The Steeple Dropout: Will Campbell, 1924-2013
Childress, Kyle, The Christian Century
I HAD NEVER heard of Will Campbell until the day I walked into a bookstore and saw a brand-new novel called The Glad River, written by a Baptist preacher whom the dust jacket described as a "steeple dropout" and veteran civil rights activist.
I was a student pastor of a small rural Texas Baptist church. While I didn't know it yet, it was a good church. But at the time the church and I were in turmoil over the issue of race. At one point I had a shotgun pulled on me with the threat to blow my "nigger-loving head off"; in the year ahead I would have a man come after me in a congregational meeting to "whip the pastor's ass because I'm tired of his preaching on race."
After reading the dust jacket I didn't hesitate; I bought the book. I read The Glad River in three days and then cried for another three.
I found a copy of Campbell's Brother to a Dragonfly and cried some more. Then I sat down and wrote a long letter to him about my struggle with my congregation over race, my struggle about remaining Baptist and my struggle with what seemed like almost everything.
In those days I was just discovering the works of Wendell Berry, John Howard Yoder, Stanley Hauerwas, Walter Brueggemann and James McClendon and soaking in their ideas. Now Campbell came along, speaking to my heart in a way that unleashed the grief and joy of all the heady changes that were happening.
When Campbell wrote back, I expected this prophet to call me to fight "the Enemy." Instead he encouraged me to love my enemies and discover that they are my neighbors, my sisters and brothers whom Christ has reconciled.
This "steeple dropout" didn't tell me to stay in this small steeple, but he came close. Whether I decided to go or to stay, he said, "the issue is not right or wrong, justice or injustice, good or bad. It's human tragedy, and in a tragedy you can't take up sides. You just have to minister to the hurt wherever you find it." He continued: "Maybe some of your church members are assholes, but God loves them, and us, anyway," echoing the words that became among his most quoted.
"Well shit! …