Urgent care required
Officials and others express shock over Public Health Officer’s Christian Right rants
Pasadena Public Health Director Dr. Eric Walsh is perhaps best known in government and medical circles as a dynamic speaker and a deeply committed soldier in the struggles over such noble causes as improving children’s nutritional options and treatment of people living with HIV/AIDS.
But in his other life as a Seventh-day Adventist preacher in Riverside, as well as at another SDA church on North Lake Avenue in Altadena — a role in which the city’s Public Health Officer has made videotaped speeches ridiculing a transgender person, demonizing Catholicism and claiming evolution never happened, among other things — Walsh appears to be completely at odds with his taxpayer-funded persona.
“It is a surprising statement,” Pasadena AIDS Service Center Executive Director Anthony Guthmiller said of cruel remarks Walsh made during one speech about a transgender person seeking spiritual direction. Guthmiller worked with Walsh two years ago on the merging of ACS services into the city’s health care clinic on North Fair Oaks Avenue. In addition to the merger, the city recently opened a free dental clinic for people with HIV.
“I would say if it is true, it would be disappointing,” Guthmiller said of Walsh’s remarks, which recently resulted in Walsh being put on paid administrative leave by City Manager Michael Beck. “My dealings with him have not been reflective of those comments,” Guthmiller said.
Guthmiller is not alone in this respect, and for good reason. There is nothing in any of the biographies of Walsh provided by the city that indicate he is a preacher, and even members of the City Council were unaware of his other life. Walsh did not disclose his job as an associate pastor, a position for which he is paid. In fact, his religious side only became widely known when a group of students at Pasadena City College began investigating Walsh’s background after he was selected as a replacement speaker for Oscar-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black at the Pasadena City College commencement set for Friday.
Black, a 1994 PCC graduate who won his Academy Award for writing 2008’s “Milk,” was asked to speak by PCC Student Trustee Simon Fraser, and was then formally invited by Interim Associate Dean of Student Life Heba Griffiths on March 11, according to emails obtained by the Pasadena Weekly.
Black, a gay activist, accepted on March 17. But on April 2, Rocha wrote an email to the board, saying none of the people asked to speak were able to oblige, and “the one who could is a controversial figure,” Rocha wrote of Black. Acting on information provided by Senior Vice President for Academic and Student Affairs Robert Bell, Rocha recommended Walsh for the speaking job.
Rocha’s reservations apparently focused on an incident in which a videotape of Black having unprotected sex surfaced on the Internet. What Rocha failed to point out was Black was the victim in that case, suing the person who stole the tape and made it public and winning a $100,000 court award.
On April 14, Black was formally “disinvited” by Bell, who wrote to Neville Kiser, Black’s assistant, saying Black was no longer needed to speak.
“I wish to inform you that Mr. Black will not need to rearrange his busy schedule to appear as commencement speaker. I understand that Mr. Black’s time is valuable and important and, again, I apologize for the delay in finalizing this with you and him,” Bell wrote. “Please extend to Mr. Black my sincere appreciation for his gracious consideration.”
Shortly after he was invited to speak, however, Walsh backed out of the event, saying he had an unforeseen scheduling conflict. Shortly after that development, LA Times reporter Robin Abcarian revealed the content of some of the tapes Walsh had made as a preacher in often comically stinging coverage of the commencement speaker fiasco.
Last week, the PCC Board of Trustees held a special meeting at which time it was decided that Rocha would re-invite Black, which Rocha did. It was announced last weekend that Black had accepted.
Meanwhile, Walsh was set to speak Sunday at a special Pasadena Unified School District graduation ceremony for black students at the Metropolitan Baptist Church, an event he would normally help set up, but he did not appear, according to Joe Brown, former head of the NAACP Pasadena Branch and a minister at the church.
Usually just as available to the media as he is passionate on such issues as so-called “food justice,” or promoting healthy eating outlets in impoverished neighborhoods, and AIDS care, Walsh did not return numerous calls seeking comment for this story.
Beck and Mayor Bill Bogaard said Walsh was placed on paid leave so city officials had time to determine if the doctor’s stated religious feelings have impacted his work for Pasadena, one of only three cities in California with its own health department.
“I agree with his placement on administrative leave so that careful consideration can be given to the situation,” Bogaard said. “I have never seen any indication of any attitude inconsistent with the highest professional standards and expectations in his position. The question is whether or not, with his private views, it is practical and workable to handle such an important job as the Director of Public Health.”
Many community leaders were shocked to learn of what Walsh said on the tapes, which were made between 2010 and 2012, after Walsh took over the city Health Department.
