Walter was hardpressed to find any place that made him feel closer to his people than church. “It was a place where you could go and be with your own, and Christ was celebrated.”
It was a place of refuge. Racism wasn’t the only factor that deepened Walter’s appreciation for his church. At the peak of his rebellion, when school and discipline appeared to be the enemy, when he fantasized about the rewards of being Bad Walter, there was one problem: he wasn’t any happier. He wasn’t any more popular than before and still had very few friends. The sense of identity and belonging that he had sought on the streets had eluded him. He felt anxious, confused, and sad. He was beginning to see that apart from his family, the only other place that offered him real support was Hartford Avenue Baptist Church.
On an October Sunday in 1967, Walter experienced an epiphany that would change the course of his life. He was sitting in the second row in church with his sister, Jo-Ann. In the row just behind him sat his mother and father, and his grandmother Bessie Kate Pickens. Up front, in the section where the church leadership sat, was his grandfather. As the preacher began his sermon, Walter’s mind was on his frustrations. How come I have no friends? By all accounts he was getting straight As in the How to Be Bad class in the school of hard knocks. So how come I haven’t reaped a single reward?
“All things are possible with God,” said the preacher, interrupting the monologue in Walter’s head. “All things,” he added, “if you accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior.”
If I would only trust him, Walter responded in his mind. If I’d put all my hope and faith in him ... “Can I believe this?” Walter asked. Only this time his words came out of his mouth. “God,” he spoke out loud, so loudly that the people around him could hear, “can I believe what the preacher just said about you?” All eyes from all directions turned toward the young man. “I heard God’s voice audibly,” Walter recalled. “God just said, ‘Yes you can.’ ”
It was all Walter needed to hear. He stood up and headed for the preacher, who had invited forward those who were ready to give themselves to Jesus. In Walter’s faith tradition, one gives his hand to the preacher and his heart to God. Jo-Ann got up and followed him. “That was the day we both got saved,” Walter said.
Jo-Ann remembers the day too. Grandaddy Pickens had advanced lung cancer and had been in and out of the hospital for months. No one knew for sure, but he had only a few months left to live. As Walter rose from his seat, Jo-Ann felt a strong desire to see Grandaddy Pickens smile at them both, she said. That was why she followed Walter and gave her hand to the preacher.
Walter’s new commitment to Christ put a new kind of pressure on him, but with it came a new kind of strength. He no longer tried to be bad, but whenever he was bad, he felt remorse; when he was tempted, it was easier to resist. Moreover, his inner turmoil gave way to a peace that allowed him to be more himself. He could smile again.
Prayer: When Walter was in jail, the inmates broke out in song one night after a prayer service and preaching from Walter. Many chose Jesus that night and broke out singing “Amazing Grace.” May that song be your prayer today: ’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, And grace my fears relieved; How precious did that grace appear The hour I first believed.
Excerpted from “Black and Pro-Life in America: The Incarceration and Exoneration of Walter B. Hoye II” by Robert Artigo.