August 20, 2001
Christianity meets social conscience in the maverick ministry of Will Campbell
The last thing you expect to see as you turn down the dirt road is a half-acre of bamboo rising tall from this cool, dark, Southern soil. The wind suddenly has made an about-face and is blowing in from the north, whispering through the creaky shoots and jingle-jangling a wind chime somewhere close by. Will Campbell (G 48) has a story about the wind chime, and he probably has a story about the bamboo, too.
There are so many stories. Each thing on this 57-acre farm outside of Nashville seems invested with meaning: a field of daffodils, a log cabin, a cast-iron fish pond, a handmade bridge, an altar of stone.
Driving onto the Campbell homestead is kind of like visiting Disney World or Rock City: Theres something unreal, created and even a tad kitsch about the place, but at the same time its familiar and folksy and fun. Call it magical--any child would, and children know about these things. So does the steady stream of pilgrims who are pulled to the farm by its strange gravitational charm.
Brother Will, as the folks in and around Mt. Juliet, Tenn., call him, is an ordained Baptist minister, social activist and author who has preached the word of God--as well as his own conscience--for six decades. He is regularly prevailed upon to baptize, marry or bury his neighbors and gives counsel and shelter to those in need. Some come from across the country--burned-out pastors and frightened draft dodgers, Black Muslims and white Klansmen. Brother Wills door stays open.
At 76, Campbell is on the backside of a hardheaded, warm-hearted and maverick ministry that has led him from dirt-poor rural Mississippi, through the racial battlefields of Little Rock, Birmingham, Montgomery and Jackson, and on to the steps of the White House. In December, President Bill Clinton presented Campbell with the National Humanities Medal for his work in creating a body of fiction and non-fiction literature that paralleled and gave voice to his endeavors as a down-home minister and civil rights activist, and has, as one friend has said, "helped us lay down the burden of race."
Campbell dismisses the notion that he is some kind of guru or folk hero, but he has become something of an icon in this area. Waiters and store clerks down in Nashville who arent likely to have read any of his 16 published books or know of his role in the Little Rock crisis of 57, have heard about the old man up here in Mt. Juliet. They know just enough to understand hes somehow different, perhaps eccentric, somebody whos done something.
"City slickers," mumbles Campbell at the inability of his visitor to master the homemade wooden latch on his cabin door. His voice is tinged more with bemusement than irritation. Its his way of saying, Welcome to my world, such as it is. He correctly guesses that youre already under the farms spell and that finding him at work in his tiny log cabin, some 200 yards behind the main house, is part of the fun. Inside, Campbell is sitting comfortably in front of the glowing screen of his computer. The other major piece of technology in the room is a wood-burning stove. If youre looking for metaphors, there they are: past and present, old and new, yin and yang.
Turns out Brother Will is at once both a simple and a complex man who has spent a lifetime confounding his critics, loving his enemies and distrusting the institutions he was supposed to embrace. "Sometimes I think Im a tourist attraction," quips Campbell about the traffic of souls that comes to his door.
Raised a Southern Baptist and ordained in his senior year of high school, Campbell has long abandoned the conventional traditions of a Southern Baptist ministry. He prefers to be thought of as a Baptist minister of the South and administers his pastoral care either out of this cabin, the local tavern or in the homes--and, in some cases, cell blocks--of his "flock."
Out back, theres a fish pond where hell baptize you with three scoops of water. Inside the cabin, theres just enough room for a couple and their wedding party. Just yesterday he received a call from a Baptist preacher living in Wyoming who doesnt know what to do with the rest of his life. Campbell says hes not a counselor, but hell talk to the man when he arrives. "What they are after and what they get when they come here I dont know," he says. "I sometimes think that Christianity can be caught more than it can be taught. If there is something in this rocky, junky farm here that people find meaningful I will be pleased, but I didnt plan it that way. It just happened."
Theres plenty that "just happened" in Campbells life. Its improbable that a child from a rural, poverty-stricken and bigoted county in southern Mississippi would become one of the most eloquent and provocative advocates of social equality of his time. If God does indeed work in mysterious ways, Brother Wills got to be one of them. It would be nice if Campbell had a collection of old photographs to paw through, but he doesnt. And maybe thats appropriate.
