Aaron Campbell was on summer break after his freshman year at Penn. The night before had been hard partying, so he arrived to his 6 A.M. shift in the New York Port Authority Bus Terminal on no sleep. Aaron punched in as usual, grabbed his garbage bags, blue push-cart, mop and metal pick-up can, and went straight to his bathroom on the second floor. He plunked down on a milk crate in the corner and – already acclimated to the smell of urine and diseased bowels – dozed off immediately.
But a few seconds later Aaron sensed something was amiss. He opened his eyes to find a beefy man in loose-fitting sweats masturbating directly over his head. Before Aaron could respond, the man had dashed away and joined his rowdy gang along the glass walls circling the second floor of the bus terminal.
Aaron stared at the man from the door of his bathroom; he was mad enough to cuss the devil out of hell, but he was also prudent enough to stay put. The “meat rack” gang – as they were called – were a notorious group of homosexuals known for dicing their enemies with rusty razor blades and then raping them for good measure.
But then Van Puddin’ walked by.
Van Puddin’ was a loan shark from the mob (a bit like Sonny in A Bronx Tale) who used the Port as his headquarters. He’d taken a liking to Aaron during his first summer working there, and when Aaron told him what had happened, Van Puddin’ strutted over to the meat rack and set them straight.
The exchange was a quiet one, but effective. From that day on, the meat rack left Aaron alone. So did everybody else, in fact – to the point that Aaron could wear thousands of dollars of jewelry without getting mugged on the job.
Clearly, Aaron was indeed finding his way on the streets – but he was also doing just fine at Penn. For he’d been well-served by the high school honors section of The Wardlaw-Hartridge School, and by his junior year he was not only passing his pre-med classes, but he was also earning a shining recommendation from Dr. Meenhard Herlyn for his “meticulous” assays and overtime work in a Wistar cancer lab.
Growing up in the ‘80s in “dirty Jersey,” Aaron had been straddling two worlds since grade school. One was The Wardlaw-Hartridge School that would land him at Penn, and the other was the streets of the “hood” where he lived and where – by the time he was in high school – his best friend Deuce sold crack.
His life split between these two worlds about the time that his parents separated in 1978. His father, a Native American of the Waccamaw Siouans/Lumbee tribe, had fought his way out of the Jim Crow back-woods of ‘50s North Carolina to a position on the president’s cabinet at Seton Hall. His mother was also biracial – Native American and African American, beautiful enough to model and – as time would tell – tough and smart enough to be a single mother on the “tricky” streets of Plainfield, NJ.
The couple’s marriage got off to a lovely start on a “nice, Jewish block,” but five years and two children later, Aaron’s father moved out, and the household’s financial stability left with him. Aaron’s mother, who had been getting a graduate degree in education and staying at home with her two sons, struggled to build a career from the ground up. She agreed with Mr. Campbell that he would pay private school tuition for the kids in lieu of alimony, so the school bills were always paid. But sometimes the water was shut off or the stereo stolen or the back door shredded by a would-be intruder.
All the while, Aaron and his brother were attending The Wardlaw-Hartridge School – an elite New Jersey K-12 school that, today, charges just under $30,000 for a single year of second-grade education.
While Aaron played with his classmates in their private mansions and attended their Bar and Bat Mitzvahs at places like the Livingston Country Club, a big part of him – perhaps the bigger part of him – remained with his homies who rolled through the crime-ridden streets on their BMX’s and threw books at the teachers in Cedarbrook Elementary.
At some point in high school, Aaron decided to resolve this inner tension by simply “kicking s—t” in both worlds, and a couple of years into college, he had pretty much succeeded. His summer job as a janitor in Hell’s Kitchen (as The Port used to be called in the early 90s) gave him street smarts and a crime family that even his “clockin’” (drug-dealing) homies could only dream of – and all of this while Penn was giving him a world-class pre-med degree and an elite network that even frat-house blue-bloods could take seriously:
“The Ivy League plus The Port: to some it was a pretty insane undertaking. But to me, it was my silver bullet for absolute happiness and peace.”
A few may remember Pastor Aaron Campbell from when Antioch Christian Fellowship brought noted evangelical apologist Ravi Zacharias to Irvine Auditorium two years ago. When I asked Aaron’s freshman year roommate, Joe Savage, whether he ever thought of Aaron as a future pastor, I got a memorably definite “no.” “That was a total shock,” Joe said.
In some ways, it may have been a shock to Aaron, himself. Though his mother had “brought the boys up Catholic,” by the time he entered college he was an agnostic – a quintessential Penn student who worked hard, played hard, and figured religion was for folks with “too much time on their hands.”
By his junior year, however, Aaron began to find that “the whole ‘fast life’ thing” was “losing its hype.” While Aaron still loved his own swag, his “mixed drinks” and his “hydro,” he felt forced to find a new path to “absolute happiness and peace.”
So Aaron turned to mystic faiths. Drawing on his Native American roots, he meditated in silence in the mountains of upstate New York, searching for his own personal spirit guide and trying to make his thoughts “as pure and peaceful as the sweet-flowing waters.”
One day, sitting atop his favorite mountain, overlooking the majestic Hudson River, that pure peace flowed into him just like it was supposed to.
Sadly, it did not outlast the end of his weed supply.
It was the same with all six of the other philosophies Aaron tried out. Mdu Ntr (in his sophomore year), Lao Tzu, Kahlil Gibran, Siddhartha – interspersed with repeated returns to agnosticism – every worldview held temporary interest, beautiful feelings, but when those feelings passed, Aaron found himself without “concrete answers” or “real power” to defeat “the jerk within” – a jerk that was lying and stealing and cheating on his girlfriend with dizzying proficiency by this point.
