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Longtime Pastor of Lake Street Church Retires

Rev. Robert Thompson has been at the church for 30 years.



In its 150-year history, Lake Street Church of Evanston has had its fair share of senior ministers – 16 to be exact.

But none of the previous 15 led the congregation for as long as Rev. Robert Thompson, who officially retired from his post last Sunday after 30 years at the helm.

"Thirty years in one place is, by some accounts, a generation," Thompson said. "And it also means that I've been doing this here for nearly half my life, which is a stunning realization to me."

By his calculation, since his first trip to Lake Street's pulpit on Nov. 1, 1980, he has given more than 1,200 sermons and spent 24,000 minutes preaching.

His impact on the community, however, can hardly be measured via minutes preached.

"He taught the church to look beyond its own tradition and reach out to other traditions," said Jean Gillies, an 81-year-old former art history professor who was born into Lake Street Church, meaning her membership has outlasted the tenures of six senior pastors.

That concept of reaching out to others and making sure nobody - regardless of religion, race, culture, sexual orientation, etc. – felt excluded may have been the defining characteristic of Thompson's time at Lake Street.

It's what attracted Rick Otto to the congregation seven years ago. With his children in high school, Otto was looking at a way to connect with Evanston beyond the school community.

His search ended with Lake Street Church.

"It just seemed more friendly, more down to earth and more open to me and to a variety of people," Otto said. "I think of Bob as a big brother. I tease him, learn from him. I think he has learned from me. It's great to have a big brother."

 Thompson strived hard to instill what he calls "radical inclusivity," a term that derives from one of the reverend's central theological metaphors: The table fellowship of Jesus.

Throughout the gospels, Jesus is often depicted eating meals with the outcasts of society.

"There is a place at the table for everyone," Thompson said. "No one is excluded for any reason because there is this innate and irrevocable divinity embedded in our humanity that is true across the board."

His conviction that all humans are connected was born out of one of the most difficult periods of his life: when he went through a divorce.

"I got broken open in ways I've never been broken open before," he said.

During that time, however, he also experienced what he to this day identifies as mystical experiences, which had a profound impact in the way he viewed both his religion and the world.

He started exploring the Christian mystical and Eastern spiritual traditions.

Specifically, a quote by the Catholic writer Thomas Merton spoke to him: "Beneath the broken surface there is a hidden wholeness."

"When you care for homeless people or when you're working for peace or whatever it is you're engaged with, you're doing it not because it's the right thing to do, but rather because it points to that deeper truth that human beings and creation are already one," Thompson said.

And so it was that Thompson dedicated his ministry to opening up people's eyes to that truth.

The fruit of his labor can be found in the state of the church today

When he arrived, he said there were perhaps 75 congregants in the pews each Sunday, and the members were so old he used to joke that a flu epidemic would wipe out the church.

Things weren't much better in the mid-90s, when Thompson decided to change the name of the church from First Baptist Church of Evanston to Lake Street Church.

"People had stereotypical ideas of the name Baptist," Gillies said.

Since then, the congregation has grown exponentially.

Thompson said a typical Sunday now brings about 300 people. Even more than that crowded the overflowing sanctuary this past Sunday to celebrate Thompson's retirement.

"I believe this is a very healthy spiritual community," said Thompson, who plans on moving to Atlanta with his wife to be closer with his children and grandchildren.

"What's really gratifying to me is that I'm leaving this place in better shape than I found it. The community has done all the hard work, and I've just been there to be a cheerleader and witness to that hard work."

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