by Conrad deFiebre
On May 27, 2012, Pentecost Sunday, Walker Community United Methodist’s Church’s 103-year-old building was struck by lightning, touching off a fire that destroyed it. All that remained were a chest of altar pieces dug from the rubble and the rainbow flag hanging proudly from a remnant corner of red-brick wall.
The next evening, Memorial Day, hundreds gathered for a picnic on 16th Avenue overlooking the ruins. Food for that week’s free neighborhood dinner had been consumed in the blaze, so Crosswinds UMC in Maple Grove graciously catered. There were tears and laughter and, as usual, lots of singing and little if any public prayer.
Now a new challenge faced the little congregation that had survived more than 125 years of triumph and adversity to become a widely loved center of the religious, social and political counterculture in south Minneapolis.
Less than 19 months later, we moved into a new church building on the same three lots at the corner of 31st Street. On Palm Sunday, April 13, 2014, more than 150 attended the grand opening celebration service, highlighted by Don Browne’s song commemorating the blaze, “Still on Fire.”
Walker Church was back, a renewed symbol of grace and hope for the Powderhorn Park neighborhood.
Walker Church started in 1886 in a small wood-framed building two blocks from the current location. It was called the Bloomington Avenue Methodist Church.
Methodism, a spirited populist offshoot of the Church of England founded by 18th century Anglican priest John Wesley, was the megachurch movement of the American era before the automobile. Methodists established 34,000 churches in the United States between 1860 and 1900.
In the 1880s, the Powderhorn Park area was burgeoning with young families and new houses. The Bloomington Avenue church quickly grew from its original 45 members. By 1905, District Superintendent S.P. Long wrote that the church was “crowded out” and the congregation was “not financially able to erect a church suited to their needs.”
Wealthier Minneapolis Methodists, particularly lumber baron Thomas Barlow Walker and fellow congregants at Hennepin Avenue Methodist Church, provided the bulk of the $20,000 needed to erect a three-level structure at 31st Street and 16th Avenue South. It followed a popular church design of the era called the Akron plan, later criticized for lack of classroom space, but offering wonderful acoustics in the balconied sanctuary.
Walker and his wife donated $3,500 for the new church building. The congregation of 250 could scrape together only $2,500, so they named the place for him. Walker later contributed half of the $6,000 cost of a pipe organ for his namesake church. It took 21 years for the congregation to pay off the rest.
The cornerstone was laid in 1909 and the building was dedicated on Easter Sunday, March 27, 1910, with three worship services. The parsonage next door was purchased in 1913 for $4,000 and the church was “splendidly renovated” in 1916.A new boiler was installed in 1922 and the organ a year later.
At the height of the Roaring Twenties in 1927, membership hit a peak of 649 with Sunday school enrollment of 500. (Where did they all fit in?) It was growing into a typical revival-tinged church of mid-20th century America with a Men’s Club, Women’s Foreign Missionary Society, Ladies Aid Society, the Standard Bearers missionary youth group, Boy Scouts, Cub Scouts, Camp Fire Girls and a young couples club. Doughnut sales and quilting parties complemented the Sunday collection plates.
Music, then as now, was at the heart of Walker’s worship and outreach. Walker’s 50-voice choir was known throughout Minnesota, and its annual choral club concerts featured hymns, operatic pieces and “Negro Spirituals.” The concert programs always invited attendees to return and hear the choir on Sunday mornings.
Amid the Great Depression, the church’s numbers and finances ebbed and flowed. The building was nearly sold in 1942 despite membership of 284. Pastor Walter Pilgrim (who attended the 1986 centennial as an octogenarian) took a reduced salary of $1,600 and brought in visiting evangelists to pull the church through. By 1959, membership was back up to 422 and a Golden Anniversary booklet pronounced the past mere “preparation for the work of God here greater than we can think or ask.”
A Phoenix from the Ashes
Then the 1960s hit Walker Church with the force of a tie-dyed, fist-clenched tornado. White flight to the suburbs, spurred by freeway construction that displaced hundreds of homes, removed many of the church’s leaders. Sunday attendance and youth participation plunged. The great pipe organ, in constant disrepair, was a financial drain. Pastors came and went, sometimes within a year. And political and social ferment over war, race, poverty and more was dividing people and emptying churches.
