John T. Walker Biography
Family Had African Methodist Episcopalian Roots, Took on Apartheid and Women's Rights
The first African-American bishop of the Episcopal diocese of Washington, D.C., John T. Walker used his ministry to work tirelessly for social justice. He championed the rights of the poor and marginalized, and spoke out forcefully against South Africa's apartheid regime. After his death following heart surgery in 1989, Walker was remembered in Washington Post as a "powerful and effective force for change in his church and in this city."
Family Had African Methodist
Born John Thomas Walker in Barnesville, Georgia, in 1925, Walker grew up in Chicago. Religion was important to his extended family, with his grandfather and great-grandfather both serving as ministers in the African Methodist Episcopalian Church. Yet when Walker began attending Wayne State College in the late 1940s, he drifted away from the church, focusing instead on political matters.
At age 23, Walker decided to join the Episcopal Church, to which he had been exposed during his college years. After attending Virginia Seminary Institute, he was assigned to St. Mary's Parish in Detroit. Later, he taught at St. Paul's School, a private high school in Concord, New Hampshire.
When Walker was ordained in the 1950s, the Episcopal Church membership tended to be white, affluent, and mostly of English ancestry. Black priests were relatively few, and the Church—like U.S. society itself—was generally segregated. Walker was among those whose work helped transform the Church's makeup and mission. It now welcomes a diverse population and commits itself to the needs of the poor and the oppressed. Throughout his career, Walker saw the church as a way to provide for the needs of such populations. "You have to give them a faith to live by, help break them from enslavement, be it economic, political, or emotional," he observed in comments quoted in the New York Times. "I think being black means I understand enslavement and rejection as well as anybody else."
Took on Apartheid and
One of Walker's most compelling social causes was the fight against apartheid; indeed, he was once arrested during a protest rally at the South African Embassy in Washington, D.C., Rather than focusing on the total removal of U.S. businesses from South Africa, however, Walker urged companies there to concentrate on training blacks for future leadership roles in a post-apartheid society. His position "brought him much reproach" from those who favored more immediate and drastic change at the time, according to his obituary in the Washington Post.
Yet Walker did not let such criticism sway his belief in peaceful negotiation as the best way to effect change. At a time when many activists refused to consider compromise, Walker consistently assumed a mediating rather than confrontational role. Even so, he did not shy away from a stance that might place him in conflict with church authorities. His advocacy in favor of women priests, for example, met with pronounced opposition from his presiding bishop. Nevertheless, Walker continued to support ordination for women and for gays.
Walker also raised funds to fight poverty, and worked to make blacks feel at home in a predominantly white church. After being named the first black bishop of the Episcopalian Diocese of Washington, D.C., in 1967, he committed himself to issues that were important to the capital's inner city residents, including homelessness and crime. Not one to speak only from the pulpit, Walker hosted a local television program, Overview, in which he and his guests discussed such topics as joblessness, inflation, and crime.
From 1969 to 1976, Walker chaired the board of trustees of the Black Student Fund, an organization providing funding and support services to Washington's schoolchildren and their families. In recognition of Walker's "exemplary leadership, his moral commitment to an integrated society, and his unselfish devotion to serve all people in the Washington Metropolitan community," the Black Student Fund established the Bishop John T. Walker Awards in 1990.
Walker also served for 15 years as chair of the board of Africare, the oldest and largest African American nonprofit organization devoted to aid for Africa. The organization raises funds for food relief, agricultural development, education, and health projects, including HIV/AIDS initiatives. The organization established the Bishop John T. Walker Memorial Dinner in his honor in 1990. By 2002 the dinner had become the country's largest annual benefit for Africa. Africare also created the annual Bishop John T. Walker Distinguished Humanitarian Service Award in 1992.
Became Dean of National Cathedral
In 1978 Walker was named dean of the National Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul in Washington. This appointment marked the first time in more than 50 years that the Episcopal bishop of Washington also held the office of dean. Walker used the position to connect the cathedral's work more closely with the needs of city residents. He also promoted the work of lay ministers in the church, whose role, he claimed, was central to the work of caring for the destitute and the abandoned. "Priest and bishops are the teachers," he remarked in comments quoted in the New York Times. But it is "through the ordinary person who sits in the pew that the church's mission is done."
In 1985 Walker was one of four candidates for the position of presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church. Though he was ahead in early voting, another candidate, Bishop Edmond Lee Browning, was elected to this position.
Walker remained an influential figure in Washington until his death in 1989 at age 64. He was survived by his wife, Maria Rosa, whom he had met while teaching at a summer program in Costa Rica, and their three children. Many dignitaries attended his funeral, including President George Bush, South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, and Washington mayor Marion Barry.
In the House of Representatives, Hon. Ronald V. Dellums eulogized Walker as "truly a man for all seasons" who "daily lived out the gospel mandate that, here on Earth, God's work must truly be our own." In the Senate, Walker was eulogized by Senator John Danforth, who hailed him as a "man of principle, a man of determination, a man of gentleness, and a man of justice." Noting that Walker "was determined to show that racism has no place in the church or in society," Danforth concluded that "We must honor the life of this remarkable man by taking up his banner [to] become ambassadors of reconciliation."
Hein, David, and Shattuck, Gardiner H., Jr., The Episcopalians, Praeger, 2004.
Boston Globe, September 11, 1985, p. 1; October 6, 1989, p. 69.
Congressional Record, October 4, 1989; October 5, 1989.
New York Times, January 16, 1978, p. A16.
Washington Post, October 2, 1989, p. A14.
"Bishop John T. Walker Awards," Black Student Fund, www.blackstudentfund.org/programs/bishopwalkerawards.htm (January 3, 2005).
—E. M. Shostak
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