September 22, 2010 News & Features » Cover Story


Bridge Work 

Economic segregation, social disintegration and the regional divide: How the Rev. Ben Campbell's healing ministry could save Richmond.


THE PRAYER ITSELF is routine, rhythmic, continuous — perhaps even disengaging in its delivery. Just before 7 a.m., eight residents of Richmond Hill file into the monastic Chapel of the Sacred Heart, built in 1894, in sweats, flip-flops, sneakers and jeans. They take their wooden seats, which occasionally slide and honk, breaking the still morning silence. The high, Italianate ceilings give the chapel baritone acoustics, the jewel-stained-glass windows tossing a kaleidoscope of colors through the sanctuary as the sun begins to peek through. The chapel is small and intimate, simple in design. Without a collar, Richmond Hill's pastoral director, the Rev. Ben Campbell, slips in at 6:57 a.m. There are slight nods of acknowledgement. No one speaks.

It's Friday, Sept. 10, which dictates they pray for Henrico County — the Board of Supervisors, the School Board and County Manager Virgil Hazelett — and all the employees of manufacturing operations in metro Richmond, along with fire and rescue workers, police and court employees. They pray for young people, and those who are hurting and unable to express their love for others. It's September, so that means there's an extra emphasis on schools.

Lord, hear our prayer.

We pray for schools and educational institutes of metropolitan Richmond, superintendents, school boards, PTAs, administrators of public schools; for healthy relationships between the parents, teachers and students. Hear us, oh God.

Lord, hear our prayer.

Campbell, 69, has been praying at the top of this hill three times a day — at 7 a.m., noon and 6 p.m. — for the last 22 years. He's been praying in Richmond for 40 years altogether. Ordained as an Episcopal priest in 1966, he came to Richmond in 1970 as editor of the Virginia Churchman, a job that allowed him explore his theology, in which he discovered a disturbing trend: “I had this kind of underlying feeling that the mobility of clergy in a mobile time was destructive. Clergy, they were just bouncing around like they were members of a franchise.”



The Rev. Benjamin P. Campbell has been pastoral director of Richmond Hill for 22 years.

Campbell got his calling. He needed to stay put, and he did. His father was a civil rights lawyer, and his mother, Elizabeth Campbell, was chairwoman of the Arlington School Board that in 1956 attempted to racially integrate its schools without a court order, prompting the General Assembly to dissolve the board. It was the beginning of Massive Resistance, and Richmond was ground zero in a burgeoning civil rights battle. Ben was just 15, but his path already had been set.

“The conflict between the ideals of democracy and Christianity and the reality of racial segregation in Virginia just kept ripping at me,” says Campbell, who decided to study theology after earning a degree in political science and economics from Williams College in 1961. He went to Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship and attended the Virginia Theological Seminary. Campbell couldn't reconcile how so-called Christians could pass laws that so grossly violated the teachings of Christ.

“The whole New Testament is the story of breaking down barriers of race,” he says. “The word gentile means ‘ethnic group.' Nobody tells you that, but that's what the word means. So when [Jesus] talks about Jews and gentiles, he's actually just talking about ethnic groups, not just different religions.”

CAMPBELL KEEPS PRAYING. Racial reconciliation, however, still eludes the city. And things are getting worse. It's no longer only racial segregation that divides the metro region, but also a more pervasive economic segregation. There are large sections of the city where unemployment of 20 percent to 50 percent rages. There are more poor people living on top of poor people with no discernable way out of poverty — no transportation or educational training to entry-level jobs, most of which are in the suburbs — and the region continues to sprawl outward.

Meanwhile, clergy keep moving, increasingly disconnected from the city's social and cultural problems. Campbell keeps praying. On Nov. 18 he's helping to organize the Metro Richmond Clergy Convocation, a call to 1,400 church leaders in Central Virginia to address the region's “greatest needs.” If there's a force that can reconcile and engender political support to push for regional approaches to this economic segregation, or as Campbell likes to call it, disintegration — it just might be the faith community. During morning prayers on Friday, Campbell prays for the regional summit, in part because he says it's “terrifying me.”

“If we look at the state of churches in metro Richmond right now, you'll see that the older churches are hemorrhaging and aging and need new members. And the newer churches are constantly having to crank themselves to keep a fellowship together,” Campbell says. “You don't get time to spend outside your immediate agenda.”

This is where the destructive mobility comes in. Forty years ago, most of the ministers in Virginia were from Virginia, Campbell says. Nowadays a pastor goes to seminary and gets called to work for a church in a community where he's never lived.

“He's not attuned to anything but church,” Campbell explains. “He teaches generally about social needs … but because there is no immediate reference this stuff tends not to have an impact, and tends not to be good teaching as a whole, and then we tend to do nothing about the culture as whole. When Micah says, ‘What does the Lord require of you but to do justice and to love mercy,' do you have any specific reference about what the justice needs are? And when Amos says, ‘Look at these people, they are just adding house to house and getting more land and taking away where those live,' do you know that there actually isn't enough housing for lower-income people in Richmond?”

