Will Campbell died last night. If you do not know who Will was, I want to encourage you to get to know more about him. Thinker, author, civil rights leader, “prophet,” and friend, Will was an extraordinary human being.
YouthCUE friend and colleague Todd Heifner has written a tribute to Will, and with his permission, I am sharing it with all in the YouthCUE network.
Will ministered to Todd when Todd was a struggling sixteen-year-old. Perhaps the acid test for many ministers is having patience, love, and compassion enough to provide help and friendship to a disappointed adolescent. Will’s investment of time made all the difference for Todd, and many others are saying the same things as, on this day, they rise up to call Will blessed.
May this story be in inspiration to all of us who work with students. What we do, say, and give today to teenagers will provide the foundation upon which many lives are built. May we be found faithful, honest, and caring.
Thank you, Todd, for allowing us to read your story.
Some years ago, songwriter and poet Mickey Newbury sat down to pen a song about Cortelia Clark. With sounds of distant trains in the background and despair dripping from the trees, he led with this verse . . .
“I was just a kid the year the Bluebird Special came through here, on its first run south to New Orleans.
A blind ole man and I, we came to Guthrie just to see the train — he was black and I was green . . .”
I’ve never put my finger on why the bridge and first words of this song always make me think of Will Campbell. But every time I hear the song I am transported to a little log cabin off Vanderbilt Road in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee.
Perhaps Newbury’s haunting melody, perhaps the allusion to New Orleans, just downriver from where Will and I both were born–he in Amite County, Mississippi and I in Natchez. My heart tells me, though, that I am transported there in the hearing of this tune, due to the timing of my initial introduction to Will. In 1986, when I first pulled into Will’s drive and headed across the field to the little log cabin, I was all of 16 years old, wind at my back, in love for the first time, and to my way of thinking, he was just this “ole man.”
I’d been sent to his doorstep by a family friend named Joe (a counselor)–one concerned that I was about to do something to harm someone else or possibly harm myself. And had it not been for Will, that very likely might have happened.
But I went to school in that little one-room cabin, for months on end and many times since, with Brother Will doing the teaching. He offered advice on love and religion and race and politics–but most especially on love, because that’s what he knew was eating me up. In moments when I thought I was losing my mind over a breakup with my first girlfriend, or when I couldn’t seem to find anyone who understood what I was going through, this “ole man” listened with the ear of a counselor, prodded with the fork of the devil, and pastored with grace unencumbered. Never needing an appointment, I would just call him up on the way home from high school and he’d say, “Yeah, Sport, come on over for a while.” And he knew and so did I that “a while” might mean an hour, or two or three. And with that, I was invited into the life of a legend, though I wouldn’t fully understand the magnitude of who he was until many years later. To me he was just Will — friend, mentor, counselor . . . and Brother, too!
With the many more important things that surely occupied his mind, he found time — a lot of time — for this little sixteen year old with the seeming weight of the world and heartbreak on his shoulders. But he never appeared rushed, never disinterested, never caring that anything else was going on except the conversation at hand. And I have heard from others who knew him well that my experience was far from extraordinary. It was just his way of being in the moment, of putting people over places and things. He was such a friend and I feel honored to have known him at all.
God’s blessings on Will this day. And thank God I ever knew him. The world will be a lonelier and harsher place with his passing.
Paraphrasing Newbury . . .
“You’ll find him Lord this morning, he’ll be stepping from the still, and would save a street in Glory Lord, for my Brother Will.”