Daryl Joy Walters graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary with a Master of Divinity in May 2018, and the very next day she went back to her hometown of Shreveport, Louisiana.
What she found there was disturbing.
Jobs were scarce, incomes were stagnant, and young people were leaving. Shreveport, once a hub for the oil industry, now ranked near the bottom of U.S. cities for economic growth, according to a 2018 economic study. In one telling statistic, the city of 190,000 residents — the third largest in the state — had one of the nation’s lowest rates of working-age population growth.
Walters, 27, didn’t need a study to see what was happening. She knew that other millennials who had grown up in the area and moved away for college did not see a future in Shreveport.
“For those of us who want to settle down and build lives, it didn’t seem sustainable,” Walters said. “Young adults feel like they can’t come home because of an overall lack of opportunity.”
Her concerns led to a bold decision. In 2019, she quit her job as a partnership specialist for the U.S. Census Bureau to run for the Louisiana House of Representatives.
Although she had long been involved in politics, including as a Democratic State Central Committee member, she was now seeking to fill a vacant seat in the legislative district that covers Shreveport. Influenced by her Seminary education, she ran on a social justice platform, calling for increased funding for local schools, a raise to the minimum wage, and criminal justice reform.
“I felt I had to get in this fight and be a voice for people who are struggling,” she said.
Walters finished second in a three-way primary, forcing a runoff. In that election in November 2019, she captured 49 percent of the vote, just 113 votes shy of winning.
Walters took the defeat in stride. She is by no means done with politics. Rather, the campaign helped her gain clarity about her calling. She sees community service as a way to put her faith into action. She is currently serving as volunteer advocate for families of people who are incarcerated in jails and or confined to mental health facilities.
“Somebody calls me to say their son or daughter was picked up off the street and I go into action,” she said. “On one hand, I am taking some of the burden off local pastors, who have so much on their plate. But I am really doing it because of my love for God and my love for God’s people.”
Walters’ connection to faith began literally when she came into the world.
She was born premature, weighing just one pound, two ounces. That prompted her family’s congregation — Mount Canaan Baptist Church in Shreveport — to engage in weeks of round-the-clock prayer vigils until she got stronger.
Walters grew up attending Mount Canaan, which was led for over 50 years by the Rev. Harry Blake, a veteran of the civil rights movement and ally of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Listening to Blake’s preaching, as well the stories of her late great-grandmother Ophelia Kennon, a Shreveport civil rights activist, Walters learned early how faith and political action can work together.
“I would sit with my great-grandmother and she would show me articles in the newspaper about how blacks and women were treated,” Walters said.
Walters earned her bachelor’s degree at Wiley College in Texas, a historically black college, majoring in philosophy and religion.
She was drawn to Princeton Seminary as a way to continue her intellectual and spiritual journey. She cites two key mentors among the faculty: Mark Lewis Taylor, the Maxwell M. Upson Professor of Theology and Culture, whose work has a strong social justice focus, and Cleophus J. LaRue, the Francis Landey Patton Professor of Homiletics, who specializes in the theory and method of African American preaching and worship.
“At seminary I grew theologically, intellectually, and I grew in compassion,” Walters said. “I became a person clear about their calling and equipped to engage in conversations across economic, racial, and religious lines.”
And that has served her well in Shreveport, where on any given day she might be offering pastoral care to a person struggling with mental illness or discussing her views on criminal justice reform with local pastors.
Walters said she may someday become a pastor. For now, her ideal ministry is to help improve life in Shreveport.
“The election was the first time people had a chance to meet me and hear my ideas, and it will not be the last,” she said. “What keeps me going is an understanding that the status quo we have today doesn’t have to be this way tomorrow.”