Campbell has a way of striking at the heart, his words heavy with purpose. “Jesus was basically a community person,” Campbell says. “He wasn't that interested in church.”

Perhaps this is why Campbell's terrified of the November convocation. The goal is to get church leaders together from different jurisdictions to discuss coordinating priorities for the region — as wide-ranging as how to collectively address educational issues such as high school dropouts, low-income housing, transportation and unemployment. But he's not sure how many will show. They all have pressing issues within their own congregations. They may not have the time. “There are some people who might want to do something, and we'll encourage them,” Campbell says, feigning indifference. “I'm not planning on saving the world today.”



In the late 1800s students of the Monte Maria girls' school were given garden allotments to nurture. Today the gardens at Richmond Hill are a place for residents and visitors to meditate.

RICHMOND HILL'S VERY existence owes much to Campbell, who led the charge in 1985 to purchase the property when the nuns of Monte Maria, who had operated the monastery and boarding school since 1866, moved to Hanover County. For nearly two years Campbell, then working as priest in residence at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, worked with a small group of fellow Christians to raise the money to purchase the property, with the goal of turning the monastery into a place of prayer, healing and reconciliation for the entire city. It would be Christian, but open to all people and religious faiths.

At the time Campbell was just coming out of a divorce and a bout with alcoholism. He'd lost his job as commissioner of the Richmond Urban Institute, which he founded, and had been unemployed for about six months. But he'd already sunk roots, and he was committed to the community.

“I wanted to settle and when I got divorced I couldn't leave town because my kids were here,” he says, “so it really held me here.”

In 1987, Campbell's group, a nonprofit called Richmond Hill, purchased an option on the Church Hill property for $636,000. During the next two decades, Richmond Hill underwent $9 million in renovations, turning the Monte Maria into an ecumenical retreat center and residential community for meditation and prayer. Shortly after, Campbell began healing as well. He married Ann Hopkins, now a third-grade teacher at Fox Elementary School. Richmond Hill became their home, along with their four children.

“In many respects, he's kind of a modern-day prophet,” says John Moeser, a senior fellow at the University of Richmond's Center for Civic Engagement and a longtime colleague of Campbell's. “That place is really a marvelous place, and the fact that Ben was the guiding light in the creation of Richmond Hill enables him to continually talk about the health of the whole community. Ben has always engaged in the life of this community, and has often been at the very epicenter.”

Campbell's vision for Richmond Hill, in some ways, is anti-monastic. While the nuns of Monte Maria built a place of prayer, walling themselves off from the outside world, Campbell builds bridges, turning prayer into a call for social justice and reconciliation in a community still broken from segregation and Massive Resistance. Campbell also has served as one of the guiding forces on the city's Slave Trail Commission and the movement to bring a slave history museum to Shockoe Bottom. 

“What we get is a lot of bravado and a lot of civic boosterism without being really honest about the extent that we do live separate lives,” Moeser says of the growing distance between poor and rich. “I think that's Ben's intent, to get people exposed. ... The segregation that we have now — we've got this high concentration of poverty and high concentration of wealth separated by many miles — that just didn't happen by accident. You purposefully set out to divide a community and then you wonder, ‘Why are we still segregated?'”

Or more pointedly, what can be done about it. This is where the slave history comes in. It must be dealt with honestly and openly, Campbell says. “It's important to understand the structural history of our racial disintegration. This stuff is not healed.”



The Rev. Ben Campbell kicks off the Micah Initiative's school mentoring program at Richmond Hill last week. Micah has become a signature of Richmond Hill's overarching mission: using faith to build bridges between the racially and economically divided.

Campbell is fond of pointing out that the metro Richmond area, with its sprawling municipalities, is not only regionally dysfunctional but also comes at a much higher cost to the state. Fairfax County and metro Richmond each have a little more than a million residents, but Fairfax requires far fewer state tax dollars to operate its schools, police and local government operations. About 18 percent of Fairfax's government costs are paid for by the state; in the Richmond area, the state pays for 35 percent of government. Why? Metro Richmond has about nine different municipalities, with nine different police forces, school boards, city councils or boards of supervisors, and so on. There's tremendous overlap that costs taxpayers across the state millions more than it should.

“The percentage of government costs that the state is going to give to these jurisdictions is not going to increase,” Campbell says. “There will be some pressure or some movement to encourage central consolidation of services in order to maintain the level of services and maintain the costs.”

Campbell can seem hopelessly optimistic at times. Despite the longstanding obstacles, he believes Richmond-area clergy can use their platforms to push for regional solutions, help build a political constituency that won't settle for anything less than regional approaches to educational disparity, transportation, low-income housing.

