I’ve been thinking about Will Campbell recently.
If you aren’t familiar with Will, he was the campus chaplain when Ole Miss was integrated and was a courageous voice for civil rights. He was a writer, Brother To a Dragonfly being his best known book. He was also tour chaplain for Waylon Jennings and inspiration for cartoonist Doug Marlette’s Will B. Dunn character in the Kudzu comic strip.
I had the good fortune to hear Will when I was a student at Furman. I don’t remember what he said in the Wednesday morning lecture series but I’ll never forget the Tuesday evening gathering with Religion majors and other ministerially minded folks. (We used to get Tuesday night exclusives with the Wednesday speakers, followed by a cheese and cracker reception.)
During this reception one of our more conservative students engaged Will in an argument. As the argument escalated the rest of us started circling them, high noon style. The student, Chuck, called Will the worst thing he could think of – a communist. Will called Chuck a damned liar.
We collectively held our breath for the next volley. Some of us were kind of looking forward to it because Chuck was a thorn in our progressive sides. We wanted to see him taken down.
It never came. Instead, Will put his arm around Chuck’s shoulder.
“We disagree,” he said. “We’ll probably always disagree.” He then went on to say something to the effect that in Christ they were still brothers and that he loved him.
Will wasn’t just there when the Southern Leadership Conference was formed. He was also the unofficial civil rights chaplain of the Ku Klux Klan, listening to them and trying to understand them. He knew they were in need of conversion.
But then again, aren’t we all.
When Campbell died in 2013, a writer in Alabama shared the following story:
In a 1989 speech at Samford, Campbell criticized the Southern Baptist Convention’s plans to meet and evangelize in Las Vegas. “I said something a few weeks ago in Greenville, S.C., that got me in some trouble, so I’ll repeat it,” he said. “If we want to have an authentic Christian witness, we need to go, one by one, to the brothels and ask the women we call whores, ‘Please, Ma’am, please teach us something about grace, because in our certitude, we’re not even aware that we need grace.”
We need grace, all of us.
No matter where we stand on issues or what Bible verses we like to fling at each other, may we be certain about this one thing.