Even as a child, precociously preaching at local revival meetings or wearing down the wick while penciling in cowboy stories, Campbell demonstrated an affinity for words. Hes a born storyteller, and he opens his past to you through a medley of anecdotes, confessions and recollections. Read his autobiographical Brother to a Dragonfly to get the full measure of this ability.
For now, know that Campbell attributes a number of circumstances--including his time as a student at Tulane--to the shaping of his personal ideology. He recalls his grandfather chiding his cousins and himself for taunting an elderly African-American man with catcalls. He remembers the time when, as a medic in the South Pacific during World War II, he was roused from his barracks to help a surgeon operate on a native houseboy who was kicked by a wealthy planter for dropping an ashtray.
He still marvels at arriving at the mind-blowing understanding that some of his beloved professors at his undergraduate alma mater, Wake Forest University, were bigots.
At Tulane, the experience was more positive. Campbell and his wife, Brenda, spent a year in New Orleans in 1948 while he prepared for Yale Divinity School by taking classes at Tulane. "I dont recall any particular Damascus Road experience," says Campbell, "but I did enjoy the intellectual situation in an urban community, which is an experience I hadnt had before."
He remembers one professor with whom he would attend NAACP and Urban League meetings, and with whom he would pass out leaflets needling the Tulane administration for not admitting blacks. "You are not truly a university if you have that in your charter," he says. "We all knew that wasnt going to last."
Still, the ordained Baptist preacher found Tulane a "more liberating" experience precisely because it was secular. "Other [religious-based] schools were trying to turn you loose but not quite turn you loose. Tulane was more for letting your mind go where it would."
Brother Will, however, probably didnt need much encouragement to let his mind go thither. Thinking "outside the box" was as natural for Campbell as breathing. After finishing up at Yale Divinity School in 1952, he set out for his life "under the steeples" as a Baptist minister. His first--and only--pastorate in Taylor, La., however, came to an end after 18 months when he became disillusioned with the efficacy of preaching from the pulpit.
In trying to communicate the significance of the Supreme Courts 1954 ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education, Campbell initially sensed only amusement and then growing anger from his congregation. In the biography Will Campbell--Radical Prophet of the South, author Merrill Hawkins Jr. quotes Campbell as saying, "The only way to teach anybody is precept and example. The pulpit, thats probably the poorest way to communicate with a congregation."
Hoping to find an environment where his words and ideas would have more resonance, Campbell took the position of director of religious life at the University of Mississippi. Exchanging the pulpit for a desk did little to alleviate his frustration, however. A decade before James Meredith would clash with the university as its first African-American student, Campbell was there, preparing the way. Through his personal actions, Brother Will sought to demonstrate and promote integration. In one infamous incident, Campbell dared to play a game of pingpong with one of the towns black ministers.
A few days later he awoke to find his lawn covered with pingpong balls, painted half black and white. He really "got into trouble" when he invited a priest to talk at the university about integration. The problem was that the priest recently had won $32,000 on a television game show and donated the sum to the NAACP.
"You would have thought I was bringing Joseph Stalin to campus," says Campbell. "That was all I heard for the next six to eight months I was there." So Campbell pulled up stakes and "got a job with what I thought was the most free and freedom-loving religious institution in the world," the National Council of Churches, which had a long heritage of social activism.
As troubleshooter for the NCC, Campbell roamed the South, offering spiritual guidance and inspiration while providing counsel during boycotts and standoffs, marches and mayhem. "The NCC didnt know what to tell me to do and I didnt know what to do. So I just went to where the hot spots were, where the trouble was--New Orleans, Little Rock, Birmingham, Montgomery, Jackson and so on. Generally, one place was hotter than another at a particular time." In 1957, Campbell traveled to ground zero in the civil rights movement, Little Rock, Ark., where he helped escort nine black teenagers through angry mobs to Central High School.
Later that year, he was the only white present at the first meeting of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which was founded by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and others to coordinate and assist in establishing equality for blacks. Despite his efforts within the NCC and the civil rights movement, Campbell began to separate ideologically with the organization when he began to see the poor, uneducated, working-class whites--the very people who were joining the Klan--as victims of society, too.