“You either end up with a society that has a smaller and smaller number of people who are making it or you find ways of making sure that the wealth we have goes around and works for people,” he says. “Not by overt redistribution of wealth, but by creating good social services and public services so that people don't have to make as much money. If I need to take a job that pays $12,000 a year, I really do need a bus to get to it. An economy doesn't exist to make enormous monetary profits for people. An economy exists to keep a society healthy.”

While the current state and national political backlash against big government is driving this election season, the Richmond area continues to ignore its high cost of overlapping government services, which only leads to sprawl and economic segregation. Why, Campbell asks, isn't the Greater Richmond Partnership, the region's economic development agency, attempting to lure companies to the area that could provide low-paying, entry-level jobs for the people who most desperately need work?

“I don't believe that the Greater Richmond Partnership has ever been given the instruction to go out and find a company that has modest return to stockholders but in fact employs a whole lot of people at entry-level jobs,” Campbell says. “They want to go out and find a chip manufacturer where the average salary is $35,000 to $80,000, which means that the people who are unemployed in metropolitan Richmond will stay unemployed because they don't qualify at that level.”



The Rev. Ben Campbell prays in the Chapel of the Sacred Heart. On sunny afternoons the chapel becomes a natural light show with the sun ricocheting through its jewel-stained-glass windows.

CAMPBELL'S SOCIAL MINISTRY is mostly about the “bridge work.” After all, it wouldn't matter much if the jobs suddenly became available, and the buses suddenly started connecting the unemployed with those jobs, if one doesn't know how to work.

This is the thrust of Campbell's mission. It was in full swing last week when the Micah Initiative kicked at Richmond Hill.

Launched 13 years ago by St. Paul's Episcopal Church and the Jewish Coalition for Literacy, the program sends 1,500 volunteers into the city's 25 elementary schools for one-on-one pupil tutoring and teacher assistance throughout the school year. The program involves 105 local religious congregations of all faiths and denominations. The purpose of the Micah Initiative is simple: to provide resources and mentoring to inner-city schools, which have the highest concentration of at-risk children. It's a mission that Campbell articulated more than a dozen years ago, says Delegate Betsy Carr, D-Richmond, one of Micah's co-founders.

“Ben's leadership has been crucial — working for children in the schools, working for children in the city and yet allowing everyone to maintain the integrity and follow their faith,” says Carr, who also works as outreach director at St. Paul's. “He has the respect of the teachers and the school system. In some ways, he's the only person who could have made that happen.”

During the Micah kickoff last week, about 130 volunteers and clergy gathered in the chapel to get the marching orders for the new school year. There was a scripture reading from Jewish Rabbi Ben Romer of Congregation Or Ami, an introductory speech by the Rev. Marilyn Heckstall of Asbury United Methodist in Church Hill and a closing prayer by Muslim Ali M. Faruk, an analyst at the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy.
Campbell can't help but revel in the diversity.
“One of the things I love most about the Micah association is the really good spirit of competitive religion,” Campbell says to laughter in his opening remarks. “The thing about Thomas Jefferson's statute … Jefferson wrote religion did not work when it was compelled upon people. But rather faith had to be an act of voluntary assent. And that's a really good Christian position. It's also a really good position for Judaism; it's a really good position in Islam and I suspect in Hinduism.”

Richmond School Superintendent Yvonne Brandon sings the program's praises, and Heckstall speaks of recently baptizing several city pupils who began coming to her church because of the Micah Initiative. When Heckstall took over as minister at Asbury United Methodist in 2005, she began looking for ways to get her congregation out in the community, becoming involved in Micah and later Communities in Schools, another nonprofit that works with inner-city school children. The church, which turned 167 years old this year, needed to get beyond its four walls, she says.
“God had to create a new image for us. We were invisible,” Heckstall says, explaining that programs such as Micah “allow you to see the power of grace in action.”

The program serves another purpose. As Micah has grown, so too have Campbell's disciples. People from all walks become exposed to the problems of the inner city, and how they manifest in young people living on the other side of the economic and racial divisions, in the disintegrating society.

“If a significant number of people to get to know Richmond schoolchildren, they will begin to see for themselves,” Moeser says. “And that's what ultimately Ben would like to see: A growing army of mentors and tutors to get serious about segregation.”

It's what gives Campbell hope that the region can begin to seriously address the city's “unhealed history” and the regional solutions that will be required.

“Is there a constituency for transformation and justice?” Campbell posits, alluding to the answer. “It's absolutely possible.”



Latest in Cover Story

Comments (5)

Showing 1-5 of 5

Add a comment

Subscribe to this thread:
Showing 1-5 of 5

Add a comment

Connect with Style Weekly

Most Popular Stories

  • 2021 Richmonder of the Year

    2021 Richmonder of the Year

    Pulitzer Prize-winner Michael Paul Williams continues to shape our city and its post-Confederate identity.
    • Dec 30, 2021
  • More »

Copyright © 2022 Style Weekly
Richmond's alternative for news, arts, culture and opinion
All rights reserved
Powered by Foundation