LEE COUNTY NEIGHBORS: Family doctor feels life change with spiritual pursuits

TUPELO – Family physician Billy Walton is a little uncomfortable talking about himself.
He’s more likely to be helping other people or being introspective for knowledge about what tugs at his intellect.
These days, the 48-year-old is answering a call he said he would have scoffed at 15 years ago.
It wasn’t a Road to Damascus kind of experience. It was more a subtle thirst for deeper understanding about his Christian faith and, what that could mean for him.
It came about just a few years ago, as he drove on the road to Jackson.
“It had been a pretty rough week,” said Walton, who was adopted as an infant from Mississippi Baptist Children’s Home.
He’d been going through a turbulent period in his personal life that ultimately ended in divorce.
Reared in the Baptist Church but now a Methodist, he had been thinking about frequent assertions from others to trust God, to turn over everything to God.
“I said ‘OK,’ I’m ready to do that,” he recalled, then wondered how his spiritual surrender would play out.
It began with a longing to better understand his faith and its historical and intellectual origins.
“Many people are just told what to believe,” the Mississippi State University microbiology grad said. “But the academic side of me said to learn as much as I could.
“People can have a perfectly normal, happy spiritual life taking your childhood Bible stories with them, but that wasn’t enough for me.”
He completed a four-year local study through Education for Ministry, a theological education program hosted at All Saints Episcopal Church but open to others outside the denomination.
“That was good, but I was used to being tested and pushed hard, and I decided to find some kind of distance learning.”
He’s just completed a three-year course through the University of London’s College of Theology.
And he said its intense program brought him to what he was seeking.
Now, he’s just gained approval from All Saints’ vestry to begin a 2-3 year process toward becoming a permanent, ordained deacon, which in the Episcopal Church is more like being a minister than in some other Protestant denominations.
“It would be arrogant of me to say I know where this is going,” said Walton after a long volunteer day treating patients at the Good Samaritan Clinic in downtown Tupelo.
“I just feel like I need to do my best.”
He also says he believes his involvement with the clinic probably would not have happened without his growing understanding of the Church’s mission.
“If it doesn’t change you, then you’ve missed the point,” he reflected.
Adopted as an infant, Walton described himself as “a grunt all my life.”
“No doubt, I wasn’t meant to be a priest. I don’t see ever not being a doctor.”
But he said he could see expanding his work with people who need his help, like those at the Free Clinic, where for each Wednesday the past 14 months he’s seen hundreds of adults with acute and chronic illnesses.
As he chats back and forth with clinic staff and moves from one patient to another, he looks like a priest – clad in a black short-sleeve shirt and black trousers with a large gold-tone cross attached to his stethoscope by a short chain.
In his regular “day job,” he treats about 80 patients a day as a staff doctor for North Mississippi Medical Clinics.
Tough economic times are bringing more people to the Free Clinic, he observes. He also knows its private donations are down for the same reasons.
And he admits he works so much that he really doesn’t have time for hobbies like golf or tennis.
“I guess my life has become about spending time with my family and with people who need me,” Walton said.
But one new interest has come with Saints Brew, a free All Saints morning breakfast program for people in need.
“There’s no theology or doctrine talked here,” he said, “it’s just a good way to show people what the church should be – living it, rather than talking about it.”
Walton said it’s another way to connect with people, as a person of faith.
“Someone may ask why we’re doing this,” he noted, “and it’s a chance to tell the story.
“That’s what the church is about – to take care of the world in Christ’s name.”

Contact Patsy R. Brumfield at (662) 678-1596 or patsy.brumfield@djournal.com.

Patsy R. Brumfied/NEMS Daily Journal