Some might call it divine intervention that brought Jason Thompson and Scott O’Con to Cleveland. They came to the city from northern Virginia in 2017 when Thompson joined West Park United Church of Christ as senior pastor—his first pastoral role—and the couple have never looked back.
In fact, Thompson and O’Con have embraced Cleveland as their hometown. They settled in West Park, just under two miles from the church. Thompson eased into his role as pastor at West Park UCC, while O’Con started Tours of Cleveland, which provides educational walking tours of historic Cleveland.
For Thompson, who was raised in a small South Carolina town, and O’Con, who hails from Richmond, Virginia, the idea of moving to Cleveland was a bit foreign at first.
“We'd lived most of our lives in the South, but [had] never been to the Midwest,” says O’Con. “So, this was all new. Everybody we knew said to us, 'Why are you moving to Cleveland?'"
But it didn’t take long for the couple to embrace Cleveland once they arrived. O'Con marveled at the lighter traffic (with his once hourlong commute in Northern Virginia cut down to a slim 12 minutes), while Thompson loves the array of things to do in the area, calling Cleveland a "perfect-sized city."
As O'Con got to know Downtown Cleveland through his initial job in HR, he found himself more interested in Cleveland’s historic architecture than his HR work. It was after discovering the Arcade on his lunch hour one day that he decided to start Tours of Cleveland—diving into research and taking tours to learn more about his new surroundings.
“[When I’m giving tours], people are usually surprised when I tell them I haven’t lived here [for long], but I think it’s a unique perspective,” he says.
O'Con adds that so much history in Charlotte, North Carolina—where the couple first met—has been torn down, with history marked simply by plaques.
He believes Cleveland is different.
“Not to say that we haven’t torn a lot of things down—there’s a lot that is missing, but there’s also a lot that’s still here,” he says. “And with all this renovation going on downtown, a lot of the companies do a really good job of preserving the history, so it just makes it easy to take people around. It’s been fun, and I’ve had people from around the world and all over the country say, ‘Oh, I had no idea all of this was here.’ Even people from Cleveland who go on my tours are like, ‘I’ve been here my whole life and I didn’t know half of that existed.’”
As for Thompson, he’s finding his groove as the pastor at West Park UCC. After dropping out of college at age 19, Thompson spent 10 years working in Wolfgang Puck restaurants before he realized he wanted to devote his life to God and serve as a pastor. He went back to school, earned his master’s degree, and began his search for a church.
The very first church Thompson found was West Park UCC. “The more time I spent in prayer I kept coming back to West Park over and over again,” he recalls. “I never even sent my information to another church. It was something that called to me and I think the Holy Spirit was completely involved in all that. It’s a really good fit.”
Thompson says the West Park congregation was patient with him as he made some mistakes and learned his role as pastor. And he says any reservations the congregation had were quickly dismissed.
“They were a little nervous about what it might mean for their church to have a gay pastor,” Thompson recalls. “But they trusted God enough to know that God had called me to be there and that God had called us to be together. Sometimes I’ll mention something from the pulpit about some kind of gay issue or an issue around LGBTQ, but most of what we do is just spiritual outreach. I love that church.”
In fact, Thompson says the West Park congregation takes the same philosophy with every person who comes in. “They offer an extravagant welcome to every single person who comes through that door,” he says. “It does not matter what their political opinions are—everybody is welcome in that church. And that’s a tradition they had long before I got here.”
When they are not working, Thompson and O’Con continue to enjoy traveling (Thompson recently returned from a pastoral trip to Cuba). Through West Park UCC they have become involved with the Turkish American Cultural Center in Lakewood—visiting the center for Iftars and in turn sharing traditions of Lent and Easter. They have season passes to Playhouse Square, and in true transplant form, Thompson planted his vegetable garden early this spring, as soon as he deemed winter over.
He says the tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, zucchini, lettuce, and strawberries are all thriving, despite the epic rains.
Now that O’Con and Thompson have been here two years, they’re feeling more and more like native Clevelanders. “I realized it in early March, when it was that first 'warm' day at 32 degrees, and I walked outside, and I was like, ‘Ooh!’ and put on shorts," says Thompson. "And I’m standing in the front yard thinking, ‘Oh, gosh, I’m a Clevelander. It’s 32 and I have on shorts.’”
And they have the success of Tours of Cleveland to show for it. “I really like Cleveland, but Scott has fallen in love with it so much," says Thompson. "That’s why he started [the tour company]. You’d think he’d been here for 50 years.”