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Remembering Brother Will

Two years ago on Monday, June 3, 2013, a great man died. Will Campbell, 88, was a Baptist preacher born and bred in Mississippi, a walking bundle of contradictions, a fierce lover of humanity in all its foibles, a straight-talker of the sort we need more of these days, and one of the gutsiest people who ever lived. He wrote some superb books, such as Brother to a Dragonfly. But he never sought fame and he’s not very well-known.

You can learn more about him from his page A1 obituary in The New York Times. He’s described as “a renegade preacher and author who joined the civil rights struggle in the 1950s, quit organized religion and fought injustice” — which he did vigorously but without ever making it “the good guys vs. the bad guys.”

As a thank you and farewell to Brother Will, who was a great storyteller, here’s a great story, or so it seems to me. As part of his long-time crusade against the death penalty, Will was invited to debate the issue before a fired-up crowd of death penalty supporters. His opponent gave a long and vigorous defense of capital punishment, festooned with all kinds of statistics and moral and theological justifications. He was rewarded with a standing ovation.

The moderator then introduced Rev. Campbell, who shambled up to the podium accompanied by tepid applause. Will looked over the crowd, then leaned into the mike and growled, “I’m against the capital punishment because it’s tacky!” Then he shambled back to his chair and sat down.

The stunned crowd fell silent as Will sat and sat some more, staring benignly at them. Finally, the moderator returned to the podium. “Rev. Campbell, won’t you please come back and say more about your beliefs?”

Will shook his head in a silent no. “Are you sure?” asked the moderator. Will nodded his head in a silent yes. In desperation, the moderator said, “Well, won’t you at least come back and tell us what you mean by ‘tacky’?”

Slowly, Will got to his feet, shambled back to the podium, and growled into the mike again: “Hell, everybody knows what tacky is!” Then he returned to his chair and sat down.

I’ve yet to hear a more pointed, persuasive, or eloquent argument against the death penalty. RIP, Brother Will, straight-talker and man of God. So glad you spent so many years in our midst. We’re going to miss you a lot.

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