Despite husband's paralysis, couple teaches RCIA for 26 years
By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY - For two straight hours without a break March 12, Jim and Toni Walters led the Rite of Christian Initiation class from St. Elizabeth Parish in prayer and meditation on the Stations of the Cross.
Kevin Kelly/Key photo
Toni and Jim Walters lead the St. Elizabeth Parish RCIA class through a two-hour prayer service focusing on the Stations of the Cross March 12.
From his wheelchair with a respirator nearby to breathe for him, Jim read the meditation for the third Station (Jesus falls for the first time).
"Nobody would have blamed you," Jim read, "if you stayed down and said the cross was too heavy." The room fell utterly silent.
Later as the class meditated on the death of Jesus, Jim described how a crucified body wracked with pain slowly suffocates. It is an experience Jim knows intimately.
"The hard thing is the pain I have all the time," he said, as Toni exercised his dormant limbs. "I have to put that aside and keep talking and keep breathing."
For Jesus, the horrible physical pain was over in less than a day. For Jim Walters, the pain has lasted 43 years.
On Aug. 5, 1959, the then-vibrant 16-year old Rockhurst High School student-athlete, with all that life could offer well within his potential, dove into a small lake in south Kansas City while swimming with friends. His neck snapped.
The accident that happened in an instant robbed him of the use of his arms and legs. It didn't take his mind, it didn't take his faith, and it didn't take his sense that God was calling him for a special purpose.
For more than 30 years, Jim and Toni Walters have been a team in helping prepare adults for full communion with the Catholic Church. For the past 26 years, they have done it as husband and wife.
They've lost count of the number of people who have taken instruction from them. "It's got to be in the hundreds," Jim said. "We've had college professors, doctors, lawyers, dentists and just good, ordinary people."
They were pioneers in helping establish the formal Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults in the diocese in 1978. In fact, their program at St. Elizabeth Parish was one of a very few around at the outset.
"People would come to us from miles around," Jim said.
But neither Jim nor Toni think they are remarkable. Instead, they said, the miracle is that God is using them.
"We're just ordinary people doing what God called us to do," Jim said. "Nothing great."
The people he and Toni have instructed beg to differ.
"It's a lot easier to believe in God when you watch Jim do it," said Forrest Imhoff, who joined the church at St. Elizabeth three years ago. "If he can have that much faith, I should have a little somewhere."
Rick Lowrey, who is part of the Walters' RCIA class this year, said he was at first taken aback when he saw Jim's body. Then he discovered Jim's spirit - and Toni's.
"I am in awe," Lowrey said. "The fact that it is such an effort for him to speak and he still does the classes is inspirational. I am so very proud to know them and to have them know me. I am more proud that they would want me to belong to their church."
But the Walters quickly deflected any praise for themselves toward two other people - Deacon Dick Muraski, a pioneer in lay-led religious instruction in the early 1970s, and the late Msgr. Richard J. Schumacher, pastor of St. Elizabeth Parish until his death in 1971.
Deacon Muraski hadn't been ordained into the diaconate when Msgr. Schumacher hired him as one of the diocese's first lay directors of religious education.
"Dick Muraski was my mentor," Jim said. "He took me under his wing."
Jim said that Muraski could look beyond the wheelchair and see the man sitting in it.
"One day, he asked me what I wanted to do. I told him, 'I want to do what you are doing,'" Jim said.
Muraski trained Jim as a catechist, then one day asked him to teach a section on Baptism. Jim soon learned that Muraski would accept nothing short of excellence from him.
"I thought I did OK, so after the class, I asked him," Jim said. "He took a book, slammed it down on the table and said, 'That's the worst teaching I have ever heard.'
"I felt terrible about it, but that was his love for me. I could feel the love he had for me," Jim said. "He wouldn't let up on me. He was tough on discipline."
Deacon Muraski told The Catholic Key that he could see Walters' potential as a teacher.
"He was so determined, and he prepared so hard," Deacon Muraski said. "He was going to be a good teacher. He just couldn't do it the same way you or I would do it."
Jim didn't give up after that first attempt, and neither did Muraski. Muraski insisted that Jim take three years of classes in order to become a certified master catechist. Slowly, both mentor and student grew in confidence and Muraski turned more responsibilities over to Walters.
Then just hours before their class would begin on Oct. 12, 1971, Muraski called Walters.
"It was the night Msgr. Schumacher died," Jim recalled. "Dick called me to say he was going to be at the hospital, and that we should take over the class. Dick never came back."
By that time Toni had entered Jim's life, and they were team-teaching.
Toni was a teacher at St. Elizabeth School when Msgr. Schumacher brought them together, asking her to visit Jim in his home to give him company.
Jim and Toni quickly became friends, grounding that in their mutual love of both teaching and the church.
Within a few years, their friendship blossomed into love, and they began to talk of marriage.
None among their circle of friends was neutral about it, Toni said. A few rejoiced. Most thought their marriage would never survive.
"We prayed about it for a year," Toni said. "I kept praying, 'Am I making this decision for myself, or am I making it with the Lord?' A marriage is a vocation, and I wanted to feel called by God."
Against the advice of several people they dearly loved, Jim and Toni were married in 1976 in a simple ceremony in their home.
"We had great peace after it was over," Toni said.
Even 26 years later, they do not resent those who doubted them. In fact, they are grateful to them for making them discern their decision carefully and prayerfully.
"If we had gotten all pats on the back, we may have not made this decision in the same way," Toni said. "We always tell couples who are getting married that those stumbling blocks make you think seriously about the commitment you are making."
Jim has no doubt that God sent Toni into his life.
"Absolutely, she is a saint," Jim said. "She is the heart and soul of everything we do. If it weren't for Toni, I'd be dead."
Her life is consumed in the total care that Jim requires. But it is what God wants her to do, Toni said.
"Life always brings challenges you aren't prepared for," she said. "If I am a saint, Jim is making me a saint. That's what married life is for - to make each other saints."