“I have not seen the tapes,” said Gary Moody, current president of the NAACP Pasadena Branch. “I can say I have never seen that kind of behavior in the times I have seen him speak in town. The Eric Walsh I am reading about is an Eric Walsh I have never seen.”
In one video viewed by the Weekly, Walsh preaches about a woman who told him she wanted to bring low-cost gender-changing surgery to low-income communities.
“I would mess up and call her ‘he’ all the time and I would get corrected. I even messed up and called her ‘shim,’ a combination between she and him, and I shouldn’t have done that. She said I was a man once. She said I was engaged to be married, and I was a Catholic and I was married to a woman once, and it didn’t work because I was a woman trapped in a man’s body. She tried to quote scripture and messed it all up. She couldn’t put two scriptures together. She was trying to make a point she had been religious. She was Catholic and she gave up church because it was too restrictive.”
According to Abcarian’s reports, Walsh can be seen on other videotapes supporting the theory of intelligent design and criticizing anthropological evidence. According to the Times, Walsh called Disneyland “the dark empire,” and said Oprah Winfrey has “led people away from God.” Walsh also attacked Pope John Paul II’s acceptance of evolution.
“How does the pope bless evolution when he’s supposed to believe in the Bible?” Walsh asks. “The idea that the Earth evolved over millions of years is a farce. It’s not true. It couldn’t have happened that way. … There is no evidence that we evolved. Where are all the half-things in the world? Where are the animals that are still evolving?”
“I have heard him speak multiple times and I have never experienced any aspect of this on him. I was somewhat surprised to hear these were his beliefs,” said Pasadena Board of Education President Renatta Cooper. “I have not done a detailed analysis and I have never heard him or known him to practice any type of homophobic behavior on the job.”
Councilwoman Jacque Robinson, who was elected by her council peers Monday to serve another one-year term as vice mayor, also said she never heard Walsh speak this way.
“Through my personal experience of working with Dr. Walsh and his reputation in the community, he has been nothing short of professional, fair and compassionate in maintaining and developing programs to improve the health of all Pasadenans,” Robinson wrote in an email.
Bogaard would not discuss the details of the investigation. Walsh, who spoke at Bogaard’s 2012 Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast, earns $186,688 a year, minus benefits and perks. As of 2010, the department had 92 fulltime employees and an $11 million annual budget.
Walsh, 42, and his wife, Annette, have three children; Jahan, Jasmine and Eric III.
“The city manager is his supervisor and will make the decision on how to proceed,” Bogaard said. “The question is have his private viewpoints affected his jobs.”
The Rev. George Van Alstine, who leads the Altadena Baptist Church, and once served on the Pasadena Board of Education, said some religious views over the past few years have changed dramatically. Interestingly, the former president of PCC, the school that could be Walsh’s undoing, was much-beloved Jack Scott, who holds a master’s degree in divinity from Yale Divinity School. Scott became a state lawmaker and ended his public service career as chancellor of the state community college system.
“Before we judge [Walsh] too harshly we should remember he is part of a very conservative Christian denomination,” Van Alstine said. “Things he may have said two years ago in that church he may not say today. Views on gay marriage and homosexuality have really changed in the past two years.”
Walsh, who has been head of the Pasadena Health Department since 2010, previously served as medical director of the Family Health Division of the Orange County Health Care Agency in Santa Ana. He has received congressional recognition for his leadership and contributions to the care of children, and he has received the 100 Black Men of Orange County Award in Health and Wellness Care. Walsh is among those to be honored by the NAACP Pasadena Branch at its annual Ruby Williams McKnight Awards dinner in October.
A native of Connecticut, Walsh, according to a portion of his resume posted on the city’s Web site, graduated from Oakwood University, the University of Miami School of Medicine, and Loma Linda University School of Public Health. An adjunct professor at UC Riverside and a member of the Loma Linda University School of Medicine, Walsh served on the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS. He is also the immediate past president of the California Academy of Preventive Medicine and has been on committees with the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.
In his statement issued late last Thursday afternoon, Beck said Dr. Vivian Yeh will serve as the city’s acting health officer while Walsh is on leave. Leticia Saenz will oversee administrative responsibilities for the department.
“The city organization is made up of many different people from all backgrounds, races, faiths, family makeup, gender orientation and political beliefs. The city holds diversity and inclusiveness as an important value in the workplace and in our community,” according to Beck’s statement.
Walsh is scheduled to receive an award at the local NAACP’s 29th annual Ruby McKnight Williams Awards in October. Moody told the Weekly that the organization would discuss the situation when the awards committee meets next week.