Southern Baptist missions pioneer Catherine Walker, age 100, who influenced generations of missionaries and Christian workers in Asia before launching the International Mission Board’s (IMB) global prayer strategy effort in the 1980s, died Jan. 7 in Richmond, Va.
Walker, a Georgia native, first went to China as a Southern Baptist missionary in 1946, before communist rule forced Western missionaries out. She stayed as long as she could – and longer than many dared – before moving on to Indonesia. She became one of the first faculty members of the infant Indonesian Baptist Theological Seminary in Semarang, which she helped to start in 1954.
She taught there 26 years, encouraging students to try creative ways to spread the gospel and multiply churches as Indonesian Baptists increasingly took over responsibility from missionaries for church growth and evangelism. She wrote several influential books, including Bible Workbook: Old Testament (1943), which has been translated into more than 50 languages, and, years later, Disciple’s Prayer Life: Walking in Fellowship with God (1997, with T.W. Hunt).
She also mentored several future IMB presidents who started out as Indonesia missionaries.
“Catherine Walker is one of the first persons to come to mind if I were asked to name significant mentors in my life and missionary career,” said Jerry Rankin, who led IMB from 1993 to 2010. “She was one of those who ‘adopted’ us when we arrived in Indonesia and took a personal interest in nurturing us in cultural, spiritual and missiological insights. She was a pioneer, if not revolutionary, in mission strategy, having a significant influence in leading the Indonesian mission to an indigenous, house-church approach to church planting and creating a network of theological education by extension rather than the Western model of an institutional seminary.”
R. Keith Parks, Rankin’s predecessor as IMB president (1980-93), was another longtime Indonesia colleague of Walker, who encouraged him and his wife Helen Jean as young missionaries. Three months after Walker retired from missionary service in late 1980, Parks invited her to join the mission board’s home office staff to focus on mobilizing Southern Baptists to pray more strategically for missions. Until her second retirement in 1985, she led the new office of IMB prayer strategy as Parks’ special assistant for intercessory prayer.
“She came to be a trusted adviser to us, and one of the strongest spiritual influences in our lives,” Parks recalled. “I told her that [the prayer strategy job] was a very simple assignment: All she had to do was to get specific prayer requests from the missionaries, share the requests with Southern Baptists, find out how God answered the requests and inform those who had prayed.”
“I feel she set a model that has been a blessing all over the world to those who sent requests as well as those who prayed for them,” Parks said. “She was instrumental in initiating prayer for unreached people groups, which at the time were unknown to most Christians. It was amazing how groups like the Kurds and Kazaks suddenly became well known. Only the Lord knows the full extent and impact of her life. We know that she was very special to us.”
Walker initially hesitated to take on the “simple assignment” of global prayer mobilization. But she decided God was telling her to do it, so she obeyed.
“I never would hold up my prayer life as a model,” she said at the time. “But I’m not concerned about my capabilities. I’ve found God uses a person as he is.”
Today, IMB’s ongoing prayer strategy – using digital media and other means Walker never dreamed of – mobilizes thousands of praying believers who “go to the nations” on their knees.
When a much younger Walker arrived in China after World War II, the missionary era there was drawing to a close as the communist era was just beginning. She studied Chinese and worked for a brief time in theological education and evangelism. Anti-missionary threats loomed closer. Missionary wives and children began to leave. Some single missionaries such as Walker stayed but struggled with doubts and fears about the future. The day came when the American government warned all Americans in the Shanghai area that the last evacuation ship would leave soon. Walker packed her bag and headed for the port, but something stopped her.
“It occurred to me that I had never really prayed about whether it was God’s will for me to go,” she later reflected. “So I stopped and prayed, asking Him if I was supposed to get on that ship. To my surprise, I felt a very strong impression that I was not supposed to go. So I turned around and went back to the campus.”
Marge Worten, who served with Walker in Indonesia, tells the rest of the story:
“Catherine said that the following year was one of the most blessed in her life. During that time the [Chinese] seminary experienced a deep revival among the staff and students. Classes continued. The news got worse and worse. Seminary routine went on with one exception: Every evening the staff and students met together to pray, sing, read scripture and share with one another. Catherine later saw it as a preparation for what was to come in China. The presence of God was palpable; the unity of heart, spirit and love was incredible. God spoke in many ways and a supernatural peace prevailed. When a ‘post-final’ opportunity to leave China came, the Lord clearly told Catherine to go. She followed His voice. But she left with the blessings of that year as a part of who she was.”
She took that experience to Indonesia, which was to experience plenty of turmoil of its own in the decades to come, and used it to guide hundreds of missionaries and Indonesian Christians.
Walker knew how to have fun, too. She loved to paint and drove around town in an old-school Volkswagen Beetle. Few could beat her at tennis (well into old age, she jogged with five-pound weights on her ankles to increase her speed and agility). Since she had no children of her own, she decided that all the children of missionaries in Indonesia would be her children as well. In the early 1960s she started Camp Miki (for “MK,” or “missionary kid”), an annual 10-day retreat in a little town on the side of one of Indonesia’s many volcanoes.
“It was the social highlight of our year!” recounted Brent Ellison, one of the “kids” who, as an adult, vividly remembers what he learned from Walker. “Our preparation included memorizing Bible verses and practicing for ‘sword drill,’ a competition to look up Bible verses. … We’d travel by car, train and, later, plane to camp, so excited to be with our other missionary kid ‘cousins.’ Aunt Catherine presided over the games, challenges and storytelling. There were also cookouts and an overnight camping trip up the side of the volcano. Many hearts were given to Jesus during the services that week. The candlelight service, where anyone could share what the Lord was doing in their life and light a candle to place on the window sill, remains one of the holiest places I remember, where the Holy Spirit moved powerfully in confession, reconciliation, commitment and expression of love for one another.
“Aunt Catherine’s idea to start Camp Miki deeply impacted each of us MKs. We’re scattered across the globe now, many in missionary service, but we still keep up with each other and Aunt Catherine provided that special place where we bonded and were drawn closer to Jesus.”
Another Indonesia missionary colleague, Clyde Meador, now serves as executive adviser to IMB President David Platt. It’s the latest key post in his 40-year IMB career. He credits Walker with giving him a head start.
“When Elaine and I arrived on the mission field in 1975, Catherine ‘took us under her wing,’ sharing wisdom and ideas with us in our early years,” Meador said. “The last year and a half she was on the field, I was a colleague of hers on the faculty of the seminary. She helped me understand how best to relate to and grow Indonesian seminary students. She was deeply loved by students and by Indonesian Baptists in general.
“There are always a few missionary women who we might label a ‘modern-day’ Lottie Moon. Catherine walker was certainly one of those.”
Walker received a bachelor of arts degree from Wheaton (Ill.) College; a master of biblical education degree from Columbia (S.C.) Bible College; a master of religious education degree from Woman’s Missionary Union Training School (now part of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) in Louisville, Ky.; and a doctor of religious education degree from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.
A private graveside service was scheduled for Jan. 11. A memorial service is scheduled for Feb. 13 at Lakewood Manor, the retirement community in the Richmond area where Walker lived.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Erich Bridges is IMB global correspondent.)