As an alcoholic lay dying in his arms, a young Campbell Roberts felt God tell him to work for those who have been sinned against. Since then, he has dedicated his life to becoming a voice for the voiceless.
‘So, should I call you sir?’ I ask Major Campbell Roberts, who was awarded the Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in the 2019 New Year’s Honours. ‘Definitely not,’ replies Campbell.
‘It’s always a bit embarrassing, because I am very conscious that you’re part of a team of people … I think an award like this is an award for The Salvation Army, it’s something of a recognition of the ministry of the Army and of the gospel.’
It’s not Campbell’s first accolade, having previously been nominated for New Zealander of the Year, and receiving The Salvation Army’s Order of the Founder. He is widely known for his tireless work in social justice—a profile in Stuff called him a ‘trusted voice advocating for those in need’.
The Salvation Army was woven into Campbell’s DNA before he was even born. Almost 100 years ago, a baby bundled in newspaper was left on the front steps of a Salvation Army children’s home. The baby was Alf Roberts, who was taken in by the Army.
As a young man, Alf met a woman who had also been helped by the Army. As an unmarried mother, she had been cared for at a Salvation Army hospital and her baby girl adopted out.
The two had a son called Alfred Campbell Roberts. ‘So the Army is part of my heritage and my parentage, really,’ Campbell told Stuff.
They were a working class family—his father was a carpenter and his mother a seamstress—but Campbell credits his father with instilling in him a broad idea of the gospel of Christ. ‘My father was very engaged in ecumenical activities and had a wide view of politics and the need to engage the Christian faith in that.’
Yet, at the age of 20, when Campbell entered training college to become a Salvation Army officer, he describes himself as ‘very much committed to an evangelical faith’. ‘I thought maybe I would become the Billy Graham of the Army,’ he says wryly.
But, while at college, Campbell had an experience that profoundly affected him and forever changed the course of his ministry. ‘One morning a St Johns Ambulance came to the college and asked me to help them. We went to one of the houses behind the college where a whole lot of alcoholics were living, and there was this guy lying in the corner just about to die.
‘It was a house that was operated by a fairly substantial business man in Wellington, and he took the benefit off these alcoholics each week, and gave them just enough each day to keep them in booze. There were 16 to 17 of them in each house, and it just destroyed their lives. And as we were carrying this man down, he died. In that moment, God said to me, “This man was someone I loved, and he was sinned against”.
‘It was a realisation that the gospel is about more than personal sin and people coming to faith, it is also about redeeming “sinned-againstness”.’
As a young Salvation Army officer in the ’80s, Campbell was seconded to manage a team of industrial chaplains, working in large factories. They became formative years—influencing his understanding of what the gospel looked like outside the walls of a church.
He began a group where people could come with their life questions, which had 30 to 40 workers attending in their lunch hour. At one stage, 50 people were going to be made redundant, and management asked Campbell to help them ‘do that in a Christian way’. At the end of his meeting with them, they had found a way to keep their workers employed. In one tragic situation, an employee committed suicide and the whole factory shut down while Campbell led a memorial service around his machine.
Campbell recalls one of his early mentors, an industrial missioner, arguing that ‘the church should be involved in home and domestic issues, it should be involved in work issues, involved in social and political issues, and involved in leisure and environmental issues’.
‘I began to ask myself: “What does the gospel look like in a work setting, or in a political setting?”’
Campbell found himself fighting the good fight at a political level—protesting initiatives like Robert Muldoon’s Think Big projects. ‘It was obvious that you were going to put high capital industries in places that were going to be very destructive to the environment, but were also not going to provide the jobs they promised because huge amounts of money were being spent in highly-mechanised plants.’
It was about this time that Campbell became a key player in the 1981 Springbok tour protests. ‘I went to the first protests and the leader said, “Oh, you’re just who we’re looking for. We’re going to break into Carisbrook today, we’ve got a pair of bolt cutters”. I was wearing my Salvation Army uniform, so he said, “You could [hide them in] your jacket, nobody would know that you had them”, so that’s what we did.’
Through these experiences, an activist was born. Campbell would become known as a voice for the voiceless in New Zealand. But at the time it was much more fraught, he says.
‘Having bolt cutters hidden up my sleeve is not something I naturally did. I often wondered whether I was doing the right thing or not, but it was a compulsion of God, really, to be involved and speak out … In the early days it was pretty tough—there was a lot of criticism and I don’t know how many times I got rolled over.’
