Note: This article is a sidebar to our cover story, “The Positive Prophet.”
According to Campolo’s doctors, it’s a wonder that after his airborne stroke he can speak at all. The area of his brain ravaged by the blood vessel’s rupture controls his motor skills, and while Campolo prayed for deliverance, partial paralysis seemed likely. By the time the plane landed, however, Campolo’s body was only tingling.
After he spent the night in the hospital, Campolo’s doctors warned him against maintaining his plans to speak as the first “Easter Missioner” at Harvard, where his son-in-law is university secretary. Despite the warning, he preached the morning sermon at Harvard’s Memorial Church, followed by three evening worship services, three morning prayer services, and several talks at the graduate schools throughout the week. He didn’t miss a single scheduled event.
“I know that sounds crazy, but in this case it was the right thing to do,” Campolo wrote in a letter to supporters the next month. “I felt a distinct leading of the Holy Spirit about this.”
As he concluded the week of evangelistic services, Campolo finally heeded his doctors’ advice. He canceled speaking engagements for the next five weeks and flew back to Hawaii, this time for rest.
Campolo used to joke that his life was too much like The Simpsons: his son is named Bart, his daughter is Lisa, his wife’s first name is Margaret (though she usually uses Peggy). But having lost 30 pounds since the stroke, he looks a lot less like Homer. Dieting on the advice of his doctors, he has brought his high blood pressure, bad cholesterol, and diabetes under control.
His speaking schedule, however, is another matter. Campolo’s support group (which meets each Tuesday morning) was faced with confronting the evangelist’s schedule. Though incurring Campolo’s rage, they went to his office while he was away, canceled speaking engagements, and asked the college president for a reduced teaching schedule. Then they got in his face.
“The difference between Campolo and God is that God is everywhere. Campolo is everywhere but here,” support group member Craig Hammon told him in one confrontation in 1987. It wouldn’t be the last.
“My constant fatigue regularly threw me into periods of depression and kept me on the edge of emotional explosions,” Campolo told Moody magazine in 1992. “My wife … felt cheated because she got so little of my time. … My teaching was slipping. And my preaching was losing its freshness.”
He has sworn to cut back many times in recent decades, but he still couldn’t say no to speaking engagements. “We had various schemes over the years,” says Hammon, who was then Eastern’s senior vice president. “None of those ever worked. We tried real hard, but it just became overwhelming.”
Bart Campolo says his father’s stroke provided another reminder that his schedule was killing him, but it didn’t have the expected effect. “I remember him saying, ‘I’m ready to die.’ And I remember saying to him, ‘Hey, you know what, that’s great! That’s great! [Your grandson] Roman is not ready for you to die. I’m not ready for you to die. If you’ve gotta die, I’ll deal with it. But if you die just because you’re acting stupid, I think that sucks.’”
He has cut back, explains Peggy Campolo, noting that he now rarely takes red-eye flights to squeeze in one more morning session. He also accepts fewer invitations in countries where English is not the primary language. (The unscripted and mile-a-minute Campolo doesn’t work well with translators anyway.)
But what irks some of those closest to him is that he continues to insist on speaking to groups of a dozen or so. “These are venues that any major speaker would normally never go to just as a matter of time and stewardship,” says Hammon. “But for Tony it was very important to send a message loud and clear that nobody was more important than anybody else.” (“If you just do Jesus festivals, you get a warped view of the church,” Campolo adds.)
But it’s not size that matters, says Bart. “If you told him he could speak in front of 1,000 people live somewhere or with 10 million people via satellite, he would take the thousand people in the room.”
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