Fay Hensley Coker Walker (1943-2011) grew up in the Southern Appalachian mountains in Canton, Georgia, attended Mars Hill College and the University of NC at Chapel Hill and received her Masters in Social Work from UNC-CH in 1967 with a concentration in community organizing. All her life Fay asked questions about the system of race. For Fay this was not a sociological exercise but a personal calling to analyze and respond to structural racism which she believed wounds both persons of color and European Americans like herself.
Fay's young adulthood was steeped in the civil rights movement and her community organizing work in Boston. She returned to her roots in the South and spent the rest of her life in North Carolina. After teaching at the School of Public Health at UNC-CH, creating the social work program at Mars Hill College, and becoming the first executive director of the NC Association for Home Care, the balance of Fay's career was as a hospital administrator of Transylvania Community Hospital's Home Care and Hospice programs.
In 1993 at age 50, Fay retired from her professional social work career in order to devote herself full time to her "heart work"—racial justice and reconciliation. She founded and for many years co-chaired the Commission to Dismantle Racism in the Episcopal Diocese. In 1994 Fay co-founded the nonprofit Neighbors in Ministry with an aim to "enrich children, empower parents, and encourage community…in which children and adults work together to build the Beloved community of racial justice and reconciliation." Neighbors offers Rise and Shine Freedom School, serving hundreds of K-8 students in an afterschool program.
In 1999, Fay received the coveted Nancy Susan Reynolds Award in Race Relations, given by the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation to an "unsung hero" who has acted in an extraordinary way to bring about improvements in race relations.
Fay was a deeply committed Christian. She loved scripture, hymns, studying theology, building community, and her life of service within and beyond the church. Fay grew up Baptist but over many years of ecumenical church life found her home as an Episcopalian. Some of Fay's dearest friends were not people of faith, however, and her tolerance of other religious traditions was paramount.
Fay's hobby and passion was hospitality. Her door was unlocked and her heart was open. One never knew who'd be at her house when they arrived—not even Fay—and that was how she liked it. Family recipes, gourmet meals, soul food, and the simplest of southern fare poured forth from her kitchen with ease and delight. The mathematics of her guest lists were always superseded by the principles of abundance and inclusion. For her, canning and freezing local vegetables was sheer joy and family tradition each summer, not work. An "incurable extrovert," Fay was happiest hosting friends several times a week and events for 50 to 100 without flap.
Fay loved to dance, to fish, to spend time with her grandsons, to travel, to read, and most of all to share good food with good friends at her lakehouse. Fay's decade-long battle with autoimmune hemolytic anemia was fought with tenacity, hope and dignity. Her boundless energy and cup-half-full mentality served her well in this fight, but it was her faithful community of friends and loving family that saw her through the trials of being chronically ill and helped her die with as much integrity and joy as she lived.
Fay is survived by her daughter and son-in-law, Susanne and Greg Walker Wilson and their children Caleb and Ascher of Asheville NC; her brother and sister-in-law, Shault and Willie Coker and their son Justin, of Naples FL; and her aunt Fleda Hensley also of Naples FL. But Fay counted friends as family and they are innumerable—in Brevard and around the globe.
Memorials in Fay's honor can be made to: Rise and Shine Freedom School, PO Box 1036, Brevard, NC 28712. www.riseshine.org
Fay's memorial service will be held at Bethel A Baptist Church in Brevard at 7:30pm Sunday, September 18, with a reception preceding it at 6pm in the fellowship hall with refreshments and slides of her rich life to be shared by all.