CLOVER — Editor’s note: This is part of an ongoing series of profiles of Clover-area residents and their connection to the community, to mark the 125th anniversary of the town of Clover.
Sam Thompson watched his grandmother spend her life helping people and knew he wanted to do the same.
“On cold nights, she would open her doors, put down pallets and let people sleep on our floor,” recalls Thompson. “She’d put on a pot of pinto beans and ask people, ‘Are you hungry?’”
Thompson, now 75 and the founder and pastor of Clover’s New Beginning Baptist Church, has followed that example in an even broader role — leading a ministry that touches hundreds of lives each week.
The church’s God’s Kitchen provides hot meals to 150 people five days a week, while its Lighthouse shelter houses up to a dozen homeless men and women. The church also operates a thrift store to raise money and assists with job placement and counseling.
But the Rev. Thompson humbly declines any credit for that work. “I have not been able to do much,” he said softly. “I have just been an instrument to God. The glory is for the great things he has done.”
Thompson is an inspiration not only for his rock-solid faith, but for the lifelong challenges he has overcome while hanging on to his positive perspective. He was born in Rutherford County, N.C., but his mother died when he was just a few weeks old, and he was raised in Asheville by his grandmother.
His father wasn’t in his life at that time, and his grandfather, too, was deceased, though Thompson said an uncle lived with them and helped care for him. Still, other children who had two parents taunted him.
“I didn’t have everything I wanted,” said Thompson, whose eyes occasionally glistened with tears as he spoke. “But we had food to eat and a shelter over our heads, and Jesus was the center of our lives.”
Thompson was a high school honor student, but when he finished his degree in 1955, there was no money for him to attend college. He was unable to find a job, so he moved to Clover with his uncle and began work as a painter. He also served a stint in the U.S. Army.
After returning to Clover following his military service, he married his first wife, Ertha Rivers, in 1960. Five months later, she died from an unexpected diabetic coma. Later that year, he married Annie Lowery, his wife of 51 years and his partner in the ministry.
Thompson held several different jobs, including working at Homelite, and he and Annie raised four children in Clover. But a knee injury that has plagued him for much of his life forced him to retire on disability in 1972.
Since then, he said, he’s had a dozen knee and hip operations, including a hip replacement. One of those surgeries, when he was about 34, became the impetus for Thompson to finally meet his father.
Thompson said doctors weren’t sure that he would survive the surgery. He said his father heard about his plight through family members and came to meet him. “Before he passed, we became the best of friends,” Thompson said.
Thompson said he could have been angry and resentful toward his father, who had been absent throughout his childhood. But he said he chose to focus on the positive and develop a relationship when he could.
That attitude has set the stage for his life.
“I’m an example to all the people that have had problems and troubles in their life,” he said. “I did not let them discourage me. I learned that negative statements are just words. You know who you are and what you stand for.”
Though his faith was always central to his life, he said, his ministry career developed in the later years of his life. In 1995, he started New Beginnings, after seven years pastoring another Baptist church in Lake Wylie.
Thompson, who never attended seminary but holds an honorary doctoral degree, said several parishioners came to him and Annie and asked them to start a church.
He and Annie “prayed on it all night and the next day, we consented that we would try to have a new church,” Thompson said. The church, launched with 11 proposed ministries, is part of the York Baptist Association.
The first church service in 1995, at Clover Chapel United Methodist, attracted 69 people. After a stint in a warehouse on U.S. 321 South, the church bought property on Old U.S. 321 where it has grown its ministries.
He said God’s Kitchen started with just two humble pots of soup each week, and now delivers meals to shut-ins across the area. The homeless mission began with the church housing people at the Colonial Motel, and clothing distribution expanded into the existing thrift store.
An effort to expand the Lighthouse homeless shelter to serve more people stalled during the recent economic downturn, but Thompson is still seeking grants and other resources to see it through.
Thompson said that although his health has limited what he can do, he continues to offer sage advice to others facing life struggles, who he counsels to look for positives in the storm.
“I serve a God that is bigger than my challenges,” he said. “I find hope in my belief that he did not bring me this far to leave me. I know that it has not been about me. It’s been about God.”