For the past year I have been tracking a quiet little project going on in Washington, D.C. A small group of people with very large memories had decided to remember John T. Walker, the Sixth Bishop of the Washington, D.C. Diocese of the Episcopal Church. The group had shared stories, raised money, and commissioned an author to make something of their memories. The result is a new book, John Walker: A Man for the 21st Century, by Robert Harrison (Cincinnati, Ohio: Forward Movement, 2004).
In a time when it seems one must be a CEO, politician, or celebrity to merit a biography, this effort stood out as a glaring anomaly. To the best of my knowledge, books about bishops, or clergy for that matter, are not a major literary genre these days. Yet a small group of people decided to counter this trend. What, I wondered, was it about Bishop Walker that motivated these very busy people to unite in this endeavor 15 years after the bishop’s premature death?
Part of the answer comes from the many positions he held, among them dean of the Washington Cathedral, first chairman of the Urban Bishops Coalition, first president and driving force behind the formation of the Interfaith Conference of Washington, chairman of the Black Student Fund, and longtime chairman of Africare. These positions and many others appear on his resume. But there is a lot that this resume does not tell us. Walker was the great-grandson of American slaves and he came of age as America faced its failures to include African Americans in the American Dream. As Walker climbed the Episcopal ladder, he frequently was the first to cross the color line in the Church’s elite institutions. He was the first African American seminarian at Virginia Theological Seminary, the first African American to teach at St. Paul’s School, the first African American dean of the Washington National Cathedral, and the first African American bishop of Washington. One of the central themes in his life was his tireless work to overcome the barriers of racism, not merely in America, but around the world. His witness against racism and his courageous commitments to the central justice questions of his era were clearly central reasons why his admirers wanted to remember.
But Walker also clearly was a man with a story. He had something to say. One of the special features I appreciated in this book was the generous serving of his sermons and speeches. As one reads, we see that this bishop knew how to take the core story of his Christian faith and relate it to the most difficult challenges that America faced in the second half of the 20th century. As he told the stories of Christmas, the Passion, the Resurrection, and Pentecost, people found themselves invited into the Christian narrative, into a community of faith, and into God’s ongoing work of reconciliation. In words—and deeds—he brought the Gospel to life in some of the most hopeless situations that America has faced.
Given the powerful positions he held and the nature of the city of Washington, it was inevitable that he would dance along the line of separation between church and state. Invited to participate in many political events in his city and around the world, hosting the nation’s leaders in worship services and occasions of state, and protesting to people who expected acquiescence. To him, it was clear that the church had a higher authority and that there were moments (in his case, many of them) when the church must say “no” to the powers that be.
There are clear lessons here about what it means to be a bishop. Among the lessons I learned from this new book are that one must have a story to tell, one must be able to make institutions work and to invent new ones, and one must be able to call people into God’s work of reconciliation. But there is one more lesson. There is something about the serious work of remembering that is very powerful. This project did not produce the final critical biography on John T. Walker. Instead, it pulled together key pieces of Walker’s story and key fragments of his preaching to help us see more of the whole story of a bishop. In a day when most of us know each other primarily through the functional transactions that we share, we can see more of a whole person and more of what that person’s life is about when we actively remember. Such reflection about our leaders and colleagues should be neither hagiography nor character assassination. Instead, it should help us see more deeply into the movements of sin and grace in our world, and this book accomplishes that beautifully.
Rev. Dr. James P. Wind is the president of the Alban Institute. Prior to joining the Institute in 1995, he served as program director at the Lilly Endowment’s religion division. Dr. Wind is the author of three books and numerous articles, including “The Alban Institute Special Report on Leadership.”