Don't Mess With Joan Brown Campbell!

08/17/2013 05:25 pm ET | Updated Oct 17, 2013

The following 'roast' was delivered at the Chautauqua Women's Club to honor the 'Many Faces of Joan Brown Campbell' as she retires from her position as the Director of Religion at the Chautauqua Institution.

What an honor to be up here for this roast of Joan Brown Campbell. Look at her everyone - such pretty eyes, such a nice smile - she just looks so sweet.

Well, don't be fooled.

I am one of hundreds of people who first saw Rev. Joan and thought to myself, 'what a sweet, nice, pretty lady Joan is' - and before I knew it and not understanding what hit me I was saying: 'Yes Joan, right away Joan - how high did you say you wanted me to jump Rev Joan?'

The truth is that the winding road of Rev. Joan Brown Campbell's career is littered with those who thought they could 'deal' with this sweet lady --- and before they knew it, in some sort of weird aikido they ended up either bending to her vision or being relegated to some dustbin of history.

You may have heard Rick Perry use the phrase Don't Mess With Texas - but Texas is kid's stuff compared to Joan - so all I can say is 'Don't Mess With Joan'

It is good to remember that it is this same 'sweet' Joan Brown Campbell who invited Martin Luther King, Jr. to her white congregation in Cleveland in the early 1960's. And when threatened with violence, Joan told her kids to clean under the bed because 'the police might be looking for bombs under there and she didn't want them to find a mess." I enjoy pondering what would have happened if she had actually gotten her hands on, or 'around the throat' of those who had threatened her church or her children. Don't Mess With Joan!

Yes, Joan Brown Campbell looks sweet but only an iron will could herd the group of squirrels that is the National Council of Churches. I heard a story from Krista Tippet and Jane Campbell, Joan's daughter, about one specific incident when the Orthodox Christian Clergy faced a dilemma because they couldn't have Joan sitting at the same exalted level as them as they didn't recognize women as clergy.

Long story short, leave it to this lady to get a religious tradition that has been around for 2000 years to change their seating plan. Don't mess with Joan.

And I ask you, if Rev. Joan is such a nice sweet lady, why would the South African government deny her a visa to attend Bishop Tutu's elevation to Archbishop? Rev. Otis Moss, Jr told me the story about when a few nobodies like Rev. Otis Moss, jr., Rev. Jess Jackson, Rev. William Sloan Coffin along with Joan Brow Campell, were told they were not welcome. Bill Coffin recommended that they go anyhow even though it was unlikely that the plane would be permitted to land.

Rev. Moss remembers Joan dryly saying "Well, If we follow Bill's suggestion we will just be flying over the ordination but at least we will be close." And here is the kicker, a few years later, following the release of Nelson Mandela, Joan Brown Campbell went from being persona non-grata to something called an 'eminent person' in the eyes of the South African government. Don't mess with Joan!

Or perhaps we can consider 'nice, sweet' Rev. Joan's run in with a group that strikes fear into every politician's heart - yes, I'm talking about the Miami Cuban community and the Elian Gonzalez case. When Janet Reno is looking for someone really tough to get on the case you have some sense of whom we are dealing with here. Don't Mess With Joan.

Karen Armstrong told me of a certain time in Doha at the foundation of the Charter for Compassion. As a side note, Rev. Joan flew over to Qatar with Cardinal McCarrick in Business class, and for the record, they both were in reclining seats next to one another. Now, I can't say for certain if anything happened on that flight - but as a journalist I certainly have my headline, which reads: Cardinal Sleeps With Joan Brown Campbell.

But once they got to Doha there was resistance on the part of some of the male clerics. Joan, who was the protectorate of Karen, didn't like this one bit and, turned and said in a amplified whisper: "Too much girl power here." Of course, the Charter for Compassion did get formed and, of course those clerics got in line. Don't Mess With Joan!

Speaking of Karen, there is a memory seared in my brain of walking down the stairs of the Hall of Missions and seeing Karen Armstrong teaching Joan Brown Cambell how to put on a nun's habit.

Something clicked for me then that Joan might have made a good nun in the school of Sister Joan Chittister and Sister Simon Campbell -of course she is smart, spiritual, social justice minded - plus I have a sneaking suspicion that she wouldn't mind administrating a yardstick to a few butts out there.

But I'm not sure that Joan was ever really cut out for obedience, chastity or even sobriety. I think the Catholic Church is lucky that they never messed with Joan.

So, while history has shown not to mess with Joan. I speak for all of us when I say that we are so glad that Joan messed with us. Amidst all the stories of the important people and prophetic actions that mark Joan Brown Campbell's life there are the intimate, pastoral moments when Joan has known just what to say to me -- acknowledged a fear, encouraged a hope, offered wisdom in the face of confusion.

It's a messy, messy world - but we are all so much better off because Joan Brown Campbell has been in that mess with us.