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Retiring Memphis minister shares her gifts with living and dying

Associate Pastor Sonia Walker is retiring from First Congressional Church. (Ziggy Mack/Special to The Daily Memphian)
Associate Pastor Sonia Walker is retiring from First Congressional Church. (Ziggy Mack/Special to The Daily Memphian)

opens in a new windowHope in Memphis is a recurring series about people who are working every day in Memphis to defy and defeat crime and violence, poverty and homelessness, child abuse and neglect, inequity, intolerance and ignorance.

Even now, more than 70 years later, she distinctly remembers her first conversation with God.

She was 14, staring out her bedroom window at the full moon, talking through tears. She couldn’t decide what to do with her one precious life.

She thought about becoming a church pastor, like her father, but he told her that women clergy were not respected and often rejected.

She suffered from rheumatic fever as a child, so she thought about becoming a doctor. But her mother told her that would be too hard and take too long.

She thought she could become many things, she told God, but other people told her to be realistic. It was the early 1950s and she was a Black girl in a small town in southern Ohio.

As she talked, she felt God listening to her. She felt God’s presence in her, all around her. She felt the warmth and peace and grace of God’s love.

“It was a spiritual encounter, a defining moment for me,” Sonia Louden Walker recalled. “I said, ‘God, I don’t know what you want me to be, but I will go where you send me. Of course, if I’d known God was going to send me to Memphis one day, I might have changed my mind.”

Sonia smiled and laughed. Anyone who has spent more than five minutes in her presence has seen that smile and heard that laugh.

“It’s the first gift everyone receives from Sonia,” said Julia Hicks, director of mission at  opens in a new windowFirst Congregational Church, more widely known as First Congo. “And it is quickly felt as deeply warm and welcoming and genuine.”

Members of First Congo and the larger Memphis community will celebrate Sonia Louden Walker at a Dec. 30 reception at the Cooper-Young church. (Ziggy Mack/Special to The Daily Memphian)
Members of First Congo and the larger Memphis community will celebrate Sonia Louden Walker at a Dec. 30 reception at the Cooper-Young church. (Ziggy Mack/Special to The Daily Memphian)

Members of First Congo and the larger Memphis community will celebrate Sonia’s many gifts at a Dec. 30 reception at the Cooper-Young church.

Sonia, 85, is retiring as associate pastor of the congregation she has served with grit, grace and good humor since she graduated from seminary at age 70.

“I don’t want to wait till they ask me to go,” Sonia said, offering another smile and laugh. “And I don’t want to show up when I don’t know where I am. It doesn’t take a lot of mathematics to know when you’re 80-plus, you know what’s next. Grace.”

The gift of grace

For Sonia, grace — God’s unconditional love and inexhaustible presence — is a gift that keeps on giving, no matter the tradition.

She grew up in African Methodist Episcopal Church and her father became an AME minister.

She was married in the Unitarian church.

She and her late husband, Dr. Walter Walker, former president of LeMoyne-Owen College, were longtime members of Beulah Baptist Church.

She earned a Master of Divinity degree at Memphis Theological Seminary, affiliated with the Cumberland Presbyterian church.

She later joined and was ordained by Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church, a Disciples of Christ congregation.

She serves First Congo, a United Church of Christ congregation.

“We are Methodist or Baptist or DOC or UCC or whatever, but God is God,” she said. “There are the cultures of religion, the politics of religion and then there’s God. I work for God.”

No matter the venue.

The girl who didn’t know what she wanted to do with her life has done many things.

She has been a teacher. A social worker. A college president’s wife and the “architect of family life” for their three sons, Noland, Aaron and Marcus.

Many Mid-Southerners got to know her in the 1970s and 1980s as a media personality and host of “Dialogue” when she was manager of public affairs for WHBQ-TV.

In the 1990s, she helped launch and run a counseling center of Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church.

