A conversation about race that began over a meal has grown into a monthly gathering of faith and reconciliation By Eric Porterfield • Photographs by Mark Steelman
Pastor Campbell e are a group of shifts our attention from Wilmington his son’s remarkable pastors, four response of grace to black and four white these young white men pastors when we’re all who had treated him together. We love to laugh, with such cruelty. Rob love to eat, and love to talk reads us the letter Brent about our work. Most of sent to the chancellor all we treasure the friendof the university, which ships we have developed concludes with these over the years. words referring to the Six years ago, First driver of the truck: “He Presbyterian Church’s has only ever seen me, he pastor Ernie Thompson has never known me. If preached a sermon on he knew me, truly knew racial reconciliation durme, he would never have ing which he confessed that he didn’t know any Left to Right: Ernie Thompson, Pastor, First Presbyterian Church; James Utley, Jr., Bishop, The Love Center Church; done those things . . . If Eric Porterfield, Pastor, Winter Park Baptist Church; Clifford D. Barnett, Pastor, Warner Temple AME Zion Church he were found I would of the black pastors in ask that his punishment town. District Attorney be to get to know me. He should be forced to meet with me once a week for a Ben David, one of Ernie’s parishioners, was at the time working with several month over lunch or dinner . . . If he could see my eagerness to forgive him, if he black pastors in the aftermath of racial tensions that had emerged that could come to know my struggles here at this school, if he could get a glimpse of spring. Ben and Ernie set up a meeting, with Ben inviting several black pasthe person that I am . . . he would find, in all of that, the solution. That is how tors and Ernie inviting several white pastors. Our group emerged from that you change a heart. That is how we could grow to become a unified campus. That meeting, becoming one of many groups who are working to bring blacks is how UNCW could come to achieve authentic racial reconciliation.” and whites together in Wilmington. The pastors settle in for our monthly lunch gathering, this month at the First wo months later, on a Monday morning, I’m sipping a cup of coffee at Baptist Church Activity Center on Independence Boulevard. Usually we discuss the “Wag,” the main dining hall on campus at UNCW. I watch stuthe ups and downs of life in our churches. On this day, though, not long after host dents come and go, thinking ahead six to ten years when my three boys pastor Matt Cook blesses the food and before the laughter has a chance to start, might be in a school like this, strolling into the dining hall for a quick breakfast Pastor Rob Campbell of New Beginning Christian Church asks for time to share. before heading to class. Brent Campbell joins me with his food, completely comfortable telling his uncomfortable story. It’s the first time I’ve met Brent, but hree days ago, Pastor Campbell says, his son had been on the receiving I feel like I know him already. His smile, his laugh, and most of all his integrity end of hate-filled speech, spoken by people who knew nothing about remind me of his father. him except that his skin color was darker than their skin color. Brent I come prepared to talk about the “incident,” but I’m surprised by the larger Campbell is a senior at UNCW, a finance major, and a captain of the track team. context of Brent’s story. In middle school, Brent tells me, he remembers working While he was working out alone on the intramural fields one late July afternoon, closely with his white peers in the classroom, but being told with great clarity that five young white men in a pickup truck drove by screaming racial insults, slurs he could not visit their homes. As a high school student-athlete, he recalls racial and threats at Brent. There was no mistaking for whom the slurs were intended. stereotypes projected on him by both black and white classmates. He also speaks Five minutes later the truck returned, minus three of its occupants. The driver of college classmates choosing to be involved elsewhere when he “integrates” what identified himself by name, hurled another racial slur, and threatened violence had previously been an all-white group. There is no bitterness or anger in his if he ever saw Brent on the field again. One moment Brent was getting into his voice, only sadness and hurt. regular training routine, the next moment he was ripped from that routine by As Brent speaks I am aware that my boys probably will never be unwelcome hate and prejudice. at a classmate’s home on account of the color of their skin. They will never have The pastors have long since forgotten about food as Rob shares the awful to struggle with their racial identity. And should one of my boys run track at story. Our hearts are heavy, our minds filled with questions. We are angry. But UNCW sometime ten years from now, most likely he will never be taunted with this is not to be a conversation focused on what’s wrong in the world.
Salt • November 2013
The Art & Soul of Wilmington
The Art & Soul of Wilmington