Theology Alumnus Strives for Social Justice

Author: Jordan Gamble

Tom Hampson, who received his bachelor's and master's degrees in theology from Notre Dame, is director of constituent engagement for Church World Service

During his time at Notre Dame, Tom Hampson ’71, ’73 M.A., thought he would become a photographer, a mathematician, or a marine biologist. He never expected to be able to turn his passion for social justice—or his two College of Arts and Letters degrees in theology—into a career.

But that is exactly what he has done during nearly 30 years at Church World Service (CWS), a career that has taken the Elkhart, Ind., resident to more than two dozen countries around the world. In his current role as director of constituent engagement, Hampson spreads the word about the agency’s mission to eradicate hunger and poverty and to promote peace and justice around the world.

CWS operates on behalf of 37 member “communions,” which include national church bodies such as the Presbyterian Church (USA), African Methodist Episcopal Church, United Methodist Church, and Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.

“It’s an ecumenical expression of compassion for people in need around the world,” Hampson says.

Investing in Communities

With a global network of offices in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Europe, CWS generates support for its work through hundreds of annual CROP Hunger Walks across the United States, which also support local soup kitchens and food banks.

Grassroots problem-solving, Hampson says, is a key focus for the organization. “What Church World Service really does is support people’s native capacity to find solutions that work for them.”

Those solutions include developing sustainable agricultural practices in Central America, providing reliable safe water in Kenya, funding an eco-friendly sanitation system for a rural school in Moldova last fall, and showing New Orleans churches how to coordinate their efforts with FEMA after Hurricane Katrina.

“To see what a difference a little bit of assistance can make is really remarkable,” Hampson says, although heartbreak is sometimes unavoidable.

“You work in the wounded places in the world, but because of that, you also see what extraordinary capacities people have for courage and ingenuity,” he says. “You wouldn’t do this work if you weren’t willing to expose yourself to that pain. The reality is, by doing this kind of work, you’re helping to make it better.”

Becoming a Peacebuilder

Hampson says his studies in Notre Dame’s College of Arts and Letters shared many dimensions of his present work with CWS, including cross-cultural communication, creative problem-solving, and a commitment to peace and social justice.

“That is one of the things I have been amazed by,” he says. “While I never thought that I would do the kind of work that I do, Notre Dame did a great job of preparing me for it.”

After spending his sophomore year abroad in Japan, Hampson says he couldn’t shake the need to know more about the ethical dimensions of international affairs—particularly the Vietnam War. He switched majors from math to theology and also joined a nonviolence studies program created by Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C. The program encompassed ethics, international politics, and the Gospel’s call to nonviolence.

“The theology program featured a remarkably ecumenical faculty,” Hampson says, “and was a great preparation for my career in ecumenical work.”

At the time, neither he nor his fellow nonviolence students looked at their studies as job preparation, he recalls. “It was outwardly focused in terms of social activism—really confronting a particular policy in this country we saw as misguided—but it wasn’t career focused.”

Back then, no one went to school to become a peacebuilder, he says. But now, the College offers a supplementary major and a minor in peace studies, and students can also participate in a wide variety of programs through the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, Kellogg Institute for International Studies, and Center for Social Concerns.

“They are preparing people to really make a significant difference in the world, to take Jesus’ call to be peacemakers.” Today’s students, Hampson says, have all the resources they need to turn their own passion for social justice into a lifelong vocation.

“Where the world’s need and your passion intersect, that’s the sweet spot.”

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