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Trusting God when you can’t answer the bell

By John W. Kennedy

Kenny Walker had a bright future in front of him in 1999. Only two months earlier, Oak City Assembly of God in Tallahassee, Fla., had hired the 33-year-old Walker as senior pastor.

The board knew Walker had survived a battle with leukemia that struck five years earlier. At 28, while youth and children’s pastor at Callaway Assembly of God in Panama City, Fla., Walker had been diagnosed with chronic myelogenous leukemia.

At the time Walker didn’t know the symptoms of leukemia included the nagging cough and persistent night sweats he had been experiencing. When his condition worsened despite a two-week dose of antibiotics, Walker’s physician ran a battery of tests confirming he had cancer. Surely the doctor is wrong in the diagnosis, Walker thought. A huge mistake has been made.

The son of singers Kenneth Sr. and Delores Walker, Kenny had been involved in ministry nearly his entire life. Starting at age 6 he began touring churches in Alabama, Georgia and Florida with his family’s singing group, The Bereans. At 14, he wept at the altar at his home church, First Assembly of God in Eufaula, Ala., as he sensed God calling him into full-time ministry.

As a freshman offensive lineman at Evangel University in Springfield Mo., the 280-pound, 6-foot-2 Walker suffered a knee injury that ended his football career. That marked the beginning of Walker humbly listening to God’s plan rather than egotistically seeking his own path.

Yet, here, still in Walker’s prime, the doctor prescribed megadoses of interferon and told him the drug would keep him from functioning. He gave Walker only a 50 percent chance of surviving past age 31.

Interferon isn’t a cure for leukemia, but the drug kept Walker’s white blood cell counts in check.

Walker, however, did more than survive. He never missed work and, in remission, felt healthy enough to accept the senior pastorate in Tallahassee. After nine years in Panama City, he looked forward to the challenge of leading Oak City, a church with 120 Sunday morning attendees located just two miles from Florida State University.

Only two months into the job, Walker’s white blood cell counts spiked. Drugs no longer proved effective. Walker’s doctor told him he needed a bone marrow transplant.

Walker met with the Oak City church board and tendered his resignation.

“We hired Kenny because we felt God called him to our church,” explains Tom Overstreet, a board member. “So we turned his resignation down.” Not only that, the board determined to keep Walker on staff at full salary. That represented a huge step of faith for a church that never even had multiple staff members before.

“They didn’t have an attitude of, If it doesn’t work we’ll kick you out in three months,” Walker says. “They kept it open-ended.”

With the ailing Walker awaiting a transplant, the board agreed to hire three associate pastors in the next several months. Walker kept office hours and preached when he could, but primarily he kept in touch by phone and laptop from home.

Finally, 19 months after Walker joined Oak City, doctors located a close match bone marrow transplant donor in Germany. The 24-year-old man had 175 draws of marrow taken from his spine and hips.

In 2001, Walker moved to Tampa for the procedure. He spent three months hospitalized, another three months in a Tampa apartment resting, then six additional months recuperating in Tallahassee.

Immediately after the transplant Walker experienced a common illness grief cycle: denial, pity, confusion, depression. He had no strength. He lost his hair due to chemotherapy and radiation. He despaired how he could ever again lead the congregation, which by this time had increased to 200 despite the upheaval.

“I asked, ‘God, why are You taking me away from a growing church at such a critical time?’ ” Walker recalls. In reading the Book of Psalms, however, Walker sensed God’s comfort and assurance that he would again be involved in ministry.

Meanwhile, youth pastor Jon Hester (now executive pastor), worship pastor Mica Bell and care pastor Dan Cooksey took turns preaching services. “They all stayed through the ordeal,” Walker says. “They didn’t fight for pulpit time or position.”

“Pastor Kenny had a lot of wisdom when he picked these young guys,” says Overstreet, who has attended Oak City for 30 of his 46 years. “They stepped up and did an amazing job.”

In retrospect, Walker realizes his absence forced his young staff to learn how to pastor as well as helped members of the congregation understand the importance of lay ministry.

“It was a wonderful release for people to experience that transfer of ownership and to realize the pastor doesn’t have to do everything,” Walker says. “It’s not about Kenny Walker. Whether Kenny lives or dies, God’s still real.”

By the end of that long year of recovery, Walker’s strength gradually returned, his medications tapered, his appetite revived and he started to regain the 100 pounds he lost. When he returned to Oak City, Walker says he encountered a mature group of Christians.

“They said, ‘We’re glad you’re back, but we don’t have to have you,’ ” Walker chuckles. “It’s really freeing to be seen as a real person rather than a professional minister.”

Still, after returning, Walker didn’t comprehend how drastically his stamina had diminished. With his resistance to infections low and the risk of serious complications high, he had to be hospitalized for several days more than a dozen times after the transplant.

Insurance covered practically the entire $250,000 cost of the transplant. But friends held fundraisers such as a golf tournament and gospel sing. A trust account covered everything from pharmaceuticals to the apartment rental.

Walker, noting that 60 percent of couples end up divorcing when one of the partners has a transplant, gained new respect for Linda, his wife of 18 years. She took a leave of absence from her speech pathologist job and moved to Tampa to take care of her husband. She brought their sons, Bo and Zach, now 13 and 11.

“Many days I couldn’t get out of bed and she was my encourager,” Walker says. “She had to drive me everywhere for a year because of my medication.” Every day, Linda administered 14 doses of medication, drew blood from her husband and transported the tubes to a hospital.

“I have really learned that God is trustworthy, even when we can’t see what’s ahead — even if Kenny didn’t make it,” Linda says.

During her husband’s recovery, Linda made sure she kept attending church, even though she didn’t always feel like relaying reports of Kenny’s lack of progress to concerned inquirers.

“Even when you’re down or tired, there’s no better place to be than with God’s people,” Linda says. “Just staying home isn’t the answer.”

Overstreet says Walker’s illness turned congregants to more frequent prayer and fellowship.

Today, Oak City has 300 attendees.

Walker, now 40, has been in remission for four years and has no leukemia cells in his body. He’s at full strength, leading both Sunday and Wednesday services.

“These are wonderful people,” Walker says of Oak City Assembly of God. “I might be here forever.”

Through it all, cancer patient Walker learned patience. Sometimes he would wait nine hours a day in a clinic for one intravenous medication.

“I didn’t get fixed the way I wanted God to fix me; I wanted a supernatural healing miracle,” Walker says. “But I learned God’s grace is sufficient for today.”

John W. Kennedy is news editor of Today’s Pentecostal Evangel.

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