2008 Building Unity Award Recipient, the Rev. Dr. David Thompson
Just two days after the Rev. Dr. David Thompson became senior pastor at the Westminster Presbyterian Church in Sacramento, terrorists brought down the World Trade Center in New York City, and he found himself sitting on what could have been a powder keg of religious tension.
While it may have been easier to point fingers during the tumultuous days following the September 11 attacks, Thompson decided to reach out to Sacramento’s diverse faith communities to foster cooperation, understanding and mutual respect.
“I wanted to try to make a difference, to try to bring people together across denominations and faith lines,” recalled Thompson.
In fact, one of the reasons Thompson chose to come to Sacramento was because of the diversity of faiths and cultures already existing within the city.
“Sacramento turned out to be an amazing choice in that regard,” Thompson said. “There’s more interfaith, ecumenical cooperation in Sacramento than in many cities.”
“I think what we tend to do is bring the problems of our various nations from which we came into a new context in California. And if we do so with respect, we’ll get a perspective.”
Before coming to Sacramento, Thompson earned a master’s degree in divinity from the Toronto School of Theology and then a Ph.D. from Saint Michael’s College. After obtaining his Ph.D., he served as pastor head of staff in an Ontario church for 17 years.
Prior to joining the clergy, Thompson worked as a salesman for IBM and then as a high-school teacher, where he taught classes in English and theater arts.
For the last seven years, Thompson has worked with his congregation at Westminster to bridge the gaps between various faiths. One way that is done is by inviting leaders from a range of traditions to speak at its services, including a Jewish rabbi to speak at its pulpit, and on one Christmas Eve service, an imam to read the nativity story as it appears in the Quran.
Thompson has also participated in The Children of Abraham Project, which recognizes the common faith ancestor shared by Jews, Muslims and Christians. Children of Abraham facilitates numerous interfaith discussions across the community and around the world.
But while he sees value in recognizing common beliefs in various traditions, he emphasizes that interfaith discussions aren’t necessarily about everybody coming to the same conclusions.
“The point is not to agree,” Thompson said. “The point is to listen respectfully, to try and understand the other person’s position.”
Thompson’s unifying efforts have been recognized in the past. He has served for three years as the board president of the Interfaith Service Bureau, where he was recognized for outstanding leadership. The ISB—which comprises Christians, Muslims, Jews, Scientologists, Buddhists, Unification Church members and Sikhs—works together in causes such as resettling refugees, promoting healthier families and combating domestic violence.
And Thompson has also worked for stronger ties within the Christian community. When the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament on 11th Street underwent earthquake retrofitting, Westminster opened up its doors to the Cathedral’s congregation for 18 months, providing a home until the retrofit was complete.
“We have built very strong, very endearing bonds during that time, of mutual cooperation,” said Thompson. “That was a beautiful thing.”
But while Thompson’s work has centered heavily on numerous interfaith issues, his work has extended into the sphere of social-justice issues as well.
Westminster Presbyterian has made thousands of dollars in donations to Women’s Empowerment, a Sacramento-based nonprofit that provides housing, education and job training to homeless women.
Westminster recently completed a penny drive to provide health care for children in Cuzco, Peru.
Thompson has also worked with Death Penalty Focus, the largest nonprofit advocacy group devoted to eliminating the death penalty; Habitat for Humanity; feeding the homeless; securing legal equality for gays and lesbians; and helping troubled youth. He credits the congregation at Westminster for supporting him in these issues.
“Without them,” he said, “I wouldn’t have had the support and the platform to do all this work.”
Another cause he is particularly passionate about is the environment. He describes climate change as a “big picture” item that must absolutely be addressed.
“There will be no world for our youth if we don’t care about climate change,” Thompson said.
His interest in environmentalism began many years ago. His doctoral thesis focused on legislation impacting the environment passed by the British Parliament during the Industrial Revolution.
At his previous church in Ontario, he sat on an environmental round table that planted 1,200 trees in his community.
Thompson believes one of the biggest barriers to combating climate on a global scale is international borders. He points to the United States and Canada as an example.
“Canada is low on innovation. California is No. 1,” he said. “We think there’s opportunity for cross-fertilization there, and we think that if the faith communities get behind trying to make the differences we need to survive, it will draw us together.”
Thompson is currently working on bringing green technologies to Canada, and he feels faith communities are one of the most effective ways to bridge those international borders.
“Most of us have faith communities that are overseas … have those natural links,” he said. “We’re able to bring the world together in a way that others cannot.”
For all of these issues—climate change, terrorism, poverty, domestic abuse—Thompson is confident that faith communities can come together and provide real solutions. But the key to fostering that cooperation, he said, is to foster respect.
“I have found that whenever respect is extended in faith communities, it’s easier to get along well with each other,” he said. “That’s probably our greatest challenge.”