In her first Sunday sermon after the Marathon bombings, the Rev. Liz Walker stood in her pulpit at Roxbury Presbyterian Church and surveyed her small congregation. It was nothing like the enormous crowd she had addressed a few days before at the Interfaith Prayer Service at Cathedral of the Holy Cross, with President and Michelle Obama in attendance.
“I knew that what was wanted was comfort and words to foster healing and dealing with grief,” Walker says. “But I wanted them to get something else out of the message too — a realization and acceptance of the fact that part of the healing process may be learning to live with fear.”
Walker’s advice on living with fear may seem like swimming against the steady tide of messages of coping and moving on. Just about every year since 2000, she’s split her time between Boston and Sudan (including the barely two-year-old Republic of South Sudan), working with refugees of religious wars, orphans, and repatriated kidnapping victims. Now five years removed from her days as Boston’s most prominent newscaster, Walker says she’s learned that the way people deal with terror in many communities outside the United States is to fight it and brace for it at the same time.
“What happens, inevitably is the combination helps you learn to carry on your lives — I think faster and in a more stable way,” she says.
That view, she said, “is to accept that the act of terror perpetrated on us could happen again.”
Walker says she developed her philosophy on accepting fear after watching people in Jerusalem live “normal” lives, frequenting restaurants with bomb-proof glass, riding city buses with blast barriers and the like. And then there were the Sudanese, who found comfort and strength in the fact that they were all susceptible to random attacks.
“If it makes sense, in both cases — both locations — people made conscious decisions to not be afraid of fear itself and to not let fear stop them from their routines,” she said. “They found bliss.”
If Walker’s embrace-the-fear take on healing after mass tragedy is unique, so is Walker herself, as ministers go.
Naturally shy, according to friends, in the aftermath of the bombings she has been a regular presence on CNN, standing often for hours at a time by anchor Anderson Cooper’s side as the network’s local voice and expert commentator on how Bostonians are coping and should be coping.
Walker speaks on camera with the ease of the practiced journalist that she is.
She spent more than two decades reporting important stories in Boston for WBZ-TV, from the healing years following school busing, to gang violence and poverty, to pro sports championships. It was only behind the anchor chair and in front of the camera where she could comfortably speak to thousands at a time without that shyness nagging at her.
But in 2000 she began to envision the next chapter in her life, after going on a fact-finding mission to Sudan for a reporting project.
“I was appalled and amazed by what I saw,” Walker says. “So much death, destruction, sadness. So many lost people. The ‘Lost Boys’ that we’ve all heard about and seen in the news, but so many more who got little media attention, people who were killed simply for being Christian in the wrong place, and people who were kidnapped for the same. But there was a resilience.”
That trip was the beginning of the end of Walker’s news career, and the beginning of her spiritual mission.
She applied for admission to Harvard Divinity School and started classes there on Sept. 11, 2001.
“Talk about symbolism,” Walker says. “I had already visited Sudan and seen the results of a form of terror there. And then Sept. 11 happened on our own soil. I remember leaving class and heading to work thinking, ‘How can I help?’ — not in a general sense, but, ‘How can I help’.”
The answer wasn’t immediately obvious, but Walker began regular trips to Sudan to volunteer on relief missions for orphans, freed slaves, and repatriated refugees.
“She wanted so badly to work with people in need and in Sudan she found people who had suffered in the worst possible ways: as slaves, being tortured and sexually abused, and living under the constant threat of attack,” says Dr. Gloria White-Hammond, a Boston pediatrician, co-pastor of Bethel A.M.E. Church in Roxbury, and an anti-slavery activist. “I’ve seen her grow in terms of her becoming so much more of an extrovert.”
That journey from shy to extroverted began with Walker’s first trip to Sudan.
WBZ-TV was not convinced there was enough of a story in Sudan to send Walker officially, so she bought her own camera, thrust herself into the middle of the chaos, and filmed her own news and documentary clips, White-Hammond says.
The Rev. Ray Hammond, a former emergency room doctor and White-Hammond’s husband and co-pastor of Bethel A.M.E. Church, says that as Walker grew into her religious mission, she became comfortable with people lauding her for her journalistic prowess, because she realized she could use that fame as an opening for her work.
“I think it’s unusual for someone to go from a position of notoriety and celebrity, where everyone knows your name, and make the transition to serving people humbly,” Hammond says. “She’s done it. And I believe that’s why she speaks with so much greater authority on matters of healing than some people.”
For a time, after her 2005 graduation from Harvard, Walker remained active in news media, hosting a local Sunday morning show that explored the world and her own brand of social work through a religious prism.
She dropped off the air permanently in 2008 and began working with youth at Bethel A.M.E., under the tutelage of the Hammonds.
But then in 2011 her old friend Hurmon Hamilton, pastor of Roxbury Presbyterian Church since 1994, reached out to Walker for a favor.
“I asked her to take the helm, while a permanent replacement for me was found,” Hamilton said with a chuckle. He had taken a job at Abundant Life Christian Fellowship in Mountain View, Calif. “I told her it would just be for a couple of weeks, two weeks, maybe three. And I was convinced of that.”
Two years later, Walker is still there. Church leaders recently asked her to lead the church permanently, and Walker accepted and is now training for ordination in the Presbyterian denomination.
And when tragedy strikes, as it did on Marathon Monday, her community now turns to her not for the news, but for healing. “Good morning,” she said in front of 2,000 grieving people at the Interfaith Prayer Service. “I am Rev. Liz Walker from Roxbury Presbyterian Church. And I welcome you as we gather in community to help heal our beloved city in this violence-weary world.”
“I won’t say that I was lost all those years,” Walker says of her work in Sudan and later with abused women, physically unhealthy poor people, and victims of street violence in Boston. “I hope a lot of good work was done. But I can accept now that this was the goal all along: to be a shepherd and lead a flock and provide, perhaps, an alternative view on healing.”
Due to a copyediting error, an earlier version had an incorrect caption. Liz Walker is expected to step into the permanent senior pastor role at Roxbury Presbyterian Church after she completes the Presbyterian ordination process.