The prisons of Rikers Island in East Elmhurst, N.Y., are unlikely places for a child to discover his future career. But that’s exactly where New Haven police officer Anthony Campbell first encountered his ideal vocation.
Campbell ’95, who said he hopes to pursue a career in prison ministry, has known two homes in his life — Harlem and New Haven. And while the geographical distance between the two locations is only about 74 miles, Campbell’s path has been a long one that has taken him back to Yale for the second time to attend the Yale Divinity School.
“What I want to do in prison ministry is plant seeds in faith within especially those prisoners who demonstrate that they are willing to take an interest in their lives and the lives of their families,” Campbell said.
Campbell, who began his studies at the Divinity School last semester, returned to academia while serving full time as a police officer for the New Haven Police Department.
“He’s very much a peer and a leader in the best sense of the terms,” said Kristen Leslie, a professor at the Divinity School who taught Campbell last semester. “He’s just very bright.”
While Campbell is now fulfilling a lifelong dream, his path to the Divinity School has not been free from obstacles. Campbell’s mother worked full-time as a jail guard on Riker’s Island, and his father spent time there as a convict during Campbell’s youth.
“My mother primarily raised me with the assistance of my great-grandfather and great-grandmother, and my father was in and out of my life,” Campbell said.
Despite his frequent incarcerations, Campbell’s father taught his son important lessons about life and instilled values in him that remain with him to this day, Campbell said.
“He taught me about the street but at the same time taught me, ‘This is no place for you,'” Campbell said.
Education was always a priority with both parents and despite his Baptist upbringing, Campbell found himself at Fordham Preparatory School, a Jesuit high school on Fordham University’s campus in the Bronx.
After graduating from Fordham, Campbell began attending Yale in the fall of 1990.
“Initially when I left school, I wanted to be a Jesuit priest,” Campbell said. “I came to Yale, I spoke to one of the priests — Father William O’Malley — and he told me ‘You know, they won’t let you be a priest until you’ve had a relationship.'”
After dating his freshman counselor’s sister, a student at Wesleyan University, for a year and a half, Campbell realized the priesthood was not for him. But he maintained his interest in ministry.
During his time as an undergraduate at Yale, Campbell majored in religious studies, was a member of the Baptist Student Union and met his eventual wife, Stephanie Campbell ’96.
“My undergraduate experience was I think the best experience of my life,” Campbell said. “It was baptism by fire, thrown into Yale and you better sink or swim.”
Campbell said he originally wanted to begin attending divinity school in 1997, but the devastating suicide of his father seven months after his graduation prompted him to work in order to help support his family.
He said he chose to become a police officer in preparation for a future career in prison ministry. Eventually, Campbell decided to stay in New Haven as well.
“He is certainly one of the most observant and intelligent officers I’ve ever met,” said Kay Kodish, executive director of the New Haven Police Academy, where Campbell works. “The department and the city are very lucky to have him.”
His plans to start divinity school in 1999 were put on hold for a second time when he and his wife had their first child, Anthony Graham Campbell III, who is now 17 months old. He said his wife has been very supportive of his decision to return to school.
Divinity school is not a very common destination for police officers, Kodish said.
“A lot of police officers don’t feel they have enough power to make things better so they think being attorneys will help them do that,” Kodish said. “[Campbell] thinks that more power is not conferred by human degrees.”
Because Campbell’s mother recently lost her job as a prison guard, he is taking this semester off in order to assist her financially. But Campbell said he looks forward to returning to the Divinity School next semester to continue working towards his degree.
“To be a true leader, to be a true success in life, is not just to get yours and set your family up and be OK, but to help other people to be leaders and to be successful,” Campbell said.