Dr. Bishop Walter Durham is a man of amazing insight. Having lost his sight 17 years ago, the result of exposure to Agent Orange and a diabetic condition, he is a neighbor aware of people around him and alert to their ongoing social and economic challenges. He currently lives on Thomas street and has lived and worked on the southeast side for the last 35 years after moving back to Grand Rapids in the early 80’s.
Bishop Durham spent many years of his youth living and going to school not far from where he now resides. Born in 1945 into a family that included two sisters and two brothers, he moved to GR as a seven-year-old from Canton Ohio and navigated the public-school system as a student at Henry School, Vandenberg School, and Central High School. In a wide-ranging interview with BPN staff members, Dr. Durham told many stories to illustrate the dual life he led in his youthful days. He described himself as a gangster and a good guy. He was a school safety who looked out for others, but he also ended up as a gang leader. He became a star football player in high school, but he also participated in questionable activities and protected others involved in criminal behavior.
With the help of Margaret Holmes, an English teacher at Central, Bishop Durham graduated in 1964. Ms. Holmes was able to get beneath his outward disinterest and identify his gifts of leadership and learning. This launched Dr. Durham into a variety of job experiences that included working with his grandma on Mackinac Island, being drafted into the army in 1967, spending time in Thailand as a communications specialist, playing semi-pro football, becoming a post office supervisor, serving as Director of a home for the handicapped, assisting in family businesses, working for the Board of Education, and eventually becoming a pastor and denominational leader. Along the way, Bishop Durham experienced marriage and divorce, the birth of five children, and the pain of broken sibling relationships.
Dr. Durham brings wisdom from these diverse life experiences into his ongoing work of mentoring and pastoring. He himself credits a key mentor with helping him develop the call to preach in the early 90’s. He became the first Vice President of the Grand Rapids Ministerial Association and played a leadership role in the regional development of the Church of God in Christ United. Bishop Durham continues to pastor the Praying Hands COGIC United congregation that meets in the Bates Place building on Sunday afternoons. He also hosts a gathering of men every Thursday afternoon called “The Porch” where he challenges participants to make good choices, develop a plan for their lives, and be part of reducing violence in homes and on the streets.
When asked about his hopes for a better neighborhood, Bishop Durham uses the language of community. He knows people living in proximity don’t always connect. He wants to see people having fun and has memories of block parties, the community theater, and the skating rink. He would like the challenge of gentrification met in a fair and just way. There are too many homes now out of ownership reach for local residents. A return of grocery stores to the southeast side would also be good. Access to affordable fresh and nutritious foods has become more limited in recent years. Finally, Dr. Durham has concern for local young people who need to find a purpose and a good path, and for those challenged by drug addiction. He would like to see effective mentors and successful treatment strategies.
We share Dr. Bishop Durham’s hopes and support his continuing work in the neighborhood. As we connect with other neighbors, we know that these dreams are shared by many, and we look forward to the ways the Spirit will bring stronger connection(s) and inspire meaningful actions. Stay tuned!