Community

At a Burton church, an ill pastor finds his way

Marcus Walker found out he had cancer four months ago.   - Lawrence Huggins Photo
Marcus Walker found out he had cancer four months ago.
— image credit: Lawrence Huggins Photo

Just before Christmas, Rev. Marcus Walker sat on the steps leading up to the altar at the Burton Community Church, gathered a few children around him and asked one of them to light the fourth advent candle — the one symbolizing joy.

“I wonder if you’d like to light the church on fire one last time,” he joked, smiling broadly as he offered a girl a candle.

It was an unorthodox moment in a Baptist church, but then Walker is no ordinary minister.

“I describe him as a Baptist minister with a Buddhist heart,” parishioner Kate Van Houdt said after the service.

Now, his small congregation is grieving. Walker, who has preached in this white-washed chapel off and on for 15 years, has stage-four metastatic melanoma. And as he stood before the congregation, garbed in black vestments, his stylish black hat momentarily cast aside, he was open with them about the challenge he is facing, weaving his cancer into the story of the virgin birth.

Joseph, he said, was a confused young man facing the uncertainty of parenting a child who was not his own. He himself, he said, is facing the fear that comes with a virulent form of cancer.

“Maybe the light of God shines most strongly at the common turning points of life,” he told his congregation. “At these times we follow a God who understands the problems of living a human life — living with shame and guilt, living with sickness, fearing death.”

His wife Lauren and his two college-age sons sat together as he preached. He spoke to them as well.

“I want to assure my family that I feel fine, but I don’t. I want to assure friends that I am brave, but I’m not. I want to assure my children that I’m their super-dad, but I am so afraid I will let them down.”

His congregants have long been touched by his personal honesty, and so they are now, they said, as they witness the toll cancer is taking on his body.

“We come to listen to him,” said parishioner Bill Gleason, his eyes shining with tears. “Not to go to church.”

Walker, 53, was diagnosed with cancer four months ago. Now, it shapes his life. Indeed, he has made his battle with his illness part of his sermons on a regular basis. A man with an unflagging sense of humor, he wryly refers to them as the Cancer Sermons. He jokes that until he was diagnosed with cancer, he was just a regular guy. Now, newspaper reporters call him for stories and people hold roasts in his honor.

“I’ve found the best way to get attention is to have cancer,” he said.

But in fact, Walker is far from a regular guy.

For the past 10 years, he has created a professional life unlike any other — working nearly full-time as the managing artistic director of the Lakewood Playhouse south of Tacoma and part-time as the Burton Community Church’s minister.

He calls himself a liberal Baptist, noting that it’s not the oxymoron some might think. He’s an American Baptist, a “non-creedal” denomination known for its independent spirit and open-mindedness, he said, not a Southern Baptist, known for conservative rules. He also says he’s found a way to blend religion and theater, though his blending, again, speaks to his unorthodox approach to the ministry.

As a dramatist, he puts on “redemptive theater,” he said, plays that speak to the deeper and often mythic meaning of life. And as a minister, he sees his weekly sermon as an attempt at “theatrical redemption” — sermons that lift, move and inspire.

“If religion is about stories that give life ultimate meaning, it better not be boring,” he said.

Walker lives in Tacoma’s diverse Hilltop neighborhood in a home he and his wife purchased 20 years ago. His wife is the director of the Fair Housing Center of Washington and a Tacoma City Councilmember. His two sons, Henry and Reuben — named, he jokes, after his and his wife’s favorite beer and favorite sandwich — graduated from Stadium High School. Both now attend Western Washington University.

Walker commutes to Vashon twice a week — Wednesdays and Sundays — to fulfill his role as the Burton Community Church minister. And on a recent Wednesday, he met with a reporter in his cheerfully cluttered office behind the church, where he talked openly about his life as a minister and theater director, his theology and his struggle against cancer.

His dual life began early in his career: In his first job as an associate minister at the Old South Church in Boston, he quickly launched another program — a theater group that he called Theater at Old South.

He and his wife moved to Tacoma to be closer to relatives, and in 1989 he became the minister of Grace Baptist Church in North Tacoma, where again he attempted to both preach and direct theater. But his double life created some tension, he said.

“I was always sneaking off to go to rehearsals,” he said.

Eventually, he left Grace Baptist, throwing himself fully into theater as both an actor and director. But he kept his theological life active and supplemented his scant income as a director by acting as a guest preacher at various churches. It was one of those jobs that led him to Burton, he said.

The church invited him to preach a few times, then asked him to become the interim minister and finally asked him to come on permanently.

Walker said he was candid with the congregation. “I said, ‘You gotta know, I’m a theater guy. ... But if it works for you, I’ll do it.’” It did. And today, 15 years later — and after a few diversions, like the time he left for a year to study theater directing in England — he’s still there, standing behind the pulpit most Sundays, weaving into his sermons tales of theater life, literature and his wicked sense of humor.

Now, as he contemplates his disease, he’s open about the way it’s challenged his faith. “I’m scared to death. I don’t want to die,” he said.

He doesn’t believe that God “is calling me home” and he’s far from certain about what lies ahead. At the same time, he said, he continues to believe in an after-life. “I don’t think I’ll just wink out,” he said. “A human soul has too much energy to just stop.”

Chemotherapy has cost him his once full head of hair. He’s lost weight. His energy often flags. But the jokes keep coming.

“I’d like to live long enough to see my kids get married or run off with their gay lovers, whichever they choose,” he said, grinning.

As for his small congregation, they’re praying for him daily and supporting the family — and Walker — every way they can, said Jeannette Smith, president of the congregation.

“We hope every week we’ll see him in the pulpit,” she said. “And when we do, we just treasure him. We treasure every moment that we have with him.”

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