Sacred wisdom

Westminster Presbyterian’s architecture is traditional, but the message is not

The original Hagia Sophia in Turkey. Sac’s Westminster Presbyterian used it as an architectural model for the church’s sanctuary.

The original Hagia Sophia in Turkey. Sac’s Westminster Presbyterian used it as an architectural model for the church’s sanctuary.

You can find God here.

He shines in the soft light of the chandeliers and in the filtered sunlight shimmering through stained-glass windows. He fills the cavernous expanse below arched ceilings that sweep overhead.

I sit on a long, wooden pew in Westminster Presbyterian Church on N Street in downtown Sacramento, listening to the soothing voice of the Rev. Dr. David Thompson. He stands behind a pulpit in his long, flowing robe under an ornate wooden cross. His words and the grand harmony of the old pipe organ fill my heart with hope and encouragement.

The historic and beautiful church provides the perfect setting for worship. Built in 1927, the sanctuary is architecturally inspired by the church of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, a renowned Byzantine cathedral conceived by Emperor Justinian I in the year 532. Steeped in traditions of pre-Christian religions, Hagia Sophia (which means “sacred wisdom”) served as a religious focal point of the Eastern Orthodox Church for more than 1,000 years. Then it became a key symbol of Islam when it was converted to an Ayasofya Mosque after the Ottoman Turks conquered Istanbul in 1453. The building was even a Roman Catholic cathedral briefly (1204-1261), during the Latin occupation of Constantinople.

With Hagia Sophia as the model for the sanctuary in which I now sit, the imagery of these traditional religions is contrasted with the progressive tone of the service here at Westminster. While the built-in pipe organ echoes the strains of old-fashioned hymns, the Rev. Thompson prays for world peace and shares the church’s commitment to interfaith relations and diversity.

“We are deliberately diverse and fully inclusive,” he says, “with membership and leadership opportunities open to all people solely on the basis of an affirmation of faith in Jesus Christ, without regard to race, nationality, age, gender, sexual orientation, level of education, income or any enabling or disabling condition.”

He welcomes us from the pulpit, and we welcome each other with outstretched hands and smiles. I am greeted by people of all ages with the words “Peace be with you.” The children gather on the steps in front of the pulpit, and the Rev. Thompson sits with them. He tells them a simple story about Jesus and sends them off to Sunday school. The story for adults is simple, too. He speaks to us of happiness.

His soothing voice is warm and genuine. The sermon draws on lessons from biblical passages by St. Paul and on a contemporary work, Happiness Is a Choice, by Barry Neil Kaufman. Thompson draws on Kaufman’s work for what he calls “shortcuts to happiness”: making happiness the priority, being authentic, never judging others, gratitude in all things and staying in the present moment.

Love and nonjudgment, he says, are the two commandments Christ gave. Thompson’s holy grail of happiness is found in words St. Paul spoke in prison: “I have learned that whatever state I am in therewith to be content.” In other words, happiness is not a derivative, but a state of being.

My soul feels refreshed at the close of the service. We sing another hymn together and are dismissed with more words of peace from Thompson. Following the lead of others, I wander into the courtyard outside where a spread of pastries, fruit and coffee awaits. A homeless man joins the gathering to enjoy some of the goodies, though no one seems to mind and some engage him in conversation. I’m always up for coffee, and sip it in the sunshine while I talk with a gray-haired woman about painting.

Maybe I didn’t have to come to Westminster Presbyterian to find God. But the spiritual imagery of the place and the virtue of the music and words heard here sure made it easy to find Him again in me.