Will, Warren and the Klan
As best as I can recall, I met Warren in the early 1980s. Warren professed himself to be a member of the Ku Klux Klan. I met him because Will told me I should.
We lived in a core-city neighborhood in Evansville, Indiana at the time. There were reports of several rape attempts in our neighborhood. The assailant was said to be an African-American man. Soon after these reports began, we learned that the Ku Klux Klan was going to patrol the neighborhood to protect our “white women” in our racially diverse community. What to do? Our ministry, known as Patchwork Central Ministries, was located in the center of this aggression, violation and fear-filled response. What to do?
Memories of these days have come rushing back into my mind this weekend. Seeing the hate-filled actions and language of the white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia has brought back images and stories now more than thirty years old. Some things have changed over the decades but, sadly, other things have not. Without recounting all of the ways we prayed, and we made strategies, and sought to give Christian witness back then, I would share one thing that proved most helpful. Someone, perhaps it was Calvin Kimbrough, suggested I should “talk with Will.” To say “Will” was enough. He didn’t need a last name — I knew it was Will Campbell in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee. We had recently read Will’s book “Brother to a Dragonfly.” He was a wonderful part of our tribe — a progressive Evangelical Christian! So I called him.
Mississippi born and a graduate of Yale Divinity School, Will was not only known for his engagement in the struggle for civil rights for African-Americans but was also known for developing friendships with a whole range of people including members of the Ku Klux Klan. You see, Will took this Christian Gospel for ALL PEOPLE stuff seriously.
I called Will, left a message and, in a day or so, he returned the call. Explaining our situation, he replied, “The first thing you need to do, is to say to the Klan ‘NO, YOUR ACTIVITIES ARE NOT WELCOME IN OUR NEIGHBORHOOD.'” That sounded good — We had already done that — said “NO.”
Then, Will, stumped me, surprised me. He confused me. Will asked, “What are the names of the Klan people you know?” NAMES? Will thought I would know their names! He thought I might know THEM? I confessed that I didn’t know any of those folks. He said, “Well, then, what the hell you been doing? You better get started. It is not enough to say ‘no.’ Now, your next step is to reach out to the Klan folks as people.” There are many stories of the way Will Campbell reached out, made friendships, and shared the gospel with folks with whom he strongly disagreed. He was a radical Christian in that he didn’t set up limits to where reconciliation and renewal might occur. Will Campbell believed in the power of Christian witness and love.
I don’t remember the exact sequence of events that followed, one thing led to another and I meet some of the folks who said they were members of the Klan. I remember Warren especially. Warren and I talked on several occasions. In fact, I invited him to our Sunday evening worship — and he attended — several times. He listened, stayed and ate dinner with the group.
The story of that season in our neighborhood moves on in many directions. The rapes ended. I don’t remember that anyone was ever caught. Then there was the evening in worship when the offering was taken. After receiving communion persons might leave something in the offering plate. Sometimes it was money, sometimes a poem, sometimes a prayer request, sometimes a drawing. On this evening, I watched as Warren made his way forward and dropped something heavy in the offering basket. As soon as worship was over and dinner was about to begin, I took the offering basket to the office. There I found a few dollars, prayer requests and Warren’s membership card in the Klan. And, yes, there was also a 22 calibre revolver.
Warren disappeared shortly after this. I called his phone a few times with no response. I went to his home once in a nearby town. Knocked on the door. There was no response. I left a note for Warren. He had disappeared. Word came from one of his friends that he had gone back to his hometown in Southern Illinois. Did he leave the Klan for good? Was this a sign of a conversion? Or, just a chance to make a new start? Maybe that is what conversion meant for Warren — and for me.
For me, Will taught that I needed to “know a name — and a person” if I am also going to condemn and say “NO” to their words and behaviors.
As I have thought about Charlottesville and the evil exemplified there this past weekend, I am reminded of a sermon that Dr. William Pannell preached years ago. He began by saying that he was going to use the ugliest four letter word in the English vocabulary. It was, he said, “the word THEM.”
Let me ask you, good reader, the question that Will Campbell asked me years ago. After you have said “NO,” (something we must do as a nation), do we know their names? My conversion continues — how about you?