Even more, there was a part of Aaron that was a “science major” and a “numbers cruncher” who “just wanted truth” – cold, hard, and factual.
As Aaron tells it, the first time he encountered that kind of truth was the summer after his senior year, talking with his uncle about the biblical book of Daniel and then reading it on his own. “Daniel chapter 2, Daniel chapter 7, and Daniel chapter 11 clearly chronicle the succession of the Babylonian, Medo-Persian, Greek, and Roman Empires,” Aaron said. So clearly, in fact, that some scholars used to “say it was written in Anno Domini, after the birth of Christ.” What is more, Aaron explained, the famous “70 week prophecy” in Daniel chapter 9 accurately predicts the time when Jesus Christ would show up as the Jewish Messiah, riding into Jerusalem on a donkey in the third year of his ministry.
While Aaron conceded that the oldest manuscript of Daniel we currently have (4QDanc) is a fragment from the Dead Sea Scrolls dating to the late second century B.C., he pointed out that the book was still obviously written long before Christ. Somehow, Daniel accurately predicted the time that Jesus Christ – the only person in history whose claim to be the Messiah gained a large and permanent following – would step onto the stage of history.
This prophecy, along with other prophecies about Christ’s life that Aaron loves to quote, were what got him to “seriously reconsider Jesus again.” That reconsidering led him hard into the four gospels, reading the Bible in his apartment on 45th and Spruce “till [his] eyes often got bloodshot,” to see if a book marked by a supernatural facility to “tell history before it happened” might hold a real answer to the problems of this life – and its inevitable end in death.
I was interviewing Aaron at Hubbub one Thursday morning, talking about his last semester at Penn.
A man wearing a black beanie hat and baggy pants spattered with white paint came up to our table, spread the palm of his hand on Aaron’s baseball cap and gave him a facetious kiss on the head. Aaron turned to the man with his signature grin – a flash of white teeth under the downward curve of his light mustache – and stood up to give him a man hug. “So, interestingly,” Aaron commented after the man had left, “he was a goon for the Italian mafia.” A little over ten years ago, Aaron had met him on the streets and “led him to Christ.”
Speaking of Aaron’s activity “on the streets,” during his ninth semester at Penn, he sincerely repented of crime, pride, and everything in between to “receive the resurrected Christ into [his] heart.”
As Tony Alvarez – one of Aaron’s old friends from his party days at Penn – put it, Aaron’s life “did a complete 180” and hit the road full speed going in the opposite direction. Aaron dropped all his “hustlin’” – and his weed, liquor, and Newports – so fast that his friends didn’t know what to do with him, and his “phone and doorbell went from ringing around the clock, to almost never ringing at all.”
But it didn’t stay that way for long. Aaron “has that gift where he makes you feel like you’ve known him for years,” Tony said, when you’ve only just met. It’s made people love him wherever he’s gone – at Wardlaw, at The Port, or in “the middle of the jungle of North Philadelphia.”
The same remains true to this day – from the unapologetically elitist halls of Philadelphia’s Union League, where Aaron was recently inducted to the oyster farm of an Alaskan native, so out-of-the-way that Aaron could only get there by mini-motorboat.
If there is one place, though, where Aaron feels more at home than anywhere else, it would have to be in the pulpit of Antioch Christian Fellowship, flashing his signature smile and preaching the weekly announcements to the hallelujah and amen of the assembled.
This summer, much time was spent on the community garden that the church put in their parking lot for the kids at Westpark Apartments, with help from Home Depot, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, Bartram’s Gardens, Meadowbrook Farms, and Whole Foods. Early in the summer, announcements congratulated dedicated church members for the previous Saturday’s sunburn, and squash and tomatoes appeared on the pulpit in the coming weeks along with an enthusiastic discussion of teaching the neighborhood kids to give eye-contact, manage money, and maintain good manners as they worked to sell the produce that they raised.
The week of October 2nd, Pastor Aaron met with District Attorney Seth Williams to view illegal guns that have been taken off the streets in Philadelphia. Aaron wants to melt down that metal and turn it into trowels, rakes, and shovels for the Westpark youth.
The analogy is a strong one and, as Aaron put it, “Biblical.” Tools of destruction are to be melted and rebuilt into implements of growth and good.
In nascent drafts from the mid-90s of Aaron’s 2011 memoir, Aaron described himself as a gun – “loaded and cocked.” That gun used to stand on the roof of the Port looking over midtown Manhattan, lungs swollen with weed and pride at his own Jekyll-and-Hyde genius – street-smart and Ivy-League adapted.
Today, the same raw material that made Aaron successful everywhere from the Ivory Tower to the ‘hood, is still in full swing. But it works to very different ends.
I asked Aaron in a final interview whether he viewed his tireless efforts to help those in need – from the Westpark kids to local college students – as a way of atoning for his past. Aaron paused and thought a moment. “I wouldn’t say atoning,” he said, “I’ve been rewired.” It was “a spiritual resurrection.”
As Aaron tells it, that rewiring happened one night in his apartment on the corner of 45th and Spruce. Already intellectually convinced that Christianity was true – he had realized “how huge a difference there was between merely acknowledging Truth and submitting to it.” And in what was, perhaps, the least outwardly dramatic moment of his entire career, Aaron lowered his head silently and submitted himself to following that Truth.
There were no “fireworks.” No “angels” singing in his room. But, according to Aaron, that moment was the inflection point of his life.
The moment when the old gun unloaded and uncocked, and melted willingly to be refashioned into an implement of growth and good.