When she first arrived in Boston a little more than 40 years ago as a rising broadcast talent hired for a job at WBZ, Liz Walker could not have imagined the shape of her long journey in this city, or the scale of her impact as the first Black anchor of a nightly newscast, and later, as an ordained minister and humanitarian leader.
But as she steps to the pulpit in Roxbury Presbyterian Church the morning after Christmas to deliver one last sermon before moving on to her next chapter, Walker believes even more firmly what she did back then: every step, each new purpose, is guided by God, for reasons that may become clear only in retrospect.
“The only way I can frame my life is with faith,” Walker, now 70, said in an interview last week. “Everything that happens is shaped by a bigger hand … and when you look back, you see a bigger meaning.”
Her latest reinvention will give her time for thought and reflection — the luxuries she craves — and it will give her time to write. Walker is stepping down as leader of the Roxbury church to work on a book about trauma and healing, an area she began exploring deeply a decade ago, after an outbreak of deadly violence in the neighborhood around her church. She began inviting people to gather weekly in the church basement to talk about their loss and suffering, and from that simple start, a movement grew to build more grass-roots networks for trauma support.
She had planned to retire from the church two years ago to devote herself to that mission, and to divide her time between Boston and Florida, where she bought a home in 2019. But when the global pandemic broke out, she knew she had to stay and help her flock get through it.
As the crisis intensified, Walker used her influence to advocate for health, standing beside the governor to urge people of color to get vaccinated. A familiar, trusted figure, she has stood vigil at many of the city’s darkest moments — as she did at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, three days after the 2013 marathon bombing, when she led a prayer for healing at a service attended by President Obama.
As the pandemic dragged on, though, and her weariness deepened, she felt new urgency about the project left on hold.
Incredibly, she realized, trauma recovery had become even more important, with the devastating mental health toll of the pandemic now a critical concern across the country.
“I know I have to do this — this is my contribution — and at 70, I don’t want to put it off until things get better,” she said. “There may never be a sign that says, ‘All done; get on with your lives.’ … There is so much pain and brokenness, so many people weighed down by trauma, and I want them to know there is a way you can get through that.”
She sat in the stillness of the church sanctuary one morning last week, while a cold rain fell outside, on a break from the task of packing up her office. Walker is still a powerful presence, standing 6 feet tall, at least, and looks much the same as she did when she anchored the news, bearing little sign of the toll time has taken on her. A delicate cross necklace glittered against her black sweater.
It is not her nature to look backward: even in a moment of transition, she remains firmly focused on the future. But when asked about her early days in Boston, she was willing to reflect, both fondly and critically, on the city she came to love but nearly left early on, when the depths of its racism were revealed to her.
A veteran keeper of journals, Walker once shared an excerpt, for a 1981 Globe profile, that she wrote in her earliest days in the city: “Welcome to Boston … one of the most conservative, structured, status-conscious, ethnic, racist cities in America … and for some strange reason deep down inside, I’m excited about being here.”
She was an up-and-coming 20-something then, an exuberant young talent with a red-hot career in broadcast news. Fresh from on-air successes in Denver and San Francisco, she didn’t plan on staying long in Boston, but her rapid rise rooted her here. Hired in 1980 by WBZ, she soon blazed a trail as the first Black anchor of a nightly news broadcast in the city.
It was an indescribably important milestone, one that helped change the climate for the better. But the hateful legacy of school desegregation and riots over busing were festering wounds, and there were neighborhoods where the station would not send Black reporters to cover stories.
Walker knew that trauma firsthand: as a seventh-grader, she had been among the first Black students to desegregate West Side Junior High School in her hometown of Little Rock, Ark., an experience that felt like “going to school in a war zone.”
Yet as disturbing and daunting as Boston’s divisions were, there were also moments when the place felt magical: covering her first July Fourth celebration from a rooftop above the Esplanade, “the city just sparkling,” she recalls, “I remember feeling like I was falling in love with it.”
The city loved her back. Ratings soared when she co-anchored the nightly news with Jack Williams. At 33, she signed a record-breaking, $500,000 contract. She began to put down roots.
