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Memorial Church names new minister

Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil | 7/11/2012, 9:42 a.m.
Jonathan L. Walton has been named the...
Jonathan L. Walton has been named the new Minister of Memorial Church. Harvard University

When Jonathan Walton first heard the news, he had to be “pulled off the floor.”

He still doesn’t remember much from that moment, only that he felt “kinda woozy.”

Drew Gilpin Faust, president of Harvard University, laughed at Walton’s reaction, saying, “We’ll talk later.”

In April, Walton learned that he would succeed the late Rev. Peter Gomes as minister of Memorial Church, the iconic house of worship in Harvard Yard. He started preaching last week.

Walton, a social ethicist and scholar of African American religion, had been a faculty member of Harvard Divinity School since 2010. When Gomes died in 2011, a search committee was set up to select his replacement.

Announcing the appointment, Faust said of Walton: “He is among the country’s foremost scholars of African American religion, a powerful preacher, a thoughtful pastoral presence and a wonderful human being … Professor Walton will bring new life to spirituality and religion at Harvard — as intellectual pursuit and lived experience.”

Walton hails from Atlanta, where he “grew up in the progressive Protestant tradition” and was “intellectually marinated within the culture and tradition of civil rights and civic activism.”

He gravitated toward ministry, “seeing the pulpit as a place to think out loud with the community of faith concerning the big questions — questions concerning the meaning of life and how we cope and deal with everyday realities — while keeping track of the pressing needs of the community.”

Walton graduated from Morehouse College with a degree in political science, and later went on to earn a master’s and a doctorate from Princeton Theological Seminary. He was also ordained as a Baptist minister. Before coming to Harvard, he taught at the University of California, Riverside.

For Walton, teaching and ministry go hand-in-hand. “I was living out my call to ministry within the vocation of being a scholar of religion,” he explained. “For the past seven years, my pulpit has been largely the publishing realm and behind the podium in the classroom. So in many ways, I see Memorial Church as an extension of the work that I’ve already been doing — I just have to do it every Sunday.”

His position as minister of Memorial Church comes with a new academic title as well, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals, which Gomes also once held.

Walton’s research over the years has focused on the intersection of religion, media and culture. His first book, “Watch This! The Ethics and Aesthetics of Black Televangelism,” explores the ministries of prominent preachers such as T.D. Jakes and Eddie Long, and the role of the Black Church in religious broadcasting.

But for Walton, working at Harvard goes beyond teaching and ministry — it’s about community, too.

“Everyone at Harvard may not belong to Memorial Church, but Memorial Church belongs to everyone,” Walton said. “And this is the sort of warm and welcoming environment that I have found already at Memorial Church that I hope to expose to others, and broaden for others.”

Walton, his wife, Cecily Cline, and their 8-year-old twins, Zora Neale and Elijah Mays, have lived on campus since 2010, which has given them a built-in community.

For two years, Walton was a resident scholar at Lowell House, one of the student residences, so the family lived among undergraduate and graduate students, and some faculty members. With the new position, the family will move to Sparks House, the residence for Memorial Church’s minister. The twins, Walton said, “already think that they’re pre-freshman…I love when they tell me that they’re going to go hang out with the students.”

“When we first moved into Lowell House, we thought we were going to have to keep the twins away from the students as not to bother them,” he went on. “But we found that we sometimes have to tell the students to let the twins do their homework!”

Adds Walton, “It just creates a big sense of home and family for everyone, and I love being a part of it.”