Wesley Thompson is just as passionate about his pastoral work and his community now as he was on the first day of his job. The 2014 McAfee School of Theology graduate has served as the pastor of Bethel Colbert Missionary Baptist in Leighton, Alabama, for five years now. As a Democratic candidate for the Alabama House of Representatives, he hopes to also serve his community through political action.
Thompson actually knew at 5 years old that he wanted to be a preacher. With a family deeply rooted in faith, the Florence, Alabama, native grew up in church and was always captivated by it. He recalled how as a child his great-grandmother would invite the entire congregation to her home for lunch after the service, and he’d deliver his own version of the pastor’s sermon to the people there.
He officially accepted the calling to ministry at age 17, but it took a bit of self-discovery before he fully committed to that path. While serving as the youth minister at his home church, Thompson earned a bachelor’s degree in political science at the University of North Alabama and set his eyes on law school.
“Being a pastor and leading a church, I wasn’t actually sure that was my path,” he said. “I always joked and said God changed my mind from being a high-paid lawyer to a low-paid pastor. I decided instead of going to law school to go to ministry. I was trying to go one way, but God was pulling me and reminding me, this is your path.”
Not wanting to move too far from home, he looked at a few seminaries in Atlanta, including Mercer’s McAfee School of Theology.
“My campus visit there, I just fell in love with it,” Thompson said. “I met with the professors. It seemed like the right fit for me. It’s the relationships, the friendships — relationships that 11 years later are still strong and well connected.”
After being in a “bubble” in his small Alabama hometown, Mercer and Atlanta offered a melting pot of cultures, philosophies and thoughts for Thompson.
“It placed me in a community of people who were not just a common thread or circle I was used to,” he said. “I was able to learn from different paths that people had walked on. That really grew me, not just from an academic standpoint but a theological standpoint. It opened up my mind-view of who God is.”
At Mercer, Thompson also found a support network that he’ll never forget. He worked at Mercer’s School of Business while a theology student, and he took a full-time job as the enrollment associate for the school’s admissions department after graduation. Simultaneously, he was working as a youth pastor in Southwest Atlanta. When his wife, Tanndra, developed a serious health condition in 2015, faculty and staff from the business and theology schools and even the Macon campus offered their love and assistance.
Wanting to be closer to family amid Tanndra’s tough recovery, the couple moved back to Alabama. Once there, Thompson was encouraged to apply for a pastoral position at Bethel Colbert Missionary Baptist — located 25 miles from his home church — where the pastor of 50 years would soon be retiring.
Thompson didn’t think the church would want to hire someone fresh out of seminary, but he applied anyway and was invited to preach and lead Bible study. The congregation loved him, and the outgoing pastor ensured a smooth transition in leadership.
“It’s been an incredible journey so far. We’ve grown exponentially in numbers and in spirit. I could not have asked for a better church to start my pastoral journey than this one,” said Thompson, who now has three sons with Tanndra. “I’m determined to help (the church) grow and flourish as much as God will allow us to. They’ve no doubt shown me and my family how much they love us.”
Community-minded and community-oriented, Thompson believes the church must go beyond the four walls of its building and become one with the community. He’s intentional about the church giving its time, finances and resources to help those in need in the area.
“In my view, what I do is simple. There’s nothing to it. It’s basic,” he said. “But to the people, it’s so important. When you step in to give people spirit support, it certainly confirms that this is a calling God has given me.”
He also works hard to ensure all of his congregants, from age 8 to 80, can gain something from each worship service. Thompson said the youth are not only the future of the church but the present, and he strives to connect with the younger people and keep them engaged.
But his work is not always easy. Thompson has been a chaplain for Amedisys Hospice for three years, which brings its share of challenges, and the 2020 year was an especially difficult one for his church. Twelve members of the congregation passed away from COVID-19 or other illnesses.
“Having those families and the whole church in totality look to me as their go-to to be supported and be their shoulder to cry on, it reminded me that this road is a heavy one, but the reason I’m able to do it as well as I do is because God called me to,” he said. “And anything God calls you to, he’ll make you successful.”
Thompson’s devotion to his community also carries over to another of his passions: politics. During Alabama’s primary election last month, he ran as a Democratic nominee for District 3 of the state House of Representatives. With his win, he’ll now be the Democratic candidate on the November ballot.
“Even that journey is rooted in my faith,” he said. “I do believe that even in the realm of politics, for those of us who serve the church, there can be a place in those capacities to truly have a voice and make a change.”
Thompson’s experiences as a pastor, hospice chaplain and substitute teacher have given him a unique perspective of the challenges and hardships that people face. Many of their circumstances are related to state legislation, and he hopes to be an advocate for their needs.