A sleepy, indoorsy Martha’s Vineyard afternoon, a preview of more to come as January slides by, greeted the streets down-Island on Sunday. Not one car was parked at Tashmoo overlook, not a soul lingered outside the Black Dog Cafe, and empty parking spots, months ago coveted, yawned along Main street Vineyard Haven in twos and threes.
But then, just before the library, the cars came into view. One behind the other, block after block they lined the street.
The people trickled into Stevens Memorial Chapel and the dusk sun trickled in behind them, giving a golden glow to the small, wooden meeting room. By the time the Rev. Judith Campbell’s three young grandchildren grabbed the rope of the chapel bell and pulled hard, four times, the pews had filled. Even a one-eyed dog was in attendance.
The congregation gathered at the weekly Unitarian Universalist Society service on Sunday to pray and to sing together, but also to bid farewell to Reverend Campbell and muse on the journey they had shared with her over the past seven years.
Reverend Campbell came to Martha’s Vineyard unexpectedly. She was teaching art at Lesley University in Cambridge when one of her students, a doctoral candidate, said, in passing, she was thinking of selling her house on Martha’s Vineyard. Before she knew what she was saying, Reverend Campbell asked if she could take a look.
“I had been to the Vineyard once before and it was not even on my radar screen,” she said last week from her Oak Bluffs studio, a space cluttered with Bibles and mystery novels, pens and nail polish remover and a phone which would not stop ringing. After trying to ignore it three times, the Reverend, clad in her collar, went to grab it. “Oh, Christ,” she exclaimed, then blushed, giggled, composed herself and answered.
When she came to look at the house, she did not even make it downstairs before agreeing to take it. This was in 1999 and, after one year of driving down on weekends and vacations, she and her husband had fallen madly in love with the place and the Vineyard and could not bear to live anywhere else. “It’s the first time I’ve ever fit anywhere,” Reverend Campbell said.
Her decision to enter the ministry came about in much the same way — it hit her over the head and there was no turning back. Reverend Campbell said even from an early age, she was drawn to religion. “I was always a religious person,” she said. “Not so much the practice as the inquiry. I’ve always been a ‘Tell me why’ person.”
She was born and raised in Hyde Park and brought up in the Episcopal Church where she was baptized, confirmed and taught Sunday school. Yet, at age 13, she started questioning the dogma. “I needed more than to just take it on faith,” she said. In her teens she began reading about every religion she could find books on, but it was not until the birth of her second son that she found the Unitarian Universalist Society.
“I’m ethically concerned with making a good, a better life,” she said. The society shared her concerns and appealed to her liberal, constant questioning approach to religion. She and her then-husband joined the Society and she took the helm of the choir at her local church.
When her first marriage began to fall apart, she accepted a job at Lesley, her alma mater, teaching art. She got her master’s degree in fine arts and wrote a book on painting. “At this point, I thought this was it,” she said. “I was a college professor and a painter and I wrote a book.” She was happy and successful. And then she got the call.
Sitting alone one night, Vivaldi’s Gloria playing quietly in the background, she became filled with what she described as an overwhelming sense of knowing. “Not here,” she said, pointing to her head, “but in my whole body.” Always the idealist, but never impractical, Reverend Campbell welcomed the call. And promptly brushed it aside. “Reality set in,” she shrugged. “I had two kids, I was a single mom, there was no way I was going to put my kids in day care to pursue my dream.”
Instead, she began revolutionizing her teaching. Where once she would have only taught students to mix blue and red to make purple, now she asked students to make something with the color. Where once she would have directed them to paint a sunset, now she told them to do it without using reds or oranges. “My mission is to open creative or religious or spiritual doors and make it safe for people to go through,” she said.
For a number of years, which included the beginning and end of a second marriage, she was content. She had pushed herself to become a better teacher and was showing her paintings across the country and throughout Europe. “Then flash forward to age 50,” she said energetically, her hands flying. “I had an empty nest, I had gone through my second divorce, my life was changing. I had made it in terms of being an artist and professor, but in terms of religion, singing in the choir just wasn’t enough.”
At an age when most begin to flirt with the idea of retirement, Reverend Campbell went back to school. She earned a combined doctoral degree in arts and religion from the Harvard Divinity School. The same year, she met the man who would become her third husband and signed a book deal.
For the next four years, she continued teaching at Lesley. And then, she said, peering over her glasses with a knowing look, the last 18-year-old gum-snapping student sat back in his chair and asked if this is really going to be on the exam.
She knew the Unitarian Universalist Society of Martha’s Vineyard was looking for a minister and she decided to throw her hat in the ring. When they called to say she had made the final cut, Reverend Campbell was thrilled. “I didn’t plan on parish ministry,” she said. “I’m not a restless soul, but I am an active person.”
In the past seven years, the Reverend Campbell has given sermons in support of gay marriage and on why she hates when people say I’m not religious, but I’m very spiritual. She has performed interfaith wedding ceremonies and began the only annual September 11 prayer vigil for peace on the Island. And now, after what she on Sunday called a wonderful, wonderful journey, she is stepping down from the pulpit. Her work, however, is far from over. “I’m stepping away from the ministry, but I’m not retired,” she said. “Ordination is for life. I vowed to live an ethical life to the best of my ability.”
Her plans include a return to, what she calls, her creative ministry. She will write more — she has two books of poetry she hopes to complete and two mystery novels to write, follow ups to her recently finished and tentatively titled A Deadly Mission. She has retreats to lead and quilts to quilt. She said she has no plans to take another church.
On Sunday, she was quick to praise the one she is leaving, but for once, she was short on her words. “There’s nothing to say, but thank you,” she said from the pulpit. “That’s it.” And with that she took off her stole and laid it down. “Blessed be,” she said to her congregation, for the last time, before returning to her seat among them.