The power of a name

From a Biblical perspective, a name is of great importance. One’s name contains one’s essence. Thus, when Jacob wrestled with a messenger from God (Genesis 32), God renamed him “Israel,” or “one who has striven with God.”


Theologically, I appreciate this understanding of the power of a name, but personally, I confess it has not held great significance. As far as my name goes, I have been more of the Shakespearian “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” school of moniker meaning. As far as I know, my parents gave me the name “Philip,” not because I was named after a friend or family member, but because they liked the sound of it. As to its meaning, it is Greek for “lover of horses,” and whereas I have nothing against horses, I’m not particularly enamored with them. My last name, “Campbell,” is the Scottish clan name of a not too friendly bunch of folks. In the past, you could basically divide the country of Scotland into Campbells and those who despise them. This is hardly an essence that, as a minister, I have been eager to embrace.

My interest in my name shifted slightly when my younger brother and I were in elementary school. He was a rather bookish kid who found it entertaining to peruse encyclopedias and atlases. One evening he walked into the room we shared with his nose in a book. Looking up from it, he asked, “Did you know there is a town in northwest Alabama named ‘Phil Campbell?’” I didn’t, but given that he was my little brother, I tried not to act too interested. I had to admit, however, that it seemed pretty cool that there was a whole town that had the same name as mine. I thought it would be fun to visit there someday, but I didn’t make it priority.

This changed in 1995 when a recent college grad and aspiring writer named Phil Campbell organized the first annual Phil Campbell Convention in Phil Campbell, Ala. I was among the 22 Phils and one Phyllis who assembled there on a hot summer weekend. The town hoped we would come back every year, but the novelty soon waned and most of the Phils, like me, never returned. The hamlet persevered, however. Earlier this year, town leaders contacted the organizer of the first gathering and asked him to call us together again for the town’s 100th anniversary that it is celebrating this June. He took up the challenge, and with the help of the internet he broadened the gathering by finding those named Phil, or some variation thereof, from across the globe. He piqued interest in Ireland, Argentina and Greece, received attendance pledges from Phils in Great Britain and Australia, and the first International Phil Campbell Convention was up and running.

Friends sent me copies of the story about the convention that ran in the Wall Street Journal last March, but I had no plans to attend. Then on April 27, tornadoes ravaged the state of Alabama and Phil Campbell was one of the places hardest hit. A third of the town was destroyed and 26 people died. The organizer of the Phil Campbell Convention assumed the anniversary party was off. But as a sign of hope for the future, the civic leaders have decided to go ahead with it. Phil Campbells will assemble there to lend their support and marshal the town parade. And, with the encouragement of the Northern Light United Church congregation, I will be among them. We Phil Campbells are also building on the coincidence of our shared name to garner money for relief efforts. We are raising $70,000 to build a Habitat for Humanity house in the town, but we can’t do it alone. Northern Light has taken a special offering to support this effort and if you would like to help, you can send a contribution to the church or donate online at

I still don’t know that my name captures my essence, but it is a humble realization that because of the fluke of sharing a name with a hurting town, I can do something to help. Methodism founder John Wesley said, “Do all the good you can, whenever you can,” and as a Phil Campbell, right now I can do the most good for the town whose name I share.

There are numerous ways to assist with relief efforts in the wake of the devastating storms throughout the U.S. the past two months, and I invite you to find a way to help. And, if you are led to contribute to this personalized Phil Campbell effort from Alaska to Alabama to build a Habitat House, I welcome the support!

• Campbell is the pastor of Northern Light United Church. To read more about the celebration amidst the devastation in Phil Campbell, Ala., visit or read the June 5 Empire.


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