Campolo to slow, but not stop, Christian outreach

The Rev. Tony Campolo talks to students in a sixth-grade mathematics class at Cornerstone Christian Academy, a Philadelphia school he helped found in 1988.
The Rev. Tony Campolo talks to students in a sixth-grade mathematics class at Cornerstone Christian Academy, a Philadelphia school he helped found in 1988. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 01, 2014

As a recruiter for the Almighty, the Rev. Tony Campolo lets few things get in his way.

Even a stroke eight years ago prompted defiance.

"I know my civil rights," said the hospitalized minister, challenging a doctor's admonition to postpone a week of speeches at Harvard University. (The doctor wound up monitoring Campolo and his condition from a front-row seat.)

The Bryn Mawr minister, author of more than 35 books, and onetime spiritual adviser to President Bill Clinton has packed his calendar for years with more than 300 speaking engagements annually to raise charitable funds and tap young people for Christian service.

But at 78, Campolo has, as his wife, Peggy, said, decided to step back before someone says, "You're an old man" who should step aside.

Campolo is closing down his Evangelical Association for the Promotion of Education (EAPE), a ministry the professor at Eastern University founded 42 years ago at the St. Davids school.

The organization is the home base from which Campolo speaks around the world, recruits students to serve in youth charities, and raises funds to nurture an array of schools, universities, orphanages, AIDS hospices, urban youth ministries, and service programs - some founded by Campolo and EAPE.

Campolo will continue his speaking engagements - at a reduced schedule, about 200 a year - and will ask his donors to contribute directly to longtime EAPE-supported ministries such as Cornerstone Christian Academy school in West Philadelphia and UrbanPromise School and youth ministry, based in Camden, both founded by Campolo.

"It's not like we're dying and it's time to put it in the grave," Campolo said. "We've never been stronger. But I turn 79 on Feb. 25."

The move marks an important transition in the ministry of Campolo, a giant in the Evangelical movement who was tapped by Clinton to be a spiritual adviser during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, and who counseled the president through its aftermath and the 1996 death of Commerce Secretary Ron Brown.

"Long before Pope Francis breathed fresh humanity into the Catholic Church, Tony was the living embodiment of it in evangelical Christianity," Clinton said in a statement.

In his new role, Campolo will become an assistant to Robert G. Duffett, the new president of Eastern, a Christian college that is Campolo's alma mater and home base. Campolo will resume teaching at the school as a professor of sociology.

"It is an important transition, because Tony was one of the early members of the Evangelical movement who was involved in trying to move the movement in a more moderate direction politically and in terms of its civic engagement," said Corwin Smidt, a research fellow with the Paul B. Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Campolo has taken on the religious right, arguing that divisive issues such as gay marriage and abortion have overshadowed and impeded progress on issues such as poverty and violence.

"I don't want to minimize the significance [of gay marriage and abortion], but there are 2,000 verses of Scripture that call on us to respond to the needs of the poor," Campolo said.

In the mid-1970s, Campolo, who describes himself as socially progressive and theologically conservative, ran for Congress as a Democrat and lost.

He opposes abortion but prefers to focus on eradicating what he calls the economic reasons (including poverty) that motivate the decision. Gay marriage, Campolo says, "doesn't fit in with my understanding of the Bible, but I should not impose my convictions on others." He supports civil unions.

As a minister, Campolo has concentrated on enlisting young people to devote their lives to service and charitable works. His Red Letter Christians group advocates for a Christian movement devoid of partisan politics and focused on social justice.

He recruited Bruce Main 30 years go when the now-51-year-old president of UrbanPromise was a college student in California. Main helped start what would become the UrbanPromise child outreach program.

"Tony's great gift is inspiring people with the big vision," Main said. "After that, it's: 'Here's a few bucks and call me. You do it and I'll help.' "

Campolo's own ministry began when he took over a youth service program during his junior year at Eastern. He met his wife there. He earned a master of divinity degree from Eastern Baptist Seminary (now Palmer Theological Seminary) and later a doctorate from Temple University.

Campolo views the 1,000 men and women who are working in social justice ministry as a result of EAPE programs to be the organization's great legacy. He is also excited about the coming expansion of the 25-year-old Cornerstone school, which just earned accreditation.

In typical Campolo fashion, he persuaded a group at Wayne Presbyterian Church to purchase a church building adjacent to the school so that Cornerstone could expand and the building could be an incubator for neighborhood ministries.

Campolo also has regrets. He is sorry that he has traveled so much, which kept him away from home.

"I wish I had been a better husband and father," Campolo said.

He still thinks about missing son Bart's championship soccer game - 32 years later.

"I wasn't there for my son," Campolo said.

Peggy Campolo said her husband shouldn't feel guilty.

"We were all aware of what he was doing and we were proud of him for doing it," she said.

But she is ecstatic that he is cutting back.

"I always feared he would drop dead on a stage or have to stop after a bad fall," she said. "He can run circles around anybody his age. But he can't be what he was when he was 30, and he's tried."


kholmes@phillynews.com610-313-8211

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