Two of the most popular nominees for this year’s Top 40 Under 40 have something in common: they’re both religious leaders.
Father Jon Thomas is part of the Parish of Saint Monica in Atlantic City. Reverend James Pressley is an Associate Pastor of Second Baptist Church, also in Atlantic City.
Both have made big changes in their communities, and both felt a calling when they were young to begin a life devoted to God.
“When I was in high school I was wondering what I wanted to do with my life,” Thomas tells. “I was interested in journalism, actually, I was the editor for my high school’s paper … I began to pray, asking God’s help for making a decision about college and my career, and that prayer just snowballed.”
Pressley felt a similar draw toward religious life, a passion that coincided with his desire to enter the field of social work, for which he obtained a degree from Stockton University in 2016.
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“I went into ministry and became a social worker because it was the calling that was placed on my life. My desire to help others and promote positive change played a big role in this decision,” Pressley says. “In both fields you have to be compassionate, dependable and ethical while engaging others and their unique situations. I was eager to become an advocate and promote positive change in my community.”
Much of Pressley’s work has centered around helping the homeless, a cause inspired by a recent mission trip.
“Last summer I was humbled with the opportunity to go on a mission trip to Malawi, Africa, and my heart was moved by the devastating living conditions and poverty. Then I thought to myself, we have some of the same issues right at home, yet we walk pass these people on a daily basis. I felt convinced that I could pay thousands of dollars to fly to Africa to respond to the emergency there but could do more here at home. Upon return, I partnered with my bro (childhood friend) Jason Smart-El, and some other community leaders to sponsor community initiatives such as feeding the homeless, hat, scarf and glove drives, and other events geared towards saving our youth.”
As for Thomas, his work has reached across denominational borders to streamline community efforts and create unity. Working with other religious leaders, Thomas has spoken out against the violence in Charlottesville and worked with Rabbi Geller to advocate for an A.C. Holocaust memorial, a relevant cause, Thomas says, because of the increased activity of Neo-Nazis and the KKK in the U.S.
“I needed to make the church relevant to people,” he says. “The church exists for the larger community. It’s the visible expression of God’s love for humanity. We’re here to serve the community.”
“It benefits the community (for religious leaders to work together) because we are not duplicating effort,” Thomas adds. “Every church, every synagogue, every mosque loves to have community outreach, but we could do a lot more if we join forces, logistically … The other benefits is the show of moral force. For people to see a priest, a minister, a rabbi (and more) together at a press conference speaking out about an injustice is powerful. It shows the lie to the perception that religions are divided or a source of division.”