After a 47-year absence, the founding pastor of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Vacaville, California will step back into the pulpit there on Sunday, September 7. The Rev. Dr. Robert L. “Bob” Walker will be guest preacher at the church’s 10:30 a.m. service and will assist in serving Holy Communion. Afterward, the 76-year-old Walker – who is now deaf and blind – will participate in a question-and-answer session utilizing the church’s new Assisted Listening System, being dedicated in his honor and that of his late wife.
In June of 1957, Walker, his wife, and their 11-month-old daughter arrived in Vacaville when he was appointed to serve the new Methodist church as its first full-time pastor. He had been recruited by his uncle, the Rev. Carl E. Walker, who was the Redwood Empire District Superintendent at the time. (The Redwood Empire District stretched along the ocean from the Oregon border down to the Golden Gate Bridge, then along the top of the bay to Vallejo, before turning up toward Davis to include Fairfield and Vacaville. The Napa and Sonoma Valleys were within that district. As part of the September visit, Bob Walker will visit his uncle’s widow, who lives in Chico.)
Prior to the family’s arrival, a small congregation had been gathered by Frank and Edith Hermann, and the California-Nevada Annual Conference of the Methodist Church had purchased property, on the two corners of Monte Vista and West Street, that included a prune orchard. The farmhouse became the parsonage and a coach house was turned into the church’s sanctuary.
During Walker’s tenure the membership continued to grow, leading to construction of the current building on the site of the orchard. The former coach house/sanctuary and a two-car garage were remodeled for Sunday school classes.
In 1961, Walker was transferred to the Methodist Church in Paradise, California. Five years later, the family returned to the Pacific Northwest Conference of the Methodist Church, where Walker had begun his ministry in 1952. In 1995, after 42 years of pastoral service for 10 congregations in three states, Walker retired, and now lives in Lacey, Washington.
During his active ministry, Walker held leadership roles in the California-Nevada and Pacific Northwest Annual Conferences, respectively, including a four-year service as the chairperson of the Pacific Northwest Conference Board of Ordained Ministry, which oversees the ordination, status, and discipline of members of clergy. In the 1980s, he served as one of the directors of the General Board of Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church, the agency that promotes and supports the denomination’s missions work in the United States and around the world. Currently, he is one of 10 members of the United Methodist Committee on Ministry with Deaf, Late-deafened, Hard of Hearing, and Deaf-blind People.
In each of his pastoral assignments, Walker involved himself in social action programs. While in Vacaville, he taught Bible study classes at the California Medical Facility (a psychiatric facility for criminal offenders), and took a public stand against the then-existing House Un-American Activities Committee, when it led an assault against religious denominations which the HUAC and some Vacaville organizations considered to be Communists.
During his 42 years of ministry, Walker also worked in support of prison reform and justice issues for juvenile offenders, and on behalf of abused women, the physically- and developmentally-challenged, and those with low incomes.
Born in 1931 in Portland, Oregon, Walker grew up in southern Idaho, the son of a Methodist minister. His public school education was in that state, including one year at Idaho State University in Pocatello. In 1950, he transferred to the University of Washington in Seattle, graduating in 1953 with a degree in journalism. He attended Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois, from which he graduated in 1957 with a Master of Divinity degree, and in 1982, earned the Doctor of Ministry degree in the Theology of Preaching at Saint Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, Missouri.
Throughout his adult years, Walker has written articles for several United Methodist publications and local newspapers. He is a contributing author for Signs of Solidarity: Ministry with Deaf, Late-deafened, Hard of Hearing, and Deaf-blind People, Second Edition, and is the co-author of a published book titled, Make a Joyful Silence.
As defined by the Helen Keller National Center, Walker is a deaf-blind person due to a genetic disorder known as Usher syndrome, which caused him to be born hard of hearing and to gradually lose his eyesight, resulting in total blindness by 2001.
In 1954, Walker married Marjorie Mardy Gamon, and the couple had three children, all of whom are married and living in Washington State. There are four grandchildren. Mardy died in 2003 after suffering from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma for eight years.
It is hoped that church members and neighbors who knew Rev. Walker during his tenure at St. Paul’s, Vacaville – along with local history buffs – will attend the 10:30 a.m. service on September 7 and stay for a potluck in his honor. The church is located at 101 West St., Vacaville, CA 95688.