In my first 12 years in this country these are the places I lived for 3 months or more:
New Orleans, La
I drove with Sherod from Huntsville to Atlanta, GA in November of 1988 for our interviews (yes, separate) with the Immigration and Naturalization Service so I could become a permanent resident after we were married. I became a citizen of this country in a courtroom in Memphis. My formative first years in this country were all spent in the South and I expect I will bury my husband, and will probably myself be buried there as well. I am a person of the South.
Today, sitting waiting at a railroad crossing while an interminable train went by, I read in the New York Times that Will Campbell has died. I first heard about Brother Will when I got to seminary at Sewanee. The year before he had spent some time with the seminarians there, including Sherod. There was an admiration verging on reverence when people around there spoke about him. My very best friend in my class had met him as well in Chattanooga and he too spoke with deep respect and admiration about this eccentric, colorful, remarkable man. Jon gave me Campbell’s book Brother to a Dragonfly our first Christmas in seminary. Written by Campbell, the book narrates his journey from being a small town white Baptist preacher boy in Louisiana, to becoming active in the civil rights movement, to ministering to members of the Ku Klux Klan.
There was so much about the South that reflected the further south I came from. Just a couple of nights ago, I watched María watching The Help. Though I find that movie and the book it’s based on to be just a little too facile, nonetheless, they remind me that I grew up in a home where the people who worked and lived under our roof were only allowed to use “their” bathroom — no law needed to be passed for that to be so. Because my parents didn’t think the servants who kept our home running knew how to use hot water wisely, there was none in their bathroom. Hard stuff to acknowledge about my family of origin, but too true to forget. The parallels made living in the South both more comfortable and more deeply disquieting than if I had moved to another part of the country, I suspect.
When I read Brother to a Dragonfly I found some very unexpected relief. Campbell simply refused to work with the neat, binary categories which are the first step towards dehumanizing people. There was a compassion and a recognition of the absurdities of the human condition that he seemed to find everywhere he looked. He was subversive and restless and incapable of functioning very well in ‘the establishment’. He helped me see that living out on the edges, in the boundary spaces is a good place to be. But he also insisted that you continue to love and refuse to demonize any human being, no matter how flawed and broken. He lived his life well and richly and deeply. I can more easily acknowledge my southern roots when I think that I stand with folks like Campbell, who refused to ignore complexity.
The New York Times obituary says, A knot of contradictions himself, he was a civil rights advocate who drank whiskey with Klansmen, a writer who layered fact and fiction, and a preacher without a church who presided at weddings, baptisms and funerals in homes, hospitals and graveyards for a flock of like-minded rebels that included Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Dick Gregory, Jules Feiffer and Studs Terkel. A preacher without a church who nonetheless ministered and served. More and more, that is what I aspire to. I keep seeing those buses go up and down Davie Boulevard and I inch closer daily to starting to ride one as part of my walking routine. I’ve been thinking I could use my walking app to track miles riding on the bus so I could get off and walk my allotted portion heading back home. I suspect I could talk to a fair number of people on a 6 mile bus ride. I know this: much of what the Episcopal Church is determined to protect and preserve is simply not that valuable, including, and perhaps especially, its buildings. I realize that’s a crazy silly thing to say, but those buildings so easily become bunkers and I get claustrophobic in places like that.
Will Campbell helped me start seeing the world this way. I’m going to go out and walk tonight. But before I do, when my spouseman Sherod gets home, I think I am going to serve us both some bourbon and give a toast on behalf of one of the saints of God. Who I hope today is up there finding all kinds of friends who went ahead of him and will be glad for his company.