When my neighbor Walter Parker passed away in October, I knew the following: he was one of the sweetest people I’d ever met; he spent a lot of time in front of our building shooting the breeze, or just enjoying it; and he had some crazy-sweet deal on his rent. That was about it. Walter was my neighbor for 15 years and occasionally we chatted, usually about the building or the weather, or something equally innocuous; often I would just nod and say “hi” and he’d do the same.
But when I attended his memorial service at Grace Church, I was startled to discover that Walter was a prominent and active member of his church community and a serious student of the Bible.
My first thought was, “Oh, what a shame I didn’t know this about Walter! We could have talked about faith and service!” Then I realized something. I did know this about Walter. Not the specifics — that he was Episcopalian; that he was a lector; that he founded the Flower Guild and oversaw the flower decorations on the alter — but I knew that Walter was a good man. I immediately think of the second half of the cornerstone teaching of Jesus in relation to how we should live. After giving the new commandment to love one another as He has loved us, Jesus says:
“This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35)
Walter embodied his faith every minute of the day. He was loving. Even when complaining about something, he did so in a way that was so good-natured you knew there was no malice in him. A relative of his I met at the memorial, Shelton Terry, described Walter as “generous” in giving of himself. He gave his time and attention — he listened, travelled to visit people, wrote and called them.
I hope that when Walter saw me, he also felt he was meeting a good man. This wasn’t always so easy to discern. From his perch on the building’s front steps, Walter used to see me stumbling home late at night, or blearily cranky from a hangover in the morning. I wonder if he saw the transformation in me. I wouldn’t know from his demeanor. He was equally as friendly to me before and after.
An example to us all
Walter is an example to us all. And though I don’t believe in New Year’s resolutions, let me offer this as a challenge. The people on the periphery of your life, who don’t know if you go to church or what charitable service you do — when they look at you, do they see love in action?
There’s an old saying, which has been reformulated in many ways: “You may be the only Bible your neighbor ever reads.” In other words, if someone’s only exposure to your faith is how you interact with them, what would they think of that faith? Jesus did not say that people would recognize his followers by crosses around their necks or by seeing them enter a church every Sunday. He said that people would recognize his followers by the fact that they acted with love.
One of the things that most attracted me to Christianity through my years as a seeker was the emphasis Jesus places again and again on people’s hearts and intentions, rather that their showy actions. Those who perform the rituals of faith but don’t hold its values in their heart are particularly despised in the gospels.
There was no hypocrisy in Walter, no showiness. You met him, you knew: Here’s a faithful man. Here’s a good man.
Probably the most noticeable thing about Walter, though, was his voice — which managed to sound friendly and gentle even while being deep and booming. The rector of Grace Church, Rev. Don Waring, says the first time he heard Walter reading on Sunday, he thought to himself, this is the voice of God.
I learned other things about Walter after his passing. For example, that he had been a competitive world-class fencer. That he had a degree in economics. That he emigrated here from the West Indies in the 50s. And that his career had been working for social services.
All of which is interesting, but none of which matters next to the simple truth: Walter Parker was a loving man.
So as we pay tribute to my neighbor and look forward to the year ahead, let us all resolve to wear our faith more like Walter did, steadfastly, lovingly, and as a loose garment. Happy New Year.