How many United Methodists will get the chance to travel 3,600 miles this summer to a town bearing their name and do good at the same time?
At least one will. He’s the Rev. Phil Campbell, who serves the Northern Light United Church, a 200-member United Methodist and Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregation in Juneau, Alaska.
His destination is Phil Campbell, Ala., slammed by the April 27 tornadoes that ripped through much of the South and destroyed half of the town, including the United Methodist church. In Phil Campbell alone, 26 people died.
It won’t be the pastor’s first trip to Phil Campbell. He went there 16 years ago when another Phil Campbell — a novelist from Brooklyn, N.Y. — organized the first Phil Campbell convention in the Alabama town.
When the Brooklyn Phil Campbell was in college in 1993, he heard about the town Phil Campbell on the TV show “Hee Haw.” He went to Alabama the next summer and met the town clerk who kept a file of the handful of Phil Campbells who had visited. He discovered the town was named for Phil Campbell, a railroad work-crew leader and engineer in the 1880s.
He began contacting as many Phil Campbells as he could.
In 1995, one Phyllis Campbell and 22 Phil Campbells attended the first Phil Campbell convention in Alabama. That’s not bad, considering HowManyOfMe.com says that in the United States, there are 45 people named Phil Campbell, 457 Phillip Campbells, 423 Philip Campbells and 470 Phyllis Campbells.
Earlier this year, plans were under way for Phil Campbells from as far away as Australia and the United Kingdom to descend upon the town June 17 and 18 to help the town celebrate its 100th birthday. Then the tornado hammered the town.
To draw attention to the plight of Phil Campbell, Ala., and to signify hope, the residents decided to go ahead with the celebration. They invited the town’s namesakes to be the marshals in the town parade.
This time, though, the Phils, Phyllises and similarly-named people won’t just have a reunion.
They’re trying to raise $70,000 to build a Habitat for Humanity house for someone left homeless by the twisters.
“We’re very serious about this. We want to make sure that no Phil Campbell is left behind,” the Brooklyn Phil Campbell explained in a YouTube video he made with Phil Campbells from the United Kingdom and Australia.
A former faculty member at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, the Rev. Phil Campbell started his appointment in Alaska last year. He was hesitant to leave to go to Alabama.
“I had not planned to go,” he recalled, “but after the tornado struck, (the convention) became more of a relief effort. With the encouragement of the congregation, I decided to go.” Members raised $4,000 “and still counting” for the Habitat project. He said the project also has garnered at least three $5,000 corporate pledges toward the goal. Fil Campbell, an Irish folksinger, will not make it to the event, but she is soliciting donations.
The Rev. Campbell said his congregation is very mission-minded. “It has started a lot of the initiatives in Juneau for hunger and homelessness,” he noted. “Members are active in international peace with justice advocacy.” Mission trips are often on the agenda. A work team from Northern Light and a neighboring church traveled to the U.S. Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina.
The Rev. Campbell praised the United Methodist Committee on Relief. “UMCOR does a marvelous job of coordinating response,” he said. The Habitat trip “is a way to help personally and directly.” To contribute to U.S. Spring Storms, UMCOR Advance #3021326, go to http://new.gbgm-umc.org/umcor. Direct gifts to the North Alabama Conference local disaster response can be sent to to Scott Selman , North Alabama Conference Treasurer, 898 Arkadelphia Road, Birmingham, AL 35204. Make your checks payable to “North Alabama Conference” and write "North Alabama Disaster Response" in the memo line. Sending checks directly to the Conference Treasurer will make the funds available to the response efforts quicker.
Donations for the Habitat house may be sent to Alabama Habitat for Humanity, P.O. Box 1488 311 N. College St., Auburn, Ala. 36831, designated “Habitat House for Phil Campbell.” All donations will go directly to Alabama Habitat for Humanity.
It’s a rare opportunity, the Rev. Campbell said, “when the happenstance of my name can be of help.” Citing the “do all you can” quote often attributed to Methodism founder John Wesley, he said, “It’s my chance to do good.”