It’s Will Campbell’s fault I am no longer a pastor.

That’s not completely true. He left this earth five years before I was ordained, 10 years ago, tomorrow, in fact. So, unless he’s out there somewhere pulling strings from the other side, he played no direct role in my departure from the pulpit last year.

Yet, nearly every word he wrote or spoke has shaped my understanding of ministry, the church and the responsibilities of straight, white clergy like me.

I’m convinced three pieces he wrote during the early years of the conservative takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention were his attempt to lay out what it truly meant, to him at least, to be Christian.

I also know that people in the pews tired of me quoting him in sermons or sharing anecdotes in casual conversation, and I’m certain those who’ve listened to my God Knows Where podcast wonder if I have any spiritual guides beyond Brother Will.

But there is one letter that I’ve come across that shifted more within me than any other. Box 2, Folder 6 of Will Campbell’s papers held at The University of Southern Mississippi is “Correspondence: Byron de la Beckwith,” the man who murdered Medgar Evers in his driveway 60 years ago next Monday.

A member of the Ku Klux Klan, de la Beckwith was not a man I ever thought Will Campbell would correspond with during their lifetimes until I came to learn the story of Jonathan Daniels, the Virginia Military Institute graduate turned Episcopal priest who stepped in front of a bullet aimed at Ruby Sales, a young black woman, whom Thomas Coleman hoped to kill.

The story of Daniels, Coleman and Campbell’s wrestling with the question of which of the two God loved more makes me look at the correspondence differently.

The letter in that folder is a nondescript piece of paper with barely legible penmanship. It’s a response from de la Beckwith to a previous letter from Campbell.

There is nothing quotable or remarkable about the letter other than its normalcy. It is a simple response about daily life from the man who extinguished Evers’ life because of the color of his skin and the strength of his voice written to a man whose every effort in the 1950s and 1960s was to support Evers and so many others to have their voice heard and their humanity recognized.

It is a letter not unlike those letters we read in the Christian Testament – never the full picture of a relationship between Paul or some other missionary and a church community once visited, but a window into it and a view of how it might shape our own relationships today. It is strange to hold that letter knowing whose hands wrote it and whose hands held it to read and respond.

It is also discomforting to hold it knowing no such letter is likely to be written today, not because both Campbell and de la Beckwith have died, but because we (and I include myself in that pronoun) fail to heed Campbell’s example and his belief that in order for those oppressed by the society that upholds white supremacy and lauds Christian nationalism to find freedom, those revering these harmful ideas have to be freed from them too.

The gulf between us now, though, may be too wide. It is easy to laugh at Jordan Klepper’s interviews at MAGA rallies. It is nearly impossible to befriend a klansman. I know what I would rather do.

And yet, look at what Will Campbell did. I think he would tell us that without at least corresponding with those upholding harmful ideas, reconciliation can never be possible, white supremacy can never be dismantled, and Christian nationalism can never be thwarted.

The surest path toward those ends for which we hope begins with forging uncomfortable relationships, ones like that forged between Campbell and de la Beckwith, ones that disarm without dismissing the harm done, and ones like those that drove every narrative Brother Will ever wrote.

He never wrote a story, fictional or otherwise, that wasn’t grounded by an unlikely relationship and its transformative possibilities. I mean, look no further than The Glad River, where a Cajun Catholic ends up baptizing a Baptist journalist in prison on the eve of an execution.

We don’t want to make these kinds of connections. We are all harmed by a world that upholds white supremacy and Christian nationalism. None of us are spared their pain, though many feel it more acutely than others.

Clarion calls abound for those of us not oppressed not simply to be allies, but to do the work of reconciling this world and freeing it and our neighbors from all that strangles them.

Will Campbell showed me what that work looks like when I found that correspondence. But it’s up to us to do more than simply read these letters. We need to write our own.

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