ERIC WESTERVELT, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Eric Westervelt. This morning, we bring you a story of one woman who went from the pulpit to politics. It's part of a New Year's series called Starting Over, about how people are changed by choice or circumstance. Faith Whitmore was a pastor for three decades. But two years ago, she made the radical switch to work for a U.S. congressman from California. Reporter Emily Green has her story.
EMILY GREEN, BYLINE: Faith Whitmore emerges from the congressman's office with a burst of energy that fills the sparse surroundings.
FAITH WHITMORE: Emily.
WHITMORE: Hi, how are you?
GREEN: Hi, I'm good. I'm good.
GREEN: If you had asked her three years ago where she'd be today, this office would not be the place. Whitmore was ordained as a pastor 30 years ago, drawn by a deep sense of God in spirit within her. She worked at churches throughout the Sacramento region, eventually becoming senior pastor at one of the largest United Methodist congregations. It was, she says, like running a small business.
WHITMORE: You have committees and property that you need to take care of and fundraising that has to happen. There are weddings and funerals and baptisms.
GREEN: And, of course, preaching - here she is in the pulpit in 2011.
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WHITMORE: Christ engages the woman at the well, finding the lost, calling them by name, calling them home. That's what a church can do. That's what a healthy church can do. That's what a healthy church can be, a place of knowing and being known.
GREEN: But after three decades doing this work, Whitmore was tired. She took a job leading a nonprofit that helps homeless people. Soon after, the Catholic Church stopped contributing to the group because as a pastor, Whitmore spoke out in support of same sex marriage and Planned Parenthood. She says she wasn't pushed out of the job, but soon after, she accepted a position as district director for Democratic U.S. Congressman Ami Bera.
WHITMORE: People say, well, how can you go from ministry to politics? Or they ask me, how long have you been in politics? I say, well, it depends on how you look at it, you know, maybe a couple weeks, maybe all my life.
GREEN: And as a pastor, you have to at least try to bring people together. Exactly how Whitmore came to work for Bera is a point of disagreement between the two longtime friends. Whitmore says he approached her. Bera says she approached him.
CONGRESSMAN AMI BERA: From my end, it was a no-brainer. You have someone who's trusted in the community, who's well-respected in the community, whose values align with my values, who really is a natural surrogate.
GREEN: Of course, there's also the bare knuckles politics of campaigning. Bera ran for reelection last year and won by a razor thin margin. The candidates and their supporters spent more than $20 million on the election, the most expensive congressional race in the country. Bera says Whitmore got mad about the ads running against him.
BERA: We might be driving somewhere in a car, going to an event, and she might vent to me a little bit. It's like, Faith, you're a member of the clergy.
BERA: You can't use colorful language like that.
GREEN: Swearing aside, Whitmore is still deeply religious. But things have changed. She doesn't go to church every Sunday and has no regrets about leaving behind her life as a pastor.
WHITMORE: I'm growing older, and my time on earth is getting shorter. So some of the things I care about are on a larger scale. If I can care about health care for everybody, that's legislation. If I care about immigrant status, that's legislation.
GREEN: Whitmore says it's about taking her Christian values into the world and fulfilling her vocation outside the pulpit. For NPR News, I'm Emily Green.
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