By the time 28-year-old Bryan Peterson was appointed Walker’s pastor in 1967, only about 50 worshippers, all but one of them 60 or older, greeted him in a church becoming as time-worn as the neighborhood around it.
During Bryan’s 22 years as pastor, Walker seldom attracted more than 50 people to congregational gatherings – often far fewer. But before he died of a heart attack on July 17, 1989, he had thoroughly transformed Walker into a vibrant spiritual fellowship built around new worship forms, arts and activism.
Born on June 28, 1938, Bryan was a radical in the prophetic tradition of Jeremiah, for whom he named his son. After growing up in a devout, conservative Methodist family in Montevideo, Minn., and earning a degree in philosophy at Concordia College in Moorhead, he left western Minnesota in 1960 for Drew University School of Theology in the New Jersey suburbs of New York City.
Somewhere in his schooling, he grew into a fiery iconoclast. Even as a 24-year-old seminarian serving as a student minister in rural Lake Benton, Minn., he was unafraid to preach that the Methodist Church, with its separate organization for black congregations, was “one of the great promoters of racial segregation.” Three years later, at his first regular church appointment in hardscrabble Pine City, Minn., he denounced Americans as “the most reactionary people on the planet” and Christianity, “once a faith of the most revolutionary movement in the Roman Empire,” as part and parcel of “Western culture, colonialism and the white man’s god.”
This sort of thing didn’t go over well with his small-town flock. After he condemned the war in Vietnam from the pulpit, the organist, whose son was serving there, quit the church. Others left, too.
After two stormy years in Pine City, Bryan was sent to Walker to try some “new inner-city ministries.” He did so with such zeal that within three years the old congregation lay in ruins. Many longtime members left in 1969 after the district superintendent sought their commitment to the church’s new emphasis on social justice.
The change was abrupt. Minutes of the 1968 church conference quote a leader of the congregation saying: “If we must deny our Church and our God to be 20th century Christians, my choice must be to live as the right kind of 19th century Christian.” This leader’s name is missing from the 1969 conference minutes, which open with a denunciation of antiballistic missiles and an exhortation to “Buy Black.”
With the membership rolls down to 42 and the church’s finances devastated, Bryan remained the pastor but took a job leading a live-in college seminar in social action to earn a salary the church couldn’t provide. Worship moved from Sunday mornings in the sanctuary to Friday night potlucks and guitar sing-alongs in members’ homes. Church offices were rented to draft counselors and education reformers, the sanctuary to avant-garde theater troupes such as the Minneapolis Ensemble, Palace, Out & About and Jeune Lune. T.B. Walker’s organ was dismantled, the pipes melted into sculpture, and the altar transformed into a thrust stage.
Freed from the old rubrics of church life, Walker members established an alternative school, an arts program, In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theater (the first puppets were made in the church basement), KFAI Radio (its original offices and studios in the church balcony and attic), a community development corporation and the eco-activist Center for Local Self-Reliance. Later, Walker welcomed two Guatemalan refugees into sanctuary. For a while, they lived in the church building.
In 1976, after a six-year hiatus, Walker resumed Sunday services in the sanctuary. At first, the folks in the pews numbered the same as when the practice was abandoned – about a dozen out of an official membership of 35. But the worship style was radically different: a half hour of congregational singing from a mimeographed songbook developed in the potluck days, readings from the Way of Life by Lao Tzu, silent meditation, a tea break in the middle of the proceedings (later switched to the end and coffee added), special performances, a circle of communion and sharing of joys and concerns, ending with “Amazing Grace.” It was called a celebration.
There was no group prayer; Jesus, after all, told us to pray in the closet, not in public. But traditional Scripture was read, usually the Old Testament, upon which Bryan often preached on themes of community and justice. He seldom invoked the name of Jesus, which he believed was too often misused to shame and oppress.
Bryan was a fine theologian and preacher, but his greatest gifts were in community organizing and political strategy. He was a strong force in the United Methodist Church, neighborhood politics, even in the cause of human rights worldwide. He inspired the legislative careers of Walker members Linda Berglin and Janet Clark Entzel. He was appointed a founding board member of the Minnesota Center for Victims of Torture by Gov. Rudy Perpich.
He was also a passionate first tenor who led congregational singing and anchored the Walker Singers and the Walker Quartet, an a cappella group that included bass Jim McCreary, second tenor Howard Kranz and a Lutheran baritone named Paul Olson.
