Allen Baptist Temple Church Congregation Chooses Jacqueline Thompson as Pastor
The Oakland native is the storied church’s first female pastor and plans to continue its long history of social justice and community service.
Photo by Lance Yamamoto
There’s a new pastor in town, and the only thing grander than her stature —6-foot-4 if you count her ever-present 3-inch heels — is her unwavering belief in God, the church, and East Oakland.
Jacqueline Thompson, an Oakland native and longtime assistant pastor, was elected in April to lead Allen Temple Baptist Church, a pillar in Oakland’s African-American community for the past century and a major provider of social services in East Oakland. She is the church’s ninth senior pastor and the first woman to hold the title.
Thompson hasn’t even formally taken over the pulpit, but she already has a plan that goes well beyond the confines of Sunday services and Bible study: “A restaurant with white tablecloths. A gas station. A grocery store. Someplace to have brunch — I want these things for East Oakland. I want to see economic revitalization, and I want the church to be a tool, a magnet for that revitalization,” said Thompson on a recent afternoon at the stately church at International Boulevard and 85th Avenue.
“My challenge, my passion, continues to be inequity. Look at the disparities in Oakland. People need to be able to raise their families in dignity, equity, and safety,” she said. “I’m sorry, but the kingdom of heaven does not have old mattresses lying around.
“That is my pink soapbox, and I am on it.”
Known as Pastor Jackie, Thompson is on a crusade for equity that fits into the church’s long history of social justice and community service. Founded in 1919, the church was involved with the NAACP almost from its inception and has over the years added an array of services for those in need, such as housing, meals, and health care for people with AIDS and HIV, both in Oakland and in Zimbabwe; spiritual services to people who are incarcerated; sports, social activities, and other offerings to young people in East Oakland; services for seniors and Spanish-speaking residents; and other programs.
Social justice is part of the church structure: The walls of the sanctuary are lined with stained glass windows depicting Martin Luther King Jr., George Washington Carver, Howard Thurman, Frederick Douglass, and other civil rights champions.
Thompson did not waste time joining the fray. Her first order of business was to tackle the ground-level headaches that vex residents in every neighborhood of the city, and which she sees as part of a larger problem in Oakland.
“I was elected on April 7 and on April 9 I met with Public Works to talk about illegal dumping and potholes,” she said. “We have been negligent in holding our local leaders accountable. We’re going to be more visible, more political. Community engagement, lobbying, advocacy, partnerships, working with City Hall … We’re going to get it done.”
And don’t think this is just something for church members. Everyone in town is invited.
“Here’s my message to Oakland: If you’re passionate about equitable development, gentrification, housing, illegal dumping, then come on down! Join us!”
Thompson’s passion for Oakland and the church began in childhood, when she was growing up in the Havenscourt neighborhood of East Oakland. The youngest of four, Thompson was raised by her mother, a native of Louisiana who supported the family as the owner of a beauty salon. Thompson’s father, a minister, lived in San Francisco.
Although the Havenscourt area was embroiled in the crack epidemic of the 1980s for much of her childhood, Thompson remembers a tight-knit community with plenty of services for residents. Neighbors all knew each other, and kids felt safe enough to play outside.
A spiritual calling, however, did not happen right away. Thompson went to church regularly with her mother but was less than impressed.
“I hated church when I was a child,” Thompson said. “Church was all day, all the time. I just didn’t get it.”
Then, on a lark, her mother took her to Allen Temple when Thompson was about 12.
“Rev. Smith was there, and he was preaching Matthew,” she said, referring to the Rev. J. Alfred Smith Sr., who had a 40-year tenure at Allen temple. “Rev. Smith said, ‘The reason we come here is not to serve God. It’s so we can help someone else.’ I’ll never forget it. That notion that we can bring change to our community … His message was: We enter church to worship, and we depart to serve. For the first time, it clicked.”
That sermon launched Thompson on a spiritual journey that melded faith with social justice and community service. After she graduated from Holy Names High School, she attended UC Berkeley, earning as bachelor’s in political economy of industrial societies and planned to become a lawyer.
Her law school application was rejected, however. While deciding her next step, she took a job teaching at McClymonds High School. Her experience in the classroom convinced her that law might not be the only path to serving the community. Early in her tenure, a 13-year-old girl confided in Thompson that she was being molested by an uncle. Thompson took steps to help her, but knew that the girl’s needs extended far beyond what the legal or social service system could provide.
“The law is great, but the law can only do so much,” she said. “What sustains us is faith, a belief that your life is not chained to the circumstances of your birth. … At McClymonds, I’d see these beautiful, amazing kids born into circumstances they couldn’t control. That whole experience changed me.”
Soon after, she met the dean of Howard University School of Divinity and knew immediately that ministry was the career for her. After receiving a master’s from Howard and then a doctorate from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, she worked as an assistant pastor for about 15 years at a Baptist church in Washington D.C., and then returned to Oakland in 2010 when her mother was diagnosed with dementia.
She served as assistant pastor at Allen Temple during that time, until the most recent senior pastor, Rev. Alfred Smith Jr., announced his retirement, and 90 percent of the church’s 2,500 congregants elected Thompson to replace him.
Thompson’s election was a major, and very welcome, milestone in church history, said Rev. Charlotte Williams, the church’s director of communications.
“It’s wonderful to see a glass ceiling shattered,” she said. “Especially for women in ministry. We always felt clearly we could do anything, but being senior pastor was off limits. Not any more.”
With a warm smile and animated, natural self-confidence, Thompson seems like she could be anyone’s best friend. But once she starts talking about issues that matter to her — such as quality of life in East Oakland — she can be a powerful, informed speaker who could convince anyone to join her cause.
“Being the first female pastor at Allen Temple was not a career decision,” she said. “I wasn’t trying to be anyone’s trailblazer or justice warrior. Someone had to be the first, and it just happened to be me.
“I know there will be challenges, but then I remember myself when I was 12 sitting out there in the pews,” she said. “I think some other 12-year-old girl might be out there now listening to me, and I think of the opportunities she’ll have, and it’s all worth it.”
Events Celebrating Allen Temple’s Centennial
Remembering the Founder: Reflective gravesite service honoring founder Rev. J. L. Allen, 11:15 a.m., July 14, Evergreen Cemetery, 6450 Camden St., Oakland.
Centennial Barbecue: 11 a.m.-5 p.m., July 27, Middle Harbor Shoreline Park, Oakland.
21 Borrowed Chairs: Musical drama about the history of the church, Aug. 30 and Aug. 31, time to be determined, Allen Temple Church, 85th Avenue and International Boulevard.
Centennial Concert: Sept. 29, time to be determined, Allen Temple Church, 85th Avenue and International Boulevard.
Centennial Gala Celebration: 6 p.m., Oct. 18, Rotunda Building, 300 Frank Ogawa Plaza, Oakland.
Centennial Celebration Sunday: Events scheduled 8 a.m.-3 p.m., Oct. 20, Allen Temple Church, 85th Avenue and International Boulevard.
For more information: Allen-Temple.org.