farewell to a mentor: a tribute to Dr. Walter P. Atkinson
Dr. Walter P. Atkinson was a renown pastor, preacher, and administrator, a former member of our denominational Executive Committee who served the Church on almost every level. He was known for his sharp wit, his wholly original sermons, and his inimitable mannerisms. Well I say they were inimitable—though I certainly spent plenty of time trying to imitate him. When he got wound up preaching, clearly both enjoying the Lord (as well as what he had just said!), he’d fold his arms and say “Great God” with a voice like James Earl Jones. That was my personal favorite. My grandfather loved to hear WPA do that as much as I did—I can see his ears and face turn red just to tell about it right now. He also had some wonderful quotes that are still in my vernacular to this day: i.e., “Stupid like that doesn’t just sneak up on a person.”
During the years that Dr. Atkinson served as Administrative Bishop for the Church of God in Western North Carolina, I came to know him in a different way. My father was the State Evangelism and Home Missions Director underneath his leadership, and they became the best of friends. From the day he arrived, he took an unexpected interest in me. He was there for almost every major event in my life—including coming to see the Gardner-Webb University production of The Miracle Worker wherein I met one Amanda Keen, the show’s lead (though we were not yet dating at the time.) I remember during my freshman year of college coming to him concerned about my buddy down the hall who had lost his faith in God and was talking to me about ending his life. He gave me counsel about anything and everything. There was really nothing that interested me that didn’t seem to interest him, even though he was leading over 300 churches in our region and working at breakneck speed all the time.
But my favorite memory of Dr. Atkinson was when he asked me to go places to preach with him. I was still in high school at that point, and had no inkling of a call to vocational ministry. He would call me at random to ride with him to speak at some church across the state, endlessly indulgent of all of my doubts and questions and curiosities. I remember one night in particular where he took me with him to a very conservative Church of God where the state was doing a rally. It was one of those churches where the women still don’t wear make-up or jewelry or pants, the kind of old-line holiness church that made me feel uneasy by default. He wasn’t of course intimidated by any church or anybody, and that night he preached the house down. When he was done delivering the sermon, he gave an invitation for people to come forward for prayer. And as the people flooded to the altar, he did an unexpected thing: he asked me to come alongside him and lay hands on the folks that came down.
I can’t begin to tell you how uncomfortable I was with this arrangement. The product of a lifelong lover’s quarrel with God, perpetually stuck in a sense of inherent unworthiness, I had no confidence in my ability to pray for others in that way. I never felt “spiritual enough.” I remember going to campmeeting services where we had healing evangelists pray for almost everybody in the house, watching one after another “fall out under the power.” By the time the mutli-hour altar service was over, the place looked like a civil war battlefield with bodies strewn across the auditorium. That is except for me, bobbing up out of the water amidst the divine chaos, the one guy who didn’t “fall out” or even feel anything much. My inability to enter into such experiences didn’t make me question the validity of them for others, only to question my own spirituality. At any rate, I had deep reverence for the crazy-eyed prophets who did that kind of ministry—laying on hands, praying for the sick, exercising seemingly herculean faith. Dr. Atkinson was one of those men who had the authority and unction to pray for people with holy boldness. Still very much figuring out my relationship with God and nowhere near knowing anything of God’s call on my own life, I did not aspire to share in this sacred act.
But Walter Atkinson believed in God’s hand on me when I didn’t see it on myself. And he believed in my capacity to touch God’s throne when I didn’t know if I could touch God at all. Most mysteriously, he believed there was something at work in me powerful enough that my touch could bring something of God’s power into somebody else’s life. I doubt the impact of such a thing on the shape of my life at 18 years of age is something I could fully quantify—then or now. I can only hope that I will impact some confused kid somewhere (whether they go into vocational ministry or not) in the way Walter Atkinson impacted me.
One last thing about this tender man who became one of my grandparents in the faith: I will miss his feisty side. I think anybody who knew him at all could attest that he could be a polarizing character, because he didn’t treat church leadership like professional politics. Walter P. Atkinson said whatever he thought most of the time. While gracious, he wasn’t the kind of man who would shy away from a fight. He had the kind of integrity that meant he acted in complete accordance with his convictions all of the time. That meant that while he was admired and respected by so many, he was also capable of making an enemy. But he loved his enemies as faithfully as he loved his friends. His legacy reminds me that needing to be liked too much by everybody all the time is probably a criminal offense in church leadership. What I wouldn’t give for more leaders both as loving and wonderfully cantankerous as Walter P. Atkinson.
I look forward to our reunion in the resurrection of the body, old mentor and friend. You will be dearly missed.