Alumnus leads change in local community through conversation and support
By Bryan Hay
In so many ways, Michael Thompson’s journey has come full circle.
Thompson ’81, supported by his degree in economics and business, spent 30 successful years as a senior administrator with health care system Ascension. His time there ended in 2016, just as another career was being born with his ordination in September 2017. It would become the best of his callings.
At Lafayette, Thompson had an endless curiosity about the spiritual side of life, which he nurtured by filling out his academic schedule with as many religion courses as he could handle. As he left his secular career, religion opened another door for him as head pastor of his home church, Bethesda Baptist Church, one of the largest Baptist congregations in northeast Washington, D.C.
In that role, Thompson, who’s completing his master of divinity degree at Dallas Theological Seminary, has found himself helping satisfy a national thirst for change and healing during the summer of protests over social injustice and police brutality. In the recent loss of his mother to COVID-19, he also bore witness to inequalities in how the health care system delivers services.
“I was part of a downsizing at Ascension in 2016, and at the same time I was asked to become head pastor at Bethesda after my ordination,” he says. “I’m in seminary now, and so this is like my second life.”
Police reform in Washington, D.C., which has been an epicenter of protests calling for an overhaul of the criminal justice system and racial equity, has been occupying Thompson’s pastoral duties.
“After the killing of George Floyd, there was a cry across the nation for police reform,” he says, adding that Floyd’s death brought about renewed awareness of unresolved cases of police brutality against Blacks and other people of color.
Thompson submitted and received a grant from the Code 3 Association, an organization founded to foster mutual trust and collaboration among police departments and communities, that would support programs to improve police and community relations in the neighborhoods where churches are located.
“And so we wrote that grant, which was funded, and what we’re doing right now is convening a series of listening sessions where the community is able to share their concerns with racial profiling and the unfair treatment by police,” Thompson says.
Similar sessions are being held with D.C. police, “to understand their thinking as bluecoats, how they deal with stereotypes, the behavioral issues that they’re facing, and how they’re managing stress at home and on the job,” he adds.
Into the dialogue, Thompson added a coalition of mental health professionals and social workers. Participants in the grant-funded program have been surveyed to collect perceptions about their neighborhoods.
“We’re also doing some job training as part of this because in my neighborhood, there is a significant move in the area of gentrification,” Thompson says.
“Many long-term residents who are being impacted by gentrification are living in subsidized housing, and that housing has been replaced by million-dollar condos,” he says. “That has generated a lot of tension in the community. And so this is a great opportunity to sort of stave off future violence.”
Thompson says he’s encouraged by the work so far.
Police officers and civic leaders in the district where Bethesda Baptist Church is located are very concerned about how the community perceives them. Thompson says most people in the community expressed distrust of the police when he accepted the call at the church.
“That’s when we shifted gears and said that the clergy needs to be out front and leading justice, as Martin Luther King Jr. did,” Thompson says. “We have weekly calls with the community and then weekly calls with the police. And then in the end, we’ll bring both groups together, where they will be able to listen and to observe the police sessions and vice versa.
“And there will be one final series of events where we try to put it all together and develop a communitywide covenant of what the community is committing to and what the police officers are committing to, in order to create more of a livable environment,” he says.
Thompson says he enjoys serving, counseling, encouraging, and connecting with people, especially during the pandemic. In Thompson’s worldview, a pastor also can lead in other ways.
“I’m looking forward to being able to introduce some new ideas for economic development within the community and create jobs,” he says. “My vision is to open up a sort of Starbucks or coffee shop in the area where there is none right now.”
With church services held via Facebook, giving at Bethesda has increased and made church a little more comfortable. “You don’t have to worry about a dress code right now,” he laughs. “I find that people are a lot more frank and transparent and willing to share what’s going on in their lives.”
In advocating for his mother, who died earlier this year from COVID-19 complications, Thompson found inequalities with resource allocations, as medical professionals refused to administer certain treatments because of preexisting conditions.
“They hemmed and hawed, and by the time that we had probably found an option, she was just too far gone,” he recalls. “There was no communication with my mom for her last week of life and no coordination of care. It’s really all about the profit.
“Once you get this virus, it really eats at your insides,” Thompson says. “And things happen so quickly that you really need to have coordinated care and systems as the focus of medical care.”
“First, register to vote. That’s so important during the upcoming election, to make our voices heard,” Thompson says. “Young people have this energy and idealism, and the only way to express that power is through the voting process.”
Learning about and educating others about the pillars of the civil rights movement —Fannie Lou Hamer, Stokely Carmichael, John Lewis — is also key “to share their knowledge and insights.
“Consider doing advocacy for some local legislation,” Thompson says. “And, yeah, I think that the young people should want to run for office.”