MOORHEAD — This weekend, as sweethearts exchange chocolates, roses and kisses for Valentine’s Day, the Rev. Cal Thompson will be contemplating love, too. But this love can’t be contained in a heart-shaped candy, for it springs from the cross of Christ, and it has seized Thompson’s own heart so fiercely, it permeates everything he does.
“Nobody loves life or people more than Pastor Cal,” says Garrett Frier, a longtime friend. “He has such a joy for life and people. Even when walking through difficult situations, he still exudes passion and excitement and even a sense of wonder. It’s contagious.”
This summer, this love will bring him and a large crew of helpers, for the 30th time, to a Chicago neighborhood, where they will pour their hearts into the lives of the materially impoverished community they’ve come to care so much about.
Recently, in Thompson’s retirement from Northview Church in south Fargo, where he worked as a youth pastor for 28 years, the well-oiled mission has officially become a nonprofit called Reach the Heart.
Thompson knows not only about the love the heart represents, but how fragile it can be. In 2009, while the waters of the Red River encroached upon his home, and his daughter prepared for her wedding, Thompson fought for his life in a nearby hospital following a near-fatal heart event. He eventually woke to realize thousands of volunteers had placed 66,000 sandbags around the home’s perimeter while he rested. His house was saved, and he recovered well enough to officiate at his daughter’s wedding from a wheelchair.
Thompson believes God gave him a second chance, and then a third after another heart incident in 2019. “I’d just gotten back from a cruise and became very sick,” he says. Walking into the hospital, his heart rate dropped so low, he passed out “with such force, I tore my rotary cuff.”
The medical staff had to shock his heart back into rhythm. This second heart incident signaled it was time to retire from active church ministry, so Thompson did so that September.
But at 65, he’s not about to let his tepid ticker hold him down. Since COVID-19 thwarted what was to be Thompson’s 30th trip to Chicago last summer, he’s eager to get back on the road this year to see his friends in the neighborhood of Englewood.
“It is a tough area,” Thompson says, “but early on, I started meeting some of the gangs, and I told one of the leaders, ‘We want to bring a message of hope,’ and he said, ‘Don’t worry, I got your back,’ and it just worked.”
While there, they’ll do what they’ve been doing for the past three decades — produce a youth concert Friday night and a Saturday event for senior citizens, and feed the community a hearty meal that same night, followed by a family concert. They’ll also bring gifts, including pillows with handsewn pillowcases bearing inspiring, encouraging words.
“Sometimes, those pillows are more valuable to these kids than other things,” Thompson says, noting that to some, having a pillow on which to lay their head is a luxury.
Ron Ferguson has been on 17 of the Chicago adventures. He met Thompson after moving to the Fargo area from the Virgin Islands to attend college.
By his own admission, back then, Ferguson was “lost,” but when he met someone Thompson had mentored, everything changed. “That put me in a positive direction and helped me in my walk with God.”
Continuing his education to the doctorate level, he now helps form other young adults in college, but has remained connected to Thompson’s mission, along with his wife, Stephanie, and their children.
“Once I saw what they do, it made sense how giving hope to a hurting community can make a difference,” he says. “It has really been ‘full circle’ for me.”
Ferguson recalls a moment the first year when a law enforcement officer questioned the group's presence in the Chicago neighborhood. When he explained, the officer said, “Why bother? It’s going to be a waste of your time.”
“He said it was a lost cause, and all I could think was, ‘That’s how people have seen me, too,’” Ferguson says. “It gave me a real imperative, a desire, to stay there working with this community.”
These days, local Englewood law enforcement support and even join them. They’ve even received permission to block off streets to allow for more participation, Thompson says.
“We’ve had police officers, who in the past were hated by some of the people, up there dancing onstage — one did her impersonation of Michael Jackson. Later, the kids were swarming and hugging her. It’s all about, ‘How can we bring a message of hope?’”
Frier, who spends his school year fortifying youth at Trinity Bible College in Ellendale, N.D., says his time with Thompson, starting in his teens, prepared him for his vocation. He recalls a moment in one of his first years of the Chicago trip when a scuffle broke out among some young adult men, but it was short-lived.
“There were moms on the porch yelling at those guys to stop screwing around,” he says. “It goes back to that commitment and consistency. Pastor Cal has built relationships in the community, and they know we’re not there to harm anyone.”
Thompson grew up in Toronto before landing in Springfield, Mo., for biblical studies and earning a master’s in education. There, he met his wife, Kelly, married, and moved to the suburbs of Chicago, where he ended up “street witnessing,” which, he says, came naturally.
“Most of them came out of addiction; I’ve never used a drug in my life,” Thompson says, noting that the one time he tasted beer, it didn’t go down well. “It’s not because I felt it was a sin, but it’s just the way it was.”
He loved those connections, and brought his zeal to Fargo, where he discovered that young people everywhere are searching for something meaningful. Frier continues to be impressed by Thompson’s gifts.
“Sometimes, when we do something over and over, it becomes stale, but with him, you’d think it’s the first or second year he’d led that trip (to Chicago).”
He’s struck, too, by his commitment to that community. “To be able to love people in some of the worse life settings... it’s something I want to glean from.”
Lisa Donelson, a former colleague, helped Thompson distribute several semis full of “Cartons of Care” food to local residents this past summer from the church parking lot — nearly 1,000 25-pound boxes of food in all.
“He was out there the whole day,” Donelson says. “I don’t think Cal has ever met a stranger. He’s got so much joy inside of him and he’s always sharing that with others.”
Over the past 29 years, nearly 3,700 people have participated in the Chicago trip, including locals and those from surrounding states, as well as Iowa and New Mexico. They’ve also begun outreach in Minnesota's Twin Cities and some smaller North Dakota towns, like Medina, Wimbledon and Sanborn.
“I’ve always had a heart for small communities,” Thompson says, noting that the suburbs of Chicago mimic the small town in how the people tend to interact and stay close to one another.
While growing Reach the Heart, Thompson works part time as a barista at the Moorhead Starbucks store.
“I’m having the time of my life there,” Thompson says, noting that whether Chicago or Moorhead, the idea is the same.
“A lot of what he’s about just comes through his relationship with Christ,” Frier says. “He’s devout in his prayer time, in his reading of the Scriptures, and that flows out of him — the love he’s reading about. And then that prayer time is pushed out into his daily life.”
To learn more about Reach the Heart, become part of the team or help with funding, visit https://www.reachtheheart.com/.
Salonen, a wife and mother of five, works as a freelance writer and speaker in Fargo. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org, and find more of her work at Peace Garden Passage, http://roxanesalonen.com/.