What’s in a name?

PC(USA) pastor assists in cleanup of Alabama town sharing his name

July 19, 2011

A man carrying debris from wreckage.

Phil Campbells helped clean up after devastating tornadoes in Phil Campbell, Ala. —Photos provided by Phil Campbell

STATESVILLE, N.C.

What do a minister from Alaska and a small town in Alabama have in common?

Their name: Phil Campbell.

It’s a fairly standard name for a person but a rather unusual name for a town, something the community has had fun with over the years.

In 1995, Phil Campbell, the person, visited Phil Campbell, the town, as part of a community celebration when the town invited people named Phil Campbell to attend the festivities. 

“It was more just a fun and odd thing to do to go to a town with other people with whom I share a name to a town that shares our name,” said Campbell, pastor of Northern Light United Church in Juneau, Alaska, a union Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) United Methodist congregation.

He hadn’t been back since, but the town is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year and decided to once again gather Phil Campbells, this time searching even further afield to bring people from other countries with the name as well.

Campbell heard about the celebration but didn’t plan to attend because of scheduling issues.

Then, in the midst of the planning for the event, the town was hit by the devastating tornados that tore through Alabama April 27. 

“Over a third of the buildings, homes and businesses, were destroyed or severely damaged, and 27 people died in a town of just over 1,000 residents, so really a great loss and a real tragedy for the town,” Campbell said.

The town decided to push ahead with plans for the anniversary celebration in spite of the tragedy, but with a renewed focus of rebuilding for a better tomorrow. At that point, Campbell and his congregation decided he should attend after all.

“We also wanted to do more than just arrive, so we were exploring ways that we could assist in the town’s recovery efforts,” he said.

A group of people in grey shirts standing below a stage, with others standing on it.

Twenty Phil Campbells were on hand for cleanup, a parade and a hoedown with residents.

Habitat for Humanity stepped in to help build homes, and the Northern Light congregation joined in the effort, raising $5,000 of the $35,000 that has been raised for the project so far. The first home site was dedicated on the weekend of the anniversary celebration. 

“I really felt like I was there on behalf of the congregation as well as the Phils,” Campbell said. 

The Phils were to be on hand June 17-18, and they used part of that time to participate in cleanup efforts. The town pool and community center that hosted the 1995 festivities had been damaged, with the roof blowing off the pool house as well as debris and broken trees scattered throughout. 

On June 18, the Phils rode in a parade and joined the townspeople for a hoedown, something that, much to Campbell’s surprise, was just as important as their cleanup efforts.

“What I realized was that our being there had a not only a physical assistance component, but more a spiritual component if you will,” he said. “Our presence really buoyed the town’s spirit, and I was just really moved by the hospitality of the town and their gratitude for our just being there. One of the residents said she was just really impressed that so many people that didn’t know anything about their town would bother to come.”

Twenty Phil Campbells were on hand, with three from Australia and three from the United Kingdom.  Nineteen were male and there was one Phyl with a “y” — short for Phyllis.

“We didn’t have anything in common necessarily, any more than any other random cross section of 20 people would have,” Campbell said. “Just because we shared a name didn’t mean we shared anything else, but being there meant we shared a common purpose and it forged bonds that were really quite powerful.”

While Campbell said the weekend was fun and even more significant to be a part of than he had anticipated, the biggest reason for going was to draw attention to the needs of the town. 

“It’s the townsfolk and the long-term volunteers who are the real unsung heroes, but because of the happenstance of our name we could lend something that no one else could, so we helped the town, we helped the town’s hope for the future, helped instill that by our presence,” Campbell said.

To learn more about this story, check out a video featuring Phil Campbell produced by the United Methodist Church.

Toni Montgomery is a freelance writer in Statesville, N.C., where she is also secretary for First Presbyterian Church.

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