For more than a year now, while the BJC has continued to work diligently to advance our mission of defending religious liberty for all, we also have been preparing for the well-deserved retirement of our executive director. The staff is ready for the new chapter in the life of the organization because Brent has prepared us. He has done so with all the wisdom and kindness that has marked his distinguished service as the BJC’s leader for the past 17 years.
I first met Brent Walker when I came to Washington, D.C., for a BJC internship after college; he was serving as associate general counsel. The experience was formative, in no small part because of the professional example set by Brent and then-General Counsel Buzz Thomas. They were smart and thoughtful, hardworking and caring. They taught me about the historic influence and responsibility of Baptists in protecting religious liberty for all people, and they demonstrated how good lawyers can make a positive difference in the world. I was sold.
After law school, I pursued a position in a more traditional private practice, focusing on litigation and employment law in Nashville, Tennessee, and later in D.C. But I didn’t forget the constitutional law lessons I had learned. In fact, I got my first lawyer job after an interview in which a partner noticed the BJC on my resume. He quizzed me aggressively and incredulously about the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision holding public school graduation prayer unconstitutional. Because of the BJC, as much as law school, I was able to defend the decision against government-sponsored religious exercises in Lee v. Weisman with confidence and conviction.
Years later, after Brent had become the BJC’s executive director, he hired me as general counsel. It was an unexpected and major shift in my professional life, coming just a year after my husband and I had moved to D.C. Thankfully, Brent convinced me it was the right time. I would have the chance to work in the public interest, in a distinctly Washington job, and I would get to work in partnership with him. His confidence in me pushed me forward much faster than I expected. I also benefited from a whip-smart assistant to the general counsel, Amanda Tyler (the BJC’s next executive director), who had been coordinating legislative coalition efforts and helped me learn the lay of the land before she left for law school. In short order, I was speaking for the BJC at congressional briefings and press conferences and continuing the organization’s work in the courts.
I have known and worked with a lot of lawyers as colleagues and as adversaries. They run the gamut of styles and personalities, and I count myself lucky to have had a variety of experiences and mentors. Like the best of my mentors in private practice, Brent is brilliant, clear and kind, even when under pressure. Working together, we have benefited from each other’s different ways of thinking, making the BJC’s voice stronger in press statements and more persuasive in briefs before the U.S. Supreme Court. From the beginning, Brent always treated me with respect, even when I was taking a longer route to a correct conclusion that he knew instinctively.
Unlike any other employer I’ve known, Brent cares in equal measure for the staff’s professional and personal development. He asks about our lives outside of work, and he listens. He laughs with us, and he prays for us. If a member of the staff or an intern needs a place to celebrate the holidays, he opens his home and treats them like family.
In a short documentary prepared for a board retirement celebration (visit BJConline.org/BrentWalker), the Rev. Nancy Walker tells how her husband came to the BJC after leaving his law practice and going to seminary. With characteristic honesty and good humor, she said it was a surprise that seminary did not lead to a church pastorate, but Brent found the perfect fit for his dual education. He combined his legal background and what he’d learned in seminary for the benefit of the BJC’s mission, and he became a pastor to the staff. I encourage you to watch that video along with other tributes to Brent on our website.
Brent’s wise counsel has been invaluable, especially as I have sought to fulfill the work before us while taking care of my family. One day when I was staying late, I remember Brent stopping by and asking why I hadn’t left for my son’s baseball game. I told him what I was working on and that I had made other arrangements. I added that it was fine because there are so many Little League games. Brent thanked me for my hard work, but he also wisely told me, “No, you just think there are.” He was right.
So many are grateful to Brent for giving his tremendous talents to the protection of religious liberty in our country. He has been an effective teacher at the Capitol, in churches and schools, and in the public square. He has taken care of the Baptist legacy we inherited, teaching the lessons of history and theology that undergird our work, while pursuing our mission in Washington and around the country with passion and excellence. While it is difficult to imagine the BJC without Brent’s day-to-day efforts, his influence will long outlast his tenure because he has taught us all so well.
Chet Edwards: A man of faith on Capitol Hill
Richard Foltin: A partner for all seasons
Amanda Tyler: A steady and strong leader
Holly Hollman: A teacher and pastor who prepared us