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Bob Walker


Married, with two daughters.

On Key West:
"It's the most openly gay and counterculture town I've ever seen. Can you imagine Harry Truman having the White House down there? I've never been able to figure that out. Hemingway and Tennessee Williams, sure. But Harry Truman?"

On Computer Technology:
"We don't know how to use it yet. Therefore, people mistakenly trust their lives to it, and that may cause us real problems. It is causing real problems...In the marketing society we're obsessed with bottom line end results. Everything is subsumed to effective marketing techniques and people are reduced to consumers and the computer enhances that."

On Health Care System and Medical Bills:
"When I tried to question a [medical bill], the hospital said to me, 'It's so complicated you wouldn't understand it.' I said, 'Yeah, well just try me. Put it in terms a layman can understand not in this deceptive code. Which amounts to maybe a criminal collusion between you and the insurance company.' I get my dandruff up pretty easy about some of this stuff."

On the Struggle for Justice and Equality:
"This is realism not cynicism, I believe, but it walks on the edge of hopelessness about much change ever happening. But you always keep on trying. Not that you think you're ever going to win it."

Out to Lunch with Bob Walker

by Joe Tarr

A fat cheeseburger with lettuce, tomato, onion and mustard sits temptingly in front of Bob Walker, but he can't stop talking long enough to take a bite. The waitress at Manhattan's comes several times to ask if Walker—a slight 74-year-old with a bald head—would like a box for his meal, but he'll hear nothing of the sort.

A retired Presbyterian minister, Walker back in 1972 helped found Fish of Knox County, a group dedicated to feeding the hungry, and he's not about to let a good burger go to waste, even if it does go cold first.

"Once I get a hold of this, I can't hardly set it down," Walker says, turning the burger around in his hands, pondering just when and how he should go about devouring it.

Of course, Walker knows there's more to life than food. And more to social work than handing out food.

"Knoxville is strong on therapy and short on change efforts. Therapy helps people who got a lousy hand in life deal with it. That's valid to do. You need to do that. It's short-term. It's short range. It is not bad to do. That's where we started with hunger," he says. "But I want to change the hand. And that's systemic social change. That's a lot harder. It seems threatening to people.

"There's the old saying, 'Give a person a fish, he'll eat for a day. Teach him how to fish, he'll eat for a lifetime.' That's a flawed and incomplete way of saying it... There are two more things you need to do. There's probably somebody who owns the lake and won't let him fish there. Or even if he can, there's probably a factory up the river that it's so polluted that if he eats fish, it'll probably kill him."

The good-natured Walker doesn't look like a much of a radical, but he's been involved with just about every socially progressive cause to come along in Knoxville—tax reform, the death penalty, poverty, police abuse, racism. Prone to rambling tangents, Walker is nevertheless packed with gems of wisdom and quips. And he's never short of criticism for local, state and federal officials, or whomever else happens to wield power (including the media).

"Protest is called protest as though it's negative. But you stand against something because of a deeper belief which you affirm. Radical really means getting to the root of things. I want to root out the causes," he says. "I will refuse always to let people hijack those words and badmouth people because they're protesting."

Walker comes at the idea of protest from a Christian point of view, but he's not given to proselytizing. "I believe firmly in separation of church and state but not separation of public life and religion," Walker says. "The danger of the marketing society is that evangelism has become a sales pitch rather than a demonstration project. Unless you model what you're talking about you deserve contempt and to be ignored.

"Love in the most adequate human Christian sense or religious sense is caring more and more about those who are farther and farther from you. It's being able to care for people I may never see. Learning how to love people and care for people—through housing codes and zoning laws and minimum wage ordinances—that you'll never see, you'll never know. It's going down to city hall when you don't have a dog in that fight, when your neighborhood is not affected. Everybody goes when they're affected."

But ultimately, he adds, you gain something by helping to empower others. "If you're going to keep a person down in a ditch, you've got to get down there with them."

A graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Yale Divinity School, Walker is nonchalant about how he first got interested in Christian activism—there seems to have been no great epiphany for him. "I've always been an active person," he says, then begins methodically recounting how he was high school president in Atlanta and president of his class at UNC (though he should have lost that election, he says, because there was a better candidate). He's much more eager to go on about all the dynamic activists he's known over the years and their ideas. (He produces a long list of people who he says would be better interviews than himself.)

In the '50s and '60s, Walker worked with youth groups and the poor in both Ohio and New York City. He came to Knoxville in 1969 to work with the Commission on Religion in Appalachia (CORA), a multi-denominational group that works on a variety of spiritual and social issues.

Working with Fish and later the Tennessee Hunger Coalition, Walker became aware of how systematic change is essential for social problems to be solved. He thinks many bureaucratic institutions and charity groups perpetuate a cruelty against the people they propose to help. That often comes out of not understanding what it's like to be on the bottom of the social ladder, he says.

"There is a culture of poverty out there. It is true that people make self-destructive short-term decisions and acts in their lives. And that makes them look bad in the eyes of the middle class and the power structure. But they do it for reasons understandable if you get within their system. Everybody struggles with their life the best they can within their own system."

Either through misunderstanding or greed, the power structure has created control systems that demean people, Walker says. This manifests itself in a variety of ways.

"[Politicians] look for a spokesman they can control. They won't say it that way, but they look for someone they can control to represent marginalized people, be they Hispanic, low income, poor in general, African American."

Even the governmental help programs can turn vicious.

"I think it is obscene that the Department of Human Services calls its clients, particularly with Families First, 'customers.' What do you do with customers? You sell them a product. Too many people have reduced everything they do to a product. Too often, good people, nice people, create and perpetuate cruel systems without knowing it.

"The kind of approach that I want to get around to is one that gets around the cruelty system and appreciates the dignity of everyone and the contributions that everyone can make. Everyone has a right to be involved in decisions that affect their lives," he says.

It is, of course, a lot easier to see how the social, political and economic systems are corrupt or malfunctional than to change them. Ultimately, that change will have to be forced by the disenfranchised, Walker says. "That which can be given, can be taken away. [Power] will have to be taken, but not violently.

"It really is a bottoms up, grass roots up, coalition building process. The election is just the tip of the iceberg. The real work has to come in the long time, day-in, day-out democratic process."

For 15 years, Walker was pastor of the Shannondale Presbyterian Church on Tazewell Pike. A small church with many families of Swiss Calvinist tradition, Walker says his activism might have been a little more than they could sometimes handle. "They're people who are not very socially active and tend to be quite conservative," he says. "I tried for a while to put all my efforts in there, and it was essentially more than they could stand. They were in a sense saying, 'Slack off, we can't do this much.'"

This did allow Walker to get involved in other activist causes. When he retired from the church in 1990, he was able to push his activism even further. (He now attends his wife's church, United Church of Christ, Church of the Savior. "I decided it was better to go to her church than to explain to any of my Presbyterian pastor friends why I wasn't going to their churches," Walker jokes.)

Retirement was difficult at first because it removed structure from his life. But Walker keeps plenty busy. Two of the main groups he's involved in are Tennesseans for Fair Taxation, which advocates for an income tax and eliminating some sales taxes ("I think our leaders have taught us to fear income tax. And then they say, 'We can't have income tax because our constituents won't allow us to.'") and Citizens for Police Review, which advocates for stronger civilian oversight. Keeping an eye on the year-old Police Advisory and Review Committee (PARC), Walker says, "Mrs. Carol Scott [PARC's director] is good and persistent. PARC has a strong director but it's a weak committee."

Two hours after he started, Walker has finally swallowed all of the cheeseburger, and is picking away at the colored nacho chips on his plate, picking up on yet another tangent.

He's worried a bit about being misunderstood, so he pulls out copies of a couple of essays he's written—one of them a list of five "faith basics" he tries to live by. The principles are not simple however, taking up a full single-typed page, with words and phrases scribbled in afterwards, and you realize Walker will always have something to add or clarify.

"Life is much more nuanced than anybody's dogma or creeds," he says.