The first time I met Walt Collins I was 27 years old and sitting around a table with six people who were interviewing me for the role of Lead Pastor at Mount Hamilton Baptist Church. In his late seventies, it was clear Walt was there to represent the seniors of the church. In particular I remember Walt asking me a question about my theology of creation. “This guy means business,” I remember thinking. In hindsight, I think he was reading from a list of questions the whole group had agreed to work through with me. I don’t ever remember him asking me a question like that for the rest of the time I knew him. Walt, I realized, was not hugely interested in me giving a set of “right” answers to theological questions.
But, when I started at the church a few months later, he was hugely interested in supporting me and my husband in our new roles as Lead and Associate Pastors of Mount Hamilton Baptist Church.
This came out in a lot of ways. When we decided to buy a house just a couple of months after starting at the church, Walt set us up with a trusted real estate agent, and went on the home inspection with us. We didn’t have family in the city and he stepped into a traditional parental role, helping us negotiate this huge transition.
Soon we also got to know Walt’s wife, Gloria. Together, they invited us to their home for meals and coffee times, beautifully prepared by Gloria (who was truly the consummate host). We would hear their stories of how they met, the five years they had lived in Korea, and, of course, the many stories of the church where we now served. These helped us get our bearings and start to feel at home in our new community.
Eventually, it became tradition that nearly every Friday Walt would treat us to a coffee at Tim Horton’s. Often, I would be sitting in my office and see Walt walk down the path in front of my window and think: “Score! It’s coffee time!” I was always ready for that break. Dallas and I would get in Walt’s car for a quick Tim Horton’s run while Gloria was off getting her hair set. (Gloria had amazing hair, and sometimes, I still think: “Dear Lord, If my hair MUST turn grey, please let me look like Gloria Collins…”). Sometimes they would come after her appointment so Gloria would join us. Coffee for Walt and Gloria, French vanilla for me, Fruit explosion muffin for Dallas. It got to the point that Walt would insist we sit down while he got our order for us. We’d eat the same food, hear the same stories.
“Did I ever tell you that the rowing team I was on went to the Olympics?” Walt would ask.
“Maybe?” we would answer. “Tell us again, just in case.” (This one was one of our favourites).
“Well, I ended up stepping down from the team to get married, one year before they went to the Olympics, so I missed my chance,” Walt would tell us.
And Gloria would roll her eyes, knowing what was coming next.
“There was another man on our team who also missed the Olympics though. He went to jail for murder.”
“My goodness!” we would gasp, every time.
“Yeah, but the thing is he got out in 30 years, and I’m still here,” Walt would say, twinkle in his eye, coffee in his hand.
“Oh, Walter,” Gloria would laugh, lightly smacking his arm, perfect hair not moving an inch.
And Walt would get a big smile and say “Best decision I ever made.”
“Oh, stop,” Gloria would laugh, beaming.
For the 15 years we knew them, we watched them love each other so well. We celebrated a 60th, a 65th and then a 70th anniversary with them at our church. We oohed and aaahed at Gloria’s fantastic dresses for each occasion. We saw the joy in their eyes at being together. Of course, we always had to celebrate them one week after their actual anniversary, because the Sunday nearest their anniversary they always attended Wentworth Baptist Church, where they had gotten married. It was ridiculously romantic, just like they were. They were just as romantic on our Fridays together as they were at any anniversary, as they talked about first dates and shared memories and always paused to wait for the other so they could walk side by side.
The coffees were always a nice break and a good treat. But, looking back, they also became a time that sustained us in other ways. Walt and Gloria were, as they say, “pillars” of our church community. I have been thinking about what this expression means a lot this week. Pillars go deep in a foundation, and they hold up a building. Walt and Gloria had a deep foundation in God, and they helped “hold up” Mount Hamilton for decades. Gloria hosted, encouraged, supported. Walt was part of starting many ministries. He was part of the group that led the task of rebuilding our church when it was destroyed by fire in the nineties. In his late seventies, he was still sitting on hiring committees.
And then he was part of hiring this 27 and 28 year old couple, and there were definitely growing pains that came with that in this traditional church community.
There had already been an intentional shift in the church when we started to become more “missional,” as the term goes. The church had started a second service with a more contemporary style, which people felt was the right fit to engage our community. The “main” service, however, was still very traditional. This was Walt and Gloria’s service.
