of seven children, Gallashaw raised three more as his own whom he felt needed help, Tracey said. Gallashaw divorced Tracey’s mother, Gwen Cain, in 1973.
“If you’re not blood-related, well, you were blood-related to him,” Dominique said.
As a pastor, Gallashaw endeavored to see the good in others, she said: “From his struggles, he understood the importance of someone giving you a chance to make a difference in their life.”
Gallashaw sang whenever he could in church, told dirty jokes outside it, cooked mammoth meals for the homeless and, during periods of violence in Spring Garden, was a blunt elder to any kid firing weapons, Tracey said, instructing young men not to fight — and to go out and vote.
Often, he and Marsh would evangelize along the streets of Spring Garden, Marsh recalled: “Knocking on doors. Using up shoe leather: That’s what Jesus did.”
The clergymen called the streets “the battlefield,” where God’s warriors fought for the poor and unloved. Each day, Gallashaw, who’d endured three bouts of cancer, the latest a painful struggle with anal cancer, suited up and joined the fray.
“I want to die on this battlefield, preaching and teaching,” Gallashaw once told Marsh.
Gallashaw didn’t own a car, so he commuted on buses between Germantown and Spring Garden, chatting up riders about life’s joys and troubles. “He did it out of a compassion for mankind,” Marsh said. His daughters believe Gallashaw contracted COVID-19 on these trips. But, they concede, there’s no way to know.
Diamond Alston, 18, who lives in the Spring Garden Apartments and will be attending Community College of Philadelphia in the fall, said Gallashaw was like a “street-guy grandfather. That’s what I liked about him. I could talk to him about anything. He understood a young person’s mindset.”
Her brother, Rashod Wheeler, 14, a rising eighth grader at Gen. Philip Kearny School, called Gallashaw “an influencer to me. I was rebellious, but he guided me to the right path. He said I’m not a bad person, which everyone else said I was. Pastor Tom saw potential in me. He taught me how to be a man.”
Greg, a formerly homeless man in his 50s whom Bruckner described as a favorite of Gallashaw’s, called Pastor Tom “a special friend who treated me the way I’m supposed to be.”
Gallashaw would grab his plumber’s tools and fix the busted toilets of local residents as he sang gospel songs and Temptations hits, his voice a welcome counterpoint to the endless electronic chirping of apartment smoke alarms with dead batteries no one could afford to replace.
Bruckner said Gallashaw is being “weepingly adored by people really banged up that he’s gone.”
“We wish we could’ve said goodbye, but the virus doesn’t give you that chance. He was old-school, he was huge, and he had your back, always,” Bruckner said.