I heard about Walter from Russ Peters. It is a story I will never forget and one I wanted to share with my readers and how it represents sustaining grace and forgiveness.
It was just after World War II when Russ and Alva Peters moved up into our area. They began to work with and alongside Pastor Calahan in the Twain Harte and Sonora area. Once a week they would go to the poor farm which was found on the top story of the old Tuolumne hospital. The poor farm was a place for the homeless and discarded. As Russ put it, “A place to farm out the unwanted relatives.”
There was a large room lined with beds that held the broken, elderly, sickly, and often unloved members of our community. Today many would be homeless, but in the 1940’s they were cared for by the community hospital. Once a week Pastor Calahan would visit the poor farm and minister to the broken. As they would sing old hymns, Russ noted how many would open their eyes and even sing themselves, recalling the old hymns from earlier, happier years. They seemed unaware of the mediocre voices of Pastor Callahan, Russ, and whoever else was with them on any particular Monday. Russ observed this was the most animated they would see the residents of the poor farm.
After a time Russ discovered Walter. Walter was not with the rest of the poor farm residents. Walter was down a hallway in a room all by himself.
As a young man Walter “catted around” as Russ put it. In other words, he spent time chasing women, and consequently, he contracted syphilis. Back then there was no cure for syphilis, and it attacked Walter with a vengeance. It seemed to focus on his legs and caused Walter great pain and anguish. Eventually, it twisted his feet backward 180 degrees, and they were amputated. The disease did not stop there but continued to attack his body. They amputated again at his knees and finally all the way to his hips. Walter also lost the use of his left arm completely, and in his right arm he was only able to move a single finger and thumb. If you placed a spoon between his finger and thumb, added a bit of food, Walter could slowly feed himself. Walter was completely dependent on others for survival. He wore a diaper, could not move on his own.
The loss of critical functions does not determine our personhood. If it did, then as we all age or suffer from chronic debilitating diseases then we would be losing our personhood along with the advancement of the disease or disability. Scott Rae during a lecture on Bioethics said, “Being a person has nothing to do with the functions a person can perform.”1 If functions did determine our personhood then infants or the unborn would not be persons. If that were true, then the elderly would be on the downside of the bell curve in the loss of their personhood.
The disease destroyed Walter’s body, but not his mind. He was highly intelligent and did not lose his speech or ability to communicate with others.
Russ was not sure when Walter became a Christian, but he was sure it was due to pastor Calahan and his gentle service he provided over the years to Walter and the other patients in the poor farm. Pastor Calahan was not a bible-thumping fire and brimstone evangelist, but rather a servant who lets his actions minister to those he loved on.
When Walter was saved, it was evident to everyone. His newfound faith completely transformed him from a wretched, despondent human being to someone who became intimately involved in the lives of everyone he met. Walter began to pray for them. He would remember everyone he met and ask them questions about their life. He would recall what they shared and would pray for them, and the next time he saw them he would inquire about their husband, wife, children, extended family, and follow up with questions about the prior circumstances and if anything had changed. Russ said Walter had a very sharp mind and would even remember chapter and verse of where they left off in the Bible reading from week to week.
Over time Russ began to realize that Walter was ministering to them, (the Monday night troop) more than they were to him. Walter impacted those around him, and Russ shared that few people in his life, had quite influenced Russ as Walter had. This was because Walter was experiencing what Louie Giglio calls ‘sustaining grace.’
In his book, The Comeback Louie Giglio explains three categories of grace we can encounter. First and foremost is saving grace, the grace we experience when we allow Christ into our lives and trust in His ability to be made alive again. The second kind of grace he calls ‘transforming grace’ which covers us each time we fail and have to get up again. This grace works daily and sometimes hourly, as opposed to saving grace which is a single decision and experience. Finally, Giglio talks about sustaining grace. “This grace is specific. Timely. Personal. This is the type of grace that God gives you when you get a phone call that changes your life forever. The shock of the blow hits you so hard, and your mind is a jumbled mess of questions. Where do I go now? What do I do? Who do I call? God gives you sustaining grace for that moment. This is the type of grace that God gives you when you walk down a hospital corridor and know that behind the door is the body of someone you love. Nothing can prepare you for this moment. There’s no textbook for this.”2
This grace is found when you are on the floor completely broken.
