Soul Food Advent Blog Series 2018: 'Room at the Table'
Guest blogger: Cameron Conant
I’d never heard of Rev Will Campbell until an old Nashville acquaintance, David Dark, wrote an article about him. But I’ve since come to learn that Campbell - a white man who was involved in some of the seminal moments of the American Civil Rights movement - is someone with important lessons to teach us in 2018.
Born to a Mississippi family that had the Klu Klux Klan symbol emblazoned on its church Bibles, Campbell was ordained a Baptist minister at 17. After serving in World War II, Campbell enrolled at Yale Divinity School on the G.I. Bill (which provided free tuition); however, he didn’t stay in the New England bubble for long: after graduation, he moved south, first to pastor a church in Louisiana and later to serve as director of religious life at the University of Mississippi.
And it was in his home state of Mississippi where the trouble started; for despite his background, Campbell was a defender of civil rights for African-Americans.
Due to outside death threats and pressure from the university to stand down, Campbell resigned his post at the University of Mississippi in 1956. However, the threats didn’t stop him from living out what he believed. In his next role with the National Council of Churches, Campbell (along with three others) escorted black students to class the day the public schools in Little Rock were famously integrated, and he was the only white person to attend the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference started by Martin Luther King, Jr.
But here is where things get interesting - and more challenging.
Campbell also spent many years ministering to members of the Klu Klux Klan, and he even visited James Earl Ray, the man who assassinated Martin Luther King, Jr., in prison. Campbell wrote, “anyone who is not as concerned with the immortal soul of the dispossessor as he is with the suffering of the dispossessed is being something less than Christian.”
If we are to understand the Kingdom of God as a banquet to which everyone is invited, does that actually include everyone? The kind of sharp-edged ministry Will Campbell lived out is a reminder that sentimentality and good intentions are not enough. The banquet table - like the communion table - is a place of radical reconciliation, an alternative to violence, and as such can be uncomfortable.
I was recently having breakfast with a man I’ve come to know and respect, a man who was recently baptised after getting sober. As we talked from across the table, I couldn’t help but notice his hat, which had the letters ‘NRA’ emblazoned across the front. As an American, I know those letters stand for National Rifle Association, and as someone who is angry about gun violence in my home country, I view the NRA - which has masqueraded as a defender of freedom for millions and has killed every meaningful attempt to rewrite our firearms laws - as, at best, deeply corrupt, and at worst, evil. I tend towards the latter.
What does it mean for me to sit at the same table with someone who contradicts my deeply held values without sanctioning the violence or hatred I believe the NRA represents? I’m not sure I have the answer, but I do know that the cross is an excellent and true metaphor, and one Will Campbell seemed to understand better than most: the wounded body of Christ stretched out in an act of reconciliation for the whole world. Likewise, the banquet table - where Jesus celebrated his last meal with his disciples - is big enough for all: take eat, this is my body, broken for (even) you; and this is my blood, poured out for (even) you.
At the end of the day, any meal can become Holy Communion - an act of reconciliation we can perform anywhere, anytime, with anyone, even and especially with those we find difficult to accept or love; and as Will Campbell would say, a refusal to invite everyone would be “something less than Christian.”
Cameron Conant is a writer and consultant in London. He helps run the arts work at St Mary’s Walthamstow, the church where his wife Vanessa is priest.