Brother Will Campbell, a hero among many

campbell-big.rOne 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.

Letter from Birmingham Jail still challenges Church even after 50 years

Birmingham JailThis April marks the 50th anniversary of one of best treatises written during the Civil Rights movement: Martin Luther King, Jr’s letter from the Birmingham jail.  Although Dr. King wrote it on slips of newspaper while leaning against the wall and had it copy-edited a few weeks later, this shining jewel of an epistle still resonates today.

In the spring of 1963 the Birmingham bus boycott was in full affect.  America was in a state of unrest; a young Civil Rights movement teetered between violent outrage and Dr. King’s non-violent disobedience.  The movement warred with the white establishment, government, and local agitators.  Hundreds marched in the streets; many were thrown in jail.

While Dr. King was in jail for yet another protest, white clergy sent Dr. King a letter imploring Civil Rights leaders to cease civil disobedience, violent or otherwise.  Civil Rights and equality, they argued, would be won by different means, be it in the court system or through legislation.

Dr. King’s letter protested against that line of thought.  He believed that the black community had waited long enough, that the blank check of freedom guaranteed in the Declaration of Independence was long overdue for depositing.

In a scathing attack of this philosophy, he wrote, “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride towards freedom is not the White Citizens Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is an absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice …who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom.”

I get goosebumps every time I read that.  For Dr. King, white clergy (and their churches) made up just one more cog in a broken system of injustice. They served as another layer of systemic dysfunction.

In a sermon entitled, “Transformed Nonconformist,” Dr. King explained that clergy and churches have hindered progress throughout history: “The erstwhile sanction by the church of slavery, racial segregation, war, and economic exploitation is testimony to the fact that the church has harkened more to the authority of the world than to the authority of God.”

Many times, churches and clergy are still guilty of failing to “let justice roll down like the waters” (Amos 5:24): Even now, clergy can promote hate-speech and prejudice.  Churches ignore economic policies that neglect the poor.  Clergy turn a blind eye to legislation that systematizes–and in many ways sensationalizes–violence, war, and disparity.

Yet, it is the church that gave birth to the Civil Rights movement–and many other social justice movements–in the past.  Women’s suffrage, the pro-life movement, and the abolition of slavery are all products of the church.  My own home church in Florida wasn’t perfect, but we still empowered poor women and women on the margins by protesting abortion clinics, funding pro-life clinics, and providing much needed solace to one-time prostitutes and adult entertainers throughout Broward County.

For all of the injustice churches have promoted throughout history, good and righteousness are still very much a part of the church’s fabric.  Even Peter, upon whom Jesus built the church, needed to learn how to minister effectively despite his own prejudices and sin (see Acts 10:9-16).  For all its oddity and failure, a church filled with sinners trying to find their way is still Christ’s church.

Of course, each church has its own political flavor, and I am in no position to answer Dr. King’s challenge–I too stand guilty of Dr. King’s charge that, “The ultimate tragedy is not the brutality of the bad people, but the silence of the good people.”

But the Easter season is a good time to consider God’s justice for this time and place.  We can debate politics and the Bible all we want; but, at day’s end, we cannot sit idly by in an ever-changing world in which the marginalized continue to get pushed to the margins, and the privileged continue to gain more prestige.  Let Easter justice roll down, O Lord, let Easter justice roll down; and give us the courage to find our way.

The Texas Textbook Massacre

At the beginning of every high school history class I ever taught, I did a lesson on the goals of learning history.  Some goals are obvious—to know our past, for instance; others are subtle, like the fact that learning history encourages critical thinking.

This past week, the Texas Board of Education voted on a controversial set of revisions to public-school history textbooks that seems to downplay student critical thinking.  Several revisions included minimizing the role of Civil Rights, feminist, and Latino movements; validating the claims of Joseph McCarthy; and debunking the constitutional principle of the separation of church and state.

The 9-to-5 vote was split along party lines.  Republicans were in the majority; Democrats decried the legislation as a conservative take-over of mainstream historical interpretation.

Oddly enough, it was a group of Christians who were the most vocal proponents of these revisions.   In an invocation during one of the Board meetings, law professor Cynthia Dunbar affirmed that solid, conservative history can help re-establish America as “a Christian land governed by Christian principals.”  No wonder there was such vehemence against the separation of church and state by the Board’s majority.

Politicians who favored the revisions argued that they were simply correcting a left-leaning bias in the textbooks to begin with, what they called “revisionist” history.  But at this point, it’s hard to tell who the true revisionists really are.

Writing history is difficult.  It is not as simple as listing a set of cold, hard facts for a reader.  History—good history—weaves events into a narrative quilt that reveals how facts relate to one another and influence humanity’s story.  This inspires critical thinking about the past, and it proposes how the past informs our present and future.

It is true that every writer of history decides what particular facts are relevant.  These decisions are motivated by a plethora of factors.  This was the bone of contention in the Texas Board of Education.

Over 400 amendments to the legislation were debated and voted on.   Results were telling: The first African American to serve on the Supreme Court, Thurgood Marshall, will not have any of his writings published in the curriculum; and any mention of hip hop’s influence in contemporary culture was nixed.

Lesson standards now require that students consider the “unintended consequences” of Affirmative Action and Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” agenda.

Fortunately, an amendment that would have excluded Deist Thomas Jefferson from a list of the most important American Founders did not pass.  On a positive note, Thomas Edison will be reinstated as an important figure in American industrialism.

What we can all learn from the Texas Board of Education’s debacle is that history is not entirely objective.  We all approach history from our own biases.  My only problem with the Board’s decision is that these textbook debates have erupted to the detriment of our children.

Emphasizing one’s interpretation of history over others–especially when it caters to one brand of religious ideology–is not good history; in fact, it disregards critical thinking.

When it intends to educate, the writing of history is not supposed to be politicized.  Textbooks should expose students to a variety of historical perspectives so that students can wrestle with the complex issues of yesteryear.

Christians, in particular, should champion this approach, for we believe that it is in one’s ability to think critically that faith in the one, true God becomes most profound.

Ultimately, taking away one’s ability to think critically about history dulls the very minds and imaginations of potential leaders of tomorrow.  And when it is a group of Christians robbing students of this ability in the public sphere, it also threatens the intellectual integrity of the Christian faith as a whole.


“American History Preserved in Textbooks” ( )

“Despite Protests, Texas Board Passes Conservative Textbook Curriculum” (

“The Texas Textbook War in Historical Context” (