Sarah Campbell ’82 inspires earthly acts of social justicce from behind the pulpit.
Macalester students come from nearly every religious tradition on Earth, and a fair number of students follow no formal religion at all. There is no mandatory chapel attendance, and the college’s Presbyterian affiliation is subdued. Spiritual matters are deeply contemplated from political, cultural, and philosophical angles, in classrooms and dorm rooms, but religious activities are carried out largely on the individual level.
In other words, this isn’t a school known for producing hundreds of clergy.
Which is actually part of the reason Sarah Campbell ’82, a political science student turned United Church of Christ minister, came to Macalester. A pastor’s daughter from a family of Midwestern clergy, she made what she thought was a break from the church, and chose instead a college that would help her learn how to make a difference right here on Earth.
“I don’t know that I ever went to chapel while I was a student. I was looking for my own path and I didn’t think that was it,” Campbell says. “But I was in the chapel all the time, because I liked the chaplain and I liked what was going on there … Amnesty International, World Hunger Relief. I was intensely interested in social justice.”
Campbell studied politics and American history, fusing them into a custom “social change” major guided by history professors Jim Stewart and Norm and Emily Rosenberg. She also received a hands-on education as a homeless shelter volunteer and urban studies intern in Chicago. “That radicalized me and really took me to the root causes of so many problems in society,” she says.
Campbell later realized she’d been preparing for these experiences since childhood. “I was part of a liberal church; even our Sunday school had a social justice curriculum,” she says. “I don’t think I would have become a minister if it wasn’t for the Civil Rights movement and understanding how important the church was in that struggle. There can be an enormous power for change that comes from a religious community.”
And so, slowly, she came back to her birthright. She met and married writer and academic Mark Gustafson (who has taught in Mac’s Classics Department), and after graduation worked at the Hungry Mind Bookstore and St. Stephen’s homeless shelter in Minneapolis. Then she and Gustafson moved to Omaha, where Campbell worked as a community organizer. After returning to the Twin Cities she enrolled in United Theological Seminary, studying while raising two daughters.
The ministerial life nourished Campbell’s intellectual hunger, while giving her the opportunity to inspire social change as part of carrying out Christ’s message. In doing so, she inspires her congregations to challenge the status quo. “I don’t see how you can tie the word of Jesus to denying people health care or teaching intolerance. That’s just wrong,” she says. “If you stay consistent to Jesus’ way and the way of the prophets, you’re going to talk about power and taking risks. If we play it safe, we’re not doing what we’re supposed to do.”
And so her ministerial work has centered on seeking justice and fairness. Her first position was at northern Minnesota’s Bemidji State University, where she worked on reconciliation between the white community and the three nearby Indian reservations. Next, she and Gustafson took jobs in Grand Rapids, Michigan, he as a classics professor, she with a “country club” church, where she helped start a homeless shelter and a food pantry.
Then she returned to the Twin Cities to lead Mayflower Church, a socially progressive 700-member United Church of Christ congregation. The church, for example, made a yearlong study of marriage that ended with its decision to stop signing civil marriage licenses until it can also legally sign licenses for gay couples.
More controversially, Mayflower, located in an affluent South Minneapolis neighborhood, recently subdivided its property to build affordable housing for working families — most of whom are Muslim. The plan was initially met with neighborhood resistance.
“We gave up some parking spaces so 30 families could have homes,” Campbell says. “In many parts of the global community, Islam and Christianity are growing further apart. We want to be a model for growing closer together.”
That sense of the larger world comes from her college days, Campbell says. “Mac has long been a globally aware and concerned place that put a high value on volunteerism and leadership in shaping our social institutions.”
Although Campbell has come to couple the social justice passions of her Mac days with the Christianity she was raised with, her spiritual beliefs focus not on evangelicalism but on compassionate action. “Why else are we here on this earth but to do this work?”