Pastor returns home to work with Choctaw mission


By Luther Johnson
Neshoba Democrat

Forty years after leaving the state, John Walters has returned as the minister at the Mississippi Choctaw United Methodist Mission where he describes his work as interesting.

The state mission includes the churches of Green Hill in the Pearl River community, John Memorial at Red Water and Great Spirit at Bogue Chitto.

Walters, who has been minister at United Methodist Church of the New Covenant in Kenai, Alaska, for the past seven years, is no stranger to the mission, having brought groups back to the Choctaw mission on different occasions.

Walters said he finds it overwhelming at how accommodating and accepting the Choctaw people are and is optimistic about his time here.

“I’ve done a lot of interesting stuff and this might be the most interesting thing I’ve ever done,” he said. “Being in Alaska was very interesting.”

Walters said he is learning something new everyday and is interested in how the Choctaw people work at keeping their ethnic identity and the strong concept of family.

Walters grew up in the Forest Hill area in south Jackson.

“I grew up in a family that was very progressive, and my parents knew and taught my brother and me from an early age, that racial segregation was wrong,” said Walters.

While attending Millsaps, he met his wife, Mary Glynn Lott, and then went to Westminster Choir College in New Jersey.

In 1964 he took a position as music director in Lynchburg, Va., before returning to Mississippi in 1966 as minister of music at Starkville First United Methodist Church.

Walters said that in 1967 he moved to Clarksdale, accepting a position in both music and education.

During that time he conducted a recital attended by an integrated audience and was fired from the position due to the racial climate at the time.

Walters opted to return to school, enrolling in the Indiana University School of Music.

There he became involved in ministry work and decided to attend seminary, which to him felt like home.

After working 10 years in campus ministry he was offered a position as head of an Interfaith Human Rights Group, consisting of five Catholic bishops, three rabbis and 25 Protestant groups.

Walters described his time there as the best six years of learning, and was a stark contrast to his work in urban ministry that followed.

In Indianapolis, Walters became actively involved in his congregations and was always challenging members to do more.

Working from an office set up literally in a soup kitchen, he spent his time meeting with people, some homeless, HIV positive or dealing with mental health issues.

Walters would deal with those suffering from alcoholism, offering to pay a part of rent to get them to meet with a group on Friday nights.

The average congregation is not equipped to deal with people who have these needs, he said.

People need support if they want to change, and those who have problems are often written off by society, he said.

Walters describes himself as a nontraditional pastor.

“I’m kind of called to do something different. I’ve never been interested in being the traditional pastor. I was church musician, decided that that was limiting, then I got into interfaith human rights work, eradicating racism and sexism, that was too bureaucratic, then urban ministry, which really is kind of my calling,” said Walters.

“I think the church has so much trouble addressing the needs of people with addictions, or victims of sexual assault or domestic violence,” he said.

In 2000, after being recruited for 10 years by a friend, Walters moved to work in Alaska, originally committing to four, but staying for seven years.

His return comes from a need to get closer to family.

In June, he, his wife, daughter Summer, and granddaughter Glynna left Alaska. They stayed in Indiana for a short time, then traveled down stopping to visit with friends and family along the way.

Walters said he was optimistic about his new position and plans to stay as long as possible.

This story originally appeared in the Aug. 8 issue of the “Neshoba Democrat” and is used with permission.