Two nights ago, Will D. Campbell, author, pastor, civil rights activist and general rabble-rouser, passed away. I became acquainted with Brother Will through Hugh Hollowell, who credits Campbell’s work as the reason he became a pastor running a ministry serving an at-risk population. Both Hugh and another friend, Lia Scholl (the one and only @roguereverend) credit Campbell with changing their life.They’re not the only ones: reading “Brother to a Dragonfly” changed mine.
There is a moment in this book where Brother Will is telling about a conversion moment he had after realizing his social liberal creed was no different from the fundamentalist creed of his youth. He said “We were right in aligning ourselves with the black sufferer. But we were wrong in not directing some of our patience and energy and action to a group which also had a history. A history of slavery. The redneck’s slavery, called indentured servitude, was somewhat, but only somewhat unlike that of black slaves. He was told that if he would serve the master for five years, or seven years, he would then be free in a new and prosperous land. But, freedom to what, and in what? Freedom to flounder , to drift, to wander west in search of what had been promised but never delivered. Freedom to compete in the wilderness with wealthy land-holders , with black labor, to fight a war to defend that system as well as his own peonage, to come back home and watch the aristocrat as he tried to meet to the basic needs of those he had formerly owned and the handouts of the Freemen’s Bureau to those declared free but still valuable as working property, while he had no assistance at all. No wonder he had to find a Jonah. And, no wonder, as he strived to match the cultural and economic status of the aristocrat he became a living denial of his own servanthood, teaching his children that his fathers landed at Plymouth Rock. And, no wonder that such deception resulted in the paranoia, the hostilities, bigotries and prejudices which he harbored over the years. It was all in the libretto and scenario.”
In that moment, I realized had read something important, but I didn’t understand exactly what at the time. When I finally did, I was absolutely gobsmacked, realizing that I am a redneck. Go back just a few generations in my family history and both sides were small family farmers scratching an existence from the land just like any others. And, at least on the paternal side, they weren’t the kind and gentle type. My grandfather once told me that, after the Civil War, his grandfather crossed the street to beat a black man for daring to speak to a white woman. I had spent my whole life running from this fact, but here it was before me. And, with this realization and Campbell’s words to guide me, I began to see that the redneck conservatives, Tea Partiers and fundamentalists that I looked down on were as much a product of their environment as the minorities that I championed. Now, I had to decide what to do about it.
If understanding what I read in “Brother to a Dragonfly” took time to get inside my head, it took longer to get inside my heart. When it did, I realized that I could no longer look down on “those rednecks”: the Tea Partiers, conservatives and fundamentalists upon whom I vented my spleen so much in the past. They were my brothers and sisters in Christ (by blood, too) and deserved my love and respect, not my ire and derision. That epiphany brought about several changes, most visibly here at But Not Yet. It’s caused me to consider whether my words truly display my love of all my neighbors, not just the ones who agree with me.
Well, that’s my story of how Will D. Campbell changed the way I look at the world. Whether that adds up to an actual life-changing event, remains to be seen. How about you? Did Brother Will change your life?