Faith in action
The Reverend Faith Whitmore
The bishop put her hands on the kneeling Faith Whitmore’s shoulders, leaned in close and whispered into her ear as she brought her to her feet: “Now go preach the Word, sugar!”
It seems right that Whitmore, who has spent much of her 51 years championing diversity and working to create interfaith harmony, would be ordained in the United Methodist Church by their first African-American woman bishop.
The Rev. Whitmore began preaching the Word with her first appointment, in 1984, to the Ione Community United Methodist Church. From there, she moved to the Florin United Methodist Church in 1987, and then to St. Mark’s United Methodist Church in 2001, where’s she now senior pastor to a congregation of 900 in North Sacramento.
Although she grew up—in her own words—as a “P.K.,” or “pastor’s kid,” Whitmore never thought of joining the clergy herself. Back then, there were few female clergy to serve as role models; that would come later.
We learn what we live, and Whitmore’s deep respect for all, regardless of their position or plight in life, was nurtured by her parents, who “lived their faith by example.” As pastor of Centennial United Methodist Church in Sacramento, Whitmore’s father often opened their small family home to people from all walks of life. Her block in Sacramento’s Hollywood Park was a study in diversity, and her abiding appreciation for different cultures and people was strengthened through her experiences traveling, and as a high-school exchange student in Sweden.
At the University of California Santa Barbara, on her way to becoming a doctor (“I could never get past the part where they rolled in the cadaver”), Whitmore turned her passion toward the anti-war movement. She joined with conscientious objectors to organize national gatherings of pacifists, working with such speakers as Daniel Ellsberg, Daniel and Philip Berrigan, and Danilo Dolci, the “Gandhi of Italy.” In 1974, she and others moved to Santa Cruz, where they combined resources with Joan Baez to form the Resource Center for Nonviolence, which still operates in that community. She continued her activism in Seattle, working with the homeless, with the hungry and, as always, for peace.
While in Santa Cruz, she fashioned her own academic major and graduated with a degree in Peace Studies, the first ever awarded in an independent field by the University of California.
As anyone who knows her will tell you, her style is honest and direct, with a splash of screwball humor: There’s a family portrait in her office that shows everyone wearing gag glasses with fake plastic noses and furry black eyebrows and mustaches.
As a religious leader in Sacramento, Whitmore puts her skills as a grassroots activist to work by building relationship networks across faiths. “It’s because of the strength and trust of the relationships we’ve established over time,” Whitmore said, “that when crisis hits and we call, we respond.”
Whitmore recalls when, in 1999, three synagogues in town were firebombed. Whitmore worked three phones all day Sunday, a day Christian ministers typically don’t answer their phones, and managed to convince hundreds to stand among 300 interfaith clergy at a Monday evening event in support of Sacramento’s Jewish community.
Ken Cross, president and CEO of Sacramento Habitat for Humanity, attests to Whitmore’s ability to get people moving: “She gets things done. I know if I were in her congregation, she’d have me moving. She’s a firecracker.”
But that was Sunday. Whitmore already had been getting things moving since minutes after the bombings that Friday morning. She offered her church to the synagogues for Friday evening services, got those attending the United Methodist conference to donate convention space to the synagogues and took up a collection from her fellow clergy to help rebuild the destroyed synagogues.
When Whitmore handed over a check for $6,000 to the rabbi of B’nai Israel, in front of thousands who’d come to the Friday evening Shabbat service, congregant Alan N. Canton wrote that it was one of the most emotionally powerful moments he’d ever witnessed.
“For two seconds there was absolute dead quiet. We were astounded. Did we hear this correctly? Christians are going to do this? On the third second, the hall shook with a thunderous applause. I’ve never heard applause like that before. And it went on for two minutes. And then people broke into tears. Me too. It was like all the emotion of the day and evening poured out into those few minutes.”
After the 9/11 attacks, Whitmore quickly organized an interfaith service at her church that was attended by then-Governor Gray Davis and hundreds of others. Just last April, she organized a panel discussion and free showing at the Crest Theatre of the PBS special Not in My Town, which told the story of the synagogue bombings and other hate crimes in Northern California.
Whitmore currently sits on the board of directors for both Sacramento Habitat for Humanity and the American Leadership Forum, where she’s a senior fellow. Over the years, she’s served on the boards of Friends Outside, Interfaith Service Bureau, Planned Parenthood of Sacramento Valley, South Sacramento Ecumenical Parish and Capitol Unity Council. She helped found the Sacramento Area Congregations Together and sat on that organization’s board of directors. She has also co-hosted Capitol and the Clergy on KCRA and “Faith in Action” on KFBK, and served as a guest columnist on the topic of religion for the Sacramento Bee and the Elk Grove Citizen. She’s also been active in the United Methodist Conference, serving on numerous committees and agencies.
Cross offers the highest compliment: “She is committed to putting her faith into action.”
Others speak it, too. Dr. Metwalli B. Amer, founder of the Sacramento Area League of Associated Muslims and recipient of the first Building Unity Award, praises Whitmore: “Her Highness! The Rev. Faith Whitmore, she is my princess! You may wonder why? Because she is first in taking the initiative to do whatever is right and wholesome in interfaith affairs.”
The Rev. Dexter McNamara, executive director of Sacramento’s Interfaith Service Bureau, talks of Whitmore’s warmth and commitment to the church, and her “understanding that God is a very big God who wants people of all faiths to be working together for peace, justice, fairness and compassion.”
And in her own words: “The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, often stated: ‘The world is my parish.’ And I have always taken this to heart. I believe that not only am I called to serve a local parish, but also to bring the concerns of the world into the parish, and vice versa.”