Monday, October 4, 2010

I Remember Ernie

I just read where Dr. Ernest Campbell died in July. Somehow I missed this in the papers. The Church was always better because of Ernie Campbell was a minister. He was a native of New York City and you could tell it when he talked. He never lost that sharp New York accent.

Somehow he got to Bob Jones University, the fundamentalist bastion in South Carolina. Thank God he shed most of whatever he learned there. He went on to Princeton Seminary, served four churches in Pennsylvania before moving to the Presbyterian Church at Ann Arbor, Michigan. I remember hearing a story later about that time in Ann Arbor, which captures the spirit of Ernie. After Lee Oswald assassinated President Kennedy and was killed, he left behind his wife, Marina whom he had brought to this country from Russia. Campbell and his church in Ann Arbor took her in. He saw a need of this hurting woman with few friends in a strange land. He believed strongly in reaching out to the least of these and controversy never stopped him from doing what he felt was right.

I first discovered Campbell when I was a young preacher. He was Pastor at the Riverside Church in New York City. This was during the stormy sixties and seventies. When I was studying in the summers at Princeton I always went to hear Dr. Campbell on Sundays. He was redheaded and sometimes he could be fiery. I was there one Sunday when tourists tromped in, walked noisily down the side aisle taking pictures. He stopped the sermon, turned beet-red and said, “This is a house of worship. You may worship with us or you can leave.” The tourists fled.

I was so struck with his sermons that I began to get them weekly in the mail. I still remember some of those sermons after all these years. “Every Battle is not Armageddon” “The Home-Court Advantage’” One Sunday a group of militant African-Americans stormed in one Sunday and took over the service, demanding reparations. He responded days later by preaching on: “The Case for Reparations.” I remember him telling one story about visiting a prominent family who lived in a mansion outside the city. It was a beautiful place on a lake and was furnished impeccably. In the driveway were two Cadillacs. They had just returned from Europe. And they told Ernie that every Sunday night they called their daughter long-distance. “It’s our only luxury, “ they told him. You can imagine where he went with that!

He told of group of ministers about his own bout with plagiarism. When he was on the speaking circuit many weekends he would change planes in a certain deep-South city. On that strop-over he would read the Saturday paper just to see what the sermon topics were for the next day. He kept seeing titles that had a strangely familiar ring from the same prominent preacher. One Sunday he decided to visit that church and heard one of his own sermons word for word. He asked for copies of the Pastor’s sermons. For months the man had been preaching Campbell’s sermons. Ernie told the Preacher that he could expect legal action and remuneration for using his sermons without permission.

His Pastoral Prayers were memorable and some of them were published in a volume, Where Cross the Crowded Ways. Some would call those prayers old fashioned because he used Elizabethan English. “I deem it more important that God be our Lord and not our pal.” One of those prayers ended like this:

We look now to our own needs, and the wants that masquerade as needs; and pray for the wisdom to know one from the other:

Help us to accept ourselves, that we may be delivered from the need of self-promotion;
Help us to commit ourselves, that we may shake the need to be diverted and distracted;
Help us to deny ourselves; that the strident clamorings of the flesh and self may be subdued;
Help us to know ourselves, that we may neither overestimate nor underestimate our gifts;
Let Thy love so prevail in the life and ministry of this congregation that each may count the other precious, and all of us tgether erect within the
se walls, and beyond, a tstimony to the truth that sets men (sic) free. We pray to Thee, O Father, in the power of the Spirit. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen."
He dedicated that book and its proceeds to the vision of Caesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers’ National Union. There is no doubt what he would have say about today’s immigrant conflict.

Somewhere along the way we became friends. “Call me Ernie,” he would say. From time to time I would receive a note of encouragement from him. He came to South Carolina one weekend and preached for us. Through his books, sermons, and personal conversations he became one of my mentors. I loved all his work but I most appreciated the time he gave to a young struggling Pastor. His social conscience taught me how important it is to speak truth to power. His faithfulness to the church through his incredible gifts long after his retirement exemplified a love for the church and a commitment to excellence to the word that God sent.

When I retired as Pastor one of the letters I always treasured came from Ernie Campbell. Along with that letter he included a poem by Barrie Shepherd who had recently retired from his parish in the city. As I read of his Ernie's death, I dug out that letter and poem. So Ernie I give bck to you this day the words you gave me several years ago.

“Carefully or not, lives lead us
towards turnings where, despite our best efforts,
and everything that can be boxed
and loaded into vans, much must be left behind,
abandoned to those shifting, was sinking sands
of time and memory.

The gifts , of course, we carry with us,
blessed tokens, symbols, talismen (and women too)
Recalling gladness, gaiety and laughter—
plus the occasional tear.

The tearing part, that shreds the human fabric,
is the parting, all the fare-thee-wells,
the separating of the self from faces,
voices, smiles and fond embraces,
And we do this—since we must—
only in the solemn trust that the One
who blessed us with these gifts will hold us
somehow in them till, at last, all turnings
are accomplished and the radiant circle
of affection and delight is sealed,
eternally complete.”
--Barrie Shepherd

Weeks from now we will celebrate All Saints Day. I will remember dear Ernie as we sing:

“And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long,
Steals on the ear the distant triumph song,
And hearts are brave again, and arms are strong.
Alleluia! Alleluia!”

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