The Rev. Liz Walker: Trading the evening news for the ‘good news’
By Kara Bettis | October 2, 2015, 10:34 EST
ROXBURY – After 30 years as a renowned television journalist and the first black woman to co-anchor a newscast in Boston, the Rev. Liz Walker found a new calling: offering hope to Boston’s most desperate citizens.
An ordained minister and the current pastor of Roxbury Presbyterian Church, Walker, 63, today offers “the good news” instead of the evening news she presented at WBZ-TV for more than two decades.
“As a journalist, you have to have a quick understanding of what the issues are by listening deeply,” she said. “You try to mediate between different voices and try to understand both sides of the issue.”
Now Walker is applying those same skills to her ministry.
In March 2014, she was installed as the pastor of Roxbury Presbyterian Church, after three years of filling in for the previous minister. She quickly fell in love with the community.
“I love this neighborhood, there are so many good people trying to make a difference,” she said.
With the violence, poverty and family struggles the residents face, Walker said that she feels a burden to care for those who cannot care for themselves.
Most recently, that’s entailed creating space for the community to share their suffering through a monthly dinner meeting called “Can We Talk?” The church also sponsors frequent trauma education classes and smaller group discussions around the subject. Every meeting is full, Walker said.
“There’s a lot of pain in neighborhoods like this,” she said. “Pain of violence, poverty, hurt, not feeling that you’re totally a part of the larger community.”
The church has always served radically, she said, going back to the 1960s when it partnered with the Black Panthers to unite the neighborhood to stay put during “white flight.”
It’s a legacy she continues today as she strives to bring the city’s attention to the neighborhood and facilitates community conversations about reducing violence.
A born fighter
Her pursuit of justice work isn’t entirely new. Growing up in Little Rock, Ark. in the 1950s, Walker lived close to Little Rock Central High School during its 1957 desegregation, when racial tensions ran high.
“The city I loved turned into a war zone,” she told Emmanuel College during a speech in April. “I was raised to be part of the struggle.”
In addition, the women’s rights movement and the Vietnam War inspired Walker to pursue journalism in order to cover civil rights issues, she said.
Although her mother passed when she was an infant, Walker was raised by her father, a Congregational minister and her stepmother, who was also very spiritual. She was raised in the church, but left for a time. Walker said that she’s sure that her call to ministry was about “coming back.”
After graduating from Olivet College in Michigan with a degree in communications, Walker started bucking the status quo immediately as the first African-American hired by her hometown TV station KATV.
After stints in Denver and San Francisco, Walker came to Boston to work at WBZ in 1980. In 1981, she landed the weeknight anchor position. Along with her long-time co-host, Jack Williams, Walker soon became the face of WBZ, winning two Emmy Awards and a prestigious Edward R. Murrow Award for her on-air work.
It hasn’t all been easy. In the 1980s, at the age of 36, Walker came under fire for her decision to start a family without a husband. Critics argued that, as a public figure, she was setting a poor example for young black girls in Boston. But Walker maintained that her example was a good one – she had finished her education and established herself professionally and financially before taking on the responsibility of motherhood.
Converting to ministry
What made Walker trade a lucrative television career for a ministry that calls her to serve one of Boston’s most underprivileged communities?
Walker said she made the the switch out of a love for people, an inner restlessness and counsel from friends, specifically the Rev. Ray Hammond, pastor of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Jamaica Plains, and his wife Dr. Gloria White-Hammond.
In 2001, Walker joined the Hammonds on a trip to Sudan to investigate the issue of slavery during the nation’s second civil war. The devastation that Walker observed on that trip accelerated her restlessness. Upon returning to Boston, she and White-Hammond founded My Sister’s Keeper, a grassroots organization aimed at helping women from war-torn areas help rebuild their countries and their lives.
Soon after, she enrolled in Harvard Divinity School. Graduating in 2005 with a Master’s of Divinity, Walker became an ordained minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Although her work as minister has exposed her to many heart-wrenching experiences, Walker said it was her experiences during the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings that moved her the most.
“The most humbling moment of my life was to be a part of the healing after the Boston marathon bombing,” Walker said, referring to her participation in an interfaith service after the tragedy that was attended by President Barack Obama, Governor Deval Patrick and Mayor Tom Menino.
“Being in the cathedral to speak to people’s fears and to people’s pain; to be just a flicker of hope in the midst of darkness,” Walker said, her voice soft. “That is what I believe I’ve been called to do.”
That day, it was the regular people in pulpits and on the street, not the celebrity audience, that moved her most. As she exited the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, she noticed the streets were swarming with people leaving the church.
“People were crying, needing hugs,” she said, wiping tears away. “I was stepping into the pain to help people in a small way … that’s the part I want to play.”
Correction: this article was updated to reflect the correct the name of the Rev. Ray Hammond’s church: Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church.