Bishop John T. Walker’s Lasting Legacy

by | Oct 3, 2019

In a season when I have been focused on strategic planning for the future, I was blessed this week to have two occasions to think recall the inspired leadership of Bishop John T. Walker. Last Sunday, we commemorated the 30th anniversary of his death at Washington National Cathedral. On Tuesday evening, we gathered for the annual Bishop Walker School Evensong. 

For many, Bishop Walker remains a spiritual touchstone. In nearly every congregation, I meet people who tell me how Bishop Walker influenced their life and faith. Priests and teachers speak of how Bishop Walker inspired their choice of vocation. Interfaith leaders credit him for the establishment of the Interfaith Council of Washington. Civic leaders remember his courageous role in the anti-apartheid movement of the 1980s.

Born in 1925 to sharecropping parents in Barnesville, Georgia, John Walker grew up in Detroit, his family part of the Great Migration of African Americans from southern states. Both his grandfather and great-grandfather were ministers in the African Methodist Episcopal Church; Walker joined the Episcopal Church after college and discerned a call to priesthood. He was the first African American to attend Virginia Theological Seminary in 1951. After parish ministry in Detroit, he accepted a call to teach at St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire. 

In the mid-1960s, he was named the first Canon Missioner of Washington National Cathedral. He quickly became a recognized spiritual leader in Washington, DC and across the diocese. A former teacher and the father of young children, he took a special interest in the Cathedral schools while also advocating for the city’s public school system. As an African American whose life bridged the worst of Jim Crow and the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement, he knew the pernicious evil of racism and yet refused to be defined by it. He integrated nearly every institution he attended, joined and led, and he helped others walk proudly through the doors of church and society that had previously been closed to them. 

The Diocese of Washington elected John Walker as bishop twice, first as Bishop Suffragan in 1971, and then as Diocesan in 1977. As bishop, Walker realized that the completion of Washington National Cathedral fell to him. In a move that takes my breath away, he named himself both bishop and dean of the Cathedral. He then poured himself into the hard work of fundraising for the Cathedral, while at the same time leading the diocese and providing moral leadership during one of the most volatile periods of our society. He was, in the eyes of some, a moderate, yet he never shied away from the pressing issues of his day. 

His children describe their home as a refuge for many, where people coming for dinner might stay for a year. He had the ability to treat everyone he encountered–from custodians to presidents–with equal warmth and respect. He inspired a generation of young people, now leaders in their own right, to live purposeful, faithful lives. As a result, John Walker was loved in a way that few leaders are. 

On September 29, 1989, the day chosen to mark the beginning of a full year’s celebration of the Cathedral’s completion, Bishop Walker died. Reading the accounts of that day, you can feel grief rising from the page–the stunned sense of loss and immediate resolve to carry his light forward.

On Tuesday evening, the Bishop Walker School boys sang, read the lessons, and offered prayers with confidence that would have made John Walker proud. I reminded them that they attend a school named for a man who would want them to know that what seems impossible to them now can be possible if they, like him, refuse to give up on themselves and the dreams God has placed in their hearts. 

His example inspires me as well, and I feel his presence among us as we embark on God-inspired dreams for our future. “We’ve come this far by faith,” the spiritual reminds us, “leaning on the Lord.” We stand on the shoulders of spiritual giants, among them John Thomas Walker.