The Rev. Paul W. Buckwalter came to Tucson to broaden one church’s community involvement.
In doing so, he changed Tucson.
Buckwalter, a former priest at St. Philip’s in the Hills Episcopal Church, died Tuesday, Feb. 16 of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Buckwalter was 81 and is survived by his wife Casey Hayden (Sandra Cason), two children, seven step-children, four grandchildren and five step-grandchildren.
After moving to Tucson to work at St. Philip’s in 1984, Buckwalter helped found the Pima County Interfaith Council (PCIC), about 25 years ago. PCIC is an organization committed to uniting people in the community to strengthen Tucson. Its JobPath program, for example, has allowed more than “1,400 families to move out of poverty, through training, and into living wage jobs,” said Kevin Courtney, the current lead organizer.
“We brought him to Tucson to be in charge of outreach to the community, and he taught us over the 20 years that he was associated with St. Philip’s to have compassion for those who live in the margins of society,” said the Rev. Roger Douglas, the retired St. Philip’s rector who brought Buckwalter to Tucson. Douglas now lives in Palm Desert, California.
Born in Orange, New Jersey, Buckwalter graduated from Yale University with bachelor’s and master’s degrees. He also earned a Master of Divinity degree from the Episcopal Divinity School and a Master of Community Planning degree from the University of Cincinnati.
Buckwalter also served in the U.S. Army in Korea.
His passion for the outcast made him a leader in the Sanctuary Movement and a founding board member for the Primavera Foundation, according to an obituary submitted by the family.
“He believed that our faith was not just something we did at church, but as people of God we have a responsibility to work in the world,” said Julie Johnson, a parishioner at St. Philip’s. Johnson was also one of the original churchgoers from the parish to get involved with PCIC, which, she said, gave her a voice.
In the early days of the organization, Buckwalter led the clergy caucus, uniting faith leaders with varied backgrounds to take action on issues affecting the community, said Frank Pierson, a friend of Buckwalter’s and PCIC’s first lead organizer.
Buckwalter later used those skills in Yuma and Northern Arizona, connecting clergy when Pierson started the Arizona Interfaith Network. He was also involved in the Industrial Areas Foundation throughout his career.
“That required somebody to pay attention and develop understanding of diverse faith backgrounds,” Pierson said. “That’s a gift, and it doesn’t come easily. He had that kind of wide-ranging spirituality.”
Casey Hayden, Buckwalter’s wife of 22 years, treasures her memory of her husband taking Buddhist vows — vows of ethical conduct — in the last year of his life.
“He was completely unashamed to be 80 and doing this with mostly younger people,” she said.
The Rev. John Fife, pastor emeritus at Southside Presbyterian Church, worked with Buckwalter in the 1980s during the Sanctuary Movement. Buckwalter, he said, could always be trusted to take the risks necessary to save lives.
“Tucson is definitely a different city than it would have been without his organizing skills and certainly just his courageous advocacy on behalf of the poor and the refugees and the homeless,” Fife said.
To learn how to serve the homeless, Buckwalter went through a training that put him on the streets of Chicago for three days, with just $5, Hayden said.
To help women in Naco, Mexico, figure out a way to a better their lives, Buckwalter spent time across the border in a sewing co-op to “help them figure out the markets,” said Kevin Courtney, the current, lead organizer of PCIC. Courtney, like many, considered the man a mentor.
To lead, Buckwalter served. He had no interest in position, Pierson said, choosing a life in “public ministry” instead of advancing in the Episcopal Church.
His combination of courage and dry humor made him “one of those characters that liked to tweak the nose of power,” Pierson said, pointing to pressure Buckwalter put on public officials regarding the construction of the Kino Recreation Center.
In his personal life, Buckwalter enjoyed playing tennis, swimming and hiking. Hayden remembers exploring Arizona’s backroads with her husband in a red pickup truck.
“Much of his work had to do with establishing trust so people were comfortable to work together,” she says.