Bishop Thomas L. Westbrook — pastor of the Tacoma church he founded in 1957, father of 11 children and a spiritual father figure for many more — died Thursday night at age 89.
He died in a hospital in St. Louis after falling ill on a flight from Sea-Tac Airport. Westbrook, who took part in the D-Day invasion, was to catch an honor flight in St. Louis for veterans and visit the World War II memorial in Washington, D.C., for the first time.
Westbrook started New Jerusalem Church of God in Christ, located on the Hilltop. He became a bishop in 1977 and oversaw the denomination’s Washington State Jurisdiction.
“Bishop Westbrook just loved people,” said the Rev. Leo Brown, a Tacoma pastor and an assistant to Westbrook. “He did all he could to help as many people as he could.”
His church, at 1623 S. 11th St., sponsors apartments for low-income residents and a feeding and clothing program.
Westbrook is the second African-American church patriarch to die in the last two weeks. The Rev. Joseph A. Boles died Sept. 23 at age 90.
People from New Jerusalem and beyond came to Westbrook for advice.
“He was a great counselor,” said the Rev. Dennis McCain, assistant pastor at New Jerusalem. “He would help people see a better way of doing things.”
Westbrook gained national prominence in the Church of God in Christ in 1992. For 14 years, he was chief justice of the Judiciary Board, the panel that interprets the bylaws and constitution for the Pentecostal denomination.
“He was a giant of a man spiritually,” said McCain, noting that Westbrook was a spiritual father to more than 75 preachers.
“He felt that everyone was equal, that you should accomplish the best you can be despite the odds,” McCain said. “He had proven that in his own life.”
Born in Rison, Ark., Westbrook attended segregated schools growing up in Arkansas and Louisiana and dropped out of school in the eighth grade to work. At 18, he was drafted and served in an all-black Army truck company that serviced tanks at Normandy, France. He took part in the invasion of Normandy, McCain said.
Westbrook founded New Jerusalem in September 1957 after moving to Tacoma, where a cousin lived.
When the civil rights movement was at its peak in the 1960s, Westbrook supported other black pastors in Tacoma, including Boles and the late Rev. Earnest S. Brazill, who led protests to end discrimination against blacks in housing and employment.
By fall 2005, Westbrook had started to hand over preaching duties to his son Eric and look toward retirement. But soon after, the younger Westbrook suffered a heart attack. He has lived in a Tacoma nursing home since then.
In an interview with The News Tribune in early 2006, Thomas Westbrook didn’t hesitate when asked what kept him going during tough times.
“It’s God,” Westbrook said. “I learned early to develop a genuine relationship with God.”
Westbrook submitted his resignation as bishop in June due to declining health, McCain said.
Westbrook continued to attend New Jerusalem, which has Sunday attendance of about 150. But he stopped preaching after his wife, Lois, died in 2012, McCain said. They had been married 68 years.
Son Kelvin remembered his father as a great dad and man. He was selfless, compassionate and put his care and concern for people first, said Kelvin Westbrook, who lives in St. Louis.
“Tacoma was blessed to have him,” he said.
In addition to his 11 children, Westbrook is survived by 31 grandchildren and 23 great-grandchildren.
McCain said there will be a memorial service at New Jerusalem and a larger funeral service with national denominational leaders in Tacoma. Those plans were pending.
Steve Maynard: 253-597-8647