Volume 5 Number 2
by Barbara A. Chaapel
Pastor, missionary, teacher, advocate. No, not a child’s rhyme for remembering religious professions. But the actual career path of Walter Owensby, PTS Class of 1959.
A path not so much planned as followed. “God and the church invited me to do ministry in such varied ways, and I never really expected the turns in the road,” Owensby says, describing his ministry as a “seamless movement” from job to job that others might find disjointed. “I was terrible at career planning,” he laughs.
First an assistant pastor in central New Jersey, then organizing pastor of a new church development in Illinois. On to Mexico and then to Bogota, Colombia, as a mission worker. Then to Wisconsin to work for the Presbyterian Church Program Agency in the area of inter-American economic awareness.
And finally to Capitol Hill.
Last June Owensby retired after fifteen years as associate for international issues in the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s Washington Office, the office established in 1946 that “speaks the truth to power” from its location in the heart of the nation’s capital. Its task — to advocate in the public arena for the church’s social witness perspectives and policies, based on the Bible and Reformed theology — is close to Owensby’s heart.
“The gospel in all of its dimensions must be lived in the public square,” he says. “God has given us some part of the world and we are responsible for it. That is stewardship.”
In his role with the Washington Office, Owensby worked on issues from human rights to easing the debt burden of impoverished nations to dialogue between Christians and Muslims. He has been heavily involved in programs and education for the Jubilee 2000 Campaign, calling for debt forgiveness for the world’s poorest nations, and was heartened when President Clinton signed debt relief legislation on November 6 that provided $435 million to fund debt relief and put the U.S. squarely behind the worldwide effort to lift poor nations out of poverty.
One of his last pre-retirement projects was working on and writing about the world AIDS epidemic in Africa, which he calls “a disaster,” faced by the Council of Churches of South Africa.
For these fifteen years of dedicated service, Owensby was honored by his colleagues at the Washington Office dinner during the General Assembly meeting in Long Beach, California, last June. He received special recognition during the presentation of the office’s annual Partnership in Mission public policy awards. “Thoughtful, insightful, kind, diligent, highly respected” was how Washington Office director Elenora Giddings Ivory described Owensby. And prophetic.
Trained as an economist as well as a minister, Owensby believes it is essential for the church to look at issues of social justice through the hard lens of economics.
And he doesn’t plan to stop looking through that lens just because he has retired. He continues to work on a writing project in response to a Presbyterian Church initiative on the relationship of the United States, Korea, and Brazil to the globalization of the economy. He is also writing to assist the denomination’s Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy and its staff team on religious freedom.
And after a fall vacation to Portugal and Spain with friends, he has been happy to settle down in his Capitol Hill home and find time to become active again in his presbytery, National Capital, and his local church, Capitol Hill Presbyterian Church, where he will teach a thirteen-week class on biblical and theological issues, “content still negotiable,” he says.
“I don’t expect to disappear from the scene, either ecclesiastically or politically,” he says. “There are important and rewarding things for all of us to do in all of life, and for all of life.”
© Copyright 2001 Princeton Theological Seminary