The Rev. Jonathan Walton took a few years to find his way to the pulpit of Harvard’s Memorial Church, but his notion of public service formed early.
Walton grew up in suburban Atlanta in the 1970s and ’80s, when the civil rights movement and its legacy provided daily lessons about one’s role in the world.
“This was sacred history in our house,” Walton said. “It . . . was about how do you extend the legacy of service and commitment to something greater than yourself. That is what my parents and my grandparents beat into us at the kitchen table.”
Walton, 39, who arrived at Harvard Divinity School as a professor in 2010, was appointed Pusey Minister at Memorial Church just under a year ago. He followed the Rev. Peter Gomes, the elegant scholar who had presided there for years, building a devout and devoted following.
Walton, one of several ministers who were filling in after Gomes’s death, was offered the permanent post. He had barely known the unforgettable Gomes personally, though he was well aware of his legacy. Walton is respectful but undaunted.
“I knew him the way a lot of people knew him, as a larger-than-life figure,” Walton said. “But there's a lot of big figures here at Harvard. You don’t come to Harvard without knowing that you’re stepping into 376 years of huge, larger-than-life figures. It’s part of the allure.”
Walton attended Morehouse College, originally intending to become a lawyer. He changed his mind partly under the influence of Benjamin E. Mays, the great religious scholar who was the longtime president of Morehouse.
Even after discovering his attraction to theology, Walton was not sold on a life in the pulpit. After a few years as a minister in Atlanta, Walton went to graduate school at Princeton, earning a doctorate in theology. He thought he wanted to train ministers, rather than be one himself. He published a book on black churches and thought he had settled into a career in scholarship when he arrived at Harvard Divinity School.
But with Gomes’s death came the opportunity to combine scholarship and ministry. He no longer had to choose between the two.
One of his most important tasks, he said, is building a sense of fellowship with the rest of Harvard. He said it is also among the simplest.
“It’s just opening the doors,” he said. “Everyone may not belong to Memorial Church, but Memorial Church belongs to everyone. That is to say, what we do on Sunday morning may not be your cup of tea, but seven days a week this is a center of critical inquiry. “
Of course, the church is more than a meeting place. It is also Harvard’s spiritual center, quaint as that idea may seem to some. In the midst of the world’s richest and most prestigious university, Walton maintains a unique mission.
“I do hear something in the gospel about to whom much is given, much is required,” he said. “I do believe we have a moral responsibility not just to be thought leaders in the sense of having the biggest microphone or the most power, but in the sense that we are committed and concerned about moral leadership in the world.”
Walton lives with his wife and three children in Sparks House, the Greek Revival residence where Gomes famously held Sunday afternoon teas for students. “It has a few less antiques now and a lot more toys on the floor,” Walton quipped.
Walton notes that Harvard’s famous motto — veritas, or truth — is an unavoidable sight on campus. But he said he thinks of Memorial Church’s mission in terms of another Latin word, caritas, which he translates as love or service.
“It’s about being a community of love here at the center of Harvard Yard where everyone may not belong to us, but we belong to everyone,” he said. “And everyone sees this as a space of grace.”