Still, there were glimmers of a calling beyond the anchor desk, one more aligned with her preacher father and childhood roots in Little Rock. “Sometimes I think I have a mission,” she told the Globe in 1984. “I want to tell people to love their neighbor, feed the poor, take responsibility and make things better.”
Her friend and longtime colleague Peter Brown, former news director at WBZ, said it came as little surprise when she made the unusual leap from news anchor to minister, seeking a more direct connection to the people she wanted to help, and using her clout and celebrity for good.
“She’s a fighter for fairness and equality, and she always wanted to give a voice to the people not being heard,” he said. “It’s in her DNA ... I always had the sense there would be another chapter.”
In time, Walker’s calling led her to Harvard Divinity School, where she earned a degree in 2005, and a new life as a pastor in one of Boston’s least affluent neighborhoods. It led her to South Sudan, the war-ravaged African nation where she spent years building a school for girls, and to her own church basement, where she partnered with the family of Cory Johnson, a young church member killed in a random shooting in 2010, to carve out new paths to hope and healing.
Before that, though, Walker had to blaze another trail, and break through another cultural barrier when she decided, at 36, to have a child without getting married.
The reaction to her 1987 pregnancy is hard to fathom now, but newspaper archives document the tidal wave of controversy that followed. Teen pregnancy rates were climbing in the 1980s, and Walker, a highly visible role model, was assailed for sending “the wrong kind of signal,” as one Boston minister complained at the time, instead of “trying to create proper values.”
The criticism hurt, but did not deter her; she had already concluded that having a child was more important to her than anything else. The role model question was legitimate, she says, but there was another question: “Where does being a role model end, and my life begin?”
Expecting to be fired, she was stunned when WBZ’s then-general manager, Tom Goodgame, instead offered help and support. She turned down interview requests from People magazine and “60 Minutes,” drawing strength from the kindness of friends and colleagues and a flood of supportive calls and letters from viewers.
If the harshest critiques came from some church leaders, there was comfort offered by church members, too. A group of women at Concord Baptist Church of Boston reached out to her, she says, “and invited me in and surrounded me with love, which was just what I needed.”
Her own mother died in childbirth when Walker was born. Mothering her son Nik — now a successful actor on Broadway — became her top priority, driving her later decisions to leave the nightly newscast for broadcast roles that better fit his schedule.
As he grew up in her adopted city, it rooted her in Boston in a deeper way.
“This is my son’s home,” she says. “And I found so much of my spiritual self here. I will always claim Boston … I feel connected to its heart, and I don’t ever want to let that go.”
She acknowledges the city’s progress in her decades here — most recently with its election of Michelle Wu, a young woman of color, as mayor — and also the hard work it still needs to do, especially in addressing the wide and persistent divide between rich and poor residents.
She fully expects that work to continue.
“This city fights it out,” she says. “There is lots we have to confront, but everybody shows up, and nobody walks away.”
While Walker plans to spend time in both Boston and Sarasota, Fla., in her next phase, she stressed her ongoing commitment, at least for the next year, to continue raising money and advancing the goals of the Can We Talk Network, in hopes of reaching more trauma survivors.
Boxing up a decade’s worth of mementos in her small pastor’s office last week, with help from church administrator Florence Huffman, Walker was not inclined to hold onto the past.
“You say keep the book — but why?” she asked with a laugh before good-naturedly submitting to Huffman’s wish to add it to the box.
Asked what will be hardest to leave behind, Walker answered quickly: she will miss the people in her church the most, their courage and grit through hard times, and the way they hold their community together “by keeping faith and hope in each other.”
Last month, watching church members distribute 125 Thanksgiving turkeys in the neighborhood without her help, Walker knew that they would be OK without her. It reminded her what one of her mentors, the Rev. Ray Hammond, told her when she first became a pastor, and worried she would fall short.
“He said, that church is 130 years old — it was all right before you got there, and it will be all right when you leave,” Walker recalled.
Midway through last week, she had not yet finished writing her final sermon. But she knew what message she hoped to impart.
“God doesn’t always give you every detail about what he wants you to do,” she said. “But he always gives you a direction.”