Freedom Within, Freedom Without

As is so often the case… I was late to the party.

The virtual wake for Will D. Campbell, that is. When he passed away earlier this week, my newsfeed filled up quickly with articles about his life and work. As a general rule, if I see something go by more than 5 times, I take a minute to read it. After all, if so many people are thinking/talking about something…there’s a good chance it needs to go into my sermon notes for the week.

So I started reading up on the late pastor/author/civil rights activist, and I realized I’d heard his name before, in any number of circles. It just didn’t stick. The more I read, the more sorry I was that I’d never met him or heard him speak. I resolved to add some of his books to my summer reading list.

Others have paid homage to the life of this extraordinary leader far better than I could–having arrived so late to his party and all. But I’ll tell you what weighs on my mind this week as I read about his life: how many prophets has the church run out to the wilderness? And how many more can we afford to lose in our lifetime?

Campbell has been called a ‘maverick minister,’ a ‘knot of contradictions,’ and was a self-proclaimed ‘Baptist preacher from the south, but not a Southern Baptist preacher.’ In addition to hanging out with people like Thomas Merton, Johnny Cash, and Martin Luther King, Jr, Campbell devoted his life to mingling with those on the fringes, and speaking up for their rights. Predictably, the Church of the 50’s and 60’s didn’t want to hear it.

And predictably, this bravely outspoken and impassioned man struck out for other pulpits: he figured out quick that, if the Church was not ready to hear his message from within their own walls, he might have more of a voice coming from the outside–from the wilderness. And so, out he went. He lived out his calling to ministry in extraordinary ways…but he did not stay and waste his breath on ears that were not ready to hear his message of radical inclusion. He re-framed it for the rest of the world, connected with people in various contexts–including an actual Klansman he went to meet in person–and went about ‘preaching’ good news and transformation with his every breath.

Thing is–the ‘radical’ message that got him ousted from the Baptist church, the University of Mississippi, and pretty much the South at large…was not all that radical. Or at least, it doesn’t sound so radical to us, on this side of history–50-plus years later. But to the Church in that time and place, the idea that black and white people should worship together, work together, go to school together and drink from the same fountain… it was pretty out there.

So up Will Campbell got, and out he went. And he was a part of transforming the world in big, big ways. Ways that most pastors and preachers today can only dream about. He preached, he taught, he hung out with important people and appalling people alike, and pushed the boundaries of everything that was comfortable and normal. Just like Jesus.

Amazing that he had to leave church in order to act like Jesus.

The Church today–in the South and elsewhere–is deeply ashamed of its roots in racism. Most mainline denominations have whole branches of general ministry devoted to ‘reconciliation.’ We equip leaders to engage in cross-racial dialogue, and try to overcome the mistakes of ‘back then,’ and try to keep from making them again. We seek to teach our kids the importance of diversity, so THEY won’t repeat the ugliness that we read about–or remember–from that period in history.

And yet…all the while we are trying to clean up a big mess that can never be cleaned up…we are in the midst of making our own mess. To be cleaned up later, of course.  So many churches are still telling a big demographic of people that they are less-than; that they may be loved and forgiven by God, but that they are somehow not OF God. The silent church condones the bullying of LGBT youth; the hate-filled and vocal church continues the cycle of spiritual abuse; and the mildly tolerant church says…take that outside. We are not ready.

And out into the wilderness, go God’s prophets again. I can’t help but wonder how many Will D. Campbells of our own generation have struck out to find other pulpits, weary of the congregation/region/institution that will not hear the radical word. I wonder how many brave, outspoken souls have answered their call to ministry in other places besides the church–perhaps, any place BUT the church–because they felt they could better transform the world from outside, rather than being silenced within?

My heart aches for the voices already lost to ministry in our time and place. I don’t just hurt for the preachers themselves, who have been turned out–or made to flee in frustration–from the churches that they loved so well. I hurt for the Body of Christ, and all the great sermons we are missing, as those preachers go seek higher ground.

I’m not all gloom and doom about this subject. In fact, I am encouraged nearly every day by brave pastors who speak the truth of welcome at Christ’s table; institutions seeking to articulate a true gospel of inclusion; believers who’ve been transformed in their own relationships. There’s good news out there for those who seek equality, and for those who preach it. There’s good news for the church that might be, 50  years from now.

But there are voices in the wilderness too. And likely, it’s the Church that put them there. As we dig out from under that not-so-ancient shame of racism, we have to ask…what story will we be telling our children about this time in our lives?

I’m thankful for the life of a great man, even if I’m just now hearing his story. Late to the party as I may be, I can still let his life speak a challenge to my own.

You don’t have to be a pastor or a preacher, or even a Christian, to be a prophetic voice for change. If you want to tell your kids that you did everything you could to make the world a little less hateful…then get to doing everything you can. Get to making friends with shady people, and get to speaking some good words into the darkness.

Brother Will would approve.





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  • mhelbert

    Yes, it’s sad that sometimes the prophet has to leave the Church in order to be God’s voice. It would be better if the Church, herself, was being the prophetic voice in the world. But, perhaps God is the One who drives the prophet to the wilderness where her/his voice can be heard by others.