I was a 25-year-old seminary student trying to sort through the meaning of ministry and leadership in a world without heroes. He was a 65-year-old retired U.S. Army Colonel and decorated combat veteran who had built harbors and airstrips from Normandy to Berlin in WWII, then roads and bridges across Korea, often under heavy fire, and twice wounded in the efforts. He had also led an international security agency, and served as police chief in his hometown before taking up the job of construction superintendent where we met.
By the time I met Marc Walters on that job site in Memphis he had survived multiple surgeries which had weakened his once powerful body. He operated out of an old RV that doubled as his home on the hotel project we were building. I was looking for mentors and he was John Wayne writ large, a tangible hero and nothing at all like the well-scrubbed theologians I was studying under at the time. Watching him handle the rough men on that job was an education no seminary could provide.
I was his gofer, aide de camp if you like. Every time we met, over every cup of java, I asked questions, and then just listened; questions about men, about values, about leadership under pressure. As winter gave way to spring, he shared his stories and I worked hard to earn his respect. For he and his wife had been spurned by their small town church because of her alcoholism. And though he was the son and grandson of Baptist preachers, he had not been to church in many years.
I knew that my friend’s health was failing and one morning, as we finished our coffee, he got quiet, lit his pipe, and just looked at me for a moment. “I’ve told my family I may not make it through this next surgery,” he said. “And if I don’t, I’ve told them I want you to do my funeral. You’re an honorable young man and I’m proud to know you.”
It was at once the greatest compliment I’d ever received, and the moment I had been praying about for months, providing the opportunity to talk about his spiritual life and his eternity. God gave us his grace that morning.
My friend survived. Because of our friendship I think some reconciliation took place in his life and family, for which I was grateful. And I learned three very powerful things. First, men who have seen combat; where life is pared down to essential absolutes, know things that cannot be taught in a classroom. Second, there is great value in listening to an older man tell his tale without hastening judgment on his life. Finally, the best ministry is not the kind that comes from pulpits, but the truth that flows between friends over a cup-a-joe in the quiet spaces.