On Sunday, April 26th, Reverend Liz Walker spoke at the second annual Class of 1971 Dorothy Day Lecture in the Janet M. Daley Library Lecture Hall.
The Honorable Mary McCauley Manzi '71 offered the welcome and introduction for Rev. Walker and referenced Pope Francis's reflection from the April 24, 2013, General Audience in St. Peter's Square, in which he asked people to be generous with their God-given talents for the good of others.
In her talk, "Weaned on Justice, Surprised by Grace," Rev. Walker recalled her childhood growing up in Little Rock, Arkansas, in the 1950s, just a few blocks from Little Rock Central High School, where a group of nine African American students enrolled in 1957 and were initially prevented from entering the racially segregated school. The Arkansas National Guard and the U.S. Army were called in amid rising tensions.
"The city I loved turned into a warzone," she said. "I was raised to be part of the struggle."
Rev. Walker, who currently serves as pastor of Roxbury Presbyterian Church, came to religious life after 21 years at WBZ-TV, Boston's CBS affiliate. The first African American to anchor the nightly news in Boston, she admitted that for years she was caught up in the magic of television, an institution focused on making money rather than social change.
"The messages aren't quite as equitable as you might think," she said. "Somebody's got to win and somebody's got to lose, and I was a part of that."
Her life and career trajectory began to change in 2001 when she, along with Rev. Dr. Gloria White-Hammond and her husband, Ray Hammond, were invited to South Sudan to investigate allegations of slavery. While Rev. Walker initially requested a crew to do a story for WBZ, the station thought the story was too international in scope to be featured on a local news channel - so she brought her own camera and told the story herself.
"What I discovered there was God calling me at the time," she said.
What she also discovered was people offering hospitality in the midst of war and poverty, and she was "changed by the people we met."
Shortly after, she and Rev. White-Hammond founded My Sister's Keeper, a grassroots humanitarian action group to advocate for women in the Sudan. In 2007, the organization saw the opening of a school in South Sudan for which 1,000 young women showed up, walking for hours from neighboring villages because they heard education was happening.
"They may not have even been sure what education was," she said, "but they knew it would change their lives."
The people of the Sudan have come to define grace for Rev. Walker. She shared a story from her first trip of watching a woman preparing food for her family, painstakingly grinding maize into flour with only rudimentary tools. While moving around with her camera, she didn't notice a bowl of flour by her foot and kicked over the hours of work the woman had already done. Yet, later, when their group had to walk several miles to a different part of the region, villagers, including the woman whose dinner she had destroyed, helped carry their luggage in the summer heat.
Now, as a pastor in Roxbury, Rev. Walker admits she's had to relearn everything she thought she'd learned. While her initial approach to drinking and drug use she witnessed in the neighborhood was zero-tolerance, she began to see and understand the lack of jobs and the lack of hope for some in the community - and let grace work its way in.
"It's like when a bank gives you a 'grace period'...that little something extra, is how I define grace," she said. "It's giving somebody a break. It's giving that courtesy gap, making space on the highway. It's forgiveness for messing up your food. Just giving the world a break. We need grace as much as we need justice."
Rev. Walker closed with another story from a visit to Sudan, in which she and her crew lost their luggage at the start of the trip. They were able to purchase a few things and planned to make do, but the villagers came to meet their plane. Women brought pots of goat and okra and brightly-colored wraps. Men had constructed cots for them to sleep on. Children offered sticks they'd gathered from a tree that's good for cleaning teeth.
"We had gone to save Africa and Africa had saved us," she said. "What you give out you get back."
The Dorothy Day Lecture Series, established in the spring 2013, is a "living legacy" honoring members of the Emmanuel College Class of 1971. This endowed lecture series is held annually each April a topic that reflects the interplay between sociology, history, economics and political action and the connections between the late '60s/early '70s and the present. The series is named after Dorothy Day, the woman who co-founded the Catholic Workers Movement in 1933.
The inaugural lecture was held on April 27, 2014, and featured Sr. Simone Campbell, SSS, executive director of progressive Catholic social justice lobby NETWORK.