But there was nothing cuddly about Bryan. He was blunt and direct with a rich vocabulary of four-letter words. When I met him for the first time as a 23-year-old lapsed Catholic starting a neighborhood newspaper, Bryan asked: “Are you gonna tell the TRUTH?” Then he invited me to a potluck. I went and kept coming back.
Bryan’s in-your-face quality softened in the 1980s as he looked inward to nurture the spiritual underpinnings of effective activism. He preached often on the “as yourself” part of Jesus’ command to love thy neighbor. In sermons, he likened the church’s rebirth to the rising of a phoenix from the ashes. The congregation celebrated its 100th year in 1986 with a major remodeling of the basement gathering space, renamed Centennial Hall. Bryan still thundered against injustice, but now the target was the spiritual abuse of the hellfire religion he’d grown up with more often than economic or racial oppressors.
In his final sermon, following the suicide of a talented Walker member overwhelmed by her father’s abuse, he angrily said: “If you are being abused, walk away from that relationship and never look back.” It was as worked up as I’d seen him in years. A few days later, he died while visiting his brother, Harvard Prof. Paul Peterson, in Massachusetts.
Harvesting the Fruit
Bryan’s sudden death at age 51 left Walker reeling. How to replace this charismatic leader? Don Woodward, a kindly retired United Methodist pastor, served a few months as interim before Pam Barbour was appointed by the bishop. Warm and friendly, she sparked a surge in membership before she stepped down in late 1991 to be a full-time mom to her three small children. Judy Westendorf, a preacher with a fundamentalist theology, followed.
All three of these successors were largely bewildered by Walker’s eccentric ministry. This led to a drift in the church’s mission that grew to “a crisis of identity, purpose and mission,” in the words of Walker elder Dennis Wynne. Membership and church finances spiraled downward and, after several outspoken all-church meetings, Westendorf was asked to resign in early 1993. She stayed, uncomfortably, until June.
Until now, Walker lay leaders had obeyed the United Methodist protocol of leaving the choice of pastors to the church hierarchy. Now they petitioned for an old friend, Roger Lynn.
Roger, a St. Paul native, was lobbying for the appointment as well. He had been around Walker for years during a long break from his early clergy career in southeastern Minnesota and as Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church’s education minister. In the 1970s, he frequented Walker’s Friday potlucks.
Roger had a talent for making headlines. In the 1970s he officiated at Minnesota’s (and perhaps the nation’s) first gay marriage. In the early ‘80s, he lost his job as director of a mental health residential treatment center amid a sex scandal involving one of his staff and a client. After that, he came back to Walker as a volunteer associate pastor, Reichian therapist and handyman who, with Bryan, spearheaded the Centennial Hall remodeling.
During that time, Roger also founded the Sunday meditation group. In 1988, he returned to appointed ministry, bringing his own brand of radical politics and theology to the Long Prairie and Gray Eagle churches in central Minnesota. A highly engaging preacher whose sermons were full of psychological analysis, ancient mythology and cutting-edge scriptural interpretation, he had spent five successful years in conservative Todd County but was ready to move back home.
From 1993 until his retirement in 2002, Roger led another Walker rebirth. He knew the vision and praxis of Bryan Peterson and helped institutionalize them with a beefed-up committee structure and a strong mission statement – “to nurture spirituality, build caring community and work courageously for peace with justice. Later, the words “and mercy” were added.
Roger sparked a revival of Walker’s community activism, fighting prostitution and crack cocaine in the neighborhood and establishing restorative justice and conflict resolution programs, a reborn Sunday school for children headed by puppet theater artistic director Sandy Spieler, a Native American spirituality partnership with a sweat lodge in the back yard, a food shelf and support for launching a teenage homeless shelter. Through Roger’s influence, Walker members Wayne Bailey, K.C. Bretzke, Dianne O’Donnell and Lulu Phillips took leadership roles in the United Methodist Minnesota Annual Conference.
Sarah Dagg, whom Roger had met and married at Walker in the 1980s, started Women Church, a celebration of feminine divinity, spirituality and power. The rituals they developed – such as croning of female elders – led Walker to pre-Christian and contemporary pagan observances of Samhain, Day of the Dead, a sage smudge and a children’s circle honoring the four directions and “the flame in the center, the core and the heart, the source of all beauty, peace, joy and art.”
