Tony Campolo, Baptist minister, college professor, author, speaker (1935- )
By Tony Campolo (see below)
I’m an Italian, but I belong to an African-American Church in Philadelphia. People sometimes ask me how a white guy like me ended up going there. I tell them it is because at that church they are serious about heaven, and I need that in a church.
I went to my first funeral at that church when I was 19 years old. It was wonderful. A friend of mine, Clarence, had died in a train accident. The community was devastated and the church was full. I was a pall bearer so I had a front row seat.
The pastor was incredible. From the pulpit, he talked about the resurrection in beautiful terms with a power and confidence that lifted us up and gave us hope. He had us thrilled. He spent twenty minutes describing life after death, and I want to tell you, he made it sound so wonderful that halfway through his sermon I was wishing I was dead.
Then he came down from the pulpit, went to the family, and comforted them with words from the fourteenth chapter of John. “Let not your heart be troubled,” he said, “You believe in God, believe also in me,” said Jesus. “Clarence has gone to heavenly mansions,” he said. It was beautifully done.
Then the preacher went over to the casket where the lid was still open. In that church they didn’t close the lid until after the funeral. Then, for the last 20 minutes of the sermon, the pastor actually preached to the open casket. Now, that’s drama! He yelled at the corpse: “Clarence! Clarence!” And he said that with such authority no one would have been surprised if Clarence would have answered. He said, “Clarence, you were a good boy and we loved you. Maybe we didn’t tell you that enough when you were alive. We should have said it more then, but we’ll say it now. We loved you, Clarence. And we thank you. We thank you for how good you were to your old grandma, and how you always respected your parents, and how you were kind to your little brothers and sisters. There were a lot of things we should have said to you that we never said. We should have thanked you, but you got away too fast, Clarence, so we have to thank you now.”
If that wasn’t enough, the preacher went on for a really dramatic finish. He again turned to the casket and looked down into Clarence’s face and softly said: “We have to say good night now, Clarence. There’s nothing more to say. When there’s nothing more to say, there’s only one thing to say, and that is, Good night.” And then he said it again, louder, “Good night, Clarence!”
The preacher then reached up and grabbed the lid of the casket and yelled at the corpse, “Good night, Clarence,” and he slammed the thing shut! Boom! He slammed it right down on Clarence’s face. “Good night, Clarence!” he said one more time.
The whole congregation was shocked, and this congregation was used to drama in church. But they had never seen anything like that before, and everyone sat in stunned silence.
Then the preacher slowly turned around, and as he lifted his head, you could see there was this smile on his face as he went on: “Yes, I said, Good night, Clarence, and that’s sad, because we won’t see his face anymore. But I can say that with hope and even with joy because I know… I knoooooooow, that God is going to give Clarence a good morning! We say here, “Good Night, Clarence;” but God is right now saying, “Wake up, Clarence! Good Morning, Clarence. You are home!”
Just then the choir stood and starting singing, “On that great gettin’ up morning, we shall rise, we shall rise…” And pretty soon we were all on our feet, singing, dancing in the aisles, clapping, and hugging each other. We felt the joy of the Lord, a joy that in the face of death laughs and sings and dances, for there is ‘no sting to death.’
And I knew I was in the right church – a church that can take death and turn it into a celebration; that can take death and turn it into hope; that can take death and turn it into life. I knew I was in the right place.
John 14:1-3 — (Jesus said), “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.”
I Thessalonians 4:13-14 — Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.
I Corinthians 15:55 — Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?
1 I will exalt you, Lord,
for you lifted me out of the depths…
2 Lord my God, I called to you for help,
and you healed me.
3 You, Lord, brought me up from the realm of the dead;
you spared me from going down to the pit.
4 Sing the praises of the Lord, you his faithful people;
praise his holy name.
5 For his anger lasts only a moment,
but his favor lasts a lifetime;
weeping may stay for the night,
but rejoicing comes in the morning…
8 To you, Lord, I called;
to the Lord I cried for mercy:
9 What is gained if I am silenced,
if I go down to the pit?
Will the dust praise you?
Will it proclaim your faithfulness?
10 Hear, Lord, and be merciful to me;
Lord, be my help.”
11 You turned my wailing into dancing;
you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy,
12 that my heart may sing your praises and not be silent.
Lord my God, I will praise you forever.
Mahalia Jackson (1911-1972) sings On That Great Gettin’ Up Morning:
Tony Campolo has told this story in many different times and places, and some versions include details that others do not. The above account is from notes I took when I heard him tell it several years ago at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. For a video (poor video quality, great message) of Tony Campolo telling this story (and another great story) go to: