By Jessica Brodie
COLUMBIA—It all started from a photo—one that the Rev. Robert Walker considered to be a highly unflattering though accurate portrayal of how much weight he’d gained over the years.
His Columbia District Superintendent, Dr. Cathy Jamieson, had snapped the photo and put it on the district website, and Walker remembered starting at it, aghast.
“I thought, ‘Do I really look that fat?’” Walker recalled.
Determined to get back in shape, he gathered some friends and started a weight loss challenge for the spring. He cut back on his diet and started walking, something he had always enjoyed but had rarely made time for lately.
Little did he know he’d soon become a walking example—literally. Since then he’s walked an average of about 180 miles a month for the year, whether from walking to and from work or doing walking pilgrimages while on vacation. On his birthday in October, he celebrated by walking 27 miles: a half mile for each year of his life.
“I’ve lost over 40 pounds, and my whole general health is better,” Walker said. “My cholesterol is down. My blood pressure is down. I don’t snore anymore, which makes my wife very happy. I have more energy. It’s all been a wonderful thing.”
Reconnection with nature, community
Walker said he’d heard it before from his doctor: “You need to lose a little weight: eat less, exercise more.”
He said it took 30 years for that advice to anchor in his mind, but now he’s walking proof that sometimes the simplest route is the easiest—no surgery, pills or fad diet required.
He started small, just eating less and walking to work. He lives about three miles from the church office, so it takes about a half hour. He even got his system down pat for the Sunday morning time crunch when he has to preach two services, one at Greene Street UMC at 9 a.m. and one at Main Street UMC at 11 a.m.
“If I leave by 7:30 I’m there to Greene Street by 8, and then it’s a 15 minute walk to Main Street, so I’m there by 10:20. At 10:30 I freshen up for church at 11, and then I walk home,” Walker said; easy.
He walks to work at least two or three days a week, even occasionally in the rain, and says he appreciates the experience.
“It allows me to be away from noise—radio, TV, the church phone—and makes me feel more connected to where I am. Whether it’s the state park or the Congaree Swamp or downtown, I feel more connected to my city and my neighbors when I walk by houses and businesses than when I’m just driving by,” Walker said. “I greet a lot of people I don’t usually speak to. It’s disconnection from all the stuff we think is important and reconnection with both nature and community.”
One of his favorite aspects of the walks is taking note of growing things.
“Whether little critters or flowers, I’ve taken probably 300-400 pictures of flowers in a ditch or growing out of cracks on sidewalks that I would never take notice of if driving,” Walker said. “To be up close and personal and have these firsthand experiences with the beauty of creation is a constant reminder of the goodness of God and the diversity of creation.”
Long walks lead to spiritual gems
In the summer, while his wife was in England doing research, Walker went along and did a three-day walking pilgrimage from London to Canterbury Cathedral, covering just short of 70 miles in two days.
He spent one entire day of that pilgrimage intentionally walking through his own life and thanking God for the people who have influenced him, from teachers and coaches to family members and ministers.
“I tried to name them all and thank God for them, and if I couldn’t recall their name, I’d picture their face. It was a wonderful time of thanking God and being grateful.”
Posted beneath the Chaucer stained glass window in the Southwark Cathedral in London, from which he began the pilgrimage, was “A Prayer for Pilgrims,” which Walker said became his mantra as he made his walk. He has kept it with him as a daily prayer ever since and also commissioned a composer to set it to music. It will be debuted by the University of South Carolina Men’s chorus at their spring 2018 concert.
It reads, “Teach us, O God, / To view our life here on earth / As a pilgrim’s path to heaven, / And give us the grace to tread it courageously / In the company of your faithful people. / Help us to set our affections on things above, / Not on passing vanities of the world, / And grant that as we journey on in the way of holiness / We may bear a good witness to our Lord, / And serve all who need our help along the way, / For the glory of your name. / Amen.”
He’s walked many state parks this year, and he also had a chance to accompany his wife on a conducting gig in Taiwan, where he spent three days mountain climbing and hiking.
When Walker celebrated his 54th birthday Oct. 17, it was the first relatively cool fall day the Midlands experienced that year after a long, hot summer, and he didn’t have anything on his schedule, so he decided to take a walk around town.
That walk turned into a 27-mile trek to some of his favorite places in the city, including the Congaree River.
‘Anybody who can do it should’
Today, Walker is committed to his new lifestyle and encourages anybody who can do it to follow suit (though check with a doctor first if you have any chronic health issues, he cautions).
“Start out slow, know you want to move some, walk 10 minutes, then after a few weeks make it 15,” Walker said. “As you’re feeling better, stronger and more confident, you can do a little more.”