This grace is found when your father dies.
This grace is found when your mother dies.
This grace is found when your child dies.
This grace is found when dreams hoped for will never come to pass.
This grace is found when a life changes direction down an unwanted path.
This grace is found only in the hope of Christ because there is nothing else to hope for.
This grace could be found in Walter.
Our Sunday morning men’s group is reading a book in a study led by Zach Nye. The book’s author is Steven Mansfield, and he wrote, “I don’t care about your appearance. Manliness, in my view, is about doing. It doesn’t matter what you look like. I’m neither put off by nor in awe of the physical. I’ve known great men who are three and a half feet tall. I know an awe-inspiring man who has not arms or legs. I’ve known powerful, dynamic men who looked like women from a distance. I’ve known immortal men who had testosterone to spare. It is the doing, the deeds, the actions that make a male a man.”3
What could Walter do? Clearly, he had enormous limitations on his life. Walter could not go next door to help an elderly woman with some plumbing. Walter could not mow the lawn of a disabled gentleman who was bound to a wheelchair. Walter could not serve the homeless at a Thanksgiving dinner downtown on a cold November night. Walter could not volunteer at schools and read books to small children. Walter could not own any pets because he could not care for them, let alone care for himself. Walter wore a diaper and could not clean himself.
Over the years Russ shared he never heard Walter complain. On occasion, Walter would lament the fact that the nurses would have to clean him and change his diaper, but their response was one of mercy, kindness, sincerity, and love. They would tell Walter how they loved him, enjoyed him, and would take pleasure in helping him as much as they could.
Despite these tremendous barriers, Walter impacted the world for Christ. When Walter passed on, the nurses at the hospital said the light of the hospital had gone out.
I never met Walter, he died before I was born, but I meet with a man who knew Walter, ministered to Walter, and was ministered to by Walter. The secret life of Walter impacted my life and has touched the lives of several I have shared his story with.
Walter’s life permeated forgiveness. Why do I say that? How could anyone not only survive such limitations but thrive? Who could Walter blame for his condition? He could blame the women in his past life. He could blame himself. Or he could blame God. Those who blame never move beyond their suffering and pain. They never rise above their circumstances to see what God has in store for their life or what great work He is accomplishing for their character, their spirit.
As I move beyond blaming myself for my circumstances, blaming others for my pain, blaming God for my grief, and allow forgiveness for myself, I am beginning to see clearly how He is working in my life. Romans 8:28 says, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (NIV) This verse does not promise that all things, taken individually are good. Rather it means that God will work all events together for good. No doubt some events are evil, but we don’t see and often don’t understand the big picture.
With this understanding of events working together for good, coupled with forgiveness, we can learn to be content even in the most challenging and painful circumstances. Philippians 4:11 I pray I am never tested like Walter, none of us would want that, but no matter what you have endured in your life, realizing what Christ has done for you and how much He loves you is a life changer. It certainly was for Walter.
This story is not complete, because, you can share this story of Walter with others. You can encourage and love others who may be coping with overwhelming circumstances in their life that have left them devastated. But this story is also not complete without knowing that Walter lived in that room for nearly 40 years, ministering to everyone who walked into that room and in his presence. Walter was not only a light for the hospital but a light to Christ was, and what he can do for the broken, the unwanted, the unloved, and discarded. In the words of Paul Harvey, now you know the rest of the story.
1. Rae, Scott. “Answers to Bioethical Challenges.” Apologetic Lecture Series. Biola University, La Mirada. n.d. Lecture
2. Giglio, Louie. “Jesus is Enough” The Comeback, Passion Publishing, 2015, p148.
3. Mansfield, Stephen. “Gentlemen, We Begin…” Mansfield’s Book of Manly Men, Nelson Books, 2013, p11.
The Secret Life of Walter by James W Glazier is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.