One of the greatest pieces advice I received in seminary came from a veteran pastor who told us to have some good heroes and mentors. He knew that vocational ministers get lonely at times and that we need people to look up to who understand our profession.
I had several mentors and heroes at the time–my undergraduate New Testament professor, my youth pastor who conducted my wedding, and several others. But that pastor also encouraged us to have heroes who were authors, activists, and the like.
So I started to collect memoirs and books by people whom I gravitated towards during those formative years. One of those authors and activists was Brother Will Campbell, who passed away just last month at the age of 88.
Will Campbell, a native of the South, was educated at Yale but came back to speak out against racial segregation and all things Jim Crow. He attended the very first Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957 and also accompanied nine black students into the newly integrated Central High School at Little Rock, Arkansas.
But this was no mere Southern Baptist, Civil Rights activist. He also committed his life to being pastor to folks who were in the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacy groups in his home state of Tennessee. He figured that if Christ loved everyone, then so should he.
And he did. Brother Campbell became known as the Bootleg Preacher without a steeple and went beyond the walls of the church to show Christ’s love for everyone on all sides of the Civil Rights issue. It wasn’t uncommon for him to be marching with Martin Luther King, Jr., one weekend and then do a funeral for a Grand Dragon the next weekend. That’s just how he rolled, as they say.
When asked how he managed to be a minister in so many circles, he wrote that any divisive social issue, such as race relations, is a “human tragedy, and in a tragedy you can’t take sides. You just have to minister to the hurt wherever you find it” (Kyle Childress, “The Steeple Dropout”, Christian Century 10 July 2013, pp. 12-13).
Perhaps his greatest legacy, however, came from his memoirs, in which he recorded his own journey with Christ and his fellow southerners with humor and whit that not many people can emulate. That’s what attracted me to this hero of faith.
My first exposure to Will Campbell was by way of VHS documentary. In the video, Brother Campbell was being interviewed and his life chronicled. The reporters and videographers followed him around his home, his neighborhood. They recorded his interactions with the locals, and there were quite a few “bleeps” to edit out the crusty language for which Brother Campbell was known.
When I read one of his award-winning books, “Forty Acres and a Goat,” which was both incredibly funny and uniquely moving, I learned just how courageous Brother Campbell was.
He told of his travels across the south when he worked for the Southern Conference, traveling miles by pick-up truck with a pet goat for company. If someone he visited didn’t like him, at least there was a chance to warm up to the goat. Who knew a goat would build bridges across ideological and political divides?
It made me laugh, it made me cry. It gave me hope and it reminded me why I became a pastor in the first place. Now that’s what a hero is supposed to do.
Other books that Brother Campbell wrote included “Brother to a Dragonfly,” perhaps his best known memoir, and a novel, “The Glad River.” Both are stirring accounts of life in the segregated South, usually with a redemptive undercurrent that shows God’s miraculous work even in places we least expect it.
I enjoy reading Brother Campbell because he is a person filled with profound hope. He confronted darkness with enlightening humor, bondage with a liberating message of love, and prejudice with poignant whit and satire.
Even on my worst days in ministry, when heroes are needed the most, there is always something about Brother Campbell that makes me laugh and see God as the one who calls all of us to live beyond ourselves and beyond the walls of the church.
Yes, there is light out there, and Brother Campbell reminds me that the darkness will never overcome it.