I miss Will Campbell

I miss Will Campbell. Especially this week. It’s days like this past Tuesday, election day, as I listen to alleged unifiers that I remember some of the true prophets of our country, and I think of Will.

Will was born in southwest Mississippi to white sharecroppers, went off to Yale to be educated, and returned home to be a Baptist preacher. He soon got involved in the Civil Rights movement, became an agitator (because he raised a whole lot of questions), and generally caused all kinds of problems for the white crowd. Especially the church.

When Will came home and began to preach he soon discovered a disconnect. You see, he proudly returned home a white, liberal male, believing initially that as a white, liberal male he could teach his brethren a thing or two about how to treat black people. He thought that he knew better than the establishment and could teach others. He then recognized his own arrogance, and began to ask if the white, liberal establishment was also arrogant in presuming they knew what was best for their neighbor. They – he – didn’t let their neighbors speak for themselves. Funny how we do this. Will decided eventually to leave the institutional church, believing that personal encounters and relationships would prove more effective with “race relations” than institutional mandates and political speak. He moved to a farm outside Nashville.

Will agitated the whole wash cycle, as it were. White folks didn’t like the questions he raised for an establishment that was and is, even now, fading from its own supposed top place in culture. Will believed in Jesus, and actually believed that Jesus’ disciples could be white and black. And black folks began to yell back and distrust him when, as keynote speaker at a NAACP convention, he said he was “pro-Klansmen.” Will sat at the bedside of the ailing and dying wife of a Klan member, believing it was important for him to be present to another human being in the most dire of circumstances, no matter religious, philosophical, or political leanings. He sat at the bedside of a dying person and yet, was reviled. Will declared that he didn’t agree with the Klan one iota, which everyone knew to be the case, but in the end had to be there for people. Funny that a hick, Baptist preacher from Mississippi knew how to better respond to questions from media and culture about race than an alleged, current leader of a political party who comes from New York City.

Will would later write of race and his experience at the bedside of a dying woman that “there are no sides when it comes to the nature of tragedy.”

Indeed, there are no sides to take when it comes to tragedy. Yet, we are told by our alleged leaders of both political parties that there are sides to take. I get that we must vote for one candidate over another. We all do this when it comes to the day of elections. But I am saddened that alleged leaders pick on others in the midst of disagreement. It seems as if these leaders want to create an atmosphere of disagreement. They have all done a good job with this. It makes me angry. I get righteously angry. It makes me want to move to a farm outside of Nashville. Some now suggest moving to Canada.

Most of us will not move to Nashville or Canada, though I have been to both and they are nice places. But moving or yelling over someone are not healthy ways to solve anything. Funny how we do this.

But how many of us contribute to the toxicity of politics and life of which we read and complain about every day? If we are angry with an alleged unifier of angry and disparate people and wonder how this could come to be, we need to not look any farther than the mirror. We are vulgar on message boards, in text messages, and the internet and yet, now we wonder how our alleged leaders foment divisiveness and vulgarity. We have created this divide and the alleged unifier is merely paying lip service to what we have done.

Will so believed that even the church was too caught up in picking sides that he left the institutional church for life on a farm outside of Nashville, from where he would write for thousands of people like me and from where he would become an unofficial chaplain to the country music world and so many that identified as “non-church” people.

The Rev. Will D. Campbell. Credit Seabury Press

The Rev. Will D. Campbell. Credit Seabury Press

Will left the institutional church but never stopped being a disciple of Jesus. He never moved from the center of a room in which people disagreed. Who might be a good leader for our country, our state, our city, even our neighborhood or family? It could be someone who calls us to engage with those with whom we disagree, rather than resorting to name-calling, screaming, or division. Living with others with whom we disagree is called life. It was originally called by another name – politics. I can honestly say in weeks like this “God, I miss Will.”