Roger deflected credit for all this activity. He said he was just “harvesting the fruit” that had been planted by Bryan Peterson. But Roger’s contributions were great, too. A reinvigorated Walker grew in numbers and in spiritual wisdom. He started Walker’s regular sermon feedback time. And he turned the communion blessing:“The bread is broken, as God participates in our brokenness. The bread is shared in the circle and the broken becomes one.”
Roger’s retirement was celebrated with festivities titled “Renew the Miracle.” An elevator was dedicated, finally making the church accessible by wheelchair. There was a musical sendoff and roast, speeches from peace activist Polly Mann and Green Party vice presidential candidate WinonaLaDuke and a Sunday service climaxed with singers, dancers, musicians and the rest of the congregation circling the building toting banners and giant puppets.
Seth Garwood had gravitated to Walker in the 1990s after a strife-filled tenure as pastor of Calvary United Methodist Church in Shakopee led him to take a leave from ministry. A gifted composer, guitarist and singer, he joined the Walker Singers, the men’s group, the peace with justice committee and many other aspects of church life. He occasionally filled the Sunday pulpit with a gentle brand of comforting Christianity.
As Roger’s retirement neared, Seth returned to appointed ministry in Todd County and St. Paul. Walker members couldn’t help but notice the parallels between the two: both ordained ministers who overcame disillusionment with the church at Walker, embraced its unique style and mission and rededicated themselves to appointed church leadership.
Walker members again pressed the bishop for their choice as Roger’s successor and again got their wish. Seth forged Walker bonds with the Green Party and organized labor that led to church-backed campaigns for worker rights at hotels and the Walker Methodist Home. He started Walker’s deeply moving Good Friday Stations of the Cross produced by community artists. His interest in art led to the L’Orange Underground, a downstairs art gallery. Seth’s wife, Becky Hanson, and David Henry Shultz repainted Centennial Hall in red and the sanctuary in chartreuse.
Severe depression, however, handicapped Seth’s ability to meet the demands of an entrepreneurial inner city ministry. He told me once, regretfully it seemed, that Walker’s strong network of mutual support and counseling within the congregation left little room for what he loved best about the ministry – pastoral care.
Seth was a wounded healer. When angry conflict arose in the church over an inadvertent slight to gays and lesbians in one of his sermons, Seth wasn’t equipped to work it out with the aggrieved. He withdrew to a defensive shell.
As church attendance and finances began to slide, others started questioning Seth’s diligence and leadership. But he weathered the unrest and began a fourth year of appointment at Walker in mid-2005. By now, however, an acute depression gripped him. He gave a hint of his pain in his final sermon on a beautiful Sunday in Powderhorn Park.
On July 21, 2005, Seth died by suicide.
Walker reeled once more with a sudden tragedy. Some members struggled to reconcile their love of Seth with their anger at his final act. It shook others’ faith in God and the Walker community. Still others wondered whether their displeasure with Seth played a role in his death.
All these hard themes echoed in Seth’s funeral, a long-form Walker tradition that began with that of Bryan Peterson. The celebration of Seth’s life included his choral setting of Psalm 130 by the Walker Singers, the congregation singing Seth’s bluesy “God is Everywhere” and tough but compassionate words from Roger Lynn (Seth’s mentor); Doug Rosenquist (his close friend) and Robin Garwood (his son).
Larry Nielsen was sailing in the Apostle Islands when he got word of Seth’s death. He immediately called the conference office to volunteer his services as interim. Larry had been a seminary classmate of Roger’s and a fellow Southside United Methodist Coalition pastor at Wesley Church. He had retired at the same time as Roger, but had taken on several interim ministries afterward.
He spent nearly a year leading Walker through the aftermath of Seth’s loss. A burly bear of a man with a quiet solidity and a gentle sense of humor, Larry was ideal for the job. Although only a part-time temp, he worked heart and soul to heal the community. He brought his rich bass to the Walker Singers, counseled and listened to Walkerites tirelessly and preached about being kind to each other to steer a course in troubled times, usually with analogies to his beloved sailing.
He also helped guide conference leaders in their choice of a successor. At this point, Walker leaders weren’t keen to try to make the pick themselves. Larry suggested a fellow graduate of Garrett Theological Seminary, Walter Lockhart.
