How many people can say that their pastor worked at the Pentagon?
The answer — at least on a local level — depends on how many people are filling the corridors of Trinity United Church of Christ in Centre Hall at any given time.
Pastor Dave Downer brings a wide range of life experiences to his calling, a deep resume that includes 16 years with the United States Air Force and work with several intelligence agencies.
Below, Downer talks more about the road he traveled to his ultimate vocation.
Q: What did you want to be when you were growing up?
A: From a young age, I knew I wanted to join the military and serve my country. At some point in high school, a counselor encouraged me to try going to college first and entering as an officer.
Q: What was your best subject in school?
A: In high school, I enjoyed science and mathematics the most and was hoping to go to college and major in computer science. Once in college, however, I discovered a computer science degree was going to be extremely difficult given the limited resources we had available then.
At the military school I attended, they had a computer lab but no computer. All of our programming was done on keypunch cards and sent remotely to a computer in Columbia, S.C., about two hours away. It sometimes took two to three days to get a program turned around through that process.
I changed my major to mathematics in my sophomore year but enjoyed my classes in physics, chemistry and history the best. I also minored in political science and was considering law school for a brief time. I’ve been back to school a couple of times and have enjoyed a variety of subjects along the way to obtaining a Master of Business Administration degree and a master’s in divinity.
Q: When you weren’t in school, where were you most likely to be found?
A: In high school you would have either found me participating in a sport — cross country running, skiing or track and field depending on the season — or working at the local grocery store. I started my first job when I was 13 years old and was able to purchase my first car about three months before I was old enough to qualify for a driver’s license, which was kind of cool. During the summer in college, I worked various construction jobs, usually as a laborer on a highway construction project.
Q: How many years did you spend in the United States Air Force?
A: Not counting my time in college where I attended on a Reserve Officer Training Scholarship, I served a total of 16 years in the United States Air Force. In 1998, I was working in the Pentagon, and they offered an early retirement option so I applied for it. I retired as a major so I sometimes joke I will forever be a “Maj. Downer.”
Q: What came next?
A: I ended up staying in the Washington, D.C., area following retirement and worked for some of the intelligence agencies for about 14 more years.
Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
A: I’ve been blessed throughout my life with wise mentors so it’s hard to think of the very best piece of advice. A friend once shared a quote by Calvin Coolidge, however, and it has always been one of my favorites: “Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not: unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not: the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”
Q: You enjoy working with numbers. Why?
A: I guess the main reason is that it is something that came easily to me. Over time I learned I was able to remember series of numbers and statistics with very little effort, and this, along with my interest in science, worked out well when I served in the field of Space Operations.
Q: Can you remember the exact moment that you decided to become a pastor?
A: I can remember the moment when I first realized God might want me to do something different with my life, but the process of understanding what that might be was gradual. It wasn’t until I began taking some seminary classes at the suggestion of my pastor where things became clearer. I vowed to remain open to where God might lead me which is pretty much how I ended up here in central Pennsylvania. The important thing for me was getting started, and then once I was involved, discovering I had a tremendous passion for serving others.
Q: How do you think that your past experiences have helped or informed this calling?
A: Looking back now I can see how many things came together to guide me to where I am today. I’ve also been blessed with a very supportive and understanding wife and family. I’ve tried to do the best I could at many different things — sometimes successfully, and other times not so much. Having tried a lot of different things certainly affirms that where I am now is precisely where I need to be. I have never enjoyed anything more than serving the church and this community and growing together into stronger disciples for Jesus Christ. My experiences, along with the many mistakes I’ve made along the way, also provide good source material for stories and sermons.
Q: What do you think is the nature of the relationship between faith and science in today’s world?
A: The nature of faith and science is no different today than it’s ever been. The scientific process seeks to explain the observable universe in terms of natural processes without asserting or denying the existence of God. But if you are honest with yourself and truly consider the exacting detail and complexity of creation, you will be hard-pressed to think all of life could have come about by chance out of random disorder and chaos. So for me, I have never seen science and faith to be at odds with each other.
The Bible is not, nor was it ever intended to be, a scientific document. I think if we try to treat the Bible as a scientific text, we miss the point. Instead, I believe we should recognize the Bible as a wonderful and powerful statement that establishes the foundation and purpose of our lives. The Bible is about truth and the reason for our existence. It establishes that there is a God. This God is good — creation is good, and men and women are created in God’s image.
Life itself is a gift, and God is the rightful ruler of all things. We cannot use scientific method to prove the existence of God, and we shouldn’t try to. We are saved by faith, and Christ’s simple command is not to judge one another, but to love one another, just as he loved us. For me this is enough.