In my first decade at MHBC, all of that changed. A couple of years into our time there, the church felt God leading us to focus on one service that was mostly contemporary in nature. This was a big change for our older population, including Walt and Gloria.
So often on those coffee times, I think of how we talked things through with Walt and Gloria. There were a lot of changes: to music, to style, to the ways we did so many things. Walt and Gloria watched their whole church community shift around them (three quarters of our church have joined in the last decade). But on those coffee times, they never complained. They never used it as a time to “make a point.” They never took advantage of the opportunity to sway us or push us to keep things the way that made them comfortable.
Instead, Walt would ask how we were doing. He would encourage us. He would comment on the ways he was grateful for our ministry. Lots of times he gave us gentle advice and much needed wisdom. He helped us negotiate a lot of hard things. But he was always gentle. Sometimes I would end up in that place on Friday feeling nothing but frazzled – and Walt was like calm in the midst of my own internal storm.
Yesterday someone told me a story that perfectly describes Walt. She said that one day she was in the lobby of the church and the service had already started. The music was loud and upbeat. Walt, then in his late eighties, commented to this woman: “You know this isn’t my cup of tea at all, but oh – it does my heart so good to see this church full of people, and full of young people. That’s what matters. We won’t be here forever. It’s not about us. It’s about what will come after us.”
And there was a twinkle in his eye.
I cried when I heard that story because it describes Walt and Gloria perfectly. They were not about themselves. Walt and Gloria were deeply invested in the generation to come after them. Even into their late eighties, they were one of our biggest youth group supporters. For years, Walt and Gloria brought snacks to our youth group every Friday night. Often, they would have the youth group over at their home. The youth would look through photo albums, hear the same great stories, eat more snacks. I’m told they often didn’t want to leave. And Walt and Gloria loved it, too. They loved seeing glimpses of the church’s bright future – that was already right in front of them.
Last week, Walt and Gloria died, five days apart. They were both in a long term care home, but on different wards as Gloria had spent two years with severe dementia from Alzheimer’s Disease. Not being able to visit his sweetheart due to covid restrictions was devastating for Walt. Thankfully, two days before Gloria died, Walt was able to visit and say good bye. Sadly, it was not known that Gloria had covid. In that last visit, Walt got covid, and died a few days later.
It is, again, so ridiculously romantic that it is almost too much to take in. But it is also heart breaking, and I ache every time I think about it.
I also feel angry. I am angry that because of covid we can’t do a proper funeral for this amazing couple. How can our church not be able to gather to farewell Walt and Gloria as they deserved? How can we not celebrate the legacy they have left us, not name the years of faithful service and sacrificial giving with a packed church and reception with lovingly made triangle sandwiches? How can I not give the eulogy I have so often pictured sharing for them in my mind, after fifteen years of serving alongside them in this community, and being so well loved by them?
It may look different than how I would have wanted to do it, but I’m not willing to let covid take away my chance to say what I want to say about Walt and Gloria Collins. So here I am. And this is what I want to say. This week I have a prayer, and it is this: “Lord, make me like Walt and Gloria.”
Let me be like Gloria with her quick wit and elegant presence. Let me be hospitable. Let me create spaces of beauty. Let me remember a younger generation all the days of my life, even if it is by making cookies every Friday night for people six decades younger than me. (Also, while I’m asking, I may as well ask again for such gorgeous white hair, thanks).
And, Lord, make me like Walt, who thought more about the future of the Church than his own comfort. Let me be like Walt who looked at what was ahead and found joy in what could be. Let me be open to You working in new ways. Let me make space for new life.
I need this reminder this week in a special way. These days I find it so easy to mourn all that has been lost in the last year of change in our church due to this pandemic. I often ask: What will our future look like? So much of me wants to figure out how we can keep everything as it always was. But I also see that isn’t possible.
And so I ask: Lord, can I be like Walt, and see the future with hope and joy? Can I see the new things you are doing, and have a twinkle in my eye and a lift in my heart? When I am scared of the future and overwhelmed with change, let me be like Walt, God. Let me see hope in new life.
And someday, God, when I am retired and have a free Friday morning, show me if my pastor needs a coffee. Let me remember the love that can be found in a fruit explosion muffin. Let me encourage them, and be a peaceful place in the midst of their storm.
Let me be like Walt and Gloria, God. Let me serve. Let me give. Let me care for others. Let me trust YOU for the future.