Walter, who had grown up in Red Wing and small-town Arkansas before majoring in economics at Macalester College in St. Paul, was barely 40 when he was appointed to Walker in 2006. He was a generation younger than most of the aging flower children in the pews. But he had youthful energy to rebuild Walker again, a passion for justice to change the world and the political acumen to make it so.
He was already a national leader in the ongoing struggle for gay dignity within the United Methodist Church. For years he had organized the Methodist float in the Minneapolis Gay Pride parade, usually taking vacation time from the conservative churches he was serving to make it to the Sunday morning parade lineup. (At Walker, which formally embraced GLBT folks as a reconciling congregation in 1988, Walter just relocated the Gay Pride Sunday celebration to 3rd Street South.)
More significantly, Walter wrote legislation approved by the Minnesota United Methodist Annual Conference not only to strike church law condemning homosexuality, but also to endorse same-sex marriage. That struggle within the broader church continued, even as the nation legalized same-sex marriage and Walter officiated at several. At this writing, Walker stands ready to join the progressive side of Methodism’s impending schism.
Under Walter’s leadership, Walker began growing again, with young families bringing more children to Sunday school than at any time in the past half-century. Easter Sunday 2009 drew an estimated 200 people, also a modern record. Weekly free meals reconnected Walker with its neighbors. The building got an energy-saving green makeover for its 100th birthday, thanks to Wayne Bailey and the rest of the insulation-blowing trustees. The church welcomed gatherings of Muslims at Ramadan and young political activists alike.
Risen Once More
This resurgence was suddenly halted by the Pentecost fire. The congregation argued over whether to rebuild on site or buy or rent other space. At the same time, child sex misconduct charges against a member created further division when he was barred from church gatherings. These challenges tested all the skills of the pastor and lay leaders. Countless heated meetings addressed each issue. The building question required action within a 180-day window to retain a grandfather exemption from zoning rules, particularly for on-site parking.
Meanwhile, the congregation met on Sundays at the puppet theater’s converted movie house on Lake Street, then at Patrick’s Cabaret, an arts center in a 19th century firehouse owned by Walkerite Kristine Smith. A joint service and Christmas pageant directed by Walker’s Mary Parker were held at Faith Mennonite Church in Seward.
Fire insurance covered barely half the approximately $3 million cost of a new building’s design, construction and furnishings. Then an anonymous donor offered a $1 million matching grant at a 10-to-1 ratio if a new church was built. Other options were investigated and rejected. With help from Methodists across Minnesota, including a record $27,000 response to a Metro West Builders Club call, the $100,000 fund-raising goal was exceeded.
Kaas Wilson Architects of Minneapolis and a committee of members worked for months on the design. It features a circular entrance hall, walls of windows opening the sanctuary and second-floor fellowship hall to the surrounding community and a commercial-grade kitchen. Plans and an application for a building permit were submitted to the city in November 2012, just under the deadline. Watson Forsberg general contractors began construction in the spring and completed it in time for Christmas.
Walter, whose leadership was essential to rebuilding the church, retired from ministry in 2019. He was succeeded by Katy Lee, a fiddle-player who quickly joined the church band, and a marathon-running millennial with a progressive theology. She faced stern challenges in 2020 with the coronavirus pandemic, when Sunday celebrations moved to Zoom online and food ministry continued with pickups of cooked meals and bagged groceries at the church door.
Then in May of the same year, there was the nationwide outbreak of rage over the police-involved death of George Floyd less than a mile from the church. The church supported the protests on its doorstep as a 24-hour safe space with food, medical supplies, security and phone charging.
Walker’s work to build the Beloved Community, a great dream articulated by Martin Luther King Jr. and revived here by Roger Lynn, goes on. As Bryan Peterson wrote in 1968: “The task and mission of this congregation is never completed … The Word which calls us to preach good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind and liberty to the oppressed continually calls us forth. Justice has never arrived, but is always just beginning to emerge, just as love cannot be a past event, but must be continually acted out in the world.”
Note: This is a third revision and update of a history I put together for the centennial celebration of 1986. Its sources are those original four pages of mimeograph, my own nearly half-century hanging around this place and, especially, Peter Doughty’s exhaustive and fine book, “Building the Beloved Community.”—CdeF