January 19, 2020

Henry’s Boys

henry.jpgIn a church in Georgetown, Kentucky this week, there is going to be a funeral for one of my fellow teachers at the ministry where I serve. His name was Henry.

Henry came to our school from a career in ministry, public school administration and teaching. After retirement he lost his wife, and a great sadness came to him, but he stayed with us. The support of friends, Christian community and the opportunity to serve drew him to stay. In his years on staff, he taught political science, history and Bible. For a year he served as principal. He was a college trained pastor, and he preached in chapel from time to time.

Off the clock, Henry liked his solitude. He enjoyed his books, his writing and his jazz music collection. And he liked to have conversations about life, faith and what mattered. His living room became an unofficial pastoral counseling center, and he was friend, pastor and mentor to dozens and dozens of young men.

Henry had a quick, analytical mind. He was often distractable when emotions were involved, and he could be cantankerous and even difficult, but he was marvelously gifted by God to match wits, heart and experience with many of the “lost boys” that found their way to our campus. For a large number of them, Henry was the one point of sanity, acceptance and faith that helped keep them here long enough for their character and direction to be shaped. What would have been casualties in most ministries became some of our school’s proudest graduates, and Henry was a large part of that success.

“Henry’s Boys” will be at that funeral. Not all of them will be able to come, but if they could, there would be several rows of them. They were always young men with similar qualities: bright, gifted, struggling with faith, often chafing at the constraints of a Christian boarding school and the expectations of families and adulthood. They will remember him as a mentor and grandfather; a guide who always had time for them, an unconventional angel who understood what they needed when there were no words to put it into a sentence. Today, they are businessmen, government employees, college professors. Each one will have Henry’s fingerprints on their character and place in life.

Being an advocate for students, particularly those who knew how to get in and stir up trouble, is an often controversial and unwelcome role in a school. Henry was a truth-teller, unconventional to a fault and a bit of a gadfly. He believed in the rights of students and in fairness. As strongly as he believed in the Gospel, he also believed it was wrong to manipulate or force students to accept any aspect of Christianity. Henry was the very definition of compassionate integrity and his witness to Jesus had a powerful, lasting effect.

I’m sure, like all of us who minister in a high stress calling, he wanted to quit many times, but he stayed through some of our toughest days. I was glad to have the opportunity to spend a few years as his friend. I wished I’d learned more and taken more time to see his particular gifts at work. I now realize that Henry and I were alike in many ways: eclectic in theology, impossible to track and categorize, more committed to Christian community than to the details of confessions. It was a long time before we both realized our spiritual kinship, and I regret that I didn’t have the opportunity to deepen our friendship.

Eventually, Henry decided his time with us was over. His years serving at our school without his wife had been full, but he wanted to be closer to family. It turned out, however, that Henry wasn’t done ministering to students. He soon moved to another ministry in our area and served as both pastor to a small congregation and chaplain to boys in a state placement program.

These were more of “Henry’s boys.” State placements can be the most difficult students to work with. Often they have been abused and neglected. They are higher risks in every way. Henry was not intimidated by the challenge. He became their grandfather, pastor and friend as well, giving more years to young people when other people his age and status were walking beaches or doing the American version of “retirement.”

A few weeks ago, Henry had a stroke that took his speech. Last week he had a heart attack and he passed away over the weekend.

One of Henry’s boys, my friend and fellow BHTer Leif Rigney, wrote this:

The greatest man I ever knew died around 3 am today. I spent a long time in the shower this morning, laughing and crying at the same time as I recalled all the things Henry … taught me, all the times we laughed, all the times he chewed me out (both in the classroom and out), all the times he taught me to question and think and love and feel, all the times he nearly single-handedly kept my ragged and tattered faith intact. I have no idea how to catalog or categorize what I believe any more, but thanks to Henry, dead at 79, I can at least say I DO believe. God bless Henry and Shirley, together at last.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the challenges facing Christians these days. Violence against Christians is on the rise. Atheistic anti-Christians are becoming more and more vocal. While many Christians are increasingly interested in the “what” of Christian belief, there is a growing attraction to those ways of following Jesus that focus on “how” more than “what.”

