At first glance, the Walker Center for Global Mission appears to be little more than a suburban refuge where church folk can hide from a troubled world and dream of peace.
Its fliers show men and women holding hands to defeat racism and resolve conflicts without violence. Even the "No Parking—Fire Lane" sign has hand-painted flowers all over it.
But a closer look inside this 134-year-old mission outpost reveals a complex blend of history and vision, a place where the world's worst conflicts are more than polite topics over dinner.
In its mansion in suburban Auburndale, just west of Boston, persecuted Chinese dissidents have at times operated their American headquarters in one wing, even as staffers gathered in the parlor to maintain the genteel tradition of breaking for tea on Wednesdays at 3 p.m.
Now, as Muslims find themselves misunderstood and domestic poverty takes a backseat to general concern for national security, the Walker Center has once again found itself in a position either to duck or engage controversy. And once again, it plans to bring the invested groups together, to meet face-to-face and get to know each other as unique persons.
"Unity is basic to most everything the Walker Center does," said the director, the Rev. William Briggs. "This happens by building relationships" among individuals, not solely among institutions or governments.
Example: on Oct. 2, an unadvertised talk on the basics of Islam drew a standing-room-only crowd of 125. As usual, participants broke bread together before tackling issues. This time they shared salmon, in accordance with Muslim dietary code.
One week earlier, a wholly different program brought together a half-dozen African-American women from urban Dorchester and an equal number of European-American women from the city's outskirts. Yet the goal—to know each other as individuals—was the same. They shared a chicken dinner, drew pictures with magic markers and told stories in pairs. Speaking in hushed tones, each woman appeared to swap secrets with a confidant stranger of another race.
"I'm frightened," said city-dweller Vivian Clarke to Susan Briggs. "I have a grandson. He's of enlistment age."
"I worry about all the war talk," Mrs. Briggs said. "I've been listening to NPR [National Public Radio]. You would think they'd have less there, but they seem to have as much as everyone else."
Variety of functions
Since 1867, the weary have found a harbor here. Eliza Walker had lost her missionary husband to cholera, and on returning stateside, she opened her homestead to 20 children whose parents had gone overseas as missionaries. Eighty years later, the spot had become a retirement home for clergy. The center now serves an array of functions with help from the United Church of Christ, grants and private donations.
"That sort of spirit [of Eliza Walker] is still here," said program associate Lynda Morris. "It still attracts people who are very open."
Only a broad theme like cross-cultural understanding could give coherence to the center's vast amalgam of ministries. To illustrate: it operates a bed-and-breakfast with rooms as low as $27.50 per night, houses 35 seminary students and families, builds water systems in Honduras, brings mid-western teenagers to serve in Boston soup kitchens and gives African-American Baptists room to strategize for evangelism campaigns.
At times, the center's mission has reflected world events. In 1989, for instance, students fleeing China's Tiananmen Square massacre came here to coordinate their resistance.
"That kind-of drained our endowment over two or three years," Briggs said.
In usual times, religious groups of any persuasion have priority over secular ones when reserving space at the Walker Center. Nevertheless, Briggs said, to advance Christian faith is no longer among the center's goals because doing so might create conflict. He gave the example of planting a Protestant church in predominantly Catholic Honduras.
"Once you introduce an opposing group, it creates community factions rather than cooperation," Briggs said.
Connects ordinary people
Many who use the Walker Center, however, see the place as a vehicle both for deepening and spreading their faith. Barbados immigrant Yvonne Devonish, for instance, left a scripture workshop here earlier this year with fresh inspiration to walk the streets of her Dorchester neighborhood, praying her neighbors would wake up to love the Lord.
"I just want people to see the Spirit He creates in my life and say, 'Hey, there's a difference about you,'" Devonish said.
In looking to the future, Briggs said the center might try to connect ordinary people from Pakistan and Afghanistan with ordinary Americans for the sake of dialogue and mutual understanding. In the meantime, the center will continue catering to local folks and sojourners who thrive on the environment it creates.
"I just like being with different cultures and with different groups of people," said Lydia Townsend, a race dialogue participant from Boston. "I'm loving it."
The Rev. G. Jeffrey MacDonald is a freelance journalist and pastor of Union Congregational UCC in Amesbury, Mass.