They are victims, even if they are bigots and racists, he says, because they had been sold a bill of goods regarding their heritage and the righteousness of segregation. "Yes, you have to oppose them, I have to oppose them," says Campbell. "But lets do it with great humility and even say, Look, we lied to you; we misled you. It wasnt morally right what we were saying and we repented and we would like for you to repent with us now and put this thing together."
At a 1962 Chicago "conference on race to end all conferences on race," Campbell offered a strong dose of the evolving nature of this thinking. "I had in my comments that if black people are equally as good as whites, then they have potential to be equally as bad," says Campbell. "Thats what it means to be human, and if I understand human nature, then black people, when they get their much-deserved rights, will behave just like white people. Thats what power does to us."
Campbell was tapping into a fundamental concept of Judeo-Christian theology--the concept of original sin--in order to drive home the point of what "full equality" means. He admits, however, that he got "a little dramatic" in making his case. "I said, If I live to be as old as my father, I expect to see little white children clutching their toys to their breasts in Auschwitz fashion at the bidding of a black Eichmann."
In reviewing his remarks before the convention, one of his superiors at NCC told Campbell he couldnt publicly say those words. "I told him that that was what I believed, and he said, Well, believe that in Tennessee but dont say it in Chicago; thats only going to play into the hands of the enemy. " Who was the enemy? Rednecks, of course. "I didnt believe it then and I dont believe it now," says Campbell. Still, conference officials demanded he delete the inflammatory material from his comments. The original text, however, had already been distributed to the press. He had made his point.
Campbell approached that same point from another angle during an antiKu Klux Klan rally where he stood up before the participants and said, "I am pro Klansman because I am pro human." It may be the case that any good Baptist preacher is part showman. Still, the man may have a genius for getting attention. Now that he has it, he adds, "Note that I didnt say pro-Klan. I am pro human being, no matter what.
"One of the most difficult things that people have when they are dealing with Old Man Campbell is when they hear he has buried and married and gotten out of jail Ku Klux Klan people," he says. "And its a mystery to me that they dont understand that you cannot influence someone--certainly cannot convert them--if you dont talk to them."
Campbell left the NCC in 1963. It was the last time he would be involved in any conventional ministry or institutionalized endeavor. "It doesnt take a genius to figure out the nature of institutions," he says. "If something is a threat to the growth, security and well-being of that institution it is therefore evil and will not be tolerated." Unburdened from institutional constraints, Campbell began to fully embrace his role as a "bootleg preacher."
According to biographer Hawkins, Campbell "began to think of himself less as a social activist and more as a Christian with a social conscience." Campbells brand of Christianity is indirect. Youre more likely to hear him recount an incident at Gasss Tavern, the local bar, than quote a passage from the Bible. "Well, Jesus was not a religious person; he was a hell-raiser," says Campbell as he tries to refocus your understanding of the popular slogan, "What Would Jesus Do?"
"I think that I can make a case that His mission was to destroy religion," he adds. "He gave the religious people a devil of a time, you know." Campbell will remind you that Jesus ran with the "dregs" of society, and delights that some of his own colleagues and friends have been shocked at the blue-collar crowd that he and his wife, Brenda, hang with down at Gasss. "They have a good country band, good catfish, good beer, you know?" he says. "Many times somebody is going to the hospital and we have a break in the music for a prayer. The band stands, its a crazy thing, but it is meaningful to these folks cause I am one of them."
One friend who is a university professor has suggested to Campbell that he "run with higher-class folks." Brother Will smiles as he formulates it all into a succinct parable, of sorts: "Were all bastards but God loves us anyway."
He calls himself "a kind of kooky Christian, a radical Christian" who has turned his back on organized religion but not on God. He calls himself a "steeple dropout" and a "seventh-day horizontalist" who will minister on any day but Sunday. "But, you know," he says, "it is not anything that I make a big deal of. I bury a lot of people. I marry a lot of people as a clergyman. I visit a lot of prisons as a clergyman. But I dont do it in the name of any one institution."
