I was sitting in an airport early Wednesday morning, waiting on a flight to Des Moines, when I glanced up at the CNN broadcast, and saw that civil rights activist, Will D. Campbell, had died.
I knew Will Campbell. I met him for the first time in 1980, while a sophomore at Mississippi College. I’d just finished reading his book, Brother to a Dragonfly–a book that, quite literally, changed my life. Shortly after finishing the book, I learned he was in Jackson speaking at a civil disobedience rally, and I attended the rally for the sole purpose of meeting him and letting him know just how much his book had rocked my world. I’m sure he got that kind of thing a lot. But he was gracious, and we stayed in touch.
When I was finishing seminary I was a part of a maverick group of ministers who were always on the verge of getting kicked out of the church. We started a poverty initiative in inner city Louisville one spring, and we invited Campbell to help us launch our program. He was gracious and more than a little patient with our enthusiasm. He seemed to have a special place in his heart for anyone who was troubled by the institutional church.
Shortly before that visit I had decided to leave the ministry and become a lawyer. I wanted to change the world, and the practice of law seemed to offer a lot more opportunities to do that than the church. But I was struggling. It was a radical change, and I wasn’t sure when I’d make the move and where I’d actually attend law school. Over coffee, I talked about all of this with Will. I was hoping he’d offer some helpful advice (not to mention, I wanted him to be excited about my plans to rid the world of all social injustices).
I rambled on about all of this for 15 minutes or so. And then I stopped and waited for him to respond. After a long silence, he said,
“I’ve always figured learning to practice law, is a lot like learning to run a chainsaw. It doesn’t matter who teaches you how to do it. If you’re not careful, the goddamn thing can still get away from you and kill you.”
He was the wisest man I know.