“Henry’s boys” could have all become atheists. It wouldn’t have been hard at all. What God did for those young men was bring someone into their life who wasn’t an apologist or a theologian, but a true evangelist. He was the embodiment of “good news” in Jesus for those young men he mentored. If you were going to argue with Henry, you knew that he was always going to be out in front of you because he cared far more about what you discovered in the process than he did about convincing you of anything. He wanted you to care about something other than your anger, bitterness or excuses. He wanted to show you Jesus after so many others had told you what you must believe about him.

Henry was a Francis Schaefer to his boys (and I doubt that he’d ever read a Schaefer book in his life.) He took the bitter years of widowhood and turned them into something wonderful. He had many sons in the faith; sons who will rise up and call him their spiritual father.

It occurs to me that Christianity is full of theologians, but what we need are more Henrys; more men who look out on the broken, the difficult and the fatherless and become an incarnation for their sake. We need more men who want to be remembered not by theologians or in theology books, but by men who were once angry, lonely, confused boys and who will become fathers and husbands themselves. We need more men who do not take their brokenness to the golf course or to the boat dock, but to the out of the way, forgotten and overlooked places to build relationships with young men that others have given up on.

For those of us who minister here, Henry will be missed as a co-worker and friend. For his “boys,” Henry will be missed in a different, very Jesus-shaped way.

God speed, Henry Walters. I’ll see you when we all get home.

Comments

  1. That was a really great post; thanks. I teach at a Christian college, so it impacted me in a very specific way.

  2. Oh no! Henry Clay Walters was my US history teacher at Harrison County HS back in the 60s. He also pastored a small Baptist Church near the hamlet of Colemansville in Harrison County. One Sunday night, two friends and I, all in one of his classes, went to hear him preach. I still remember the text, Romans 13:11-14, one of the texts for the first Sunday of Advent last week. And I was his paper boy for awhile. His sister-in-law was in my graduating class.

    Henry was a wonderful, inspirational teacher. I too count him as one of the influential people in my formative years.

  3. Ron England says

    Like Pastor M, I too was a student of this very fine man at Harrison Co High School in Cynthiana KY. He was not the most outgoing personality among all of my teachers, but he was one of the most respected, influential instructors who took pride in making sure we were taught well during our formative years. Like Pastor M, I feel like Henry had a great impact on me as a young man and even though I never kept contact with Henry Walters after graduation I thought of him often. I wasn’t aware of where he went after retirement, but I am sure the students lives he touched were more meaningful from his dedication to his understudies.

    I too will have thoughts of this fine man for the next few days and I am sure that many of my fellow classmates will do the same. Henry Walters had a very dry since of humor, but was very intelligent and cared for us in our developmental stages of becoming adults.

    God Bless Henry Walters and all the teachers I had throughout my school years in Harrison County KY.

  4. I think this is a CALL for us men to be influenced by Henry, even if we did not know him. I will send this great inspiration to my fellows, my elders, and would be leaders to my congregation. Thank you for providing this great inspiration. Gregorio Roth

  5. Jenny Lynn Varner Hatter says

    Mr. Walters was my principal and my APUS History teacher at Harrison County High School. Always one with a quick wit and a witty comeback, he made me believe in the power of government and the lessons of history. I am a better teacher and administrator for having known him! My best to his daughters and their families for their loss. Jesse Stuart once said that “the good teacher is immortal.” Mr. Walters is that – through his students and the lives he touched.

  6. Steven Fowler says

    I was very saddened by the news of Mr. Walters passing. He was my assistant principal and AP U.S. History teacher at Harrison County High School. I always admired his willingness to engage in conversation with all students. In doing so, it was as if he was analyzing your very soul. He truly cared for all young people with which he came into contact. There were simply no lost causes. I aspire to achieve in my career as a teacher and administrator what Mr. Walters did for so many. As Joseph Campbell so appropriately said, “The job of an educator is to teach students to see the vitality in themselves.”

  7. Patti Walters Miller says

    Henry Walters was my favorite teacher, my favorite pastor but most of all my father and I could not have put him into words as well as you have. I came across this blog by accident and it has made me laugh and cry with happiness and rememberance. Thanks to all of you who loved him and appreciated his unique gifts to this world.