He remembers during the Springbok tour, his name appeared in the paper as a vocal opponent: ‘I was a bit terrified going into the factory that Monday. This guy walked up to me and said, “I support the tour, but I want to honour you for standing up for what you believe in”. The next Sunday, as I went into the corps, one of the soldiers said to me, “If you ever preach here again I’m going to walk out”. Often the unenlightened get the truth of the gospel first.
‘The worst things people have said to me have not been from outside the Army, they’ve all been said to me by people within.’
Yet, he reflects, the deepest growth has come from the hardest places. ‘It was wrong of me to expect to be encouraged and supported unanimously, because the gospel will always be in the minority. So if I’m being true to the gospel, why I am expecting everyone to like what I’m doing?’
But he adds: ‘You have to be very careful, because it can become about personal ego. I have to admit that I have sometimes strayed away from the gospel into what is personal ego, and in some senses you also have to live in that risk as well.’
Campbell is quick to add that the Army has also been a space of ‘remarkable opportunities, and I’m so, so grateful. There is no doubt my life would have been so much more barren if God hadn’t called me to this’.
After he left industrial mission, Campbell was given a unique opportunity to move to South Auckland where he had free rein to work in the community. He spent the first few months talking to everyone from the mayor to the street cleaner, and wrote up a plan for what a ‘Christian’ South Auckland would look like—encompassing justice at every level, including roading and infrastructure. Since then, South Auckland has become his home and his heart—and Campbell says that he is still working from that original plan.
It was from one of those hard places—where Campbell felt he could no longer go on in the Army—that the Social Policy and Parliamentary Unit (SPPU) was birthed. ‘I always had a dream that The Salvation Army should be engaged at the top end of society, with the decision makers—because if people are being sinned against, we need to make sure there are just policies,’ explains Campbell.
Initially, the Unit identified 400 significant ‘lever pullers’ in New Zealand who could influence the government. ‘We had business breakfasts—a leading business person flew people into Queenstown for lunch, so that they could listen to me talk about welfare reform. I remember a hotelier in Queenstown saying, “You know what the trouble here is, it’s not the welfare system, it’s how we’re operating. We’re paying too low wages in the hotel industry”. I thought, “This is exactly the reflection we want”.’
Over the years, Campbell has become a social justice advocate to prime ministers, and a confidante to politicians.
He remembers getting a call from an electorate chairman, saying, ‘“We’ve just elected a young MP called John Key and I think he’s most probably going to be prime minister one day. He knows a lot of about economics but has no idea about social need, would you go and spend some time with him?” I did and he started to engage with these ideas of social justice.’ It was the beginning of a relationship with John Key that continued throughout his years as Prime Minister.
When Hon. Bill English retired from politics, Campbell received this poignant message from him: ‘I appreciate the courage of you being prepared to be engaged with us. You had a big impact, a bigger impact than anyone will ever know’. Campbell adds that, ‘It’s not me, it’s the impact of the Army coming from that faith tradition.’
Campbell also played another, unexpected, role in the corridors of power: ‘Some politicians have shared very deeply with me on a personal level, and that’s been a real privilege. I’ve always made sure that where people were in the media for bad things, I connected with them—because that pastoral aspect is also really important.’
So, what is his response to people that feel the Army shouldn’t be involved with politics? ‘I think politics is essential to be engaged with—not necessarily party politics, but in the sense that politics is about how human life is organised, and we believe that under the redemption of God, society can be improved and made better.’
Campbell says he’s hugely encouraged by millennials who are responding to a gospel of social and environmental justice, as well as personal salvation. Yet, traditional evangelicals still baulk. There is a current backlash against what has been dubbed ‘social justice warriors’—which, astonishingly, is used as a derogatory term.
I am curious about how Campbell—a flesh-and-blood social justice warrior—responds to the backlash. He points to Micah 6:8: ‘And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God’.
He explains: ‘“Walk humbly” is the personal relationship; “act justly” is the creation of a just society between God and community, which includes the environment; and, “love mercy” is the caring part of the Army. If you don’t have them all together you’re not proclaiming the gospel.
‘For the last 40 years, that’s the picture of the gospel I’ve hoped to paint. It’s still an incomplete picture. At the end of your life you might have only painted a small 1cm x 1cm part, but at least you’ve contributed to the picture.’
*With additional text reprinted with permission from Stuff ‘National Portraits’, by Craig Hoyle.
By Ingrid Barratt (c) 'War Cry' magazine, 26 January 2019 p6-9. You can read 'War Cry' at your nearest Salvation Army church or centre, or subscribe through Salvationist Resources.