Associate Pastor Sonia Walker assists (right to left) Arnold Bledsoe, Bryant Wilhite, and Anthony Stacker with weekly food drive at First Congressional Church. (Ziggy Mack/Special to The Daily Memphian)
Associate Pastor Sonia Walker assists (right to left) Arnold Bledsoe, Bryant Wilhite, and Anthony Stacker with weekly food drive at First Congressional Church. (Ziggy Mack/Special to The Daily Memphian)

Over the years, she has been instrumental in starting and sustaining such community programs as Adopt-a-School, Food for Families, Black Family Reunion and Partners in Public Education.

She has served on the boards of Leadership Memphis, the Memphis Chamber, Literacy Mid-South, United Way of the Mid-South, and the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis. Family and friends have established the Sonia Louden Walker and Walter L. Walker Legacy Fund at the Community Foundation.

“Pastor Sonia has been an amazing example of what it means to ‘do justice, love kindness and walk humbly’ in an increasingly difficult world,” said Cecelia Johnson-Powell, a former director at United Way of the Mid-South and vice president of the Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association. “She has always worked for the rights of ‘the least of these’ often when no one else could.”

For Sonia, that often has meant confronting man-made barriers of race, gender, orientation, economic status and doctrine, with as much grace as possible.

“People are doing the best they can with what they have to work with, with their various levels of understanding,” Sonia said. “My husband used to say, ‘The problem with you is you really believe people ought to do the right thing, and that they’re going to do it.’ Yeah.”

Holy places

Sonia’s many Christian traditions speak to the many “gifts of the spirit.” Those include ministry, teaching, encouragement, compassion and cheerfulness.

“We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us,” it says in the  opens in a new windowBook of Romans.

Sonia saw her father share those gifts with his congregation.

She saw her mother share those gifts with her family, friends, neighbors and strangers.

She saw her grandmother share those gifts every moment of her life.

Associate Pastor Sonia Walker talks to Marsha Mayer at First Congressional Church. (Ziggy Mack/Special to The Daily Memphian)
Associate Pastor Sonia Walker talks to Marsha Mayer at First Congressional Church. (Ziggy Mack/Special to The Daily Memphian)

“I would go downstairs in the morning sometimes and find her on her knees in front of her window, after she’d swept the porch and aired out the house,” Sonia recalled. “I remember standing there one time in particular, and tears were streaming, and she was crying out to the Lord and the warm air was blowing in through the window. When she was through with her conversation, she turned around and embraced me and acknowledged my presence. I knew I had stood at a holy place with her.”

Sonia believes that’s her gift to share. To acknowledge, embrace and encourage others, to stand at holy places with them.

With her parents, who divorced when she was in college.

With her husband, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at age 42, three years after he became a college president.

With her ailing husband and aging mother and mother-in-law, all of whom lived in her home at the same time.

With her sons and grandchildren, family and friends, neighbors and co-worker, parishioners in the pews or strangers on the street.

With the living and the dying.

“Sonia has a profound understanding that the essence of faith comes down to our ability to love each other through the blessed times, through the challenging times, through all the transitions of life,” said Rev. Cheryl Cornish, First Congo’s senior pastor.

“She is deeply relational and lives her faith daily in her willingness to reach out and engage as a bridge-builder, as a healer and reconciler, and as an embodiment of God’s compassion and love for each of us.”

Sonia’s mother-in-law, Anne Smith Walker, died in 2006. Two years later, her mother, Berthena, died at age 95. Two months later, Walter died at age 73.

“The house was full, then all of a sudden there was no one there,” Sonia said. “Well, some One was there. I really believe, for me, that there is a divine adoption that that can take place if you’re open to it. So, I think I’ve been assigned to people and people have been assigned to me. And so, I work within the venue I find myself.”

That includes whatever venue is next.

“I don’t make plans,” Sonia said. “I never planned to come to Memphis, and I didn’t plan to stay once we got here. That was nearly 50 years ago and I’m still here. Every day is grace, and I’ve got my headset on all the time. When God speaks, I can hear. And the older I get, the better I hear.”

Then she smiled and laughed.

This story first appeared at dailymemphian.com under an exclusive use agreement with The Institute.

Written By

David Waters is Distinguished Journalist in Residence and assistant director of the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis.

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