Memory eternal, for a quiet giant in American Orthodoxy

FRANKLIN, Tenn. -- It was a typical evangelistic crusade in rural Alabama and, as he ended his sermon, the Rev. Gordon Walker called sinners down to the altar to be born again.

Most Southern towns have a few notorious folks who frequent the back pews during revival meetings, trying to get right with God. On this night, one such scalawag came forward and fell to his knees. 

"Preacher! I've broken all the Ten Commandments except one," he cried, "and the only reason I didn't break that one was that the man I shot didn't die!"

It didn't matter that this man repeated this ritual several times during his troubled life, said Walker, telling the story decades later at Holy Cross Orthodox Church outside Baltimore. Now wearing the golden robes of an Eastern Orthodox priest, Walker smiled and spread his arms wide. The church, he said, has always known that some people need to go to confession more than others. The goal was to keep walking toward the altar.

With his gentle smile and soft Alabama drawl, Walker -- who died on July 23 -- was a key figure in an unusual American story. The former Southern Baptist pastor and Campus Crusade evangelist was part of a circle of evangelical leaders that spent a decade reading church history before starting an Orthodox church for American converts. Then in 1987, the late Metropolitan Philip Saliba accepted more than 2,000 pastors and members of their Evangelical Orthodox Church into the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America.

As the late Father Peter Gillquist, the movement's charismatic leader, told me in 1992: "One Orthodox leader said to me, 'How are we supposed to incorporate a couple of thousand Bill Grahams into the world of Orthodoxy?' "

Cancer took Gillquist in 2012, and now Walker. This past week, Orthodox priests from across the nation gathered at St. Ignatius Church -- the large parish near Nashville that Walker founded 30 years ago -- for his funeral, after cancer took the pastor who had helped so many enter Orthodoxy. One by one, or with friends and family, hundreds (including my own family) made the journey to spend time in Father Gordon and Mary Sue Walker's rambling log cabin in a valley near Franklin, Tenn.

"Father Gordon was a quiet force that kept them rooted," said Father Peter Jon Gillquist of Bloomington, Ind., son of the movement's leader. "He was quiet, but deeply spiritual and edgy at the same time. He was utterly fearless and at key moments he was the voice crying in the wilderness, telling them to keep moving."

Many of these same believers gathered for Gillquist's funeral and it was Walker who was asked to preach. He mentioned the many futile meetings the Evangelical Orthodox held with the leaders of official Orthodox churches, including a trip to Istanbul to meet with the Ecumenical Patriarch.

"It was sort of, 'Nice to see you, but there was no opportunity here,' " recalled Walker. "There were times when we wondered, 'Is this going to survive? Will anything good come out of all of this?' "

Then they went to Englewood, N.J., to meet Metropolitan Philip. By that time there were 30 pastors on board, including many young men leading house churches and missions scattered across the United States and Canada. They pleaded their case, but it appeared there would be yet another frustrating Byzantine roadblock.

Walker began weeping and confronted the shocked metropolitan. Walker told the story this way: "I stood and said, 'Your eminence, if you don't receive us, where will we go? We have been everywhere else. We have knocked on all the other doors. There was this long pause and then he just held out his arms and he said, 'Gentlemen, welcome home.' … And from that point on, all kinds of things began to happen."

There has been growth, as well as painful struggles, said Walker, speaking directly to the next generation of priests at the Gillquist funeral.

"Let us not get weary. Let us not lose heart, when someone who was truly a giant among us … when they pass on," he said. "It seems like it leaves a huge hole in our ranks. But the truth is, Christ is with us. … God is not through with us yet."