Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Will Campbell--a Real Live Baptist

As so many so-called Baptists are getting on the bandwagon to deny gay scouts from that organization--I learned of Will Campbell's death.

Preacher Will--a Baptist preacher--colored outside every line. He was ordained in Mississippi with a Bible the KKK had given to his church. But he caught a larger vision which took everybody in.

He loved hard, living people--but he really loved everybody. He walked with the little children trying to integrate schools in Little Rock. He was a friend of many of the Civil Rights' leaders. John McCain couldn't hold a candle to this maverick. He visited James Earl Ray in jail. He went on the road with Waylon Jennings and other country music folk and was their Chaplain. He knew them all: Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Dick Gregory, Jules Feiffer and Studs Terkel just to name a few. He baptized some of them, counseled them and had their weddings and their funerals. Despite his commitment to civil rights--he believed that old idea that in the South that all poor people had been discriminated against--whites and blacks. So he was friends with leaders in the KKK. He spoke out against war and poverty and had little use for the institutional church. He reached his arms around all the alienated.

Yet he believed deeply in the Bible and its inclusiveness. Not some inclusiveness--but for everyone. He wrote books that warmed many a heart. His book,  Brother To a Dragonfly told the story of his Pharmacist-brother's struggle with drug addiction. In one of his books he says that one of his sorrows was that "there weren't any Baptists anymore." Well--there was at least one. His name was Will. He gave hope to a multitude of Baptist preachers in particular that were trying to be faithful in a difficult time.

This morning I was reading in the book of Exodus when there are instructions of how to build and furnish the tabernacle. I was struck with passages in Exodus 25 and 26. The centerpiece of the worship center was to be "the mercy seat." The Mercy seat sat atop the Ark of the Covenant which was kept in the Holy of Holies first in the Tabernacle and later in the Temple. The Mercy Seat was sometimes called the throne or the footstool of God on earth. Animals were sacrificed there for the sins of the people and any uncleanness that defiled the sanctuary. The word mercy seat meant to cover or to wipe clean.

What happened to the church? Not just Baptists but just about every group that claims the name of Jesus. The heart of it all is to be a place of mercy. Will Campbell kept trying to keep the Mercy Seat front and center. His message offended almost all of us from time to time. But deep in our hearts on our better days we know that pure kindly light is not just for some but for all. Will Campbell knew about mercy...and we still need to listen closely to his message.

(You might be interested in Bill Leonard's splendid piece on Will Campbell--it's great.)

(The statue at the beginning of this article can be found at Five Points in Birmingham (AL.) Brother Bryan was a Presbyterian preacher who loved everyone and gave his life to the people of the city. Rich, poor--it did not matter. After his death the people of Birmingham had this beautiful rendering of Brother Bryan and placed it at the cross-roads in downtown Birmingham. 

The Golden Cross hangs in the St. Aloysius Catholic Church in Oxford England. Gerald Manley Hopkins was Curate in this church for a year.)

1 comment:

  1. Will Campbell’s eloquent memoir, Brother to a Dragonfly, was monumental in helping me to understand what it means to be a southern white Christian having grown up during the 1960s. It remains one of the handful of books that I count as landmarks in my own pilgrimage of faith.