By Stanley Campbell
When I visited Brazil oh so many years ago, my little group of United Methodists met with Christian community organizers in the city of Recife. That is on the eastern-most point, closest to Africa, and was the initial drop-off for slaves. Brazil finally abolished slavery in1888.
Anyway, our little church group came down to help whitewash a simple chapel on the side of a hill overlooking the city. Our group paid for the paint and construction materials. We could have paid for workers to do the work for us, but our labor was a way of introducing ourselves to the community. It was one of the poorest favelas I’d ever seen, but the people were very hospitable and, although they spoke Portuguese, we were able to find enough translators to make the trip enjoyable and informative.
The layperson who worked closest with us was a teacher. He told us the conservative members of his congregation at first did not want to reach out to the poorest children. “They really didn’t like to work with us liberals; they thought we were Marxists, and we didn’t like to work with them because we thought they were stuck-up rich people.”
He went on to explain how they finally worked together: As long as the liberal Christians started every program with a Jesus prayer, the conservatives would join in and help work with the poorest of the poor. “Our biggest obstacle then became the traditionalists of the church who didn’t want to clutter their building with poor, dirty kids,” he said.
I remember how that made sense to me, and it still makes sense. The more conservative Christians view us liberals as heathens, and we feel they are not helping the poor. We both think the other is not following the Gospel; but the chasm between liberals and conservatives can be breached with just a little more spirituality on the liberals’ side and a little more compassion for the poor among the conservatives.
I am bringing a very liberal bishop to town, as I said last week (column appeared online only), to celebrate 50 years of Rockford Urban Ministries (RUM). I’ve learned that a good prayer sometimes gets answered and a little more compassion for the oppressed can melt even the most conservative of hearts. The bishop will talk about his new campaign to get the church to stand more with the poor.
I’m inviting the most liberal bishop in Christendom to be our speaker for RUM’s 50th annual dinner, Friday, June 22. He will speak for free, at 7 p.m. Charles Joseph Sprague was elected to the episcopacy in 1996 and assigned to Bishop of Chicago and the Northern Illinois Conference of the United Methodist Church, which takes in Rockford to the Mississippi. He’d already served 27 years in Ohio congregations and was known as an urban pastor, one who cared for the poor of any community.
He came to Rockford to bless our needle exchange van. RUM (for which I work) had just started the program, handing out condoms to street sex workers and syringes to IV drug users who, at the time, could not get a clean syringe without a prescription.
It was pretty controversial. Then-State’s Attorney Paul Logli was asked to “arrest that Stanley Campbell.” The bishop blessed our old panel truck amid a bevy of media and was quoted on late-night news: “This is what the church should be doing — reaching out to those most despised in the community.” He caught hell, mainly from his more conservative church members. But he drew fire away from our poor small counseling staff. Logli said he couldn’t arrest Campbell without also taking in the Methodist Bishop. That program went on to save many lives.
I hope you feel welcome enough to come and hear this urban saint this Friday, June 22.
Stanley Campbell is executive director of Rockford Urban Ministries and spokesman for Rockford Peace & Justice.
From the June 20-26, 2012, issue