Though it has been many years since I last opened its cover, Brother to a Dragonfly remains one of my favorite books. I think I read it in seminary or shortly thereafter. I’m not sure who recommended it to me, but I think it may have been Fr Bob Cooper, one of my seminary professors. It is a profound book, full of wonderful stories and deep wisdom, written by a remarkable Baptist preacher, the late Will D. Campbell. Campbell grew up in the deep South, was ordained a Baptist minister at the age of 17, served as a medic during World War II, after which he attended Wake Forest College and the Yale Divinity School. In the mid-1950s he became active in the Civil Rights movement. In 1957 he was the only white person to be invited by Martin Luther King to the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He was one of four ministers who escorted the “Little Rock Nine” to the Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. In 1963 he joined King’s campaign of sit-ins and marches in Birmingham, Alabama. He was also friends with Episcopal seminarian Jonathan Daniels, who was murdered in 1965 by Thomas Coleman, a white deputy sheriff. Campbell was filled with rage and grief. It is at this time that he experienced, as he calls it, his conversion to Christ.
With Campbell when he heard the news of Daniels’s death was his old friend P. D. East. East was an agnostic. Several years before East had demanded from Campbell a succinct definition of the gospel. Campbell answered: “We’re all bastards but God loves us anyway.” At this moment of grief East decided to put Campbell to the test:
“Come on, Brother. Let’s talk about your definition. Was Jonathan a bastard?”
I said I was sure that everyone is a sinner in one way or another but that he was one of the sweetest and most gentle guys I had ever known.
“But was he a bastard?” His tone was almost a scream. “Now that’s your word. Not mine. You told me one time that everybody is a bastard. That’s a pretty tough word. I know. Cause I am a bastard. A born bastard. A real bastard. My Mamma wasn’t married to my Daddy. Now, by god, you tell me, right now, yes or no and not maybe, was Jonathan Daniel a bastard?”
I knew that if I said no he would leave me alone and if I said yes he wouldn’t. And I knew my definition would be blown if I said no.
So I said, “Yes.”
“All right. Is Thomas Coleman a bastard?”
That one was a lot easier. “Yes. Thomas Coleman is a bastard.”
“Okay. Let me get this straight now. I don’t want to misquote you. Jonathan Daniel was a bastard. Thomas Coleman is a bastard. Right? Which one of these two bastards do you think God loves the most?” His voice now was almost a whisper as he leaned forward, staring me directly in the eyes.
I made some feeble attempt to talk about God loving the sinner and not the sin, about judgment, justice, and brotherhood of all humanity. But P. D. shook his hands in a manner of cancellation. He didn’t want to hear about that.
“You’re trying to complicate it. Now you’re the one always told me about how simple it was. Just answer the question.” His direct examination would have done credit to Clarence Darrow.
He leaned his face closer to mine, patting first his own knee and then mine, holding the other hand aloft in oath-taking fashion.
“Which one of these two bastards does God love the most? Does he love that little dead bastard Jonathan the most? Or does He love that living bastard Thomas the most?”
Suddenly everything became clear. Everything. It was a revelation. The glow of the malt which we were well into by then seemed to illuminate and intensify it. I walked across the room and opened the blind, staring directly into the glare of the street light. And I began to whimper. But the crying was interspersed with laughter. It was a strange experience. I remember trying to sort out the sadness and the joy. Just what was I crying for and what was I laughing for. Then this too became clear. (pp. 221-222)
This moment of revelation was a turning point in Campbell’s life. East had forced him to look at Thomas Coleman and all the racists in the world in light of the gospel. Now opened a new ministry for Campbell—sharing the good news with the Ku Klux Klan.
I thought of this story when I read about the shooting in Charleston, South Carolina on June 17th. I wondered what Preacher Will would say about it. I wondered how he would preach it. I wondered what gospel wisdom he would share with us.
“We’re all bastards but God loves us anyway.”