JIM KITCHENS: Will Campbell sought a welcome for all

By Jim Kitchens

We lost a great native son this week, a man who was a gentle giant of a prophet.
Will Campbell, born in Amite County, ordained a Baptist preacher at the age of 17, and a lifelong crusader for racial reconciliation, died this past Monday in Nashville at the age of 88.
Unfortunately, not nearly enough Mississippians know about Campbell or his inspiring legacy. I didn’t learn of him until after I had moved to the west coast in the mid-70s to study for the Presbyterian ministry.
His call for harmony among all people, though, came to strongly shape my own commitment to build Christian communities in which all of God’s children would be welcomed, loved, and honored.
Campbell’s prophetic call came from his deep reflection on 2 Corinthians 5:18-20:
“All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” (NRSV)
Campbell’s insight into this passage was that the work of reconciliation (including reconciliation between the races) already has been accomplished through the work of Jesus.
Because of Christ’s reconciling work, the common calling of all Christians is to live as if reconciliation was actually true: to be a community in which all are welcomed, no matter their skin color or station in life.
I had the privilege of spending time with Campbell at his home in Mt. Juliet, Tenn., when I served as a pastor in Nashville. I was introduced to him by a retired pastor who had served a church in Mississippi during the 1960s but had been forced out of his pulpit because of his support for integration. Though the three of us were of different generations, we shared a similar faith journey.
Driving up to his home, I was struck by two things: how unimposing Campbell looked as he stood on his front porch to welcome us and the rustic log cabin that sat across the creek from his house.
The three of us walked over to the log cabin. It had simple furnishings and was heated by a wood burning stove. Its only nods toward modernity were a bare bulb hanging from an electric wire above his writing desk and an ancient Apple II computer.
We spent most of the day talking about growing up in Mississippi: what we loved about the state and its people, and how the traditions with which we grew up still shaped us even though we had moved away.
We also talked about how our hearts had ached at the everyday injustices we had witnessed growing up, especially in terms of the relationships between our white and black brothers and sisters in Christ.
Toward the end of our time together, the conversation circled back to the passage from II Corinthians that had formed the bedrock of our lives and ministries.
Will told me he had never meant to be a radical (though many thought of him in those terms). He had never meant to be a national figure in the civil rights struggle (through he was the only white person present at the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference).
Instead, he said, he had simply sought to live every day of his life as if each person he met – black or white, Hispanic or Asian – was a fellow child of God, as beloved by our Creator as himself. Only that, and no more.
How different would the communities in which we live be if all of us who are Christians began to live our daily life in that same way: to live as if reconciliation had, indeed, already been accomplished? Could it be that we are all called to be gentle giants?
JIM KITCHENS is a Presbyterian minister who has served congregations in California and Tennessee. He is on the staff of his denomination’s program that supports new clergy in their first call to ministry and is a consultant working with congregations undergoing transition. His book “The Postmodern Parish” was published by the Alban Institute. This summer he will be a Coolidge Fellow in a colloquium jointly sponsored by Crosscurrents magazine and New York’s Auburn Seminary. A native of New Albany, he and his wife Deborah live in Sacramento, Calif. He is a former reporter for the Daily Journal.