The Bible has no mention of any sarcastic wit from Jesus, but Brother Will is not above launching a few barbs every now and then. Saying he probably does more real nuts-and-bolts ministering now than if he were serving a traditional congregation, he quips, "Most of the institutional preachers that I know--some of them visit prisoners and that sort of thing--but most of them are too busy planning their tea parties."
And all the while Campbell has supported himself, his wife and, until they were grown, his three children through his writing and lecturing. "You can look around," he says with a mischievous smile, gesturing to the tiny interior of his cabin. "You see it hasnt been in elaborate fashion." Campbells Brother to a Dragonfly (1977), a poignant memoir tracing the lives of two brothers, was a National Book Award finalist and cited by Time magazine as one of 10 most notable books of the 1970s.
His novel The Glad River (1982) won the Friends of American Writers first prize for fiction. Providence (1992), a history of one square mile of land in Homes County, Miss., was awarded the Richard Wright Prize for Literary Excellence. Ask him if his writing is a tool for social activism, and Campbell demurs. "I think it is more of a hobby, a pleasure," he says. Although he has taught creative writing at Mercer University, he maintains that the ability to write is something you must be born with.
Being a 45-pound weakling who shied away from playing ball with cousins also gives you plenty of childhood time to hone your craft. "Writing was something I could do that the big guys couldnt do," he says. "Everything I have ever written comes out of my childhood, one way or another," says Campbell. "I think childhood is so important because whatever we are going to be for the rest of our lives is what we are then." Then, hed stay up all night, writing cowboy stories on a Blue Horse notepad by the light of a kerosene lamp.
"Cowboy stories were the only thing I had read, other than the Bible," he says, "and I was pretty sure that I couldnt improve on that--at least at that time." Its as if he cant resist poking fun, needling the conventions of what a preacher ought to say, ought to do, ought to be.
At 76, Campbells now at work on a new book. This one will recount the lives of three Mississippi men--black, white and Choctaw--all of whom were involved in the civil rights movement in that state and all of whom remained there to "put the pieces back together" after the out-of-state activists had moved on. He remembers the bad old days, when he was regarded as a foreign agitator by the very people who grew up with him in Liberty, Miss. "I was a denial and a threat to them," he says. "I denied the family, I denied the culture, and I denied the faith because God was the original segregationist. They believed that, you know."
He recalls his daddy warning him not to come home; it wasnt safe. Years later Campbell bumped into his best childhood friend. The two talked for a while before Campbell asked, "How close did I come?" "Well," his friend replied, "I wouldnt have let them kill you, but we were going to have an understanding." Campbell then learned that his friend and a group of others from Campbells boyhood had spent one dark night riding the country roads looking for him on the rumor that Campbell was down to visit his father. They were ready to teach him a lesson.
"The only problem," Campbell told his friend, "is that you all get me down on the Homochitto bottom and beat the hell out of me and have your understanding, and then you say, OK boys, turn him loose, thats enough. And they are not going to turn me loose cause they dont know who I work for, really, or what I am doing--whether I am FBI or CIA, whether I am wired so everything is being sent to Washington. Theyd have had to kill me, and then theyd have had to kill you, too." "Well," said his friend, "they would have had to kill me." And that, says Campbell, "is the strange, convoluted loyalty of little Southern boys."
For what might be the first time this morning, Campbell pauses. Stops talking. Listens to the crackle of the stoves flames. Whatever wisdom or insight can be extracted from the tale will have to wait because it is lunchtime. Brother Will is up, stretching his legs and talking again, this time about some dive of a barbecue joint down the highway.
Outside the cabin, the temperature has already dropped 15 degrees and the wind makes it feel even cooler. It carries the sound of the wind chime all the way to the cabin. Follow the sound and youll find the chime dangling from a high branch near the house. Its a homemade thing, constructed from a pie pan, a conch shell and galvanized pipe.
"I call it my cathedral," says Campbell with an impish grin. He steps inside the house to see if Brenda is up for barbecue.
Nick Marinello is a senior editor at Tulane and a regular contributor to Tulanian. This article originally appeared in the Summer 2001 issue of Tulanian.
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