Christian Art and Culture

Tony Campolo turns them inside out

Tony Campolo turns them inside out
Tony Campolo has devoted his life to reaching out to those who might seem to be beyond help. An ordained pastor, Tony has come alongside political leaders, underpriveleged youth, and even corporate America to facilitate transformations from within. In an interview with's Mary Naber, we hear Tony's experiences with turning a corporation inside out.

Interview with Tony Campolo

When did you first begin social activism in response to corporate behavior?

Well, it's been about twenty years since we started and at that time, we had some concerns about an American company called Gulf and Western. The company had taken over a sugar company in the Dominican Republic and was strongly accused of was exploiting workers, breaking labor unions, and engaging in other illegal practices.

A group of Catholic nuns called the Adrian sisters based in Michigan really set the pace. They were going to a stockholder's meeting, and I joined them to share our concerns and convictions with G&W. The response of the company was quite unexpected. They said, 'I think there are two alternatives here. We can continue on the confrontational half in which you call us names and we respond, or we can sit down and talk about what can be done together.'

What were you anticipating?

We expected to come in and read some scripture, and say what a bunch of young people would say in this setting -- that they would be judged by the Lord. We expected them to say, 'Let's move on to the next item of business.' Instead, the executives of the company said, 'Look, we haven't been perfect down there. We could be doing a lot more.' What resulted from that meeting was a very concentrated effort to really address the problems the company had in the Dominican Republic.

What did they decide to do?

First, they developed a medical program with Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York City to provide medical services for people throughout the eastern part of the country. Second, they put a lot of money into developing projects that would help the Dominican people. G&W's investment in a baseball stadium in San Pedro was considered ludicrous at the time, but turned out to be a wonderful investment.

The company ended up making a commitment of $100 million a year for five years. That's huge. Half a billion dollars in a small country like the Dominican Republic can have awesome ramifications.

How was the baseball stadium an effective investment?

San Pedro has now produced about thirty to forty major league baseball players who are presently playing in the major leagues. Out of loyalty to their town, all the major league ball players come back during the summer and work with the boys on the Little League teams, playing with them and encouraging them.

What else did the company do?

G&W put a significant amount of money into diversifying the economy. To encourage economic development, G&W worked very hard to make loans available to people who wanted to go into business. They also invested in other economic alternatives, which has been the salvation of the eastern half of the country since the sugar price drop in the international market.

The President of G&W and his wife also created a center called the Artisan's Nationale, to develop the craft skills already evident in the Dominican community and provide a world market for these goods. When the President passed away, his wife moved to the Dominican Republic to devote herself full-time to the development of the Center, which has since become a real tourist attraction.

I might also note that the company put a great deal of money into the development of the University of San Pedro. The school's purpose is to train people in medicine and business and law, and now has 10,000 students enrolled. Many other universities, including the National Evangelical University of the Dominican Republic, were developed thanks to the original contributions of G&W.

Did you ever expect such extraordinary blessings to come out of a corporate change of heart?

We expected the corporate giant to continue exploiting third world countries, but we found that these stockholder actions brought us into a relationship. We gave them more inspiration than help... Once the company got into the work they found that it was good corporate policy, and incredibly gratifying and fulfilling. The employees became very enthusiastic about the company. They walked with pride among their fellow citizens of the Dominican Republican and ended up becoming very loyal to the American-based company.

What did you learn from the experience?

We who are evangelical social activists must be very careful that we don't interpret every relationship in an adversarial form. We went to G&W as adversaries but they turned into partners.

How can we as Christians grow from your experience?

We must be aware of a religious bias, and a false belief that those coming with a biblical message won't find a response... I often tell my students the story of Jonah, who is sent to Ninevah to call the people of the very sinful city into repentance. But Jonah doesn't want to go, and is swallowed up by a whale. There's no escape from God, and Jonah ultimately goes and preaches and behold, the people of Ninevah repent.

The last scene in the book is Jonah sitting outside the city under a tree, angry because the people of Ninevah have become good. He wanted to be the condemning voice -- the prophet who brings fire from heaven. Too many of us in the evangelical community are like Jonah. We want to proclaim the justice of God in the call of the righteous, but we don't seem to be happy unless we bring fire and judgment on people.

We have to instead be ready to see the evidence of goodness when it begins to express itself. I don't want to paint G&W as angels because I could spend a lot of time telling you about my grievances. But whatever grievances I have are overshadowed by the good the company has done.

Do you pursue socially responsible investing practices?

I teach at Eastern College, which is an intensely evangelical school just outside Philadelphia. A long time ago, we began to get our college to examine all of its investment policies with its endowment to make sure to that we were being socially responsible.

In social activism, the Christian approach is conditioned by Matthew 18, which says that if your brother has sinned against you, first return to him. If we're going to be Christians, we have to -- in fact -- be Christian in the way we invest our money.

Any parting thoughts?

This is not a story about coercing G&W. We didn't have the ability to coerce. We were the gentle conscience. The leadership of the company found that morality was good policy. If there's any credit, I think it should be given to the executives of the company. Rather than big, bad wolves, the execs were simply people who needed urging, who needed a soft voice constantly saying, "Do the right thing."

Tony Campolo is a professor of Sociology at Eastern College. He is founder and President of the Evangelical Association for the Promotion of Education (EAPE/Kingdomworks), a collection of ministries that serve at-risk youth in urban America as well as sponsoring education and economic development programs in Third World countries. Tony is the author of twenty-six books and has a weekly television show, "Hashing It Out", on the Odyssey Network. He is an ordained minister serving as associate pastor at the Mount Carmel Baptist Church in West Philadelphia. His Ph.D. is from Temple University. Tony and his wife, Peggy, have two grown children and four grandchildren.

If you want to read more of Tony's insights, click here to read about his book Following Jesus Without Embarrassing God, which includes chapters such as "How to Exhibit a Christian Lifestyle without Moving into a Commune," "How to Hold Your Family Together in a World That's Falling Apart," and "How to Be a Theologian without Being an Intellectual Snob."